Friday, March 28, 2008

Interview with Marisela Treviño Orta

Playwrights Foundation presents a reading of local playwright, Marisela Treviño Orta’s Woman on Fire at the SF Playhouse this Monday, March 31st.  This reading kicks off Playwrights Foundation’s eight-week In The Rough Reading Series.  Marisela won the 2006 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize in Drama, and is currently working on a commission for the Marin Theatre Company called American Triage.  Marisela is also a flourishing poet, and has been published in BorderSenses, Double Room, 26: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics and Traverse.

Click here for more about Marisela's Reading

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Playwrights Foundation invites you to read an interview with Marisela about her history as a poet and her journey as a Latina playwright:

PF:  As someone who has a long history writing poetry, how do you feel it influences your playwriting?

MO: My poetics are very present in my playwriting. In fact almost all the prosodic elements I use to craft poetry are part of my playwriting.

As poet I’m very image driven and I’m finding the same to be true about my playwriting. I love that images can be layered with multiple meanings and metaphors.

I also find that verse often works its way into my plays, sometimes as actual poems or as poetic prose. That’s definitely the poet in me coming out. Sometimes I can only express a character through poetry, as if verse and prose are the only suitable way for them to speak given a particular emotional state.

But I have to say that I think theatre in general is very poetic. That’s what first drew me to playwriting. Plays are like living poems: visual, emotional, narrative. Lorca said, “A play is a poem standing up.” I couldn’t agree more.

PF:  Is there a particular poet who's work you find inspiring, or who has strongly influenced your poetry?

MO:  As I mentioned earlier, I’m an image-driven poet. So one of the Imagists that first comes to mind is William Carlos Williams. His poem To A Poor Old Woman is one of my favorite poems. It appears deceptively simple, but the rhythm, the imagery, and the poet’s choice in line endings are crafted so tightly. So much of his work is like that, deceptively simple and incredibly powerful.

The past six years or so I’ve been focusing mainly on writing prose poems. Poets working in this form that I find particularly inspirational are Truong Tran, Naomi Shihab Nye and Maurice Kilwein Guevara.


PF:  Can you talk a little about the genesis of Woman on Fire and the process you’ve undergone in developing it.

MO:  Woman on Fire began as a bake off for the Latino Playwrights Initiative, a program coordinated by Austin Script Works and Teatro Vivo to develop new work by Latino playwrights. By bake off, I mean the submission call to participate in LPI’s festival required that the plays include a set of ingredients: 1) a rolling pin, 2) edge (in any sense of the word) and 3) an overwhelming, holy and utterly empty pause. Devastatingly sad and deeply joyous, with no value or dramaturgical/structural meaning for the performer or the audience, true cessation in action, intent, movement and thought - a moment of pure living, of supra-rational awareness.

The one act version of Woman on Fire was selected for LPI’s Primer Pasos: Un Festival de Latino Plays. My play was one of five read in the festival in October 2006. Then in early 2007 LPI coordinators offered me a commission to write a full length for the second phase of the Initiative and I began expanding Woman on Fire into a full length.

Last summer the one act version was part of the Playwright Festival’s BASH program (Bay Area Shorts). It was during that reading that I met my Director and Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad. When BASH ended I approached Nakissa about working on the full length version and coming with me to Austin in December of 2007 for the second LPI reading. She’s continued to work as my Director and Dramaturg for the In The Rough Series as well. It’s been great to have her with me through several incarnations of the script.

That’s the technical development of the play. But I should also mention the inspirational genesis of Woman on Fire. I often refer to it as my Antigone play even though it’s not an direct adaptation per se of Sophocles’ play. I read Antigone when I in a philosophy class as an undergrad and always remembered one of the central themes we discussed in class: the law of man vs. a higher law.

The philosophical conflict in Antigone  is what I wanted to explore and I wanted to apply it to the issue of immigration and the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border post 9/11. To do so I borrowed another premise from Antigone: a body needing to be buried. However, my main character Juanita is an unwilling Antigone, she doesn’t want to bury the body.

PF:  You've worked with El Teatro Jornalero!, which is comprised of Latino immigrants.  The play that will be read for the ITR Reading Series, Woman on Fire, is in part about cultural identity.  Tell us about how your own background finds its way into your plays.

MO:  My introduction to theatre was through my work with El Teatro Jornaerlo!, a theatre company that focuses solely on social justice theatre. Since I was a teenager I’ve been very interested in the social justice issues that affect the Latino community. As a poet I had been unable to write political poems without feeling like the verse was too rhetorical.

