Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Retreat

by Chinaka Hodge

It was sort of like the greatest summer camp, ever.

Here are the facts: Last week, in Danville CA, seven playwrights, seven dramaturgs, seven directors and a handful of Playwrights Foundation representatives went on a retreat. The retreat was in preparation for the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival (BAPF). My newest work 700th & Int'l is going up in this festival. As a participating playwright I was required to attend the retreat. I rolled my eyes a little and mentally prepared myself.

If you're anything like me, when you hear the word "retreat" you think of time wasting team building exercises, mediocre food and a whole lot of feigning interest in half-baked motivational speeches. But the BAPF retreat couldn't have been further from that. I sort of think that next time they do this getaway they should just call it "awesome, much needed, distraction free, writing time for television addicted playwrights like yourself, Chinaka". Or "an outstanding gathering of some of the nations brightest and most inspiring theater makers that will certainly make you cry with their brilliant plays, Chinaka".

Okay, fine. Those names don't really roll off the tongue or fly from the fingertips, but those names are more accurate, I believe. Begrudgingly, however, and in the spirit of brevity, I'll concede the name. We went on a "RETREAT".

The core of this time away was having the opportunity to hear every playwright in the festival read their works aloud. In my decade or so making work for the stage, never have I undertaken such a feat. To read every word of my short script meant roughly an hour of speaking aloud. I have to admit that I was daunted by the idea of sharing my (then) unfinished script with a room full of people I'd never met. I decided to grow a pair relatively quickly, though. Once Clarence Coo, the first playwright to share, rocked every notion I had about the way language could and should work on stage, I was hooked. I was hooked on the language alone. Lauren Gunderson's command of the norms and linguistic brilliance of the southern twang in Rock Creek: Southern Gothic; Amelia Roper's refined simplicity with Hong Kong Dinosaur's dialogue; and the phonological specificity of Dan Dietz's Home Below Zero was enough to make me wish the retreat and festival were both twice as long. As the days went on, I wanted more and more to stay. To stay, and to write. And to think and to cry. And to listen. To have my soul gently swayed by the words of others. To pull the pencil from behind my ear and to jot another note on how to become a better writer, as demonstrated by my peers. I talked to my boyfriend on the second night away. He asked me how it was and I replied that it was the greatest summer camp, ever.

(In the interest of total disclosure, I had the East Bay's best cookie in the cafeteria of the retreat site, and the promise of consuming more was probably enough to keep me there for a week or so. There were also Red Vines, and if you know me, you know I have a weakness for the lanyard-like confection).

But like all fantastic summer camp experiences, we packed up our pillows and knapsacks and headed down the hill. Down the hill and back towards the sparkling city across The Bay. We're gearing up for the two-week festival. If you've read this blog post this far, I bet you're a fan of theater and words and probably of run-on sentences. If you like any of that, you should come to see these shows. Check out my little diddy 700th & Int'l at BASH! if you have time. MAKE TIME to see the works of all of the other playwrights. I promise that the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival is the best yet, and I wouldn't want you to miss out. I look forward to seeing you jaw dropped and inspired, as I was.

For more info on Chinaka's play 700th & Int'l and the BASH section of this year's Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival visit

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interview with Kate E. Ryan

Kate E. Ryan’s Science is Close [click here] is one of the two plays featured in BASH! (Bay Area SHorts) for this year’s Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Kate is a Bay Area transplant from New York and has worked on numerous plays including an adaptation of Sophocles' Women of Trachis. Science is Close represents the second in a trilogy of plays Kate has written about the character Dot. We at the offices of Playwrights Foundation had a chance to catch up with Kate during the hustle and bustle of the Festival.

