Monday, December 12, 2011

Tiny Little Bad Boys: One-Minute Musings by Chris Chen

Some thoughts I had while writing my tiny little bad boys for the SF One-Minute Play Festival

Here is perhaps our most famous short play, in its entirety: Beckett’s Breath:

1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold about five seconds. 2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds. 3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in 1) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold about 5 seconds.

And so in the end, Beckett’s views on life can be boiled down to one simple, yet endlessly huge idea (at least in my take on the piece): You’re born, you breathe in the garbage of life, you’re snuffed out. This is arguably a central notion running through Beckett’s entire oeuvre, and in a career marked by endlessly stripping down word counts to their barest essentials (he started as a novelist), he finally managed to strip away words and run-times all together.

Yet in less than a minute (around 35 seconds to be exact) he conveys volumes, and the visceral impact of making me feel as though I am breathing in garbage has a lasting effect. I can feel the toxicity, and in less than a minute a window begins to open on all the unhealthy aspects of my life. I begin to see things in terms of pollution: my bad eating habits pollute my body; my neuroses pollute my soul; my endless hours on the internet pollute my mind. Although Beckett probably didn’t intend his plays to be motivational allegories, these sudden revelations are cathartic. Because in this particular play, run-time is part of the thematic conceit: from a cosmic perspective, a single person’s life-span registers as less than a minute, so we’d be well advised not to fill our few precious seconds on earth with poison. It is a terrifying call to action.

If the goal of the playwright is to capture some essence of life, some essential Truth- with a capital T- then surely the nature of this Truth is timeless. And if this is the case, then the play, given its finite run time, can be seen as a symbolic representation, a tip of the iceberg of the endlessly expansive and endlessly expanding aspects of this Truth. So the experience of a profound play doesn’t stop when the lights come up, or even begin when the lights first go down. The experience of the play has already commenced from the time each audience member began experiencing life: accumulating their histories, forging their mind-frames, and developing their methods of processing. The audience provides the substance and meaning that fill out the symbolic actions that play out before them. And after the audience is moved and shaped by the mingling of their and the artists’ perspectives, they will carry this experience with them as they move on with their lives- from the discussion in the car ride home to the memories in their subconscious for years and decades and even generations to come. So in the end, the play is part of a continuum. It is not an isolated event.

Looking at a play from this perspective, what is the difference between a run-time of one-minute and a run-time of a hundred and twenty minutes? Relative to the span our Lives- with a capital L- there is no difference. Consider a Rembrandt painting, which is a frozen moment in time but captures multitudes that expand in time on all sides, from the history of the painted figure on one side to the emotion you carry forth into the future on the other. You may look at the painting for five seconds and tap into the timelessness that is its lineage, or it may take you half an hour to get there. Or maybe it takes exactly one minute. So I am a fan of one minute plays. Or the idea of any work of art that questions the normal boxes of time we put things in. Because the Essence- with a capital E- of what we are circling around as artists is so much bigger than any box can hold.

-Chris Chen

The Second Annual SF One-Minute Play Festival, in partnership with Playwrights Foundation at Thick House is Sat Dec 17th at 8 PM, and Sun Dec 18th at 2PM and 7PM. 60 Plays. 30+ Playwrights. 20+ Actors. 1 Minute. Tickets are $18 dollars online and available here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jessica Heidt in a Box

By, Caitlyn Tella

Today we zone in on Jessica Heidt, new play director extraordinaire, and the woman at the helm of Geetha's Girl in a Box Rough Reading. Jessica built a career on her passion for new and experimental theater, directing and producing countless readings, workshops, and theatrical events throughout the Bay.  I spoke with her briefly about the world of possibility--that is, the world of new plays--and here are the words from our conversation:

Can you talk a little about the story of Girl in a Box?
Yes. The story begins with an event that happens in childhood.  There are mysterious circumstances around the disappearance of Sally, Ava’s best friend, when they are about 10 years old.  The rest of the play follows a lifetime, as we try to return to this event from childhood and figure out what happened.  Ava, played by Lauren English, ages throughout the story, and the other two actresses play multiple characters that lead us from scene to scene as the years progress.

