On Monday, March 23, 2015, the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW), a not-for-profit organization committed to promoting visibility and increasing opportunities for women in the professional theatre, presented a special event for Women’s History month, Writing Plays By, For, or About Women at Theater Lab in New York, focusing on the roles of women in today’s theater.
The Round Table Discussion featured several notable playwrights including Obie Award winners Dael Orlandersmith (Forever), Caridad Svich (Any Place But Here), Edith Oliver Award winner Jenny Lyn Bader (The Church of Why Not and the History of Communication), Emmy Nominee Lee Hunkins, Paula Vogel Award Winner Kara Lee Corthron and Craig Noel Award Winner Fengar Gael. The discussion was moderated by the LPTW Co-president Maxine Kern, herself a dramaturg, playwright, and lecturer at Columbia University.
Below is an edited transcript of the roundtable discussion.
Maxine Kern: Welcome to everybody, once again. It is so thrilling to sit here and take a look at our full house and to know that you are here because of playwrights. And that we all care about the stories that we tell. And the playwrights tell our stories. The support that we give to them means that our stories get told. This is very, very exciting to me.
I’ve been a dramaturg in New York, a solid 18 years with a couple in Connecticut before that. And all of these women, Kara and I have talked about the fact that we haven’t really bumped. And I said, “How long have you been here in New York doing this thing?” “Fifteen years.” It’s amazing to me, it’s so thrilling that these women are solidly telling their stories. We’re supporting them. We’re excited about it. Now we are going to get the secrets. And that’s what I am hoping for. I’m looking forward to this discussion. We have four questions and the first question is generally- How did you come to become a playwright? What kinds of plays interest you, in general?
Fengar Gael:I felt I came out of the womb wanting to restage the world. I started as an actor and I discovered that you had to be there every night. Your body and your mind. It’s worse than being an athlete. But being a playwright, you are not at the mercy of opportunity. It’s the one job in the theater you don’t need…directors, actors, designers, they all need a play. But we can do what we do in a prison cell. It was a great freedom, that realization.
And the kinds of plays I like- I like impassioned theater that takes me to unfamiliar worlds. I’m not interested in linear, sequential domestic, realism that TV and movies do well. I like theater that harkens back to our original playwrights, the poets and mythmakers of ancient Greece. It’s a challenge. I also like poetic theater. It’s a struggle. The worse part of being in theater, about being a playwright now is being our own self promoting publicist. It’s antithetical to all creation and the process, as far as I am concerned.
Kara Lee Corthron: It was similar in the sense that I also started as an actor. I became a playwright because I got really tired of auditioning. A lot of people say that, but what happened for me was that I literally got sides to audition where my name was going to be “crack whore”. And that’s really extreme, but I also got really tired of what I thought was poor material. I felt that I could actually improve upon or write better. So my first idea was that I was going to write for myself, as a solo performer. Then I realized that that was really terrifying and it was much better to get other people to do it. That was sort of how I became a playwright. That was a long process because my sister is an esteemed playwright and I tried to keep away from it for time, but then I just gave up.
I’m really interested in theater that scares me, that surprises me, that is defamiliarizing. I like going in to see something, have an idea of what it is, and then totally having my head whipped around and shocked. I love that feeling more than anything. I like plays that play with style and expectation. And really good storytelling.
Jenny Lyn Bader: I love that these both began from the acting perspective. I actually was doing a little bit of directing before I began my playwrighting journey, and I was having trouble finding the perfect play for me to direct as a New York showcase. I can say that there was a lifetime of complex influences that went into this first play and also parents who were involved in the entertainment business and had the foresight to say things to me during dinner like, “Don’t be an actress. “ But they forgot to say, “Don’t be a playwright.” The moment that I was actually moved to write my first play happened on the crosstown bus. I was reading the newspaper and I read a story that just captured my imagination. It was about an editor who had found the censored parts of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. They called it the naughty bits-pornographic passages that were taken out 100 years ago-this guy had found them. There’s a formula for this kind of story. They always go to the person, “How did you know to look for this thing?” They say, “Oh, I was just cleaning out the garage and I found the Declaration of Independence.” Nobody is actually looking for the thing, but this guy was looking for the thing. He said, “I thought there were parts of it missing because the title of that book had always bothered me because it’s called, Sons and Lovers, and there’s really only one son. I went looking for the other sons. I love that. I love that thousands of people had been reading a book for a hundred years and nobody had noticed there was something off.
Then I started thinking about other things that people could go looking for and trying to find. I wrote my first play called, Shakespeare’s Undiscovered One-Act, about someone who says he wrote the poems, he wrote the five acts, where’s his one act? And I did what a lot of first time playwrights do with their first play which was to put it in drawer for about a year, and then I took it out and I sent it to a One Act Festival at the Village Gate theater, which was then in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and being rented by some porn producers. We’re back to porn now. They were under the impression that theater was remunerative. They thought they were going to make a lot of money on this One Act Festival. They had this system with the bouncer-thug who was enforcing their two drink minimum, and intimidating all of my friends. It was a little bit frightening. After the play, this bouncer-thug came up to me and I thought he was going to hurt me. He said, “You know, I just want to say, usually I hate plays, but I thought yours was great.” I think that was the moment that launched my actual playwrighting career.
In terms of what I like, I like stuff that surprises, like in that story, where you think you go out to find something and then it’s not exactly what you thought you were looking for, or you’re looking for the son and you found the pornographic passages, I write a lot of plays about the relationship between art and science, between intellect and intuition, and about the ways in which we give ourselves over to things that do not necessarily make logical sense to us. I also co-founded a company that does multilingual, multicultural theater and we do a lot in terms of that question, it’s not about just individual people, but about communities. Communities that are not what we think they are, relationships between communities that can surprise us.
Dael Orlandersmith: I want to piggyback on what Kara was saying. I come out of the 70’s and the early 80’s ‘cause I’m 55 and ’77 was the year of the Black musical- Sophisticated Ladies, Bubbling Brown Sugar, it was stuff like that. And when there was drama, yours was the crack whore, mine was a heroin whore and I was the welfare mother. There really wasn’t any drama that was available. And also, as a physical type, in terms of, as far as America’s version of eye candy, nor was I trying to be that. So I began to write then, out of a kind of necessity. There simply wasn’t anybody who was my type. That’s how I came about it.
