The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Cecilia Palmtag and Addie Ulrey

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us to Home.

This week I had to interview two theater artists and playwrights, Cecilia Palmtag and Addie Ulrey who are both Core Artists with Ragged Wing Ensemble. Cecilia and Addie both developed pieces for the evening of short plays, “Destination Home”, now playing at The Flight Deck in downtown Oakland.

Both Cecilia and Addie had very interesting thoughts and perspectives on the craft of writing a new theater piece. Not shirking from the sometimes all-consuming frustration that comes with writing, both give their thoughts on sacrifice and perseverance during the times of creation and development. But, let’s get to it, because with two featured writers, this week, we still have a ways to go!

BJ: What drew you to theater and how would you describe your writing interests or voice?

CP: Utter necessity. The medium has a visceral potency that can’t be found anywhere else and can be deeply satisfying in the way that only direct experience can be. I’m interested in the breadth of a Shakespearean audience appeal, and work that is revitalizing to communal and ritual experience. Intellectual, emotional, and culturally significant themes drive my work and I tend to go for really big ideas.

One of my plays, Now! Now? Now. asked the question, “What are the mechanisms by which we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment?” There is a significant amount of humor and levity in my work, which is always helpful as the ideas can sometimes be very chewy and the audience needs breaks. Recently I’ve been writing stage poems (not to be confused with Slam poems). My current piece, Mother’s Fever Dream, is physically expressive, textually sparse and dense with meaning.

Cecilia Palmtag

Cecilia Palmtag

AU: I started as an actor. At some point I took a mandatory playwriting class, and realized I was obviously in some ways a writer. My friend Tadd and I were discovering this about ourselves at the same time, and at first we wrote plays together, or at the very least we were each other’s’ editors and first audience. Our writing styles were exactly opposite, so we were good teachers for each other. Tadd always wanted bigger, weirder, crazier. In his plays, Mariah Carey was being worshipped as a god while humans were devolving into animals while life-sized cans of coca cola were having babies. In my plays, someone opened a box of tea bags one by one and read the advice on the paper tabs. I wanted the poetic to be banal, and for not much to happen.

I tend to have a strong autobiographical streak in my writing, which I used to see as an amateur phase, but am now beginning to see as something I’m interested in in a deeper way. I still like the banal, but Tadd taught me to be less afraid of including things I can only imagine, to not be afraid of inventing and possibly getting it wrong. I’m interested in the place of the artist in the world today, and the romanticized idea of the artist. I’m interested in learning to make plays the way you might make a painting: starting with image, starting with materials.

Addie Ulrey

Addie Ulrey

BJ: What is your play about?

CP: A child alone in a car and a mother who in her attempt to heal others sickens herself. The reward of containment. The price of containment. Inheriting our parents’ gifts and burdens. Frogs. The central question which inspired Mother’s Fever Dream is, “How are we going to deal with climate change on a story-making basis?” What stories will we tell ourselves, what is the new myth for this unprecedented era that we can return to as things go from whack to… whack-er.

AU: My play is about quitting and failing. Well, it’s about “homing” obviously, so I guess it’s about where those concepts meet: quitting, failing, and homing. Is home the destination? Is home the place you must leave in order to reach the destination? Clearly home is both. The play follows two pioneers on the road to California from the Midwest during the 1800s, and they– well, am I supposed to spoil it? — they turn home. They go back.

BJ: How did you get involved in “Destination Home”? Had you written in this matter before?

CP: I’ve been writing one acts with Ragged Wing since 2012, and have been a core member since 2011. Proposals were being put forth last year and I submitted the concept of my solo piece early on. The development process is becoming more codified, and more closely resembling a typical drafting, reading and rehearsing process. In the past we called them “Fierce Plays” because we had ten days from first rehearsal to opening night. This time we had nearly three weeks! Pressure creates a lovely necessity, and the Fierce Play process primed me to be open to significant changes right up until opening.

AU: Ragged Wing chooses a season theme every year that in some way speaks to the phase that the company itself is in in that moment – a ten-year-old company that has been growing and changing especially fast in the last few years. I’ve been part of the company at Ragged Wing for four years now, so I’ve written on many of these themes: It’s About Time, Just Ripe, and now, Homing. Right now, I’m also in the process of co-writing a play with the youth ensemble of high school students on the same theme. Which is a totally different process because you’re trying to take their ideas and characters relating to home and help structure them into a story that holds acting opportunities for all the students. It’s more technical and less free-form. It’s a good exercise.

BJ: What was your initial idea and what did it morph into?

CP: It started with Ibsen’s Brand, a woman at the center of the earth sounding a huge drum, and a doctor who seemed to be the only one trying to cope with a mysterious epidemic. Approaching this project I knew I had about 15 minutes of stage time, and about two months to develop it. So after sifting through about 80-100 pages of raw material, Amy Sass’s Awesome Dramaturgy helped me focus on the salient, urgent, and totally relatable crisis of a child trapped in a car. The boxes were a powerful image that became central to the vocabulary, and doctor stuck as well. She encouraged me to follow where the script felt alive.

Cecilia Palmtag in her piece, "Mother's Fever Dream"

Cecilia Palmtag in her piece, “Mother’s Fever Dream”

AU: So I was initially writing a totally different play. Like for about a month. And we got all the way to the point of our second draft reading, which was about a week out from the start of rehearsals and one month out from the opening of the show, and it became clear that the piece I was working on wasn’t going to happen for this show. It was getting too big in scope to fit well into this evening of shorts, and it required fairly specific casting which wasn’t coming together, a lot of things. So we made the decision to table that piece for a future date when a longer development period is possible. Which was kind of a relief, and seemed right. Except that meant I had one week to come up with something altogether new in time for rehearsals to start. So I spent a few days throwing a fit and saying, “no I can’t I won’t”, which morphed into, “okay I will write a play but it’s going to be all about quitting and failing”. The pioneers already existed from the previous piece, so they ended up getting carried over and used as the container for this new idea.

Addie Ulrey's "Making It"

Addie Ulrey’s “Making It”

We do a lot of fast processes at Ragged Wing, which has taught me a lot and made me more fearless I think as an artist. It produces a lot of stress though, and I was feeling so stressed out about the prospect of making a new piece from scratch that I basically decided I would try to make it my task to enjoy the process, even if sometimes that meant closing the computer and going bed, and even if that ultimately meant the piece itself would fail. Or that I would fail to complete it. That I would try not to let it become my sanity versus the piece. So I guess that’s how the piece evolved.

BJ: Was there anything about the process of creating a piece for “Destination Home” that pushed you as an artist or gave you additional insight into the creative process?

CP: The new element was creating and performing a solo show. In the later part of drafting and early part of rehearsing there was a blurred line between the two. I improvised scenes in my writing time and later developed them in the script. When the script felt stuck I improvised, when I had enough material I distilled it into something concise. The structure was Queen in this piece, and it took me almost two months to nail it. When I had the right props the imagery and language unfolded and intertwined in really satisfying ways.

AU: I’m looking at that paragraph I just wrote for the last question, and the phrase, “enjoy the process”. Which is a funny one. Because you don’t enjoy it like you enjoy lemonade, you know. Well at certain times you do. But what it really means is learn to enjoy the tumultuousness, because it needs to be tumultuous; that’s what you sign up for. It’s somewhere between meditative and volcanic. It’s not like knitting a sweater.

So that’s hard.

One thing I’m finally learning is to not be resentful of the massive amount of space a play takes up in my life. Every time I make a play, there is a long list of things I have to ignore in order to make it happen. I don’t exercise, I don’t see my friends. I don’t get to go to the movies and I don’t get to make dinner and I don’t get to say yes to invitations. And if I do make the mistake of saying yes, I probably will have to cancel at the last minute. And it tends to feel really unfair, and I start to hate the play. Especially because it just doesn’t seem like the product is going to be WORTH all this flaking out on people and skipping work and almost losing my job. But I’m starting to learn to see it as seasonal, as an ebb and flow: when the play is over, there is lots of empty space, and these things can flood back into my life again. And when a new project begins, I have to actively make space for it. Because it’s not like knitting a sweater– you can’t just fit it in around everything else. It needs a lot of space. That’s just how making is. It’s not efficient. Art is not efficient!

BJ: Any challenges or considerations that came up? How did you handle them?

CP: My big challenge was doing everything. Years ago I told myself I’d never self-direct again. It’s good advice. Being totally embroiled in all aspects is costly. It was a struggle to approach the material with fresh eyes. Hear the script like an audience member. Watch the performance like a director. Perform the play like an actor. In all stages, but especially now, I’ve had to consciously step away from the piece as a playwright in order to fully commit as an actor. One job at a time is much simpler than everything at once.

AU: What to do with actors in rehearsal when you don’t have any new scenes written for them, and the ones you do have need fixing.

Experiment with string. Figure out how many ways one can walk on an endless expanse and not make any progress. Cry a lot. Crying generally helps move rehearsal forward.

BJ: Any thoughts or advice for others who want to create and develop a play?

CP: Follow the heat of your story, which to me means the personally relevant pay dirt. Have really high standards for where you’re going, and surround yourself with people you trust to be kind and to tell the truth. Then let it go. Cut whatever you have to- pages, scenes, characters. Write more. And then more. Bow to the structure, or the action, or the character, or whatever is the Queen of your play’s kingdom.

AU: Well… it’s a map. I find it so relieving to not think of a play as primarily words, but as primarily occurrences. It takes the pressure of crafting dialogue that is clever without being obvious, is deep without being after-school special. It allows dialogue to be a tool among several, and be used when it’s needed. There’s also poetry, there’s movement, there’s silence, there are objects… and so on. You map what you want to occur. I also find it helpful to constantly go back to embracing the primitive-ness of theater (in this age). What can the primitive do well that the technological cannot?

BJ: Shout-outs or plugs for upcoming theater events, shows or performances?

CP/AU: Ragged Wing’s Destination Home! ☺ April 3 & 4th at 8pm at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in downtown Oakland).

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