Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ozma of Oz: A Tale of Dorothy’s Return to Oz, Unlikely Heroes, and Fluid Gender Identities

written by Gillian Heitman, Artistic Director Fellow and Production Assistant for Ozma of Oz

Rough Reading: Ozma of Oz, written and directed by Rob Melrose

zma of Oz is a trip hop rock musical that centers on Dorothy and her quest to save the royal family of Ev from the evil Nome King, based on the third book from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. She is aided by her old friends: Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, as well as new friends such as Sawhorse, TikTok, Tiger, a feisty chicken named Billina, and, most mysterious and wonderful of all, Princess Ozma.

A theme that stands out is being more than what you’re born as. The show’s use of gender bending enhances this theme and allows for an open discourse on sexuality. Many actors played characters with the opposite gender and there was a lot of discussion of what best served the story and how changing the gender of the actor altered the meaning of the scene. Another way gender is so fluidly dealt with is with the character of Ozma, who describes her childhood as a boy and asks Dorothy if it confuses her. “No, not at all,” Dorothy replies, “I think because I’ve spent time in Oz, things that may seem strange to some people don’t seem strange to me.” Dorothy’s journey is a discovery of self as much as it is a discovery of her own sexuality. Her acceptance and attraction for Ozma shows how we can find ourselves in untraditional places.

Tristan Cunningham as Ozma
Inspiration for Ozma of Oz began when Rob Melrose, artistic director and co-founder of The Cutting Ball Theater, read the Ozma of Oz novel to his daughter around the same time as listening to the music of Z.O.N.K., a trip hop rock band which creates distinctly urban and San Franciscan sounding music. Something about all of those Z’s struck a chord with him and he soon began working on an Ozma of Oz musical, commissioning Z.O.N.K. to work at The Cutting Ball Theater for the project.

Last week, Ozma of Oz received its third staged reading at the Rough Reading series here at PF. It was a complicated rehearsal schedule due to the Thanksgiving holiday, but the cast and creative team pulled through to get a rewarding and insightful experience.

When working with such a large and rich story, one important consideration was how the future production value would determine the development of the show. Would it be better to write for a big Broadway budget or for more of a club atmosphere? Ultimately, Rob decided to write the best San Francisco Cutting Ball version and see where it goes from there.

While the first reading helped develop the songs and music of the show, at the Rough Readings this past week Rob chose to play only three recordings (which were excellently played) and have the cast sing the rest of the show a cappella. This decision was made so that the audience and actors could focus on the lyrics and meaning behind the songs rather than on the musical notes. The result is the audience got a taste of Z.O.N.K.’s musical styling while also being given the time to fully grasp the emotional content, depth, and humor of the songs and characters.


Missed Ozma this time around? Well, it’ll be back in July as part of Playwrights Foundation’s 37th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. So take a ride on a green magic carpet and join us for the next reincarnation of this exciting, new, and uniquely San Franciscan musical!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Go On Living: A Tale of an Accidental Activist

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, playwright
written by Sophia Naylor, Production Fellow and Production Assistant for Go On Living

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's powerful new work-in-progress Go On Living is centered around the life of poet Liao Yiwu. Yiwu spent four years in prison in China for his poem Massacre, which condemned his government's violent reaction to the Tiananmen Square protests. When the play begins, Yiwu (who is still living in exile in Berlin) isn't wrapped up in politics, but instead with living the way he wants to: whether that is to drink when he wants to drink, to make love to beautiful women, or to write a poem about a national tragedy. As we watch Yiwu's experience in prison, we witness his beautifully reconstructed relationships with his fellow inmates, adapted from his memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey Through A Chinese Prison. He's not a man intending to be inspirational; he simply can't help but inspire others.

Go On Living was part of the Rough Reading Series, a monthly program of new plays in development. Normally, plays receive 10 hours of rehearsal and then two readings back to back. This November, we were fortunate enough to work with the New Play Practicum at UC Berkeley, and through their support were able to have 20 hours of rehearsal and readings spaced a week apart. (Thank you guys!) This gave Frances more time for rewrites, which she took complete advantage of. Between our reading at Stanford and our reading at Berkeley, Frances completely transformed the play, which was exciting and frightening. But that's what we here at the Playwrights Foundation are all about: giving playwrights the space and support to wreck havoc on their work to create something completely different and new.

