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/
My bio does not tell the story. And I think how many of us have a disconnect between reading our own bio and our writer’s life lived between the dots.
“You have serendipity on your side,” my mentor said to me. He is Grayson Hirst in his 80’s, Tenor opera singer from the Metropolitan opera (who sang with Beverly Sills). I told him how I met Gary Garrison, Dramatists Guild of America, on a park bench in front of the Ft. Wayne, Indiana public library; then Maestro Crafton Beck in a park in my hometown in Ohio who told me I was writing symphonies.
It is Grayson who told me a few months ago to form my own 501(c)(3) to support the symphony orchestra I am creating to perform A YAQUI SPRING. “Do what I did. Form your own non-profit and I will help you.” And he has!
Mentorship is a serious thing in the arts taken from old European tradition. I am just now putting these bio dots together. Wealthier families have taken advantage of this system for generations but my own Grandfather was born in a log cabin in NW Ohio. It takes years sometimes to connect dots and to take giant leaps.
How did I transform from writing full-length plays into writing musicals and opera? In 2010 Brad Lyons, Artistic Director, of Timber Lake Playhouse (west of Chicago) gave me some awards and then the Lee Blessing Award and asked me to turn my full-length play about the Yaqui tribe in Tucson into a musical, A YAQUI SPRING. The next year I returned and gave a small workshop with my new libretto and about 6 songs. This began this entire entry into the world of the musical theatre and opera.
Last summer I wrote many songs from May 15 to about July 1, forgetting to eat and sleep. Now I have over 30 works with lyrics and orchestrations. BUT during that time I lost some good high school friends and my boyfriend of 12 years in the process. He finally “lost it” when once again I took off to Manhattan; this time Friday Night FOOTLIGHTS at the Dramatists Guild on Broadway. No, I’m not ready to settle down! I have a brain change like a propulsion lab formed inside my brain and I am compelled by inner forces to hear new sound and to write down harmonies from my inner spaces.
Well, now I am alone. But more “myself” than I have ever been! I think most of you understand about this. Sometimes it takes a long time to connect the dots. I am writing this to you on the 50th Anniversary of “Man Landing on the Moon.” Neil Armstrong was born and raised in Waupauk, Ohio, population 12,000 about 30 miles from my hometown, population 10,333 where I am blogging to you right now. Around me is perfectly flat black soil farm country where it takes years to take giant leaps.
I say take your own “one small step for a woman” and see what happens. Take little steps seen and unseen, but keep on taking them. We are applauding you on this home planet in our world of International Center of Woman Playwrights!
Linda Evans is a US PLAYWRIGHT living and writing in NY, NY; Ohio; and Tucson, AZ: director, MFA in Filmmaking.
A YAQUI SPRING Musical Opera: https://www.lindaevans.org/
America Regional Touring ART, non-profit, 501(c)(3)
How did it feel to be awarded as a finalist in the 2019 O'Neill conference for CRAZY BETTY? Was this the first time you had submitted to the O'Neill conference?
I was stunned when I got the email that I was an O’Neill semi-finalist and then got the next email that I was a finalist (67 out of more than 1400 submissions).
It was absolutely thrilling to be acknowledged by the O’Neill, which is such a prestigious and competitive playwriting conference. It was my first submission to them. I had had a New York reading of CRAZY BETTY, which went very well, and afterwards a playwright friend urged me to submit it to the O’Neill, which had never occurred to me.
CRAZY BETTY was only my second full-length play after years of writing and performing monologues and prose. It seemed a bit audacious, but I am obviously glad I did it.
CRAZY BETTY has been a semifinalist in Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Bechdel Test Festival, and Austin Film and Writers Conference. Would you submit to them again? Any feedback on these festival awards or conferences?
I had submitted before to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and CRAZY BETTY was my second time as a semi-finalist. Having worked in the Bay Area for a long time, I was very familiar with the BAPF and its people, and the way they create a supportive “family” for their playwrights.
It’s a very creative, nurturing environment. I will continue to submit my work to them. The Austin Conference and Bechdel Test were very nice validations of my work, and I will submit my work to them again.
