Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: Rob Melrose

Our final playwright to be interviewed is the fabulous Rob Melrose, artistic director of The Cutting Ball Theater -- and not really the 'playwright' but rather adaptor, book writer, librettist, as if that's not enough!  He makes his writing debut at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival with his truly hilarious, trip-hop musical, Ozma of Oz.
Rob Melrose

Natasha Brown: Thanks for letting me interview you! First question, is your style distinct or does is change depending on the play?

Rob Melrose:  I always gravitate towards projects with lots of imagination so in that way I’m consistent. However, the ways in which I’m creative are very different depending on whether I’m directing, translating or adapting a text. Each project has its own place and style.

NB: That makes sense. How did this piece came into being?

RM: The idea of doing something with Z.O.N.K. and the book Ozma of Oz came to me when I was directing Happy Days at the Guthrie Theater.  Downstairs they were presenting a new musical version of Little House on the Prairie.  People from all over the state of Minnesota came to see this book brought to life on stage.  And, I asked myself, if this is the Minnesotan Regional Theater way of reaching new audiences, what is the San Francisco Experimental Theater version? At the same time, I was reading all of the Wizard of Oz books to my daughter.  Ozma of Oz plays on identity and I thought about  San Francisco, I found my version.   

San Franciscans

NB: Yep, San Francisco is a pretty great place. I am interested in how the play explores themes of gender and sexuality through the structure of a children’s story. Can you tell me more about why you chose to take that route?
RM: Ozma was born a woman but grew up thinking she was a boy called Tip. Only later does Tip realize that he’s really a girl; Princess Langwidere has 30 different heads that she switches between, and it is clear that there is a sense of attraction between Dorothy and Ozma.  As a musical, we have found ways to highlight those already existing themes in this new context.

NB: Why do you think trip-hop as a musical style was best for this other than typical show tunes?

RM: I grew up really liking West Side Story, Grease and A Chorus Line, but the music of contemporary musicals generally isn’t a sound that I enjoy, so I stopped liking musicals all that much. However,  I loved the idea of U2 writing music for Spiderman the musical and a collaboration between popular music and the musical genre was exciting. My good friend Dave L has a band called Z.O.N.K. that produces trip-hop music, and I just knew that I had to get them to write the music to Ozma.


NB: Do you think audiences outside of the Bay Area will be as receptive as San Francisco to this musical?

RM: I was a little worried that maybe we’ve gone too far, but at a reading of the play last December these two guys from the International Oz Society came and they loved it. Then there's Lady Gaga and Kesha. Both artists are very open about their sexuality so, while a lot of the themes are very “San Francisco”, they’re actually national and international issues in pop culture that speaks to the evolving identity of a new generation. 

NB: Yeah, I've definitely noticed that a lot more in the last few years. Okay, last question; whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

RM:  Well, I’ve got to say Shakespeare for sure.
People would say of Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, that one of the reasons he was so good at working on new plays is because he had Shakespeare’s plays at the back of his mind all the time. I also love Suzan-Lori Parks and I’ve done a lot of her plays. She just has it all – a great sense of language that is risky and daring, an incredible sense of character. She’s a big hero of mine. I love Beckett but he can be incredibly daunting and sort of unapproachable. A person we don’t give a lot of credit or time to is Ionesco. He was such a playful writer and starts every play with a big imaginative leap and goes from there. I wish more people today were influenced by him because I think he’s wonderful.

NB: Thanks, Rob!

Ozma of Oz is showing on July 19th at 12pm and July 25th at 8pm. Get your tickets here!

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. 

*Edited for content on July 18th 2014.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: Elizabeth Hersh

The playwright interviews are just one way for audiences to connect with the plays being read at the festival, giving you an inside scoop into the minds of the playwrights and their ideas about their play. Natasha is back with another interview, this time with Elizabeth Hersh whose play Shelter in Place explores what happens when social media privacy is no longer private.

Elizabeth Hersh
Natasha Brown: Thank you for letting me interview you. First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?