It wasn't only frightening for Frances--it was nerve-wracking for the actors too. They would come into each rehearsal and ask, "Who am I playing now?" (Usually we would know.) And bless their huge hearts, they were faster than lightning on their feet--flat out amazing. I loved watching director Mei Ann Teo constantly moving around, gesticulating passionately, even after her back went out. Because of the extra rehearsal time, this was certainly a reading where people weren't bounded by their physical scripts: actress El Beh played her cello while swinging it around the stage with the help of actor-script-holder Ogie Zulueta,* who later read while doing a handstand. Watching them take the text and move with it was something special, and something you don't get to see much in readings. That extra rehearsal time allowed Frances to see her work staged, which is just as important as hearing it at a reading. Following all that rehearsal came the performance, and then it was all over.

After the theatrical fanfare of a well-written show (or in this case, a first act--we're eagerly waiting for more, Frances!), you can go over all the details of the production, but the most important question is, did it move people? One of the most fulfilling moments of this entire experience was hearing a young Chinese woman talk about her experience watching the show. She had grown up in China, but she had never heard of Liao Yiwu, and had only a cursory knowledge of what had happened in Tiananmen Square. As she said, talking about those kinds of things in China was "forbidden." For Frances to be able to listen to reactions like that while still writing her piece must be invaluable for the development of her work. That is the crux of what a Rough Reading can offer a writer; and at the same time this same reading can educate and inspire an entire audience.

*A Member of Actors' Equity Association

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Day in the Life of...

Gillian Heitman, Artistic Fellow at Playwrights Foundation

Gillian Heitman
Tuesdays are my Mondays…and my Saturdays. 

Such is life when you work 7 days a week at two places. I’m very tired since I was up since 5:30 A.M. yesterday and didn’t get home until a quarter to midnight. The good news is I was at Playwrights Foundation’s Fall 2013 Rough Readings at Stanford, hearing playwright Dipika Guha’s new work, Herculine and Lola, being brought to life by an ensemble of eight talented actors. It’s a known truth that plays are meant to be performed, not simply read, and that’s exactly what happened at the Rough Readings. The actors brought genuine emotion, made real connections with each other, and some even came in costume, which was a nice visual for the color heavy symbolism in the play. Though it’s not the same as seeing a fully produced show, there’s something thrilling about seeing new work being presented and hearing the writer receive feedback on where to go from here. 

After such an exciting night, I’m glad to be coming into the PF office today.  We’re getting ready for a benefit next month and there’s still casting to do for the remaining two Rough Readings of the season. Stuffing envelopes may not seem fun to most, but I’ll gladly take it over working on data entry on Vendini for four hours straight. And the materials we are putting together are so fun and cute! I definitely would want to go if I got an invite like that.

In the afternoon, we decide Laura is the “rebel” fellow. Really, she’s more like our wacky leader. We went on a “fellow party” to the post office and then to Peets, thanks to her. It was awesome.  I got a s’more that was amazing! Just another great day at PF…


Plays: A Place for Paths to Cross

Take a walk with Playwrights Foundation this Fall, as we journey to places near and far as we present to you our latest Rough Reading season. We first meet with Dipika Guha with her new play HERCULINE AND LOLA-  an epic love story of two people stranded in their own time, yet bound together by inexplicable force. 




I often find that my plays emerge from some small instinct I have that there might be connections between seemingly disparate things. Or, as my teacher Ken Prestininzi once more eloquently said, “plays are a place where things that don’t normally touch, touch’. The story of writing this play was, for me, one of learning to trust that that the connections between disparate elements exist, even when we can’t always see them. 

In 2008 I wrote a short play called Habeas Corpus. The play takes place in the crossing of two stories. One was about two inmates held at Guantanamo and the second was about a teenager who learns that they are intersex (or biologically both male and female). I was led to the material by the dim sensation that there might be some connection between torture, democracy and our impulse to rigidly categorise gender and sex. I thought the play would no longer be relevant after 2008 because Guantanamo would most certainly be closed by the end of the year.

Two years went by with the right to a fair trial or habeas corpus still suspended in the United States, Guantanamo still open and our thinking still as polarised.  So instead of thinking the play irrelevant I then tried to expand it!  But it wouldn’t! The harder I tried, the more mute the characters became, and my effort ground to a halt. At the end of that frustrating time, my mentor Paula Vogel and I had a conversation where she instructed me to her wife Anne Fausto Sterling’s pioneering work on intersexuality and her wonderful book Sexing the Body. Paula also told me to read the Diary of Herculine Barbin, a first person account of the short life of a French nineteenth century intersex school teacher. Herculine Barbin turned out to be the connective tissue I needed to expand the ideas if not the story of Habeas Corpus.

