Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interview with Melissa James Gibson

Current Nobody Director Jonathan Spector speaks with Melissa about the play and her process. Just Theater presents the West Coast Premiere of Current Nobody November 14-December 13 at the Exit Theater.

Jonathan Spector: You have a very idiosyncratic way of writing dialogue, which seems to both mimicking the rhythms of actual human speech while creating a very specific kind of heightened language. Can you talk about how you evolve this style of writing?

Melissa James Gibson: It's really just an effort to capture the way I hear things, the way peoples' thought processes are reflected in the way they speak--all the self-edits, misfires, revisions and pauses that surround and inform, and sometimes form, human expression.

JS: In so many ways this piece appears at first glance to be an extremely loose adaptation, yet on the plot points and structure it’s actually very faithful to the original. How did the process of adaptation differ for you from writing an original work?

MJG: Well, it's both thrilling and daunting to be grappling with source material of genius. My hope was to honor that material by turning it on its head, while also retaining its heart. At the same time, I've dispensed with many elements that didn't feel germane to my particular take (and, of course, plays and epic poems are different beasts).

JS: Current Nobody is a project that had a somewhat lengthy development process. So much of the play deeply integrates the dialogue with the physical action and design in such a way that it’s all completely interdependent. How much of the physical action of a piece do you conceive in the writing, and how much do you typically develop while working on it with actors and a director?

MJG: The short answer to the two parts of the question is A, lots, and B, lots. I think about the architecture of my play worlds carefully, and in ambitious and sometimes unrealizable terms--the Brooklyn bridge is assembled before our eyes, for example--and then rely on the visions of talented designers and directors to imagine ways of elegantly executing these notions in three dimensions. The actors we work with in first productions play an important investigatory role, as well.

JS: What's up next for you?

MJG: I'm working on commissions for playwrights horizons and the Atlantic Theater company; a musical with composer Michael Friedman and director Mark Brokaw for Center Theatre group; and a film for a small independent company.

An Excerpt from Current Nobody

This is good This is good I’m doing
good I feel good

(Tel makes a small cry. Od rocks the crib.)

She’s been gone

(Od look at his watch.)

six no seven and a half hours and it hasn’t felt like more than five and
I support her decision to do this
as I always support her decision to do this This
is the woman I married I feel good

My wife has
places to go people to shoot in thirty-five millimeter
wars to cover wars to capture and no one captures atrocity like Pen
Everyone says so everyone says
she’s got an eagle eye and a daring heart and My Wife
needs to see things first-hand God I miss her hand It’s okay It’s okay

She’s Never Not Come Back and
it’s just for one or two weeks
This is good

(Od looks at his watch and then crosses over to the sleeping Tel.)

said the general said this was a
Besiege Becalm Begone type of thing and
she said the general said In And Out and
generals are generally right

I mean I’m not one of those children
I mean I’m not one of those people who wanted to have children but didn’t want to have to raise them Well
I am a little bit like that I guess or I was until I met you
And you just fall in love you do
But you know when there’s so much you want to accomplish
(large exhale)
Parenting is a complicated mathematical equation
to which there is no known solution
It’s easy for us all to say we put our children first but a messy and contradictory business in practice or I mean
that’s what I’ve heard
Was it awful all the time

No no
not all the time
not at all
I mean
definitely dad was in despair a good bit
And I was in despair mostly too but
We did try to you know stagger our despair
unsuccessful though we were

Friday, August 1, 2008

Intern Performance

Moe here, volunteer of no particular persuasion.

Just saw the staff/intern impromptu reading. Unsurprisingly, many folks who work with PF are themselves playwrights.

Also unsurprisingly, they are decent playwrights.

The performance did not disappoint, presenting short plays about everything from a vegetarian meal to the essence of American Cock. Quite a variety of voices and styles from a group of folks examining different issues in their lives.