Elizabeth Hersh: I hope my style changes depending on the play. This play is very sparse; the characters don’t talk a lot. This style is very specific to this play, not necessarily my writing. However, I do write stuff that’s dark, gruesome and, hopefully, funny. I guess I do have some consistent styles, but the way the characters interact, the way the scenes progress and the structure come from the specific story I’m trying to tell.

NB: Are there any interesting stories about how your play came into being?

EH: There is a character in the play who appeared because I ran into them at my girlfriend’s parents’ house in Northern California. They had a cleaner who brought her adult daughter along to help out. She wore this crucifixion t-shirt and made my girlfriend’s mom hide all of her Buddha ornaments because they made her feel uncomfortable. She would yell at her daughter whilst we were all eating at the table and it was just this incredibly awkward and tense situation. It made me think about the tension between the service industry and the employer; “I am paying you to clean up after me.” It’s such a weird interaction. She inspired the Cleaning Lady in my play.

NB: That is both hilarious and absurd. I’m curious about the face blindness concept in the play. Did your play start with the concept or did it come in as you were working on it? How much do you want the audience to be conscious of this?

EH: I didn’t even know it was in the play until my girlfriend, who works as a director, dramaturg and new play developer, was talking to me about it. Sometimes, people come up and talk to me and I don’t know if I know them. I recognize people I’m close to very well, but if I meet someone a couple of times and then see them out of context, for example seeing someone from work outside of work, then I find it difficult to place them. This leads to a lot of people thinking I’m rude or that I don’t care about them. It’s not so much of a big deal now that I can explain it to people.

My director is legally blind and we share the same experience of the unease that comes from thinking you know someone but not really being sure. That’s a feeling I want to create in the play - this unease at who these people really are.

NB: After reading your play, I wasn’t surprised to find out that you are a sound designer. Sound is such a presence throughout the play, from the vacuum interrupting the conversation very early on to the blackouts being filled with sound. How does sound link to the privacy issues in the play?

EH: When I was writing the play, I felt that sound was a threat to the family. It’s part of the invasion of their space. It’s something that they can’t control, it’s all around them, and it’s dangerous. I try to write really openly for directors and not pre-design the show. As a designer, I like when directors allow designers to play and collaborate. I try not to get too attached to the ideas I have for the sound as a writer.

NB: Yeah, I can imagine that may be quite difficult sometimes. What do you want the audience to experience whilst watching your play?

EH: Fundamentally, I want it to be entertaining. This show in particular is created to grab the audience by their stomach and pull them through the whole thing. I want them to be laughing until horrified and then laughing some more. I want for the audience to come out and think “What the hell just happened?” I think essentially this play is looking at intimacy - what we think we know about people, why we isolate ourselves and what it means to really know someone. I’ve only ever had a couple of informal readings for this play so I’m really excited to see how a live audience reacts to it.

NB: I’m excited too! Last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

EH: Phillip Ridley – he’s brutal. Caryl Churchill. All of the wonderful female playwrights I’ve ever read. I’m sick of all the cis hetero monogamous dead white men playwrights. Emerging writers should also read a lot of fiction and go and see dance and burlesque. See performance art; see things that are pushing boundaries, new things. We don’t need to see old plays season after season anymore. Theatre’s job is to push the aesthetic of our culture farther from the centre. As women playwrights, we should seek out support and read as many plays written by other women as possible. Also, read things that stretch outside of racial lines. Suzan-Lori Parks! I taught Topdog/Underdog at San Quentin Prison. It was super intense. The prisoners were racially and educationally diverse. One of them had a PhD, and some earned their college degrees whilst in prison.  It broke my preconceived notions about how our society functions. As young playwrights, we need to be the people putting art out there that allows us to see our privileges.

NB: Thanks, Elizabeth!

Shelter in Place is showing on July 18th at 8pm and July 27th at 12pm. Get your tickets here!

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. Shelter in Place is showing on July 18th, 8pm and July 27th, 12pm. Get your tickets here!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: TD Mitchell

Next up in our interview series is TD Mitchell. You can catch a reading of her play, Queens for a Year, at this year's festival.

