Barbara Jwanouskos talks with two local playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their latest collaboration.
I had a chance to speak with playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their recent collaboration, REDWOLF, a story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood thatfollows a young woman’s journey from girlhood to wolfhood. The play is being produced by Ragged Wing Ensemble, which I recently joined as their Development Manager. Seeing theater, dance and art built on a constant basis around The Flight Deck (Ragged Wing Ensemble’s new theatrical home) has been an inspiration and a wonder.
I was curious about the collaboration between two playwrights and how that worked and how they approached this classic fairytale with a new twist. In the course of the interview, however, I learned about their approach to writing and their creative process.
BABS: What kinds of plays are you drawn to?
AMY: The poetic and surreal. I’m drawn to work where daily life collides with something that feels mythic or archetypal. I like plays where I can hear a strong element of music or rhythm to the writing; plays where I can taste the words and the spaces between the words… a sort of music to the language that makes me want it in my mouth. I am also drawn to work that has a strong sense of a visual world. I like plays that surprise me.
ANTHONY: Plays where people want things from each other right now and do things to try to get them. I admire language that is nuanced, densely layered and structured to resonate through the whole work. I love theater that demands and displays a high level of virtuosity, intelligence, and emotional availability from performers. But some of the most moving theatrical moments I can think of have been created by collaborations among designers and a director to create an evocative world.
BABS: What do you like to explore in your plays and how do you do so?
AMY: The unexpected. I like to explore the point where seemingly disparate topics or characters are in strong relation to one another. In REDWOLF, combining elements from Red Riding Hood with topics like Trigonometry and the building of a beltway- this unusual weaving together is fun for me. Surprising things happen.
Much of my writing makes use of myth, legend, and folklore. I have been creating female-centered stories for awhile now and I do tend to look at things through the lens of gender and power. This often leads me to writing in ways that challenge some dominant ideas.
ANTHONY: The intractable and irreducible conflicts and contradictions of human existence. Create a constellation of characters with different ways of being in the world, who are nonetheless deeply invested in each other.
BABS: Could you tell me anything about your creative process that has come in handy when writing plays?
AMY: Drawing, painting, cutting or ripping things up to explore the dynamics within the show visually. I’ll make a painting and then scribble stuff on the painting for instance. Creating some visual art related to the show helps me express some things texturally and instinctually and gives me a sense of the world.
Also, I do a lot of uncensored spewing. Some people call it ‘free-writing’. Some raw stuff comes out and that’s pretty fun and unexpected. And because I am a writer/director, at some point fairly early, I will share some raw writings with my ensemble and get the words on their feet. It’s easy then to see what elements ignite the performers and which things I might explore through nonverbal choreography.
ANTHONY: I don’t write in order. I often don’t know at first where a chunk of action will go, or even who will do it. I repurpose things a lot. At key moments I like to print out everything I’ve got, spread it out all over the floor, and walk around on it, spotting patterns and arranging accordingly.
This process started with Amy saying she was thinking about the color red. One of us brought up Little Red Riding Hood. That got us thinking about other stories with girls and wolves and woods. Being who we are, I read a lot of books about the archetype of the wolf and the woods in myth and folklore, and Amy went to the woods and visited a pack of actual wolves.
BABS: What about the process of making REDWOLF and writing as a team? How was that different than other plays you’ve written in the past and was there anything exciting that came up while working with another person? Perhaps even something that you might try to replicate in the future?
AMY: Co-writing is a totally new experience. It requires a lot of trust and a desire to learn each other’s language. For Anthony and me, it worked best once we discovered what each of our strengths were and created primary roles for one another. Anthony looked after dramaturgical structuring- sort of the architecture of the script. He’s brilliant at that. I looked after the central character’s arc in terms of her growth as a young woman and the ways in which we featured our ensemble of actors & designers. Writing with them in mind was a primary point to the work.
One really cool thing was sharing a project journal. We passed it back and forth and wrote in it and drew things and glued things in there and riffed off the other’s scribblings. It was a very exciting and unique thing to do. We could graffiti and deface and add to each other’s thoughts and prompts and images. This shared journal helped us define a language that was unique to the partnership by interweaving words & images.