The grand Mr. Spector hopes for this to become an annual event. Hooray. Looking forward to next year.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Update from Elijah the Intern

Greetings from Elijah the Intern. Who, you ask? You might have noticed me making photocopies at the office. Or behind the concessions table. Or taking out the trash. Or doing one of many things to make your (the audience, the playwrights, the artistic team, the administration) life easier. My goal is to make everything run as smoothly as possible so that everyone can let their creative juices run uninhibited as the Festival goes on, instead of worrying about what food is missing, what the logistics of the events are, or how Dominic Orlando acquired his stunning wardrobe.

For those of you who came to the Festival last weekend, thank you so much. For those of you who didn't, I know you're planning to come this weekend, when we'll be showing all of the shows...again. Or, hey, if you saw them last time, why not see them again? Most of you have probably seen The Dark Knight twice, anyway. It's just like that, but imagine seeing it again the second time where the characters are suddenly more developed, the language is more clear and concise, and the thematic elements are fuller! (I don't know how that would look for The Dark Knight - maybe The Joker reveals his favorite ice cream flavor.)

A couple of specific shout-outs go to:
Richard Ciccarone - one-man show (with the help of our wonderful tech team) production manager extraordinaire, who had the brilliant idea of holding a Mini-Festival with the interns' and PAs' work, tomorrow at 2pm at the Magic (I'm not plugging anything...) Sonia, Cris, Jonathan and Amy at the Playwrights Foundation, for staying insane hours to make sure everything gets off the ground...Molly, another intern, whose company made those last-minute supply runs bearable...Jen, Graham, and the Crane Story gang for being incredibly nice to their PA (yours truly), and.......EVERYONE ELSE (so much for being specific. I knew it was as failed endeavor as soon as I started - there are so many people to thank) Rest assured, I love you all. I'm out for now.

Wanda Sabir Blogs About the Playwrights Foundation!

Click HERE to read what Wanda Sabir, Arts Editor of the San Francisco Bay View and a columnist for the Oakland Tribune, said in her Blog about the Bay Area Playwrights Festival!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Festival Blog From Sonia

Hello everyone. I’m Sonia Fernandez, Playwrights Foundation’s Literary & Administrative Coordinator. I’m sitting here in the PF Office, feeling completely recovered from the first days of Festival festivities and raring to go for next weekend. Cris and I were at the box office for the weekend and got to talk to a lots of audience members who were soaking up the new play energy. There were a few couples with us the entire weekend. They saw every single show!  I tip my beret to them. You may not notice because my beret was already at a slight tilt but I tip it even further.

I also want to send a shout out to all of our beautiful volunteers, many of whom are coming back for more next weekend. Merci! Life is shit but you are all tres tres magnifique. The same goes for the artists involved in the festival.

It is really inspiring to see so many people committed to and enjoying the process of creating and witnessing new plays being developed.  A play is only fully a play when it’s seen by an audience. The fact that we’ve had such receptive and numerous attendees really validates what we do. Or maybe it was the cupcakes that made everyone so happy.  No, I think it was the work.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Marcus, your grandfather, Robert Gardley was a master of words, but you brought this gift to another level.  I know he is smiling down from heaven at you, saying keep going and doing what God has blessed you with.  Much love Auntie PJ

Festival Blog Begins!

Welcome to the first entry for the 2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival Blog!  My name is Cris, I'm the Marketing Associate, and I'm the first person to blog on here this evening.  This is a LIVE blog, meaning that audience members arriving in just thirty minutes will be commenting on their experience of the festival.  My experience so far has been a lot of hard work, but I'm excited for the readings to begin!  If any of you reading this decide to come this weekend, feel free to come say hi to me, I'll be walking around with a camera.

Stay tuned!  