TD Mitchell
Natasha Brown: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?

TD Mitchell: I would say there are definitely repeating themes that I find myself returning to as a dramatist, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the styles are the same. A big difference in this play is the integration of Greek myth. That aspect of the play is highly theatrical – I can see puppetry, bright colours, a sort of sensory overload. The style of the primary narrative, however, is structured fairly traditionally. There is also a vast difference in the way I write for TV compared to theatre.

NB: Are there any interesting stories about how this play came into being?

TDM: I had written a play called Beyond the 17th Parallel which required a lot of research and conducting interviews with Vietnam veterans. As a result of this, I met a lot of women who had also served and realized that they needed their own play. Their experiences were different and needed to be represented. As I was writing the play, Maria Lauterbach was murdered.  By this time, I’d heard so much about the predominance of sexual assault and physical violence against women in the military, I felt as though I was the only person who wasn’t shocked by her murder. Everything I had researched and been told by these veterans was horrifically confirmed. 
Maria Lauterbach

NB: That is very saddening. This play is layered with many urgent topics such as the position of women, sexual assault, and homosexuality, in and around military culture. Could you expand some more on how you became involved in writing about the military?

TDM: I never planned to be an expert in that area. This play chose me. As a storyteller it’s my job to listen and observe and bear witness to what is going on. If you were to say to me when I was younger that I would end up writing so much about military culture, I would have said “no way!” We’ve been at war for the majority of my adulthood which is ridiculous. It’s so difficult to wrap my head around it. We, as a country, have such an abstract idea about war and its impact. We walk around as if it’s not happening. This play, for me, was exploring that disconnection.

NB: Yes, and although I feel that the play deals with a victim of sexual assault, it does not necessarily feel like a play about victims. Would you say that I am on the right track or is there something I am missing?

TDM: Yes, definitely! Ideally, I want the audience to feel as conflicted and uncomfortable as I did during the process of discovering these women. I was really torn by this kick-ass feminism “let’s blow shit up” discourse versus just how stupid it is to drop women into this anti-female culture (the military). Everything about the culture is anti-female. The language used in the military is incredibly gendered and sexist.

The question wasn’t about how should we handle our victimhood, it was how do we respond? If we teach women that the ways in which they must respond is with this masculine idea of violence, of course she’s going to take matters into her own hands because the system has let her down. By the end of the play, I want us to feel uncomfortably torn between wanting the women to get revenge and then to realize our horror of that being our primary instinct. 

NB: That’s a very interesting perspective. I love how you interwove the myth of Caenis/Caeneus into the story. I found it to be a really powerful device which illustrated the plot in a fascinating way. Could you tell me more about how that idea developed?

TDM: I wish I knew exactly how that developed. I don’t know exactly. I guess because historically I was looking at women warriors. I didn’t know we had such an extensive history of women warriors in the US, in both WWI and WWII. During the war, they enlisted women but, once it was over, the women’s ranks were disbanded. Women were not given the veteran status for their contributions. I was looking at it from a historic perspective and I was looking at it compared to other cultures. I was not aware of the myth before I wrote the play; I don’t know how I got there. It was one of those happy accidents.

The use of myth in that very physicalized, theatrical way of story-telling allows your audience, safe distance from the subject. So you’re not going into a theatre documentary about rape. Hopefully you’re forced to look at larger themes and questions but from a distance where it does not just hit you on the head. It’s something more gradual. I think that little bit of separation allows us to get more emotionally invested. We can get closer to the subject.

NB: Last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

TDM: You’ve got to pay due attention to Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare – the great storytellers. They’re still very relevant in terms of exploring the human condition, societal relationships, familial relationships etc. There’s still so much value in the greats.

Contemporary writers like Howard Barker. He is brave, frustrating and scary. I’m always watching whatever Caryl Churchill is up to.  I do appreciate writers who continue to play with form and format. Churchill tries different styles.

NB: Thanks, TD!

Queens for a Year is showing on July 19th at 8pm and July 26th at 4pm. Get your tickets here!

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival.