Friday, June 6, 2008

Interview with Liz Duffy Adams

Liz Duffy Adams, whose brilliant and unusual work with language on Dog Act won her the 2005 Glickman Award, will soon return to the Bay Area from New York to oversee the world premiere her newest play, The Listener, a PF Producing Partnership Initiative with Crowded Fire.  Ms. Adams is also an experienced teacher and a favorite among her students.  Her class will focus on utilizing the Tao Te Ching as springboard for work on a play – new or in progress—a process she has practiced for years.  “It’s not a spiritual journey,” says Ms. Adams, “but a practical one.”



PF asked Ms. Adams more about how the Tao te Ching influences her work:

PF:  You're coming into town for the premiere of your play The Listener. Can you talk about the development of this piece?

LDA:  I began it in spring 2005 after having been thinking about it for a while. I was asked to write a 10-minute play for a PlayGround benefit, and I figured I could use that deadline to create a sketch for the longer play and begin to think about it. I wrote it at the Djerassi Artists Retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains where I had a month’s residency. Out away from anything else at Djerassi there’s a beautiful ramshackle old barn, looks like it’s ready to fall down. When you go inside though you see that supporting the old wood is a newer framework of metal, and a poured concrete floor. It’s a strangely powerful space to enter, almost like a rough raw cathedral with light glinting through the cracks. Anyway, that influenced the idea of Listener’s house. I finished the full length version at home in New York, had a reading at New Dramatists, then a workshop at Portland Center Stage’s JAW/West festival in summer 2006, which Kent Nicholson came up and directed.


PF:  Your class in the New Play Institute is on the Tao of Playwriting. How did you begin to use the Tao in your work?

LDA:  A few years ago in the Strand bookstore in NY I opened a copy of the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao te Ching—I’d read an earlier translation years earlier and it had left me cold—and was transported. I’ve reread it a hundred times since and it always has the same effect. I forget about it for periods of time but I always bring it with me when I travel—as a kind of totem—so I have it with me at writers retreats and residencies, and at one of them I began reading a page aloud to myself every morning before starting to write. I found two things invariably happen: I am struck—as though learning it for the first time—with something true and profound and practical and liberating about the process I’m about to engage with, and I’m shifted subtly and instantly into a receptive state of mind to do the work. It never fails. I’ve used other books to consciously influence myself in the moment of writing (Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium) but for me the Tao te Ching is the most uniquely transformative on multiple levels. And though that particular way of using it won’t work for everyone, or not with this particular book, through the practice of using it that way and associating its meaning with the work of writing, I’ve learned some possibly useful things about playwriting and the creative act that I hope I can share.


PF:  Who are the playwrights who have most influenced your work? Who among your peers are you most excited about?

LDA:  I’m never too sure about the word influence; it feels presumptuous to claim it and maybe it’s not really for me to say. But the one playwright I’ve been most inspired by and studied most—taken as a sort of mentor, however egregiously ineptly—is Shakespeare: the most radical experimental playwright of all time. I studied Shakespeare intensively for years as a young actor and that was the beginning of my playwright’s training, though I didn’t know it then. And I’ve been inspired by Chekhov, Beckett, Behn, Churchill, Mac Wellman. There are so many exciting people writing now I could fill a page with names but some who spring to mind are Anne Washburn, Lisa D’Amour, Young Jean Lee, Gordon Dahlquist, Glen Berger, David Grimm, and Bay Area regulars Marcus Gardley, Christine Evans, and Dominic Orlando. And there are a lot of non-playwrights that inspire me: science fiction writers (Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh, Samuel R. Delaney), comic book writers (Neil Gaiman, Walt Kelly, Joss Whedon), novelists (Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter), lyricists (Elvis Costello, Cole Porter), artists (most recently Takashi Murakami), composers (Beethoven, baby!), non-fiction writers (Alan Weisman: The World Without Us)… on and on. And just life. People talking. That’s plenty inspiring.


PF:  What's up next for you?

LDA: Working on a pirate musical for Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis; a musical version of The Listener; a new play about Aphra Behn (called Or,); and messing around with a couple of non-theatrical projects. 

