Auschwitz. A camp I heard so much about. In books and stories in history. But what I crave was more than history. I wanted to know what it must’ve been like for my grandmother, as she survived, but all that followed, and how she pieced her life back together after such life shattering trauma.
It was my Uncle Morris, whom the rest of my family told me was more passionate about playing bridge than telling stories, that finally came to my rescue.
I interviewed my uncle for nearly a year, and for someone whom I hadn’t even met yet, we developed an indescribable closeness through our vulnerable exchanges on life, love and loss.
“We never thought of the fact of whether we would see them again or would not see them again, I just don’t think we thought that way, you know, every day was a survival day, and we lived for that day. Thank God we all joined up after the war.
It’s funny that you mention it, that I never thought to ask Hannah what it was like to be liberated from the camps. I’ve often felt that pain from all of this – the war years, that she went through as – the worst possible thing that a woman could go through.”
Through my relatives, I found a way in. I found that just by asking, their words opened up new worlds not only for me, but for them.
“Besides her lemon bars which my mouth waters every time I think of them, I remember that she always loved me and made me feel important. It was your grandma that gave me the confidence that I have always had. That’s what I enjoy remembering about her. I will continue tomorrow because right now my tears blind me. Love you, Morris.”
I learned how to be strategic with my oral history interview questions. We only remember something that we have recorded or encoded at the time we experienced it. Something may trigger or jog our recollection. One vivid memory might take us back to a whole series of events. A photograph can trigger a memory, response, or arousal. Once the event is recalled, it is ordered and shaped by the narrator. Memories are not just stored, they are newly constructed, combining information to support the immediate situation.
I started a weekly dialogue with Morris and could never have anticipated what I’d learn.
“I can’t even imagine how life would be different without the war, and all of those millions who perished and were tortured.
It’s always been a puzzlement to me, for my survival, because I was such a sick child, knowing that many of my friends did not survive after the war, or my oldest brother. Unfortunately, everyone is gone right now, except myself.
My view of heaven is being together with family from the past who have passed away, and still getting the care and love that I felt from each one of them. when I look at an old picture of my family, I just remember especially how… special they made me feel. They were so wonderful to me, and I don’t know if I ever told them and I am sorry I didn’t, how special they were all to me.
What would Grandma be like today?
She would have been so very proud and happy to see you Amy, that you have survived your own ordeal, as she had survived hers, and so proud of what you went through now, connecting, organizing and getting all of this information about her, and her family.
I hope all of this comes together eventually, and perhaps, wishful thinking, I’m hoping that you and my son can write a book together when this is all finished. I will try to gather whatever photos I have and make copies, and whatever I can send you, I will send you directly to your house, myself.
I guess the only time I really think of Hannah now is when I look at the pictures in the house and I see her. And it’s the same as the rest of the family – my dad, my brothers – but I guess that is why you have pictures, so you can remind yourself once in a while, of the past.
I don’t know who said this, but I think I remember someone saying that as long as we carry our loved ones in our heart they are never truly gone. You and I and the rest of us, when you were, cannot possibly imagine the excruciating pain and suffering she has – she was forced to endure in concentration camp – oh yes we have all even pictured it and know her stories, so we think we know, but we don’t.
I know you personally have survived your own very tragic and painful time in your life, and I am sure you continue with this pain to this day. But you have grown to be a survivor and heroically tell your story to all who will listen so they can also learn about human suffering. It is important for them to know. Especially people who are fortunate enough not to have walked through those gates, but even the ones need to know that they are never alone.
Cherish your gifts and talents to spread the news. It is how civilization survives. We all learn from it.
I personally do not agree with those who say, “As they come in, they come out.” How would that be possible? Some people are born very poor and get very rich, and vice versa. Life is constantly changing and giving you opportunities.
For example, my own life story is…. difficult for me to believe. From a small town in Europe, we came to the greatest country in the world, and have been blessed with many brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and cousins and…. many others who are now in all fields of human endeavors, touching so many lives as they go along the way. What we learn most from your grandma is to carry on and do the right thing, and to set a good example for others to follow. I think that is the best way to honor their legacy.
Anyway, I will try to continue later on. Thank you.”
These words opened up worlds. They opened up my heart. They opened up a family to possibilities that no one knew existed.
I put together hundreds of these transcribed words and created a solo performance piece, “FIBERS” in honor of my Grandma, whose skillful sewing saved her life in the concentration camps.
When I performed FIBERS in public for the first time, not only was I giving voice to Uncle Morris, the story of my Grandmother, and her eight siblings, all but two who had passed on. I was giving voice to an entire era that is threatened every day to fade from history if we don’t keep asking questions.
Stories can not only give a voice to the powerless in society, but can help the individuals find their own power and move forward in their lives. In telling the story, for example, of my great uncle Morris, his family members told me he had never been happier, and was opening up for the first time. I was allowing my family members to tell their stories, and allowing them to move on after such a horrific past in surviving the Holocaust.
I have high hopes for my docudrama, FIBERS. For 90 minutes, I’m embodying 12 family members’ accounts of what they could remember. But what makes for more fascinating material, is what they couldn’t remember. Writing this play was about putting these puzzle pieces together and allowing a powerful story to be fully realized in the process.
Those that argue that oral history is not “reliable” are countered by those who believe the experiences of ordinary people, and their anecdotes are truer than written document. In order to write FIBERS, my job as a playwright was to facilitate remembering. I became fascinated with the stories that the subjects create to hold the memories together – not just the memories themselves. Without memory, there are only cold, hard facts. Theatre is about heart. So is life, and so is the family I came to know in the process.
FIBERS was inspired by the literal sewing my grandmother was forced to do in the concentration camps in order to stay alive. And by telling stories, asking questions, and not giving up our innate capacity to stay curious, we reconnect the fibers of our past, our legacy, who we are now, and the future we can create.
I’ve always known theatre has been about collaboration. But this was the greatest collaboration of my entire career.
Of course, I’m only 30.
But as I learned from interviewing my great-great-uncle Isi in Belgium, keeper of the family’s genealogy…we’ve been around for centuries.
Now THAT’S a long-term collaboration!
AirPlay Presents: Amy Oestreicher's Fibers: https://podtail.com/en/podcast/airplay-1/airplay-presents-amy-oestreicher-s-fibers/
“How could you not remember when you found out Grandma was a Holocaust survivor?”
Marilyn: I don’t remember.
Amy: Well…[getting frustrated] okay. But like –
Amy: Well when did you know what the Holocaust was?
Marilyn: I might have blocked it out. Who knows. Ask my brother.
Amy: I’m wondering why you don’t remember –
Marilyn: I just always knew it. No, I probably – probably heard it when I was younger and just didn’t understand it.
Amy: Well…having always known it – how did that make you feel then?
Marilyn: What do you mean? I just accepted it.
Oy. That’s how it all started.
I wanted to know my more about my grandmother who had passed away while I was in a coma at 18 years old. I had always looked to her spirit for strength, through my own dark times.