The kind of work that interests me, it sounds corny, it could be Ntozake Shange, it could be Sarah Kane, it could be –citizen of the world. I tend to like very dark work. If there’s any truth to astrology, I’m a Scorpion, the further down that the better.
Maxine: A lot of individual, a lot comes out naturally- from the womb. A lot of that- acting, directing to playwrighting – altogether.
Dael: But as a rite of passage, what you learn about yourself, as a rite of passage.
Maxine: An arrival, would you say that playwrighting is an arrival? Very, very exciting.
Lee: I come from a different place than most of the other playwrights. I have no formal education at all in writing. I joined a group, a man named Max, he was an actor/director in Harlem. He had a community theater. He asked me to come- was I a writer? I said, “No.” A Playwright? No, I didn’t know anything about playwrighting, nothing. I used to write poetry and very dark, talk about dark. My mother was very sweet, but she would say, “That man on the horse that keeps coming.” So, I joined Max’s theater- American Community Theatre in Harlem. I learned from the ground up which has given me a certain kind of humility with theater because I learned how to take tickets at the door, and how to be an usher. I learned lights, props. For about two years almost, I watched other people’s work. I also was the president of the bucket brigade. When we rented a place that was kind of lousy, and it started to rain, I had to know exactly where to move these buckets. I was very good at it too.Through Maxie, I watched the plays, watched how they were put together, and after about a year and a half, I told him I was ready. I wrote a peg called the Square Peg. And it went over very well. And then Sidney Poitier was a friend of his, he came to my first play. I was thrilled. It taught me two things. One, as far as being on time for things, it is very important to be on time. We had an actress in one of our plays in the theater with Maxie, she was the lead actress and she came drunk every night. And she’d be late. One night, Maxie said, “I’m putting her understudy on.” When she came in, she toddled in, hat on the side of her head, and she couldn’t believe that somebody was up, doing her part. Well, Maxie spoke to us afterwards and I remember this all along. He asked us if we had ever seen a circus with just one monkey. We hadn’t. He said, “You know why? Because it takes more than one monkey to run a show.” That’s what I think, playwrights, actors, anyone else to remember, to remain humble in this business. Don’t’ever get it in your head that you’ve just got everything going on for you. You don’t. At my age, I find that I am still learning. After all the time coming up, I’m still learning, but from the ground up is a good way to do it. At least it was for me.
Maxine: We’re lucky. We’re sitting here with women who are making us very lucky to be here. Lee and I were talking about, before we started the panel, the idea of a playwright, that’s it, you’re a playwright and nothing else. It just isn’t true. There’s like a myth of a playwright up on that little pillow, princess pillow. These playwrights have so much else, they’re complete theater people. And just to bring a guy in, William Shakespeare, we know, didn’t just write plays. He ran a theater, he wrote poetry. These are very, very complete renaissance people.
Caridad: In junior high, I was writing a lot of poetry and short stories. And I was always writing, writing, writing. My English teacher, who I wanted to impress desperately and get an A in her class, told me that I should write a play, because a lot of my short stories were coming out in dialogue. I was living in Miami at the time. It was the furthest thing from my consciousness. My relationship to plays were either reading a lot of Shakespeare voraciously, like in the fourth grade. I was one of those people. Just for fun. And then musicals. Musicals would come to Miami. Touring productions. Those were the limits.
There was this great public library, where I lived, their third floor was drama. The entire third floor was drama. I don’t know who the librarian was, thank you, thank you God, because what I did was I went to the library and decided I would read all of the plays on the shelf, to find out what this play thing was. I took out ten books a week. I read plays indiscriminately. I crossed countries, generations, I thought because if I am going to write a play, she want me to do this thing, and I want her to give me an A in the class, I should find out what this thing is. I became smitten by the form and how expansive it is, and how plastic it is. You could do everything in a play. And you could do anything. I love the impossibility of it. I did write a play. It’s in a drawer, in an archive at Ohio State University right now, so some scholar will see it. It is a play and I wrote it. I actually typed it. I got to 45 pages for my first play ever. I realized that it was terrible. I did have that myth of the great American play, from the first moment. So, it’s in a drawer. But, I thought, I like performance. I liked playing all the parts. I started writing things. I became interested in acting and I was already studying music. I started writing things for me and my friends to do on the side. The side thing became forefronted when I was in college. I realized, I loved this and this is what I wanted to do. I won a national contest when I was 18 and they did my play in Baltimore. It was like you could actually do this, it kind of clicked. The kinds of plays I love, I love all kinds of things. I’m pretty ecumenical in my tastes, I tend toward to dark. They make me see things anew and I am always looking for that. You’ve got to give me a new angle on it. Or you’ve got to surprise me with language in some way. You’ve got to show me a moment that’s crystal.
Maxine: What is it like, as a woman playwright once upon a time, compared to now? Is there any difference? Does it not matter at all? Is it just like,”Hey, I’m a playwright.” What’s that been like for people in general?
Fengar: I mentioned this before, but because of the media and the networking, we now have to be our own self promoting publicists, even if we have agents. It is antithetical to the creative process, which is a quiet, humbling, making oneself available to hear voices. It’s really hard to always be peddling our wares, our propaganda. I think it was an element that was easier. It seemed like it was easier before. It takes the same spiritual energy. The other thing that’s different about being a woman is that there is a holy war against woman. We have to have our own holy war against the men. They are oppressing women all over the world. We are aware of it more now than even because of the internet, what’s happening with ISIS. It’s just unbelievable- male gods, male clerics who want to oppress women and tell us what to do with our bodies. Every day, I get so upset, I ‘d like to airlift every woman out of those horrible countries into a play of my own. I think we are more aware of it then we ever have been. If you read the new York Times, it’s just so depressing, it’s men. Men everywhere with their AK47s. The gender imbalance of power in the world to me is the greatest problem in the world now. I think it’s a great time to be a playwright because we have to reflect this culture. We have to be as radical and subversive as we can be.