Could you briefly explain the genesis of your play Science is Close?
I began Science is Close in the fall of 2009, when I was living in Brooklyn. I was Co-Chair of Soho Rep’s Writer-Director Lab for several years and that job included the opportunity to write a new play in the Lab each year. For the ’09-’10 cycle I realized I wanted to continue the story of this elderly woman named Dot who is the main character in my play Dot – a work I had been developing for several years prior.
I also wanted to try to break out of some habits in my writing that I wasn’t happy with. I wanted to try to limit the amount of characters I could put into a play, and also stretch myself in terms of tone, humor and honesty. In Dot some of the characters are a little bit outsized and I wanted to work with characters that the audience could empathize with in a closer way.
Content-wise, my husband had been reading some material by Ray Kurzweil about “the future” and we had a conversation about life expansion -- the potential of healthcare technology to advance to the point that we could live to be, say, 150. I felt daunted by the idea of having to re-shape a vision of my lifespan. Then I heard an episode of This American Life called “Mistakes Were Made” about the early years of cryonics, and I started reading more about cryonics. I thought it would be interesting to have Dot as an elderly person who has lived a very eventful life grappling with the notion that she could have more life – if she wants it. It’s basically a play about whether she wants it – or not – and whether it’s okay for her to want it – or not.
How has this experience with the festival and Playwrights Foundation been? Honestly.
This experience has been wonderful so far. I’m excited to see all the readings in the next couple of weeks. I’m excited to have a work presented in the Bay Area for the first time. I’m excited to be one of the local writers in the Festival. As much as I miss my community of theatre makers in New York (I just moved to San Francisco last fall), I was really ready to break out of the NYC theatre world and move to a new place. This move has been freeing in terms of imagining what my writing could be and who my audiences could be. The Playwrights Foundation is an amazing organization that has been supportive of me right from the start – and for that I feel extremely lucky.
I’m also loving the Bay Area in general. I think there’s a calmness here, a baseline of contentedness in the population that does not exist in New York (the stereotype of the harried, wheels-churning New Yorker holds some truth). Now that I don’t have that rush of city life I’m able to focus more on the tasks at hand. In my writing life, I don’t feel as distracted.
The great August Wilson said many times before he died that the theatre must belong to the playwright to survive. Do you think this is true? 
It depends on what kind of theatre you’re talking about. I’m a playwright who often incorporates music and movement into my plays. Theatre can be linear narratives about characters who are specific, with whom audiences can empathize, in which we watch a protagonist change in some way… or it can be Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of a modernist novel, or it can be Young Jean Lee’s bold work (that she directs) that doesn’t tell any kind of traditional story. The kind of theatre that audience members expect to see when they pay $40-$140 per ticket might need to belong to the playwright in order to align with a common sense of what theatre is, but I think the most exciting performances – the ones that express a new way of seeing -- come from visionaries whose work may or may not be focused on an original text that they’ve created. They are often working against something in the theatre that they feel is causing the theatre to die.
 Audiences are smart. They experience fractured narratives daily just by going online and they watch television shows that play daringly with form. In order for theatre to survive it has to be in the hands of theatre artists of any discipline who are keyed into what will rattle audience members’ brains now.
 And lastly, what do you hope to do next in your life in the theatre?
 I want to keep discovering forms for the kinds of stories I want to tell.
 The artists who are actively engaged in the world -- in pop culture, technology, literature, current events – tend to make response-worthy work. So in my next life in the theatre I hope to continue to be engaged in life outside the theatre.
 I look forward to getting to know more about the Bay Area theatre world. I look forward to shedding some of my New Yorkiness (I lived there for 14 years) that is negative and holding on to that which is positive. I look forward to staying close with my NYC theatre community while building a network here. I want to continue to be involved with new play development for other writers.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Playlist

by Jackie Sibblies Drury

Jackie Sibblies Drury is one of the seven playwrights in this year's 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival with her play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 (click here)

Right now I’m obsessed with dance parties.

And dance party playlists.

I’ve spent the last several weeks at the MacDowell colony ( in Peterborough, NH, a beautiful natural environment where artist of different disciplines work in the woods, in solitude, pondering, indulging creative whims, steeped in transcendentalism.  From time to time they also have kick-ass dance parties.  Why?
·         You are alone-ish in the woods;

·         On good days you want to celebrate;

·         On bad days you want to punch the air, rhythmically, in frustration;

·         People who like to make art tend to be young of heart; and

·         People who are young of heart tend to like to dance.

As I’ve danced through various playlists in various spaces garnished by various iphone/pod/pads, I keep finding myself drawn to the moments between the songs. 