When I was introduced to social justice theatre through my work with ETJ! I was so excited because finally, here was a form (theatre) that can explore political issues through the personal narrative of characters. That was what I learned. You get to the political through the personal, through empathy.

All of my full-length plays, thus far, are social justice plays concerning the Latino community. And, coincidently they all deal with issues concerning the U.S./Mexico border. I’m fourth generation Mexican American. I grew up speaking English, learned Spanish as I got older in school and my family has lost touch with any relatives in Mexico generations ago. Yet I’ve always felt a connection to the border. Only recently I’ve realized why: the border represents my personal struggle to articulate a cultural identity.

But I’d have to say I’m not sure if my background is making its way into my plays. I think maybe it’s the foundation for my plays.


PF:  How do you hope that the Spanish in your play (or plays?) lands on a non-spanish speaking audience. What are your thoughts about a non-Spanish speaking audience watching a play in Spanish, or a non-English speaking audience watching a play in English?

MO:  Let me answer the second question first. Audience members go to see productions in languages they don’t speak all the time, look at the Opera. Yes, they have supertitles, but you don’t have to read along in order to enjoy the performance.

Theatre is more than just dialog; it’s a complete sensory experience for an audience. They see, they hear, they connect with the actors on stage. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are many ways to experience a play and appreciate it.

When I include Spanish in a play’s dialog I am very conscious that I not repeat it in English. As someone who speaks both languages I personally find that the repetition can start to get on your nerves when it’s done ad nauseum.

I try to provide some context for the Spanish so that you can infer the meaning. I try to do this either with character dialog, so that the dialog before and after the Spanish give some hint as to what might have been said in Spanish. Or if a character is speaking in Spanish due to a physical event on stage, I try to incorporate the physical staging so that even if you don’t speak Spanish you have a general idea of what was said.

In Woman on Fire two characters reference a Spanish rhyme used for children when they hurt themselves. The first time it’s referenced as a joke, and the second time it’s used to express as a poignant exchange. If you don’t know the rhyme or don’t speak Spanish you may not get the reference. But I think any author takes that risk whenever they include a reference from another language or from classical literature or music—Just look at my Latin reference two paragraphs above.

I don’t put any important plot points in Spanish, so I don’t think an audience is missing out if they don’t speak Spanish. And, if they feel slightly outside, I’m okay with that too. In a way, that’s part of my cultural experience. The non-Spanish speaking audience members can experience a bit of exclusion, the way I did as a child when listening to my parents converse in Spanish with my grandparents. As a child I would listen to them talk, not comprehending what they were talking about. That longing, to know what was being said, to be included, stayed with me, still is with me. Even as a child I still found a way to appreciate the language, even if was just the sound, the texture. Spanish was like water, something magical, like voices muffled through a wall. I hope audience members who don’t speak Spanish will at least get a taste of that.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Interview with a Top Dramaturg

This April, Nakissa Etemad, who has worked with hundreds of playwrights including master playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tom Stoppard, will teach an exclusive class for Playwrights Foundation, revealing the secrets of theatre’s least understood profession: dramaturgy.

Read about Nakissa’s Class in the New Play Institute

Back to Playwrights Foundation

In order to give you a sneak peak into this overlooked but pivotal field, we interviewed her a about her expertise and experiences:

PF:  What is the biggest misconception you've encountered surrounding your profession?

NE:  Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions surrounding my profession. It has only existed in this country since the 1960s. I suppose one of the biggest misconceptions (and one that I have a particular dislike for) is that dramaturgs are glorified assistant directors. We are not. We have our own distinction, our own training, our own field; we focus on plays as literature and have expertise in the following: 1-placing plays into their historical context (by compiling and distributing succinct background research to actors and creative teams), 2-aiding in the development process of new plays (by working with writers to reshape their work and with directors to honorably interpret that work), 3-communicating about plays to audiences and other theatre patrons (through writing newsletter articles, hosting talkbacks, interviewing playwrights for donor events; etc), 4-serving as a sounding board for directors and writers and as a representative of the writer (by offering feedback to directors on the production before the audience arrives). I like to think of myself as a midwife in the birthing process of a play, a right-hand woman to a playwright, a third eye in rehearsal, but not an assistant who wants to grow into a directing position. We certainly aid both the director and playwright by the nature of our jobs, but dramaturgs are certainly a viable and individual position in theatre.