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Interview with Marcus Gardley

Marcus Gardley’s new play every tongue must confess opens the 2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival tomorrow, Friday July 25th. A native of West Oakland, Marcus is best known to Bay Area audiences for his acclaimed play Love Is A Dream House In Lorin, a love song to the neighborhood of South Berkeley.  In all of his work he explores the African American experience through the lens of myth and spirit, and many of his plays have premiered in theaters from Yale Rep to the Empty Space. Similar to the Lorin Project, every tongue must confess focuses on a community in need of healing, only instead of an East Bay neighborhood, we’re transported to the small town of Boligee, Alabama, where someone is burning churches.



Alabama has twice been struck by arsonists in the past decade, and in a PF interview, we asked Marcus to comment on what why he chose to write about it:

PF:  You’ve had a long history with PF – starting back when you were in grad school.  How does this year’s festival compare to other work you’ve done with us?

MG:  This year, this work or ‘work in progress’ is entirely different because I think I have a clearer insight as to what kind of writer I am and what kind of art I am passionate about making. Before, it was as much about learning as it was about writing something that moved people. At this point in my career, I am much more interested in creating work that raises questions and in this case the question is: why would someone burn a church? And what impact does a burned church have on a community in transition. I’m not sure that my play expertly raises these questions yet…but I definitely want it to.


PF:  What was your inspiration for every tongue must confess, what was the spark that got you writing this particular play?

MG:  I grew up in the church (my father is a preacher) so I suppose I became fascinated and obsessed with the recent rash of church burnings that swept Alabama in 2006. I have always thought of the church as a sanctuary, meaning it is both a sacred and safe place. So to burn a church, especially one in the Black Bible Belt: a poor, rural, predominately Black community seemed to boggle my mind. What do the arsonists have to gain?  I had a thousands hypotheses and I thought the only way to rest my mind is to put them and the church community in a play – and play with them. Again, I wasn’t looking for answers as much as I was looking to raise a few questions.  The answers should come from the audience.


PF:  You originally conceived of every tongue must confess as a kind of detective mystery. How has the play changed over the past few weeks?

MG:  The first draft is a detective mystery because that is the world of my research. There are twice as many articles and books on what kind of person burns churches than there are on the communities that are devastated by the arsons, and even less research on how these two groups are linked. Ironically, I don’t think the play is as powerful if the story details what happens after the fire, than if it explores what leads up to it.

One cares more about a community when one sees it thriving than seeing it burned. I also discovered that one of the teenagers in Alabama who was convicted of burning several churches had also been a member of an arson relief organization. In fact, he had assisted in the rebuilding of one of the churches he burned. With this knowledge and the desire to show the daily life of the church community, I decided to rewrite the play and put the arsonists in the same town.


PF:  Many of your plays have myth and sacred stories as the underlying structure. How does that play out in every tongue?

MG:  I think this play is its own sacred story. It is the history of a town drenched in as much fact as it is fiction. The world of the play has its own rules, its own folklore, and the residents seem to readily accept, celebrate and feed off of it. To this end, it invites the audience to be a resident for two hours, to wonder about the magic, to relish in the realism, to invest in the dreams and fears of the characters and to hopefully leave with a deeper understanding of how we all are inextricably linked. The powerful, unexplainable beauty about the sacred story is that it doesn’t overwhelm you with facts but rather it highlights human truths so vital to our existence that it beckons the presence of God.    


PF:  What’s coming up next for you after the Festival?

MG:  Next, I will be starting my first series of workshops for the Richmond Project. Earlier this year, I interviewed a group of “Rosies” who built ships at the Richmond shipyards during World War II. And now, in this second phase, I will workshop the first act. The piece will be directed by Aaron Davidman who is directing every tongue must confess for the festival and it will showcase vocal soundscapes composed Molly Holm who worked with myself and Aaron on the Lorin Project.  

Friday, July 18, 2008

Geetha Reddy is a four-time recipient of PlayGround’s Emerging Playwright Award and was recently selected by Theater Bay Area as a local “Up and Coming Playwright.”  Last year, she participated in PF’s In the Rough Reading Series, where she developed her play Me Given You.



