The Real World – Theater Edition: Back to School! An Interview with Rob Handel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews a former mentor about the rules of playwrighting.

September (and, over time, August too) are, of course, synonymous with heading back to school. With that idea in mind, when thinking of the next playwright to interview, I had to return to one of my mentors from Carnegie Mellon University, Rob Handel, to check up on how he’s viewing theater and playwriting these days.

It’s fitting that this month for Theater Pub ended up being sort of “break the rules” themed, because initially what was on my mind was a conversation Rob and I had back in April about teaching and how strange it was that you often make these initial “rules” or “principles” to guide a newbie student in the right direction, but over time you start to realize that rules are not needed at all in order to make a great play.

Of course, at CMU, when we’d have workshop, invariably we received feedback from Rob that quoted one of The Rules. Some of us politely nodded, others vehemently defended the opposite position and maybe others played devil’s advocate while the rest of us shrank lower in our seats, fearing being asked to take a side. Clearly, they were a hot topic for the students, but over time, I keep on making more sense of them, and at the same time, there are plenty of great plays that are notable exceptions.

So, in this interview, you’ll get to read as I put Rob to task on what his rules are, why they are, and also – what I thought was interesting, is Rob’s response when I asked if I could ask him about The Rules. He said, “Sure, but I’m actually re-thinking the rules…” What??! Well, I had to hear more about that… And now, so can you!

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Barbara: So in class occasionally you’d reference your rules for playwriting. What’s on the list?

Rob: Don’t talk to the audience. Don’t withhold information from the audience. Don’t write “blackout” in the middle of a conversation. (Maybe you remember more of my rules? I feel like I’m forgetting something.)

Barbara: I remember one which was not to have your characters talk about more than one off-stage/not seen character per play.

Rob: I think that offstage character rule is such a good rule that I am charging $30,000 tuition for it.

Barbara: Can you explain the reasons why it might be a good idea to follow these rules?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: This rule comes out of my experience reading hundreds of plays every year (for admissions, selection committees I’m asked to be on, etc.). 99% of the time, a play that starts with a direct address is going to be a bad play. It suggests that the writer knows where the play is going to end up, and this character, the narrator, is going to talk to us again at the end and tell us what we were supposed to learn. I go to plays to see the exploration of a question, a journey into the unknown — not to be lectured at.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: 99% of the time, the withholding of information is being used as a substitute for plot. For example, “at the end of act one, we realize that Paul is actually the same person as Peter.” The problem with this is that “we” is not a character in the play. The way storytelling works is that the audience (like it or not) identifies with a character, and we have the same information as that character (or MORE) but not less, so that when they are surprised, we are surprised WITH them. The great example of this is the screenplay for THE SIXTH SENSE. We have the same information as Bruce Willis, not more and not less, throughout the picture.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’ in the middle of a conversation”: If your characters are stuck, stay stuck with them. One of the things theatre is best at, better than any other form, is claustrophobia — what is it like to be trapped in this apartment, this office, this room, with this other person? In a charged, awkward emotional moment, you must resist the temptation to end the scene on a great line if it robs us of finding out how the characters escape that moment. You can learn a lot about someone by watching how they extricate themselves from an argument.

Barbara: But recently, when chatting you blew my mind when you said the rules were made up and that actually you’re having second thoughts about them! Why teach them if made up? And what are you re-thinking?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: If I made a list of my top 20 favorite plays, at least 10 of them, probably more, would be plays that use direct address. So something is clearly wrong with my theory. Take How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel: the direct address is critical to the play because it lets us know that the play is memory, therefore the heroine will survive. Furthermore, she is telling the story, controlling the narrative — and this creates a safe space to tell a highly charged and deeply uncomfortable story. There are lots of ways to use direct address, and they don’t have to be awful.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: This is a pretty good rule. Plays that violate this rule tend to be sadistic and/or condescending. If you’re drawn to that kind of play, maybe you really want to be a magician or a maker of haunted houses? (Great professions, by the way. But not the same as playwright.) On the other hand, not all plays tell stories in the same way. Some plays are made of emotional moments and some are made of mysterious video interludes and some plays don’t have characters at all. There is probably a great play out there, or being created right now, that will prove me wrong.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’…” This is a good rule. I think the main reason I’m trying not to say “This is one of my rules” anymore is that I’ve realized that what keeps me alive as an artist (and as a consumer of art) is my idea of what a play is, or what theatre can be, is constantly being challenged and overturned. Some of the most inspiring plays I’ve seen recently could not possibly be written following even the most basic rules that I used to throw at people. (I’m thinking of Savannah Reich’s Six Monsters, the Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself, the Debate Society’s Jacuzzi, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.)

Barbara: What do you think are the things someone can do if they want to write better plays?

Rob: Conveniently, there is exactly one way to write better plays: write more. Write every day. Carry a notebook. If you’ve written a 30 page play, rewrite it as a 60 page play. (Then, keep only the good pages.) If you’ve written a three hour play, rewrite it as a ten hour play. Keep going.

Barbara: To submit a play to an opportunity or to DIY a production? And why?

Rob: Both. As with political change, you want to be in the streets AND in the halls of power.

Barbara: Any thoughts on the current state of theater and playwriting– what does it need? Have too much/not enough of? What are you excited to see? And anything that scares you about the future of theater?

Rob: I am thrilled to be a theatre practitioner at this moment. The heated discussions about diversity and representation are not going to go away. People who run their companies the same way they did 30 years ago are going to keep getting called out. We’re going to keep moving forward with inclusiveness, and that means companies will need to create structures that allow them to give tickets away for free. (I just had the privilege of having my play A Maze produced with such a “radical hospitality” structure by Theatre Battery in Kent, Washington.)

Barbara: I love the term radical hospitality and am curious how it worked!

Rob: Here are some links about Radical Hospitality:

http://howlround.com/radical-hospitality-the-artistic-case
http://howlround.com/the-business-case-for-radical-hospitality-at-mixed-blood-theatre

Barbara: Any advice for those who want to write plays?

Rob: I hear the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon is excellent.

Barbara: Any shows we should catch?

Rob: My new play I Want To Destroy You will be produced by Theatre Vertigo in Portland (Oregon) in January: http://www.theatrevertigo.org/. On the East Coast, I’m looking forward to Gardiner Comfort’s solo piece The Elephant in Every Room I Enter: http://lamama.org/the-elephant-in-every-room-i-enter-2/.

Follow Rob Handel on twitter @sailordoghandel for more.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview with Savannah Reich

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Savannah Reich about her upcoming Bay Area production.

Savannah Reich is the type of playwright that when you read and hear and see her work, you’re like, “I want to do that! That’s so cool! Theater’s so cool!” I met her while in the second year of the MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, headed by Rob Handel, and was blown away by her humor, theatricality, and the moving moments of human connection and confusion she creates within her writing. So, of course, I was very happy to learn that her play, Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play was being produced by All Terrain Theater in the summer of 2015.

The show opens next Thursday, July 30th at 8:00 PM and runs on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays until August 8th at the EXIT Theatre in downtown San Francisco. I had a chance to chat with Savannah about playwriting, the inspiration behind Six Monsters, and her creative impulses.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Babs: Very excited to interview you!

Savannah: Thank you! I am so excited to be interviewed!

Babs: To begin, could you tell me about your background? How did you get involved with theater and writing?

Savannah: I wrote my first play in the second grade. I’m not sure where I got the idea. My parents were both doing theater when I was a kid, as a prop-master and scenic artist at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, so I’m sure I had already seen plays? I am counting this as “my first play” because it was more elaborate than a show I did with friends in the basement or whatever- it had a typed script, which went through several drafts, and I think I forced my entire second grade class to be in it, although I don’t remember that part.

So as long as I can remember I had this incredibly specific compulsion to write plays. I briefly went to NYU for the undergraduate playwriting program, which I was not really prepared for at eighteen. I dropped out after a year and decided I would never write a play again- I was just going to be wild and free and be in punk bands and experience real life. But then I started writing plays again probably six months after that.

I recently found the script for my first play in a box at my parent’s house; it was about two witches who turn people into chickens and serve them to children at an orphanage, which actually sounds like something that I might be working on now.

Babs: How would you describe your style and what interests you?

Savannah: The way I’m thinking about it these days is that I am interested in taking inexplicable emotional processes and making them into something concrete and mechanical. I am obsessed with the Charlie Kaufman movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because it does this so nicely- it takes this very gooey personal feeling, the grief about losing a shared past when you end a relationship, and makes it into this action story. It literally ends with a chase scene. So that’s a really nice way to create ways to talk about things that maybe don’t fall into the cultural shorthand.

More concretely, my plays tend to be removed from true-to-life situations- as Sarah Ruhl says, “my characters have no last names.” They are animals or ghosts or subhuman beasts. They tend to be suffering greatly in some neurotic, cyclical way and they all talk on rotary dial telephones.

Also, I am interested in structure because it is the essential relationship between the play and the audience, which for me is at least as interesting as the relationships between the characters.

Babs: I think Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play has an interesting origin story – do you mind sharing and then how it developed from its inception?

Savannah: Yes! You were there! It was very early on in my first year at CMU, maybe the second or third week, and Rob Handel had us do a writing exercise that involved beginning a 60 page play at nine am and finishing it by midnight. The exercise was so great, but I feel like I don’t want to give it away in case he is going to do it again next year- part of what was great about it for me was the surprise. I had all these ideas for plays that had been percolating for a long time, and I was fussing over them and trying to make them “good”, and then we got this exercise that said, “Okay, forget about all those plays- here’s a prompt, now write this play. Write this play today.” It was totally liberating for me.

Before grad school, I had been writing plays and producing them myself, so I think that I had gotten into this trap of keeping my producer’s hat on while I was writing. I would think about making props affordable, stuff like that. It was dumb. This exercise broke me out of that. The original opening stage direction for “Six Monsters” was something like, “There are six audience members seated on a wooden cart. The wooden cart rolls through an infinite darkness.”

I also think I put a bunch of things that felt really vulnerable and revealing to me in this play, and maybe I wouldn’t have if I had been imagining that it would ever be performed. I write much better when I am able to convince myself that no one I know will ever see it.

After I finished the play, I co-produced a one night workshop performance of it with our fellow MFA writer Dan Giles, with him directing, me as the skeleton, and six amazing CMU undergrad acting students as the chorus, which I will get to brag about when they are all famous in like twenty-five minutes.

Babs: When I last saw this piece, you were actually performing in it as the Skeleton. How do you think performing/not performing in your own work influences how you see the play, what to develop/not develop next?

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah: I’m not sure how I feel about this anymore! I am worrying about it a lot in a neurotic and cyclical way! I have performed in my own work a fair amount, and sometimes I think I don’t want to do it anymore, because probably it would be better with real actors who are good at acting. But then I recently saw the performance artist Dynasty Handbag in New York, and I love her, and I thought that maybe I should always perform my own work. Not that I am a performer like she is- I tend to be visibly thinking on stage in that way that playwrights do when they try to act- but I do think there is something special about seeing someone perform their own words, there is a kind of specificity to it.

But I’m not going to be a performance artist because I love actors so much. They are my favorite thing to look at, especially when they are in my plays being hilarious. It’s great to be a playwright because we get to see all these very attractive people pretending to be us, pretending to have our same anxieties about capitalism or intimacy or whatever, which feels deeply healing in some probably very messed up way. Also good collaboration makes the show better, of course. The actor can see a lot of things about the show that I can’t.

I don’t know that I learn anything much from being in my own plays. I played the part of the skeleton in the workshop mostly because it felt too personal to turn it over to an actor. But now I have a little more distance, and I’m so excited to see what Laura Peterson does with it.

Babs: In the San Francisco production, is there anything that you are most looking forward to seeing or experiencing?

Savannah: I was just talking about how much variability actors bring to the table but of course that’s also very much true of directors. I haven’t worked with Sydney Painter before, and seeing her take on the piece is probably what I’m the most excited about. I haven’t been in town for rehearsals yet, and I’m looking forward to seeing the ways that this crew has interpreted the show in different ways than I would have imagined.

Babs: Any advice for playwrights in creating new work or getting it produced?

Savannah: For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.

Babs: Any shout-outs for shows, events, or other things going on around the Bay Area that you might check out while you’re here?

Savannah: If you come to Six Monsters; A Seven Monster Play you will also get to see a short play by the fabulous Tracy Held Potter called Texting. And we should probably all get on a plane to New York to see Dan Giles’ play How You Kiss Me is Not How I Like To Be Kissed at the New York Fringe Festival.

Also, this.

Learn more about Savannah Reich, her screenplays, plays, and upcoming artistic projects from her website, http://savannahreich.com/.

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Marisela Treviño Orta

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up the playwright behind Shotgun’s Heart Shaped Nebula.

How fortunate to have a chance to interview Marisela before she departs for the Iowa Playwrights Workshop later this summer. I met Marisela at a going away party for Amy Clare Tasker (a wonderful director who is missed!) and was struck by how precisely she captured my feelings about a life in theater. A couple years later and I still feel as though she has that precision of insight that gives a sense of relief when talking about playwriting, inspiration, and navigating the many paths artists have to realize their potential.

Marisela Treviño Orta

Marisela Treviño Orta

Barbara: I’m curious about your playwriting background. How did you get into theater?

Marisela: It was all happenstance. I’m a poet turned playwright. And I’ve only been writing plays for about 10 years now.

I came to San Francisco to study poetry. I was in my first semester for my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco (USF) when I found my way to theatre. USF is a Jesuit institution and Jesuits are very big on social justice. My on-campus job’s first assignment was to produce a video on the work students and professors were doing in the community. That’s how I was introduced to El Teatro Jornalero!, a theatre company made up of Latino immigrants devising original work on social justice issues.

I was a poet in search of inspiration. And as an imagist I was drawn to the visuals of the movement exercises the actors would do. So I joined ETJ! as its resident poet. After a year with them I became curious about playwriting. I ended up taking an introductory course in playwriting with playwright Christine Evans—she was a visiting professor/artist one semester.

So my final semester in my MFA program I began writing my first play BRAIDED SORROW. That play is what brought me fully into this genre. It was accepted into the 2005 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and the rest is history—in that, I realized this was the genre I’d been searching for all my life.

Barbara: Perhaps related to that, I know you have a background in poetry as well, does this influence your style as a writer?

Marisela: My poetics are very present in my playwriting.

Poets attend to line breaks (breath), word choice, imagery, lyricism, space on the page. Everything I learned as a poet is applicable to playwriting. I mentioned earlier that I’m an imagist. I’m inspired by images, drawn to them, and use them as a way to construct narratives. When I write, I think about the visual language in the play—symbolism and also what the audience hears. While a sound designer will realize that soundscape, I think playwrights can create a whole world on stage using dialog, images, and sound.

Barbara: How would you describe your voice?

Marisela: I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe it’s because it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s easier for others to articulate what it is we’re doing as artists.

Barbara: What brought you out to the Bay Area? How have you found the theater scene here? Anything that was particularly influential or inspiring (or both)?

Marisela: It was my MFA at USF that brought me out to the Bay Area. I actually never intended to stay after I finished it. But it was theatre that kept me out here. I found the theatre community exciting and welcoming.

I find our theatre scene to be very supportive, as opposed to cut throat. Playwrights share information, go see one another’s shows, recommend one another for opportunities.

Barbara: And I hear you’re headed to Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop – Congrats! How did you make the decision to apply, and then subsequently once you were accepted, attend this program? Any special considerations you were mulling over?

Marisela: For 9 of the 10 years I’ve been a playwright I was adamant that I wasn’t going to get another MFA (one in playwriting). I didn’t want to incur more debt, but I also disliked the idea that you had to go get an MFA in order to tap into the production pipeline. I didn’t want to go get an MFA because it would be “good” for my career.

Instead, I’ve spent the past 10 years developing a network of theatre friends, peers and advocates. I also spent that time writing, improving my craft, and seeing shows. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I decided I would apply to grad school.

It was my bad back that started it all. I have chronic back issues and the past 3 years it was really bad. I decided to apply to grad school when I was lying on my office floor at my day job. I realized that if I had limited time to sit in front of a computer, I didn’t want to use that time for my day job. I wanted to spend that time writing.

I decided that I wanted to go to grad school so I could have time to just write. Because for the past 10 years, as I’ve perused playwriting, I’ve had a full time job. It’s been a grind. Like having two full time jobs. So grad school is about having time just to write and to improve my craft. Someone recently said it’s like me going on a 3 year writing retreat. And since I didn’t want any more debt I looked at programs like Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop.

When I got the news about my acceptance I then had to grapple with the fact that I had an unexpected development—a world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And OSF production is a game changer. And since most MFA programs only let you go away to work on outside productions for a limited amount of time, I had to ask a lot of questions since I wanted to really be there for the entire rehearsal process.

I knew Iowa was the place for me when their response was to immediately brainstorm ways to help me make the most of my OSF experience and still enroll in the program.

I can’t wait to begin my MFA at Iowa. I can’t wait to see how productive I can be when playwriting is my sole focus. Though…I will have 13 hours of classes. So there will be homework. But I welcome it all with open arms.

Barbara: Many writers and artists have the debate on whether to go to school or not – what influenced your decision?

Marisela: My reasons for going to grad school are personal now. It’s not just “to advance my career.” It took some time for me to realize what I wanted from a grad school experience. That felt empowering in a way.

I applied because I had juggled my playwriting with a day job for a long time and I was not only tired of it, I knew that in order to go from good to great as a playwright you have to really pour a lot of time and energy into your work. I knew the juggling wasn’t just unsustainable—it would hold me back as a playwright.

Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Marilet Martinez and Hugo Carbajal rehearsing a scene from HEART SHAPED NEBULA with Shotgun Players

Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Marilet Martinez and Hugo Carbajal rehearsing a scene from HEART SHAPED NEBULA with Shotgun Players

Barbara: Tell me about creating theater in the Bay Area vs. other regions – is there anything different about it here? What do you wish would change in theater both here and nationally?

Marisela: I don’t actually have a lot of experience in either of these areas. My upcoming production at Shotgun is only my third production.

I have had a few readings in Chicago and really like that scene. The people are very friendly, similar to the Bay Area.

As for changing something in theatre…Obviously we need more diversity and gender parity both on stage and behind the scenes. I think I’d like to see more self-reflection and intention when it comes to addressing these issues. Sure there are people like Valerie Weak (thank goodness) who are gathering stats on productions, but it would be great to see more theatre intentionally put together a season with parity and diversity.

Barbara: Will you miss/not miss anything in particular about the Bay Area while in Iowa? Do you think you’ll come back?

Marisela: What will I miss? EVERYTHING!

But I also know that I’m nostalgic for the Bay Area of 13 years ago when I first moved here. When the fog rolled in like clockwork every three days.

It may sound silly to reminisce, but the changes in the past 4 years have been so dramatic. I don’t know that I could afford to return.

I came into my own as an artist here in the Bay Area. I think of myself as a San Franciscan. I don’t know what I’ll tell people when they ask me where I’m from. Well….originally from Texas. But I’m a San Francisco gal.

Barbara: Any advice that was paramount to your development as a writer and artist? Anything you wish you hadn’t listened to?

Marisela: Join Twitter.

HA!

I’m serious though. And I hated Twitter when it first came on the scene. But Twitter has led to multiple opportunities for me…including that production at OSF.

There’s a vibrant theatre community on Twitter. When I said I’ve spent the past 10 years building a network of peers and advocates—I’ve done most of my networking building nationally on Twitter. So get on it. But don’t just promote yourself. That’s like going to a cocktail party and meeting someone who only talks about themselves the entire time. Listen to the conversations happening online. Share information. Ask questions. Get to know people. It’s so true that theatre is about relationships. And Twitter is a great way of building relationships with people from all over.

Barbara: I’d love to know more about your upcoming productions in the Bay Area – THE RIVER BRIDE will be running until May 16 at Santa Clara University and HEART SHAPED NEBULA is premiering at Shotgun Players May 21. Tell me about the process – what was your involvement? Did anything for you change in either (or both productions) – perhaps your relationship to the play, the script itself, the subject matter?

Marisela: I went down last weekend to see THE RIVER BRIDE at Santa Clara. It was really great to meet the students and faculty. I wasn’t able to be actively involved in their production because its process was concurrent with HEART SHAPED NEBULA.

The production process for HEART SHAPED NEBULA began last fall when I began rewrites. It’s been an intense process, but I wanted to do all the rewrites before we went into rehearsals. All the work paid off as there was only one minor rewrite needed during our rehearsal process. The rest was just edits and adjustments.

As for what’s changed, well one of the characters evolved in a really interesting way. The old draft had two big competing narrative arcs. It was weighing the play down a bit. The rewrites have resolved that issue. I still miss the old version of my character. I’ll have to save her for another play.

Barbara: What are you drawn to exploring next?

Marisela: I’m currently working on finishing my fairy tale cycle. THE RIVER BRIDE was the first of three plays, all fairy tales, inspired by Latino mythology and folklore.

Also in the queue is a play I’ve had on the back burner for years. GHOST LIMB is a riff on the Persephone and Demeter myth. It takes place during the Dirty War in Argentina and focuses on a mother whose son is disappeared by the military dictatorship.

Barbara: May is our month for “Will and Perseverance”. In a lot of ways I feel this an essential component to having a rich life with writing and arts. Is there an anecdote or story from your own journey as a writer/artist that you could share with us where you had to draw upon this trait?

Marisela: Early on I read some advice by playwright Adam Szymkowicz where he said you have to work for at least 10 years at playwriting before things begin to take off. That was helpful to know. It gives you some idea of how long you have to keep working, how long it takes to develop relationships that turn into opportunities.

I’ll also add that I’ve been working on HEART SHAPED NEBULA since 2008. That’s seven years. And in those seven years I’ve grown a lot as a person and an artist—both of which deeply inform the rewrites of the play.

Know that we don’t always see the full journey of a play or production. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Often those journeys can take years.

I think knowing all this can help you persevere. Not that I’m there, but overnight success actually takes years in the making.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for writers out there that would like to write new plays?

Marisela: I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.

Often in a first draft we’re still trying to figure out what the narrative is. Give yourself some time and space to really get to know your characters and play before inviting feedback.

Also, trust your gut. I find it doesn’t often lie. Even if you can’t articulate why, if something makes you uncomfortable there’s a reason why.

Barbara: Any recommendations to local plays, shows, or events happening around the Bay Area?

Marisela: I’ve been in production for the past few months, so I haven’t seen anything in a while. So I can’t recommend anything.

But there plenty of amazing theatre companies here in the Bay Area. I try to see shows as often as I can because I consider it part of my development as an artist. There’s always something you can learn when you go see a show. I often leave buoyed by the experience. And inspiration is always helpful when you’re a writer.

So get thee to the theatre!

THE RIVER BRIDE is playing at Santa Clara University until May 16. More information is available at http://scupresents.org/performances/mainstage-theatre-river-bride. HEART SHAPED NEBULA is playing with Shotgun Players on The Ashby Stage May 21-June 14. For more information, check out their website at
https://shotgunplayers.org/Online/heartshapednebula. And you can follow Marisela on twitter @MariselaTOrta.

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).

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Alan Olejniczak

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews, Alan Olejniczak about his upcoming show, “Present Tense.”

I had to feel instant comradery with Alan Olejniczak and having a complicated last name with a silent “J”. In case you were wondering, Alan gives you a little tip on his website on how to pronounce his name, which I’m totally going to steal for my own forth coming website.

“How in the heck do you pronounce that last name?”
OH/la/KNEE/check

We had the chance to bond over email about opera libretti. I was inspired by Alan’s story of the serendipitous outcome of a little facebook post he put out to the world when he had submitted to a company he admires that actually didn’t take unsolicited playwriting submissions. Partially because while I make adjustments to my own playwriting trajectory, I’m feeling the need to be bold and put myself out there more and more.

What follows is my email exchange with Alan. I am looking forward to meeting him, geeking out about Pearl S. Buck and of course, seeing his plays.

Alan-by-ChrisTurner892

Babs: I’m interested in people’s trajectory into writing. Tell me how you got involved in the Bay Area theater scene. Did you come in originally as a playwright? Was anything an impetus?

Alan: While I have a BFA with a focus in Performing Arts, I studied the classics but had little idea of how plays were written or even developed. Up to that point, I never considered the idea of writing one. About six years ago, I saw a developmental reading of a play by Lauren Gunderson at Marin Theater Company. I was inspired and strangely determined to write one myself. After all, how hard could it be? For me, playwrighting has become a passion and continues to be the most difficult and most rewarding personal endeavors I have ever undertaken.

Babs: This tends to be such a loaded question, but do you think you have a writing style, and if so, what is it like? How would your friends describe your writing and the subject matter that you’re attracted to?

Alan: It’s too early for me to claim any particular writing style, and in many ways, I’m still finding my voice. I enjoy writing dramas and I’m naturally drawn to mythology and the stories of powerful historical figures. My work has been described as classically-styled, intellectual, but most often, operatic. I believe theater should be distinct from film and I’m not always attracted to realism, despite Present Tense being written this way.

Babs: Tell me about your upcoming production of “Present Tense” at ACT Costume Shop. What is it about? Where did it grow out of? What might we expect?

Alan: Present Tense is really my second play. It’s a play cycle of five separate vignettes. It’s about loving families and dilemmas that some us face. It’s drawn from personal experiences and those of people I love. The focus is on intimate stories rather than the grand and the characters are drawn from real life rather than archetypes. I wrote the Present Tense with my friend, Rik Lopes in mind and I’m thrilled that he is able to direct and perform in this play.

Babs: I read on your website that you are also very much interested in opera. Could you talk a little about that? What drew you to it and have you written any libretti, out of curiosity?

Alan: While working on my undergrad at UW-Milwaukee, I studied theater production, but outside of school, I sang in the chorus of the Florentine Opera Company. I graduated, moved to Atlanta, and didn’t sing again for another fifteen years. I loved working with the Atlanta Opera and sang three seasons before moving to California. For now, I simply enjoy being a season ticket holder with the San Francisco Opera.

I love opera and believe it’s one of the greatest western art forms. It combines the highest expressions of vocal and orchestral music with the greatest demands on stagecraft. Currently, I’m in the early stages of developing a play for We Players. It’s drawn from Greek mythology and combines spoken drama with song, spectacle, and dance. I’m excited for the opportunity to work with such amazing and dynamic company. My crazy dream is to adapt Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” into a grand opera.

Babs: I mentioned that this month’s themes are “luck and chance”. Can you tell me a story of how this might have intersected with your playwriting/theater trajectory?

Alan: Connecting with We Players was certainly serendipity. Last summer, I posted on Facebook that I foolishly submitted an unsolicited script to a company I love. Never a smart move, but I was feeling bold and guessed that my email was already deleted. By chance, my friend Arthur Oliver, who I worked with at the Atlanta Opera read the post and privately messaged me, asking which company it was? He knew Ava Roy personally and he really made this connection happen. I’m forever grateful.

Babs: What keeps you writing?

Alan: Humans have always had a deep need for sharing stories. It’s primal. We are also drawn to meaningful and satisfying work and playwrighting for me fills both of these needs. I find I’m most productive and inspired in the mornings. I wake early, make a pot of coffee, and write. Playwrighting, for me, has become literally the reason I get up in the morning.

Babs: Any advice for those that might want to write a play and have it produced?

Alan: Frankly, I’m still learning myself. However, I would say to write a play, one must learn the mechanics of dramatic structure and how to develop compelling characters and dialogue. You must also really love the subject of your play as it may take years to develop. Lastly be persistent and be open to thoughtful critique. I know the surest way to bring your play to the stage is to self-produce. Take the risk yourself rather than ask others. I remember speaking to Stuart Bousel who stated there is no right way to produce a play or be successful in theater.

Babs: Any plugs for anything of yours (or others) coming up?

Alan: Well, certainly We Player’s Ondine. I hope to work front-of-house on the production after the run of Present Tense. Ondine will be spectacularly staged at the Sutro Baths and will not be a show to miss. I would also recommend Patricia Milton’s Enemies: Foreign and Abroad with Central Works Theater. I’m also looking forward to Impact Theater’s Richard III and Piano Fight’s ShortLived.

PRESENT TENSE_Poster_draft 6 (Final)

You can find out more about Present Tense and ticket information at the ACT Costume Shop website. For news on Alan Olejniczak, check out his website at www.alanolejniczak.com.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a SF Bay Area-based playwright with an upcoming reading of her untitled punk play through Just Theater’s New Play Lab on April 28th. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany and now on Facebook.

The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview With Allison Page

Barbara Jwanouskos, helping us catch up, with both Allison and the blog.

Allison and Babs selfie

Allison and Babs selfie

Allison Page and I met over lunch to discuss the upcoming DivaFest production of her play, “Hilarity” directed by Claire Rice. Over quesadillas, we discussed the darkness of comedy and addictions and what it’s like to write something that becomes very taxing. I found it extremely interesting how Allison writes and her process of preparation. She has always been a source of inspiration because of her boldness in her convictions and how she approaches work. As I’m looking to hunker down into my own passion projects, I found learning about the background of the creation of “Hilarity” useful in helping to form my own strategies. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Babs: Can you tell me a little bit about the premise of “Hilarity”?

Allison: “Hilarity” is about a comedian who happens to be a woman who is also an alcoholic. And it’s completely dependent on her best friend who is also her personal assistant. So basically, that’s the person who’s in her world. The only other people that exist are her agent – who is funny, but kind of a coward and non-confrontational – and her mom who flies in once a year and just acts like an asshole. So, it’s about her sort of… I hesitate to say, “trying to get her shit together” because she only tries to get her shit together when someone forces her to get her shit together, but it’s basically about her and her life, which is starting to fall apart. So, it’s a fun romp!

Babs: How did it come to be? How did it start?

Allison: It’s something that I started thinking about 4 years ago, which is a pretty long time for me because I’m used to things happening much more quickly than that. I’ve always been really fascinated with comedians in general. Then I knew more and more of them. And then I became one myself and then I was engaged to one. So they’ve always just sorta been around and been the people I understand best, even though they’re often times – not always – so very conflicted. And I feel like it’s become this stereotype that comedians have some sort of substance abuse problem. But it’s a real thing that happens a shitload.

You know, people like Marc Maron talking about his previous substance abuse problems and how they affected all his relationships with all these other comedians. Anyone who listens to WTF knows that shit gets really complicated and really fascinating. So, I just started thinking about it and jotting some things down. I had met with one person from another theater company about producing it and sort of faded away so I put it away for a while. But I just kinda couldn’t stop thinking about it – which was unique – because I tend to drop things if they don’t happen. Like, who cares, whatever. I’m not precious about stuff that I do. But this was just the one nagging thing in the back of my head that wouldn’t really go away. And so about a year and a half ago, I sent Claire Rice a facebook message like, “Hey! Want to direct a thing maybe nex year?” And I was really vague about it. At that time I had another play that’s not mine – that’s from the thirties – that I considered putting up instead. Like, “well, maybe I’ll just do this thing because this thing I wrote would be harder…”

And then in the end I ended up choosing my thing. But she was was onboard immediately. I asked her, “Would you want to direct this thing next year?” And she was like, “Yep! Whatever you want!” Or I think she actually said, “Anything for you,” which is an embarrassing thing to admit.

We were just going to produce it ourselves, but Claire thought of bringing it to Diva Fest, and she did. They accepted it. And now, that’s why it’s happening.

Babs: Can you tell me about DIVAfest?

Allison: I know that they’ve been around for 14 years. It started as a festival to produce work of female playwrights. It sorta has expanded since then to produce solo work. They have a burlesque show, Diva or Die, and other miscellaneous stuff. And they had sort of a “season”, I guess you could say, before, but now it’s more that throughout the year they just have sprinkled things that they’re doing. So, it’s not that there’s a Diva festival happening in March and I’m part of that with a bunch of other things. There’s just different points that they do stuff. I know they have some things in development – like there’s a big solo show that’s in development. Claire’s worked with them. I think this is her 4th year.

Babs: Over the last four years, you’ve were developing the script and working with Claire-

Allison: Yeah.

Babs: Can you walk me through the steps of development?

Allison: So Claire’s only been onboard for the last year and a half or so. Before that, I would sort of work on it and not work on it and I was really arguing with myself about whether or not I was really going to do it.

Babs: What was the “no” voice saying? What was the difficulty in continuing?

Allison: Well, so… here’s the “Oh no! She almost let a man tell her what to do” situation. So I actually thought of this while I was still with my ex-fiance who’s a comedian.

I remember saying like, “I have this idea for this play and I’m kind of obsessed with it and just thinking about it.” And he was like, “But you can’t write a play…” And I was like, “Why not?” And he said, “Because you don’t write plays.” Okay, fair enough.

But then I did it anyway, but not until three years later. I mean between the time we had that conversation and now with this happening, I’ve written so many more things, which I actually think is good. It kinda prepared me for this a bit more. I don’t think I could have done this right out of the gate at the time. But now, I’ve written tons of stuff – lots of different things that have been able to prepare me.

So that was maybe part of the “no” voice and also, it just feels like… It’s a tough story. Strangely, for whatever reason, a lot of people in the cast have tough times with certain aspects of the script – reading it or watching it, or whatever – because most of us have experiences with people who have drinking problems – friends, relatives, parents who are alcoholics. So, we all have these ties to these people who have these problems and we’ve had to watch it and deal with it and all that stuff. I’m included in that. I’ve been really close to some people with very severe problems. So the complexity of the material is a little scary and that makes it- When I was writing it, it made it hard to work on. I felt like I’ll just go and do something else I was working on that was more fun, that was less draining. So, it would distract me from working on the thing because I was working on something else that was easier.

I certainly am glad I’m doing it. It just took me a long time to feel like I could deal with it all.

Babs: Do you feel comfortable with where it is right now? And is there a sort of future trajectory that you kind of have in mind for it?

Allison: I feel pretty good about where it is now. I think if you had asked me a week and a half ago, I would have been like, “I don’t know, man!”

Doing the re-writes while something is in rehearsal has been incredibly fascinating. I’ve made a lot of changes that I think are good. It’s in a much better place than I think it was a few weeks ago. And I really like it now.

I said that last night after rehearsal when we were done. It’s like ten-something PM and we’re like on this mattress in the middle of the floor – because that’s the set. It’s set on a mattress on the middle of the floor, so I’m just like lying on this mattress and I look up at Claire and I’m like, “Hey, I like this a lot more than I thought I liked it!” So, that’s pretty cool.

And I feel pretty good about where it is. The EXIT Press is publishing it, but I can still make changes after the production. Actually, having a deadline of when they needed to have the script to publish it was really helpful because then I was like, “Now is the time for it be really close to what it’s gonna be.”

I’ve sort of relaxed. I sent the final draft a couple days ago and now I’m like, “Huh, I feel pretty good about that!” I think I feel like I can leave it for now. Maybe I’ll do something to it later, but now I feel like I could leave it.

Babs: Is this the first full-length play that you’ve had produced?

Allison: Yeah, this is the first full-length that I have had produced. You know, exciting and moderately terrifying, I guess. I’m not a person who’s prone to fear, but I really like- And I don’t even know if fear’s the right word, but I’m just feeling a lot of weird stuff. It’s a weird thing that’s happening. And I’m in it. So like, that’s weird. I always have in the back of my head people going, “Oh, she’s in the thing she wrote,” and sort of like rolling their eyes.

Babs: Has that made it challenging – not only as the performer in your own piece – but hearing the other people around you too? Does your “writer brain” go off like, “No, that’s not what I was thinking!”

Allison: No, I don’t really… I’ve really been enjoying disconnecting from it as a writer. It’s been pretty cool. Sam Bertkin, who’s the Assistant Director, was saying after the first few rehearsals, “It’s really interesting to watch you try to interpret your own material.” Because I do feel like I’m doing that. I’m not looking at like “I wrote this.” I’m looking at it like, “what can I do with this? What can I do with that?”

Claire has brought so much to it and I completely trust her drive the direction of what’s going on. I’m also really not precious about the stuff that I’ve written, so if somebody says a line and then says, “I don’t know if that’s exactly how that should be”, I’m like, “Well, what do you think it should be?” You know, I could tell them to fuck off, but they probably are going to be right. But that doesn’t even really happen. There’s been like such minor things.

There’s some really intense fight scenes and I’ve been working on fight choreography. I wrote the fight really specifically in the script, but we’ve messed with it since then. As long as the intent is the same that’s what I care about.

Babs: I feel like I can definitely relate to you on that one. I guess I’m also sort of wondering, though you say you’re not precious about your words and are really interested in being collaborative, are there moments where you were like, “Well, for the sake of where we’re trying to go with this, I have to let go of this part or this scene”. And maybe have an emotional attachment to it that was unexpected? Or if it was something you just thought was funny, but ultimately it didn’t work?

Allison: Not really. Like, I haven’t had to cut a lot stuff I really cared about. There was one thing that I thought I was maybe going to have to cut that I would have been pretty sad about, but I ended up being able to re-arrange it and re-word it and sort of re-think it.

Babs: Do you think it still works in the re-arrangement?

Allison: Yes. It works better now. Before it mostly just, “This is what Allison thinks about this particular topic” and here’s a mild tirade on that completely from Allison’s perspective.” Then I re-worked it and made it fit more with the person who’s saying it and the show as a whole as opposed to it really being me. But that was the only thing.

Because Claire read it and said, “This is the one part where I feel like I don’t know if that should be there.” And then I changed it and she didn’t say that anymore, so either she forgot or it is better now. I think it’s better now. I like it. But that’s just me. It was very specific to comedy. It’s like a comedy tirade.

Babs: Hey, rants are great. I feel like often times when you’re doing playwriting exercises that can be a really good one to sort of jog people and get them going. Like, “have your character go into a rant right now”. Always really interesting…

Allison: It’s a rant about hecklers, which is fun.

Babs:So in writing this, and also in performing in it, I’m making an assumption – partially because I know I do this – that you’re drawing a lot from your own life?

Allison: Yeah, so I always say that Cyd, which is the main character’s name that I’m playing, that she’s like the nightmare version of myself. So, she’s me if I was given the exact wrong opportunities. And I can totally see that I – She’s pretty monstrous, but we all can be that. So she’s the combination of my worst fears about myself and then also my worst fears for the people that I know that have the set of problems she has. I can see how I could have gone down that same road. There’s definitely some real life stuff in there. There’s one male character in the show and some of the things he says, does, the way he is, the fact that he exists at all, is reminiscent of people that I know unfortunately.

Babs: Or even conversations that you’ve had

Allison: Yeah!

Babs: I would imagine that that becomes difficult when you’re inhabiting that character. And how do I make this person different from me because I wrote it? It’s coming from my experience.

Allison: There’s a lot things about her that are not like me, thank god. The toughest parts have been when she’s really vulnerable and when she’s really not doing well. The parts where she’s being really crass and mean and obnoxious – I don’t know, those can be hard sometimes depending on who I’m directing them at because it’s hard to be mean to Heather Kellogg, who’s the nicest person in the world.

But Claire says that we are totally different, but it’s got shadows of me and other people. I mean she is such a nightmare person. I really hope people don’t think of me that way, like “is that what’s going on in there?”

Babs: I have hope for you. So, as you’re talking it sounds like this is much more of a drama than a comedy.

Allison: It’s really dark. The other night we did a scene from it for the DivaFest gala fundraiser that’s the lightest friendliest part of the show. But it’s really brutal. I mean there’s tons and tons and tons of jokes in it, but it’s really really sad. Sam’s way of describing it was as a “cruel play”. I honestly don’t know how people are going to react to the tone of it because it’s so bizarre. Because even when it’s dark the people are still joking about things in order to cope. That’s pretty standard in a drama in some ways – that there’s still laughter intermingled. Especially the second act, which I said yesterday was like an acid bath. So, maybe people will laugh or maybe they’ll just be like, “oh god, this is not okay!”

Babs:
I think it’s always good writing when you’re having characters in the play that have these jokes or they are saying something that they intend as funny and either people within the scene or the audience are like “cringe!”

Allison: There are so many cringy things about this for sure. Any time that Cyd is left alone in her apartment, it’s like the air just get sucked out. She can’t even bear to be there. So it feels awful. There are many things that will hopefully feel awful – that’s a terrible thing to say! But it’s sort of meant to feel that way. But I hope that they laugh at the jokes too. There’s a million jokes in it because it’s a person who speaks primarily in one-liners. Which is also how I write. I write in single sentence responses and I write a lot of jokes. But there sometimes really sad jokes or mean jokes.

Babs: Do you have a favorite line?

Allison: Oh gosh… Okay, so, “You know what else everybody thought was a great idea? Painting watch faces with radium. Everybody’s happy until Betty’s face starts melting off.

Babs: Shifting gears a little bit, do you have any thoughts or advice, words of wisdom, not only if you’re a playwright and you’re thinking about how to produce your work?

Allison: Get a director that you trust. It would be such a nightmare if I didn’t have a director that I really trusted. I mean I wrote it and handed it to her and then she takes it. I’m still there and if in rehearsal someone asks a question specifically about the writing or has a question for me specifically as a playwright, but I kind of look to Claire first. And 95% of the time, she takes all questions about anything and I only chip in if they really want me to. I just feel like that separation is important. Also, because I’m in it so I don’t want it to feel like, “Well, I wrote this and the only reason someone else is directing it is because I can’t do it myself because that would be three things.” That’s not why she’s directing it. I asked her to direct it because I felt like she was the right person for the job. There was never anyone else I thought was right for the job. Definitely not me. So, I guess that’s my biggest advice – get a director that you believe in that understands what you’re doing.

Babs: Any thoughts about the writing process? Anything that helps you out?

Allison: Mostly I spend my time trying to trick myself into writing. So I set standards like “I’m going to write for 45 minutes”. Then take a break or whatever. But also because the writing was so hard, it was nice to take breaks and write something that was lighter. So, I just had to pace myself because sometimes it was a slog. Or sometimes I can’t write in my apartment, like the walls are closing in on me, so I go some place else or I meet up with other people that are doing the same thing and we write at the same time and sometimes we take really long breaks where we’re talking and drinking coffee.

I’m also fascinated by other people’s processes, I don’t know how others do it – and this is going to sound more impressive than it actually is – but there’s basically seven drafts of this. But to call them full drafts isn’t really genuine because sometimes not a lot has changed. So the first two times- So, I wrote up the whole thing and then side by side, I had another document and typed up the whole thing. So, the first draft to second draft are really different because I was re-typing up the whole thing. That meant anytime I had to type up a word, I had to really think if I wanted that word. That for me was really useful, but obviously a huge pain in the ass because it takes a really long time. I feel like it was worth it though.

Or like in the first one I didn’t worry about the formatting and then fixed that in the second one. I did have some interesting experiences with “locked pages”. Have you ever locked pages when you’re writing something?

Babs: No, what’s that?

Allison: It’s tough. It makes sense when you’re in rehearsal with something. Do you use Final Draft?

Babs: Yeah.

Allison: So, there’s several things in Final Draft that I never use that are really useful. Like in rehearsal you don’t want to print off the whole document again because the pages will change, so instead of that, with this feature, it locks the page number and adds an A, B, and so on after the number and you insert that into the existing scripts. But due to some inconsistencies in something, or my computer or whatever, Linda Huang, our amazing Stage Manager, had to spend hours printing pages with my computer. And we made the decision together so we just had to live with the consequences.

It also took me a really long time to write the end because I didn’t want to put a pretty ribbon on it, but it took a while to figure out what that was. Because in the end I want people to get what they want, but that doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s not always best for you.

Babs: Any last thoughts? Plugs?