What is next for CRAZY BETTY in its development?
CRAZY BETTY is out there in the world now, being read by numerous artistic directors, directors and other theater people. Obviously, I hope to see Betty and her friends on the stage soon.
Are you currently working on any other submissions, writing, or productions at this time?
Although writing is my passion, submitting my work is an essential part of the process as a playwright. So I make time for both. Right now I am preparing to go back to NYC because my short play “Mama Won’t Stay Dead” is being presented in the 44th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival in August -- another wonderful opportunity and honor.
I am working on revising a new play, “Speak Ill of the Dead” and have submitted the work to various play development opportunities (it was selected as a finalist for Berkeley Rep’s The Ground Floor development program).
I also have begun a new work about five women caregivers gone bad – it’s irreverent, profane, darkly humorous and poignant (I hope). I think I am in the throes of my golden age of creativity and trying to take it in and savor it.
My work is on the NPX and I also have a website: charlottehigginsplaywright.com.
#charlottehiggins #icwp #newplayexchange #newworks #crazybetty #oneill #jessiesalsbury #womenplaywrights #womenInTheatre #theatre
To see the first part of this series, please visit https://womenplaywrights.org/news/7323525
For the 2018 Henley Rose Playwright Competition for women, Elana Gartner's play, Before Lesbians, won the second place award. The top three winners in the competition are performed in a staged reading in Knoxville, Tennessee (USA). Elana's play was performed this summer, so we followed up with her to get her thoughts.
Did you find the experience worth the expense?
As it so happens, I was down in Louisville for my low-residency MFA program at Spalding University just before the reading so it made it much easier to get to. The staff at Henley Rose were very gracious and shuttled me back and forth to the airport and showed me and my parents around Knoxville. We had a tight window of time to experience Knoxville but Kerri made sure that we got to walk around and learn things, in addition to having the reading. As I had never been to Knoxville before, I truly appreciated the extra effort she put in to make me feel welcome and to make the experience positive.
Are you going to do any rewrites of the play based on what you saw?
There are a few nitpicky things that I noticed when we were rehearsing that I will probably fix but no big overarching changes, no.
Would you submit and travel to see it again?
Absolutely! I had a great time meeting Jocelyn Meinhardt (1st place winner) as well as the board members, Damon Boggess and Sara Venable, founding director Kerri Koczen and artistic director, Jessie Gulley.
Was it well organized and well performed as an organization?
The actors performed the piece with great emotion and brought the characters to life in ways that really impacted the audience. I was glad that I was able to sit in on a rehearsal before the performance and invited by the director to voice any concerns or notes.
Did you learn anything new about yourself, your work, or you as an author?
I was curious to see how this particular script would play in Knoxville, given some of its subject matters, dealing with the Civil War as well as lesbian relationships. However, with a title like Before Lesbians, it also seemed unlikely to have agitators attend and we didn't. I have realized that, as my work evolves, I have to start characterizing it a little differently when I am speaking about it. I used to characterize it as simply drama dealing with inner conflict but I have a lot of pieces now that are breaking that mold and playing with time and fantasy.
Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone who may submit to this opportunity?
Submit your best work. Move people. Make sure that you have strong roles for women.
Anything new you've won or had performed since the last time we spoke?
Before Lesbians was a semi-finalist for the 2019 Wordsmyth Theater Company's Reading Series.
For more information on the competition, and to keep an eye on future opportunities, you may sign up for their mailing list at: http://yellowroseproductions.org/henleyrose/
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” — Confucious is given credit for this. For me, it is always my starting point in writing. Discovering I know nothing or very little about a given topic, or group, or object, or anything, is humbling. I feel compelled to face that ignorance, rectifying it by research and learning about the subject that has suddenly caught my attention. Thus, when faced with beloved aged relatives’ increasing senility, I wound up writing “I’m Herbert,” a short piece that’s received multiple readings/performances, and is set for the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis in mid July (www.womenstfmemphis.org).
