It’s been an amazing experience to listen to all the women’s voices during the Democratic Convention. Women who are journalists, broadcasters, politicians, a woman who works as security in a high rise elevator, sisters, mothers, Nancy Pelosi, and citizens.
I didn’t hear much authority in women’s voices when I was growing up. The nuns at Catholic school were characters, some brash, some almost invisible, but they were never heard from in the congregation at mass. They could sing in the choir. But they didn’t have voices that you could hear as an individual or participating as an equal in the church hierarchy.
As a playwright, I think back to all the characters I wanted to be as a young girl: a lion tamer, the first person who could fly without wings, an eccentric artist who kept a large menagerie of exotic animals, or a lawyer, like Katherine Hepburn in ADAMS RIB. I loved mouthy, extroverted, fearless, confident women who were fierce.
I’m looking at all the women who are running for office this election, and the voices of women interjecting their issues into the fabric of our chaotic American life right now. And I’m relieved to see that the centuries of women’s silence is coming to an end. I also see the pushback and disrespect and misogyny and violent objection to women in power, using their voices.
So I’m encouraged. For our voices as women, as characters, as people.
I wanted to share a bit of a giggle. This is a bit of diversion taped by the BBC, and the actors are having a bit of fun with our Zoom culture. I love it. I hope you do too. It’s about three minutes.
One of the last things I did before the world shut down was make a trip to NYC to see theatre. Three shows in five days! Now I wonder now whether I’ll ever step into a black box space again.
So what does that mean to us as playwrights?
In the immediate sense, productions, workshops, readings have all been postponed to 2021 or relegated to Zoom calls with imperfect internet connections and crappy audio.
But what about the long term?
Budgets have been slashed at institutional theatres as they try to survive. Grant money is disappearing or being refocused on organizations that feed and clothe and medically care for people. According to the Los Angeles Times, only a third of season ticket holders were willing to donate the cost of this season’s Center Theatre Group season tickets to help keep the Music Center alive. Just 15% of single ticket buyers willing to donate their ticket money.
When theatres open again, will audiences be willing to sit inside an enclosed space, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, likely wearing a mask for several hours? Will they even have the money to spend on it?
I think it’s time for us as theatre artists to quite literally think outside the box.
One of my favorite theatre experiences was a live reading of my play “Queen of the Water Lilies” in a Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the actors and audience under the trees on the very site where the play takes place. It’s perhaps the least-known National Park, the site of a water lily farm and home to a woman who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve what has become the last remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, D.C. Before the show, the audience could stroll around the water lily ponds, see the turtles sunning themselves and hear the frogs calling to each other. In the middle of the show, a snowy white egret flew overhead – perfect for the play where one character rages at an egret from an earlier generation. It was true theatre. With a healthy dose of sunscreen.
It was immersive theatre in the best sense of the word. We could do it again today, just spacing the audience and actors six feet apart.
We can also create an intensely intimate kind of theatre, the kind that can play out inside your head.
Audio is incredibly powerful. As someone who spent way too many decades in public radio, our bread and butter was creating audio stories that would create “driveway moments” where our audience would sit in their cars until the story was over. We can do this with fiction as well, creating stories that don’t need that black box, just a good pair of headphones.
It was an exciting challenge last summer, creating THE FINA MENDOZA MYSTERIES, an audio drama that takes the audience into the bowels of the U.S. Capitol where dead Founding Fathers come to life, out to a Long Beach cemetery for a Dia de los Muertos picnic, and even to the National Zoo to see the baby tigers. In truth, we barely left my front yard.
We even found a way to tape a new episode in the middle of coronavirus with actors recording themselves on smartphones and emailing me the voice memos.
You can hear more about the project in this video we taped for the Bay Area Book Festival.
I’m not the only one thinking outside the box.
Playwright Ellen Struve has turned her front window into a stage for an extravagant shadow puppet play. She wrote the script, created the characters out of bits of paper and old Fresnel gels, and enlisted her children and husband as musicians and puppet wranglers. Lucky audiences in Omaha can stop by her front yard for a free performance.
A few years ago, Moving Arts created a series of short play performed inside cars. In a post-coronavirus era, it’s more likely that we’d drive our own cars to an outdoor space where theatre would be performed. Perhaps we would download a particular app to listen to the dialogue.
We are creative people. Perhaps this new normal will force us to truly think outside the box.
When I was in France in September for an impromptu trip, I had about two days to spend in Paris. I’d never been there before, I didn’t speak the language, I had a lot of work I knew I’d be flying home to. I was happy and grateful but stressed.
But there was one thing that I felt drawn to, the thing that I couldn’t leave Paris without doing: visiting the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
It felt like a pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person. I probably couldn’t truly articulate what I believe. Energies, maybe. Ghosts. I don’t know. I’m not even a hard-core Oscar Wilde fan. But I needed to go there.