The Lily's Revenge by Taylor Mac at Magic Theatre

I love when actors play multiple characters in one play. Is there an element of fantasy in this story?
Yeah, I think in many ways there are, whether it’s fantasy or dream.  There are definitely moments of suspended reality.
Miriam Wolodarski in her show Lavinia at Climate Theatre

Your theater company, Climate Theater, creates a space for experimental performance, and as a director you often work on original plays.  Could you talk about what draws you to producing and directing new work?
It’s the sense of possibility, with all of these different types of work.  With new plays in general, I love working with writers, and I love being able to help someone realize their vision.  As a director and producer in these settings, I can add my own sense of theatricality and story and character, and be part of the burst of these new projects.  I find that incredibly exciting. It’s great to have a playwright in the room, like Lauren said, to be able to wrestle big questions.

Orestes 2.0 by Charles Mee at USF

As a producer at Climate, I was able to work with such a wide range of artists—I had composers, people from physical theater, at one point I had a filmmaker—who I loved and respected.  I was really excited by the work they were creating, but they didn’t necessarily have a space to do it, so that’s what I was able to give them.  And at the same time, because many of the artists I was nurturing were part of a residency program they all got to know each other and they inspired each other’s work. A lot of times they became collaborators, and that was so much fun to watch grow.

Danielle Levin, Patrick Alparone and Michelle Maxson
Man of Rock by Daniel Heath at Climate Theatre

Do you ever begin your process by gathering your favorite artists, say a video artist, choreographer, and actors, and basically start from scratch that way?  Or is it necessary to have an idea and then gather people?
As of now, in general, the projects have been one person’s idea and then other people enter as they bring their own collaborators.  But I’ve always wanted to do what you’re talking about.  Maybe the next one!

Could be interesting.  Could be a lot of work.
(Laughs) And so much fun.
Summer Shapiro (resident artist at Climate) in her show, In the Boudoir

All photos from Jessica or Jessica's website:

Don't miss out on Girl in a Box! It's going to be amazing.  If you prefer the Peninsula, you can catch it next Monday, November 28 at Stanford or if San Francisco is more convenient, come Tuesday, November 29 to the Thick House in Potrero Hill.  This reading, like all of our Rough Readings is FREE with a suggested $10 donation.  Bring a friend, your significant other, your OK Cupid date, or enjoy an evening of theater in solitude (paradox?).  More info here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lauren English in a Box: Digging into the new play process from the actor's perspective

By Caitlyn Tella, PF Volunteer
At PF we develop new plays.  So, what does that mean, anyway?  What's the difference between nurturing a new work and producing a full-on show?  Here, I will look into these questions by interviewing the artists behind our next Rough Reading, Girl in a Box, written by resident playwright Geetha Reddy and directed by Jessica Heidt. First up is a look into the actor's experience, through the eyes of Lauren English, who will be playing "Ava" in the reading. 

Lauren English

From her days at NYU Grad Acting to her recent performance in Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body at the Magic, local actress Lauren English has often worked directly with playwrights on their scripts.  As an actress myself, I’ve never had this opportunity, so I wanted to get some insight on what it's like to perform in a staged reading.  Here is some of the wisdom Lauren shared with me:
"Doing a staged reading requires you to extend a sensibility outside of yourself, because what you’re ultimately doing is giving the play the best reading possible so that the playwright and the producers and the director can hear it.  I always feel like it’s my job to do the best reading of the play that I can so that the playwright can continue to work on it."

"In rehearsal for a staged reading my role is to point out the things that aren’t actor-proof.  For example, a good actor can make a bad line work, but I don’t feel like that ultimately serves a reading or workshop of a play because what you want to do is make it actor-proof. The lines must be so clear and succinct that an inexperienced actor could encounter a line and know what to do with it. As an actor, you don’t want to try to save the play by interpretation."

"The last play I did where the playwright was in the room was Why We Have a Body and the most exciting thing is getting to hear the playwright’s voice in the room.  You have the chance to ask, “I’m not really understanding this section of the play—why does she make this decision?” Most of the time, and certainly with Claire Chafee—she would go into the storytelling mode and talk about these characters as if they were real people.  All of a sudden this mystery becomes a totally specific reality, and that’s thrilling.  There’s something super exciting about having the person who created this character tell you about her. It can really make your work more specific." 

"It’s important to spend as much time as possible with the script before rehearsals start. Read the script and identify any major questions that you have about the story, so that you can come to rehearsal and say, “Okay, I know we don’t have much time but I just want to make sure I’m clear—in the second act she does this, she makes these choices, is that what I’m feeling here?”  In that regard you’re at least being as clear as you possibly can, story-wise.

Lauren and Baby Eva in Reborning by, Zayd Dohrn at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

It is a bit tricky because time is always so limited with these processes—you want to feel like you can stop to ask questions, but you also want to be aware of keeping your mouth shut because you can spend up to two hours talking about one scene.  You have to get through the play and ultimately it’s about the play and not about your individual part—you have to be aware of both.  It’s hard."