I decided I wanted to ask other relatives – people I only had seen in old wedding albums and on Facebook feeds.
At first, I was discouraged to delve into my family history. Why didn’t anyone think this was worth the pursuit?
I called my uncle. His response?
“You’re not gonna get anything – unfortunately I reached out to all of the relatives, everybody, and I’m telling you and nobody knew any of the story – just so you know, when I was going to write my book, after a while I realized there was so little information, like accurate information, that it was gonna have to be a fiction based on historical events. None of this is non-fiction. It’s very frustrating.”
The more relatives I asked in my family, the more I resonated with my uncle’s frustration.
My grandmother, a Jew in Czechoslovakia during World War Two, had been married just 5 weeks when she was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, separated from her 8 siblings and saw her husband shot and killed. She survived the war. She made it to Brooklyn, NY, on a ship that marked the rest of her life with an overwhelming fear of the ocean, married a tailor, and together, they established a successful sewing corporation in the garment district. She, and others like her, never really got to talk about all they had seen, and having endured more pain and felt more fear in those few years than most people in a lifetime, their generation raised children while trying to keep so much bottled up inside. She did her best to keep this fear and pain from her daughter, my mother, and while my mother remembers her as the most loving, sweetest mother, she also remembers feeling a real sadness and fear in her home.
Was that why my mother had “blocked it out?”
When “Nothing” Becomes Everything
According to my mother, my grandmother never spoke much about anything.
“She never talked about the atrocities. She would talk about bread, pieces of bread, people stole from people, she said there were all kinds of people in the camp – good, bad, generous, they lived off potato peels. She said that when they first got there, they had to go in lines, and Dr. Mengele – the crazy “doctor” who did all of those experiments – he told them which line to go on. And Grandma always said that one nurse talked to Mengele, and while she was talking to Mengele, Grandma pulled her friend to the other line, and that is what saved their lives. Grandma also had an abortion. After I was born – she felt like she was too sick to have another baby, and she went to a terrible abortionist in someone’s living room – who almost killed her with a hanger – you know, that’s how they killed them in those days, and she felt guilty forever – you know, a lot of guilt about a lot of stuff…”
One question was leading me to traumas I didn’t even know I should be asking about. Was I ready for that?
The Power of Asking
I realized that one, unassuming question (combined with a bit of gentle prodding and persistency) could open up a stream of remembrances and possibly unjam Lethe’s river of forgetfulness. Perhaps every “I don’t remember” and “They didn’t tell us anything” was simply a deceptive curtain. I read books on history and memory, the generation of postmemory, dug through oral history archives and Jewish history databases, and I searched through oral history archives, called museums, libraries, and old diners in Brooklyn where I knew my grandparents had frequently dined. I went on to create twelve comprehensive oral history guides for family members I hadn’t even met. I was determined to follow the trail of (or lack thereof) memory, too see where it may lead.
One relative connected me to another, and soon, I was getting emails and Facebook Messages from people I didn’t even know I was related to. I introduced my quest with one question:
“Do you remember my Grandma?”
Mostly, the answer was, “A bit. She was sweet. Quiet. Great cook.” But the more questions I asked, the more discoveries I made… including the passionate longing my grandmother always felt for her first husband.
What? A first husband? Before my Grandpa?
One relative recalled, “That’s what she seem to have trouble talking about, just that she loved him a lot . But not much else… like, you knew that the Holocaust had taken a toll. You’d ask her about what it was like, in the old country, and she would make little asides and not even know it? Maybe nothing specific, but you could just tell there was something.”
Between the “I can’t remembers” and “I don’t knows,” the more I asked, the more people seemed to remember about my Grandma’s first husband – the mystery man with no name, photo, or documentation. Another relative revealed, “When they separated the two of them, they were hiding in a tobacco farm. She and her sister were playing outside. Nazis came, and they grabbed her and beat her. Her older brother ran out of the house, and said “Don’t touch my sisters, take me.” First they put him in a jail, and Grandma and Aunt Betty would sneak to the jail, where they saw him tied up in chains, and grandma always felt guilty. Her brother went to the camps and died there, but everyone else in the family survived. Everyone got separated, they were separated for months – it was a miracle they all met back in America. Sad – Hannah [my Grandma] always thought she would die and her husband would live because she always said, he was so strong. Same with her brother.”
Wait, Grandma’s brother died?
“You’ll Never Find Enough Facts”
Every “answer” led to more unresolved questions, which opened more gaps in what I thought I knew. Soon, I was prompted to ask about events, places and people I never had heard about in my entire childhood from a family I thought I knew inside out.
An aunt then warned me as I dared to tread further, “It was kind of an unstated rule when you’re with Holocaust survivors that you don’t go there. and nobody comes out and says it, but it’s true for all of us that are first generation – you just grew up knowing you didn’t go there.”
But I went there.
I went “there,” just to end up in a maze, in search of facts, dates, and places with no “finish line” in sight. Throughout this tireless pursuit, my relatives were sure to constantly remind me that I’d never find enough facts.
“It’s like the telephone game. The story changes the more people you talk to.”
“All you’ll get is memory. No history.”
But in the end, what was I looking for that was really important to me? History or memory?
What I discovered was an even greater gift than history. I found precious family anecdotes that even my own mother didn’t know. I discovered that every family member had a personal piece of history and in stringing them together, I was creating the family narrative.
I interviewed nieces, nephews, great aunts, uncles, grandparents, distant cousins, and far distant cousins from Belgium, France, Prague, Israel, and San Francisco. I went to research and history archives and uncovered photographs and old documents from my past, including the ship that my grandparents came to America on. I logged hours transcribing tape upon tape and discovered that a word can become a whole world.
Humans claim to love facts, but I think we truly, in our hearts, treasure stories and memories more. What I uncovered were greater truths than I ever could have found in a history book. These words of my family members – many of these words just telling me “I don’t know anything,” opened up an entire world for me.
Part 2 to be published soon...
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking. As the creator of "Gutless & Grateful," her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, she's toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences.
My Master’s Degree is in Theatre Arts, but it was my time from 2018-2019 as a literary intern and script reader at San Diego Repertory Theatre that taught me the most about theatres’ script selection processes.
At the REP, I gained key insights into the behind-the-scenes processes that drive season planning and script selection. In this article, I will use this inside knowledge to list a few simple ways playwrights can increase their chances of being noticed by a theatre or literary manager. I will focus on cold submissions: scripts sent to a theatre company that weren’t prompted by an event, call for submissions, or request from the company.
These are submission tips, not writing tips. Some of the tips may seem like common sense, but my time at the literary department proved just how many playwrights did not follow them. If you do, you will automatically have a leg-up on your competition.