Safe House, selected for the festival from among 500 entries, tells the story of an isolated stay-at-home mother who employs very unusual measures to protect her twins. Crossing the lines between experimental therapeutic treatment and survivalist mentality, a mother does her best to create a ‘safe house’ for her children.  PF asked Geetha about any possible political intentions behind writing what seems to be a post-post-9/11 play:

PF:  You’ve been active for a number of years with several Bay Area playwriting groups. What do you think the atmosphere in the Bay Area is like right now for local writers?  Do you feel like there are many opportunities to have your work produced?

GR:  The Bay Area playwrighting community is amazingly creative and driven, and there are many groups and classes that have arisen to support our work. I have participated for many years in PlayGround, which gave me my first chance to work with professional actors and directors and also commissioned my first full-length play.

Getting a play produced is the tricky part. I think the opportunities are out there, but having the right play at the right theatre is a needle I am still working on threading.


PF:  When did you begin writing Safe House? Where did the idea for the play come from?

GR:  Safe House was originally commissioned by Jim Kleinmann at PlayGround in 2006. It is based on a 10-minute play I wrote for their Monday Night reading series called Honey, I’m Home.  My work tends to evolve from intimate moments into a larger piece. In this case, my unease with Silicon Valley life, the 24-hour disaster/news cycle, and my own growing family were just some of the seeds for the play.


PF:  Your play Safe House strikes me as a kind of post-post-9/11 play, in that it’s not the event of 9/11 that’s the engine driving the play, but rather the overzealous reaction of the characters to that event.  Do you intend this play to have a political point of view?

GR:  I am not interested in writing agit prop, but I do think of Safe House as a sort of parable conflating the child-centered culture of the elite with the various reactions to 9/11. Is it ever really possible to be safe? The dramatic answer is, of course, no. But as responsible parents or citizens, safety is the fundamental guiding principle. Rather than pushing a point of view I hope to illustrate how we can be torn apart by this paradox.


PF:  What’s up next for you?

GR:  I have a new play I am working on called Blue God Countdown, and Aaron Loeb and I are planning to collaborate on a project with Central Works.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Interview with Katori Hall

In April of this year, Katori Hall entered the PF In The Rough Reading Series, where she worked on her latest play The Mountaintop, which explores the arrival of a mysterious young maid to the room of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the evening before his death.  Now, this stirring and timely play is in development at the upcoming Bay Area Playwrights Festival.



The staff of PF was surprised to discover that Katori has a personal connection to the subject, which she reveals in an exclusive PF Interview:

PF:  What was the genesis of The Mountaintop?

KH:  My mother grew up one block away from the Lorraine Motel. A 15-year-old mother of two, she had steered clear of Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. Her mother, Big Mama, had warned, “They gone bomb dat chuuch. You know dem folks out to kill him.”  It would be the greatest regret of my mother’s life. The ominous presence of death was hard to ignore. Palpable, it was. Everyone knew it was coming. They just didn’t know when. The question of when presented itself on April 4th at 6:01 p.m. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

My mother’s regret along with the reasoning as to why she did not go that night has always stuck with me. A native Memphian, I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away. It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.

PF:  What are the challenges of re-imagining a moment in the life a real person who is so revered?

KH:  I tried very much to imagine him as a human, not a God. This is the uber-American hero. A Christ-like figure to some. But I was always searching for the King, warts and all.  As Michael Eric Dyson said in his recent book "April 4, 1968", "The wish to worship him into perfection is misled; the desire to deify him tragically misplaced. The scars of his humanity are what makes his achievements all the more remarkable." It's let's us off the hook to deify him. There is greatness in all of us. We all can carry on his dream.