I didn’t bring the right shoes for the amount of walking I’d been doing all week. My feet and legs ached. I got turned around a dozen times just finding the entrance of the cemetery. Once inside, I wandered for a long time, searching for the exact location of the grave. Père Lachaise is well organized but its long winding paths can play tricks on you. I could feel every cobble stone under my shoes. It was cold and I was hungry and I felt like I’d never find him.
Obviously people make this trek all the time. I am not unique. Roses and gifts littered his grave. Lipstick marks covered the protective glass installed around the huge grave stone to combat graffiti from adoring fans. Tourists from England and Sweden and Germany paraded by in the half hour or so I spent there, sitting on the curb across the path from the grave. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t have a flower to offer. He probably hated that.
Instead, I sat there and asked him questions.
How did you do it? How did you have the confidence?
I thought about the tragic way his life was cut short. And felt silly for asking him anything, since anything I had experienced is nothing compared to his life. But still, I admitted to him, that while I don’t deserve it, I’d sure like this advice.
Can I do this? This writer thing?
I feel silly saying I did this. But it was a pilgrimage to connect to something deeper, some sort of literary history, to figure out if I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing, for wanting what I think I want.
I think it is important to find stillness and ask these questions. To a god, to a literary giant, to someone you’ve lost, to yourself. You’ll get an answer if you ask the question. It may not come in the form of words and a life plan, but in the form of a warmness, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, a sudden lightness in your breathe, in your step.
I made my way out of the cemetery, but it wasn’t easy. I was pretty convinced the ghosts wanted to try to keep me there, confusing me, sending me down more painful cobblestone paths to drain me. But then I found the opening.
I spent the rest of the night wandering more streets, eating cheese, reading, and drinking hot chocolate. And felt like myself. And at peace with that feeling.
We’re getting close to the new year. I’m watching friends and family achieve things, get married, have babies, buy houses. Lovely choices and happiness in so many forms. Seeing others’ choice can sometimes make you question your own. So make your own pilgrimage. Maybe not to Oscar Wilde’s grave (if you do, bring shoes that can deal with those cobblestones) but to a place with the energy that will help you focus and ask that question that’s burning in your mind.
This is the word that I have lived with and tried to honor over the past few months. The word has become an ode of sorts as my theatre company’s new piece Medea: A Soliloquy or the Death of Medea has undergone a workshop.
Theatre Roscius is me. Although I am lucky to have a loving partner whose consistent help is often needed – for as we know in the theatre the work is continuous, at times overwhelming, when trying to do so much alone, no matter how satisfying or beyond worth the work is.
Entering my first workshop, the process has been a gift as well as a huge adjustment for an independent theatre artist who produces work not so easily defined, who has no artistic home. Nor are there consistent sponsors, donors or a team with whom I work with on a daily basis. Nor is my theatre company a nonprofit… so I’ve learned to do the work my way by any means necessary. Which has its faults while allowing room for magic to manifest in an organic fashion that lacks structure.
Yet the workshop process requires order, roles, structure… all that do not necessarily come together when you are playing all the roles. I have gotten used to writing, producing, directing along with acting in my work. When the work takes a toll on the self it does not allow your best work to shine through. One can also miss what makes theatre so beautiful: The collaboration, the merging and discovery of ideas.
So I have practiced during this workshop giving the work away in order to let it fly. It has not been easy. I have had to ask myself if I am trusting enough? Am I giving pieces of myself, money, giving time, taking time and not trusting the ensemble and director fully? Will I allow the director’s vision to flourish? Can I allow the piece to develop beyond my images? It has not been easy for me to answer these questions.
During these forty plus fast paced hours of workshop development, the script has morphed into many faces, with the dialogue and movement just beginning to mold as well as fuse into one, yet the conversation is still being had between the two. I have discovered my strengths as an actor, producer and writer. I’m quick on my feet, my body is strong, I give 110% to the space and can adapt to direction. I have also been told and found my weaknesses. As an actor I can be easily distracted, as a playwright I can be defensive and as a producer I procrastinate and can lead with fear instead of fearlessness.
Workshop is a rigorous process that has allowed the play to reveal itself in many forms that could not have manifested without the players bodies or our director’s leadership. I reached out to everyone I knew. One woman whom I had never encountered before responded to my email, met, and agreed to helm the work. I’ve learned from this gesture deeply when approaching the work inside and out.
Ultimately as playwright I’m excited, uncomfortable, and honored that our director Caitlin Hart, Artistic Director of the Vagrancy Theatre Company along with the players: Carolyn Deskin, Madison Nelson and Meredith Brown have embarked on this experiment together and that we will have a chance to share Medea with an invited audience. This opportunity to hear feedback from audience members on January 22nd after sixty-two hours of development will be quite rewarding.
As the new year approaches I will not let fear lead the work. None of us must. So let us all Go Big & Be Fearless this 2018!
This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.
As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.
Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:
It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.
MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:
THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.
TWO WORD TITLES:
Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.
I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.
The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)
The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.
Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)
TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.
There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.
WHERE ARE THE LADIES?
Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)
Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.
PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE
I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.
CHANGE IN THE AIR
The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.