ANTHONY: I’ve never co-written a play before. Showing raw material to someone else was a challenge. But I do a lot of teaching of playwriting and working with other playwrights on the dramaturgy of their scripts. Amy is able to write very quickly and freely, and she writes very personally, but with a strong awareness of myths and archetypes. That makes it easy to see strong moments that we could use in a narrative structure.
At some point we realized that Amy essentially should be in charge of writing our protagonist and the scenes Red was driving, and I should focus on the antagonists. And antagonism generally. Essentially, Amy wrote the angry sexy stuff and I wrote the grumpy nerdy stuff.
BABS: How did the REDWOLF collaboration come to be? Any anecdotes about its history that you would like to share?
AMY: Anthony and I met at a panel. We started talking and walking and discussing writing & theater. We have very different backgrounds but a sort of common risk-taking drive. I was wearing a purple furry hat and he stuck it on his hand and made it talk. We both grew up with puppets in our lives as it turned out. And for some reason that seemed important.
The decision to co-write felt like a strange whim. Almost like a weird dare. I don’t think either of us knew how much we’d need to pour into this, but we both wanted to do something totally out of our comfort zones. Shake things up. Which we did.
ANTHONY: Seeing Ragged Wing Ensemble’s work – when we met at that Play Café panel, RWE was performing in the park across the street from my house — and hearing about their process from Amy. In the context of the more mainstream theater companies with which I usually work, I’ve been interested for a long time in creating theater that was more physical and design-driven, and that’s very much the RWE house style. At first I was curious to see what Amy might do with a script of mine as a director. She was curious about my process as a writer. Writing a play together for her to direct wound up being the best way for each of us to learn the most.
BABS: For people that may be considering writing as a team, what advice would you give? Anything that made working together function well between you two?
AMY: You need to be resilient, consistent and honest. Co-writing is not frictionless. Really fantastic successful artistic relationships take time & real energy and you have to be able to weather conflict.
In co-writing, you show all your raw work to another person and your half formed ideas and your inarticulate mumblings and you have to find the common mutual YES in there. And the common mutual NO’s. The reaping of things can be painful. It can feel like dying. But it is also absolutely liberating. So I think it’s good to be ready to really get at the meat of a thing with someone. If there’s blood, use it.
ANTHONY: Establish, as early as possible, how to tell each other which ideas you agree with absolutely, which hold no interest for you, and which are intriguing but not entirely convincing yet. The hardest thing was when one of us would change our mind about something we had more or less agreed to. The best was when we couldn’t remember which of us had thought of or written something.
BABS: What’s your connection with Ragged Wing Ensemble? How did you get involved?
AMY: I’m the Artistic Director and Co-Founder.
ANTHONY: I’ve got a title like Resident Guest Associate Artist or something.
BABS: Is the process of writing and developing a play with Ragged Wing Ensemble different than other productions that you’ve worked on? How so? What special considerations or modes of operating did you need to use?
ANTHONY: I came to understand the writing as a kind of adaptation. But instead of creating a play out of a pre-existing piece of writing or a body of research into a historical event, we were writing a play based on a folktale, characters inspired by the talents of ensemble members, moments of physical action created in improvisation by the ensemble, discussions with the ensemble about the themes we were working on, and of course a bunch of stuff we made up.
AMY: We are very serious about physical training. We try to take things to our physical and emotional edge through this process. We like to see where our edge of daring is and push on it. In the development of a piece, it is important to let things be raw so we can watch and listen to what emerges out of the real time play and physical action. It’s a sweaty humbling thing.
BABS: Did the new space (The Flight Deck) inform any of the decisions you made about the story?
ANTHONY: It made us think about the power of place. A big theme of the play is the contrast between wilderness and mapped space. Demolition and construction, as opposed to organic growth, came up a lot.
AMY: It is amazing to create a design for a place where we get to fully inhabit and call home. We could not have done a design like this without The Flight Deck. We completely fill that space with a wild daring design and that has a great impact on the story since the story was created with opportunities for design spectacle in mind.
BABS: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so, how not so, or both?)
AMY: I’ve been here for 17 years making theater and before that I was a kid on the East Coast doing it. This place has access to both the urban and the wild. Somehow those two landscapes seem important to me. My work emerges from my experiences in vast spaces like the coast and more dense spaces like Downtown Oakland with all its wonderful architecture and murals.
