Friday, February 20, 2015

Interview with a Playwright: Marcus Gardley

Playwrights Foundation alumni Marcus Gardley has won the prestigious Glickman Award for his play The House that will not Stand, produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2014. The play takes place in 1836 New Orleans, following a period of French rule that permitted common-law marriages between free women of color and white men. The historical drama centers around the recently widowed Beartrice Albans and her struggle to keep her home and maintain the welfare of her three unwed daughters.

The work is both witty and poetic; brilliantly illustrating Gardley's unique talent and cementing his position as one of the most compelling young playwrights in the country.

I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Gardley, who shared some insight into his process, inspiration, and how his time at Playwrights Foundation impacted him as a playwright.

Rachel Finkelstein: Thank you for speaking with me, and congratulations on the Glickman Award! I know that you're fascinated with parts of American history that tend to drift away from common discourse, and this work definitely calls to that. How did you come upon this subject, and what drove you to write on it?
Marcus Gardley

Marcus Gardley: My first introduction to this period and the system of placage In New Orleans occurred when I read the book and saw the movie Feast of all Saints by Anne Rice. I was fascinated by the role the African-American women played in society and wondered if they had any connection to the Civil Rights movement. I knew that Homer Plessy (of Plessy v Ferguson) was Creole and born in New Orleans and so I immediately wondered if these women were his grandmothers and therefore apart of the beginning lineage of civil rights in this country. What I discovered once I read several history books was that these women fought for their own rights as free colored women as well. Many of them were very wealthy, powerful and controlled much of New Orleans at the time. What drove me to write about them was the fact that so few people had heard about them or knew anything about this period. I wanted to give audiences a glimpse into this pivotal moment in our country's history in which racial dynamics, class and gender were just the opposite as most people would assume. This to me, is a prime example of how histories have been take from people and buried. My passion is for the stage and for archeology. We need to know our histories and we need to embrace our past in order to understand who we are as citizens of the United States. 

RF: In what ways did you go about researching and understanding the environment of New Orleans following the period of French rule?

MG: I read every book I could get my hands on but I also spent a lot of time in New Orleans. One of the most incredible things about this city is that the inhabitants know, cherish and revel in their history. All of the questions that I needed answered were there. A lot of the buildings from the period were still standing, even Katrina could not wash away the indelible marker of history in a city so grand, so proud that it reeks of the past. I visited several mom and pop book stores in the French Quarter and befriend the owners and they shared 'books from the back room.' They gave me the 'real' history, which is what I put on stage.

RF: I love that you're striving to produce more roles for African American women -- you've mentioned elsewhere that this play is the beginning of your work to do that. Do you have anything in the works that you would be willing to share?

MG: I am working on a musical that has an entirely African American cast. I can't tell you what its about because its still cooking and a good cook won't tell you what's in their food until they've tasted it. But I will tell you the piece is about African Queens. 

RF: Thanks for the sneak peek! You've had multiple plays developed in Bay Area Playwrights Festival and some of our other programs -- how did your experience here impact your work and process as a playwright?

MG: I actually can't imagine my career at all without the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Amy Mueller and Playwrights Foundation gave me my first shot as a writer, while I was still in grad school and since that time I have developed most of my work here. I consider myself a Bay Area playwright. I will always be a Bay Area playwright. I learned a lot about craft, process and collaboration by working with the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation and many of their programs such as Rough Reading Series, Des Voix Festival and the New Play Institute. 

RF: We are proud to count you as an alumni! Overall, what most influences you as a writer?

MG: I think my major influence as a writer would be nature. There is so much to learn from the land which nurtures us. There is wisdom in the wind, true serenity beneath trees, and healing in the water. 

RF: Beautiful. Finally, Is there anything you've always wanted to discuss in an interview that you haven't had a chance to?

MG: No, I usually feel like most interviews cover it all.

RF: Glad to hear! Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations again on the award!