By that time my ambitions for myself and the play had altered. I wanted to work on this new play like a painter works on a canvas. I wanted to treat the progression of colour and space in the play with the same curiosity and interest as I would story and narrative. I was deeply interested in the use of painterly abstraction in, say someone like Van Gogh (who is very present in this play) who uses shards to build a realistic picture versus the effect of an overall abstraction through solid colour like Rothko (who is also present) to create landscapes. Eventually I discovered I could perhaps create both kinds of abstraction if I used a tripartite structure where each part of the play would use a different technique or style. So in Herculine [and Lola] we follow plot in the first part (Red) as it bounces around cinematically. We’re in stasis in the second part (White) which is for the most part a conversation between two people in a single location and finally we return to the plot in the final part (Blue) only time has passed and all the characters we return to are five years older.


With Herculine and Lola I’ve tried to write something I’ve been yearning to see on stage. Something that has the scope of a novel but is in essence theatrical. Something that would let me have my own “phase” guided by colours, because I so envy painters and their ability to submerge themselves in a single colour for years on end. And something that would speak to the fact that there is a whole spectrum that exists between black and white, male and female, past and present-a play that could hold all this and still tell a story. As I write this, I feel quite I’ve failed many of these ambitions. But it’s an experiment I believe in wholeheartedly, as I do in the necessity of creating new worlds to hold the voices of voices who do not always get a space to exist on the world stage in their own times and in ours.

Written by Dipika Guha, playwright

Join Playwrights Foundation and Theatre of Yugen for HERCULINE AND LOLA this Tuesday, October 15 at 7pm at NOH Space.

Rough Readings are PAY WHAT YOU CAN
Send us your RSVP and we'll save you a seat!


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Making Theatre Matter: Talk and Action


Now there's one more reason to look forward to Friday. 

At 2pm tomorrow the BAPF is hosting an incredible panel of theater makers who use their art to engage the world's problems. The discussion, Making Theatre in a Messed Up World, takes its name from moderator Velina Brown's TBA blog post of the same name.

It's free! It's open to the public, and it will inspire you.
(If you're out of town, watch the livestream or the archive)

Who are we going to speak with?
  • jump-up-and-down-and-march-with-me rabble rousers
  • introspective writers who hit where it hurts
  • activists in neighbourhoods, prisons and classrooms. 
Many are locals—all are nationally renowned. Names below! We're going to put it to them straight in this two part seminar

Part I: Why theatre?

When we decide to make a change, fight an injustice, why turn to the stage? What is it that the performing arts has that no other tool has? Why do we put on make-up and costumes instead of marching or going door-to-door? What makes the stage more powerful than the megaphone?

Part II: How?

These panelists are experts in all different styles. Their performances are devised, hip-hop, circus-inspired, musical, dramatic, and poetic. They use transcriptions and adaptations and (our favorite) brand-new writing. These panellists put the audience member in a different position, each dependent on the different style. Are you watching the story, waiting on edge to boo, hiss or cheer? Are you an active creator of the story? The means, as always, are just as important and varied as the ends.

Without further ado, let's meet our amazing guests.
Velina Brown (Symposium Leader)


Rhodessa Jones, Cultural Odyssey

Lindsay Krumbein (Gritty City Rep)

Margo Hall (Actress, Member Campo Santo)

Michael Rohd (Sojourn Theater)

Michael Gene Sullivan (SF Mime Troupe)

Dael Orlandersmith (Playwright - PF Workshop Instructor)

Richard Montoya (Culture Clash)

Torange Yeghiazarian (Golden Thread)

Ryan Nicole Austin (NuDekades and Mouthoff)

Sean San Jose (Actor, Director, Member Campo Santo)

Kinan Valdez (El Teatro Campesino)

Christine Young (USF Department of Theater and Social Justice)

Joan Holden (Playwright, Former SF Mime Troupe lead writer)

Kimber Lee (BAPF Playwright, author of brownsville song [b-side for tray])

Phew! So if you ever wanted to meet any of these fabulous movers and shakers, tomorrow is the time! It's going to be a open conversation, with panelists -  not lecturing -  but engaging with the audience in a seat-swapping, hard hitting, honest discussion. Everyone who wants to speak can speak and have their topics heard in an open forum. 

The event will be ABSOLUTELY FREE, followed by snacks from Mediterranean restaurant Pera and complimentary wine!

This symposium will be simultaneously live-streamed through #newplaytv. So catch the conversation there if you can't be with us on the day.  


So. That's the talk, but what about the walk? You'll really to see the political work we're fostering at the moment. Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray) is playing at 8pm that night. This graceful, lyrical work. Unpretentious, funny, gentle, but with plenty of teeth, this play acts as a witness and not a commentator, challenging the definition of "political" theatre. It is a must-see event.

photo by Jim Norrena


So join us Friday for these two great events. Talk the talk and walk the walk, meet some collaborators, find some friends. Lets get angry then happy then moved by turns.
It's a great time to be alive and making art!