The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Christopher Chen

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.

I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.

I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.

What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen

Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?

Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.

In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.

Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?

Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.

Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.

Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?

Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.

Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?

Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.

Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?

Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.

Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?

Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?

Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.

Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?

Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?

Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.

For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Britney Frazier

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Britney Frazier.

I heard about Britney Frazier before I ever met her, when taking acting classes at Laney College under Michael Anthony Torres’ direction. I knew that she was an amazing actor — and then I got to see her in a play. Wow, blown away. As an actor, Britney brings so much depth of feeling to her work and the same can be said of her writing.

Her one minute plays packed a lot of punch both in 2015 and 2014 at the Playwright’s Foundation benefit and were smong my favorites of the evening. When I learned that she was having a reading and I had to talk with her. The subject matter couldn’t be more timely.

From the media blurb:
There is a myth that persists that “black folks don’t get depressed, we get the blues,” and as a result, too often, the opportunities to talk about mental illness and suicide in African diasporic communities are missed as our loved ones continue to take their own lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide claims one African American every 4.5 hours. The top three factors that contribute to suicide in communities of African descent which go unaddressed are: untreated mental illness, homophobic bullying and religion.

olokun6

Dysphoria: An Apache Dance is the confabulation of two drunks in a “dive bar” under the waves contemplating gender roles and the trials, tribulations, bonds and breaks of a mother, daughter narrative, and an inquiry into whether genetically inherited predispositions lead to depression, PTSD and suicide, or if ancestral memories passed from the “hanging rope” to the umbilical cord are the culprit.

What follows is an interview with Britney Frazier about her creative process and Dysphoria: An Apache Dance.

Barbara: Tell me about your background. What got you interested in writing and theater?

Britney: I started my career in the arts as an actor and acting is extremely unpredictable. In order to preserve my sanity in the uncertainty, I decided to take a month long writing workshop with Marcus Gardley at the Playwright’s Foundation. Gardley did this cool exercise where we, as a group, brainstormed play concepts and types of main characters and then put our ideas in a hat to then randomly pick. The concept I picked was, love is blind and my character type was female protagonist, and I hit the ground running. In a month’s time, with the guidance of Mr. Gardley, I came up with my first play, Obeah, about a two-headed seer falling in love with Shango, Orisha of male virility and fire. Shortly after that workshop, I got my first directing gig, Assistant Directing for Ellen Sebastian Chang.

Barbara: How does acting influence how you write a play?

Britney: As an actor and playwright, I really love plays where the characters are emotionally bold and stories themselves are taboo or obscure. I feel like because I’m an actor who also directs, I write with the whole story in mind, considering the design and transitions along with the plot and characters.

Barbara: Where did you find inspiration for Dysphoria: An Apache Dance?

Britney: I started the path to creating Dysphoria as a writing challenge to myself. I decided to look through the current events in the media at that time and write a play. I ended up finding this article about two women in Salinas California who were lovers and helped one another play out one of the worst child abuse cases in Salinas. The children were emaciated, locked in rooms and chained to the floor for days. As I read the story , horrified, I began to wonder what would compel two women to these extremes. In society, women are “supposed to” be nurturing caregivers, but “supposed to ” is a difficult phrase…I wondered what happened to these women before this incident, that lead them to commit this crime. At first, I decided to write the twisted love story of these two women leading up to the crime, and that was cool, but still felt very surface. Also I love Apache dances, which are violent Parisian dance of the underworld, because they are emotional, sensual, spiritual are rarely used in plays that include dance.

Barbara: What has been the most challenging aspect of writing the play and what got you through it?

Britney: I think the hardest part for me writing Dysphoria was the decision to scrap the facts in the article and write the story from the heart. Originally, I was trying to stay true to the events and facts but the moment I decided to claim the story creatively, as my own, was the moment my own personal connections to the theme became clear and ideas for how to weave in folklore came flooding in. The story opened up when I did.

Barbara: Any interesting discoveries or trajectories you went down that you didn’t expect?

Britney: After a few rewrites and staged readings, I decided to explore mother daughter relationships, alongside romantic relationships because the way one is raised, the experiences/relationships one has as a child influence and affect one’s experience, relationships and perception of the world as an adult. The whole play changed drastically after that.

Barbara: Tell me about the current state of theater — what do you see happening?

Britney: Well, I hear a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion and sometimes I see some of it on stage. It’s a new and trendy thing to add women, people of color and color-blind casting to a season….really? Don’t get me wrong, I support the venues where the work is being done, I just think it’s sad that in 2016 we are still figuring out the how’s of diversity and inclusion in Bay Area theatre.

Barbara: What aspect would you change and do you see any ripe opportunities that we could take now to move us forward?

Britney: I think great theater should be for everyone, not just the people who can pay. I’d like to see a theatre structure where the experience is affordable, reflects the diversity of the communities they serve, creates opportunities for social commentary and healing, makes a real effort to support local artists and includes stories for, about and by women and people of color in every season.

Barbara: What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?

Britney: Lol. This is the advice I give myself: Keep the faith. Believe in you. People say sh*t, good and bad people say sh*t. Don’t let it make or break your spirit. Please yourself first and no matter what, keep writing. Pay attention to what feelings come up when you are writing. When you as the writer are feeling sensitive about something in your piece, explore it, it’s gold.

Barbara: And also, any bad advice that might be good? or simply something to avoid/ignore.

Britney: See above.

LA Vouge

For more on the reading–visit the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) located at 685 Mission Street at 3rd St. in San Francisco, www.MoADSF.org. The reading is tomorrow, February 20th from 2-5 PM.