Maxine: This feeling about being a woman as a cause, as a motivating engine when it comes to writing. What is that spiritual nature and how does it work in the world, which is such an important aspect of being a woman?
Dael: I have a mixed feeling about that. I think that theater is about beginning, middle, end, story, conflict, resolution. I think we can speak to and not speak for. When people try to speak for people, they end up playing into the very bias they are trying to get out of. For example, I wrote a play called The Killing Floor Trilogy. It is for all men. One is a scene and then other one is a monologue, and the next one is a jam. It’s an all-male play. It’s written for men of all races. It’s written for Black men, Latin men and a White man. I’ve had this come from both women and men. When men have read it, they said, “I can’t believe a woman wrote this.” I’ve had certain women say, “Why are you writing for men?” Because there is also the eternal bias as well. People now are talking about, Just Kids, Patti Smith’s book. Patti Smith talked about how in the 70’s, when the Horses album first came out, around that time, besides funk, Chaka Khan and stuff, in terms of Rock, you had people saying, a lot of women said, “She’s male identified.” The same women, from forty or fifty years are now saying, “You are one of us.” Sometimes I think we all really need to look at individualism, and how the individual adds to the collective.
Maxine: It’s a big story. It’s everybody’s story. It’s got a power to it.
Jenny Lyn: I think that the thing that has changed the most in the last generation or so is that the male voice used to be the default. When I was growing up, so many stories that I was reading, so many stories that I would see where told from the make point of view. It’s not that there weren’t women writers, there were, but they were so marginalized. When I started writing short fiction, I wrote it from the male point of view. That’s what stories were. That was the default the way coffee has been the default and now skim is the default. You go to Starbucks and you order a latte and they say , “You want that skim?” They automatically assume everybody is on a diet. Over time, there are cultural shifts and defaults. I think that the male voice, when I look at what my daughter is reading, she has access to a lot more stories that are told from a female point of view, whether they are in narrative fiction or in plays. It’s not assumed that she is going to take on some kind of neutral male. The idea of the neutral voice being male really has shifted. That is something that has really changed. What has not changed is this bias that we are all aware of, not only against female writers, but female stories. To give a counter example of what Dael is talking about, I have a friend who is a male playwright who wrote a play for two women, and had a terrible time getting it done. I think it is the only one of his plays that hasn’t been done. He’s not a woman playwright, but he was interested in a two woman’s story and he wrote an exclusively female play and people were less interested in it. It’s possible people were having the same issue with it that people were having with the play Dael wrote. “Oh what does he know about that?” Maybe if he had marketed it under a female name, he would have had more luck. I think it is really interesting that’s he coming against that kind of bias.
Maxine: In a sense, having to stay away from a play because it is a woman’s story, if I want to get out into the world, it’s got to be a man’s story to matter. There’s a sense that I am getting here that once upon a time, that mattered a bit more, but it still matters.
Caridad: So, I just think that writing is an abstract form. You’re creating roles that unless they are based on a real person, they are fiction, so they’re constructs anyway. For me what’s interesting is why we think of roles as being male or female or trans. They are roles that anyone can play. I think that for me is the terrain I want to be in and I want the field to aspire towards. Because, what happens is, a female role becomes, because theater is a public forum, speaks to society, “Oh, that’s what a female is- X.” As opposed to, that’s an actor playing a construct that is called female in this play or trans or whatever. Then we start to think, “Oh, it’s an abstract form.” We’re playing in the backyard again with our toys. It’s a metaphor. So for me it has to do with, how do we get to a point where, so I’m thinking about actors a lot, because I write for actors, I like performing, so it’s like, how can we have a casting call where a role gets posted. Don’t give me a breakdown. Just show up. Then what happens. Then, that’s a real conversation.
Fengar: It’s like we have to be transsexual. I was raised in a military family, catholic, male dominated, I tend to make my plays the character with the most power, male. After looking at the draft, I realize I’ve given all the good parts to the men. I have to consciously do that. I don’t want to be defined by sex, gender, ethnicity. The great evolutionary triumph is that we have an imagination. Why make a character, when they could possibly be Black or from another planet. It’s the kind of consciousness that you have to work at because we are a patriarchal culture, and we are all victims of it. We have to fight it consciously.
Maxine: Pushing our own autobiography.
Lee: Maybe I see it a little bit different because my first thing is the play. The way I write, is I ask myself, “What if?” I don’t know what I am going to come up with, but, What if Martin Luther King wasn’t really dead? And he was off somewhere in a lighthouse. Why was he there and everything else? I’m not going to put a woman in the part. I want somebody like Martin Luther King. It’s according to what I feel, what I observe, whether I’m asking the question, “What if?” Or it is something that has actually happened to me, personally, I have to go with that. And if that takes me to where the play ends up with six men and one woman, I don’t give a Kitty. I’m going to write what I want to write about whoever I want to write it about. The older I get, the more feisty I get about it.
Kara Lee: For me it is about what is going to dictate what those rules are going to be, what those constructs need to be. I feel like for me, very often, and I am really interested in this gender idea because I am starting where there is a person who basically decided that here gender does not fit into the normal dialectic. So it is a tricky thing, and casting is going to be very interesting. It’s been an interesting journey. I feel like living in this society, I often do get strong senses like I will have a play, and this feels like a young male story. Or this feels like an older woman’s story. And I follow those instincts and that’s fine. I’m starting to look at people as not just men and women. I’m really interested in that journey. This is more aesthetic, then field or career wise.
Maxine: Breaking barrier about gender. It’s interesting how this conversation has turned into that. This is my favorite question. We’re talking about arriving, okay I’m doing this, it’s out there. It’s a long journey of process. How do I do it? How do I go about it? What’s fun? What’s working? What is it in your process individually that’s you’ve found is a bit of a treasure, an aspect, or a thing that you don’t mind sharing with us. Everybody here is a writer, an audience member, an actor, a designer, that’s very interesting to us. What do you do? Where do you sit when you write?