HOW NOT TO GET BURIED IN A PILE OF SCRIPTS
The majority of the scripts San Diego REP read each season were requested by the Literary Manager or Artistic Director (a big part of my job was to research and contact literary agents or publishing houses to request scripts that my LM and AD wanted to read). We scouted for scripts by researching recent awards, other theatres’ season lineups, and agency promotions. By the time those scripts landed in a reader’s hands, we already knew such basics as:
● The playwright’s contact information
● The play’s plot
● The play’s genre
● The play’s cast size and demographic
● The play’s production history (if any), and
● The awards or reviews a play had earned (if any).
These plays had an edge because we already knew how they could fit into the next season (ie. if we were planning a season with an emphasis on social class, and might line up Uncle Vanya as a tragedy, A Raisin in the Sun as a drama, Les Miserables as a musical, and search for a comedy/dramedy with similar themes).
This is important to understand, because it informs how you can best distinguish your script submission from a sea of scripts. The following are simple tips on how to keep your script from sinking to the bottom of the pile.
● INCLUDE YOUR CONTACT INFORMATION
This might seem like a no-brainer, but I too often picked up a script that had no return address or confusing contact information. It went to the bottom of the pile, because even if I read and liked the script, there was no guarantee that I would be able to contact the writer to discuss production.
When you submit a script, make sure to include your:
● Full name (legal or stage name)
● Current email address
Consider also including your:
● Phone number
● Short biography
● Professional website
● Resume, awards, reviews, and other references
Remember that an envelope or business card can be damaged in the mail or accidentally thrown away. Including your contact information on the cover of your script is a much safer way to ensure that it doesn’t get lost.
● HAVE A WEBSITE OR ONLINE RESUME
Most script research is done online these days. Having an online presence such as a professional website or an online resume increases your visibility. It can bring you vital exposure.
Even if a script you submit does not fit the theatre’s mission that season, they might visit your website and find another one of your script that does. You might also fit the profile of a demographic the theatre wants to promote; the literary manager won’t know unless they see a biography on your website. The website should, again, include your contact information so the company may get a hold of you easily (see the point above).
● FOLLOW THE THEATRE’S SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
Some theatres have clear submission guidelines. Research whether the theatre has specific rules regarding submission format, length, information, and other requirements.
Regional theatres like San Diego REP sometimes reserve cold submissions exclusively for local artists. This was clearly stated on the company’s website, yet I still received out-of-state scripts from time to time. It did not paint the playwright in a good light, and those submissions went to the bottom of the pile if not eliminated completely.
Respect both the theatre’s time and your own by following the theatre’s submission requirements.
● KNOW THE THEATRE’S PRODUCTION HISTORY AND MISSION
In the same vein as researching submission guidelines, you should understand and familiarize yourself with the theatre’s mission and history.
Every theatre has an explicit or implicit mission statement that informs the type of plays that it selects. For example, San Diego REP explicitly supports Latinx stories and Southern Californian playwrights; if you fit the demographic and/or have a story focusing on Latinx identities and experience, you have a better chance of catching the REP’s attention. If you are submitting a musical, then New Village Arts produces up to three musicals per season as compared to one musical at the REP. MOXIE, on the other hand, calls for submissions exclusively from female-identified playwrights.
Acknowledging a theatre’s mission and history accomplishes three things. First, it shows that you have thought out your partnership with the theatre. Second, it shows that you understand your own work enough to fit it into the larger narrative promoted by a season or a theatre’s culture. Finally, it also allows you to make a better “pitch” to the theatre about why it should pick up your work.
● AN EFFECTIVE BLURB GOES A LONG WAY
A blurb is your “30-second elevator speech” for your script. It is similar to a synopsis but withholds any spoilers and offers production information. An effective blurb should reference:
● The protagonist(s)
● The central theme
● The main conflict/intrigue
● The genre
It should be short and representative of the tone and genre of the play. An example would be the blurb for Famous Last Words by Tom Moran:
George has a strange hobby – he collects people’s last words. He's also got his own picked out, and a chance encounter at a hospital will give him an unexpected chance to use them. (Comedy, 2F, 1M.)
In three sentences, the blurb introduces the protagonist (George), the central theme (last words, death, preparation for death), and the main conflict (an unexpected event at the hospital). It doesn’t give away how the conflict is resolved, but clearly indicates the direction the conflict is headed.
This blurb itself doesn’t reference the genre (although the tone implies it), but the format labels it clearly at the end with information about the cast. The script reader goes in with reasonable expectations and context for the script. When there are dozens of scripts waiting on the desk, scripts with good blurbs float to the top.
● CAST DETAILS AND CHARACTER LIST
I left this for last. It seems like a minute detail, but as a script reader, it could seriously hold me up. This is also the most common problem I encountered with cold submissions. Sometimes I might not be the one to read the script, but I was the one to sort out submissions and log the information into the system. I would delay entering the submission in the system if I had to go through the entire script counting the number of characters, their gender, and race.
As a literary assistant and script reader, I sorted information for executives such as the literary manager, artistic director, and casting director. They look for information such as:
● Cast size
● Gender ratio
● Ethnicity, and
Putting a character list at the beginning of the script, including the character’s gender, is a simple but important step in presenting your script. At the very least, you should include the cast size and gender ratio.
I hope I have helped shine some light on the script selection process and offered some useful advice. My tips essentially boil down to presentation and getting the information to the right people.
Cold submissions are hard and often feel like shouting into a void. However, it is still a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve remembered playwrights because they sent in new scripts with persistence, and I’ve hold onto scripts that I couldn’t recommend for this season but thought might be good for the future.
Finding a network like the International Centre for Women Playwrights and other communities and advocates for yourself is also a good strategy.
The biggest benefit of having a literary agent is that it moves you from the cold submission to the solicited script category. At San Diego REP, we made general script requests to agents asking for “new comedy,” “drama with a small cast,” “scripts like so-and-so,” etc. An agent will be an advocate for you when they receive these inquiries. It is also an agent’s job to know which theatre is looking for playwrights and scripts that match your profile and actively sends out recommendations for you.
If an agent is not an option for you, there are other ways to increase exposure. I’ve mentioned the importance of a professional website, online biography and resume. You should also try to optimize search engine results for yourself: leaving breadcrumbs for companies to find you.
The internet nowadays creates more opportunities for playwrights to showcase themselves. There are two main online databases that I used to look up new scripts at San Diego REP. You do not need an agent in order to join, although you may need to pay a member’s fee:
In the next installment, I will go into more details about these two databases as well as an international organization called the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of Americas (LMDA). Like the International Centre for Women Playwrights, these organizations create resources and support designed for playwrights, and offer a community to support what is often solitary endeavor.
For twenty years, I was a fearless selfish Jaguar, prowling Planet Earth. On assignment with HarperCollins, Birnbaum, and Fodor’s travel guides, I wrote books on Seoul, Chicago, Florida, Santa Fe, and Grand Cayman.
I also crafted first person travel essays about terrifying experiences: kayaking with ten-ton orca killer whales, swimming with giant whale sharks, and getting face to face with ferocious wild polar bears. I scaled snow-covered mountains, collapsing with altitude sickness. I swam in Hudson Bay Canada with beluga whales and almost drowned. In Trinidad, I nearly stepped on a fer-de-lance, a poisonous snake. The more scared I got, the better the travel tale. My editors were thrilled. I won travel-writing awards for being crazy. I was ridiculously happy.