And I’ve been thinking about theater and performance and plays. 

In thinking about the moments between the songs, and thinking about what I could possibly write for this blog, I went through one of my playlists[1] and snipped up the beginnings and ends of any songs that iTunes let me,[2] deleting the middles, creating a stream of beginnings and endings, a series of transitions, a series of introductions, a series of goodbyes.  I let the songs end as they do on the tracks, as they do during dance parties without DJs. 

The result is above.

I am of a generation that takes play lists really, really seriously. 

The mixtape was the love letter of its time, but now the playlist has taken over, even though it doesn’t really serve the same purpose.  You don’t give your friend a playlist and hope she’ll become your girlfriend.  You invite your friend and all of her friends to a house party and you play your playlist that starts with fast songs and moves toward slow songs during which, you hope, your friend will make out with you.

Dance party playlists are different.  The point isn’t to make out, or chill out, or provide the right kind of innocuous background to support dinner conversation, or to comfort you when your boyfriend moves to Japan, or to commemorate that one spring when it rained a lot and you made a lot of eggplant. 

The point of a dance party playlist is to inspire a group of individuals to be drawn into something larger, and to feel so moved by this that they actually move, repeatedly.

Of course, this is theater. 

Please know that this is all a very, very, very smart and complex metaphor that works on many, many, many levels.

The songs have beginnings and ends in and of themselves, but in the group those meld and create interstices, varied edges that blend in unforeseen ways.  Did James Brown end his recording of “Sex Machine, Part 1” anticipating my desire to make a playlist where it fades into Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough?” 

Perhaps so. 

But probably not. 

And do those songs go together?  Do they overlap too much?  Are they too similar?  Not similar enough?  Also, both of those songs are kind of long – will people get tired of listening to them?  Dancing to them?  Will people get tired of dancing in general?  Will they get tired of life?  Will this combination of songs make my fellow dancers contemplate their own mortality?  And would it help if I got some glow sticks?[3]

There is nothing, NOTHING worse that clearing a dance floor.

There is NOTHING worse than listening to the next song fade in, watching all of those beautiful people who had been movin’ and shaking, let their arms grow limp and let their eyes cloud as they shrug and go off to get some air or a beer or, THE WORST, their bag as they head out the door.

The moments between the songs are tense.

Remember that this is a metaphor for theater.

I tried to figure out the difference between the repetition that eases you into a song – the repetition that allows for recognition – versus the repetition that dwindles to silence.

I thought about how it is different recognizing an intro than it is listening to it. 

I thought about how a fading repetition can sometimes let you savor a really great bout of dancing, but how it can also create awkwardness as everyone stops dancing and regains awareness of how stupid they look or how sweaty they are as they wait for the next track.

I thought about how similar or dissimilar the beginning of a song can be from its end. 

I thought about the ends of songs – how even the most conventional pop songs[4] end in completely different ways. How every song seems to have a different amount of space left at the end of a track – or, should I say, a different amount of time. 

I listened to the difference between the songs that end with a careless cut-off and the songs that end with a purposefully abrupt scratch.

I thought about the different silences.[5]

I thought about how long a silence had to be before it felt dead rather than alive, and if that was a factor of time at all. 

And of course I thought about theater.

[1] Titled “Can’t Fight the Funk” – a misnomer, since there is no funk is available to be fought on this playlist.
[2] Hey iTunes, what’s up with all of the not-authorized songs?  I’m not a criminal.
[3] Note: glow sticks are always a good idea.  Seriously.  They are awesome, they’ve always been awesome, and we will use them as currency after the Rapture because they are awesome.
[4] That is to say, the best pop songs
[5] Like a Pinter Pause vs. a Beckett Pause I told you this was about theater.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On Being Fabulous: Theatre and Gay People

by Clarence Coo

A fiction writer asked me recently, “What is it with theatre and gay people?” She had noticed a correlation and was curious.  She had meant no malice, as one were casually asking, “What is it with summertime and lightning bugs?” or “What is it with growing old and getting chronic back pain?” Of course there are gay people who read and write novels, and gay people who watch and produce film. But the writer posing the question wanted to know… just what is it exactly with gay people being into theatre?

Alas, despite being a gay person in the theatre myself, I didn’t have an answer.

A few days later, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was passed in New York and I attended the celebratory Pride march in Manhattan that weekend. We cheered for legislators who had voted for the bill. We cheered for couples who had waited decades for this moment. We cheered for costumes and floats of extraordinary engineering. Then above the noise of the crowd, I heard a fellow bystander exclaim a word of approval that, for reasons now lost to the history of etymology, is commonly used among gay people. The word was “fabulous.”

And there amid the joyous theatricality of the parade, I began to think about the word "fabulous" and wondered if that is what connects gay people to theatre. “Fabulous” in its normal usage indicates a high level of praise. But it is a praise of a complex flavor, as  it is related to the verb “fabulate” (from the Latin fabula or fable). To "fabulate" is to concoct a lie so believable that it seduces like a good story. To be "fabulous" is to have the power of myth.

That is theatre: actors speaking words that are not true that become true only because the audience has chosen to believe. For gay people who've had to lie or censor themselves through their childhood, the theatre can be a protective retreat and a powerful release. It is a space in which a stunted reality can fully bloom.

With the fabulous in mind, I went home and began rereading plays that commented on and were shaped by gayness. These were also the plays that formed my very understanding of what theatre could do. The first one I chose off my bookshelf was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, a play first produced in 1991 in the Bay Area. Its subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is explicit about the homosexual flights of fancy contained within.

And there, among the very first scenes of the play, the word “fabulous” is spoken by one of the characters, followed by a reference to theatre: “Fabulous. Best thing on Broadway.” It’s Roy Cohn expressing his opinion of the musical Cats. And towards the end of the play, adopting the same word that had praised dancing Jellicle felines, an incantation is intoned summoning the unimaginable future, one that incorporates gay people into the national consciousness: "the Messenger comes, trailing orbs of light, fabulous, incipient."

When an Angel finally crashes through the ceiling, whether lowered by visible wires, or wheeled in on a ladder by stagehands, or simply directed to walk across a high platform, the audience is already believing in the power of the fabulous.

The second play I reread was also set in 1980s New York, in a city unprepared for and ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. But Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a different kind of play, not a fantasia at all. The adjective in the title, “normal,” insists on the dignity of the everyday and the universal. While Kushner's play revels in fantasy as an escape, Kramer's naturalism grounds itself in the harsh facts, statistics and evidence of a society’s failures. The word “fabulous” isn't uttered at all in the play.

However, I was struck in my rereading by how Kramer closes his play with an act in a hospital room that was, at the time of the play’s premiere in 1985, preposterous. It was an act equally fantastic as an angel crashing through the ceiling. And though the first time I read the play was a decade past its initial production, I remember how my chest almost burst from yearning as my adolescent imagination lacked the capacity to conceive that such an act could ever be ordinary. The Normal Heart ends with a gay wedding.

So I think to my own play and ask myself the question that all writers must wrestle with: is my work fabulous?

Beautiful Province (Belle Province) is about two characters unable to deal with the messiness of sexuality who retreat, through language, into a world of their own creation. They convince themselves they are speaking French to each other, though the words coming out of their mouths are in English. They travel by car across highways but pretend they are journeying backwards into time, back to when North America was still a New World and bare as a blank stage. The play is their shared hallucination.

Of course, all theatre is a shared hallucination. In it all things are possible and that is why it's fabulous.

Beautiful Province (Belle Province) by Clarence Coo is part of the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. For more on this play and others in the festival visit

Friday, July 1, 2011

I'm A Stranger Here Myself

Australian Amelia Roper on her life as an international playwright and her play, Hong Kong Dinosaur, coming to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in July.

Lately, I noticed, I have been writing plays about houses. Not kitchen sink dramas, necessarily. Naturalism is not my thing. The style and content vary but always some sort of house. And some sort of fight for the house. Because a house is rarely big enough for everybody.

