I spent the weekend in San Diego – in the basement theatre of San Diego Rep, to be exact – for the National New Play Network festival. It’s my third new play festival this year (I also went to Humana in Louisville, Kentucky and the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia.) As I’ve written before, it’s INCREDIBLY helpful for us as playwrights to see new plays.
New play festivals are a bit like Fashion Week – you get a preview of the new season – not what will be hanging on the rack at Nordstrom’s, but what will be listed in the season ticket brochure at theatres around the country.
You can also spot trends. Not exposed zippers and the Pantone color of the year, but what playwrights are doing in their work that keeps showing up all the time.
Here’s a few of the emerging trends spotted at the NNPN’s festival:
– Direct Address: several plays used this device. It works as shorthand, delivering internal monologues and exposition in an efficient manner. Though to me as an audience member, it doesn’t have the same resonance as a scene between two characters. There’s blood on the floor when characters are confronting each other. You can’t look away. The energy literally bounces off the wall. When there’s sexual chemistry, we’re right there as peeping Toms, blushing and getting aroused and wondering what’s going to happen next. And even long monologues delivered to another character seem fuller, richer, more punchy than directing them to the audience.
– Humor: nearly every one of the six plays I saw was funny. Not necessarily knock down physical humor or an evening full of zingers, but lines that made you smile or surprised you and made when you laugh out loud. Even the stage directions were funny! Serious topics handled with humor made an audience want to stay through the painful parts of the story.
– Obsession: several plays had main characters who were obsessed. Two were trying to find absent ancestors. (I’m not sure I understood WHY these characters were obsessed, but boy, is that a handy tool for getting your protagonist moving! Other characters tell them they’re crazy, but they just keep keeping on. They were like bulldozers, ploughing through obstacles on their way over the cliff.)
– Larger casts than you’d think: I know. We’ve all been told don’t dare write a play with more than three characters if you ever want to harbor a hope of production. That wasn’t the case at the NNPN’s festival! Several plays boasted of more than half a dozen actors playing lots of characters. And these are plays that at least ONE theatre wants to produce!
– Slavery: Two of the six plays dealt with slavery – one a highly comic, stylized piece set at the deathbed of Martha Washington; the other a search for the ancestor who jumped a slave ship. A third play dealt with racial injustice of the 1960’s, the generational remains of slavery.
– Absent fathers: Lots of missing parents in these plays. A father in jail whose teenager ends up in foster care, a biracial girl looking for her African-American father and grandfather, an obsessive compulsive painter who wasn’t looking for his absent father directly, but certainly his abandonment of the family fed son’s condition. Slaves sired by white masters were also fatherless. One father who seemed to be missing in action was merely hiding out in the den until he was needed to deliver the best monologue I’ve heard in a while about how you want a bitch of a mother to be on the front line fighting for you. I’m not sure what this says about our society today with all these missing dads.
– Theatricality. Not every play reached beyond the naturalistic, but there were elements of theatricality in everything. One used the tinkling of a bicycle bell to spur memory. Another structured the play backwards to forwards. One play included actors carrying on in a bad TV movie behind the main action. There were game shows, swimming fish, even a Viking ship onstage. The most successful pieces took a chance on larger-than-life happenings.
Never heard of NNPN? It’s basically a way for playwrights to get not just a world premiere, but also a second, third, and on and on – future productions. Pick a NNPN theatre. Submit your script. Next year, it could be YOUR play that sets the trends for theatres across the country.
I have an orphan play that keeps getting readings, but no production. I’m sure you have one, too. Mine is a play for young audiences with a controversial topic – a character in blackface – and revolves around a holiday festival most Americans know nothing about. (And I wonder why nobody’s produced it yet!)
I’ve discovered the reality of the marketplace in children’s theatres these days: lots of new plays are being produced, but nearly all of them are based on favorite children’s books or Disney movies. Like Hollywood, these theatres are surviving by offering audiences the familiar and the famous.
So I decided to adapt my play to a chapter book. I even found an agent who is shopping it around to children’s book publishers.
But now, news about the topic of my play is breaking out worldwide. I just wish I knew how to capitalize on it.
And so I appeal to you, the great brain trust of LAFPI.
The Netherlands celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday on December 25th – though I found the churches sadly empty of anyone under the age of 100 when I lived there. Instead, Holland celebrates December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas – or, as he is known in Holland, Sinterklaas.