Fengar: I get up at 5:30 in the morning, every morning. I live in an apartment that’s like a loft, so my partner is asleep. I crawl down and I fuel myself with coffee, and I sit supinely on the sofa, and my access to language is somehow connected to my right arm and my fingers and my pilot pen, and I write longhand for hours until he wakes up. And then I put everything on the computer. But I can’t get near the computer because I am a very weak person. I check my email. I know my life is over with hours of answering emails. It’s a courtesy thing. I don’t like it and I’m not on Facebook ‘cause again, I’m a weak person. I love the sacred time of morning in my building, it’s so quiet. I make myself available and I hear the voices. I’m so blessed because I do believe we have to have purity of intent, of purpose as playwrights, we can’t think of the money or the fame. We just have to write the story and make it as wonderful as we can. That’s my process.
Kara Lee: I find deadlines are a great motivator. If I don’t have a serious deadline, I typically will not write. Deadlines get me into a managerial kind of thinking and process. So I look at my calendar and say, Monday is going to be this project. Tuesday is going to be this project. I only have three hours on Wednesday, so I’ll work on that. Do I always stick the schedule, not always, but it helps me a lot to have that, and color code it. Deadlines help me to get organized. I find if I don’t have an organization, I’ll start watching television. The thing that I love the most, which you can’t always have, is going away to writing residencies, because they are magic. If you haven’t done that, I totally recommend it.
Maxine: You give yourself your own deadlines.
Kara Lee: I like outside deadlines a lot. I prefer outside deadlines, even if it’s not a theater. I might call my agent and say, “I want you to hold me accountable to a deadline.”
Maxine: Very interesting for a dramturg to hear.
Dael: I never lack ideas. Sometimes, I lack the time. I think if it is a day that you don’t necessarily feel “like writing”, or it’s just an idea, or if you feel that it’s dry, write down a word or a sentence, then you can come back to it. Maybe a couple of days later. It may not seem like it is a big deal, but just a word or a sentence can tell you a lot. Or maybe a song. I’ll have book around me a lot of time, or I’ll get up and listen to something. I’ll look something up on the computer, and find it isn’t happening. Maybe it’s not meant to happen. Write something down. Anything. We all beat up on ourselves. It’s hard not to judge.
Maxine: Anything that goes on in your brain has so much associated with it. As a playwright, you can get there.
Lee: I also write with a pencil and notepad. I cannot create on the computer, I’ve tried. I have friends who have been trying to drag me into the 21st century. I just rebel against it. I find writing longhand, I don’t write any outlines or anything. I do for television, but not for the stage. The stage first comes with the idea, where have I got it from. Like I’m in a hospital, and the woman I share the room with, comes out to be a play. The best of strangers. Once I know what it’s going to be about-two women in the hospital, why they are there, who comes to visit them, whatever. My next thing is getting to know the two women. I have to know everything about them before I start. I have to know what they eat, what they are allergic to. I may never use it, but I have to know everything about them so that if they rang my bell, I could say come on in. That’s my process. At 5:00 in the morning, I’d kill somebody. I’m just the opposite. I go to bed at 3 in the morning, so I get up at 12 or 1. Years of retirement will do that. The process doesn’t change for me. It starts out with the idea of whatever the play is about, then I break down the characters stories, then I start putting it together on a pad. When I get to the computer, I usually have to make little changes, but the basic thing is already there and I’m read to roll.
Caridad: Characters, they just start talking to me and I write them down.I just follow them and they talk to me when I’m sleeping, which means I can’t sleep. Sometimes I get angry and I just want the play to be over so I can get back to myself again. When the play comes upon, it depends if it is something that I am initiating as a writer. If it’s like, I want to write a play. Let me write the play. Or if somebody says, this is a commission., and we’d like ….. Then there are parameters. It’s a different thing. Your brain does something else because it has to. Usually, it’s be going, I’ve got to write now. And when that happens, if I’m chasing the people and the terrain, there is usually a landscape and a sound. I follow that and I try to make it as free as possible in that journey. It’s a daily practice. I’m there at it every single day. If it means the not sleeping or whatever, it’s got to happen, until I get to the end of the play. When I’ve gotten to the end of the play, I can breathe. I can get back to myself. I’ve been doing something slightly odd, but I’ve been having Siri read it back to me.
Jenny Lyn: I’d have to say, of anything on this panel, that’s the one thing I’ve never thought of. That’s is completely awesome. Thank you for that. And just for the record, I do not now, nor will I ever get up at 5:30 in the morning. To combine this issue of commissions, with this issue of deadlines, when I get a commission, I try to psyche myself out and pretend it has an earlier deadline, than it actually does. I put a fake deadline in my calendar, and if it is far enough ahead, I actually start to believe that is when it is due. That is something I have found to be very helpful because then I have built the working draft by that time. Then I can hand in a real draft, which feels more like a real draft. I really love quiet. Not every body loves quiet. Some people like to write with music in the background. I detest that. I really benefit from quiet, but I also benefit from motion, sometimes. If I am every stuck on something, the crosstown bus is a great enabler, creative muse of mine, the subway. Or merely switching locations, going for a walk. Sometimes the motion is mental, sometimes it has to do with dreams. You’re thinking about something and you are stuck, sometimes you’ll think of the solution just as you are falling asleep, or just when you are waking up. It’s sometimes good not to wakeup right away, when you are waking up. I really try hard to collaborate with my subconscious. One time I was trying to invite people to a play of mine, and I was going through my list of people, email and my other list of people that I would call, and I;m thinking, “Jenny Lin, there are people missing from your list, who haven’t you seen in a while? Who are you forgetting about? I said to myself, “Ted Hall, I really should give him a call, I really haven’t talked to him in a while. And then I went, “Ted Hall is a character in your play. The characters do come by, invite themselves in, hang out with us, we just need to be open, though not so open that we are putting them on the mailing list. Talking about this, the themes that attract us in our plays, and then talking about process has made me think about that connection between theme and process. I think to write plays that are a slightly heightened reality. They are like reality, but they are just a little bit off. I also like my process to take place in a slightly heightened reality.There’s an extra layer of quiet, or an extra layer of motion or something that’s not just the everyday.