I don’t have a house. I rent an apartment in Connecticut. Writing space is more important to me than a bedroom, so I have a wonderful office and sleep on a single bed in my closet. People think I’m mad. I love it. I spend months away. (Someone I have never met is living there now. She seems nice. I bought fire insurance.) I have boxes at my parent’s farm in Australia that I really should have labeled. Today I have a suitcase and I like my suitcase. Perhaps my suitcase is my house. I will live out of it for two and a half months this trip. It has clothes for four countries (summer and winter) and my computer. Perhaps my computer is my house. And actually I am quite happy. Traveling. Learning. I’m a citizen of the world! I don’t need to own a house! I thought I did, but enough of that. So why all the plays?

Do I miss Australia?

Do I miss my mum?

Do I want to settle down and have chickens?

No. Well yes. And maybe ducks. One day. But this goes way back. Before the traveling. Before America. Before applying to the Yale School of Drama because I liked the pretty pictures on the website. Hong Kong Dinosaur is my third house play. I started it in 2009, in Melbourne, as a response to the theatre I was seeing in my city and how white it was, how masculine, how conservative and overwhelmingly (though of course not entirely) boring. It seemed such a missed opportunity! We got enough of all that from our TV, news and government, didn’t we? People came to the theatre for something else, didn’t they? Why else would they leave more convenient locations, like, for example, their own house? Houses have plenty of movies these days and you can eat pizza. Oh, and also I wanted to write roles for my actor friends who were sick of playing foreign exchange students and prostitutes. I wanted a play that didn’t call Hello Kitty backpacks and pigtails multiculturalism. Not that I was seeing any of this on stage. It seemed even the advertisements on TV were more progressive than the theatre.

So where did this boring Australia come from, and why are we holding on to it? I had a look around, and I came up with some thoughts.

In Australia our soldiers are called ANZACs. It stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The First World War was the first time the ANZAC name was used, and the first time Australia participated on the world stage as its own country. We ditched the tight English dress uniform and designed our own based on practicality and comfort (of course we did) and a nation was born.

The image of a young white man in a distinctive slouch hat was an important part of my primary school education. ANZAC Day is even more popular today.

Now I’m not for a moment suggesting it shouldn’t be popular or shouldn’t be taught. Or even that it is boring (given the horror of it, that would just be rude). It’s the myth I want to examine. Because despite the shortage of troops and two (failed) attempts at introducing a compulsory draft, the Australian military required all soldiers to be of significant European decent. If the world was going to see what we were made of, it was going to be white and male. So what sort of nation was born exactly? And what sort do we celebrate in that iconic image?

It is a big play, this one. Big in the sense of scope and ideas and chaos. It jumps time periods and countries. Even the cast is big for me – six actors. Three men, three women. Three white actors, three Asian actors and a great range of ages and accents.

But at the very centre of it?


A little suburban house.

It is a house owned in the early twentieth century by a family of Irish immigrants, and in the early twenty-first century by a newly married couple, Sam & Zoe O’Lachlan. Sam has lived in the same sleepy suburb his whole life but Zoe, having recently given up the cultural capital of Hong Kong for daily cups of tea with her crackpot, somewhat racist mother-in-law, is less than impressed.

I’m excited to bring this play to California. As a play written for a very specific time and city it does seem to translate surprisingly well. Will Eno wasn’t surprised. He was my mentor last year for a workshop in New York City. I said something like “Do you think people will get it?” and he smiled and said something about me not being as smart as he thought I was (for even questioning it – this was his point). Now there is a writer who understands the universal importance of everyday things like houses.

I’ve never been on the west coast before. I’ve heard the food is good. Victoria and California have a similar gold rush history and as a result of that rush, similar migration patterns. (Which probably also explains the food. I’ve heard it is almost as good as Melbourne. Is this true?) California popped up regularly in my original Hong Kong research. I’ve also read accounts of Chinese gold diggers leaving Australia and heading for the USA in the hope of better treatment. I wonder if they found it.

