Category Archives: Playwright
At D&D 9 in January 2014, an annual open space conference of theatremakers, I called a session on Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and verbatim theatre, hoping to find some candidates for interviews and get started making a piece. More than a dozen people responded to my invitation, others who had grown up in a mix of different cultures and created their own unique “Third Culture” out of many influences. At that session, I found a deep and instant connection among fellow artists with complex identities. An honest and gleeful sharing of personal histories. A reunion of strangers.
At D&D 9, I found a core group of collaborators to take the idea forward, and now, 10 months later, we’ve launched a viral storytelling project to collect #TCKstories that will become the performance text for our verbatim piece. Hyphenated was “Born in D&D.”
Or re-born, perhaps I should say. I have long been fascinated with Third Culture stories, and the themes of home, identity, and belonging that they bring up. In 2006-2007, I studied “abroad” at the University of Manchester, looking for answers about my cultural heritage. I interviewed my family and wrote a “one-woman play for five actors” that I called Hyphenated. I was looking for some way to reconcile my Britishness with my Americanness, trying to figure out which one was “the real me,” wrestling with the invisibility of my hyphen, the privilege and identity crisis that comes with it.
Here’s my story. My parents met in Leeds, where they were at high school together. Family legend has it they fell in love at 16, painting a house together. My mum washed paint out of my dad’s hair with turpentine – the punch line is he’s now mostly bald. I spent the first four years of my life in Hazel Grove, Stockport, where my parents lived in the 1980s after my dad graduated from the University of Manchester. When I was five, we moved to California.
I was pretty keen to fit in, as most kids are. I went to school and learned to spell the American way. I insisted we have Thanksgiving dinner like the other kids in my class (the first year, we had turkey meatloaf in a tent trailer on a Northern California camp site). I don’t remember when I adopted an American accent. I don’t remember when I stopped asking when we were moving back. I graduated from a California high school and then a California university. I returned to San Francisco to pursue theatre.
No one ever knew I wasn’t American unless I told them. I always felt my Englishness tucked away somewhere safe – not hidden, but not shouted from the rooftops (that would be very un-English, wouldn’t it?). It was my love of puns, my aversion to spicy foods, my inability to get a tan. And deeper things too, those can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it moments of identifying with a nation of people 6,000 miles away. My Englishness was never a secret, more like a little piece of treasure that I would show only to people I trusted.
In July 2013, I moved to London. And discovered how American I am. Like, really American. No one would ever know I’m actually from here unless I told them.
When I submitted my 2007 version of Hyphenated to the University of California (where it probably still sits, unread, among other undergraduate thesis projects), I knew I wasn’t done with this idea. Writing the play didn’t put to rest my identity crisis. Where’s home? Where do I belong? What does that even mean? Why does my accent change depending on who I’m talking to? Am I English enough? Am I American enough? How can I be both?
Now that I’m not 22 anymore, I can see that it’s not all about me. It’s about a whole community of Third Culture Kids, many of whom have never heard the term TCK and don’t know there are thousands of people just like them. People who grew up all over the world, who speak one language in school and another at home, who followed their parents from one mission, military base, or diplomatic post to the next. People who can’t answer the question “where are you from?”
It’s about Ilayda Arden, Sharlit Deyzac, Susie Italiano, Guleraana Mir, and Natasha Phillips – fellow TCK artists convened at D&D 9 who became my collaborators for this newHyphenated. It’s about their stories, and my story, and the stories we’re about to find. It’s about belonging together.
Hyphenated will begin as a viral storytelling project: a series of interview chains and an online oral history library. From this raw material, we will create a verbatim performance that we hope to tour around the UK.
If you would like to share your Third Culture story, please get in touch.
It’s official! The secret’s out!
For the Adventure
Because I can. Because I’m 28 and have a British passport. Because I’m old enough to do whatever I want and too young to know better. Because I want to be the kind of artist, the kind of person, who would just up sticks and move to London. Because apparently there are 101 reasons you need to live in London once. Because it’s so close to the rest of Europe! I’ve already got plans to catch the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Paris is just a few hours away on the train. And Berlin is right there. And theatre festivals all over the place, all closer to London than San Francisco is to New York.