On a lighter note, I’d like to mention another misconception that dramaturgs-female or male-are spelled with an “e” at the end; actually, a dramaturge is the French word for playwright. I know today’s dictionaries offer the “e” or both spellings, but my UCSD graduate chair would agree that in English, we are all spelled the same, just a -turg, pronounced with a hard “g.” And the field is called -turgy, pronounced “jee”— I suppose we have the Germans who began it in the 1700s to thank for the orthography…


PF:  What was it like to work on plays with people like Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, or Charles Mee?

NE:  Working with any playwright of any stature or level of experience can be extremely gratifying. One of my more significant times has been working with arguably one of the most noted playwrights of this century: Arthur Miller. The Wilma was fortunate to be granted the rights to the second production of his penultimate play, Resurrection Blues. And I was fortunate enough to be working at the Wilma as Dramaturg & Literary Manager when we selected and produced it. He is the man who had the courage to voice his opinions against the McCarthy era in his play The Crucible, to criticize the effects of capitalism in Death of a Salesman. After years of writing satirical articles and short pieces, in 2002 he premiered his first full-length satire about a fictional dictatorship in South America, which provided him a forum to scrutinize our own government. In August of 2003, he granted me a phone interview for our Wilma newsletter, and I witnessed for myself the acerbic wit that enters into the mouths of his characters, the plain-stated passion of his beliefs. My own father is of Miller’s generation; my father, having newly immigrated to America from Iran as a student of engineering, would attend movies to learn English, and used some of his first earnings to see the first production of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Here I was talking to an icon of American culture and yet he sounded similar to my father, a man who has lived a pretty incredible life—without the Iranian accent, of course. After two minutes conversing with Miller, you know he is a man of strong opinions who is not afraid to express them, but he was easy-going with me, straightforward, quite funny, and to the point with every response to my questions. Before and during our rehearsal period, we exchanged faxes and conversations while he revised portions of the script. It was wonderful to see his craftsmanship at work and the years of dexterity appear in new lines of text, apparent from years of know-how in the business. I never got the chance to meet him in person, as he fell ill on the morning he was to attend our rehearsal, but I and everyone involved in the production felt grateful to participate in this great man’s life work.

Working with Tom Stoppard has been among my seminal experiences. While I was at the Wilma, we produced two of his plays and planned a third, the second being a rarely produced play for six actors and an orchestra that we co-produced with the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. For this piece, I had an opportunity to converse with him Charlie-Rose-style for an exclusive event at a donor’s home, and later interview him for the theatre community of Philadelphia. Stoppard is one of the most widely recognized living playwrights, and a most intelligent and gracious individual. He is such an important figure in our industry that it is easy to become tongue-tied in his presence. But he has a wonderful way of putting you at ease and showing genuine interest in your viewpoints. His play Arcadia is one of my all-time favorites, which crosses the boundaries of the imagination, combining science and art and history in profound ways. His living in London and busy schedule prevented him from attending many rehearsals, but his friendship with & faith in the ability of the Wilma’s artistic directors Blanka Zizka and Jiri Zizka always enable him to entrust his work in their capable hands. And he was always very kind and affable with me by association. Not every playwright can hand over their work so easily, and it is gratifying to see how much he enjoys the end-results and respects their work.  

Charles Mee is one of the most passionate theatre-makers I know. I had met him briefly in San Diego when he did the workshop premiere of Big Love. It was not until I worked on Big Love and Wintertime at the Wilma that I got to know him. My interviews with him were some of the most exhilarating and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had, and among the hardest to edit. He told me he had always loved the theatre, but he only began writing plays professionally after a long career writing political histories, because, in his words, he always wanted to get back to what he thought was his “true life.” Twenty-five years after graduating college and living another life, he returned to his “first passion.” This love affair is evidenced in the abandon of his characters, and the exuberance of the world of his plays. He is a playwright whose work truly lives in the imagination, flourishes in its own creativity, and inspires even when the form is non-traditional. Meeting the man who dreams these plays is quite thrilling; especially for his casts who get to play such Fellini-esque characters that not many plays can offer them. Many of his pieces include collage from other written works, some poetry, some political theory.... Our director for both pieces, Jiri Zizka, was thoroughly fascinated that Chuck posts his plays in their entirety on his website and invites readers to borrow, cut, and paste his words as inspiration for their own theatre pieces. He is a playwright with a great generosity of spirit and a joy that certainly permeates his work.


PF:  How long have you been a dramaturg?  What got you into that field?