Most Americans know Sinterklaas from one thing: the scene in “Miracle on 34th Street” where Edmund Gwenn as Santa speaks to the little Dutch war orphan and sings the Sinterklaas song.
What most Americans don’t know is that when Sinterklaas arrives in Holland by boat from Spain (don’t ask), he’s accompanied by his buddy Zwarte Piet. That’s literally translated as Black Pete. And yes, it’s a Dutch person in blackface, complete with a bad Afro, overly large red lips, hoop earrings, and a clown-like costume.
The first time I saw Piet, I was appalled. My Dutch friends brushed off my reaction, insisting Pete was a Moor, or perhaps that dark from sliding down chimneys. They said he was a friend to Sinterklaas, not a slave. And that his crazy antics were amusing, not meant to ridicule people of color. Yeah, right.
I found it particularly interesting that there were now many people of color living in The Netherlands – from Suriname and Turkey and Africa – but none of them were called upon to play Pete.
In The Hague, where I was covering war crimes trials, I talked to the only American judge at the Tribunal, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an African-American former federal judge who became the Tribunal president. I asked her about Pete. She said every year, there was a debate in her group of African-American ex-pats about whether to make a big stink about Zwarte Piet or ignore him.
Judge McDonald became the inspiration for the adult character in my play THE LUCKIEST GIRL, the story of a ten year old African-American girl who moves to Holland with her grandmother, a lawyer at the Tribunal. Tahira is homesick. The last straw is when she discovers that Santa doesn’t come to Holland; instead, it’s Sinterklaas, and his politically incorrect buddy Zwarte Piet. Much to the horror of her grandmother, Tahira likes Piet.
This fall, UNESCO considered taking The Netherlands to task over Pete. And the Dutch reacted with a Facebook page devoted to Zwarte Piet that got a million likes in a DAY!
So here’s my question for you playwrights smarter than me: what would you do to capitalize on this kind of publicity? Does it help or hurt the chances of a theatre doing the play? Should I be sending it to British children’s theatres? What should I be doing???
Meanwhile, I’m excited that THE LUCKIEST GIRL is getting another workshop reading at 11 AM, Sunday December 1st at Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles as part of their fESTivity/LA 2013 series. (3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039)
It’s directed by Susie Tanner, who loves the script, and starring the two actors who should be playing Tahira and her Dutch friend Jan: Tamika Katon-Donegal and Whit Spurgeon.
Please, please, please post ideas about marketing. And come on down for the reading at EST. Zwarte Piet might even have pepernoten and suikergoed (gingerbread cookies and sweets) to toss to the audience.
It’s been interesting of late, seeing a lot of new or newish plays that have major problems with plot. As in: nothing happens until the end of the first act, or the second act does not satisfy the desires of the audience set up in the first act, or the entire evening is just a series of short scenes with a twist at the end of each one. I may not be able to solve my own plot problems, but I can sure spot them in others.
I’ve put aside the new play I’ve been working on because of hitting the wall on plot.
Instead, I’ve been spending every early morning working on my second chapter book. These are the books designed to wean kids off picture books – designed for age 7-11 or so. I got frustrated that most theatres producing theatre for young audiences are adapting kids books rather than choosing original scripts. So, I thought I’d fight back by adapting my play THE LUCKIEST GIRL* into a BOOK. I even found an agent who’s shopping it around.
I rejoined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attended a local conference last month.
And there I was, listening to book writers talking about … plot. Guess what? It’s all the same damn thing.
Conflict: You ask yourself what does my main character want? And what will she do to get it? Who or what’s standing in her way? Her desire conflicts with that of her antagonist. And you ask yourself why the antagonist doesn’t want her to achieve her great desire?
You start with the present world, then something happens to upset the apple cart.
Creating scenes: What character flaw or bad habit creates complications? Complications intensify, more obstacles, things get worse. Is there a single, driving force through all scenes? Are the heroine’s wants in the entire story?
Climax: the darkest hour that allows the heroine’s truest self to emerge. She takes charge of dealing with the story problem
The end: have we satisfied the expectations we have given our audience for what we promised at the beginning?
It’s the same damn Aristotelian story structure we all learned in Drama 101.
And so, now I find myself starting a new book**, knowing full well I’m going to have to wrestle with story structure again.
Just maybe not tonight.