"Some actors are really best when they have time to process the play, time to go through all the emotions and everything that’s going on.  And other actors (like me!), usually find that the first instinct is the right choice. It’s important in these readings to go in and make decisions, but also be open to what the director’s going to say."

"Honestly, the best attitude to have in a staged reading or a workshop of a new play is the willingness to try anything, willingness to let go of your own ideas, willingness to let go of your ego.  It’s not just about the actor, and yet it is—you obviously can’t do a staged reading without actors. But it’s really important that you be willing to put your own ideas and feelings aside to honor the process of developing a script."

"It’s an insanely gratifying experience to be a part of something as it’s being formed."

You can catch Lauren's performance in Geetha Reddy's new play Girl in a Box on Monday, November 28 at Stanford or on Tuesday, November 29 at the Thick House in San Francisco.  Readings are FREE with a suggested $10 donation.  Bring a friend and join the fun!  More info here.

Look out for our next interview with director Jessica Heidt here on the PF blog!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Accepting My Voice

by Thais Harris

Really good incentive. That’s what I need when I start thinking that my voice is not clear enough, clever enough, brilliant enough. Good incentive, attention, and inspiration – that is what I got from Bill Cain’s class at the Playwrights Foundation. These things are bound to get me off my butt (well, actually, on my butt) writing. That someone outside of my head might just get a glimpse of what’s going on in there, and say “that’s great, I get it, now make it more accessible, and immediate.” That someone so much further along than me can hold my hands and say “one, two, three” and lift me up from the ground, keeping me suspended for just a minute while I realize I can step down on my own two feet. This is keeping me writing. This is bubbling in the middle of my heart, reminding me that I am a worthy messenger.

Four days were not enough, but they were enough to have a big impact. Eleven writers came together to learn from Bill Cain how to fulfill the sacred duty of finding their own voices. Our own voices. Bill is one of the most talented writers I know, as well as a Jesuit Priest, a 6th and 7th grade teacher, and a self-proclaimed anger instigator (though with his sweet demeanor this is hard to fathom). He listened patiently, thought about work outside of the class, held the space for us to share it, researched companion pieces, and offered honest criticism and insight.

There were those of us who already had a clear picture of their next play in mind, or were already pretty confident in their style. And there were also those of us, yours truly included, who had a notion of a theme, but felt a long way away from developing it into a truthful, gripping, piece of theatre. There’s certainly much more work to be done, but in the course of four days - by visiting the Bible, Shakespeare, Cinderella, and sharing our work out loud - we were able to walk out with a tangible dramatic question, a clear outline, and a chart of our beautiful, imperfect, unique sound.

We practiced performance and collaboration by singing;
We explored the world of theatre by reading, discussing, and comparing our favorite plays;
We looked beyond the 10 commandments and found the small print that says we have a responsibility to find our voice,
We accepted we don’t have to ask permission, and that it is up to us to realize that what we are doing is great;
And we trusted – each other with our stories, and ourselves with the ability to tell them.

The dedication with which Bill guided us was moving, and the huge steps people took in their work were inspiring. When he posed the questions “Do you think that what you have to say is worth saying; can you say it; and can it be received?” We couldn’t help but bring our most honest voice forward. And now I can’t help but write.
Aug. 1, 2011

Thais Harris

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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.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Barebones Start of Some Thoughts about Trust and Intimacy and What Music Does/Can Do in a Play

by Dan Dietz

I’ve written a number of plays that utilize live music in some way.  A Tennessee fairy tale with a Tom Waits-esque singing angel.  An American history play featuring a live rockabilly band.  An adaptation of AGAMEMNON set in post-Katrina New Orleans, complete with a Chorus that moans the blues (CLEMENTINE IN THE LOWER NINE, set to premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto this October).  But my latest play, HOME BELOW ZERO, takes a much more subdued tack, at least stylistically.  It’s my first attempt to utilize music—in this case, heavy metal—in a primarily realistic (if somewhat heightened) drama.

Which has got me thinking:  why music?  What does it do that I like so much?  And what about this time will be different from my previous uses of live music onstage?

Coming of age in Austin

I spent a huge chunk of my adult life living in Austin, Texas.  It’s a city so saturated with musicians and bands that music pretty much becomes part of every resident’s DNA.  It’s in the air you breathe.  Its value is inherent and obvious.  Like a dip in Barton Springs’ freezing waters on a hundred-plus degree day, or a trip to the taco truck on South First Street for lunch.