You know what’s coming next, right? Happiness screeched to a halt.
My husband and business partner, filmmaker/ photographer Warren Lieb, was stricken with cancer, Parkinson’s, and incontinence. Our life changed from enthralling adventures to life threatening procedures, surgeries, and emergency room visits.
I resigned from my newspaper and magazine contracts, staying home to Nurse my Beloved. Warren declined, transforming from a courageous handsome “Indiana Jones,” to a desiccated old man stuck in a wheelchair.
One morning he tenderly smiled, then said “I will always adore you Sharon, my Love.” Gently, slowly, he exhaled his last breath. Watching his soul floating upward out of his disease ravaged body, I cried: “Goodbye my Love. Please don’t leave me alone.”
Travel inspires plays, paintings and articles. Google “Jungle Eyes” to read Sharon Baker’s new adventure essay on how Costa Rica changed her life.
All of us who have mourned beloveds, know the Terror of being Alone.
Curled up in bed for weeks, I succumbed to lethargy, ambivalence, and self-pity. Why eat? Why bathe? Why do anything? One rainy afternoon, I had this Dream:
“Why should I stay alive?” I asked no one.
“Why should you die?” a gentle energy replied. “Don’t you realize more is coming?”
“Everything you need and desire is within you.
Don’t you believe me?”
“ Absolutely not.”
I woke up. I hate touchy feely Spirit Guides stalking me.
I called four girlfriends for help.
“Ya gotta help me. I’m so screwed up, Spirit Guides are telling me to think positive,” I complained.
But I got out of bed, ready to reclaim my Jaguar self.
Sharon writes plays about endangered wildlife. Her Polar Bear painting is titled “Looking for Ice”.
Shortly after that dream, I started getting myself together. Friends buffed and fluffed me, and one posted me on dating sites. I endured a few awful dates and gave up.
But one handsome man from a nearby town courted me by email, phone, and finally, an in person date. We both loved theater, music, movies, food, travel, and laughter. Who was this rainbow guy? Kenny Baker, a retired businessman, passionate about golf and living joyfully. “I’ve been looking for you for 12 years,” he smiled. I moved to his vibrant town, Bluffton, South Carolina, met new gal pals, and gave thanks for my blessings. We were married a year later, in a joyous celebration.
So happy. And yet restless. I tried mahjong. Tried tennis. Listened to other senior women wax ecstatic about their grandchildren. I wandered through Publix, Target, and the Library.
I missed my globetrotting life. Yet the 24/7 merry-go-round schedule of a travel journalist was more for an energetic workaholic in her 40’s and 50’s, than me at 65. Was there anything left for me to accomplish?
Missy Gentile, an astonishing Artist and wise Art teacher got my creativity flowing again. “Throw paint on your canvas, Sharon. Don’t be afraid to mess up. The only rule: there are no rules.” So, like a blissful kindergartner, I created whimsical colorful paintings of, you guessed it: Polar bears, whale sharks, coral reefs, and mountains. Dozens of paintings and two gallery shows later, I could feel the ferocity and fearlessness of my old Jaguar self.
During art classes with Missy, I realized my life as a travel journalist is a cornucopia of stage worthy stories.
In addition to plays, Sharon Baker creates whimsical nature paintings. Title: My Beloved Seahorse.
Remembering my life changing experience at the Dalai Lama’s Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, I wrote a one act play: “Birthday Party at the Dalai Lama’s Palace.” About ambition, confusion, and unexpected blessings at the world’s coolest palace. Sort of Monty Python meets the Wizard of Oz….
The two leads ask: Does my life matter? Will I ever see my dead family/friends again? This play enabled me to become an Associate Member of DGA and I’m following all the incredible opportunities we members are offered.
I wrote a ten-minute play, “Love and Death in Eden, Australia.” A strange tale from a visit to Eden, Australia: about orca killer whales rounding up humpback whales, and delivering them to humans who harpoon them to death. The play is about murder, passion, and a woman’s discovery of her bizarre identity.
Eden Australia, the setting for my bizarre comedy, “Love and Death in Eden Australia “.
On Monday July 28, my dream of becoming a first time Playwright came true. Sitting in the audience at the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center in Aventura Florida, I was thrilled and terrified. My ten minute play was about to go from page to stage as part of “Stages of the Sun,” an evening of 8 new innovative short plays, presented by The South Florida Theatre League.
My play, “Love and Death in Eden Australia “ was presented in Miami Florida. Near the theater, I met another inspirational writer. Keep writing he said!
As a DG Associate Member, I’m grateful for all the support and mentoring on this new journey. I’m 65 years young, still a glorious Jaguar.
Sharon Baker is a new Associate member of The Dramatist’s Guild of America and The Playwright’s Center, Minneapolis.
Google her travel essays, under Sharon Spence Lieb.
This is my favorite photo. It was taken on my balcony overlooking the East Village on a hot August afternoon in 2012. I'd just returned home from the hospital after ten days in the Neurology Unit. The brain bleed didn't kill me. One aneurysm was coiled. I fell in love with several doctors. My family and friends stayed by my side. They dazzled me. They showered me with gifts and small acts of kindness: a Scrabble game, a new nightgown, coffee with half & half, warm socks, an i-Pad. Oh, I was happy to be home. My survival made me feel ... radiant!
Even before my sister posted "Diary of a Stroke" on Facebook, illness informed my writing. Several months after exchanging wedding vows at City Hall, my husband was disabled by an aortic aneurysm. When John died in 1995, our daughter was eight years old. Jessie and I learned a valuable lesson: You can mourn and still experience joy.
Today, many things give me joy. Babysitting for granddaughters Tallulah John and Ellery Connor tops the list. I serve as the Creative Consultant at an Off-Broadway theatre, expanding opportunities for theatre artists through an initiative, "Urban Stages New Pages." I’m a member of several theatre companies (Articulate, T.A.R.T.E., and FAB @ Barrow Group), and a spanking new member of the 44-year old American Renaissance Theatre Company.
Monthly, I attend collegial and professional playwriting groups, fiddle with my website, and update my resume. Actually, I have two of them. One resume is for public use; the other is color-coded by year. It's called "Since I Had Brain Surgery." Since my life-threatening illness in August 2012 to date, I've had 21 publications, 69 productions, 41 readings, and 51 honors/awards. Five films were shown in NYC, several Florida venues, and Ireland; three webisodes just wrapped shooting in LA. I produced nine short play series at Urban Stages; co-produced nine one-act and ten-minute play festivals at Abingdon Theatre; and facilitated the "Pencils Down: FAB's Monologue Mania Workshop" and reading at The Barrow Group. I also directed eleven short plays (Abingdon, Artistic New Directions, Urban Stages). I am fiercely proud of these accomplishments.