*THE LUCKIEST GIRL: A ten year old African American girl who moves to Holland with her grandmother, who’s there to prosecute accused war criminals. Tahira is homesick. The last straw is when she discovers that Santa doesn’t come to Holland; instead, it’s Sinterklaas, and his politically incorrect buddy Zwarte Piet. Much to the horror of her grandmother, Tahira likes Piet.
**UNTITLED CAPITOL HILL CAPER: The young daughter of a Congressman walks dogs on Capitol Hill and solves the mystery of the Demon Cat of the Capitol Crypt.
He said there were only two parts to a good drama – the rising action leading to the climax, and the denouement, or the unraveling that follows. It sounds so simple. But my brain doesn’t work that way.
I remember when I first started out as a reporter. It was so hard for me to write with the denouement in the lede. Why the heck would you put your best stuff at the top? I wanted to tell a story the way you tell a story – give your audience a setting, introduce them to the characters, make things worse for them, and worse again, and solve the problem. But news rarely conforms to that clean format.
And I find that when I write plays, those stories rarely conform either.
I wonder if it’s because I don’t like torturing my characters. I like them too much to give them grief, let alone trouble after trouble. I enjoy spending time with them. I don’t want to kill them off.
Which leads me to my Act Two problem.
I’m still stuck in Act Two of my romantic comedy. Perhaps I should look at my favorite films to see how those writers solved this part of the story. You know, the part where both parties admit to themselves that they are in fact attracted to each other. I know logically that there needs to be some sort of complication, an obstacle that gets in their way. Now, make it worse.
I know, I know, Mr. Aristotle. I need some of that rising action leading to a climax. I just wish I knew what it was.
So I appeal to you, my fellow writers. What secrets do you have to share about digging yourself out of Act Two?
I’ve done the ballpark tour: planning vacations to cities with interesting baseball stadiums, trying to visit every one of them. Unfortunately, new stadiums were being built at a rapid rate and many of the old ones I’d visited were being torn down, so that goal of seeing them all went out the window.
But I’ve started a new vacation tour: new play festivals. And fellow “emerging” playwrights, I highly recommend it for several reasons:
– The Work: It’s like Fashion Week. You get the opportunity to see who’s hot (or for cynics like me: which MFA playwriting program is currently churning out kids with promise), spot trends (gimmick plays, in case you wondered), and see plays that aren’t perfect – always a wonderful opportunity to practice your writerly skills and imagine how YOU’D fix the play.
– Ego Boost: Seeing new work can also be a real confidence builder. You realize that the quality of your writing isn’t lacking; you know you can turn out work equal to or much better than anything you’ve seen. It sends you home to your laptop with real determination.
– Relationships: In a business built as much on who you know as the quality of writing, these weekends are grand opportunities. This spring, fellow DC playwright DW Gregory persuaded me to join her in Louisville, Kentucky for Humana. They have two “industry” weekends, which I discovered means that artistic directors, dramaturgs, university theatre professors, and literary managers from all over the country show up. Very few playwrights. The schmoozefest began at the airport where – because there just aren’t that many flights to Louisville – half a dozen DC theatre folk were on the same flight. At Humana, there were pie meet and greets, seminars, and lots of drinking. Because there were so few playwrights, the opportunity to have actual conversations instead of 15 second elevator speeches was priceless.
– New Play Festival 101 – I also attended CATF – the Contemporary American Theatre Festival at Shepherdstown, West Virginia – this summer, again with local writer DW Gregory. This time, we brought our husbands, lured with the promise of bike rides along the C&O Canal. We saw two very good and one just awful play. How could that happen? We attended a Q&A session one evening after a show in a local restaurant (again, the alcohol flowed freely…) and got to ask how they pick their plays. The artistic director is the main guru, making final selections after others at CATF have sifted through the submissions from agents. (Alas, having no agent myself, that counts me out for a while.) But the one klunker we saw: it was an actress they had worked with previously. Her husband directed this particular show (by one of those hot young playwrights) in New York and they brought it down to CATF intact. Aha! That’s the way the theatre world works. Which takes us back to relationships and ego boost…
– Californians: I live in DC now, but I miss California – the beaches, the produce, the weather. But I also realize I miss Californians. At every new play festival I’ve attended, for some reason I find myself gravitating towards Californians. We think differently, perhaps we’re more open. And because we have SO much theatre, there’s a lot of us at these festivals.
