DG Regional Report: Western New York by Donna Hoke
The Buffalo Infringement Festival, which celebrated its eighth year in 2013, is a wonderfully illustrative example of the constant creation and collaboration that defines the Buffalo theater scene. Though the Festival comprises art installations, dance, music, media, puppetry, and more, theater has always been an integral part of it. Nobody is turned away from Infringement and space and publicity are provided free to everyone – from Buffalo or not – which invites the wide range of low-to-no-budget experimentation that imbues Infringement with an exciting “what’s next?” appeal.
This year, three distinct “hits” emerged from Infringement’s theater offerings – all of them site-specific. The first, an absurdist take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, was performed on the third floor of the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center, built in 1914 in a once thriving area of the city. “The landscape in which Chekhov wrote this play was one of great inequity and unrest, and occurs in the deep inhalation of an unraveling society just prior to the Russian revolution,” says director Megan Callahan. “Preservation and conservation are also strong themes in the piece, and one need only look out the window to see our own ravaged landscape.” Natural daylight intensifies this view through large open windows during Act I. For Act II, that light is gone (a beautiful, visceral metaphor), and the set is completely reconfigured to employ the video projections that producing company Torn Space is known for (I wrote about Torn Space’s Dan Shanahan, Buffalo’s “de facto king of site specific performance” in the 2012 November/December issue of The Dramatist). Though this work is not original, the interpretation certainly was, and the result was citywide Chekhovian fever and a series of sold-out shows.
Meanwhile, in the cavernous hallways of the former Pierce Arrow factory (which is fast becoming an incomparable arts venue, as it houses two theaters, a film collaborative, artists’ studios etc.), a drug deal was going bad. Click Chamber, the introspective and poetic analysis of six underworld figures, is the brainchild of playwright Justin Karcher and playwright/actor Aaron Krygier. A trapped dealer, a mob boss, a bloody victim of drug violence, the mob boss’s daughter, her poet lover, and the killer each told his or her side of the story – sometimes in verse – to frequently compelling result, even at this first exposure. “We are all inherently linked through two things: death and each other, which makes this some scrap of a human story,” says Krygier. The piece intrigued Infringement-goers who filled the audience night after night to plumb the depths of human despair (and to partake in some excellent home-baked goods for sale at the event).
Finally, in the parking lot across the street from the Pierce Arrow, Buffalo Car Plays – featuring world premiere plays by Jon Elston, Darryl Schneider, Steve Roylance, and me – played to capacity and then some for six nights. Adapting the concept from La Jolla Playhouse’s Car Plays, we staged four two-handers in four different cars, and rotated audiences through them in blocks of eight-to-twelve three times a night. Though I chose this venture for its perfect Infringement aesthetic – we needed only ourselves and our actors – I couldn’t have anticipated the excitement that it generated, or the word of mouth that had us turning people away as the run wound down. The enthusiasm was overwhelming: we were delivering something that nobody in town had ever seen or experienced (and giving my 85-year-old mother a great story to tell her friends). Even the actors – skeptical at first – delighted in the form, barely registering that they were performing their plays twelve times a night.
As producer – and, of course, as a playwright – generating this kind of response was thrilling, but what I enjoyed most is best shared by example. When reservations came in (and they were necessary), I often had singles that I matched up both to maximize audience and to ensure that everybody had a shared experience. One of these matchups was an eighteen-year-old girl who rarely goes to theater but had come to see a friend, and a mid-twenties actor. As I did with other ad hoc pairs, I introduced them at the start of the show and sent them off to the first car. At the third car, where one has to sit in the front and one in the back, I saw them playing rock, paper, scissors to determine who would sit where. In the brief time between being introduced and the third play, this intense and intimate theater experience had bonded them! And there, in miniature, in a parking lot, was the very reason theater exists. I will never forget it.
If you want to bring your show to Buffalo for next year’s Infringement Festival, I can’t wait to meet you!
DG Regional Report: Utah by Julie Jensen
Kathleen Cahill had not intended to be a playwright. Not originally, anyway. She set out to be a bookwriter/lyricist for musicals. She even got an MFA in Music Theatre from NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts.
Her produced musicals include Friendship of the Sea, Dakota Sky, and an opera, Clara. She is also listed as one of the top 25 songwriters in the Directory of Musical Theatre Writers.
In other words, she was following her path and doing well. Though she’s an impatient sort. “It takes so much time to write a musical,” she admitted.
Well, then, one thing led to another, and she ended up moving to Salt Lake City.
Why would a native New Englander move to the city of Saints? It had to do with children and the children of children. But the more important question is, how did the move affect her career, her work?
“When I came here, I liked what I was writing, and I felt freer,” said Kathleen. “I don’t know why.”
That’s hard for some people elsewhere to understand or believe. But there it is. In Salt Lake City, she felt freer.
That ebullience produced three rather ebullient plays: Charm, The Persian Quarter, and Course 86B in the Catalogue. Each of them premiered at Salt Lake Acting Company and then went on to productions in Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts. She also got an agent, a publisher, and the title of Resident Playwright at Salt Lake Acting Company; in addition, she also taught playwriting at the University of Utah and wrote lyrics for David Zabriskie’s Requiem.
Rather a successful time of it, here in the lap of Zion.
All this from a person who grew up in New England, went to school in New England, a person who wrote the introductions to the Masterpiece series on PBS for 30 years. You can hardly get more New England than that!
And yet here she is in Salt Lake City, in just about the reddest state in the nation, where there are Mormons, out-loud sexism and legislative idiocy.
That seems not to stop her. This fall her newest piece, Fatal Song, will be produced by Utah Opera. She calls it an opera/cabaret, for which she has brought together heroines from eleven operas. In a single night, the audience hears and sees the greatest music ever written for the human voice. All of them female voices. The piece promises to be both artistically inviting and politically revealing. “They do have to kill off the women,” says Kathleen, “let me count the ways!”
Is that not enough? Very well….
At this very minute, Kathleen is at work on a play called Cotton, about the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, where young immigrant girls wove cotton for the world, the raw material grown by slaves in the South.
It’s a helluvah good idea. Not often acknowledged in the North, or for that matter, anywhere else in this country.
Yes, Kathleen is political and out loud about it. She’s not red, not a Mormon, and she has little patience with legislative idiocy. Yet she’s freer here than anywhere else she has ever lived.
And that’s what’s up in the City of Saints, here on the shores of the Great Salt Lake!
DG Regional Report: Portland by Francesca Sanders
As the new Regional Representative from Oregon, my timing couldn’t have been any better. After holding a great Town Hall meeting here in Portland, my next order of business was to attend the Dramatists Guild Conference in Chicago. I was fortunate to moderate a panel on Creating Character with Theresa Rebeck, Carol Hall, Charlayne Woodard and Rebecca Gilman. And then, if that wasn’t exciting enough, I interviewed George C. Wolfe one-on-one! What a privilege.
This article is supposed to be your introduction to me, give you a little piece of who I am and what I bring to the table. While it might be interesting to hear about the readings I’ve had for off-Broadway producers or the productions I’ve been fortunate enough to receive, I’d prefer to use this space to talk about how inspiring the Conference was and how hard the Dramatists Guild staff works for all of us.
In talking to people at the Conference, I was amazed to hear the stories of how individuals were served by one phone call to their Regional Rep or one interaction with the staff in New York. The home office has to juggle all kinds of members with all kinds of issues every day. No two situations are alike because no two playwrights are alike. Yet everyone I spoke to had their needs met with professionalism.
There are always things to complain about in life. But let’s remember to celebrate where we can. Let’s raise our glass to the staff of the Dramatists Guild and give them credit where credit is due.
The fact that I’ve joined forces with these remarkable people is an honor… and I’ll try to do my best to represent the dramatists of Oregon in the same way that I am represented by the staff of the Dramatists Guild.
George C. Wolfe talking to Francesca Sanders at DG’s 2nd National Conference. Photo by @joeystocks.
DG Regional Report: Philadelphia by Tom Tirney
Philadelphia’s 1812 Productions began in 1997 with two long-time friends, Jennifer Childs and Peter Pryor, essentially getting together to make people laugh. Still cracking up audiences at Plays and Players mainstage, the sixteen-year-old company is the only production company in the region dedicated exclusively to comedy. 1812 offers a four-show season with at least one production being an original work.
While Pryor has moved on to become a Member Artist at Peoples Light & Theatre in Media, his co-founder Jennifer Childs remains at 1812, augmenting each season with a new piece from her pen or from a fellow Philadelphia artist. Childs’ original pieces began to percolate in the repertoire during the 2000 season and since then, at least one new work has been showcased each year.
Though Childs still sees herself as an actress and artistic director, she has definitively morphed into 1812’s chief writer. So, trying to pin her down is difficult.
“I’m a jack-of-all trades, yes. But 1812 is all about blowing up the boxes that categorize us. Frankly, I think it’s a Philadelphia thing. The true Philadelphia artist has many hyphens in the job description. I can’t think of another place where I’ve worked that had so many actors-improvisers-choreographers-writers-stage designers and so forth.”
Childs has a serious approach to writing funny. Particularly for the original and less sketch-ey work, she researches the material – sometimes exhaustively. Childs’ most recent comedy, It’s My Party, debuted in 2012 and began as a two-year project that involved hundreds of interviews.
“The point of the project was less about famous women and more about how women are funny in everyday life. As I asked all of these people to tell me the funny stories of their lives, what emerged was a very dark or very sad tale, but told with great humor. The punchline gave over to an attitude of ‘I’m saving my soul by laughing.’”
Childs’ affinity for humor comes directly from her great-grandfather, Bill Childs, who was a vaudeville performer during the golden age before moving into radio. The vaudeville forms permeate her plays and performances and often lead to significant collaborations.
Tony Braithwaite, the Artistic Director of Act 2 in Ambler, PA, co-wrote Let’s Pretend We’re Married with Childs and then after some success, created a “sequel” Let’s Pretend We’re Famous. The plays have been performed by 1812 Productions, Act 2, and the Montgomery Theatre.
Tony: “Jen and I had acted together in several plays before we found our material. But my great grand-dad was a vaudeville man too, so we just clicked. She’s the most fun I’ve had on stage.”
Let’s Pretend We’re Married is a comedic cabaret that explores the experience of marriage ties; the ones that bind and the ones that gag. Ba-dum-bum. The show includes the audience as a character and culminates in a Newlywed Game that uses involuntary members of the audience.
Tony: “We landed on celebrity for the next one. Let’s Pretend We’re Famous riffs on Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes. While we do the show, we choose an ‘involunteer’ from the audience and put them through a cycle of stardom – obscurity, fame, overexposure, addiction, rock bottom. And the inevitable comeback.”
The next time Tony and Jen are together will be for 1812’s November/December show, a reprise of Childs’ first play, Big Time, a paean to vaudeville style.
Childs: “I have all of [Bill’s] sheet music and old joke books and that led me to write. So I sat in the Library of Congress for months, exhuming all these vintage bits to make the show. It was a little a bit of hubris that led me to first write, really. You set yourself a deadline and then you are forced to do it.”
Why I’m Scared of Dance, by Jennifer Childs, at 1812 Productions. Photo by Mark Garvin.
DG Regional Report: Northern Ohio by Faye Sholiton
Christine Howey takes the Cleveland Public Theatre stage in January with her autobiographical solo piece Exact Change and quite a story to tell. Her journey began as Richard Howey, who, growing up in the ‘50s, liked Roy Rogers but also liked Dale Evans. He ached to do what the girls were doing and devised ingenious ways to deal with well-meaning psychologists. Along the way, he discovered that the most tortured soul could be soothed through playing other people’s lives on the stage. Acting credits following his graduation from Kent State University included Richard Nixon (Gore Vidal’s An Evening with Richard Nixon), the title role in James Leo Herlihy’s Terrible Jim Fitch; and Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Artuo Ui.
In fact, it was during a performance of Good, by C.P. Taylor, that Howey realized the shocking dissonance between the (male) role he was playing on stage and the one he was living in real life. A poem entitled “End Play” describes how he went up on his lines with four minutes to go in a seven-minute monologue, “Dark terror lit brilliant by ten overhanging suns. You want words?/Here are words: I don’t belong here! Not like this! This is not who I am!” Adding insult to injury, a fellow actor (playing the role of Hitler, no less) consoled him afterwards: “‘Don’t worry: nobody knew.’/ When Adolf is your comfort, how deep is your fall?”
By the time Howey made a first attempt at writing for the stage, it was the 90s and Richard had become Christine. Theatre now offered a vehicle to explore and share the inner byways of the transgender world. And so she penned the autobiographical one-hander Making Faces. She planned to play the 25 characters herself until her director (wisely) counseled against it with a simple “You’re not right for this.” The play had a New York Equity Showcase production in 1999 starring Lenny Pinna, with Jim Sterner directing.
While Howey’s performing voice would go silent for nearly 30 years, it was loud and clear off-stage. She spent 35 years as a copywriter and creative director in advertising. Her second career, now seventeen years old, is as one of Cleveland’s most respected theatre critics. But her first and ongoing love was poetry, the stuff that now fills her plays – and in August won a standing ovation at the National Poetry Slam in Boston as she read her poem “Passing.”
It was clear from a workshop production of her solo piece Like a Doberman on a Quarter Pounder, which ran last season at Cleveland Public Theatre, that Howey was ready not only to return to the stage, but to be “right” for this role. Audiences embraced both the work and the performance.
In assembling material for the upcoming Exact Change, Howey has pulled material from both Making Faces and Doberman and then digs deeper into her transsexual journey. As she points out, the rate of attempted suicides in the general population is around 1.5%; in the transgender population, it’s 41%. Violence against this particular demographic is equally staggering. In one poem/vignette from Exact Change, Howey remembers Cemia (“CC”) Acoff, a 20-year-old woman (born Carl) found in March 2013 in a pond in suburban Cleveland, her body tied to a block of concrete. News accounts that referred to her as “it” and offered irrelevant details about her apparel became a source of instant outrage in the LGBT community.
Howey hopes there is a future for her work on college campuses and with anyone wanting to know about the lives of transgendered people. She is prepared to talk forever. And it’s a role that suits her fine.
DG Regional Report: North Carolina by Kim Stinson
Having flown away from The Dramatists Guild’s Second National Conference less than a week ago, I feel renewed and refreshed as a writer. It was amazing to connect with other playwrights from around the country to discuss craft as well as share ideas. This is happening not just on a national level at the Guild conferences every two years, but is happening on a monthly basis on the local level. Here in North Carolina, we have at least three playwriting groups. North Carolina has three geographically diverse sections of the state – mountains, piedmont and coast. Oddly enough, each of these sections is home to its own playwriting group.
In the mountain region, there is the Lost Playwrights of Western North Carolina. Run by Ludy Wilkie, this group meets once a month. Typically meeting at the Hendersonville Library, they sometimes change meeting locations. The group shares their collective theatrical experience with one another through reading members’ works and providing feedback. There are no dues associated with this group.
In the piedmont area, The Greensboro Playwrights’ Forum (GPF) also meets once a month on the second Wednesday at 7 p.m. They have a writing assignment for each month that is given prior to the meeting. Playwrights then bring their response to the writing assignment to share with the group for feedback. One example of a past writing assignment is, “Write a short play that takes place on a front porch. A weather system of some kind is coming in or is already there. Use the line, ‘How many can you fit in there?’”
GPF also conducts readings of members’ plays at the meetings. This group has a long history of producing plays chosen through various contests in addition to holding the monthly meetings. The meetings are at the Greensboro Cultural Center at 200 N. Davie Street. The meetings are open to the public, but in order to be a full member, one must pay a yearly membership fee of $25.
The coastal region has the youngest playwriting group as it was started early in 2013 by DG member Susan Steadman. Steadman moved from the Atlanta area to Wilmington and had trouble finding an already established group. So, she began her own. The Port City Playwrights’s Project (PCPP) meets at Old Books on Front Street at 249 N. Front Street in Wilmington. At the meetings, the group reads writing by members as chosen at a previous meeting. The works are discussed in a respectful and open way so that playwrights can improve their work. PCPP hopes to produce some of their members’ work in the future. Current plans are to have their first readings sometime around Valentine’s Day 2014.