Weekly, I browse through the Playwright Forum listings, the Official Playwrights of Facebook blog, the DG Regional Digest, Go Fund Me requests, and the ICWP connect list and eblasts. The latter caught my eye. Without hesitation, I donated to ICWP’s new Development Fund to help provide women playwrights with opportunities for women around the world.
In fact, this New Yorker was the recipient of a SWAN Day grant from ICWP in 2009 for my work with recovering drug addicts at Women-in-Need. The weekly workshop, “Communicate Sober,” was co-taught by Jan Buttram, former AD at Abingdon Theatre Company. While we’d planned to teach the playwriting course for ten weeks, we offered the weekly class for an entire year, until the outreach site closed and moved to Harlem. The ICWP SWAN Day grant enabled us to present a reading of our work, performed by professional actors at an Off-Broadway theatre. Subsequently, we received an Honorable Mention for our collaborative work by the NY Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts & Media in Jan. 2011 and a Poets & Writers Grant Teaching Artist grant. Our program was also featured in a Care Management Journal (Springer Publishing), entitled "Who Said 75 is Old?" However, my proudest moment was when two of our students passed their GEDs (high school equivalency test), and received honors in their writing! It was a humbling experience.
In addition to this integral funding, ICWP has also promoted my personal work: "Raison d'etra" in Mother/Daughter Monologues, JAC Publications (2009); "Unconditionally" in Diverse Scenes for Actors, JAC Publications (2013); and Honorable Mention for "Planned Obsolescence" in the 3-Minute ICWP 3-minute contest (2018) I completed the play and had a production in January 2019.
In summary: Over the years, my life has been enriched by small acts of kindness. And while I’ll never look like this seven-year old photo again, I want to FEEL like it as often as possible. So here’s the bottom line: If you haven’t done so already, please consider donating to ICWP’s Development Fund. This small act of kindness can support and enhance more than one playwright’s life – possibly an entire community! Just … consider it.
Bara Swain's plays and monologues have been performed across the country in more than 120 venues in 25 states and abroad. NYC theatres include The Barrow Group, Urban Stages, Abingdon Theatre, Articulate Theatre Company, Athena Theatre, Sam French OOB Festival, Artistic New Directions, Project Y Theatre, Symphony Space, Players Theatre, Rising Sun, Ego Actus, Kaufmann Theatre, Gallery Players, Turnip Theatre, NY Madness, Stage Left, Polaris North, T.A.R.T.E., Aching Dogs, and Greenhouse Ensemble. Other venues include NJ Repertory, TheatreWorks (TN), Lyric Theatre (FL), New American Theatre and Open Fist (CA), Old Opera House (WV), Potluck Productions (MO), OnStage Atlanta (GA), and Short+Sweet Festivals (Hollywood, Canberra, Sydney, Dubai).
I’ve been thinking about feedback lately. About the fact that there are a lot of different feedback situations and constellations. We’re all very different, both as givers and receivers of feedback. I’ve been given some tips about different feedback models and as soon as I have the time I’m going to read about them. However, at the moment I find that I need to sort out my own thoughts on the subject. So that’s what I’m doing here. All of this is about theatre and playwriting. That’s the context.
Feedback can come at different points on the writing process:
A. While you are writing, but before there’s a production.
B. During the production process, so during the planning stage or during rehearsals.
C. After the run of the play is over. This might include the run itself. I’m having trouble placing that part of the process at the moment.
At all these different points the premise and the reception of feedback are different. That’s what I’d like to write about now, but I realise that I haven’t really thought this through yet:
Feedback can happen between two people, one-on-one, or in a group.
D. One-on-one with someone who isn’t directly involved in a production of the play.
E. One-on-one with someone who is directly involved in the production of the play, like the director.
F. In a group of people who aren’t directly involved in a production of the play, like a writers’ group.
G. In a group of people who are directly involved in a production of the play, like the ensemble who are going to perform it.
The relationship between the person, or persons, giving the feedback and the text matters. If it’s a designated feedback talk or a casual conversation.
Yet another aspect of this is on the basis of what feedback is given:
H. A completed full draft of the play.
I. Parts of the play (which might not be written in full yet).
J. The playwright’s presentation of the play, or their idea for the play.
This is important too. Important because it represents different phases of the writing process.
So, this are my thoughts at the moment. I’ll keep thinking about them. At times like these I notice that I find it easier to think if there’s some sort of framework for me to think in, or through.
If there is already somebody else out there that have thoughts about these things and written a brilliant article, or dissertation or book – please tell me! I want to read them!
Hanna is a playwright, translator and dramaturg living and working in Swedish in Finland. Current projects include an opera libretto based on a children's book, a series for radio and a stage play.
Hanna has two websites:http://hannaheartfelt.blogspot.fi/
Hanna is a playwright, translator and dramaturg living and working in Swedish in Finland. Current projects include an opera libretto based on a children's book, a series for radio and a stage play.
Hanna has two websites:
I write to run away from myself. Perhaps some of you do as well. A flag-waving member of the “Writers’ Escape Club,” I’ve pledged life-long allegiance to characters and events far away from my own life and time.
In the saddle of doppelgangers (riding through my fourteen plays), I’m a shrewd prospector bilking miners in the California Gold Rush (In Gold We Trust); a star-struck ‘linthead’ (cotton mill worker) dreaming of escape while caught in a tragic 1929 labor uprising (Finding Clara); a stoic German immigrant challenging 1800s sexist mores to become a lighthouse keeper (Women of the Light); and a deeply religious American female soldier returning home from the Iraq War, making unfathomable choices after losing faith and family (Across the Holy Tell).
It’s a well-worn trope that writers put themselves into their work. I’ve forcibly locked the door behind me when I write, taking refuge in a towering paper parapet to map the echoes of distant stories below.
It’s why I’ve never managed to keep a diary (Lord knows I’ve tried). Cowering in my office corner is a carton stuffed with notebooks – a few feverish paragraphs in each book, penned in valiant, yet aborted attempts. Late at night, the orphaned pages taunt: “Coward, coward!” disgusted by my failure to soldier on.
After my mother died, something shifted inside me. I had, till then, excused my avoidance out of a desire to shield her from hurt. But this false narrative has been a frail veil hiding my inability to process the painful dynamics of my family life – and the fear (irrational or not) that excavation of this embittered battlefield would catapult me into lifelong depression.
It would be comforting to believe that bravery has propelled me to undertake, finally, this herculean task. But the truth can more honestly be found gasping for air in a river of rage flooding the banks of my pen.
The past year I’ve been digging channels inside my play’s cave. Exploratory tools include yellowing family photographs, food-stained letters, saved emails, frayed birthday cards, crumbling birth certificates and stained medical records. This Pompeian avalanche has left me suffocated and overwhelmed. Trying to forge a path through the chaos, I rolled out a 25-foot roll of brown paper to chart my family’s timeline, taping my relics to the mud-colored papyrus in search of order and clarity.
It didn’t help.
