Monday, June 30, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: Elizabeth Spreen

In our latest installlment of Interview with a Playwright, I spoke with local Bay Area playwright, E.Hunter Spreen of Split the Stick of this year's Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Check it out!

E. Hunter Spreen

Natasha Brown: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?

Elizabeth Spreen: It depends on the play. The style and tone of Split the Stick is something I’m more comfortable with.

NB: Are there any interesting stories about how your play came into being?

ES: I was working on another play with the same characters and I was really frustrated with it. So I thought "Try something else!" and gave myself an exercise.  Characters were put in a different situation for a month, and in that month we played.  In that time something interesting started to occurs.  As I’ve continued to work on it, I got to like it more and more and eventually it took off and was really fascinating.

NB: That’s really great advice for playwrights. I’m very interested in your play cycle, ‘The Dumb Puppy.' You have said that each play “traces a potential result of America’s projection of power across the planet”. In [Split the Stick], I feel that you show us the scars that are left on imperialists upon their return to their home country. Am I on the right page? Tell me more about this.

ES: Absolutely! I was interested in how I might bring that onto the stage without being didactic or like a documentary. We go to these wars in other countries without thinking about the larger impact on the rest of the world. One of the things I’ve been thinking about and playing around with since 9/11 is political theatre and what sort of strategies we can take to present stories that are political. I want people to look at this and not be turned off by it. I want a story that draws you in and afterwards makes you think “Oh, wait a minute.”

NB: I think your play definitely has the potential to do that. I really like the character of Gertrude Bell, particularly because of her historical symbolism and also how she interacts in the play. How did this character develop?

ES: I found her diaries; she was a fascinating woman for her time. She traveled the world alone and drew the map of modern day Iraq. So, I was intrigued by the Gertrude Bell character but I wasn’t sure how to handle her. I had to be careful in the material I was choosing. I was trying to look at the different facets of her character to use as a metaphor in the play. I was interested in looking at how Gertrude Bell’s life has had a lasting impact in a positive and negative way. 


Gertrude Bell

NB: Wow, that’s such a great insight and a part of history that is often forgotten. What do you want the audience to experience whilst watching your play?

ES: I would like them to make the larger political connection and also have an experience of what the consequences of the war have been. These consequences do not necessarily extend just to the soldiers or families of soldiers - they have global consequences. It will be interesting to hear what the audience thinks of it.

NB: It will be. Okay, last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

ES: Sarah Kane; she would be my first. Howard Barker. Shakespeare, Beckett, Sam Shepard. What Sarah Kane was doing was so good I wish we could have seen where she was going with it. There was something amazing happening with the way she used language and space that I don’t see other playwrights doing. Emerging writers should study whatever interests them. Read widely. Think about space and how to use a theatrical space.  Read Certain Fragments by Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment. I love how Forced Entertainment makes you feel very present; there is an urgency, a relevance. Read diverse plays. I was reading an article the other day about the possibility of multicultural casting and institutions. How can they be talking about this now? This isn’t a new idea. We’ve been talking about this for over 30 years. I think people want theatre that challenges them. That’s what we need to be making.

NB: Thanks, Elizabeth!

Split the Stick will have staged readings on July 20th at 4pm and July 26th at12pm. Get your tickets here!
The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. 



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: Don Nguyen

It's Natasha again! I'm back with our interview series, this week with playwright Don Nguyen whose play Sound explores identity and Deaf culture.
Don Nguyen

Natasha Brown: Thank you for letting me interview you! First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?

Don Nguyen: I think my style does change depending on the play I’m writing. With most of my really serious plays I inject as much humor in it as possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to watch it myself. I guess, in that respect, all of my plays have a certain layer of humor. However, I think the type of play does demand a certain level of difference in writing style. 
  
NB: Yeah, I agree. Are there any interesting stories about how your new play, Sound, came into being?

DN: I spent some time at Martha’s Vineyard (where the play is set) for a writer’s retreat. I did some research about the island and found out that, at one point, the island had the highest concentration of deaf people in the country. What I found interesting was that there were so many deaf people on the island, all of the hearing people had to learn their sign language in order to communicate with them. Back then it was about hearing people integrating into their society as opposed to the other way around. It made me want to write about identity.

Martha's Vineyard

NB: Wow, I bet that's something a lot of our audiences won't know. That's really fascinating. For you personally, how did Deaf culture become a necessary topic for you to write about?

DN: Before I wrote the play, I actually never had any personal experience with or attachment to Deaf culture. My father is getting older and is slowly losing his hearing. It’s been on my mind. When I’m at a loud party and I can’t hear a single word anyone is saying I think “Is it just me or is it really loud in here?” Those experiences provoked my na├»ve fears about losing my hearing. Since writing this play, doing research and working with Deaf artists, I’ve learned that deafness is not a handicap or a disability.  A deaf person can do everything a hearing person can do, except hear.  But also, there are many things deaf people can do that hearing people can’t do, one of which is being able to sign at loud parties! I realized what a great experience it is to have relationships with people I felt completely unattached to before.

NB: That's really great. What makes this play different from other plays written by hearing people about deaf people/culture?