But as a playwright I just had to imagine, "what would a human being do in those given circumstances?" This was a man whose life was constantly under fire, quite literally. His house had been bombed...he had already been stabbed. He knew he was a marked man. He always talked about his pending death, even joked about it sometimes with his advisers. A lot of people are not privy to this, but King was quite depressed those last few months of his life. He had taken up smoking to deal with the mounting stress and responsibilities of leading a movement. He was heavily criticized for leading a garbage strikers march in Memphis that had unfortunately turned violent, a young 16 year old boy named Larry Payne was killed. He was deeply troubled in a way his colleagues had never seen him after that. He came back to Memphis to do it again.  He was in the midst of planning another march on Washington, his Poor People's Campaign and he was there in Memphis for the garbage strike workers because their quest for a living wage paralleled his quest for a living wage for all Americans.

The given circumstances of his life at the time, provided me with rich material to create an entire man...not the I HAVE A DREAM man, but a man dealing with depression, dissension in his organization, and pending death.


PF:  You have a background as both an actor and a playwright. Which came first? How did you make the transition?

KH:  That's the old question, "what came first, the chicken of the egg?" I got my degree in acting first, but I probably started playwriting first, in fact, I've always written. I've been publishing articles in newspapers since I was 14 years old, so I always knew I was a writer. My first foray into journalism cultivated my storytelling and listening skills. Journalists are forever interviewing people, listening to the cadences and rhythms of authentic speech.  I always had a good ear for the best quotes and I'm sure that's helped me create characters who have a way with words.

Five years ago when I took my first acting class at Columbia, I went up to my teacher and asked,  “Do you know of any good scenes from plays that occur between two young black women?”  She stood there perplexed. 10 seconds went by…then 20….then 30….a whole minute flew by and she couldn’t come up with one answer. “Gee, Katori, I’m so sorry, but I can’t think of one…I mean, there is a scene in Raisin but the two characters are not young…maybe August Wilson? No…most of his characters are male…I’m sorry, Katori. I just can’t think of one.” She walked away. At that moment I said to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to write some then.” I wrote from an intense need to see myself and my experience reflected honestly onstage. It was quite easy to make the transition.


PF:  Do you ever act in your own work, or write plays with the intention that you would perform them?

KH:  I haven't acted in my work yet...only in the performance poetry bits I've written. I've just started thinking about which of my characters I would love to play.  I could play the hell out of some my female roles! They are all little slivers of me mixed up with other folks I know. I've toyed around with the idea of writing a one woman show, but I like people, too much. I would hate to be up onstage by myself. Plays remind me of the time I would play make-believe with my sister and my friends reimagining the world as children often do. I like that feeling of creating life--new life--with other people.


PF:  What's up next for you?

KH:  I will be back in the Bay (Yah!) doing the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer. I'm quite excited about that. My first play, Hoodoo Love is being published by DPS.  Please check it out. www.dramatists.com. I was recently commissioned by the Women's Project with the support of the New York Council of the Arts. I am finishing up an adaptation of Antigone set in post-Katrina New Orleans for Fluid Motion Theater. And I am at Juilliard right now in their playwriting program continuing to grow as a writer, so as you can see I'm busy as all get out!  www.katorihall.com

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Interview with Jen Silverman

One of the great and unique aspects of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival is that we have a track record of discovering exceptional new and unknown writers and nurturing their early careers. Many of these, such as Nilo Cruz, Prince Gomolvilas, Brighde MullinsBrian Thorstenson and most recently Sam Hunter among many others have gone on to grace the American stage with their work.  Jen Silverman is the 2008 festival emerging playwright.  Her play, Crane Story is a genre breaking play, experimental in style and form, yet grounded in the tradition of myth and story.



We asked her a number of provocative questions about her work and her struggle to be a playwright:

PF:  You graduated two years ago from Brown, and will be going on to begin your MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the fall. What opportunities or challenges did you find after graduating from school, and what made you decide to go to graduate school?