ANTHONY: It’s different for me because as a freelance playwright I’ve always created my work in places scattered around the country, a staged reading here, a workshop there, a premiere and subsequent productions elsewhere. It’s very unusual for me to have a script go from first idea through writing multiple drafts through full production, all with one group of artists in a place where we all live.
BABS: How do you stay active as a playwright? (productions, readings, workshops, teaching, etc.)
AMY:I make sure to write and direct a new play every year. Plus having one or more in the slow cooker. With that in mind, I’ve created programming in our company geared toward the development of new works through Fierce Plays, One Acts & Park Festivals. We have an internal culture of developing writer/directors and a unique process of creative development within our ensemble. Also I am a Resident Playwright with PlayGround, a vibrant organization that has lots of opportunities to develop and practice as a playwright and to meet and engage with other playwrights. The relationships I have with artists like Anthony and my ensemble members keeps the spirit going with regards to writing.
ANTHONY: I’m at various stages of three commissions, teaching for four organizations, answering questions from people doing subsequent productions of a couple of my older plays, giving dramaturgical consultations to colleagues and students, and talking about projects for the future.
BABS: What are you working on now? Or, what would you like to work on next? Any fascinations, obsessions, or nagging interests?
AMY: A Whale’s Wake is a piece that was commissioned by PlayGround last season. It’s on its 3rd draft now. It is inspired by the death of my father and the death of a beached baby whale that I witnessed at Stinson Beach.
ANTHONY: Currently I’m writing the first draft of a commission for Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Pennsylvania about the moment in American history when the Founding Fathers all turned on each other and the America we live in today was born.
BABS: What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?
AMY: When someone says “you can’t do X”- that’s generally the next thing I’ll try to do. This habit is either foolish or brilliant depending on the outcome.
ANTHONY: Roxanne Rogers, a director (and Sam Shepard’s sister) said: especially when you’re a young playwright, you’ll say yes to anybody who tells you they like your play. But before you do, make sure that you and the director are talking about the same play. Of course, co-writing the script with the director does get a lot of that danger out of the way early on.
BABS: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?
AMY: The main thing is to reach out. Go see some things. Then arrange a face to face conversation. Being curious rather than judgmental of someone’s work is a good thing. Asking questions and being interested will increase your network and show the way your mind works. That’s when partnerships start to happen leading to a mutual investment in each other’s creative growth and success. That’s an artistic alliance. For me, it’s less about producing your specific piece, and more about being interested in investing in you.
ANTHONY: Read all you can, plays included. See all you can, plays included. Act in plays. Learn how theater is made by watching and helping. Practice the skills of collaboration. Eavesdrop. Be always on the lookout for the dramatic and theatrical.
BABS: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?
ANTHONY: I’m teaching a course for PlayGround in Berkeley starting in November. I’m teaching courses at Stagebridge (if you’re over 50) in Oakland all the time. I’m teaching a course for the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco in the spring. I love helping other writers learn what is strongest in their work and how they want to build on it.
AMY: We built an arts center in Downtown Oakland. It’s super cool. The Flight Deck features a rehearsal studio, a 99 seat black box theater and a co-working office space plus a really fantastic community of artistic leaders from various disciplines. Come be a part of it.
REDWOLF is playing at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in Oakland) from now until November 8th with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, a Saturday matinee at 2 PM and Sunday at 7 PM. Pay-What-You-Can performances are: Friday, October 31 at 8 PM, for anyone in costume. Saturday, November 1 at 2 PM for women, followed by a post-show discussion, “The Wilderness of Sex: The Perilous Journey through Female Adolescence”. Saturday, November 8th at 2 PM for students and educators, followed by a post-show discussion, “Predator and Prey:In Bed with Red Riding Hood”.
Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and contributor. She will have her acting debut on November 1st at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre for the San Francisco Olympians Festival opening party. She is a part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab 2014-15 class and will be sharing a one-minute play during the One Minute Play Festival hosted by the Playwrights Foundation on December 15 and 16. For more of Barbara, you can follow her on twitter @bjwany.