Gardley joins Aaron Loeb and Christopher Chen as the third consecutive 
Playwrights Foundation Alumni to win the Glickman Award. New PF Resident Playwright Kate E. Ryan's play Hundred Days was also a runner-up for this year's Glickman!

Read more about Marcus Gardley and the Glickman Award at Theatre Bay Area

Friday, February 6, 2015

Alumni News

Playwrights Foundation alumni are popping up everywhere! Check out some of what's happening this month:


Julie Hébert

Julie Hébert's play Tree is running now through 
March 7 at the San Francisco Playhouse - it first debuted at the 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival!

"An unexpected knock at the door turns a family upside-down. In this story of beginnings and endings, betrayal and love, three generations twist and grow in astonishing ways. And where their roots meet may surprise you."

Learn more and purchase your tickets here!

Lauren Yee's Samsara opens Friday at Victory Gardens Theater - it first debuted at the 2012 Bay Area Playwrights Festival!
Lauren Yee

"Americans Katie and Craig are having a baby with Suraiya, a surrogate from India. As all three 'parents' anxiously await the baby’s due date, Katie and Suraiya are attacked by flights of their imagination."
See the world premier of Yee's new comedy from February 6 - March 8. Learn more and purchase your tickets here!

Want to see more Yee? Come to PF's April Rough Readings to see Yee's new play King of the Yees

Jackie Sibblies Drury

Jackie Sibblies Drury's play We Are Proud to Present... runs this Friday, February 7 - March 7 at Just Theater - it first debuted at the 2011 Bay Area Playwrights Festival!

"We Are Proud to a hilarious, imaginative and incendiary exploration of race, power and narrative in America. A play within a play, six idealistic young actors - three white and three black - attempt to create a theater piece about a little known genocide in the early 20th century."

Learn more and purchase your tickets here!

Anne Washburn
Anne Washburn's play Mr. Burns runs February 18 - March 15 at the American Conservatory Theater 

"In a post-apocalyptic Northern California, a group of strangers bond by recreating the infamous 'Cape Feare' episode of The Simpsons...An outrageous and enthusiastically acclaimed new comedy by Anne Washburn, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is both a marvelous meta-tribute to the iconic first-family of contemporary pop-culture and a celebration of the power of generational storytelling." -New York Times

Learn more and purchase your tickets here!

Mike Lew

Mike Lew's new play Teenage Dick will be read on Monday February 9th at Roble Hall in Stanford University, and on Tuesday February 10th at The Tides Theatre in San Francisco

"A commission from The Apothetae, a new NYC theater company dedicated to illuminating "the disabled experience," Teenage Dick is a re-imagination of Richard III set in high school."

Learn more and reserve your tickets here!

Don Nguyen
Jonathan Spector
Don Nguyen's play Red Flamboyant will be read at Aurora Theatre's Global Age Project Readings on Monday, February 9th at 7:30pm

Jonathan Spector's play FTW will be read at Aurora Theatre's Global Age Project Readings on Monday, February 16th at 7:30pm

Alumni, do you have something you would like us to share? Send us a note at - we'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Interview with a Playwright: Mike Lew

The 2015 Season of Rough Readings is now in full swing for the Winter and Spring seasons! Continuing over the next few months, we will be presenting audiences with up-close and personal readings of new plays in early draft form. Read more about Mike Lew, Teenage Dick, and the Rough Reading series at

The February Rough Reading features Teenage Dick, a new work by the Mike Lew. We had the opportunity to ask him a few quick questions to share  -- keep checking back to find more playwright insight!

Rachel Finkelstein: Thank you for coming in! I know this play is a commission from The Apothetae theater company in New York -- how did you get involved with the group? 