JS:  Right after graduating from Brown I did the NYC International Fringe with my play Lizardskin and then left to return to Japan, where I'd lived as a child. I was told when I left that if I want to seriously pursue a career as a playwright, a geographically unstable, international life is going to make it very difficult for me, and I really had to struggle with that in the summer of 2006.  I'd sit in rehearsals for Lizardskin playing the "what if" game with myself.  ˜What if I don't go, what if by going I'm throwing away my chance at being a produced playwright, etc etc.” But what it came down to was the crystal clear certainty that no matter what I was potentially sacrificing, I felt like I absolutely had to go back. So I did.

Living in Japan as a young adult, deep in the rural central-south and far away from the Tokyo area where I'd lived before, that's a whole epic of opportunities and challenges in itself. I'd remembered so much of my childhood as this vague sort of dream, (did it happen or not?), and then there I was back in the middle of Japan seeing where many of my early memories came from. I would recognize stories, songs, toys that I'd always thought of as specific to my childhood, and stop and go, "Ohhh THAT's where that came from!" As a playwright and as a person, that experience was incredibly rich, incredibly exhilarating, and sometimes quite difficult.

But the real struggle came when I decided, 13 months later, to return to the US and try my hardest as a playwright. I'd been writing on my own the whole time, but I craved an artistic community, and it was the urge to work with theatre artists again, see my plays developed, and grow and be challenged as an artist that made me decide to return to the US and go to grad school.  I've spent most of the past nine or so months writing new plays and sending them out, and it amazes me all the time how hard it is for an emerging playwright to get heard, get developed, let alone produced. But I know that this is what I want; I've had a long time to think about it. I just came from seeing two of my short plays produced by the Fusion Theatre Company in Albuquerque NM, and that experience alone, talking with theatre people and audience members who had been moved by these stories that I also care deeply about, that was like a drink of cold water after a long time in the desert. That was one of those moments where you take a deep breath and you think, "Oh yes, absolutely this."

PF:  I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a Master class with Paula Vogel.  She was so insightful and inspiring that it was immediately clear to me why she has been able to usher through a generation of remarkable playwrights. Was studying with her a big influence on your work? In what ways?

JS:  I was really fortunate to be able to study with Paula as a senior at Brown, and I wish I'd had more time with her. She created a rich, encouraging, supportive atmosphere in her classes; my last semester of Brown, I was in a class in which she brought together actors, playwrights (mostly grad, a few undergrad), and directors, and encouraged us to try a multiplicity of different approaches to the script and the stage. She was famous for her "bake-off" assignments in which you'd get assigned a few different elements (a scream, a splash, fire, etc) and have 24 hours in which to write a full play using those elements. I've always felt that if I'm not working quickly

I'm stagnating, so most of my first drafts tend to get written in a matter of days, and those kinds of assignments were just delightful to me. Working with Paula made me push myself as a writer, if you can write a play in 24 hours, collaborate with art school students and designers to write a play inspired by their work, and write a play that is "impossible to stage," you can pretty much write anything. And she's very generous, she never tells you to do something her way, she'll discuss your script on your terms. I was also really fortunate to study with Brighde Mullins, and she too has an openness, an eloquence, and a genuine interest in her students, that made a huge impression on me. If I ever end up teaching, I would hope to treat students the same way, with the same generosity.


PF:   Your play Crane Story, explores the idea of being stuck between two worlds on a number of different levels - one is the idea of being stuck between two races and two nationalities. The idea of who has the "right" to write about race is very interesting to me. Not being bi-racial yourself, did you have any trepidation about creating a work where this such a dominant theme?

JS:  This question has always been an interesting and rather complicated one for me, and one that gets thrown my way often, since many of my plays involve characters from different cultures or different countries and to the eye I'm a white American girl. The truth of it is, I was born in a small New England town and by fifteen months old, I was living in Tokyo. I grew up moving around Asia, Western Europe, and Scandinavia, returning to the US periodically, before returning for good to attend American high school. I'm not bi-racial, but I think I do have a keen understanding of what it is like to find yourself torn (or at least drawn taut) between different worlds, different cultures, different languages, and to have a complicated, patchwork sense of identity.