Sardonically, my Muse chose to arrive not via trumpeted fanfare or a bright beam of light. Rather, she blew in on a cold, rainy night as I sat in a theatre watching a cloying adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My most beloved book as a child - perhaps Little Women was yours too? - what young girl has not been breast fed on Alcott’s fantasy of a loving mother and four sisters triumphantly surviving hardships and even death? And what girl wanting to become a writer has not imagined she is Josephine March?
Anger can be liberating. I vividly remember the day – I was fifteen – when we parted ways. Surviving a particularly harrowing family wrestling match, I sought safety in my room – only to be confronted by Louisa’s tale mocking me. “Fucking, fucking lies!” I screamed at the cruel pages. It would be forty plus years before I would seek solace again in her story.
Leaving the theatre that evening after seeing Little Women, a tsunami of emotions coursed through my veins. When the storm subsided, floating to the surface were bits and pieces of my new play, and by the time I returned home, I knew I would write a radical retelling of Little Women, using the Alcott book as a frame to tell the very real, turbulent story of my tribe of women - my mother and sisters.
The irony – that to write about my life, I had to return, at least on some level, to fiction as a source of inspiration – I’ve found perversely gratifying, given my year-long struggle battling ghosts in the Trenches of Truth.
Also ironic - my discovery that Louisa May Alcott had no interest initially in writing Little Women and penned the books primarily for the cash. Her writing passions – which were varied and radical for her time – lay elsewhere.
If all writers are like Icarus, fated to fly into the light,then it has always been destined that a young girl, seeking refuge from her family’s raging storm, would grow up to one day write a play about her life.
So. Yes. I am Jo in my new play. And my play is called Little .
Epilogue: June's new drama recently received an unstaged reading and she has been awarded two artist residencies in the fall to continue her journey writing about her life. An apparition of Louisa May Alcott plays a prominent role in June's new work :) .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
#juneguralnick #guralnick #icwp #womenplaywrights #womeninTheatre #theater #womeninTheater
I will use the Illuminated Dresses project that I produced as an example of creative collaboration, and will draw on some other experiences I've had along the way, to illustrate why I consider collaborating a radical act.
I've been involved in creative collaborations for decades. These include modern dance and poetry, fiber arts and poetry, co-designing and facilitating writing workshops, co-managing a division of a university press, directing and producing plays, and being a member of writing groups. I've also served on committees and boards of directors, which can be opportunities for collaboration, if the desire and willingness are there. Most of these collaborations I consider successes, despite the inevitable human failings and I have learned from every one.
My current collaborative project and the biggest production I have undertaken is Illuminated Dresses, which is written, directed, produced, and acted by women. There are fourteen short monologues on the theme of a transformation while putting on a dress or other garment, and collectively they explore life, clothing, and identity. It opens Oct. 25, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. https://m.facebook.com/Illuminated-Dresses-294778108065059
I call creative collaboration a radical act because when we collaborate with open minds, we are upsetting the patriarchal paradigm of hierarchical decision making, the boss-man and the workers. My most successful collaborations have been with women. I have found women more willing to take personal/emotional risks, listen closely to others, question our own egos and motives, and not insist on our p.o.v. above all others.
Certainly women can fall into the same ego traps as men. We still don't have an abundance of models for positive female leadership. We might bend over backwards to accommodate, be more conflict-averse, tone-check or moderate our comments, or, conversely, employ the tactics of what the poet Adrienne Rich called “power over” to prove our place at the table. When we collaborate, we are going against the culturally entrenched model, where the one with the most power or who talks the most or loudest directs the actions of others. Most women are familiar with the labels: assertive, you are a bitch; insistent, you are shrill; contemplative, you can be walked over.
The patriarchal structure also tends to favor extroverts. The faster-paced our world, the more expedient the work. No time to ponder, get to it. Collaboration is the opposite of that. It often is more like slow cooking than stir fry, but that does not mean that we are endlessly processing, wheel-spinning—the stereotype used to denigrate a more thoughtful approach. Too much wheel-spinning usually is due to losing sight of the vision, poor communication, difficult personalities, or lack of stepping up. Collaboration may take more time but the end result is more fulfilling because those involved feel listened to, respected, and are an integral part of the overall vision, rather than being “assigned” a task or staying silent.
Major ingredients in a successful collaboration are 1) a clear and compelling vision, 2) good communication, 3) personal integrity in word and deed, and creating a safe space.
1. Vision. The project has a clear vision/mission. Are you all creating a vision together or does one person have a vision who is enlisting help in shaping it and making it a reality? Everyone involved should buy into that vision, and collectively stay focused as it lives and breathes and morphs with one another’s input.
2. Clear and prompt communication. Know who is in charge of what. Assume best intentions rather than ill intent. Set aside your ego. Say what you think but don't be entrenched; allow yourself to be challenged, surprised. Listen closely. Respect and give space for personalities—an introvert and an extrovert process differently at a different rate. Follow through on what you agreed to do, and communicate accordingly. Have good boundaries. Be flexible—shit happens. Someone's family member will get ill or die, someone will go through a divorce, etc., but don’t go silent.
3. Personal integrity. These qualities work well: Generosity. Curiosity rather than reaction. Mindfulness. Do not coerce, even if you really want something done a certain way. Breathe, take five. Forgiveness. If someone is not holding up her commitment, find out why and see if she wants or needs to continue to be part of the project. Curb the storytelling in a work session, save it for drinks afterward.
This is a good time to talk about council, as described in The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman and Gigi Coyle. It is an ancient process that allows everyone to have a voice and be listened to, which encourages creative thinking and problem solving. In the council process, the opportunity to speak is given one at a time to all. Members speak only when it is their turn and are encouraged to listen intently without comment while others are speaking. Any member can keep silent or pass when their turn comes. A facilitator is charged with maintaining the boundaries of the circle to protect the process.
Council uses four simple intentions:
1. Speak from the heart, not only with your head. Use your feelings as honestly as you can trust in the moment.
2. Listen from the heart, with an open mind, without judgment.
3. When it is your turn, speak spontaneously rather than planning ahead what you are going to say. This allows you to truly listen to others, not be distracted by your own thoughts.
4. Be lean of speech. Use only the words necessary to get your point across.
It sounds simple, but how often are council guidelines used, even in a modified way? More often we talk impatiently, strive to get our opinion across (sometimes insistently), talk over one another—or, if we are introverts, stay silent, waiting for an opening. Although council has been around for centuries, it is still radical in that it subverts the dominant paradigm.
Just as a successful play is 95% good casting, a successful collaboration is 95% good partners. You want people who want to be there and who will do what is agreed upon. Some personalities are exciting and creative but hard to work with in a sustained way. Know your own temperament. Ask people you trust for recommendations. It is hard enough to get a project off the ground with good intentions and good chemistry; you do not need any toxic personalities or flakes that can derail the work.
This is not to say throw away the organizational chart, that there is no hierarchy. One of the good things about producing a play is having clear roles that have been understood historically. Playwright, producer, director, stage manager, lighting designer, actors, publicist. Even so, personality issues can blur or trammel boundaries and make the project a real pain (e.g., a playwright interfering with a director, an actor who is chronically late, a publicist who does not communicate in a timely way). Each of these roles is a piece of the whole and moves the project forward. Good collaboration is a kind of dance—know who is leading whom and when, know whether it is a pas de deux, a square dance, or an improvisational free-form movement.
So, now, to the Illuminated Dresses. I’ve long been disturbed by the lack of productions by women in the theater. Only about 30% of productions in the US and the UK are by women. Besides writing plays that are predominately women-centered and working with other women playwrights, I wanted to do my small part in remedying this. When the Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF) came into being a few years ago, I wanted to be part of it. I contributed some plays to their summer festivals. Around that same time I saw a graphic by Tim Walker of dresses hanging in a tree, and I thought immediately that it would be a terrific theater set. It had magic in it. Yet I couldn’t decide what exactly the play would be. Three playwright friends and I tried to cowrite a play that sprang from this image but we couldn’t make it work.
After spinning out various scenarios, I decided that rather than writing a full-length play, I would see if other women playwrights were interested in doing short pieces on a dress-related theme. Because I see theater as an opportunity for community building and collaboration, and because I wanted diverse voices represented, I asked playwrights I know and also put out a call for monologues on social media to reach others: It read: “We are seeking monologues about a transformation while putting on (or taking off) a dress. (“Dress” can be a uniform, costume, smock, etc.) This experience could be connected to a ritual, magic, an awakening, an everyday epiphany. A few questions to consider: Why this dress? Why now? What does the person want to do in or to the dress? Are there regrets? Expectations? What doors might open or close?”
But before doing the call, I needed to have a goal as to what would happen with the pieces—otherwise, why would anyone submit to me? I contacted the Women's Theatre Festival to see about doing a staged reading as part of the summer festival, and they were enthusiastic. I sent out the call, mostly through social media, seeking out groups such as LGBTQ Writers, the National Association of Black Storytellers, writers with disabilities, veterans, writers meet-ups, etc. (I didn’t know about ICWP then, regrettably!) I received over seventy submissions, and I was pleased with the variety of voices and situations. I had the challenging task of choosing fourteen.
We hear from an executive constrained in a suit, a black woman surrounded by white dresses, a Girl Scout whose family couldn't afford the uniform, a trans woman recalling a pivotal moment in her youth, a mother persuading her daughter to wear a sacred garment, a waitress instructing a newbie, and many more. The characters range in class, age, ethnicity, and gender identity, and the pieces explore various moods and experiences.
Next was to find a director for the staged reading. My first choice was Lori Mahl. I'd been in a group with her and admired her insights and fearlessness as an actor and director. We talked and emailed back and forth to get clear on our expectations of one another. Not just our producer/director roles, but the role of the playwrights, many of whom would attend the reading.
Because the main purpose of doing these monologues for the first time was to benefit the playwrights, Lori had the idea of doing the monologues in a process-oriented way rather than a straight-ahead staged reading. That is, the first several monologues would be read as if she were directing a first rehearsal. That meant stopping the actress at times, inquiring as to what was happening in the moment, what her motivation was, etc. (The rest of the monologues were read as a staged reading.) In rehearsal the actresses all had agreed enthusiastically to this approach, which meant they would be extremely vulnerable. The audience were to be silent observers, flies on the wall. It was a charged, honest presentation, which the audience felt part of, due to its intimacy. It felt like we all were holding sacred space. The playwrights saw new things in their scripts or noted where they’d like to make changes based on the acting and directing.
So regarding my list of what makes a successful collaboration, this hit all the notes.
We are now in full production mode—we open October 25, 2019—with even more collaboration needed among members of the creative team. Again, everyone understanding the vision and adding her own expertise to it and communicating effectively is crucial to the play’s success. I recognized that as producer I would need excellent partners, so in addition to the creative team, I reached out to OdysseyStage to help with marketing, fundraising, and other related tasks.
Collaboration, with all its challenges, can be rewarding and even illuminating. I do believe to collaborate is to work together in a radical way to create something new, and that it is greater than the sum of its parts. Diverse voices, new ideas, challenging interactions, a project bigger than one’s own perspective, a rich and multi-layered vision, a way to be with others in a shared purpose. It is a useful practice to challenge our own assumptions and open ourselves to other ideas of race, gender, age, class, not just for artistic projects, but in our everyday exchanges, enriching our work, family, and play lives.
Illuminated Dresses runs from Oct. 25 through Nov. 3, 2019, at Burning Coal Theater in Raleigh, NC. See https://m.facebook.com/Illuminated-Dresses-294778108065059 for more information.
Poet and playwright Debra Kaufman has written over three dozen short and four full-length plays. She produced her play Harbor Hope in 2015 and is producing Illuminated Dresses, a collaborative monologues project, in the fall of 2019. The author of three full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks, she received a North Carolina Arts Council playwriting scholarship and two grants from the Central Piedmont Regional Artists Hub Program. www.debrakaufman.info
We could have saved sixpence. We have saved fivepence. (Pause) But at what cost?
—Samuel Beckett, All That Fall
What happens when you lay your playwriting out on the bed, hanger upon hanger, sweater upon mismatched sock of complete play drafts, half-written monologs, title ideas, snatches of dialog? What happens if you hold and thank each item, let go of the ones that don’t bring you joy, and store the rest in a way that truly serves you going forward?
To tidy a home, Marie Kondo works a category at a time: clothing, books, etc. So if you’re up for this adventure, start by identifying the big categories that make up your playwriting. For me, it’s Digital and Paper.
To do this, I opened my local drive and my Dropbox folder to display as much of my writing as I could on my big iMac screen. What a mess—a motley assortment inconsistently named files, some placed in folders, others not. When I’m actually looking for a file, I usually search on a text string because browsing through all these windows succeeds only in making me feel like a loser for having so many versions of so many files.
A challenging thing about digital writing is that often there isn’t one final, unchangeable version of a piece. Even if a play has been produced, you might continue to tinker with it, thereby creating new versions of the file. And even if you have a “perfect” draft, what about all the previous ones? Part of me wants to delete them, so that I have just one file per play or story. If some scene or line got cut along the way, I probably don’t need it, right?
But then I remember my first playwriting teacher, the late Fred Gaines, saying that at a certain point you should go back to the first draft of a piece, to reengage with your original idea, before you “perfected” it. That’s one of the most useful pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. As you change and grow as a writer, you might come back to an early draft and see it differently, a process that could take you in a different, more exciting direction.
Then again, you don’t need to keep every single version. Sometimes that feels too heavy. Argh, how to decide? Luckily, we have a plan that supports making the keep-or-toss decision quickly and decisively.
This is one main folder that will hold your biggest category of playwriting. I’ve created a folder called Writing. I created it in my main Dropbox folder so it’s accessible from everywhere. I also created separate main folders for Teaching and Plays from Others, because those are important aspects of playwriting, but I don’t want to confuse them with my writing, which deserves its own beautiful cabinet.
We’ll build shelves for this cabinet in a minute. First, we need to make it easy to toss what we don’t want.
This is a folder named zzzCompost (the zzz keeps it at the bottom of the folder list). This is where you toss files that don’t bring you joy, but it’s better than your computer’s trash bin.
In a month or a year, you can open zzzCompost and pull something that sparks your interest (watch out for worms), or you can make permanent deletions. For now, it allows you to remove files and folders with abandon. One of the perks of digital writing is that it doesn’t take up much space, so you can afford a nice big zzzCompost bin.
I called this zzUnassigned so it sits just above the Compost bin. This is for ideas and web links and anything else that’s interesting but hasn’t found a home yet. I like the name Unassigned because it makes those ideas feel important. They are wanted and valuable, they just haven’t been given a mission yet.
Each shelf is a subfolder for one type of creative writing. I experimented a lot here. First I tried detailed subfolders like 10-Minute Plays, Full-length Plays, Stories for Performing, Stories for Reading. But this gave me too many shelves. So I ended up with something much simpler: one folder for each medium, like Plays, plus my two bins.
In your mind’s eye. Thank and release the ones that don’t bring you joy. Remember you’re just moving them to the zzzCompost folder, so this doesn’t need to take forever.
From all 57 drafts of your novel to one draft of a one-minute play, each piece gets a folder. Otherwise, files get crumpled in dark corners instead of standing up in neat vertical folds. A folder also gives you a great place to put notes, research, and anything else related to the writing of this piece.
If you’re not already using a consistent file-naming system, now is a great time to start. I’ve started naming my files Title_of_piece.dd.mm.yy—for example, Bolshoi Bathtub.091619. If the piece is a related document, reflect that as well—eg, Bolshoi Bathtub.cut scenes.091619. I’m not going back and renaming everything, but going forward this makes the contents of each folder easier to survey.
If you come across a file that’s not truly part of your playwriting process, like a lecture on dialog or a quote you love, plop it into a separate main folder and deal with it later. Maybe set a different date for Marie Kondo-ing your teaching.
Once you tidy your digital writing, it’s time to move to the physical stuff. For me that’s an overwhelming number of binders, loose papers, dozens of diaries, countless blank books friends have given me “to write in” that are too pretty to actually write in, loose notes, playbills, newspaper clippings, and more. Most of it is crammed into a grim oak bookcase in my office, jammed into a filing cabinet, and stacked at the back of my desk.
Or, in my case, on the floor. At first, I resisted this step, because a few years ago I created a binder for every full-length play I wrote, every class I taught, and every category of shorter writing. Old drafts, notes, contact sheets, programs, feedback, everything was filed into these binders. I spent countless hours making tabs for different kinds of writing exercises. I bought document sleeves to put programs and cast notes in. I labelled each binder on the spine.
I was really proud of these binders. I didn’t want them on my floor. I wanted to cheat this step and extract one item at a time because my floor is not that big and I need it for yoga. But as soon as I dropped the first notebook, I realized two things:
But I’d put so much work into hole-punching and Sharpie-ing. Was it all for nothing? And what about all the journals and notes that have no digital equivalent?
For advice, I turned to writer and producer Jill Howe, who has been posting beautiful photos on Facebook of her tidying process all year. Over corncakes, Jill confided, “Before, with storytelling I did everything on paper. And I would keep every draft, so I’d have like 20 drafts of a story. I mean, it was kind of fun in the beginning, like, ‘Look at all the work I’m doing!’ But if you’ve told a story now and then you tell it again in two months, you look back and go, ‘I ended the story like that? What the eff was I thinking?’ So now, when I do a piece for a show, I have the final draft, and that’s really the only paper I keep. I don’t need the 20 drafts that got me to that point.”
Jill admitted that there’s the stuff that’s easy to toss, the stuff that’s easy to keep—and then there’s everything in between. Luckily, she also had a solution for this, the largest category in most of our lives.
Jill uses the notes-app-on-steroids Evernote and Evernote’s free Scannable app to digitize and organize all the in-between stuff. “The app takes a picture, immediately crops it to the frame, and turns it into a high-quality image,” she explained. “You can make folders in your Evernote for all the different categories, and scan directly to those.”
If you already use Dropbox, like I do, it includes a built-in scanning feature that I’d never noticed until Jill showed it to me. Just click that plus sign icon on the phone app and start scanning.
Jill also has a WiFi scanner that she keeps on her desk, along with a tray for day-to-day stuff like bills and receipts. “When the pile gets deep, I pull out the scanner,” she said. She recommends the Doxie, which runs about $200, handles multi-page documents pretty well and promises to sync easily with all major cloud services including Evernote and Dropbox.
Once you’re set up with a scanner or two, you’re ready to:
About that whole written-words-are-sacred thing I was feeling? Jill’s been there, too. “I’ve been carrying around journals since I was in college,” she told me, “you know, repressive, horrible poetry. And you know, that whole corny thing about, does it spark joy? It just reminded me of things I didn’t want to remember. So I asked a friend, ‘hey, can we build a fire in your backyard?’”
So instead of tossing my outgrown scribblings in the recycle bin, I’m collecting them for a bonfire, first day it’s warm enough to sit outside around the fire pit and toast some marshmallows.
Jill advises taking before and after pictures to remind you of why you’re doing this, and to help fine-tune your work. “There’s something about taking pictures,” she said. “I would declutter a space, take a picture of it, and—I couldn’t see this in real life, but when I’d look at the picture I’d say, ‘that’s still too much.’ And I’d go back and get rid of more.”
Warning that if you do pile everything on the floor, you may kick yourself or curse this post. Going through everything will probably take longer than you planned and the mess may haunt you. But that’s exactly why the pile is brilliant. You’ll be extra-motivated to move quickly so you can get what you want: a beautiful, uncluttered space to write in, and a digitized library of documents, journal entries, and notes you can access from anywhere without ever having to dust.
MT’s plays have been produced by Piven Theatre, The Side Project, Chicago Dramatists, The Fine Print Theatre, Working Women's History Project, and elsewhere. She has received awards from the Illinois Arts Council and Heartland Theatre, and residencies at The Ragdale Foundation, Playa, and Hawthornden Castle. MT has taught playwriting and story development at Carthage College, The Second City Training Center, and in private workshops. Her dramatic writing has been published by Applause Books, Hippocampus Magazine, Crawdad Literary Journal, and Original Works. She lives in Chicago, and is represented by the Robert A. Freedman Dramatic Agency. https://mtcozzola.com/
I’m a playwright and Artistic Director of a small theater company, and I've also been reading for theaters, workshops, and grants opportunities etc. for the past few years. There’s some overall notes I’ve compiled so I wanted to pass on some observations and even some advice.
Roberta D'Alois is a playwright, performer and director. All the above images come from her website: http://www.robertadalois.com/
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