Sunday, June 28, 2009

Interview with Martha Jane Kaufman

BAPF Playwright Martha Jane Kaufman was interviewed by Sonia Fernandez, PF Literary and Administrative Director.

Sonia Fernandez: How did you get started on your BASH! Play, House and Junction?

Martha Jane Kaufman: The election of Barack Obama led to a lot of conversations about how we were moving into a post-race world. But I still saw racism built into the worlds around me, particularly working in Oakland Public Schools. As a white person, I wanted some models and approaches for resistance so I started researching the underground railroad. I was interested in the roles and approaches of white people in that struggle. I found a lot of fascinating stories, but, of course, the characters I found were not simply heroes. In many ways they reflected the racism that they were resisting. This is clearer nearly 200 years later and allowed me to see how we are all steeped in the attitudes of our time. When the government and culture says that you can own another human being what does it take to start to see that person as human? I think this is a very important question for our time because slavery is not that far behind us and we are still dealing with that inheritance. Of course, my piece is written from my perspective as a white person and would not be the story everyone would tell. The questions that have come to the surface as I’ve been engaging with these characters and stories have allowed me to look more critically and compassionately at the present.

SF: You’re a recent transplant to the Bay Area. What’s it like to be here at this moment in time, and how has it affected your work?

MJK: Well, I’ve started taking astrology a lot more seriously… (lol) No, but actually, I’ve found the writing/performance/theater scene here in the Bay to be edgy, imaginative and insightful. People working in all media are constantly blending genres, mixing media, and eroding the boundaries between disciplines, which is how I feel most comfortable as an artist since I am also a dancer. I’m inspired by how people here manage to do a lot with very little in terms of financial support, space, materials, and time. I’ve found myself surrounded by articulate, creative, and socially conscious artists making street theater, puppets, spoken-word performances, and all of it feeds my work and ideas. Plus, friends invite me to tackle hard questions in my work, hold me accountable and push my boundaries. And, everyone wants to collaborate! Since I got here less than a year ago, I’ve worked on a puppet show for a community garden, a performance piece in which the costumes were made from newspapers, and two dance/spoken-word pieces that were staged in the corner of a living room. And of course, the amazing weather and freshly grown food only feeds a writers soul …

SF: What about the festival itself?

MJK: I love spending time writing and talking with other writers so I am excited about that aspect. And I’m also excited to work with a dramaturg [Jayne Wenger] and actors on this piece - one that still feels so fresh to me- I’ve never done something like this before. Usually I let ideas incubate a lot longer before bringing a director and actors into the picture. I didn’t know my director, Molly Aaronson Gelb, but as it turns out, she also went to Wesleyan, so we share an artistic vocabulary right from the start. I’m very eager to get started with the process!

SF: What do you have on the horizon?

MJK: After the festival I’m going to return to a full length piece I’ve been working on for a while, called A Live Dress, that focuses on the Yiddish Theater, but from a very contemporary point of view, and plays with gender roles, sexuality and the blending of post post modern and traditional art forms. Like other of my plays, the world of the play crosses the time/space continuum. I’m also thinking about the pros and cons of attending graduate school in playwriting – I’ll let you know what I decide!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Interview with BAPF Playwright Robert Henry Johnson

PF Associate Artistic Director Jonathan Spector: You've been a choreographer for much of your Artistic life. How did you begin writing plays?

Robert Henry Johnson: Actually, I grew up in theater. I started out in the theater as an assistant director at the age of three. No, I’m serious. I was the resident assistant director to the Black Light Explosion Company here in San Francisco. My mother was a star member of the ensemble, and she brought me with her to rehearsals all the time. I was quite a disruptive child I was told--all over the place making trouble for everybody.

One day, Keith – the director - announced to the cast, “Okay, everybody. I have a new assistant director I’d like to introduce to you. Everybody meet Bobby.” My mom said I had the strangest look on my face and it completely transformed my relationship with the theater. So that was my first introduction to plays.