I started Green Light Productions in 2003 to create new opportunities for women in theatre. As of 2008, Green Light has exclusively produced plays written and directed by women.
This year, Green Light completed The Shubert Report to examine the 349 theatres that received $16.4 million in grants last year from the nation’s largest private funder of the performing arts. We found that only 26% of the plays being produced were written by women and that 125 of those 349 theatres weren’t producing ANY plays written by women. Foundations, especially those as large as The Shubert Foundation, play a huge role in sustaining American Theatre – most of which is classified as nonprofit. Imagine the impact it’d have if they required applicants to produce seasons that had 50% female writers and directors? Imagine the impact if just one major theatre a year decided to do a season of plays by women. Just that one step…
In 2005, I took that step. Heather Jones sent me her one-act play “Last Rites” about a life-long friendship between two women. It’s a beautiful play and I walked around with Heather’s script in my bag for month thinking about how it could be produced. I had the idea to create a festival of one-act plays all written and directed by women: GLO, Green Light One-Acts. And since the first GLO in, we’ve given world premieres to 15 one-act plays with productions in Philadelphia, New York and now Los Angeles.
In GLO 2014 we introduce to the world 4 new plays written by female playwrights based in Los Angeles – Allie Costa, Jennie Webb, Julianne Homokay and myself – with directors Liz Hinlein, Jen Bloom, Ricka Fisher and Katherine James. I have met the most incredible women just working on this first Green Light show here and I am so excited to plan our next steps here in LA.
Getting here wasn’t easy. While I’ve had the absolute pleasure to work with hundreds of women who support our mission, over the years I heard a surprising amount of negative feedback – much of it from women who felt that the theatre didn’t need companies like Green Light. A female journalist actually responded to one of my press releases with “Do we really need this?”
Yes, we do. And we need YOU!
I hope that by forming new collaborations, asking lots questions, challenging those who need to be challenged and producing work by women, Green Light will continue to have a valuable impact on artists and audiences. And I hope you’ll be part of it.
Mark Your Calendars: November 6-9, GLO 2014, 4 plays written and directed by LA women artists at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. www.greenlightproductions.org.
Be part of Green Light Productions first foray into the LA theater scene (after mixing it up in NY and Philly). Join the FB Invite here (LA FPI tix for only $10!). This femme-fest is Green Light Production’s annual event, but the company is looking for more women artists moving forward. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact [email protected].
The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative Blog has been going strong for 3 years. The blog started April 19, 2010 with our first blog post of “Being a Playwright, Being Female“. The purpose of the blog is to give the Los Angeles theater community a place to come to get to know the playwrights. We thought it would be nice to ask them all a few questions about their lives as playwrights and this week we will post the responses.
The authentic voice of a playwright is worth its weight in gold yet it is hard to measure when it is not given a place in the miner’s pan…
When: August 15 – 20, 2012 Where: Riksteatern, Stockholm, Sweden What: The 9th Women Playwrights International Conference Why: From the WPIC website: “The conference will be an opportunity to meet and to create genuine, lasting contacts between women playwrights and other theatre professionals. The conference’s aim is to have a supporting impact on collaboration and to build bridges between people from different parts of the world.” Who: Women playwrights from around the world, including LA FPI’s own Mary Steelsmith. Mary’s play Isaac, I am will be featured at WPIC 2012 on Saturday afternoon, August 18, 2012.
Award-winning dramatist Mary Steelsmith and her highly-lauded play Isaac, I am will be featured at the upcoming 2012 Women Playwrights International Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. It’s a six-day conference with international focus, filled with lectures, workshops, and most of all, performances of works by women. This year’s theme is “The Democratic Stage.” The WPI Conference moves around the world: it’s held every three years in a different city. In 2015, it will be held in Cape Town, South Africa. For more on Women Playwrights International, and to join, visit their website.
107 plays from around the world will be featured at WPIC 2012, and Mary is thrilled: “What an honor it is to have Isaac, I am chosen to be presented at this conference! The opportunity to meet with and learn from so many female dramatists from other countries and cultures is a rare and wonderful one. While it will be an expensive journey, the experience of this conference in beautiful Stockholm will be priceless.” Only fourteen women playwrights from the U.S. were selected to attend. (To see the complete list of selected plays and playwrights, click here.)
Steelsmith’s Isaac, I am is a story of love, life, death and AOL. A winner of the Helford Prize (and she’s only female playwright to win it), Steelsmith also lists productions of Isaac, I am at the Racounteur Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, and most recently, here in Los Angeles at the Women’s Theatre Organization at the University of Southern California.
Steelsmith has won other playwriting awards, including the Eileen Heckart Drama for Seniors Competition and the Hewlett-Packard Action Theatre Prize (Singapore).
Would you like to help Mary Steelsmith get to Sweden?On Saturday, July 14, 2012, 2 p.m., there’s a benefit performance of 5 short plays by Steelsmith at Vidiots Video, 302 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA, 90402. She’s also selling copies of her work on Amazon.