For the Challenge
I’ve spent the last five years in San Francisco figuring things out, refining my aesthetic, gathering new skills, building some wonderful relationships. I’ve learned a lot. And while there is certainly more I could learn here, from an amazing and inspiring community of artists, I’m ready to go and see what else is out there, what else I can learn. The San Francisco scene is going to continue to be robust and vibrant without me – and who knows, maybe I’ll rejoin you all in a few years.
For the New Plays
A few months ago, I tuned into a Howlround Twitter conversation about the UK vs US new play development models. The British theatre is not without its challenges – indeed, they are many of the same challenges we face here in the US. But, as detailed in this American Theatre Magazine article, there are key cultural differences in the UK that create an environment more conducive to my work as a director of new plays and a devised theatremaker. New plays are produced in London, rather than developed as they are in the US. Two thirds of all productions (excluding Shakespeare) in the UK are new plays – and 40% of those are by women. That’s a very different story than we’re telling here.
But I know, it’s not all roses. Major cut are proposed to the budget of the Arts Council of England (similar to our National Endowment for the Arts). But in the UK, we’re talking about billions of pounds in arts funding (£2.4 billion from 2011 – 2015), compared to millions in the US ($139 million in 2010 – the agency has awarded $4 billion total since its founding in 1965) – and those are total grants, not funding per capita. It goes without saying that in the US we are stretching that smaller number of dollars among larger numbers of artists, organizations, and communities. This article even uses the US donor-reliant funding model as a cautionary tale of how cutting government support can dull theatre’s impact and discourage risk-taking.
Also, theatres in England have bars! That sounds like I’m being glib, but it’s actually a huge cultural difference in how we welcome audience members and the general public into a creative space. You can eat dinner in the cafe at the National Theatre, and stay for a drink after the show, rather than being ushered out by underpaid house staff who have been there all day and night and want to go home. I’m sure I’ll be blogging many more new shiny revelations when I get there.
For the One-Year Master of Arts Programs
Right now I don’t have any specific intention of pursuing higher education. Like many young artists, though, of course I’ve considered whether I need to go get an MFA to succeed in my field. Whether I “need to” or not, I am interested in more training after my BA – I spent those four years figuring out that I wanted to be a maker of new experimental plays rather than a musical theatre actor. Very valuable information! But having now figured that out, maybe I’m ready for some formal training. There are some pretty intriguing masters programs and approaches to directing in the UK that I am excited to check out. Plus, one year in academia in London sounds way more appealing (and cheaper) than three years somewhere in New England.
For the Family
It’s true, it will be really hard to leave my family here in California. I’ll especially miss Kate, who has been my roommate for nearly 3 years as well as my big sister for my whole life. And even though I see my Portland sister and my East-Bay family pretty infrequently, it will still be very different living 8 timezones away. But I also have grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in England whom I’ve mostly seen at funerals these last few years. It will be so nice just to go round for lunch or celebrate a birthday.
For Some Answers About National Identity
Am I repatriating, “moving back to England,” going home? I was born in England and grew up with an English family, drinking tea at home and visiting grandparents in Yorkshire and Staffordshire. So I’m “really” English, right? But my family moved to California a couple of months before my fifth birthday. I went to Elementary School here, where I quickly lost my accent to avoid being asked by my classmates to “say something in English.” I grew up in the Bay Area, played softball, took Spanish in school, learned to drive on the right side of the road, went to the University of California, and in my 23 years in America, absorbed the culture, the language, the regional idioms. I say “awesome” instead of “smashing” and I don’t really know how long a kilometer is – or is it kilometre? They use kilometres over there, right? I think big and make ambitious plans because I can do anything, right, that’s what my 4th grade teacher said? So am I expatriating, “moving to London,” going on an adventure to a foreign place?
During my senior year of college, I “studied abroad” at the University of Manchester, my dad’s alma mater, about 20 minutes from where I was born. I started writing a play, Hyphenated, for my senior thesis project. I started trying to find my own answers to these questions. I got as far as, “well, yes, both, neither…” but I didn’t get as far as feeling comfortable in that in-between state. I’m ready to dive into the divide once again. On the one hand, it’s fascinating. On the other hand, it’s frustrating as hell not knowing what your voice really sounds like and what accent it uses.
For Some Silly Reasons that Actually Really Matter
For the bars in the theatres (it’s worth repeating). For the tea. For the bank holidays. For the socialized health care. For the London Underground. For the markets. For the British Library and the Tate Modern. For the BBC. For the puns. For the jammy dodgers.
For All the Other Reasons I’ll Discover When I Get There
Because how can I really know if it’s the right move until I make it?
It’s been a while since I last gushed about the sublime insanity of collaborating with Megan Cohen on The Helen Project. We’ve been pretty busy gearing up for our developmental workshop at DIVAfest this May. In the last couple of months, we’ve revised our notion of who/when our five Helens are, tried out a few different approaches to performance styles with some delightfully adventurous women in an Actor Laboratory Day, had some epic meetings with our fabulous dramaturg Maura Halloran, thrown out entire sections of text that won’t fit in this iteration of the piece (with a greater sympathy for others who have tried to tame this unwieldy story before us – and with every intention of coming back to that mess of complexity in the post-workshop editing phase), cast five superb actors Misti Rae Boettiger, Sarah Moser, Ariane Owens, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, and Lily Yang, found a wonderful stage manager Julianne Fawsitt, scheduled rehearsals, taken some press photos at the Palace of Fine Arts between rain drops… and we’ve drunk a lot of tea. Tea is essential to our process.
Any one of those things could be an entire blog post. But in the interest of writing a current update ever again, that glossy summary is all you get. You can find more info on the Helen page of the DIVAfest website.
This photo is from a two-day intensive in the middle of February. Megan and I spent the entire weekend laying out more than a hundred fragments of text, one Helen at a time, putting 2-3 pieces together (and sometimes 8) into one larger piece that would be trimmed and reworked into something a larger. The goal was to reduce the number of movable parts in the Build-Your-Own-Helen Play Kit – and also to get the repetition of ideas under control. And also to remember what the hell we’d written over the last three years. Three years, you guys.
From there, we divvied up pieces that each of us would edit, and put those in the hands of actors for a few hours at our Laboratory Day. In three groups, we tried out different staging ideas, different rules of Helen’s world: can she hear the other Helens? Is she truly alone and isolated? Can each version of Helen only hear the Helens in her past? We learned a lot about our text, how long we want to listen to one person talking, how each Helen’s voice and perspective is different, and how The Face might start to fit into this world. Very special thanks to everyone who loaned us their brains and hearts that day: El Beh, Misti Rae Boettiger, Kirsten Broadbear, Fontana Butterfield, Siobhan Marie Doherty, Maura Halloran, Allene Hebert, Heather Kellog, Luna Malbroux, Rami Margon, Ariane Owens, Annie Paladino, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, and Lily Yang.
Following the Laboratory, we’ve had some incredible dramaturgical meetings, rethinking the entire editing process (you take Helen 3 and 4, I’ll take Helen 2 and 5, see you in a couple of weeks), and taking a stab at building a trial edition of the Play Kit with post-it notes on Maura’s living room wall. (Frequent readers: I bet you could make up a drinking game with this blog and how many times I mention post-it notes. Enough times to give them their own tag, but that would make the game too easy.)
And now, with less than a month before we start rehearsals, what’s next? Burning through the rest of the editing, putting together a grab bag of found text fragments for The Face, hypothesizing some rules for the Kit, and building the First Edition of the text for the May 10 & 11 performances. Plus, starting this weekend, bouncing over to something completely different for a week: an experiment in how to make live theatre online via Google+ Hangout with local collaborators and an ensemble in New York City. Because why would I try out ridiculously complicated new ways of making a play just one at a time?
Megan and I are getting pretty excited about our upcoming workshop of The Helen Project at DIVAfest this May! One of the many things on our to-do list – along with assembling our creative team, budgeting, brainstorming on the form and functionality of the “online interactive CyberJourney” and you know, continuing to write, edit, and create rules for the Play Kit – is figuring out how to talk to “real people” about the piece. Having begun work on this sucker nearly three years ago, it’s a real mental stretch to read our descriptions as if we know nothing about The Helen Project.
Last night, we sat in a Mission cafe for three long hours (no kidding) and came up with three very short paragraphs that explain what the heck we’re doing. It was exhausting and invigorating; we’ve come such a long way with Helen and it feels so satisfying to really get down to the essence of what the piece is becoming.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote a blog post using the image of a disco ball to describe our process of “collecting little bits that reflect something interesting, and sooner or later hoping it will assemble itself into a shape.” Last night, we picked up and discarded a number of similarly visual metaphors: portraits, mosaics, snapshots in an attempt to get “the whole picture” of who Helen is.
Finally we stumbled over the image of a kaleidoscope, and (after looking up how to spell it), everything clicked into place. I love this new image; it conjures a playfulness and curiosity along with a very directed view through lenses and mirrors. It honors the complexity and sophistication of the structure of the piece, as well as its randomness. Best of all, it captures the ever-changing view of Helen as the kaleidoscope turns. And for bonus points, the word is Greek, meaning “beautiful form to see.”
Interestingly, both disco balls and kaleidoscopes are basically cleverly-arranged mirrors – which has a lot in common with theatre, in a way. (read more about how kaleidoscopes work)
Here’s the new description:
The Helen Project zooms in and out of the bedroom and the mind of the most beautiful woman in the world. Creators Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker will test their new Build-Your-Own-Helen Play Kit, constructing two different editions of the modular text to be performed over two weekends at DIVAfest.
Images of Helen from Homer and Goethe, from modern poetry, and even ripped from the headlines of our contemporary tabloids turn in a kaleidoscope of original and found text. We glimpse fleeting portraits of this mythic woman as each edition twists the mirrors to reflect a new Helen.
Like the text, Helen herself is fragmented. Five women – all Helen – crowd a bedroom, each making a decision that will change her life. Five Helens look into a mirror, asking, “is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”
Phoebe & Theia
by Amy Clare Tasker
directed by Annie Paladino
starring Siobhan Marie Doherty and Marilet Martinez
December 7, 2012 at 8PM
As is the case with many female figures in ancient history and mythology, not much is known about Phoebe and Theia beyond the names of their husbands and the lists of their children. Today, the Titan goddesses of light are best known as the mothers and grandmothers of Olympian gods: Helios, Eos, Selene, Apollo and Artemis. But before the reign of the Olympians, the Titans were test-driving the universe. From a matriarchy begun out of Chaos by Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, the Titan women were soon forgotten after the rise of Zeus as king of the gods.
Phoebe & Thiea, or How to Get to Tartarus imagines a new mythology in which the goddesses fall nine days to Earth and nine more days to Tartarus to spend eternity together with the secret truths about their loyalties and betrayals in the War of the Titans.
by Barbara Jwanouskos
directed by Amy Clare Tasker
featuring Claire Slattery, Nick Trengove, Ben Grubb, Erin Hannen, Arie Levine, and Brian Martin
December 19, 2012 at 8PM
After centuries of dealing with Zeus’ infidelities, Hera has finally had enough. She quits Mount Olympus to “teach Zeus a lesson” by showing him just how it feels to have a mortal impregnated by your spouse. To Barbara, “studying Hera gives me a chance to re-look at what family and marriage mean, especially in a modern context, and if that structure can be transformed or evolved.”
All performances at the SF Olympians Festival are at the EXIT Theatre:
156 Eddy Street, San Francisco.
Tickets are $10 at the door.
The One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF) is a New-York based theatre company that works in partnership with theatres across the country. In each city, OMPF creates locally sourced playwright-focused community events which aim to reflect the theatrical landscape of local artistic communities by creating a dialogue between the collective conscious and the individual voice. More information at the OMPF website. San Francisco’s OMPF has been produced in partnership with Playwrights Foundation since 2010.
I’m very pleased to be directing ten one-minute plays by local superstars Erin Bregman, Megan Cohen, Victoria Chong Der, Jeffrey Lo, Kenn Rabin, Geetha Reddy, Kim Yaged, and Robert Johnson. And my stellar cast is Patrick Barresi, Molly Benson, Siobhan Marie Doherty, Sylvia Hathaway, Ryan Hayes, and Daniel Martinez.
2012 has been a year of fragmentation, as I rearranged my life with a new job and new theatrical communities.
I’ve realized, too, that my artistic work has been in fragments lately:
- Since February, Megan Cohen and I have been putting together our “Build Your Own Helen Play Kit,” made of fragments of identity, narrative, history, feminism, and epic poetry. (Check it out in May 2013 at DIVAfest!)
- From June to November, The Strindberg Cycle kept me hopping among five plays that were part of a greater whole. Yes, I was astonished to discover that something so mammoth could also be fragmented.
- In August, I worked with The Collaboratory to devise a new physical-theatre piece inspired by Lorca’s Yerma. The ensemble highlighted moments and ideas that appealed to them, and I took it all home to (re)arrange the script with some measure of cohesion out of those responses.
- My play Phoebe & Theia was read last week at the SF Olympians Festival, structured around the Titans’ mythical fall to Tartarus. According to Hesiod, a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall nine days before it reached the earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus. So the play was written in 18 fragments – and my writing process was fragmented, too, sneaking in an hour here and there between work and rehearsal for most of the last 5 months.
- This week, I am directing for the One Minute Play Festival. I’ve got 10 plays to put together and cast however I please – it’s like a mini repertory project, and so fascinating to see how the plays resonate with each other, even though their authors may never have even met. My 10 plays are part of the larger festival, presenting 70 one-minute plays in one evening of theatre. Dominic D’Andrea, OMPF’s artistic director, describes the performance as 70 “pulses” of moments, brief windows into other worlds. The festival aims to reflect what is happening in the local theatre community here and now.
And now, at the end of 2012, I am doing what many news organizations and radio stations are doing: looking back on the last 12 months/52 weeks/365 days/525,600 minutes and trying to see those fragmented moments as somehow part of a larger whole, trying to find some cohesion in the chaos. Here in the age of Twitter, Google calendar, and compartmentalization, we all have too many balls in the air, we’re taught to break a problem into smaller parts to better see its solution, and we are living fragment to fragment.
Though I didn’t set out to respond to this phenomenon, I’m pretty pleased to discover this thread running through my work. As my delightful collaborators Annie Paladino and Megan Cohen put it last night, it’s “zeitgeisty.”
Megan and I have been diving deep into researching the iconic Helen of Troy, the figure we immediately think of when we hear that famous line, “the face that launched a thousand ships.” We’ve been reading Homer, Marlowe, Goethe, Poe, Tennyson, and yes, Wikipedia. We’ve also discovered some wonderful modern poetry by Sara Teasdale and Margaret Atwood.
Here’s one we’re obsessed with at the moment:
Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing
by Margaret Atwood
The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.
I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.
Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.
I’ve been doing some image research, looking at neo-classical representations of Helen, and today I came across this:
“According to the Roman author Pliny, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis could not find a woman beautiful enough to represent Helen of Troy, the archetype of the feminine beauty, so he picked the best features of five virgins to compose the most ideal image of beauty.” Thanks to the blog Sedef’s Corner, which hosts what seems to be the only digital image of this painting readily available on all the Internets.
WHAT! That is a lot like what Megan and I are doing, or maybe it’s the inverse of what we’re doing – constructing a new vision of Helen by drawing on five different aspects of the character and personifying them in the bodies, minds, and mouths of five real women.
Fast forward a couple of millenia to 1778, when Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman created this image of the painter Zeuxis measuring and dissecting his five models, picking apart their best features to construct his own Helen of Troy. My favorite part of Kauffman’s version is that one of the models has taken up a brush and is about to sneakily render her own version of Helen. (Take that, patriarchy!)
I’m blown away by the power of collective consciousness – it’s amazing that thousands of years ago, Zuexis could have the idea to construct an aesthetic (if objectifying) ideal out of the best parts of women, and that 234 years ago Angelica Kauffman could have the idea to comment on that construction, and that right now this minute Megan and I are having ideas about constructing a new reality out of that ancient ideal, and/or a new ideal out of reimagining Helen’s reality… I can’t wait to see what happens when we get our build-your-own Helen up on the Internet for the world to construct with us!
I’m back from Directors Lab West! Helen of Troy is back! My days of hyper-dreaming with the brilliant Megan Cohen are back!
Every Saturday in June, Megan and I are back in our strange, surreal Helen-land, in which all things are possible and we’re going to take over the world. No kidding, it’s true. I am constantly amazed by how productive we are without even the hint of a roadmap. We met up for a delicious brunch on Saturday morning (inspiration covered in ketchup is the very best kind of inspiration), and by the time we’d finished our eggs, we had figured out a radical model of sharing this crazy new play so that director-dramaturgs of future productions would be constructing Helen just as much as we are, with our disco-ball moments organized into specific fragmented versions of Helen that can be played by 1 to 100 actors. Instead of publishing a script, we’ll make the construct-your-own-Helen-of-Troy PLAY KIT available online under a creative commons license. Every time I turn around, this thing gets even more out-of-the-box. I am so jazzed!
When we finished our tea and coffee, then we really got down to business. We never have a “plan,” but just asking “okay, what’s next” generates hours of incredible productivity. Between 11AM and 6PM, we reinvented our producing and publishing model, brainstormed on the online interactive component of the piece, dreamt about a 3-city simultaneous world premiere (12PM San Francisco, 3PM New York, 8PM London, all the time online everywhere oh my gods), and waded through about half of the 170 little bits of disco-ball text we’ve generated, beginning to structure the script into these 5 fragmented Helen characters (oh yeah, which we also defined that afternoon).
Who knows what we’re doing next time, but I bet it will be revolutionary.
Also coming up:
- Dirty Laundry, a coproduction between Inkblot Ensemble and The Collaboratory. I’m directing this devised physical theater piece based on Federico García Lorca’s laundrywomen scene in Yerma, exploring themes of gossip, cycles, clean & dirty, sin & purity, and women’s work. August 10 & 11 work in progress performances at the EXIT Theatre.
- Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Repertory at The Cutting Ball Theater. I’m assistant directing these five plays (Storm, Burned House, Ghost Sonata, Pelican, The Black Glove) under Artistic Director Rob Melrose. We’re workshopping the new translations by Paul Walsh this June/July in RISK IS THIS…The Cutting Ball New Experimental Plays Festival, and you can catch the full production in October and November. This will be the first time the five Chamber Plays have been produced together in any language, including their original Swedish.
- The San Francisco Olympians Festival is coming this December to the EXIT Theatre. If that feels far away, you can catch a few snippets on Friday, June 15 at Booksmith, where we’ll be celebrating the book launch of five published plays from the first year of the Olympians Festival. I’m writing a one-act about Phoebe & Theia, the Titan goddesses of light, and I’ll be directing Barbara Jwanouskos’ take on Hera later in the festival, too.
The theme of this year’s Theatre Bay Area conference was “Activate Your World.” After a full, fast-paced day of impassioned debate, exciting connections and joyful reconnections, you bet I’m feeling “activated.” I’ve been buzzing all week, new ideas and old puzzles bouncing around in my brain. I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday feeling like I was about burst. I left a voicemail on Megan Cohen’s phone that was the stuff of legend, and I think ended with something like “…so, yes, give me a call anytime and we can decide if I’m a crazy person – call me at three in the morning, because I will be up, thinking about stuff. Ok, love you bye.” Megan is threatening to transcribe the voicemail and perform it at the next conference, with a sign around her neck that says “this is how we feel when we go home.” I really, really hope that happens.
What I really want to talk about is my realization that maybe I am a little crazy. That maybe in four years of living deep inside an experimental theater company (which just won the SF Weekly’s award for Best Experimental Theater Company – congratulations, Cutting Ball!), I have forgotten what “normal” theater is. On a day when we were asked by our keynote speaker to challenge our assumptions, I found myself noticing that on the whole – whether we work at companies large or small – when we talk about “creating new work”, we are collectively imagining a playwright alone with a laptop. When we talk about “supporting new work” we are talking about theater companies committing to a relationship with a playwright, often in the form of a commission or commitment to produce the play, before it is written, and accompanied by developmental readings where directors, dramaturgs, and actors sometimes maybe have a hand in shaping the final piece (related post). When we see a breakout session on the agenda called “New Work Models,” we collectively imagine a discussion about partnerships between theater companies and their favorite playwrights.