– The Unexpected: the highlight of Humana for me was meeting Paula Vogel in a drink line at a loud, local bar. And SHE was excited to meet ME! Alas, not because of my playwriting, but because of my day job on public radio. But that led to a lovely conversation and subsequent following of each other on Twitter.
You lucky folks in LA have several new play festivals within driving distance: South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, the Ojai Playwrights Festival, Playfest up in Santa Barbara. They’re on my list. Look for me in the audience next year.
I’m looking for your thoughts on the genre of romantic comedy.
I’ve written a number of romantic plays. They usually involve broken relationships being put back together – or not. But as I look back at those plays, I find they’re all period pieces: 1870’s San Francisco, 1950’s New York, late ‘50’s Los Angeles. I’m now working on a romantic comedy set in present day Washington, DC. And I’m stuck.
In this cynical town, in our ironic age, I put on my Carrie Bradshaw hat and ask: “is there still such a thing as modern romance?”
Name your favorite rom/com – “Philadelphia Story,” “The Lady Eve,” “Roman Holiday” – all of an earlier era. Most current films in the rom/com genre are snarky. Or artificial and insincere. Or dark, like “Silver Linings Playbook.” But the success of that Oscar nominated film reflects an audience’s craving for real romantic comedies.
Which brings me to my current dilemma.
After slogging through “serious” plays, I decided I needed a break. I wanted to write something fun and romantic. It’s tougher than it looks.
Boy meets girl. That’s easy. They’re opposites in some ways. The verbal sparks fly. There’s some physical attraction, but because of their professional relationship, nothing happens. So how do you push them to that next level, both sexually and romantically? How do they tell that other person that they’re interested? How do you break down the physical walls? How does a modern couple admit they’re in love without it ringing hollow?
My writing pal Ellen says we’re afraid of writing true sentiment. Maybe we are. I cringe as I write self-described “sappy” scenes. (Ah, that horrid interior critic!) I’m embarrassed by my own work. Not because it’s bad writing, but because it’s mushy. And I haven’t even gotten to the tougher challenge: writing the physical stuff. Even my premise starts sounding stupid: “Pride and Prejudice” set on Capitol Hill.
I believe in romance. Certainly I lucked out and found a guy who likes to dance and laugh and remembers our anniversary. So I guess I’ve seen modern day romance in action. I know it’s out there.
So why is it so hard to make it work on the page?
What do you think? Is there such a thing as modern romance? How does it work for you on the page? Hints? Suggestions?
How nice to see an article in “The Dramatist” on the topic of missing female playwriting voices! And it’s the lead article. The news is still bad – 59 theatres across the country failed to include a single play by a female playwright last season.
But I want to vent a bit about something else that’s bugging me of late: boy plays. I’m sick of stories without any meaningful female characters. I’m getting to the point where I really don’t care to see another production with either nothing but men onstage. Or 18 men and two – maybe three – women who are there to support the boy story.
I saw two fine productions here in Washington, DC recently: the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of “Wallenstein” and WSC Avant Bard’s production of “No Man’s Land.”
“Wallenstein is Friedrich Schiller’s play about the Thirty Years’ War, a commissioned adaption by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. It’s described as an “epic story of war, intrigue and loyalty tested.” To be fair, there are two female characters in the piece (and a couple of women filling in as soldiers to fill up the stage. They’re playing men, of course.) But it’s a boy play. The stage was filled with men. It was the story of one man’s ambition.
And the message? War is bad. I get it. So don’t do it. End of play.
What about those women? They were mere pawns to the ambition. It would have been so much more interesting to hear their side of the story, to see the senselessness of power grabs and blood and gore through their eyes.
And then there’s the Pinter. “No Man’s Land” by Harold Pinter was chosen because of the opportunity to put two former Artistic Directors of WSC Avant Bard’s company on stage together. Great for them. Tough evening for me.
Verbal jousting is fine. But I didn’t care. What was the point? Where were the women?
I want to contrast those two evenings with my recent experience in Omaha. That city’s historic Playhouse – where Henry Fonda launched his career – produced the world premiere of a play by a local Omaha playwright. (A woman, by the way.) It had seven women onstage!
Playwright Ellen Struve’s “Recommended Reading for Girls” is the story of two daughters coming to terms with their mother’s decisions about treating her cancer. But their very real world is invaded by characters from all the books they shared – Anne from Green Gables, the Little Princess, the German-speaking Heidi, and a Nancy Drew wanna-be girl detective.