Allison: It’s been a shock how great the project has been. People have been really supportive, which puts some pressure on. It’s tough to make something. Writing and now all these other people and all these working parts added into it, which creates more possibility that people will disagree. But that really hasn’t happened. I don’t know how. It’s been so harmonious. Claire said, “it’s been going so well it’s kinda freaking me out a little. Like am I going to get to opening night and go – I did everything wrong!” But I kinda don’t think that’s going to happen.

And if it does, I guess I don’t really give a fuck. I got exactly what I wanted. I did it how I wanted to do it with the people I wanted to work with.

Babs: It’s also not necessarily the end because it’s a play and a play lives on.

Allison: Yeah. Will it be? I don’t know. I kinda can’t imagine anyone else wanting to go through that, but you never know. It is fun. But it’s a part that’s a lot. I’d love to see someone else do it though, I’d watch the shit out of that.

The cast of "Hilarity" courtesy of Claire Rice.

The cast of “Hilarity” courtesy of Claire Rice.

For more of Allison Page’s “Hilarity”, check out http://www.theexit.org/divafest/2014/12/15/hilarity/. The show runs from March 5 through 28 at the EXIT Studio. Tickets are available at http://hilarity.bpt.me/. For more of Allison Page, follow her on twitter @AllisonLynnPage or her bi-weekly column on the SF Theater Pub blog, “Everything is Already Something”.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay-Area based writer. Follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Everything Is Already Something Week 50: Why Isn’t It Just Funny?

Allison Page gets serious. And anxious. And anxious about being serious.

“Wh…what did you think?”, I stammer.
“Why wasn’t it just funny? It should have just been funny.”, says a faceless man, walking away from where I stand, leaving me in front of a grungy set, holding a beer. Then the floor opens up and I drop into a lava pit and am quickly enveloped in a sea of hot melty fire sludge. And then maybe a pterodactyl flies by or something.

This is what my brain makes up when I start thinking about what other people’s reactions to my first full length production as a playwright will be. The fact that I missed writing my last blog – which is the only time that has EVER happened in the last two years – should tell you how deep I am into this show. And let’s be clear about one thing – it is going fantastically well. Rehearsals are these great revelatory experiences, mostly because the director (Claire Rice) is the exact right fit for this play. She asks the right questions and that’s a biggie.

But I have this…thing hanging over me. And I sincerely doubt it’s unique. It’s also sort of narcissistic and I totally recognize that. It’s that thing where people get used to you doing a certain thing or being a certain way and then you deviate from the path in some manner and have no idea if that’s going to be a plus or a minus to people. Yeah, okay, I usually write comedy. I know that. And yes, this play has a title that makes it sound like a comedy. But it is really dark. The assistant director referred to it as “cruel” which it definitely is at times. This is especially true of the main character, who – SPOILER ALERT – is played by me. So yeah, now I’m that guy. I’m in a thing I wrote. Now, I don’t tend to write things for myself. Actually, I’ve never done it before. This is the first time. It’s a unique project and I don’t see writing lots of things for myself in the future. But it certainly is extra pressure on me. Then, naturally, my brain goes “God, what are people going to think of THAT?”

The Number 23 has an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in case anyone was wondering.

The Number 23 has an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in case anyone was wondering.

I could think about this stuff all day. I mean, I’d go crazy doing it, but I could do it. They’re all self-inflicted issues mostly based on what I would think if I knew someone who wasn’t me who was doing the same thing I’m doing. Ya know, because I’m a judgmental jerk and kind of a lunatic. Taking ownership of this project and saying “If people don’t like it, that’s okay.” is hard. But totally necessary. I’m making it not because I think it’s for everyone and that they’ll love it and lose their minds. I’m making it because I couldn’t let it go. It’s been brewing for 4 years in my brain, and at some point I just figured that I had to find a way to make it happen because otherwise I’ll be forever bitter at myself for not doing it. It just stuck with me like nothing else has, and I have to think that’s because I need to do it.

53%...slightly better, anyway!

53%…slightly better, anyway!

When I try to think about who I think this show is FOR – like what kind of audience is the best kind of audience for this play – I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I have this nagging feeling that any critics who have liked me up to this point are not likely to approve of this show. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m right. Either way it doesn’t really matter, I’m going to do what I’m doing because it feels necessary. And yeah, the narcissistic part is thinking that anyone, anywhere gives a shit if I deviate from a perceived norm. Because that means I think someone is actually paying enough attention to make the assumption that I only work on certain types of material.

*snake eats its own tail AGAIN*

I’m not a sensitive person, but this thing is bringing weird stuff out of me. I’m trying to stay even and calm because that’s my preferred state of mind, but I can’t help but feel I’m taking some kind of risk – which is important, right? Otherwise WHAT ARE WE ALL DOING?!

80% - hey, that's pretty good! Actually, I give this movie my own 100%, and I think Patton Oswalt is brilliant in it.

80% – hey, that’s pretty good! Actually, I give this movie my own 100%, and I think Patton Oswalt is brilliant in it.

Oh boy. What a mess this blog is. Also, I make no comparisons between me and Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, or Patton Oswalt. Just…so we’re clear. Back to revisions and memorizing. And then trying not to sweat it, and sweating it anyway.

You can catch Allison Page in her DIVAfest-produced HILARITY at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco, opening March 5th.

The Real World, Theater Edition: The Proposal

Barbara Jwanouskos, with her first blog of 2015.

It’s the first full week end of the new year, and probably, a lot of people headed back to regularly scheduled work hours, including myself. On the blog, we’ve all been talking about how 2014 was momentous in many ways, but frankly kicked our asses in others. And as Ashley alluded to Wednesday, at our semi-annual TPub blogger meeting in December, we talked about setting a theme of down-time and balance for January. I personally could relate to the tech week haze that she compared it to in her column.The end of last year and beginning of this has been a series of last minute, last chance, better-late-than-never attempts to get things together in my life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this column, how it relates to the others, and where I fit in. How does the content I provide balance out with the other bloggers? One thing I started to incorporate last year was a series of interviews with local theater makers, but the difference from general artist interviews anywhere I wanted to present was that these should be interviews specifically about the art and craft of writing and creating new work. So, not to take thunder from Adam Szymkowicz and his wonderful series that everyone should read, I Interview Playwrights, but I wanted to take my own stab at finding out what is at the heart of creative process and how does it manifest?

So, here’s my proposal to you. It’s a new year, so that means new beginnings. What if I were to shift this column to incorporate more local theater artist interviews? Can I get a slow clap!?

Thank you, Jean-Luc. Thank you.

Thank you, Jean-Luc. Thank you.

With this (semi) new endeavor, we’ll get to hear from people all around the Bay making theater. I’d like to spread far and wide. Get to know people and companies and new work I don’t know about. Learn more about what they do to build a performance, where are the challenges, where are they able to keep hopeful?

So, please! If you’d like to send me to interview you or someone you think is making great work, please get in contact with us. I would prefer not to share my personal email on the blog, but you can tweet at me @bjwany or send me a message in the comments section. I might not be able to do them all in the timeframe you’d like since I’ll have a list of folks scheduled I’m working from too, but I would love to hear from about who you’d like to know more about!

Thank you and more interviews soon!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright and member of Just Theater’s 2014-15 New Play Lab. Find her on twitter @bjwany.

The Real World, Theater Edition: A Conversation with True Heroes, Sean San José and Donald Lacy

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Sean San José and Donald Lacy.

I sat down with Sean San José and Donald Lacy about “Superheroes” to talk about the newest Campo Santo show, “Superheroes” written and directed by Sean San José and featuring Donald Lacy. “Superheroes” is a poetic look at the crack epidemic by using the research of Gary Webb and the real lives of people affected by this drug, and how the government is implicated in the utter decimation of black and brown communities that still continues to this day in policies and procedures regarding racial profiling, police and government misconduct, the prison industrial complex, not to mention the thousands of families that have been destroyed by it.

I am completely biased since I learned how to be in theater from Campo Santo. Their productions have always stood out as able to probe deep into societal injustices and present them in a way – along with the stories of real people and experiences – to create something incredibly moving and powerful. I talked to Sean and Donald about the process of creating this work, lessons learned along the way, and artists who have been heroes to us over time.

This conversation was especially poignant to me considering my time spent learning from people who I consider to be some of my most staunch mentors and advocates. To have a conversation with my own personal heroes describe their heroes in turn was an incredible experience. The transcript of our conversation follows.

BABS: I was curious about your process for creating “Superheroes” and connected to that what does it mean to be a Campo Santo production – Is that a kind of style, a philosophy, an approach or aesthetic? And then how does Cutting Ball get wrapped into the development process and why were they the right partner?

SSJ: Those are great questions, Barb. I think starting with the last one and I could probably handle this one. I guess to go backwards a little bit, this was an idea that was really a matter of the world speaking loudly enough and I felt like even without the wherewithal, the tools even, or the story, it was something I had to respond to. I feel like in some way all my stuff that I’m really interested in doing at the end of the day responds in some way to the two epidemics: AIDS and crack.

The funny thing, or the difficult thing, with crack is that maybe it’s too close or maybe I’ve tricked myself well enough like the rest of the country has, to not deal with it in a direct way. So I’ve always felt there was something in there and I think the media’s taken to it so fully, it’s hard to even decipher real life and, sort of, cartoon life. In other words, The Wire, passes as not like a good piece of TV, but somehow passes as very similar to like a version of journalism, which is not anything against The Wire, which I’m a fan of, but it brings a question to me of what does that say about our journalism or lack thereof any longer in the United States. And more than that, what does it say about us as a country responding to an epidemic that we’re living and dying through. So all that to say – I had never had an idea to do this.

I went out to Oakland when Donald was doing a live remote at the Jahva House when the Wiggins brothers used to have that place over there off the lake in Oakland and I was just going because Donald’s show, you know, like me, Barb, big fans of the show, just because it’s a great show and then to see it live was interesting. Gary Webb was on that particular day and he did probably 30-45 minutes-

D.LACY: 52.

SSJ: Yeah, a good healthy discussion with Donald. I had read one of the articles and then I had the book and so that was really deep in my head – like deep layered in me. Hearing him speak and the way – the combination of Donald speaking with him unconsciously sort of set the idea for the piece. It took me a long time to get to it. But, what it did was it gave you the facts and then it gave you a living sort of aftermath. So the facts are Gary Webb and then Donald responding as an active, civic member of the society, saying, “Well, yes… And still, and yet, here we are dealing with it all”.

There’s something about watching Gary Webb do it that sparked an idea to do it. It’s this weird thing again about journalism, about truth-telling, is that it took someone objectively speaking on it and just laying out the facts and the story – not that he was not vested in it, but he was not impassioned in it in the same way that maybe Donald or I might be. Hearing it that way- it was done with quietude, but an integrity, that actually made it starker – the facts of it, if that makes sense.

When I read it, someone had passed the article – the two articles – around. And all we- it was like inflammatory. I bet the article got ripped up by the third person who it got passed to. So you just go… Or, me, I just go from zero to one thousand when I read those facts. It’s so upsetting. It’s so… incendiary. And then hearing Gary Webb, this Pulitzer Prize winning journalist just lay it out and he just was… So that there could be no time to sort of filibuster like they do to us all the time and sorta say, “Well, that’s because you did that” and “You’re interested.” “Your vested interests this that and the other…” It was a guy that said, “You know, I’m not from here. I had no – I didn’t even set out to tell this tale. I did what a journalist does. I followed the trail and I uncovered the facts.”

So hearing that in sort of the context of “Wake Up Everybody” show, sort of laid it all out. But I didn’t know that at the time. At the time, I just said to Donald after the show, “We gotta tell this story on stage” because, you know, like us, all three of us, that’s what we do, we tell stories on stage. But in getting involved in doing that, it took a long time to realize on a practical level, it’s really hard to do. There’s a lot of facts. It’s really hard to follow. But the more I spent time with it, the more I realized what Gary Webb had done was a reality. It was facts. It was published. It was confirmed, so what would I be doing by re-telling a version of this story? And what I realized was, what stuck with me was this story that given this reality, this confirmation of this horror, we were still living in it. Yet, we as a society hadn’t responded to it, so that’s what it became about. So, it’s really less about showing that connection, but showing what has happened since that connection.

And you know, I had a very early – I wouldn’t even call it a draft. I had a series of images and pages, as I often do, and I read it like solo for Donald and we got really deep in it and Donald is probably one of the bigger champions of Gary Webb, but interestingly Donald’s response – and this really broke it open – was now we have to show the lives that have been lost through this. Not the lives that are told in the Dark Alliance book that should be accounted for, but the lives that were surrounded by it. The spirits, the ghosts of the people that have lost, or the people struggling still, and that sort of cracked it open. It was like, oh right, it’s not “Dark Alliance – The Play”, it’s a response to the facts of Dark Alliance and us living in the aftermath of it.

So that’s a long way of saying that’s how all that happened. But that’s really how all of the things happen, right? Meaning that it’s a mixtured response of responding to the world around us and this just happened to be heavily weighted because it has really direct geo-political connections to it, like these massive, horrible, nefarious – all these words that you would never use in everyday life – are now come to light because of this horrible truth that he’s revealed. And I think that makes it a Campo Santo show in that way. In that we set out to tell some of the many untold stories and always try to be reflective of the world we live in. And what could be more reflective of the world we live in than responding to two epidemics we’re living through?

What was very interesting about getting together with Cutting Ball is that it was never something like I pitched or something. I had this thing in the cut. Me and Donald heard it. And that was about it. You know, that was kinda it. It took me a long time. It wasn’t even like, “Here’s the next Campo Santo play. Llet’s develop this.” It was more just something that ate at me a lot. This idea that we, as a society, hadn’t responded to it yet, and I needed to find a way for myself spiritually, personally, to respond in some way to the epidemic of crack.

And then Rob Melose had asked me. He said, “Do you want to do something here?” And I was like, “Yeah, no.” Meaning “Yeah, I do,” but “No, I don’t really know how to do things like their plays.”

D.LACY: Perfect place, right?

SSJ: I love the boldness. I love their experimentation. I love that integrity they have, but it’s not a thing that my tools set is like, “Number one, two, three,” so I was like, “Not really, to be honest. Yes, I want to do something with you guys, but I don’t know what that would be because we only do new things.” And he was like, “Well, what new thing?” And then I just sort of thought, “Well, why do something that’s sort of like midstream in development with Campo Santo. Here’s this thing.”

And it was actually Ben Fisher… I was like Ben “What do you think? Would this be interesting?” And he was like, “I think it would be the time and the place to have someone else sort of take it on”. And then when we all got over here, it just became- it was too… it would be as if, you know… Something else was at work, you know. That we’re doing a play responding to the daily lives of the crack epidemic and we’re on Taylor Street right here and so if we as a group say, “We’re trying to put the audience to the test, to the task of dealing with this,” we have to do that every single day we walk to rehearsal. It’s really right out the door every day. So that’s was a beautiful and real thing that had to happen and that’s how it happened, but Donald’s really kind of the heart of the thing.

D.LACY: Sure, buddy. You know something, man? I just realized something.

SSJ: Say what now.

D. LACY: I just realized from 2004 to when the piece was conceived in 2006. When we went up to the trees and when we did Hamlet about the crack shit that was all the-

SSJ: Yeah! I agree.

D. LACY: -that was all the grist for your mill-

SSJ: I agree.

D. LACY: To get to them spirits. I just- It had never occurred to me. We were subconsciously doing a part of this story then through that whole Hamlet process.

SSJ: Yeah, pretty much.

BABS: That’s so interesting.

D. LACY: And then hearing about Dr. Pamela and all the- And it just hit me. Wow! We were in this back then and didn’t even know it.

SSJ: Yeah, yeah. And the fact that one point after- This just sort of nerd stuff…

BABS: No, that’s what- We can… So just so you know too about the… I will print all of the worlds, not like editing it down. All of them.

D. LACY: Oh, shit!

BABS: So it really is just like a- We can go as-

D. LACY: Well, in that case tell that mothafucka I want my money!

SSJ: Yeah, I heard that. No, but after we did Blood in the Brain, I was talking with Naomi Iizuka and I was just so… You know. You come out of a project and you immediately want to stay coupled with those people. And I think for us a lot of times, I think it’s like – especially when we work with writers – like, as one is starting to hit its zenith my producer/development brain is always like, “Let’s do the next one!” I get so excited working with these people, you know, I was like, “We have to do something, Naomi. We have to do something and she was like, “Yeah.” You know, Naomi’s so cool and so down.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: She was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “I’m sort of sifting through a bunch of stories now. Why don’t you throw something at me.” You know, because we worked together in a really cool way on Blood in the Brain. That was really very instrumental in the way I tell stories and the way I collaborate with people. The way she both empowered me and collaborated with me throughout, but then I was like, “Yeah…”

There was this one book that she and I had always liked a lot and we were like, “Maybe we should do that book…” And then I said, “Hey, there’s this thing I’m really trippin on. This Dark Alliance. It’s based on this. And, you know, out of a series of six, she was like, “Those are really interesting”. She goes, “You know that thing about the CIA thing…” She was like, “that’s the one,” but she was like, “But I can’t do that. We just did Blood in the Brain. I can’t… Like that was hard enough to enter a world that’s not my world and that doesn’t feel like solid ground for me. Let’s think of another thing.”

BABS: Interesting.

SSJ: And so I was like, “Okay,” and then it made a lot of sense to me and I was like, “Okay, okay, that makes sense. I’ll just kinda mess with this on my own.” It was sort of a further… It ended up being a helpful step. But it was further for me to go, “Oh, okay, I’ll pull this one back to my desk and just kinda poke at it and see what comes out.”

BABS: That is interesting, just to hear the- you know, how Naomi informed your process too.

SSJ: Yeah, I mean Naomi did a great thing when we did Blood in the Brain. I mean a lot of times we would just riff on – She’s so smart so it’s like kinda once in a lifetime type stuff, but she would say, “What would two people say in a situation that’s like this?” So she would sorta set the stakes for you, and I could like put it in the context of what we were dealing with.

I think what Donald said was right. That was almost like either sharpening the tools or however you want to say it. Sowing the seeds to get closer to this thing. I think what was helpful for that, you know an interesting process in that Blood in the Brain was that we were taking something that seemed so, for me, in a lot of ways, out of reach and really kind of disconnected. In that we were sort of taking themes from Hamlet and placing them in a world that we – me, Donald, Tommy, and-

BABS: Ryan, Ricky…

SSJ: Yeah, Rick and Ryan and others and Margo, of course, were dealing with in the play. And Joy Meads, that was the big key in that one, connecting to the real world. But the idea that you could take big themes – I still think we have this idea that “big themes” are for “big theaters” or for “white theaters” or there’s “white themes” and we have “different themes” or our themes are “different” and they’re “smaller”, and subsequently- but obviously that’s not true.

And there was something great in that process of Blood in the Brain is that we were taking- I mean we were actually taking the themes from Shakespeare, regarded the greatest dramatic writer there is, taking that and placing him in our world. And in doing so, it gives you a sense of the scale of your lives, of people’s lives. You go, “Right, we struggle. We love. We fight. We wonder. We wrestle with the same – not only the same issues, but the same scale. The same urgency. The same need.”

And I know that sounds a little simplistic, especially for a group like Campo Santo or whatever. We’ve been doing this since 1996 so we understand the need and obviously the nobility in our people’s stories, but that was a different kind of affirmation, I think. I think because it was something so close to the world for me. Like, “Well, describe East 14th Street,” and you know. That kind of – now I think it’s very in vogue in the theater world to say like, “we’re doing a documentary play.” I don’t even know what the fuck that means really, to tell you the truth. Like, what do you mean you’re doing a “documentary play”? I don’t know what that is. I think there’s journalism and then there are performances. And I don’t see how there’s like a – what is that – I don’t see how there’s a- I don’t know. What does that mean? You know what I mean?

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: If the great August Wilson is a documentary playwright, then none of us are. Because he wrote the rhythms and the tales of the people, so like if that doesn’t count, then nothing does. And if he counts, then everyone counts. Because everything falls underneath him in a way. I mean obviously there’s other great writers, but…

BABS: Yeah, right?

SSJ: You got August Wilson. You got Caryl Churchill, and the rest of us are just playing.

I say all that to say though, you know, the idea that literally our blocks could then be on the stage. In a certain sense Hamlet, or what we did, Blood in the Brain was a mixture of that. That sort of alchemy of going like, “There’s this and there’s that. And this is how it lives in the world,” that lets us see our world, but in a different scope or with a different view finder. And that was really cool. I mean, it was beautiful and it was hard. Hard, meaning the struggle of our peoples and our neighborhoods is hard sometimes, but it’s also very beautiful. That would in particular was a response to the violence in our neighborhoods, and that’s really hard, you know…

So, you know, it’s really interesting that Donald brings that up because he’s exactly right. It was totally unconscious. It’s why…

BABS: I felt it.

SSJ: Yeah! It’s why you get to do the stories you do as long as you do. Some stuff stays in the front of your brain and some stuff just melts right into your skin. And Naomi Iizuka’s like, she’s one of my heroes. Everything I’ve done with Naomi… yeah, it’s like melted into me, so I maybe don’t put that at the forefront of my brain like, “We’re going to do Dark Alliance like we did Blood in the Brain.” No, I never thought of it like that at all.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: But there’s certainly something to that. She does this thing. She taught me a lesson a long time ago.

The great Luis Saguar was writing his play, his masterpiece, Hotel Angulo, and he would dictate sometimes and I would write. He was just a natural born great storyteller. So, I knew what he was writing as he was writing it, and by the time he’d compiled say 25 pages of this stuff, he was like, “I’m going to give it to Naomi Iizuka and another writer friend of ours.”

And I was like, “Uh… Okay… You sure? Don’t you want to finish it? Or get a draft or something like that?” He was like, “No, I wanna see what I have. I love them. I trust their opinion.” You know, I was like- it obviously hadn’t- it wasn’t telling it’s full tale, but the heart was in there.

And I had this sort of, you know, this brainy, dumb idea, and I was like, “Hey, why don’t you think of it as not a big night of theater and maybe it’s a smaller refractions. Think of it as kind of a quartet thing.” He was a little bit like, “Yeah, that’s not what I’m thinking. That’s not what I see. So, I’m gonna see what this story is.” And I was like, “Eh, I don’t know… I really don’t-” And you know, that was my big brother. He is my big brother. I wasn’t being critical. I was just being like what I felt like is a real collaborator, to say-

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: -here’s my opinion. The same way I that I would offer to Dennis Johnson. Not because I think I’m so smart, but because I’m in the lab with those people. And… You know, he was very sure. He said, “nah”. That’s it. “Nah” meaning like- “Nah” not “no, you’re wrong”, but “no, that’s not what I see, so I’m not going to write that”. And I was like, “Yeah, I just don’t think – It’s not forming a story, B.” He was like, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”

And Naomi read it and I was like, “Well, what’d she say?” He was… I was like, “Naomi, don’t you think he should make more like collage-like or more… It doesn’t have the shape to hold up to like play like that.” She was like, “I think the storytelling is so from the heart and so real that it should dictate its own form. And it should just be that. He should just continue writing that.” And I was like, “O-Okay…” You know I still- I heard what she was saying, but maybe I didn’t see it on the paper when Luis was writing it.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: But he took that and he was like, “Yeah! See? That’s what I want to do. I want to follow whatever it is that’s in me.” And that’s- I mean, what a lesson. That’s the lesson, like follow the real shape even if you don’t know where it’s headed. If it’s true enough and strong enough in you, it’s gonna tell you. It’s gonna inform you.

And sure enough, that’s… I have no hyperbole when I say that’s a masterpiece that he wrote. A transcendent piece that sticks with me almost every day of my life. Like, I’ll hear a word or a line or a motion from that thing that just… that kills me and it’s because of the fullness of his theatrical storytelling, which he didn’t- he knew, but he didn’t have it sort of stated out and she knew that. She’s just a genius like that. She knows that part. She knows that the truest, greatest structure is the one that the story is as opposed to- She never said no obvious shit like, “Well, if we’re going to follow this guy, Mike, we gotta like him and when he kills his best friend, that might not be the best thing.” She said, “You have to follow the thing and let the thing be the thing.” And sure enough, we did a bunch of passes on that thing, and it became one of the most eye-opening – very structured – non-structured thing.

And I say all that to say, Barb, that with this. It never- I knew that again. Naomi’s sort of lessons, Luis’s lessons are melted inside of me where I don’t even think like, “Here’s my Robert McKee and-

BABS: Right?!

SSJ: “And I’m gonna look at this before I start it.” I just start guttin-

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: And just put it out. There wasn’t a part where I said, “Well, if you follow these two guys, maybe you should just follow these two guys.” Then the voices just start talking. Then you just start putting it out. Then you can start to shape it. And there was something must have been in me that still remembers that conversation with Naomi about Luis’s piece that just like whatever the story’s gonna be, it’s gonna tell you at a certain point.

And I feel really great about… Great and true. Like, I think what this does is true to, at least my experience, of trying to take all this stuff in – not just Gary Webb stuff, but like walking around the street and the experience of being almost thirty years later and sort of looking back at this broken refraction of what it used to be and what it could be and yet, in a lot of ways, is still there. So, I feel like all those jagged pieces find their way into this storytelling that way.

So, certainly not a play. Certainly not linear. But, you know, structured in the same way that your experience or your memory or a haunting does that to you. Like, I don’t sit down and be like, “Yeah, Imma be haunted by my partner that got shot at the Grand Auto. Yeah, I want to write about that haunting.” That shit just happens, you know. Those hauntings just happen. I think about Donald’s daughter a lot, but I couldn’t consciously – nor would I have the sort of hubris to go like, “yeah, I’m gonna write something that sort of responds to that.” I can’t do that. I can feel my feelings, then see where the spirits…

This one has taken on that sort of ability – not ability, but openness to sort of saying, okay, now let- If we’re trying to unearth something, then whatever you unearth is going to talk back to you also. It sounds a little frou-frou and hippy dippy, but it’s- Hey man, that’s how it got written, you know what I mean, so-

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: I don’t know what to say there.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: And, I wouldn’t say that- Say we set out to do another that I lead in this way with the pen, I don’t think I would necessarily set out to do it that way. It’s the subject matter that did that.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: Yeah, let’s hear Lacy! I keep talking too much. Come on, playa, spit! Give us some jewels before we cut!

D. LACY: Nah, I just-

SSJ: Give us some jewels! Put that in the text there, Barb!

BABS: I will!

D. LACY: I just realized-

SSJ: We want the jewels!!

D. LACY: I’m abouts to give ‘em to you. If you just- It’s just amazing that 8-9 years later since we did Blood in the Brain that how that was the tilling of the soil, if you will, for this piece. The whole workshops at Santa Barbara, the whole talking to the kingpin of the heroin trade, the whole everything. And how that’s where really… Sean’s “eggs” were fertilized, if you will, and the baby was conceived.

And I really feel that strongly because the first thing we did in preparation for that was we went up to the Children’s Memorial Grove where they have trees for my daughter. We took Naomi. It was me, Sean, who else was with us? It was one other person. But it was the three of us for sure-

SSJ: No, and Joy.

D. LACY: And Joy, that’s right.

SSJ: The beautiful Joy Mead.

D. LACY: Joy Mead, that’s who it was.

SSJ: Yep, that was… You’re right!

D. LACY: That was where the baby was conceived, not born, conceived. We meditated up there, prayed a little bit, and it’s Sean said something that I’ll never forget. He said, “This is something so tragically beautiful.” And that’s the apt description.

And I call that place, “Halfway to Heaven”. There’s a lot of spirits there – because it’s only children 18 and under who have been murdered in Alameda County. There’s babies in there – four months old. When we looked at the plaque and we read all the names of the kids. There was a couple- They were murdered. There’s a four month only baby in there. I don’t remember his or her name.

But relating to Sean what saying about channeling spirits, he really isn’t so much a writer, to me, of this piece, as he is a vessel. And he’s letting the spirits of the grave injustice be heard, you know. And did it so brilliantly by using the circumstance of what the late great Gary Webb unveiled. But taking the top of it, much in the way – As I was listening to him say about Hotel Angulo like how Luis did. He opened up this world of heroin. “Okay, this is what it looks like.” He just took us in that dirty, grimy, nasty, filthy, beautiful… all the layers of that world and this is what Sean has created with this piece. You see the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between that this insidious monster of a drug created and how-

I was talking about it on the radio yesterday and someone called in and said, “Yeah, but you gotta tell people, it’s uplifting! Even though it was fucked up-” – he didn’t say it on the air-

SSJ: Right.

D. LACY: He said, “I saw it and even though it was fucked up, at the end I felt uplifted. Like I wanted to do something or there’s gotta be hope.” And he said that thing about the children really struck him. “Not seeing children in the park”. He said, “Man, we gotta do something!” So, I thought, “Okay, wow!” If you can get just one person to have that mentality, that’s a major victory.

And Myers [Clark, one of the other actors in the cast] said something in the circle about a week or so ago that has become – I mean, as it was already, but it just reinforced it for me – he said, “We’re changing lives every night with this piece.” And it was just like BANG! The bells! For whom the bell tolls. I was just like, “Wow, that’s what we’re doing! We’re changing lives. We’re changing consciousness. We’re changing minds. We’re changing hearts. All of that.” You know, so…

Man, you know I can honestly say – I love Sean to death, I mean he’s my brother – but he’s a genius. I know he’s very humble and he hates people to talk about him, but I’m still learning this play! Every night it teaches me something. I tell all those younger actors since I’m the senior, especially Ricky [Saenz], “Don’t settle.” I tell Britney [Frazer], “Don’t settle. Keep digging, we’re not even there yet.” And then Juan’s been doing the same thing.

And it’s like, every night as an ensemble, this play teaches us something new and wonderful and amazing. And I can honestly say, it’s going like this [He indicates growth], we haven’t went back. We had one false start in the early preview because of whatever, but since then it just keeps going. And every night I say to myself backstage, “I don’t think I can do – or we can do – it any better than that!” And then the next night, we go someplace, totally fucking different! So, I’m not even going to say that to myself anymore. I’m not gonna put it in ether. I’m gonna just jump in this boat and… [sings] “sail on honey!”

Cuz this is an amazing experience. Just from the feedback I got from people I know and respect who’ve been seeing me on stage my whole life and telling me things and impressions of this piece and what it did to them. How it put their stomach in knots, how it made them hate the US government, how they want justice, how sad it was, how it made them think of their cousin who ODed. I mean, and this is the kind of stuff I’m receiving, and it’s all valid. I haven’t had one person say, “Critics be damned,” you know. I haven’t had one person say they weren’t affected by it, and that’s incredible.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: It’s definitely power of the people though, right, Barb?

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: Because you commune in a room like this-

D. LACY: Yeah.

SSJ: And if you come true with it enough and if the topic is relevant enough to the world, then it takes care of itself.

D. LACY/BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: I mean the performance of it is great. Cutting Ball, they’re bold. They’re experimental by mission and by integrity.

D. LACY: Right.

SSJ: Campo Santo, you know, I’m sorry, man, but they’re just the best.

D. LACY: The illest!

SSJ: They’re the best actors. They have great techs.

D. LACY: And all the other acting community knows it.

SSJ: But see, the shows are always – and I say this, not sort of arrogantly, but just because you put good people together, they’re good.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: But the specialness comes from putting it in the atmosphere.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: And if it’s deep enough and it’s real enough-

D. LACY: That’s it.

SSJ: -then, you will affect. You know, I think Donald’s right, that word, “consciousness”. I don’t think we’re not masters, we’re vessels in that sense in that we’re able to help bring about a new thought or have it surface. People think these things. We’re not the only ones who think these thoughts, but you see it manifested before you and you go, “Oh yeah!”

A guy said last week in the talkback – here’s where it gets deep, when you don’t talk about the play. He said, “Look, all I want to know, is given this is our government, what are we going to do? I’m not asking you [the actors], I’m asking you!” And he points to everyone sitting here [the audience], all fifty, selling out.

D. LACY: Right, right, that’s my boy.

SSJ: And he says, “What are we gonna do?” And that’s not a “Q&A” question.

BABS: Yeah.

SSJ: That’s when you go, “Yeah, great.” That’s why you worked the time and worked to get the timing down to make this that and the other. And you edit it here because you have experience where you can put it in the atmosphere in a room like this and Donald’s right, one person says it.

D. LACY: Then most people have been saying. And the thing that I’m getting is that it’s hitting people viscerally. And I don’t know-

BABS: Oh, yeah, I still feel it.

D. LACY: Yeah! So, I should ask you, what was it like for you?

BABS: I mean, to piggyback off what you’re saying and what we’ve all been talking about is that, I, you know, I’ve been following the news about Intersection and Campo Santo and stuff and I was like, “how is this gonna be possible again”, you know?

SSJ/D. LACY: Right.

BABS: Like, is it going to be possible? And I think this did it. To have that- When I came in – The first show I came in was when I met you [acknowledging Donald] and obviously-

Donald: So, I brought you in, huh? I jumped her in the gang.

SSJ: Well-

Donald: You can print that!

BABS: Well, UCSB that’s when I met Sean-

SSJ: Yeah, don’t be trying-

D. LACY: I’m taking credit!

SSJ: Anyone who’s dope, Lacy’s always like “Well, actually…”

D. LACY: Yeah, I brought her in, yeah!

SSJ: Shoot!

D. LACY: Right or wrong, Barbara?! And she’s in Lovelife, so there.

SSJ: Don’t you be cutting. I remember the first time we were down at Santa Barbara, Barb was like-

BABS: I was doing this [indicating recording discussion], wasn’t I?

SSJ: This how we met Barbara – She was sitting in the middle of the fucking floor with the recorder, with the mike-

BABS: Yeah, just trying to get everybody recorded.

SSJ: Yeah, man!

D. LACY: That was where they had the great shut-out conspiracy. They wouldn’t let me run, but anyway. I’ll just say this before I gotta go. I really hope and pray that this play lives forever. I think everybody needs to see this. The non-believers as well as the believers.

I mean tonight was probably the most choir members we ever had. A lot of the people here know the story and are pro-justice and I don’t think we’ve ever had that many in one audience. There was at least- I can count the ones I know and it’s at least twelve off the top of my head. And that’s why the play went to a whole different place because “mmhmm, that’s right, tell it! Yeah!” You know, and all that it was like preaching to the choir, but this is to the choir and the non-believers.

So, I’m hoping that it has a long shelf life and it can continue to be seen til like Sean referred to the gentleman that said, “well, what are we gonna do?” and keep raising that question. As long as there is breath in my body, Imma be saying it on the radio that the US needs to be held accountable for this bullshit. You know and if this play or any play can still make that point, it’s the greatest story ever told, in my opinion. And I’ll say this again on your periodical, to me, Sean San Jose has written and directed the most important play in the last 25 years – and you can quote me on that.

Other than what August Wilson means to the black community. This means as much if not more because it’s speaking specifically to a grave injustice that has destroyed millions of lives. Millions of lives. And somebody, and I’m gonna beat this drum til I’m dead and the good Lord take me home. Somebody gotta pay. Somebody gotta be held accountable. That was the question I asked that lawyer. It was the last question in the talk back. She was all, “Well, we don’t know if it was intentional or if it was just neglect.”

SSJ: I do.

D. LACY: I was like, “Wait a minute, This a white male supremacist society, I would suggest it’s not only intentional, it’s extremely intentional. And even if it isn’t, who gives a fuck? It’s been proven they did it, so now what is the statute of limitations on genocide?” There is none. Let me answer the question for you. She was like, “Well, you’re right, but this could be difficult politically.” I said, “I know it’s gonna be difficult. I ain’t saying it’s gonna be easy.”

SSJ: Right.

D. LACY: “But is it legally possible to sue the people responsible for this shit?” She said, “Yes, but.” Hey, I don’t give a fuck! What’s the character pushing the rock up the mountain, Sisyphus, or some shit? I’ll be him.

SSJ: Did you just Sisyph-y?

D. LACY: I’m gonna sing this song, I don’t give a fuck. I’ll pick up the baton. Now.

SSJ: And on that note, BAM!

http://vimeo.com/110932723

Sean San José is the writer and director of “Superheroes”. Donald Lacy Jr. is an actor in the show, a Campo Santo family member and host of the radio program, “Wake Up, Everybody,” Saturday mornings on KPOO 89.5 FM. The world premiere of “Superheroes” is presented by Cutting Ball from now until Dec. 21st at 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. More details are found online at http://cuttingball.com/season/14-15/superheroes/.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright who got her start in theater learning from Naomi Iizuka, Sean San Jose, Donald Lacy and became an engaged theater citizen from Campo Santo. You can find her on twitter @bjwany.

The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part One

Barbara Jwanouskos won’t be going back to school this fall, but she’s got some advice for all you playwrighting grad students out there.

Summer’s coming to a close and many are headed back to school. You may be toying with the idea of going back to school to get a degree in a theater-related field. If you’re a playwright, you may be looking at grad schools and thinking about applying. Well, as a recent graduate, I can give you some of what I’ve learned not only in the process of applying, but also what my experience was like while in it. I’m putting together at least a two part guide to the schools to look at, things to consider (for instance, is there a need to go back to school all together? SPOILER ALERT: No, but we’ll get to that), and ideas on where you might want to focus your attention while wandering through application land.

So, you wanna go to grad school… The first thing to consider is the reason (or reasons) why you want to go back. I will tell you right now, even if you end up being accepted into a program that pays for you, you will end up spending a lot of money in order to do this. Perhaps this does not seem daunting to you… but, trust me, when you get the bill, it will settle in. It also ends up meaning putting a hold on other theatrical pursuits while you’re there. It can often mean a big move. And, if nothing else, even if you have just recently graduated from undergrad, it can be a huge learning curve to be in a new environment with new demands placed on you.

To help you on this quest, here is my handy dandy check list of things to consider before making the decision to go back to schools:

Write out your goals as a theater artist. Is there a field that you are most attracted to? What kinds of plays/performances do you want to be involved in? What kinds of audiences do you want to have? Do you want to get paid to write, or do you not care? Why do you do theater? What kinds of theater are you interested in? Where do you want to be five years from now in your playwriting career?

Honestly answering all these questions and more will help you figure out what you truly value. And even before we get to the question “why grad school now”? I would look at all the possible alternatives. Make sure to literally write this all out because 1) you’ll be writing a lot in school, so start getting used to it 2) when you write something out, you’re engaging other parts of your brain so that you are very thoughtfully considering this decision from lots of different angles 3) if you do ultimately decide to apply to schools almost every program asks what your goals are as an artist (and even if not here, you usually get asked what they are in the interviews), so it’s worth it to feel very solid with what you want to achieve.

Ask yourself, if you can possibly make any of these goals happen in other ways. If you think you would be happier without making the sacrifices (financial, social, geographical, etc.) that are required to be a part of an MFA program, you should seriously reconsider the decision to go back to school. Or, at least, start reevaluating your goals and seeing if you can be more specific.

For instance, if one of your goals is to continue to hone your craft and add to your tool kit, there are a variety of resources out there that aren’t always free, but are more financially viable (and fun!) than a graduate program can be. In the Bay Area, the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, in addition to a variety of other organizations, offers classes to community members that are reasonably priced and taught by master playwrights. Theatre Bay Area offers the ATLAS program to playwrights and other theater artists to develop their career maps and goals. PlayGround has a Monday night writers’ pool for members of the community to share their work.

In other parts of the country, you have the Playwright’s Center and well-respected regional theaters that offer master classes, developmental opportunities, and writer’s groups to the public. These are great ways to continue to polish your skills, develop your voice, and network with other playwrights (incidentally, these are also some of the goals that could have been on your list!). The other thing to consider are some of the playwriting retreats (the one at La Mama Umbria is a fantastic one) where you can take a week or two to learn under an experienced playwriting instructor in the company of other writers, and often in a beautiful locale.

Another common goal is to have more development opportunities, which is often a part of an MFA playwriting program. Keep in mind, however, that not every program offers the same types of resources (some DO NOT offer development opportunities) and that by connecting with your theater community, you may be able to go through the development and production process quicker than you are able to in school. The added benefits are that you will have more experience putting your plays on their feet and meet new friends/colleagues!

Make these things happen! The reality is that such a small number of people get accepted to graduate programs across the country every year. You can’t wait until you get into a program to make things happen with your writing. If you see a class in your home town, take it. If you have a couple friends who will read your work, do it. Don’t be precious about your writing or your goals. Now’s the time to make sure other people know what you’re working towards. You have to be unapologetic about being a writer or artist of any kind. And if you’re doing it to make money, just stop now and start looking into other processions where you can be creative, but are more lucrative. A career in playwriting will never be enough to live off of completely. I repeat, you will make little to no money doing this (and a lot of times, you will spend money so that you can participate in something you think is worth your time as an artist). This may not be the case for screenwriting or TV writing, but it certainly is for playwriting. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

If you’re still on the graduate school path, you still need to be active in the theater scene. As previously mentioned, these programs are highly competitive and often times only take a handful of playwrights each year. Your experience in theater is going to help you. So, if someone offers to do a staged reading of your play, do it! Write that play! Volunteer at a festival (speaking of which, the San Francisco Fringe Festival is coming up…)!

Do your research. Again, even before you make the decision to apply, look through the various programs out there. They come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll want to find the ones that most align with your aesthetic, your learning style, and your financial resources. The Playwrights’ Center has a fantastic list of the playwriting programs offered across the nation, here. In the second part of my series I will go into more depth about what to look for in these programs, but make sure you are hunting for information on who the head of the program is, what plays they’ve written (read or see them!), how much it will cost, how many people they accept, what the curriculum is like, and where it is (at the bare minimum). More on this in the next column.

Make a plan of attack. After you’ve considered why school and why now and have still remained active in the theater scene and have done your research, now’s the time to plan ahead. What will it truly take for you to go back to school? Look into all the ancillary things that come with being involved in a program. Talk to people in programs if you know anyone. Reach out to the school and see if you can talk to a current student, if you don’t know someone. Make a list of the deadlines for each school and what they require (they don’t all require the same things) and put them into some calendar, to do list, or organization mechanism. Plan ahead if any want you to take the GRE, since that is a whole other beast. Visit the schools if you can. And look ahead to the deadline time to see what your life will be like around then. Try to minimize the amount of activities you’re involved in around that time. The most important thing is your writing sample (keep in mind, some programs ask for two full length plays), but don’t discount the other materials needed, for instance your letters of recommendation (ask three to four people who know you and your work) and your personal statement. You should be about one to two months ahead of the deadline with prepping all these materials. Start with the letters of recommendation because you DO NOT want to ask your champions at the last minute. Ask them at least two months before the deadline. They are probably being asked by a lot of people.

Read, see, and write plays. Above all, immerse yourself in theater. Read the classics you haven’t gotten to and the new playwrights that are being talked about. Read the plays by the heads of programs you’re thinking of applying to. Read up on theater news and opinions. Go to see performances regularly. Even if (especially if) it’s not your cup of tea because you will be exposed to a lot of things you love and hate while in school. Find ways to appreciate and respectfully talk about performances you didn’t care for. I know a lot of folks will disagree with this, but my reasoning is that you will see so much theater done by your friends while in and out of school, that it’s a good thing to open your mind to new forms and even try new things yourself. And if nothing else, to learn how to talk about what you connected/didn’t connect to in a way that maintains a working relationship with the colleague that’s responsible for the performance. It’s fine to have your opinions and tastes, but there’s nothing wrong with moving outside of your comfort zone every now and again. If nothing else, at least you may be able to articulate more clearly why it’s not your thing.

And make sure to continue to play with your writing! There’s a fantastic playwriting challenge going on to write 31 plays over the span of August (Check out 31 Plays in 31 Days). It’s a great way to produce a lot of writing without judgment. And writing something on the page is the absolute first step in writing a new play.