I was astonished to discover that I was imagining something completely different. More to the point, I was astonished to discover how astonished I was that my assumptions were so far removed from the assumptions of the panelists and the hundred or so people who attended the discussion. I really had no idea that I was a radical.
I had imagined “New Work Models” to be a discussion on the myriad different ways new work is created in the Bay Area and beyond. I assumed we would at least touch on devised work by ensembles, co-writing, adaptation, maybe even new translations, and yes, of course, new plays by playwrights supported by theaters devoted to new work. To my relief, I connected with a few others after the breakout session who were as dismayed as I was by one panelist’s statement that “theater is a playwright’s medium.” So if I’m crazy, at least I’m not the only one.
Towards the end of the day, I had a similar revelation that my brain was on a completely different track than that of my fellow conference-goers. And this revelation surprised me even more, because I was in a room full of directors.
A quick aside, lest you get the idea that I spent the day feeling like a fish out of water, or worse, smugly superior to my “less radical” colleagues. I had a very satisfying, if unsettling, day at the conference. I was so pleased to meet a lot of new and interesting people, shake hands with artists whom I’ve admired from afar, reconnect with collaborators I haven’t seen in a while, and get deep into discussions of our many and varied visions for our local and national theater. It’s always exciting to hear about what is coming up in our community – lots of new work, as it happens, made by playwrights, directors, and actors – and a very exciting new initiative from Theatre Bay Area: an ATLAS program for directors.
So, in the last session of the day, here we are in a room full of directors, having a lively discussion with Dale Albright, TBA’s Director of Field Services and the driving force behind expanding the ATLAS program (currently for actors only) to guide directors along their career paths. He has generously opened up the discussion and planning of this new program to suggestions from the peanut gallery – and there are 20 or so of us directors in the room (15 of whom I’ve never even seen before; clearly a program like this would help to foster a community of emerging directors, as well as help us to refine our individual career plans).
Actors in the ATLAS program all participate in the TBA general auditions and receive feedback on their work from the hundreds of auditors who attend. But what is a director’s audition? The first idea on the table is that directors could pitch a show to a panel of artistic directors. Even more exciting is the suggestion of borrowing from the grad school interview process and observing directors in a mock first rehearsal – communicating a vision to the cast, presenting designs, and beginning work with the actors. We’re on a roll now. We start tossing around ideas to handle the logistics, to standardize a rubric, and wait a minute – we all need to choose the same play? I’d really like to come out of the program with a pitch I can actually take to artistic directors for real-life consideration. The likelihood that I can do that with an assigned play is almost zero. How is an artistic director going to get a sense of my work if I’m not choosing the play?
We brainstorm solutions to my objection: what if we could choose from, say, four plays? I joke, “Ok, if one of them is Medea. That’s what I want to pitch.” What if we can choose anything from a range of pre-selected playwrights? But even if Euripides makes the list, I’m not sure my problem is solved. (I want to pitch Medea – but not any version that is currently written down.)
Some directors share their experiences of pitching a specific play that they want to direct, while others have more often been asked to direct a play that was already chosen for the season, and still others allied with a playwright and were hired by hanging onto the project’s coattails. I can see how choosing from a small selection of plays/playwrights, or even being assigned a play has real-world applications in these scenarios. I start to wonder if I’d want to be hired as a director in any of those scenarios.
I finally realize that I’m not only going to have to pitch a play, but my entire approach to theater making. It’s not the norm. It’s not what artistic directors are going to expect. It’s not even something that my fellow directors expect. Even for them, “theater is a playwright’s medium.” I’m feeling crazy again, because I won’t grant the premise. I don’t want to start with a play that already exists.
But if I’m crazy, I’m not the only one. I have seen a number of exciting ensemble-generated new plays in the Bay Area this year, and there are more coming up. Another recurring idea throughout the conference was the advice to “find your peers.” So I’ll keep doing that, and keep pursuing new ways to make new work, and maybe if enough of us crazy people are doing that, then I can stop feeling like a crazy person. But in the meantime, I’m ready to be a radical.