For my seventh birthday my mother bought me a yellow toy typewriter. I wrote my first play about two things: spirituality and dance. It was a play about angels and demons and how dance was looked upon as something demonic and the angels had to try to find their relationship with dance as a form of worship and battle. I’m still passionate about those two things. A year later, I graduated to a black Smith Corona antique. The typewriter became my world. I wrote all the time. Instead of going outside to play with the other children, I stayed in and wrote short plays on my typewriter.

J.S.: How is your work as a playwright informed by your dance training and work as a choreographer?

RHJ: Unfortunately we live in a country where art disciplines are separate. I am not sure when the disciplines became chopped up into itty bitty pieces of sushi-like morsels. In other words, if you are a dancer, you are just that and only that. If you are a choreographer, you are that and only that. In my experience throughout my career, I found that that was never true.

Originally when I started my dance company in 1993, I wanted to make work that featured my writing skills. I wanted the artists I worked with to handle text, to speak aloud on stage while dancing. It was going to be a dance/theater company. But the dancers I procured did not know about handling text, and at the time I did not have the craft to train them. I compromised and we became a mostly-dancing-dance company. However, many of my pieces included text. Every season I would make a solo for myself in which I would recite monologues, poetry, prose. It was an aesthetic that was clearly my signature style, and the audience found it refreshing and entertaining. Dance critic Rita Felciano made a statement about my choreography. She said, “Things really start to cook when Johnson the choreographer meets Johnson the writer.” I think that is true.

Of course words and movement can arguably be exacted as quite different mediums. The wonder of how they can be merged to create a seamlessly and equally valued aesthetic is in how the playwright and/or director crafts these disciplines, using them as tools to communicate something impressionable and evocative to the audience. Of course, who knows how verse or dance or a moment in silence or a vocal lilt or the color of a costume will fall on the human heart? This is the exciting part about merging the disciplines.

The Othello Papers does not involve dance. Language dominates this play, though I think there’s a humorous tango between Caliban and Cleopatra. Hopefully, for the sake of this interview, it’ll make the edits.

Instead, I like to think of The Othello Papers as a kind of opera. Maybe it isn’t. And that’s ok. We’re still in the development stages. That’s why everybody should come out and see it. Before it hits Broadway. Wink, wink.

JS: What was the genesis of the Othello Papers?

RHJ: A costume. Well, originally, I wanted to design a one-man show in which I could wear an interesting costume on stage. In my mind, that looked like something Elizabethan inspired. But, since then, I discovered playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and it has put me on a mission to create black characters for the theater that are not popularly seen or offered by history or the media. As I came closer to realizing what the project would look like, I began to ask myself, “Why is this black man dressed like a seventeenth century European?” This began my search for the black presence in old time Euroland. That lead me to Othello, and the play.

JS: As a native San Franciscan, and someone who has been making work here
your entire life, does your work have a specifically Bay Area flavor?

RHJ: I’m sure it does but I wouldn’t know what that was or how to explain it.

JS: What's up next for you?

RHJ: I’m committed to further developing The Othello Papers and getting it a world premiere in 2011. And then, there are the fifty-one drafts of unfinished plays stacked neatly in my room. They haunt me when the sun goes down. All the characters of would be plays are standing in a line in full costume waiting their turn to speak to me and tell me who they are and what they want: Josephine Baker, a French student architect without a name, a black transvestite decocooning in a brownstone in New York City, the three headed dog who guards the brownstone, a young man who keeps blowing a trumpet very badly and a woman with a pink parasol who swears it wasn’t the wind that destroyed New Orleans.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Interview with Deborah Stein

We caught up with Deborah Stein, whose play Natasha and the Coat was part of this year's in the ROUGH Reading Series and will now be part of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

PF: Last time we talked to you was before Natasha and the Coat was in our Rough reading series. What did you learn about the play? How is it changing?

Deborah Stein: The ITR workshop was maybe the most practically useful workshop I've ever had, since it came so early in the play's development - still in the throes of becoming a play - I rewrote almost the entire second half during the three days I spent in the Bay Area, and for the two readings tried out two different endings. Having Corey and Naomi as part of the process was incredibly instructive, as they actually were able to provide information and background on some of the characters and cultures in the play that I hadn't yet researched. I also decided to shift the focus of the play slightly, making a different character the one whose journey we follow. So, my rewrites are focusing on building this character and also fleshing out the research-based aspects of the play. I think it might end up being a two-act play...I've never written anything with an intermission, so that's freaking me out, in a good way.

PF:What’s exciting going on in your life with your shows? How are you feeling coming into the Festival?

It's an exciting time! I'm gearing up to join Pig Iron Theatre Company in the creation of their next piece, Welcome to Yuba City, and I'm casting a workshop of my play Lifeboats which will be the next play of my own that I produce with my company, Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis. We just finished a sold-out run of Tory Stewart's play 800 Words, which was awesome. Also I just received a 2009-2011 Bush Artist Fellowship. So, exciting stuff--and really looking forward to some weeks in the Bay Area, it can't get here soon enough (except for all those rewrites I need to get done...).

From our interview with Deborah for ROUGH last May:

Jonathan Spector: In addition to writing plays as an individual artist, you have also collaborated multiple times with both Pig Iron Theater Company and director Lear DeBessonet on developing work with and for a specific company. How does the process differ when you're developing a piece specifically with a company?

Deborah Stein: Writing with and for specific actors has been one of the great joys of my creative life. When I write for an ensemble, the creation of character, story, rhythm, and playworld is a collective endeavor. There is often a sense that only these actors could play these roles; while I know lots of writers who would find this limiting, I find it incredibly invigorating and inspiring to know who I am writing for, and to collaborate intimately with them on how the character evolves from the clay. Working with a company, there is collective authorship: I work alongside the director, actors, and designers to create the world of the play. There is a sense of baton-passing, where at various points we are each in the lead, creating all together. Writing independently, I strive to create scripts that are whole yet allow enough space for this kind of active participation from future collaborators.

JS: Along with PF alum Dominic Orlando, you run the playwright driven company the Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis. What was the genesis of this company and how has it grown and changed over the course of the three years?

DS: The playwrights of Workhaus are mostly Minneapolis transplants, drawn to the Twin Cities by the resources of the Playwrights’ Center and the city’s awesome live-ability. The idea behind Workhaus was to create a home for our plays in the city after our scripts had moved beyond the development stages supported by the Playwrights’ Center. Inspired by 13P in New York and also our own experiences producing our own work elsewhere, we are also really committed to creating opportunities for unmediated interaction between playwrights and audiences. Each playwright becomes the Artistic Director for the duration of their production, and is involved in conceptualizing everything from set design to marketing as part of the dramaturgy, part of the audience’s experience of the play. We have produced seven plays in three years. Right now we’re finishing our second season as company in residence at the Playwrights’ Center and gearing up for a third, which will include new plays by me, Dominic, and Alan Berks.

JS: What as the genesis of Natasha and the Coat?

DS: My first job after graduate school was very similar to Natasha’s—I was hired by a vintage clothing wholesaler to design a marketing campaign for her local Hasidic-run dry cleaner. I got the job over Craigslist and lasted about eight days at the job. The parting was amicable—the clash of cultures was too intense; the cauldron of tradition, commerce, and gender dynamics was impossible for any of us to navigate. I grew up in a pretty secular Jewish household in New York, during the years that the Lower East Side and Williamsburg were gentrified. The swiftness with which this process happened was pretty surreal—to find myself bar-hopping on the same street where my grandfather, a Polish immigrant, worked sewing buttonholes forced me to reckon with how quickly the city, and my family, had changed. This reckoning was kind of so overwhelming that I decided to avoid it. This play, which is the most personal piece I have written—and which I began five years ago and then literally stuffed in a drawer, unfinished—is my belated attempt to wrestle with this legacy and these stories.

JS: What's up next for you?

DS: This summer, I’ll be back in the Bay Area to continue working on Natasha and the Coat; then I’ll be in Philadelphia working with Pig Iron on a new piece called Welcome to Yuba City. This fall, my play God Save Gertrude will be at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Interview with Festival Playwright Sharyn Rothstein

Sharyn Rothstein's play March, an exploration of the relationships between teens and their parents featuring avatars and other scary monsters, real, imagined, and something in between, will be part of our Bay Area Playwrights Festival this year. Sharyn is a New York City-based playwright whose full-length and one acts plays have been workshopped and/or produced off and off-off Broadway by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, New Georges, 3Graces Theater Company, The Vital Theatre, Soho Think Tank, and at numerous theaters around the country. Sharyn is the winner of the Samuel French Short Play Contest and recently completed her MFA in dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Dramaturg Sonia Fernandez spoke with Sharyn about March and her career.

Sonia Fernandez: One unique aspect of March is the computer game that two of the teenage characters play, which is represented onstage. They create avatars for themselves and play those avatars on stage. How did this device evolve for you?

Sharyn Rothstein: I had read an article that talked about these online games that allow people to take on any personality or character trait that they wanted. Yet, according to the article, the people playing the games usually choose traits very similar to who they are in real life. This was really striking to me, and I began to think about how people- and kids in particular- use these online games live out experiences and create relationships that are obviously heightened from real life, but are also very true to the person sitting at the keyboard. So I knew from the begging that although the avatars might look different from the characters who had created them, the avatars and the real life characters would sound very similar and have the same personality issues. It was also important that that in the online world, in stark contrast to their real lives, the kids could create their environment. I think that’s what draws the kids to the game in the first place.

SF: You’ve had some success in shorter forms of playwriting with several plays published in Smith & Kraus’ “The Best Ten Minute Plays” anthologies as well as Playscripts, and Samuel French. Can you talk a little about how your approach differs when writing a 10-minute play or a one act and full length works?

SR: The key difference for me is the incubation period. When I’m writing a ten minute or one-act play, I wait until I’ve got a good idea- it usually comes to me as a line of dialogue or a funny situation- and then I sit down and write the first draft immediately. With a full-length play, there’s a lot more I need to know – about the plot, about the characters – before I can write a complete draft. And because there’s so much more to know, it’s easier to get lost while I’m writing the play (which can be both a good thing and terribly frightening thing). What’s beautiful about writing a full-length play is that you have the room to let your characters surprise you. As long as my characters are doing things and saying things I didn’t expect them to do or say, I know the play is honest.

SF: You do other kinds of writing -- live event scripts, speeches, a children’s audio adventure series. How do you feel these influence your playwriting?

SR: The number one thing I’ve learned from writing for a living is that you have to be open to other people’s comments about your work. With playwriting, I’m in the fortunate place of owning the words, so no one can force me to take other people’s comments or edits. But what you learn doing other type of commercial writing – where you absolutely must take those edits- is that other people’s input is incredibly valuable. And you also learn how to best receive and incorporate that advice to make the final written product stronger. Often non-writers are responding incorrectly to a problem in your work- but that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

SF: Coming from small-town Connecticut, how did you get into playwriting?

SR: From a very young age, I loved being in an actual theater. Unfortunately, when you’re a kid in suburbia, most of the theater you have access to is musical theater, and I had – and still have – zero musical ability. Moreover, I was never really interested in being on stage. But I didn’t know, or I just hadn’t realized yet, that you could be a part of theater without being an actor.

I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher in high school who commandeered the school budget to allow a few of us to go see plays at the Hartford Stage from time to time. Those performances were some of us the first non-musical theatrical productions I saw, and I began to realize that somebody has to write all these shows. And that that somebody could be me.

SF: What’s up next for you?

I’ve been working on a new musical called BeautyQueen, that’s based on the story of Esther from the Hebrew Bible. The musical was commissioned by the 3 Graces Theater Company in New York, and they’re hoping to produce it in the Spring of 2010. It’s my first musical (as I noted above, musical talent was not my birthright!), so it’s been an equally fun and harrowing challenge.