LHT’s staged reading is FREE with full day General Admission to MoAD – $10 Adults/$5 Seniors & Students. MoAD admission is FREE for LHT Subscribers and MoAD members with an RSVP to (415) 318-7140 or egessel@moadsf.org.

For more on Britney Frazier, check out Britfrazier.tumblr.com.

The Real World – Theater Edition: Gino DiIorio

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Gino DiIorio, the writer of SAM AND DEDE (OR MY DINNER WITH ANDRE THE GIANT), opening at Custom Made Theatre on February 11th.

On his website, Gino describes the play as such —

True story: 12-year old Andre the Giant, already over 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, didn’t fit on the school bus. Andre’s neighbor, as a kind gesture of returning a favor, offered to drive him to school in his truck. The neighbor was Samuel Beckett. Out of that bit of trivia comes “Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” imagining three scenes between a giant – a man who cannot hide, and a writer obsessed with silence.

So of course, I was intrigued. I mean lately I’ve been obsessed with silence and subtlety and how it’s theatricalized. Gino and I talked about that and also his influences and creative process.

Enjoy the interview below!

Gino Dilario

Gino DiIorio

Barbara: First off — your premise for SAM AND DEDE sounds amazing — a man obsessed with silence and a giant who cannot hide — how did you come to the idea for this play? What intrigued you?

Gino: My son was very interested in professional wrestling. And I mentioned that when I was his age, I was as well and he asked who were my favorites. And I mentioned Bruno Sammartino and the British Bulldogs and of course, Andre the Giant. He had never heard of him so we Wikied him and that’s where I found out he knew Sam Beckett. And I thought if anyone can write this play, it’s me. Cause I love Beckett as well.

It was great fun to write because once I got them in the room together, I couldn’t shut up them up. They just had great takes on the world, such different experiences and in a way, (not to be too egotistical) but they’re extensions of me. And I guess that’s true of all writers, every character we write is just an extension of ourselves. But Andre is the part of me that thinks I can do everything and that everything is simple and nothing matters and so what if it did? And just have a good time and live life to the fullest. And theatre is about being big and over the top and crazy. Beckett is the part of me that doubts everything, my ability to do anything, the reason to get out of bed in the morning, the weight of the world, the heaviness of existence, the inability to construct a sentence. In this regard I suppose they’re probably like everyone else on the planet!

Barbara: Tell me about your creative process. Is each play unique or do you generally approach new work in a similar way?

Gino: I try to put the characters in a room and let them talk. And if it’s going well, they do things that surprise me.

Barbara: Anything that you’ve come across in your trajectory as a theater artist that made you question or overhaul what you do? What happened? What changed?

Gino: Good question. I sometimes think I’m a bit of an anachronism. I tend to write stuff that’s very linear, straightforward plot lines, etc. I think it’s harder to write a play with a plot. Most writers avoid plot because it’s so damned difficult. But then again, it’s good to try to write something that perhaps doesn’t follow a traditional line and I guess Sam and Dede is just that. It’s a play where I didn’t feel to urge to have anything happen. Kind of like a Beckett play I suppose. Nothing happens. and in turn, things begin to happen in that absence. If that makes sense.

Barbara: How did you get into theater and writing in particular?

Gino: I began as an actor. I did a lot of Shakespeare, regional stuff, commercials, etc. I did it in high school mostly cause I was good at it. And I liked losing myself in the role.

Barbara: Tell me about the current state of theater. Where are we going?

Gino: Oy. In some ways,there’s a lot of good going on. I see a lot of focus on new play development. The problem is it’s too expensive to produce new plays on Broadway and Off Broadway. So it’s hard for plays to get their New York pedigree,if you will. If i could snap my fingers and change one thing about theatre, it’d be that. I’d make it easier to produce new works on the New York stage. it’s just too cost prohibitive. Negotiating a new deal with the technical unions would be a good first start.

But here’s the good news, people still love writing for the theatre. And going to the theatre. It’s wonderfully atavistic and despite the cost and the assault from new technologies, it still remains unique and vibrant.

Barbara: Anything about it that scares you or makes you dream big?

Gino: Wow. I don’t know. I think I get scared that I’ll die before I finish all these play ideas I have in my head! I don’t dream that big. I dream of small honest moments on stage. If I get a lot of those, I’m happy.

Barbara: What’s next for you?

Gino: I’m researching a historical piece on slavery in the 18th century. Yeah, I know. Good luck getting that produced! But it’s what I’m interested in.

Barbara: Words of wisdom for people who want to do what you do?

Gino: If you can do anything else, do it. If you must write or be in the theatre, don’t think you can make a living at it. Remember what makes it great, what you love about it, and judge your success by how much you live in that.

Barbara: Any bad advice that might actually be good?

Gino: Wow, good question. I’ve been lucky, I haven’t gotten that much bad advice. But I will share something my good friend Gary Garrison told me, it’s good to listen to lots of people but reserve the right to ignore all of it. Or some of it. You can pick and choose your advice. Ultimately the piece has to mean something to you. It’s why you wrote the thing in the first place.

Barbara: Shout outs and plugs for your things (theater and otherwise), friends’ things or just anything you thought was rad?

Gino: New Jersey Rep is the greatest. Suzanne and Gabe Barabbas, great people. Clark University rocks. Which is where I met Leah Abrams and Brian Katz of Custom Made!

Dave Sikula and Brendan Everett in rehearsal at Custom Made for SAM AND DEDE.

Dave Sikula and Brendan Averett in rehearsal at Custom Made for SAM AND DEDE.

You can catch SAM AND DEDE at Custom Made Theatre from February 11 through March 5.

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).