Jenny Lyn: One of the greatest creative experiences of my life was at the O’Neill Center, where they have you read your play and play all the roles in front of a room of people. That is a really wonderful experience, for me in terms of doing rewrites, then you can literally imagine how each audience member is perceiving each character. You don’t even need to hear them say anything to you afterwards. Even reading plays aloud at home. Or if I am working on one character, to just read that one character with other people.
Fengar: The great thing about New York is the great glut of acting talent you can invite them into your home, give them wine and pizza, and they’ll read your play. And you can critique your play. There’s so many good dramturgs that are actors. The three human compulsions, your compulsion to eat, to have sex and to rewrite somebody else’s play.
Maxine: That’s what women do. Have a sheet of paper, draw it and then the characters who are filling it, that image expands and expands into a play. And then if you stop, and you are blocked, open up any book, put your finger on any line and write the line and go on. It works. I totally works. You put it into your play, and the engine goes again.
Dael: That sounds like a cut up theory that Brion Gysin had with William Burroughs and all of those guys, where they would cut up paper and come together with sentences and see what they would come up with.
Maxine: Very open time in writing in the 70’s. What are you working on now?
Dael: I open May 4th at NYTW. I launch rehearsal April 7. It’s a solo piece called Forever. If you ever get the chance to see this, there is a great documentary that takes place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, a famous cemetery in Paris where Richard Wright, Jim Morrison, Chopin are buried. It’s a memoir piece where I talk to the spirit of my mother at Jim Morrison’s grave. It starts and ends at Jim Morrison’s grave. She unconsciously introduced me to art. It looks at that relationship.
Maxine: Last May, we got to see a magnificent reading of Forever, that Dael performed for us as a benefit. Now we get to see the full production. It’s very, very exciting, and it is magnificent. It’s earthshattering.
Dael: I was invited by Seattle Rep to write a piece about Ferguson. And that’s very difficult. I am in the process of trying to get that information. I was there about a month and a half ago.
Fengar: I’m working on a prequel to The Tempest, Sycorax: Cyber Queen of Qamara. Sycorax is only mentioned as Caliban’s mother, the witch from Algiers, she was a pagan who worked for Setebos. She waited 500 hundred years to tell her side of the story because she could have the widest possible audience. She hacks into every electric screen in the world and has avatars tell the true story, not Prospero’s story, of what happened. And she loves her son. It is a totally different view, but there will be a Fatwa, a swift beheading if anyone ever does it. It’s very radical, things haven’t changed in Algiers in 500 years. I had a lot of fun making Sycorax a really dangerous witch.
Kara Lee: I’m currently working on a play that’s part of a commission with Naked Angels and The New School. It’s actually the thing I was talking about with the person who is between genders. That play is specifically about gender identity and political activism on twitter. I’m also working on a graphic novel with a cartoonist, which is pretty cool. I have to start writing a second book. I got a book deal. I wrote a young adult novel which I sold to Simon & Schuster, and now as part of that, they’ve asked me to write a second book. I don’t know what that second book is going to be yet. My first book is called The Distance From Me to You. It is a complicated love story during the age of the new Jim Crow.
Caridad: I just did a workshop at the Repertory of St. Louis of a new piece called This Thing of Ours, which is about what we’ve been doing for many years, which is processing terrorism, spiritually in our lives. I have a theater installation piece that I’m working on with two visual artists for Cathedral of St. John the Divine, The Working Theater. We have two works in progress showing, April 28th and 29th. I just wrote a comedy, which I don’t always do. It’s kind fun and a different side of my writing voice. It’s fun to play that trait for a while. I’m also curating a blog salon for TCG’s Audience (R)Evolution convenes in Kansas City, which starts in two days. Click Audience (R)Evolution to see what many people have been writing. It’s really been beautiful to see how people have been interpreting this idea, “Who is the audience?” The audience is in the room, or in the street. Or however you are making the art. It’s interesting, ‘cause that seems to be where a lot of anxiety resides right now in terms of administrators and theaters with buildings are thinking a lot about that.
Lee: I just finished a second draft of a full length play titled Painted Ladies, which Richarda knows because she’s read it. It’s had two readings and this one is it. It better be it. Some people, in readings, like to change their people that read for them. I like that in a way. Richarda has read twice for me, and I know she’s the character I want. But then there is the character called Desdemona, who’s a hot mama. Me, in my mind, I can’t find her. You wonder, is that person real? Are you going to find them, or is that person just in your mind? I just finished that this morning at 4am. I have a television script that I’m starting for TV, it’s a Christmas story with a feel good thing. We got Miracle on 34th, you’ve got the little boy with the gun, but I am writing an African American Christmas Story. One that can be done every year. It’s called “Dickens in the Hood.” It’s Dickens and a rap star, how they meet. That’s what I’m about.
Jenny Lyn: At the moment, I’m working on a music theater piece called Gowanus Dogs, it’s an adaptation of a book about a homeless guy who lives near the Gowanus Canal, it’s going to go up in the Fall. I’m collaborating on it with a composer who lives in England, who is brilliant, but we have an Atlantic Ocean between us, so that is always a challenge. I’m also working on a new play called The Slippers of Alexander the Great, it’s a four character play set in a museum of fakes and forgeries. I’m really excited to be able to tell you my play, In Flight, which is the world’s first verse play set in the offices of an inflight airline magazine is right now just finishing auditions. I just had the miracle, Lee, where the person who I thought might not exist, actually existed and came into the room. It’s true, the person that I had been imagining for years exists and fits the role like a glove. It’s a six character play and it is written in heroic couplets. For that , I can thank my mother, who when I was six years old and very impressionable, read me Richard Wilbur’s translations of Molière. It goes up at The Workshop Theater, performances start May 9.
Q: Have you ever fallen down? How have you dealt with rejection?
Dael: A very,very dark depression. I allowed myself to go there. I want to talk about this rite of passage thing that I mentioned. It was one of the hardest things in the world to do because you are in the dark, and you meet yourself. It was a matter of meeting yourself, and realizing that the work that I’m doing now. You worry about it in the sense, does it get done? I’ve been lucky in the sense that I have been getting done. Invading my own privacy. That’s exactly what I am doing now. And make it hopefully palatable for the public. If it is uncomfortable, it’s okay for it to be uncomfortable. It’s not about “sugartitting,” it’s about telling the truth, or a truth.