DN: One of the challenges for the festival is how we make sure both deaf and hearing audiences can understand. I think that my play is bilingual – half of it is written in Sign and the other half is written for hearing audiences. My play is definitely trying to do a lot more than a lot of other plays about or including deaf people are designed or willing to do. What we did in a New York reading is to use supertitles that told the audience the general idea of the scene, and then the entire scene would be signed onstage and our hearing audiences would watch the scene unfold. They were forced to get out of their comfort zone, which I think is important. I’m not trying to “represent” Deaf culture because I’m not deaf myself. I’m trying to represent the universal theme shared by deaf and hearing people alike, which is identity and how it shapes us based on our unique circumstances.

NB: Yes, and we know that you have worked extensively with deaf people to make this play inclusive and accurate. What has the process been like? Have you experienced any pushbacks?

DN: Thankfully, I’ve not experienced any pushbacks from the Deaf community, which is one thing I was very sensitive about. The response has been really positive. There is a sense of happiness that someone is writing about their culture and that they get to tell their stories onstage. I’ve had positive feedback about accurately depicting the experiences of many deaf people.

NB: Last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

DN: I would say definitely there are a lot of great new playwrights that writers should read: Everyone in the Ma-Yi Writers lab including past festival participants Kimber Lee, Jiehae Park, Lauren Yee, Mia Chung, and Clarence Coo.  Also Lucas Hnath, Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Rajiv Joseph, Brandon Jacobs Jenkins, Laura Marks, Bekah Brunstetter, Kate Gersten, Yussef El Guindi, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Sam Hunter, Jessica Dickey, and Marcus Gardley just to name a very few.  

NB: Thanks, Don!

Check out Don's hilarious blog, Sad Playwright, for a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of playwriting.

Sound is showing on July 20th at 12pm and July 27th at 4pm. Get your tickets here!

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Interview with Phillip Howze, playwright of "abominable"


Welcome to the 37th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival! I'm Natasha, one of the interns at this year's festival, and I will be posting a series of interviews with the playwrights in the next few weeks leading up to the festival from our incredibly talented playwrights.

The plays have been chosen, the artistic team is being finalized, and everyone at Playwrights Foundation is working very hard to make this year's festival one of the best yet. Keep checking back with our blog to stay updated on backstage scoops and information on our engaging special events throughout the festival. 

I was fortunate to interview the brilliant Phillip Howze whose play abominable is really worth checking out. 

Phillip Howze
Natasha Brown: Thank you for letting me interview you. Let's kick things off! First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play? 

Phillip Howze: With each play I’m becoming more aware of getting out of the way of the play and letting it be what it wants to be. The play is shapeless for a very long time. It takes a while to figure it out. Every play is different and it takes on the features and qualities that it intends itself to be.

NB: That makes sense. Are there any interesting stories about how this play came into being?

PH: I wrote the first draft of this play a couple of years ago, very quickly. It started as an exercise with a great professor of mine at Yale, Paula Vogel. She challenged us to write a play with a certain prompt and ingredients. Actually I’m not very good with authority so my first thought was “no!”, but eventually the idea became kind of freeing once I went with it. The draft changed dramatically over time. I’m really happy to work on it at the festival in its current state because I think that I’ve gotten to what is actually at the heart of this play.

NB: And we're happy to have you! Whilst reading your play, the hole reminded me of the digging of the hole in Suzan-Lori Park’s The America Play. I was excited to see the imagery again. The tone of this play, however, is different. What are you hoping to accomplish with the hole in your play?

PH: Of course Suzan-Lori is someone I love and admire. I think she describes that hole as a kind of metaphor for the history of America. Recently, in Florida all of these crazy sinkholes were opening up all over the place. My parents live there and I visit them and often think about that geological phenomenon. The hole in this play is likely more literal. But it is ambiguous whether the husband is digging himself into it or out of it. Of course anyone who sees it may project whatever they want onto it. I encourage that.

Suzan-Lori Parks
NB: You play around with the use of sound a lot in the play, whether it is through the blackout transitions or words being distorted in some way. The writing is also very lyrical. What do you want the audience to experience whilst watching your play in terms of the soundscapes?

PH: As a writer, I’m interested in the visual and aural landscape too. There is a lot in this play about listening versus hearing – the idea of something going in one ear and out the other. How does that information change on its route? How does your imagination change it? Everything goes through a filter and that filter is how we are interpreting or making meaning of the things we are engaging in. In part, I think the heightened speech and sound in the play reflects that disruption. 

NB: I agree. This play really highlights the economic strife of the family in very bleak and despairing ways. However, I’ve heard that you actually see the play more like a comedy. Could you tell me more about this?

PH: It’s strange because the story, though dark and eerie, is also incredibly funny. In life, we laugh to get through the hard moments. And I think that this family laughs a lot with each other, despite their circumstance. There might be a tragic framework, yes, but the characters don’t know that. They’re trying to have a good time together. For the spectator looking at it, it might seem abject but that’s only one half of the story. We can choose to laugh with them. In a lot of Shakespeare’s tragedies, there are flits of comedy throughout. A similar combination of light and dark are operating in this play. 

NB: Last question: whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

PH: It’s important to read as much as you can. Read everything you can get your hands on. Never stop reading. Playwrights who have been meaningful to me over the years have been many, but especially the Classical writers. The Greeks. I love a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. But go to witness a lot of theatre too, because it will motivate the work that you’re making and it’s always been an important thing to me to be part of the community in that way. Get involved. Bear witness to things that are happening around you. And read the newspaper. Trying to stay informed about the world is a very important part of being a writer.

NB: Thanks, Phillip! 

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. abominable is showing on July 19th, 4pm and July 26th, 8pm. Get your tickets here!