Mike Lew: "Teenage Dick" is the product of an almost decade-long conversation I've been having with Gregg Mozgala, one of my favorite actors. Gregg has cerebral palsy, and he founded The Apothetae out of the desire to mount plays that explore and illuminate "the Disabled Experience."
Mike Lew

I've often felt a kinship with Gregg in terms of our mutual goal of wanting to broaden the range of perspectives being presented onstage. In 2006 I wrote a piece for Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts where I said that as a writer I'm not as interested in exploring diversity as an end in itself (although diversity is often a byproduct), whereas as a director/producer I'm more invested in "nontraditional casting" as a means for balancing the inequity of representation I'd observed in the industry. Since then, my politics on the writing side have shifted. I've come to recognize that I have to build diversity into my storytelling or it might not happen downstream. So my hopes for this play are multiform: to re-examine tired tropes about the disabled, create stories for people we're not otherwise seeing, hire more disabled artists, and carry out a ground-up reconsideration of how theaters embrace the mantle of inclusion (not just in terms of the art but the very physical plant).

RF: So going off of that, how did you go about understanding and researching the "disabled experience" for Teenage Dick?

ML: My understanding is still evolving and I don't presume it will ever be fully complete given that everyone's experiences are different. To be clear, this isn't a research piece exploring the physical reality of a specific affliction (though it is mentioned that Richard's character has CP and that his best friend Buck is a wheelchair user from an unspecified etiology). Instead, this play is more about clocking social dynamics - the way we tend to project assumptions onto people rather than taking them in. Under Elizabethan conventions, Richard is evil because he's disabled. Today, we tend to think of the disabled as sainted just because they're disabled. Both of these constructs are traps.

That said, it's still my responsibility to play-test this work with as wide an audience as possible. I'm writing about an experience that isn't my own, so part of this workshop process is making myself accountable to people whose experiences run deeper than mine.

RF: That's definitely important to keep in mind. When reading the play, I've noticed that it has quite a bit of distinct stage direction, such as the lighting direction and set design. Do you usually have such a clear vision for the look of the performance?

ML: As playwrights we have to think in three dimensions; I'm sick of plays destined for a life on music stands only. And as theater-makers we've GOT to get out of photo-realistic-NYC-loft mode and really transport the audience - put their imaginations to work. My play "Tiger Style!" requires set pieces that can double as locations in both Irvine and Shenzen, so as to portray the locales as two sides of the same coin. "Bike America" requires a set where the actors can go cross-country biking in motion onstage.

In this play specifically, I wanted to create a stark distinction between Richard's mental space and his reality. That distinction manifests itself through set pieces that seemingly coalesce around him, and in stark lighting contrasts, and also in Richard's use of language (which is more elevated and arcane in his head and more pedestrian out in the world). In that way the acting and design are meant to reinforce each other.

I'm a big fan of playing with the actors - of getting in a room and adjusting the script based on the actors' impulses. That sense of play extends to designers as well. I wanted to give the designers a strong starting point in terms of the physical space, if anything just so we can all start riffing. I'm totally fascinated with designers; just like the actors, they've got a skill set I'll never possess.

RF: It's refreshing to see! Finally, I have to ask what drew you to choose which aspects of Shakespeare's Richard III you wanted to stay more faithful to?

ML: I really don't feel a particular reverence for staying true to the source material. If you want to see a faithful production of Richard III it's not going to be too hard to find it elsewhere. But what I did want to do is faithfully recreate Richard's spirit - his silver-tongued eloquence, his ambitions, his sense of injustice - all within a decidedly modern context (and in high school!). And then on top of that I layered in a bunch of cheeky winking references for anyone who cares to go digging.

RF: I'll be sure to keep an eye out. Thank you for your time!  

The Rough Reading Series is Pay What You Can, and continues with "Teenage Dick" by Mike Lew, playing February 9th at 7:30pm at Roble Hall, Stanford University, and February 10th at 7pm at the Tides Theatre, San Francisco. 

Read more about "Teenage Dick", Mike Lew, and the Rough Reading Series at Playwrightsfoundation.orgSave a Seat with an RSVP! Email or call 415.626.2176.