(Full disclosure: Ellen is my weekly Skype writing buddy.)
At last! A girl play! Girls on stage, talking about relationships and family and fantasy. It was wonderful. And funny. And probably boosted the sale of Kleenex throughout the city of Omaha.
Ellen says she was writing for the audience who actually comes to the theatre: women. And women of a certain age. Nobody’s writing for them, she says. The people who run theatres are choosing “hot” or “edgy” plays or old standards that feel familiar. No one is choosing plays that makes them laugh and cry and go home feeling like they got their money’s worth.
But will Ellen’s play find a second life outside of Omaha? I sure hope so. The statistics are against her – a play by a woman about women.
I recall a golden age of Hollywood where women main characters drove the stories – “Stella Dallas,” “All About Eve,” “Kitty Foyle.” I’m ready for a golden age of theatre where every seat is filled by people like me, who long to hear our stories told onstage.
1. How did you become a playwright? What brought you to theater? I’d always loved to perform. In fact, I was an actor for about ten years – mostly commercials, but also a Woody Allen film (Radio Days), an equity show at SCR, and tons of commercials (including Skippy Peanut Butter with Annette Funicello).
I’d written a revision of a Jean Claude Van Itallie one-act in college, but that was about it, as far as playwriting. Until I had a day job that bored me out of my mind. I had a quiet office and a keyboard at my disposal. I wrote my first play – a melodrama called “Shanghai Heart” that the LA Times favorably reviewed. I haven’t stopped writing plays.
2. What is your favorite play of yours? Why? My NEW favorite is an unproduced piece for young adults that no one may ever produce since it has a character in blackface. It’s “The Luckiest Girl” – the story of a ten year old African-American girl who moves to Holland with her grandmother, a lawyer at the war crimes trials. Tahira’s homesick and latches on to the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas – and his politically incorrect sidekick Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Her grandmother – as you can imagine – is horrified.
3. What is your favorite production of one of your plays? Why? I think the premiere of “A Patch of Earth”, my Bosnian war crimes courtroom drama. The Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo flew me upstate in glorious fall, put on a terrific production, even gave me the Maxim Mazumdar Award. The play’s been produced worldwide since then, but I remember that production best.
I also loved “Gogol Project” – a truly collaborative adaptation brought to life by the talented Rogue Artists Ensemble. They make magic on stage with puppets and masks. I think I wrote 14 drafts for them.
4. What play by someone else has moved you the most and why? I saw Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” at South Coast Rep a few months ago and wept buckets and buckets. It isn’t a perfect play – certainly needs a trim – but I connected on a personal level, having lost my own mother several years ago.
5. Who is your favorite playwright? Why? These days, it’s Enda Walsh, Bill Cain, and Ellen Struve.
6. How has your writing changed over the years? I think I’ve gotten braver, more personal in my writing. Being glib is easy for me. It’s digging deep that’s tough.
7. What type of plays do you write? (Dramas, Comedies, Plays with Music, Musicals, Experimental, Avant-garde …)What draws you to it? I’ve written a musical comedy, a melodrama, a radio play, a courtroom drama, a one woman show, a play for young adults, ten minute pieces, you name it! It’s the story and characters that draw me in.
8. Do you write any other literary forms? How does this affect/enhance your playwriting? I’m a public radio journalist by day. Sometimes, the stories I cover inspire a theatrical piece. More often, it wears me out so the last thing I want to do when I get home is sit down at the keyboard again.
9. Why did you become a blogger for LA FPI? I support the work of LAFPI! Particularly when you can count on one hand the number of productions a theatre has produced by women playwrights. It’s a wonderfully supportive group! And as an ex-patriot Angeleno, it keeps me in touch with my LA community.
10. What is your favorite blog posting? The one about how to best use feedback from a staged reading.
11. Who do you consider an influence where your writing is concerned? And, why? My mother, a teacher, who encouraged and nagged me and offered to loan me the $2 thousand that I spent on my very first computer if I ever needed it. My high school English teacher for four years, Sister Judith Royer, who now heads the theatre department at Loyola Marymount University. And Jean Giraudoux, the French playwright, who saw magic in everyday life and dared to write about it on stage. I was in 3 of his plays in high school, wrote a paper about him for English class, then acted in another of his plays in college, directed by the professor – Robert Cohen – who wrote the book on Giraudoux!