On the Australian goldfields Chinese men were not allowed to bring their families. They were charged extra for land to dig and often sectioned off completely. They were frequently victims of beatings and murder and by the end of the 19th century, most had returned home. To China. Assuming China was home, after all those years. Australia had a preference for English and Irish migrants. A policy we would later call the White Australia Policy. Yes this was its official name and it stayed in place until the 1970s. Some will say it can still be found (unofficially) in Australia’s immigration laws today.

I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. It is hot in Hong Kong this time of year. Tropical hot. People move out of their apartments early in the morning and set up cardboard box cubicles under the relative cool of the many covered walkways. They bring computers and games and food and fans. The boxes are flattened and then sat on. Cardboard walls are built to delineate one’s area from one’s neighbours. There were some general rules. No setting up your box in the fancy shopping centre, or in the way of traffic. Stay in your own box. And keep your kids under control. It was not unlike an Australian beach in summer with our rows of small sun tents.

Hong Kong has a turbulent history and really it was the colonial connection that got me interested in the first place. It’s not China and it’s not England. And what will happen to Hong Kong when it is handed back to China in 2047? No one is entirely sure. And for those who own houses there? Owning anything in any country requires a few basics. For example, hoping another country doesn’t sail on in and take it. Luckily that’s never happened in my country.


But that was years ago, more than two hundred years. And my primary school was too busy teaching me about ANZACs. And then I grew up and learned that my ancestors stole. And I don’t mean the loaf of bread that got us deported as convicts. (Actually, to be honest, we’re quite proud of that.) I mean the land under our houses. What to do with that information?

And then there is the weather. And the earthquakes. And the floods and the fires. There are the millions of people around the world in refugee camps and offshore processing schemes (Australia, I love you, but you make me so sad sometimes). They don’t show us graphic images of people dying on TV, but they do show us houses being destroyed. And viewers around the world watch in horror, because we all know exactly what it means.

Living in Melbourne, the lucky ones, safe from all that, there was something else happening to my generation. Most of us grew up assuming we would own houses one day. Our parents did. Get married. Buy a house. Have children. All of us, gay or straight, still expected something a little like that. We would stay in the suburbs we liked – the shabby, cool, arty suburbs, and we would buy our own little place. Perhaps we would have to fix it up a bit, or move a little further out, but it would be ours. There would be vegetable gardens and chickens. Yes, we were mostly artists but not all of us, actually, and other jobs could always be found.

Wages are high in Australia.


Soon those little brick houses in our favourite shabby suburbs started selling for over a million dollars. Renters were also affected. Share houses doubled in price. Friends who wanted children stopped waiting until they owned houses. Many moved to country towns, which, by the way, are getting mighty pricey themselves. Others were lucky enough to have parents who could help them but the next generation of Aussie kids will learn a different lesson. Home ownership is no longer a given.

In Hong Kong Dinosaur, when Zoe learns that her husband has lied to her and (plot spoiler) her mother-in-law owns most of their house, she questions whether she will ever be happy in Australia. But is it the house or the lie that hurts the most? And does either matter when suddenly you find dinosaur bones in your backyard? A Diplodocus! The Prime Minister wants that Diplodocus. She wants to give it a patriotic name and put it on display. Sam & Zoe’s little house must be destroyed. For the good of the nation. Of course.

2010 and I am an international student in America. It is two years since the Global Financial Crisis and... well. You know this story better than I do. People are walking from their homes. The poor have never been safe in this country but now, suddenly, there are so many kinds of poor. I write She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange. A dark comedy about housing foreclosures in New England. Recently I did a workshop of this play in Moscow. Again I am surprised Russians care about Connecticut and again I am reminded of Will Eno’s wry smile.

Theatres make the best kind of houses.

It is easy to believe in everything but permanency in the theatre.

So come and see a play about a house. It’s called Hong Kong Dinosaur. It’s unlike any house play you’ve ever seen, but also kind of the same. It’s foreign, but you’ll still understand it. It’s on at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, directed by the brilliant Desdemona Chiang. The cast is astounding. The festival is a triumph of story telling in the middle of a mean, economically challenged world. And it runs under two hours. So if you have a house, it will probably still be there when you get back.

Hong Kong Dinosaur by Amelia Roper is part of the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. For more on this play and the others that are part of the festival, please visit for more details.