The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Christine Keating

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us an inside look at this year’s Olympians Festival. 

This week, since the San Francisco Olympians Festival Indiegogo is at 8 days left, I thought I’d focus on one of the writers in this year’s festival, Harvest of Mysteries. The festival brings together a myriad of different people to create new work – this year, it’s inspired by the Greek and Egyptian gods of the dead. One of the best parts of the festival, from my perspective, is that you don’t need to have an extensive background or know someone in order for your proposal(s) to be seriously considered. All you need is a great idea. From there, the festival builds in small but manageable check-ins with writers, where you share what you’ve been working on and get feedback and encouragement from other writers in the room.

Operating on a very small budget yet still managing to acknowledge that everyone should be paid SOMETHING for their artistic work, this festival builds in a raffle whose proceeds are shared by the poster artists on the night of readings. By doing this, they give artists exposure and recognize that hard work goes into creating art.

As a writer for the festival this year, I’ve had the opportunity to hear short bursts of what Christine Keating is working on and I’m always excited to hear what she’s developed next. So, I thought I’d chat with her a bit more about her creative process and what she’s been up to.

 

Christine%20Keating

Colorful Christine

 

Barbara: What attracted you to theater? How did you get your start?

Christine: I’ve always been attracted to theatre because I am fascinated by the idea that a group of people can all be made to feel a feeling because of how words are put together by someone else.

I started by writing my own plays when I was about 7 years old, and they were all re-enactments of various horrible tortures people put other people through throughout history. I performed them for my horrified but supportive parents in my living room with my best friends. I acted in high school at the all-boys school in my town because I figured it was a great way to meet boys, and then I realized I actually like the theatre part better. I then realized I was a much better writer and director once I got to college, and have since then been attracted to the new-works scene because I love watching and being a part of the births of creative projects.

Barbara: This is a question borrowed from Mac Wellman – what is the first performance you remember seeing?

Christine: The first show I remember going to was Beauty and the Beast on Broadway – but I remember zero percent about the show, I only remember getting a cool sparkle wand afterwards. The first play I really remember seeing was Measure for Measure in London with my grandparents when I was about 7.

Barbara: How did you get involved in SF Olympians? What do you like?

Christine: I got involved when I wrote for The Sirens (The Sisters Sirene) with my friend Amelia Bethel two years ago. I was attracted to a Greek mythology festival, being someone who likes gore and torture and gossip. But I also was excited by the Olympians because it is a commission-based festival that really commits to nurturing its writers and their ideas.

Barbara: Tell me about how the festival nurtures writers. How is its model helpful for creating new work?

Christine: The writers’ meetings are a built-in community for people to make new connections and build on existing friendships. They’re so supportive of wherever you are in the process, and it’s nice to feel like we’re all struggling for the same thing. The whole festival also connects writers and directors and actors in this huge swirl of “wow this is my community, these are my people” which is such an invigorating experience for artists.

Barbara: Who’s your character and what’s your play about?

Christine: My play is about The River Styx, and while I’m still figuring out my play, I know it’s about being stuck and needing to cross something terrifying and not knowing how, or being afraid of it. It’s got a character who is forced to face all the things she’s messed up in her life, as well as all the things she’ll never get to do.

Barbara: What interesting challenges and/or opportunities have come up in the writing process?

Christine: I have never had writer’s block like I’ve had with this play. I’m normally one of those people who can shut myself up in a room and come out five hours later with the script I was supposed to write, plus 35 pages of another play I wrote by accident. Figuring out what Styx is about has taken me into doing a lot of really fascinating research, and immersing myself in the ideas I want to talk about in a way I haven’t done with other scripts.

Barbara: What stage is your script in currently and what are you excited to hear on the night of the reading?

Christine: It’s in the “I’ve had 15 versions of my first 15 pages” stage right now. I’m really excited to see what comes out of this struggle, and the audience reaction – the best part of theatre is being with other people when it happens!

Barbara: What writing/development do you anticipate having to do between now and the reading?

Christine: I love living-room readings, but I live in under 200 square feet, so I can really only have one if my cast is under 3 people and they’re willing to get cozy, or if someone else has a living room to donate…

Barbara: I’d love to hear your take on Bay Area theater. Why do it here and not in NY or someplace else? What do we have going for us? What could we stand to learn/put into practice?

Christine: Well, first off, I don’t like NYC because within ten seconds of getting into it, I become a huge jerk to everyone. It’s something in the air. I think what San Francisco has is many small groups of people who find that they need to work together and support each other in order to have a thriving arts scene, which means we come up with a lot of different kinds of performance, and new people are always discovering it. We’re also a community that recognises when someone is talented and then nurtures and encourages them to grow in a way I don’t hear my friends in New York talking about.

Barbara: What words of wisdom do you have for people who want to do what you do?

Christine: I think the best words of wisdom I ever received were just someone looking me in the eye and saying “You can do this. This is a hat, among many, that you can wear.”

Barbara: Any plugs for your work or friends’ work happening soon?