Fengar: Emily Dickinson has this great line- “Be a fire that lights itself.” Don’t wait for commissions, don’t wait to please other people, write what you feel you should write.
Kara Lee: I’ve fallen down a lot and I’ve gotten pretty dark, and I’m sure I’ll fall down a lot more. I don’t have a definitive answer other than what I’ve learned, which may change tomorrow. What’s actually saved me is that I don’t just have to write for the theater, I can write for many different genres. And even when I wasn’t getting credit for that, I would do that to remind myself that I’m a voice and I have things to communicate, even if no one is giving me the opportunity to do that. I feel like as long as I have some kind of artistic outlet, I can survive. I can get through it. I’m not necessarily happy, but I can at least get up. I’ve got a reason to get up. There was a period where I was very much dependent on the theater to feel content as an artist. That wasn’t the right way to go about it.
Lee: I’ve had over the years, a number of rejections, whether it’s been a television script coming back, or a play coming back, or whatever coming back. But I have found that as far as getting up, or what-not, I don’t fall down anymore. You reach the age where you stop falling down. You just keep writing. It’s your passion. You keep writing. As far as the reject slips, I have kept all of them. When I do hit that mark I want, I plan to wallpaper my bathroom with them. I keep all of them together, over the years, a pile of them.
Jenny Lyn: At a certain point you have to deal with each rejection as actually something good. It’s a sign that you actually put yourself out in the world. You sent something into the world, you completed something. Someone read it. Someone responded to it. Someone took the time to respond. At a certain point, I stopped thinking of them as negative and started thinking of them as something I wanted to amass. I call it the rejection collection. It’s hard, but I do try to be positive about them. Also, in terms of getting up after falling, friends are really important, doing the work is really important, and having some kind of artistic home, wherever that may be, is really crucial. A place that you know you can return to.
Lee: I’m sure that everyone here, either they are writers, or designers, or directors, or they write books on things, we forget that it’s a gift that we have. Whether you design clothes, whether you do costumes, whatever you do, I think it is a gift that’s been given to you. Nobody can take it away. They can tell you they don’t like it. So what. So they don’t like it. We each have that gift, no matter what we do in this business, and it’s just that we forget. I know, I get very insecure. Claire, my friend in the back, she knows, I’ll get on the phone or email, “Help!” And she has an answer for me. If you have a support system, and that doesn’t mean for me, I don’t have a lot of people that read my work. You can’t have people tell you, “It’s good, but I think you should…” You do have a gift, so use it.
Jenny: Ultimately expand upon the audience’s sense of possibility. The fact that there are many more women percentage wise in the audience than working behind the scenes, is alarming but I think that it is hopefully shifting as people are thinking in different ways about creating roles and about how we cast those roles, gender wise. I once directed a projection of Our Town with a female stage manager, for example, and that’s a role that we think of as having to be male, and traditionally identified with authority, and as soon as you put a woman in, it’s actually difficult to get over all of our unconscious biases. It’s hard, even if you are trying to direct the play and having a commitment to having a female stage manager. It’s hard. Ultimately, I found the person that making those kinds of choices, if they work for the play, you find the right person, then it can really speak to audiences in different ways. I have this theater company that I co-founded. One thing that we do is some collaboratively creative works, if were are not Irish and writing about the Irish, because five people wrote the play, and nobody can come up to me and say, “What do you know about writing a Guatemalan gay man? It really gives us license to go outside of our comfort zone. We both have to be conscious of what’s happening in terms of gender breakdowns in the world, then we can empower women and create different kinds of female characters, but we also have to be conscious of getting outside of our own comfort zone. And not just writing women. The real danger is that you fall into a category of women plays, and women playwrights. That the women is always being asked to write about being a woman. You don’t want that. You want the next phase to be that we don’t have to a panel on women playwrights, and where women are being asked to write about anything.
Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Fengar: Borges says that “Reading is another form of writing.” Read poetry, read novels, take the time to be inspired. Take a walk Central Park, the museums, the theater. This is such a great cultural city. There’s so much to be inspired by, I think that can help. I love to read novels. I think it helps somehow. Have interesting friends. Drink wine.
Q: Is there a woman’s voice that can create peace?
Fengar: I actually did some research on this for Sycorax. Women speak more words than men. The study said we speak 20,000 words a day to an average male’s 7000. All wars are a failure of language. Why are we not controlling the world? Because we’re women, we’re not as beloved, we have breasts, we bleed, we’re not as big as men. They are controlling the world. Our brains are also different. Our brains don’t weigh as much and when they do those tomography scans, our brains are just as convoluted, in fact, more so. And they go to both sides, so we’re relationship oriented. We don’t create pyramids of power. Neurophysicists are studying this. And what they are finding out is that we should be controlling the world, as far as I can see. Instead of shooting each other, we could talk and resolved these problems. Not to say that women aren’t violent. Who doesn’t have violent thoughts?
Maxine: Voice, brain, biology, words.
Fengar: Women have the children. The women here who are mothers. I’m not a mother, but it must change your relationship to all of human life.
Dael: This gets into this whole thing about androgyny. The stereotype is that if a woman is assertive, she is in touch with her masculine side. If a man is gentle, he’s in touch with his female side. I think those gender specifics are archaic and stereotypes in and of themselves. I don’t know what the prerequisite is. How does a woman speak for peace? I think there are women that are doing it. This is what I mean by the individual stuff, where it becomes so methodical. You see it aspects of religion. There was a woman called Peace Pilgrim, who walked for peace, and wrote about it. In terms of a theatrical voice, I don’t know. I think the label of what it means to be a woman, in and of itself becomes stereotyped.
Q: There are conflicts all around us. As a woman artist, as an artist, what can we do, or is there anything we can do?
Fengar: We can create plays that create our vision of the future of the world as we would like it to be.