In Crane Story, the character Junpei puts his finger on it, I think, when he challenges his sister and Ishida, saying: "You'll never get it out of you. Everywhere you go will be colored by where you've been. Where's your home?" That's a question I wonder if I'll ever be able to answer, and maybe I keep playing with those questions (and potential answers, or the potential inherent in the lack of answers) through the medium of theatre. Jose Rivera wrote an essay in which he urges playwrights to "React against your work. Do in the next work what you aimed for but failed to do in the last one" and I never want to write the same play twice. But I do find myself repeatedly drawn to characters in whom these kinds of conflicted questions of identity are churning around, whether it's race, nationality, gender, or sexual preference.

PF:  Who are the contemporary playwrights whose work most excites you at the moment?

JS:  Absolutely Sarah Ruhl. I think she's brilliant and incredibly creative and her work has a lot of integrity. I also really respect Naomi Iizuka. I think her writing is so rich and layered and intelligent, all these global mythic influences. And, while she isn't quite a contemporary, I'll always love Sarah Kane. She was fearless and wild and she wrote with a lot of humanity, I think her writing is a deeply humane, outraged response to the violence she saw playing out on a global and domestic stage. And then, (although he isn't a playwright) I've been excited by Haruki Murakami's writing for years and years.  His prose is inherently theatrical, and he combines the joyful and the menacing in a way that leaves me breathless.



Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Festival Blog

Check in here weekly for Playwrights Foundation's Festival Blog!  Get the inside scoop on this year's Festival Playwrights and get a behind the scenes peak at the development process.  Stay tuned, this page will be updated weekly!

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.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Interview with Trevor Allen and Liebe Wetzel

Award-winning puppet master and Artistic Director of Lunatique Fantastique Liebe Wetzel collaborates with PF alumnus Trevor Allen to create One Stone, a story of Einstein’s life and the mysteries of the universe he explored.  Using puppets made from found objects, One Stone promises to be a dynamic visual experience.  Trevor, Liebe, their puppeteers and actor David Sinaiko, will be at Stanford University for the first reading on Monday May 19th at 7:30pm, and then at the Traveling Jewish Theatre the following night, Tuesday May 20th, at 7:00pm.



In an exclusive interview on the PF Blog, Trevor and Liebe talk about their collaboration:

 PF:   How did you develop your method of creating work - puppetry out of found objects? How long have you been working this way?

LW (Liebe Wetzel):  I started working with found objects about 10 years ago.  The “method” has grown organically out of our development process. I don't “write” with text, but assemble a talented group together and we play with objects. We create image phrases, which I weave into a narrative. 

PF:  How did you approach collaborating with Liebe to create this piece?

TA (Trevor Allen):
  I’ve known and loved Liebe's found-object puppetry ever since I saw my First
Lunatique Fantastique show, almost a decade ago. Her puppetry can make me laugh or cry depending on whether the subject material is a children’s holiday show or dealing with the destruction of Hiroshima.  When I told her that Einstein had an aversion to wearing socks... she “cast” my sandals in the role of the old Einstein's feet. She’s brilliant. But since her puppets don’t speak (although they certainly communicate, very clearly) I asked for a lone actor who would be our voice of Einstein’s mind. We were very fortunate to be able to work with David Sinako who has played a version of Einstein before and gets the concepts. The way we work has been in tandem with our wonderful Director, Jayne Wenger, who has been instrumental in keeping the whole thing together. It has been a wonderful collaboration, I have supplied the text and Liebe has created the images.  Some of the written stage directions came from me, many others came from Liebe’s beautifully handcrafted, image inscribed, note cards and still other moments from watching the puppeteer's offer improvisations while the lines were spoken aloud. Early on, we joked about using “found text with found objects” and although I have used much of Einstein’s own words in the play, a lot of the text is my own, suited to this new piece. It has been a real learning lesson, trying to weave together a story from new bits and old cloth to create a whole garment. I'm not entirely sure what the end product will look like... but as the great man said himself. “Anyone who has never made a mistake... has never tried anything new.” We hope you enjoy this new vision of wonder.