12. When did you find your voice as a writer? Are you still searching for it? I’ve always written like I talk. And when I go back and blush as I read romantic short stories from my early school days, I can still hear that same voice.
13. Do you have a writing regiment? Can you discuss your process? This is the hardest thing for me: finding a structure to write. My day job consumes me. Theoretically, because I’m on the east coast, I have an extra three hours in the morning before the folks in the Pasadena office are aware of me. That’s when I SHOULD be writing. But the reality is, I need tea – lots of it. And I drink it while reading the paper and tweeting and clearing the emails. Then it’s a mad dash to cover stories.
So, I’ve decided the best time for me to call my own is at dusk. My brain is clear (hopefully) of the debri of the day. I can escape to a desk down the hall – or to the stairwell steps around the corner – and breathe. And think. And write. I usually start with a freewrite – not the three pages advised by “The Artist’s Way” – but as much as I need to slough off the issues of the day to clear space in my head. I’ll return to it when I’m stuck, just to brainstorm with myself, trying out ideas. I’ve also created a new file for myself while I write: leftovers. This is where I’ll put lines of dialogue – or entire scenes – cut from my play. It’s somehow comforting to know it isn’t lost forever, that I can go back and retrieve it if I need it. Sometimes I do. But usually I don’t. (Maybe someday I’ll write a play just with these leftovers!)
When I have a draft I can stand to hear out loud, I like to schedule an informal reading. It’s usually in my living room with lots of wine for me and the actors. A more formal reading by a company or a festival is the next step, with lots of rewriting in between. Then, if the stars are in order, a full production.
14. How do you decide what to write? It’s either a story that won’t leave me alone (like the war crimes play “A Patch of Earth”) or something that’s been bugging me (like “Clybourne Park” which I thought got desegregation all wrong and it led to my ten minute play “The Flier”) or characters that I’d like to spend some time with (my current project, a romantic comedy set on Capitol Hill).
15. How important is craft to you? Very. I try to learn from other writers – how did they do that? Why does that work? What doesn’t? I find writers groups enormously helpful – hearing other plays in progress, figuring out how to make them sing.
16. What other areas of theater do you participant in? I’m a Helen Hayes judge here in DC. That’s the local version of the Tonys. I see about 3-4 plays a month. And I think if I left my day job, I’d work in a costume shop. I LOVE to sew and create clothing!
17. How do you feel about the theater community in Los Angeles? It’s interesting to contrast with DC: both are STRONG communities. Both have larger theatres that snub local playwrights. Both have a strong group of smaller theatres reaching out to local talent. I miss my LA writing group at Ensemble Studio Theatre. And I miss ALAP (Association of LA Playwrights). And there’s no LAFPI in DC!
18. How do you battle the negative voice? (insecurity, second guessing) I have a weekly Skype appointment with a wonderful Omaha playwright I met a few years ago at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Ellen Struve and I spend an hour every Wednesday night, sharing pages, talking about plays we’ve seen or read, and sharing the insecurities we all feel as writers. She gives me courage to face blank pages for another week.
19. Do you have a theme that you come back to a lot in your work? Justice. And that nagging question of why neighbor turns against neighbor, almost overnight.
20. What are you working on now? It’s a five person comedy set on Capitol Hill – a modern version of “Pride and Prejudice” called “Statuary Hall.”
By day, she’s a public radio reporter covering Capitol Hill. But in her real life, Kitty Felde is an award-winning playwright.
Felde’s written everything from a courtroom drama about the Bosnian war (A PATCH OF EARTH, winner of the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition) to a one woman show about Alice Roosevelt Longworth (ALICE, winner of the Open Book/Fireside Theatre Playwriting Competition) to an adaptation of a trio of short stories by Nikolai Gogol (GOGOL PROJECT, winner of the 2009 LA Drama Critics Circle Award.)
Her one-act TOP OF THE HOUR has been chosen for the Provincetown Theater’s Fall Festival for a reading and will premiere in New York City in December.
She’s a co-founder of Theatre of Note, a Helen Hayes judge in Washington, DC, and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild, ALAP, and FPI.
They always talk about how violent films and video games affect the minds of young people. What about those of us with older minds? How affected are we writers by what we watch?
For me, the answer is “quite a lot.” And I found out the hard way.
I’m writing a rom/com.