NE:  I’ve been a dramaturg for 15 years.  I had always acted and sang throughout elementary and high school. In college I was strong in math, disliked science and loved my humanities courses. I was fairly certain I would minor in French Literature but was undeclared in my major, uncertain that I could make a career in the arts. I spent my junior year studying abroad in a Critical Studies program in Paris, took some amazing theatre classes at the University of Paris III, and saw 25 theatre productions. Essentially, my immersion in Parisian culture somehow gave me permission to embrace a life in art. Upon my return to UC San Diego, I transferred colleges and started taking theatre classes in order to find my niche. Outside of classes, I did some acting and directing, and even did my own translation of No Exit, (which was later published as a textbook for a literature class). The next quarter, I interviewed for an over-enrolled acting class. In my brief meeting with the instructor, he asked me if I knew what a dramaturg was, then said that I would be a good one and asked me to come work for him as his Literary Intern at San Diego Repertory Theatre. He was Todd Salovey, the Rep’s Associate Artistic Director. While I took his acting class, I started learning about script evaluation at the Rep, and within a month or two I began doing research on his first directing gig there. He took me under his wing in several aspects; in class I became his teaching assistant, giving feedback to fellow students on their scenework, and at the Rep I became his dramaturg for his first production: The Dybbuk. I ended up graduating as a Theatre Major and was accepted into the graduate program at UCSD, earning my MFA in Dramaturgy while continuing my professional dramaturgy career at the Rep. After graduate school and some freelance shows, the Rep gave me my first full-time theatre job as their Resident Dramaturg & Artistic Associate.

PF:   What's your worst experience developing a new play?  What was your best experience?

NE:  This is a hard question for me to answer. I have had many new play development experiences to choose from, and it would take me a long time to come up with perfect examples. Just at my first theatre, San Diego Rep, we had an amazing run of producing six world premiere productions in seven years, plus workshops and readings of plays and musicals we weren’t producing, and my years at San Jose and the Wilma were equally fruitful with new play commissions, world premiere musicals, and festivals of new works…. Every single experience is so unique, and most of them have both challenges and victories within them. And I would probably have different answers depending on what kind of new play development: the writing process or the premiering process (the first production). I think in both cases of development, the worst experiences come from lack of communication or problems of collaboration. When different parties fight so hard for what they want that they can’t hear each other, the play is too often sacrificed as a result. Its clarity and strength are gone because too many hands were in the pie and its own voice cannot ring out. The best experiences are when everything falls into place, and you all collectively birth a play that is happy and healthy; all the elements are cohesive and the play is what it wants to be. It is very gratifying when I can participate in the early stages, help each party understand one another (part of good dramaturgy is being a good mediator and diplomat), and be integral to helping the playwright express him or herself as best he or she can. I think everyone wants his or her play to sing. And ultimately, so do the theatres that produce them.


PF:  If you could say something to the theatre world about new play development, what would it be?

NE:   Take the risk.  Find the new voices and nurture them. Time keeps moving on, and as the world is changing, we need to listen to the people that are living it. Classics are so important, but art needs to evolve, as does life. The regional theatre in this country is so much more safe than theatres around the globe. I hope that organizations like the Playwrights Foundation continue to grow and thrive, to feed our venues with rich new works. I hope that theatre companies continue to find ways to support themselves in order to inspire their audiences to embrace imagination and creativity and bolder choices in their seasons. I think we all need to remember why we chose our professions and return to those glorious feelings we had as kids when we had our first magical encounter with a play or a performance or a circus or a song…. Let the new plays bring us back to our “true lives” (in the words of Chuck Mee), and perhaps find truth for the lives of our audiences.

Read about Nakissa’s Class in the New Play Institute

Back to Playwrights Foundation

Friday, March 7, 2008

Interview with Peter Nachtrieb

In this week’s Spotlight on the Playwright focuses on Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, author of Hunter Gathers, which was developed on the 2005 BAPF, and went on to win the Glickman Award and Steinberg National Theatre Critics Awards for it’s Bay Area world premiere with Killing My Lobster. He is currently a member of PF’s new Resident Playwright Initiative and will soon be teaching a class on Funny Theatre in PF’s New Play Institute. At this moment, Peter is in New York opening the world premiere of boom at Ars Nova, developed in PF’s In The Rough Reading Series last year.

Click here to Read about Peter's Upcoming Class

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We decided to ask Peter about his success and his experience as a playwright in the Bay Area and New York.  Here’s what he shared with us:

PF:  You've had a pretty amazing year - from winning the Steinberg last March to your New York Premiere next month. How has it been transitioning to being a full-time playwright. Has it affected the way you work?