Caridad: You make a choice when you are writing. What story am I going to tell? Who am I going to throw the light upon? That’s what you are doing as a writer. You are throwing light upon something. You’re telling, whoever your imagined audience is, we don’t even know if anybody is going to see the thing, I want to throw light upon this because your heart, your soul is telling you this needs to be told. This needs to speak. You are compelled. So in that act of decision making, if you are an X, that’s going to manifest in the work. If you are making work towards peacebuilding, that becomes the center of what you throw light upon. Whether it be for the negative or the positive of that mirror.
Kara Lee: Doing that is an act of love and compassion because you do feel something towards that X or Y or whatever it us. And if you didn’t, you wouldn’t put the energy and your life into it. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are at a place where we can say, “This is exactly what I’m going to do for peace.” We may want to get there, and we may fantasize about that, but all we can do is want that, and do what we do best in the hopes of it making a drop in the bucket. I don’t want to sound cynical about that. I worry about making art goal oriented in that particular way.
Dael: A couple of years ago, I wrote a play called Black n’ Blue Boys/Broken Men. It’s a solo piece. It’s written about all men who’ve been abused, but women can play it as well. It’s written where anybody of any race can do it, any sex can do it. We tend to look as men as abusers. We don’t look at them as being abused. In the piece, I have female predators. If we’re talking about peace as it were, looking at what is human, and humane and inhumane, is the thing that brings about any kind of peace. Any kind of humanism. Peaceism. I think that’s what it is, unafraid to look at that.
Q: What would your advice be for people who have a drawer full of plays? They are sending them out, they are trying to get them done, do you know of untapped resources, or tricks?
Kara Lee: What’s been my experience and it’s been frustrating that resources tend to get more scarce, at least they have in recent years. Myself and others I know have had more and more cancelled productions, because companies are like, “Oh we just went belly up, sorry.” In a lot of ways, it doesn’t look good. I think that it’s more about relying on your community. Finding who your people are, who have access to a space that you can bring people to see your work. Doing quality work. Building an audience. A lot of that is DIY from the ground up. I wish I knew other tricks. What has been the most solid for me is building a community, having a foundation is invaluable.
Q: Is there a director that you feel inspired by?
Fengar: Michael Barakiva of Yale, he was the one that suggested a prequel to The Tempest, but he wanted it to be about the Ottoman and Turks. What helps if you have a director, is that maybe they can peddle your wares. They have connections that you might not have. If you have a website, if it’s your literary form and you love it, keep writing them. Put your plays on the website. Let people download the whole thing. Charles Mee does it. The nature of ownership is changing drastically. I have an agent, I still put everything out there.
Dael: I was thinking about this in reference to Yellowman. Do you want to be a star, or do you want to be an artist? That would play to who you would contact. One of the people that I’m in contact with, I’ve been in contact with for six or seven years now. I’ve been hanging out with this organization called Rattlestick. Rattlestick to doing great work. Do they have any money? No. Having said that, “Are they supportive of their people?” Yes. What kind of writer do you want to be? That will inform who you send your work to. And who you want to surround yourself with- that vibe. The decision is what kind of work do you want to do? What kind of artist are you? That’s your homework. That will inform who you want to do this with.
Maxine: Doing your own homework. That’s such a great phrase. Julia’s reading room, the League itself has and will continue to have- we keep talking about how, within ourselves-we can be a development tool for each other.
This event was organized by the Networking Committee of the League of Professional Theatre Woman, (Richarda Abrams, Romy Nordlinger, Committee Co-Chairs). The League of Professional Theatre Women, Inc. is an advocacy organization with a mission to reinforce the positive image of, promote the visibility of, and increase opportunities for women in the arts and entertainment industries, more particularly professional theatre. Information about LPTW can be found at http://www.theatrewomen.org.
Jenny Lyn Bader
Plays include None of the Above (New Georges), Manhattan Casanova (Hudson Stage), winner of the Edith Oliver Award (O’Neill Center); and Mona Lisa Speaks (Core Ensemble). One-acts include Miss America (NY Int’l Fringe Festival, “Best of Fringe” selection) and Worldness (Humana Festival). Ten of her one-acts are published in Smith & Kraus’ Best 10-Minute Play series. She co-founded Theatre 167, where she co-authored The Jackson Heights Trilogy, I Like to Be Here (New Ohio Theatre), and The Church of Why Not; and wrote History of Communication for Queens Theatre’s World’s Fair Play Festival (NY Times Critics’ Pick). She co-authored How We Are Connected (Museo Del Barrio; Brooklyn Museum) and has been the featured playwright in NYMadness (Cherry Lane) and a Lark Playwriting Fellow. A Harvard graduate, she is a member of the Dramatists Guild and LPTW. Her verse play In Flight will premiere at Turn to Flesh Productions in May. http://www.jennylynbader.com/
Kara Lee Corthron
Kara Lee Corthron’s plays include JULIUS BY DESIGN (Fulcrum), ETCHED IN SKIN ON A SUNLIT NIGHT (InterAct), ALICEGRACEANON (New Georges), HOLLY DOWN IN HEAVEN (Forum Theatre, DC), LISTEN FOR THE LIGHT, and WELCOME TO FEAR CITY. She’s the 2014-2015 Naked Angels Issues Project Resident Playwright. Awards include the Boomerang Fund for Artists Grant, 2012-2014 Women’s Project Lab Time Warner Fellowship, Vineyard’s Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, Princess Grace Award, Helen Merrill Award, three MacDowell fellowships, residencies at Skriðuklaustur (Iceland), Djerassi, Hawthornden (Scotland), and the Millay Colony. Development: Ars Nova, Berkeley Rep, CenterStage (Baltimore), E.S.T., Haulbowline Theatre Group (Ireland), New Dramatists, New Georges, Orchard Project, P73, PlayPenn, Seven Devils (Guest Artist, 2012), South Coast Rep, the Vineyard, and the Women’s Project. TV: KINGS (NBC-Universal, 2008-2009). Kara is also the author of the young adult novel, THE DISTANCE FROM ME TO YOU, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, 2016. Juilliard alumna. http://www.karaleecorthron.com/