I deserve it. I’ve been slogging through heavy pieces on election violence in Kenya and the LA Riots and racism in Dutch holiday traditions. I’ve written about the Metrolink disaster and my own version of what REALLY happened in the 1960’s when racial covenants were thrown out.
I wanted to write a comedy. A romantic comedy. And set it in a very specific place that most people would find fascinating.
I was having a marvelous time, writing way too many pages for the first act, not caring, just wanting to plow through to the end before editing myself. I had characters I loved, a great design concept, dialogue that flew off the keyboards.
And then I watched “House of Cards” on Netflix.
It’s very good and it’s great fun to see them pass Baltimore off as Washington, DC. But it’s dark, cynical, rather depressing at times. And it began to cling to me and my writing like cat hair.
All the joy I felt when I sat down flew out the window as I tried to be “adult” and “serious.” I became embarrassed about “only” writing a rom/com. My characters embarrassed me. I stopped writing. It wasn’t fun to sit down with them anymore. It was downright depressing.
Finally, I told my husband that we had to stop watching “House of Cards.” Later, we can watch it later. It was eating up my writing mojo. My husband, a writer of books on serious subjects like preventing nuclear war completely understood.
And it’s working. I’ve started watching BBC rom/coms about Scottish restauranteurs who return to the castle to become the “laird” and any movie with Colin Firth. I’m listening to music that makes me happy, reminds me of those first few months of absolute joy and craziness when I first fell in love, I’ve stopped apologizing for my work. I’m actually looking forward to sitting down with my characters again.
What about you? How much of your writing is influenced by what you’re watching, reading, listening to at the same time that you’re writing? Do you have a soundtrack for each play?
I had the unusual opportunity a weekend ago to see and/or hear one of my earliest plays – and one of my newest ones. It wasn’t quite as embarrassing as looking through old photo albums full of 80’s hair. But almost.
MUM’S THE WORD was the second play I ever wrote – dialogue heavy, lots of phones ringing, a fairly simple story that was a tribute to one of my favorite genres in film: those 1930’s Warner Brother musical comedies. My characters didn’t sing. But I hoped the play would crackle with that fast paced dialogue between dames and saps. I hadn’t seen it in – okay, I’ll admit it – in nearly 30 years! I wrote it with a part for myself, of course. And it was a wonderful role: Jinx Riley, the gal born on Friday the 13th, the sucker for the wrong kind of guy. I kept the wonderful depression era secretary costume until just last year, when I admitted I’d never get down to that size again. Or play that part again.
I was surprised at how well it stood the test of time. Acoustics in the North By South Theatre space (a church auditorium in Glendale) were awful. And an electrical malfunction meant all the lights on stage left had blown out. So it was hard to hear the dialogue – or watch the actors’ lips for clues about what they were saying. But I wasn’t embarrassed by the script. Oh, sure, the turn around at the end came too quickly. But it wasn’t awful.
Earlier in the afternoon, I got to hear the ten minute version of an even shorter play for the first time. Ensemble Studio Theatre was holding its annual “Playday” reading series on exactly the same day that MUM’S was going up!
I had written LAKE TITICACA for a contest sponsored by DC’s Theater J. They invited playwrights to create a 5 minute reaction to Matthew Lopez’ terrific post-Civil War play THE WHIPPING MAN. I recalled the odd period after the LA riots when everyone was walking on eggshells. That grew into a five page piece, which was chosen by Theater J for a reading.
But since five minute plays are a rarity, I felt the piece had some room to grow. So I expanded it to ten minutes. But the EST reading was the first time I’d heard it aloud in that form.
This is the blessing that actors offer. You can HEAR and SEE what’s missing, what doesn’t work, where the klunky parts are.
But I was pleased to hear audience reactions – particularly from a trio of African American actors waiting to go on in the next piece. They got it. And looked around to find the author. Me. That made the day.
The experience of two plays in the space of a few hours was particularly valuable to me as a writer. Such a contrast in writing styles over three decades! I’m less verbose. Still interested in quirky humor, but more apt to let the audience figure stuff out.
I’m trying to let the experience reassure me as I try to get back to writing a new piece – much more similar to that first comedy than to anything I’ve written lately. I may not be Preston Sturges or Jane Austen or Tom Stoppard. But I am Kitty Felde. And while my work may not win Tonys or bring down the Berlin Wall, it has value.