PN:  It's been exhiliarting, a little surreal at times, and I'm thrilled to be emerging. (I think all playwrights are considered emerging until they are in their 50s). I am so proud of the success of Hunter Gatherers and I am somewhat relieved that my next play (boom) has been well received and I'm not just a one trick pony. For me, I really do hope that every new play I write challenges me and my writing craft in some way. Whatever play I'm working on has got to be stimulating, somehow unique and riskilly challenging (terrible english, I'm sorry) for me to be willing to spend the next twenty four months of my life shaping it, loving it, hating it, and trying to make it something people want to mount and/or watch. I hope the personal challenges I set continue to be the most important thing with regards to the work I'm doing as opposed to thinking whether or
not it will be "successful."

But, I do feel a sense of pressure and expectation that I hadn't felt before. Unlike before, I am actively working on more than one project at a time (3 right now, all at different stages) I have to write 5-6 days a week (not 8 hours a day, mind you. My brain is usually creatively cooked after 3. Especially when writing a first draft) A lot of the new pieces I'm writing are for a particular theater company and results are expected at a certain time. Deadlines and accountability are a good thing for me and my motivation. Also, since (at least for the last 14 months) writing (along with acting) has been my primary source of income playwriting has, in a good way, felt a bit more like it's my job. It's the job I absolutely passionately love, but now I have to do it on the days where I'm not necessarily feelin the love.

PF:  What does it mean for you to be a Bay Area Playwright? What are the advantages or disadvantages to being here as opposed to New York or LA?

PN:  I love San Francisco and the Bay Area! I love the theater community we have here which is so passionately devoted to new work. I love that we have theater companies with national prominence, and theater companies with grassroots "only in the Bay Area" attitudes and many in between. I love that theater companies talk to each other in the Bay Area. There is a spirit of collaboration, that we're all in this together. There is a lot of energy and self motivation in the Bay Area, a lot of talented and very smart people, and it feels like a safe place to develop bold fun new shit.

The Bay Area's advantages are also its disadvantages. The challenge as a writer is how to be able to reach out beyond our local ecology and make inroads into others. This has been a gradual and long term process for me. Email is helpful. But so does travel, and meeting people face to face.

I don't think being a playwright in New York is necessarily easier, except that when you do get produced there, you don't have to find a sublet. And you do get to meet everyone face to face and get drunk and/or sleep with them, but you are also feeling more financial and competitive pressure. Being a playwright in LA sounds pretty great if you are interested in working on television. TV is the place where writers are king, and playwrights are making television awesome.

PF:  How have your experiences studying playwrighting, both as an undergrad at Brown and in grad school at SF State influenced your work?

PN:  I studied theater at Brown and was acting, directing and writing. I find that my skills as a performer and director play important roles in my writing of a play. Undergrad is where I learned the brunt of my theater vocabulary that I use. Grad school at SF State was great for me to transition from being a more "jack of all trades" to focusing more exclusively on writing. I found the classes and teachers to be mind expanding and challenging. My decision to go back to school was my decision of career and it was a wonderful way to launch that.

PF:  Who are the playwrights whose work most excites you right now?

PN:  Well I really loved Tracy Letts' August: Osage County that I just saw here in NYC. It was exciting, engaging, thoughtful and fun! In their discussion of the play on the NY Times, Frank Rich (i think) celebrated the play's simultaneous feeling of "high" and "low,"(brow) and how that collision is a particular American form. I think that's an aesthetic I really really gravitate towards. I also saw this awesome musical version of The Adding Machine out here which was so bleak and hopeless that it was oddly touching and funny.

PF:  You're about to teach a class for PF's New Play Institute focusing on funny theatre. What would you say has been your biggest challenge when writing comedy?

PN:  Cutting funny lines because they don't work in the flow of the play. That really hurts.

PF:  What's next up for you?

PN:  I'm in New York right now for previews and opening of boom at
Ars Nova, a wonderful theater that is devoted to the work of emerging artists. They are doing a delightful and careful job. I'm thrilled. Then I got a play for Encore Theatre called T.I.C. that I just had my first reading of at Marin Theatre Company. I have another commission beyond that with South Coast Rep, am continuing to tweak Hunter Gatherers, and I'm getting ready for the class at Playwrights Foundation, which I hope will be a fun exploratory and invigorating several weeks.