Fengar Gael has had workshops and/or productions at the Sundance Theatre Lab, New York Stage and Film, the Utah Shakespearean Festival, the InterAct Theatre of Philadelphia, New Jersey Repertory, the Salt Lake Acting Company, the Moxie Theatre of San Diego, The Kitchen Dog Theatre of Dallas, The Seanachai Theatre of Chicago, and in New York: Urban Stages, the Resonance Ensemble, CAP 21 and MultiStages. She is a recipient of the Craig Noel Award, the Playwrights First Award, and commissions from South Coast Repertory, the National New Play Network, and a fellowship from the California Arts Council. Most recently, The Gallerist was performed at the Rorschach Theatre; Gift of Forgotten Tongues at the Venus Theatre; The Island of No Tomorrows by MultiStages in New York; Devil Dog Six at the Landing Theatre of Houston and The Last Lot was given a reading at the Manhattan Theatre Works Newborn Festival. Fengar is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women and the Playwrights Circle, The Dramatists Guild, and Playwrights Gallery. http://fengar.com/
Stage works include: Freedom Is My Middle Name, Cinnamon & Nutmeg, The Best of Strangers, The Keeper, Anybody I want To Be, Just One Step, Revival, The Dolls, Sequestered, and 26501. The works have been produced in New York, Canada and San Francisco. Television credits include: For the PBS Reading Rainbow Series: “The Sign Painter’s Dream,” “Uncle Jed’s Barbershop,” and :Always My Dad.: Teleplay titled, “Hollow Image” was an ABC production and later repeated on the Showtime Channel. Awards and Fellowships are as follows: 2 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Series, The Theodore Ward Prize in Playwriting, a recipient of a New York Foundation For The Arts Fellowship, nominated by the New York Women In Film & Television for the New York Women’s Agenda 2013 “Galaxy Award”. The teleplay, “Hollow Image” was selected for the National Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT. and in connection with the conference; the teleplay won the ABC Theatre Award. Published works: The Best of Strangers-Facing Forward Anthology-Broadway Play Publishing, Freedom Is My Middle Name-Dramatic Play Publishing Co. Anybody I Want To Be and Just One Step-published by Plays For Living, Revival in Center Stage Anthology-Sea Urchin Press. Member of The Writer’s Guild of America, East, The Dramatists Guild, The League of Professional Theater Women, New York Women In Film & Television, and New York Women’s Agenda. Lee was a guest speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice & Special Education Schools – New York City.
Dael Orlandersmith’s award-winning plays have been commissioned and presented by theatres across the U.S. Her plays include Stoop Stories (world premiere, Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, 2009, also presented at CTG/Kirk Douglas Theatre, The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival and Apollo Theater’s Salon Series); Black n’ Blue Boys/Broken Men (world premiere, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2012, co-commission with Goodman Theatre and BRT); Horsedreams (world premiere, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 2011, developed by New Dramatists and New York Stage and Film); Bones (world premiere, KDT, 2010, commissioned by Center Theatre Group); The Blue Album (world premiere, Long Wharf Theatre, 2007, in collaboration with David Cale); Yellowman (world premiere, McCarter Theatre, 2002, co-production with The Wilma Theater; Pulitzer Prize finalist; Drama Desk Award nominee, Outstanding Play, Outstanding Actress); The Gimmick (world premiere, McCarter Theatre, 1998, Susan Blackburn Prize; Long Wharf Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop); Monster (world premiere, New York Theatre Workshop,1996); Beauty’s Daughter (world premiere, American Place Theatre, 1995; Obie Award). Currently, she is working on Lady in Denmark (Goodman Theatre commission) and Antonio’s Song/I was dreaming of a Son. Orlandersmith has toured extensively with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (Real Live Poetry) throughout the United States, Europe and Australia. Yellowman and a collection of her earlier works have been published by Vintage Books and Dramatists Play Service. She attended Sundance Institute Theatre Lab for four summers and is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, The Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, a Guggenheim and the 2005 PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for a playwright in mid-career and a Lucille Lortel Foundation Playwrights Fellowship.
Caridad Svich received the 2012 OBIE for Lifetime Achievement, the 2013 National Latino Playwriting Award, and the 2011 Primus Prize from the American Theatre Critics Association, and she has been short-listed for the PEN USA West Award in Drama four times. 2009 received LPTW’s Lee Reynolds Award. Among her key plays are 12 OPHELIAS, IPHIGENIA CRASH LAND FALLS…, and THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS (based on the Isabel Allende novel). She is alumna of New Dramatists, founder of No Passport Theatre Alliance & Press, and associate editor of Contemporary Theatre Review for Routledge UK. She has edited several books on theatre and performance. Her work is published by TCG, Smith & Kraus, Seagull Books, Eyecorner Press, Manchester University Press and more. Caridad is an affiliated artist and/or member artist with New Georges, Lark Play Development Center and Ensemble Studio Theatre. Visit her at http://www.caridadsvich.com/ and http://www.nopassport.org/
Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon and Taxman. She has guest starred on “One Life to Live,” “As the World Turns,” and “New York Undercover.” Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington and Roscoe Orman. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.
NYTW Presents New York Premiere of Pulitzer Prize Finalist Dael Orlandersmith’s Solo Show FOREVER, April 22 – May 31
Mar. 23: League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW) Presents “Roundtable Discussion: Writing Plays By, For, or About Women” at Theater Lab Featuring Dael Orlandersmith, Caridad Svich, Jenny Lyn Bader, Lee Hunkins, Kara Lee Corthron, Fengar Gael
Cheryl L. Davis’ Maid’s Door Sweeps AUDELCOs with 7 Wins; Complete List of 2014 AUDELCO Recipients
Chapman Roberts, Loretta Abbott, André De Shields, David Greer, Norm Lewis, Cherine Anderson, Lawrence Evans, Colby Christina & Nicholas A. Jenkins to Receive Special AUDELCO Awards on Nov. 17; 2014 AUDELCO Nominees Announced
2014 AUDELCO Nominations Announced; Ceremony at Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space on November 17
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Rebecca Naomi Jones kicks off run as Yitzhak in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH on April 14
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Photos: National Black Theatre Festival 2013; NBTF runs August 3-8, 2015 and will include Act III – A Celebration of Life Reception saluting the late theatre icon Garland Lee Thompson, Sr.
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Crafting a Career
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