Interview with Christine Evans

Christine Evans, recent Ph.D. and now Harvard Professor, has returned to the Bay Area to teach for PF’s New Play Institute. Bay Area audiences will not soon forget her Crowded Fire premiere of Slow Falling Bird discovered during the 2003 BAPF, and her play Trojan Barbie will receive a world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in 2009. Ms. Evan’s class will lead students through a powerful exercise using everyday objects, borrowing from the work of world famous polish director Tadeusz Kantor.



Ms. Evans spoke with PF about her experience with found objects and their influence on her work:

PF: The class you're teaching for the New Play Institute is about using found objects in creating plays. Can you talk a little about how found objects have influenced a play of yours?

CE: I really fell in love with the writing of Tadeusz Kantor on objects and making theater. He wanted to pit theatre against reality and was fascinated with how humble, everyday objects resisted the artificiality of the stage. A very large “found object”—a police van for collecting stray animals—literally drove into my play Pussy Boy. The van was called “The Princess Memorial Animal Van” (after a beloved cat) and the gap between its sentimental name and it’s awful purpose (to transport strays to euthanasia) opened into the dreamscape of my play. Other things—umbrellas, chance lines of dialogue, newspaper reports—land into my notebooks and then in my plays. Sometimes an event (a trapeze artist falls and breaks her spine; a woman climbs out of a window to get away from her children) inspires a play.

PF: After an MFA in playwriting, what motivated you to go for a Ph.D. as well?

CE: Temporary insanity. And more practically, the need for an extended student VISA and fellowship while I figured out my U.S. Residency.

PF: Although you're Australian, your work often strikes me as infused with a very American sense of theatricality. Do you see different trends in the new plays being written here versus there?

CE: There’s a fascinating new thread in Australia, loosely referred to as “Australian Gothic”—Stephen Carleton is an exponent—a kind of lush camp re-imagining of the bones and dirt harshness of Australia’s convict past. There also seems to be a strong renaissance in political writing in Australia, and also in highly physical, image-based performance (not necessarily scripted plays. Words are hard for Australians; they don’t trust them. There’s a fundamental working-class embarrassment and suspicion of expressivity.

Words come more easily in the U.S. Though they often seem cheaper. As for an “American Theatricality” in my own work—I studied with Nilo Cruz and Paula Vogel. Paula’s way of talking about space on stage, and Nilo’s sensual, dreamy landscapes made a profound impression on my sense of what one could do with a play. Also, coming here I was knocked out by the power and richness of the Latino/a drama, and I sometimes think my plays are the love-children of dry-as-dirt aussie humor and restraint, and the fever-dreams I find in plays by writers such as Nilo Cruz, Jose Rivera, Migdalia Cruz, and Cardidad Svich.

As for trends in American Writing—the plays being written are so rich and strange. There are brilliant writers—Stephanie Fleischmann, Marcus Gardley, Claire Chafee, to name but three in this year’s festival—whose plays re-order the world in a poetic and original way. By contrast, the plays actually being produced in the U.S. (at least in theatres where the director isn’t painting the floor at 2am after Xeroxing the programs) often seem “deep on the surface” to me—plays that expand from a neat synopsis like a dehydrated soup to which you just add water. (My rule of thumb is to beware of any play with “project” in the title).

PF: Your play Trojan Barbie (which was a finalist for last year's BAPF) is scheduled for a high profile premiere this year at American Repertory Theater in Boston. Can you talk a little about the genesis of that piece?

Trojan Barbie began life as a commission from the University of San Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Program, instigated by Roberto Gutierrez Varea. I was playwright-in-residence there for a semester and Roberto asked me to write an adaptation of ‘The Trojan Women’ for his students (mostly young women) and El Teatro Jornalero, a Latino/a day-laborer’s theatre company. It was a mad and beautiful project with a cast of thousands. The play was at that time called The Doll Hospital. It had a huge chorus and a wall of suitcases and at that point was about the three plays mud-wrestling with each other. I wanted to keep working on this play after our U.S.F. student production and wrestle it into shape some more, and it became much more streamlined. Cutting Ball invited it to “Risk Is This” and I rewrote a lot—also at Sychronicity Theater’s “She Writes” Festival. Then it won the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award and came to the attention of A.R.T. I’ll probably revise some more before it actually goes up. I’m hugely grateful to Roberto, U.S.F. and El Teatro Jornalero for giving me the time, space and collaborators to begin this work.