PF:  Before this, almost all you work has had no text. What was it like collaborating with a playwright on this piece?

LW:  Inspiring, trying, exhilarating, difficult- all things you would expect from a collaboration. By it’s very nature, collaboration is not easy, but ultimately it is incredibly rewarding. In some places the text and image phrases merge beautifully creating something better than either form by itself. In others?  Well, it is a staged reading.

The collaboration has inspired me to work with text in the future.

PF:  This project has been in the works for a long time, can you tell me how it came about?

  The idea for the project goes back a long way but this is actually a completely new play. A couple of months ago, I started with a totally blank canvas and everything has come from that. Although for several years now, I have been intrigued by the wonderful ideas, thought experiments and the personal life of Albert Einstein. The iconic genius and brilliant physicist who single-handedly changed humanity's perception of the universe. I have literally collected dozens of books under the auspices of doing research, in the hopes that one day I would be able to write an Einstein play. A few years ago, I even wrote a short play entitled
A Chain Reaction, which included a section with Einstein as a character. It was performed in the Planetarium in Golden Gate Park and won Best of the SF Fringe Festival. Since then, that section has been performed by The Rebecca Salzer Dance Theater and most recently even as a "modern Noh play" by Theatre of Yugen. It has been fascinating to watch that material be adapted to other movement based disciplines. I think its success has been due to the nature of the material, in that it deals with space-time, matter and light. These mercurial elements flow through the different performance mediums and each presentation was wonderfully different from the other, with only the text in common.

This workshop has been the culmination of a long chain of events. I wanted to work with a visual artist. So when I was offered the opportunity by the Playwrights Foundation to work with a collaborator, I immediately thought of puppetry. No, really. But not cute "muppet-like" puppets. I wanted to capture the child-like wonder that is so evident in Einstein’s life’s work but also to see if it was possible to have his thought experiments illustrated for an audience while actually telling the story of his life. I wanted to work with a puppeteer who was capable of bringing those concepts to life by using “found object” puppetry. I knew that the only person capable of creating the kind of wonder out of the quotidian objects to be found in a musty old professor’s office was the genius, in her own right, Liebe Wetzel. We had actually wanted to collaborate on an “Einstein play” for many years. We had even unsuccessfully applied for a grant to do so. We both had other projects looming at the time and so we had to postpone our endeavor for several years. Thanks to the Playwrights Foundation, we are finally able to collaborate on this piece!

With this workshop opportunity, I wanted to create a totally new play that dealt more with Einstein, the human being, rather than the icon. I wanted to look at his “militant pacifism” and his non-involvement in the birth of the atomic bomb, even though, as we all know, he did write that letter to FDR. In my research, I was most intrigued by the fact (not an urban myth) that Einstein’s brain ended up in pieces, floating in a jar.
  This became a metaphor for looking at his life, as a way in. Although this draft has turned out to be more linear than I had anticipated. I began with the concept of spending an evening with Einstein’s mind or at least, the mental picture that he might have of himself. So we went with a more youthful version of the man. Not an old professor. Who thinks of themselves as old, in their mind?

The title was the last piece of the puzzle. I wanted something evocative and “object based.” We had been working under a number of different titles, like “Einstein's Brain.” But then I came up with, “One Stone: Ein-stein” both as a play on the English meaning of his name and as a chilling reminder that his equation, E=mc2, while not actually a prescription for a bomb but rather a description of nature, enabled others to unleash the destructive power contained within a single stone-sized piece of uranium, to horrifying effect.