As a young playwright coming of age in that town, I was one of many experimenting with how you could add live music to a play without making it a “musical.”  I was a member of Salvage Vanguard Theater, one of whose founders was in a garage punk band called Superfecta.  The company started off by doing plays in a rock club called the Electric Lounge.  They had to have the entire set struck in time for the first band to go on at 10pm.

Which is a long way of saying, we knew musicians.  And since gigs could be hard to get in a town chock-full of bands, we were often lucky enough to have stellar players weaving their music into our onstage action.  We got to see how the music could leaven a moment with irony, or cut to the emotional heart of a scene by repeating a simple chord.

And we weren’t the only ones doing it.  The Rude Mechs (now famous for their collaboratively-created shows), Refraction Arts, even theatre artists at St. Edward’s University were bringing live bands into their shows. 

But putting live music in a show begs the question:  What does music do well in a play?  So let’s write a section called:

Brief Detour:  What Does Music Do Well?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to work on a collaboratively-created musical with some unbelievably talented artists at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.  In one of our early meetings, the composers (and librettist/book writer Kait Kerrigan) spoke at length about what music and musicals do well.  Here’s part of the list they came up with:

1.  Telling you what to feel.
2.  Giving you a sense of a larger world or community.
3.  Serving as a vehicle for emotional honesty.
4.  Slowing down or speeding up time.
5.  Activating transitions.

They also spoke about Source Songs and Montages, but I won’t get into all that here.

When I look at this list, though, what I really see is:  Trust.

Look at all the ways your audience trusts you when you put music onstage.  They trust you with their emotions.  They trust you to help them build the world of the story that’s being told inside their imaginations.  They trust you to carry them through time and transitions and on to the next important thing they need to see and experience and wonder about.

Because make no mistake, trust is what’s involved.  Creating and receiving music is a deeply personal transaction.  Music by its very nature bypasses the logical centers of the brain to stimulate way more primitive parts of your subconscious.  This is (my faux-sciencey yet still I think very true explanation of) why going to see a bad band is an almost literally painful experience.  Why Muzak makes some people want to tear their hair out.  And why a single note placed just right can make my Dad—not an emotional guy—start blinking away tears.

So basically (and assuming they’re not just sitting there with a massive emotional wall up for some reason), each of these human beings watching your show lets you (through your music) into their hearts and minds in a way that circumvents their well-honed ability to use language and logical thought to shut you out.

Kind of unbelievable how intimate this all is.

Which segues me to…

How does all this relate to HOME BELOW ZERO?  Or does it?

A big part of what I’m exploring in this play is the intimacy that people experience when music binds them together.  The trust that music promotes and requires.

I’m using music in two different ways as it stands right now.  One is realistic:  Khaled really does play the guitar.  And not in some Brechtian, presentational, let’s pop out of the narrative to address the audience directly kind of way.  He actually plays in the Real World of the play.

The other is non-realistic:  music exists in what is currently the Coma World of the play.  It is music created by instruments that aren’t there.  It’s the music of memory, music that is connected to a particular character’s sense of identity (an identity that’s kind of split). 

But I’ve tried to find moments where music could intersect with the action in other ways.  For instance, I gave Khaled what felt like a manifesto (what I call his “Tabaghdada speech”).  Originally, I conceived this moment as occurring while he plays a throbbing heavy metal riff.  Then I decided to take the music out, and see if the speech still retains the same swaggering energy without the sound.  That’s the great thing about BAPF—I get to test that theory out in practice.

Then there’s another scene in which music brings two characters into an intimate moment of connection—but the music is on headphones, so the audience never gets to actually hear it.  Another experiment—we’ll see how it plays.

But the point is, these characters need music to express themselves.  It comes out of a deep desire to have a part of themselves heard.  And since some of these characters have a difficult time expressing their emotions through language, the music offers a way of talking about what they feel—without having to talk about what they feel. 

So I’m hoping that maybe the music in HOME BELOW ZERO will say things that monologues can’t.  And maybe the absence of music will say things, too.   Maybe these characters need to do numbers 1 through 5 above in their lives as much as I might want to do them in my plays.  Maybe in a world falling down around their ears, it’s the only tool they really have.

We’ll find out.

You can catch the Bay Area Playwrights Festival reading of Dan's play HOME BELOW ZERO - with a live musician - on Friday July 22 at 8pm and Sunday July 31 at 4pm. For more information on Dan's play and the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival visit