Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Day in the Life of...

Gillian Heitman, Artistic Fellow at Playwrights Foundation

Gillian Heitman
Tuesdays are my Mondays…and my Saturdays. 

Such is life when you work 7 days a week at two places. I’m very tired since I was up since 5:30 A.M. yesterday and didn’t get home until a quarter to midnight. The good news is I was at Playwrights Foundation’s Fall 2013 Rough Readings at Stanford, hearing playwright Dipika Guha’s new work, Herculine and Lola, being brought to life by an ensemble of eight talented actors. It’s a known truth that plays are meant to be performed, not simply read, and that’s exactly what happened at the Rough Readings. The actors brought genuine emotion, made real connections with each other, and some even came in costume, which was a nice visual for the color heavy symbolism in the play. Though it’s not the same as seeing a fully produced show, there’s something thrilling about seeing new work being presented and hearing the writer receive feedback on where to go from here. 

After such an exciting night, I’m glad to be coming into the PF office today.  We’re getting ready for a benefit next month and there’s still casting to do for the remaining two Rough Readings of the season. Stuffing envelopes may not seem fun to most, but I’ll gladly take it over working on data entry on Vendini for four hours straight. And the materials we are putting together are so fun and cute! I definitely would want to go if I got an invite like that.

In the afternoon, we decide Laura is the “rebel” fellow. Really, she’s more like our wacky leader. We went on a “fellow party” to the post office and then to Peets, thanks to her. It was awesome.  I got a s’more that was amazing! Just another great day at PF…

Plays: A Place for Paths to Cross

Take a walk with Playwrights Foundation this Fall, as we journey to places near and far as we present to you our latest Rough Reading season. We first meet with Dipika Guha with her new play HERCULINE AND LOLA-  an epic love story of two people stranded in their own time, yet bound together by inexplicable force. 

I often find that my plays emerge from some small instinct I have that there might be connections between seemingly disparate things. Or, as my teacher Ken Prestininzi once more eloquently said, “plays are a place where things that don’t normally touch, touch’. The story of writing this play was, for me, one of learning to trust that that the connections between disparate elements exist, even when we can’t always see them. 

In 2008 I wrote a short play called Habeas Corpus. The play takes place in the crossing of two stories. One was about two inmates held at Guantanamo and the second was about a teenager who learns that they are intersex (or biologically both male and female). I was led to the material by the dim sensation that there might be some connection between torture, democracy and our impulse to rigidly categorise gender and sex. I thought the play would no longer be relevant after 2008 because Guantanamo would most certainly be closed by the end of the year.

Two years went by with the right to a fair trial or habeas corpus still suspended in the United States, Guantanamo still open and our thinking still as polarised.  So instead of thinking the play irrelevant I then tried to expand it!  But it wouldn’t! The harder I tried, the more mute the characters became, and my effort ground to a halt. At the end of that frustrating time, my mentor Paula Vogel and I had a conversation where she instructed me to her wife Anne Fausto Sterling’s pioneering work on intersexuality and her wonderful book Sexing the Body. Paula also told me to read the Diary of Herculine Barbin, a first person account of the short life of a French nineteenth century intersex school teacher. Herculine Barbin turned out to be the connective tissue I needed to expand the ideas if not the story of Habeas Corpus.

By that time my ambitions for myself and the play had altered. I wanted to work on this new play like a painter works on a canvas. I wanted to treat the progression of colour and space in the play with the same curiosity and interest as I would story and narrative. I was deeply interested in the use of painterly abstraction in, say someone like Van Gogh (who is very present in this play) who uses shards to build a realistic picture versus the effect of an overall abstraction through solid colour like Rothko (who is also present) to create landscapes. Eventually I discovered I could perhaps create both kinds of abstraction if I used a tripartite structure where each part of the play would use a different technique or style. So in Herculine [and Lola] we follow plot in the first part (Red) as it bounces around cinematically. We’re in stasis in the second part (White) which is for the most part a conversation between two people in a single location and finally we return to the plot in the final part (Blue) only time has passed and all the characters we return to are five years older.

With Herculine and Lola I’ve tried to write something I’ve been yearning to see on stage. Something that has the scope of a novel but is in essence theatrical. Something that would let me have my own “phase” guided by colours, because I so envy painters and their ability to submerge themselves in a single colour for years on end. And something that would speak to the fact that there is a whole spectrum that exists between black and white, male and female, past and present-a play that could hold all this and still tell a story. As I write this, I feel quite I’ve failed many of these ambitions. But it’s an experiment I believe in wholeheartedly, as I do in the necessity of creating new worlds to hold the voices of voices who do not always get a space to exist on the world stage in their own times and in ours.

Written by Dipika Guha, playwright

Join Playwrights Foundation and Theatre of Yugen for HERCULINE AND LOLA this Tuesday, October 15 at 7pm at NOH Space.

Rough Readings are PAY WHAT YOU CAN
Send us your RSVP and we'll save you a seat!