All of these groups are doing something that the Guild advocates: They are making things happen for themselves rather than waiting for opportunities that may never appear. After attending the “Self-Production Primer” by Roland Tec and Rebecca Stump at the conference, I am an even stronger advocate of this philosophy myself. If you are a North Carolina playwright in search of a writing group, join one of these mentioned here. Or, if these groups are not close enough to you, start one on your own.
DG Regional Report: Minneapolis/St. Paul by Laurie Flanigan Hegge
This past June, Barbara Brooks, Producing Artistic Director of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (MJT), played host to the Association for Jewish Theatre’s annual conference in the Twin Cities. MJT is an award-winning theatre company in Saint Paul, MN that strives to “ignite the hearts and minds of people in all cultural backgrounds” with work rooted in Jewish content, “exploring differences, illuminating commonalities, and fostering greater understanding among all people.” The 2013 AJT Conference, “Imagining Jewish Theatre in the 21st Century,” featured a keynote discussion with DG Council member Emily Mann, led by renowned Holocaust theatre scholar Robert Skloot from the Theater Department and Center of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, and a special event honoring Theodore Bikel, who charmed conference attendees with his engaging presence. Mr. Bikel was given an award for his contributions to Jewish Culture; he assured those present the award would be placed in a special area of his home, “plaq-astan.”
The Twin Cities community was well represented throughout the conference. A session titled “What If?” featured four women who have brought about change in the Twin Cities – Michelle Hensley from Ten Thousand Things, a Minneapolis company that brings “lively, intelligent theatre to people who have little or no access to the arts,” (such as homeless shelters and correctional facilities), Adrienne Diercks from Project Success, an organization that “uses the arts as a springboard for inspiration, confidence, creativity and discussion in the classroom and at home,” Laura Zabel from Springboard for the Arts, a nationally recognized not-for-profit arts service organization in St. Paul, and Barbara Brooks of MJT. A conversation on culturally specific theatre featured Lew Bellamy, Founder and Artistic Director of Penumbra Theatre, who described his work as “art with intent,” and Randy Reyes, incoming Artistic Director for Mu Performing Arts, who struck a chord when he stated that Mu strives to create work that allows the audience “to see us as three-dimensional human beings, not as the inscrutable Asian character who serves as the backdrop for someone else’s catharsis.”
Other sessions featured conversations on Jewish Theatre Models, building relationships with audiences, and funding streams – a revelatory session for non-Minnesotans present, who were shocked and awed by State Senator Richard Cohen, author of Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment – groundbreaking legislation which created the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, a new (as of 2008) funding stream for the arts guaranteed by the Minnesota Constitution until 2034. Peter Brosious of the Children’s Theatre Company led a panel on new theatre for young people with Director of New Play Development Elissa Adams and playwrights Rosanna Staffa and (DG member) Jenna Zark – an interesting discussion which delved into thematic material for young people, and how children crave truth on stage, for as Rosanna pointed out, “in truth, there is hope.” A solo performers’ showcase included a performance from DG member Laura Zam (Married Sex) and the Playwrights’ Center hosted several performances, including works by DG members Phil Johnson and my colleague and fellow DG rep for Ohio, Faye Sholiton, who is the founder of Interplay Jewish Theatre, a company that produces staged readings of Jewish themed works and whose company name was inspired by Emily Mann’s earlier description of good theatre as “the interplay of head and heart.”
And this was just the tip of the iceberg for this three-and-a half-day conference. In the words of Association for Jewish Theatre President David Chack (shpieltheatre.com), “The wonderful thing about the AJT Conference is that it brought theatremakers doing Jewish theatre from all over the world to Minneapolis/St Paul, one of the great theatre communities today, and it enriched both.” When I spoke with Faye Sholiton at the DG conference this past August, she was still glowing from the June AJT conference. “I’m not the only one who left the AJT conference with a renewed sense of purpose,” says Sholiton. “It was clear that we are all meant to dream bigger and think more creatively. As one speaker reminded us, Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a strategic plan.’”
Above: David Chack, Theodore Bikel, Robert Skloot & Emily Mann. Photo by Elaine Seigel.
Above: Robert Skloot & Emily Mann. Photo by Elaine Seigel.