Christine: Of course! You should check out the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this weekend – my friend Logan Ellis directed Non-Player Character by Walt McGough. Also, Portal: The Musical is playing next week at Theater Pub, written by Kirk Shimano, whose play for Olympians I will be directing this year! I saw it this week and I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt the overwhelming urge to dedicate the next month of my life to re-playing Portals 1 and 2. And finally, my boyfriend Adam Magill will be in The Thrush and the Woodpecker at Custom Made Theatre coming up next month, and having read the script a few years ago, I am really excited to see what the excellent creative team does with it.

sf%20olympians

For more about Christine Keating, check out her website. Her play, STYX, commissioned by the San Francisco Olympians Festival, will be read on Wednesday, October 12 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

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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: 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 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.

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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.

Cowan Palace: ShortLived Returns And Other Spring Sequels

ShortLived is returning! And Ashley’s feeling things about it!

The spring of 2010 was an exciting time for me. Well, at least I can say that now because back then it just felt like everyday life.

After playing all the bridesmaids and many other female characters in Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, I was finally given the chance to perform as the drunk bridezilla herself, Tina; I was working as a theatre teaching artist for over 100 kids in a week; I managed the box office/house/lounge at Magic Theatre and volunteered as their audition reader where I had the chance to listen in on all the big casting choices; and I was finally getting my start into playwriting, an area that had both scared me and called to me for years. In fact, I was #blessed with some beginner’s luck and good fortune in that department because during that spring of 2010, I was working on my first Olympian’s piece, had a play accepted into the first Pint Sized Festival, and had just been given the chance to submit something for PianoFight’s ShortLived competition, that time on behalf of No Nude Men Productions.

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Sure, I was constantly stressed about my lack of finances and health insurance but I was also involved in all these creative outlets. And yeah, I may have questioned my life in comparison to all my school classmates who were getting married and having babies more than was necessary as a hopeless single, but ultimately, I was having fun as a young 20-something in San Francisco. I was a poor gal’s Carrie Bradshaw! … or something.

Which was why being involved in ShortLived was so rad. Thanks to a chance meeting after a Theater Pub show, I was introduced to Rob Ready who was inquiring about involving Theater Pub in PianoFight’s current show. I awkwardly barged into the conversation. And I immediately jumped at the chance to take on writing something without having any idea of what I could submit… or who would direct it… or who would act in it… even though we had a limited time in which to get all these pieces together. I didn’t care! I was eager! It would work out!

Luckily, it did. There were a few hurdles and tears along the way but I dusted off some notes I had about a short piece involving the role texting can play in dating and then was so thankful and delighted when Julia Heitner said she’d direct it. She fought for a cast and then used her wonderful creative powers to quickly stage and ready it for an audience. When it opened, I took some time off from performing in Tony ‘n Tina’s to watch from the back of a sold out theater. I nervously drank BudLight Lime from a brown paper bag and saw my short play, Word War, come to life. It was the first time any of my scripted words had been produced and performed in front of a crowd and the experience was as delicious as my drink with a side of cupcakes and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: nothing short of magical.

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Fast forward to today. Well, to last week, I guess. Theater Pub gets an email from Rob asking if we’d like to submit something for ShortLived. Because after a few years away, it’s back! Which is so great! Eager Ashley responds within just a few minutes (again, without any real idea of what to submit or any of the needed production details). Stuart, wise leader that he is, kindly inquires if it’s a doable project for someone so far along in her pregnancy. Oh, right, I remember. I’m eight months pregnant now. Huh.

I’m very excited to have a daughter on the way. She’s apparently the size of a pineapple now (which I try not to think about coming out of me because, well, that’s just an awful image… sorry for putting it in your mind, you pervert) and in just a few weeks, she’ll be here bringing a new kind of magic to my life. There aren’t really enough words to describe the feeling. It’s kind of like waiting backstage to make your first entrance on opening night after a rocky dress rehearsal. You’ve never felt so alive and charged but terrified and anxious all at the same time. The experience is the current star of my reality show.

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And it’s times like these, I realize that years of “shortlived” moments have moved me to a whole new place. Somewhere you hadn’t really realized you had arrived at until you turned around and realized what was behind you.

But here we are. While I can’t help but miss the energy I had five years ago and the passion I possessed to say yes to every opportunity without much thought, I realize it’s not 2010 anymore. Russell Brand and Katy Perry are not together. Thankfully, Theater Pub has continue to grow and develop a core group of fellow eager yes-to-theatre-opportunity-makers. I’m in good company. So when Stuart suggested teaming up with Barbara and involve our team, I was into it. Selfishly, I’m not quite ready to forgo the spirit I possessed five years ago but I’m also super thankful to be involved with a group that still humors me and lets me feel included, even as the super pregnant gal.

While we’re in the very early stages of figuring out our involvement in this year’s ShortLived competition and I sadly may not be able to drink BudLight Lime in celebration, I have to say, the spring of 2015 is looking like it may be pretty exciting too (plus, I can still eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and cupcakes and boy, will I). And I hope this time, I’m old enough to fully appreciate it.

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For more information on ShortLived or to submit your own work, check out: www.pianofight.com/shortlived-open-challenge/!

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.