A competition for a local company resulted in the fantasy “Escaping Ayesha,” while a challenge to write a piece with no complete sentences inspired “In the Mall,” and hearing about people who had been made pen pals in elementary school only meeting physically decades later made “Pen Pals” inevitable. At one point, finding myself wondering about Shakespearian characters before and after the plays, I wrote a series of short Shakespearian prequels and sequels. One, “Twentieth Night,” a sequel (set some eight years later) to “Twelfth Night,” received a reading locally at Stonewall, Columbus:
Karla Rothan and Linda Schuler, who starred in Twentieth Night
Another, “Wishing Witches,” brings the characters from the Scottish Play into the present, where one of the sisters demands they replace the cauldron with a slow cooker.
Still another Shakespearean take-oﬀ has Ophelia at the used chariot lot, having persuaded Osric to take her father’s place behind the arras. “Rosaline’s Nurse” has the nurse inform Romeo’s jilted lover, Rosaline, of what has taken place, to her incredulous response.
In “Downstairs at Elsinore,” Ethel, the daughter of the King of the Penzance Pirates arrives, the Pirates having been hired as entertainment for the wedding feast of Claudius and Gertrude. In “What Shall We Do About Daddy?,” Lear’s three daughters work out a plan to deal with his increasing dementia. And in “Viking Hamlet,” Hamlet is in prison; Fortinbras keeps him incommunicado and has put out that he’s dead so as to prevent any eﬀort to put him on the throne. He’s visited by Horatio and learns that he’s to be set free so that he can raid England and Scotland, to try to prevent them from uniting. One small thing: he has to dye his hair red and take on a new persona, as “Erik the Red” so that Fortinbras can deny that Denmark has anything to do with the raids.
Concern about the nuclear arms race early in the present century led to “Last Call,” set in a Canadian bar —the nuclear holocaust having raised radioactive clouds that have already begun wiping out all life —as two guys take in one last drink as they consider impending doom. It was performed as part of the Asphalt Shorts Festival in Kitchener, Ontario, in September, 2006. Great thanks to Paddy Gillard-Bentley, the Artistic Director of Flush Inks Productions, producer of the Festival.
“The Danish” premiered as part of “Family Foibles” at the Heritage Theatre Company in Bend, Oregon, and as part of “Dessert Plays” at the Maple Grove Players in Columbus, both in 2008, and was included in rotating repertory by the Soup’s On Players, Lubbock, Texas, March through September 2011. It treats an elderly man who discovers his accustomed breakfast of 60 years is about to change because his wife has heard that longevity can be increased through diet. And memories of being in a method-acting class while I was in college inspired “At Madame Rastinovina’s” — sitting in class watching fellow first-year folks exploring sense memories and thinking to myself, “We’re all 18. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that Helen Mansfield wouldn’t go to the prom with me. Don’t think that’ll help me much with finding the subtext in Hamlet.”
In the 1990s, I also got involved with Senior Theatre USA, a now defunct but inspirational group dedicated to creating work for older performers that avoided the standard cliches — pieces where older characters were either somebody’s senile grandfather, awfully bitchy mother-in-law, or saccharinely incompetent uncle or aunt. “Not the Delany Sisters” came out of that sensitivity, after working on a local production of “Having Our Say,” a very good play, but one whose sentimentality just got to me. That relationship grew into hosting a festival for senior theatre folks here in Columbus, with writers’ retreats and local performers reading works-in-progress, which proved very popular. “Senior Cruise” was written for that festival; it involves a group of seniors all on the hunt for new relationships on a cruise down the Mississippi. The Eileen Heckart Competition for plays featuring older performers, named for the Columbus native who inspired many with her performances of senior characters (https://library.osu.edu/collections/spec.tri.ehdfsc), also involved readings of the winning plays.
“Limbo, Ohio,” a sequel to that famous play about a dying salesman, places Willy in Limbo; arguing against the premise that suicides can’t make it into paradise.
Limbo, Ohio 2008
All my scripts are available at www.alanwoods.org; I’ve been fortunate, having works performed as either readings or staged productions on every continent with the exception of Antarctica — so if anyone knows any penguin theatre troupes, send info.
That’s pretty much it, except for this final note regarding wonderful experiences I’ve had over the past decades. It has been terrific working with both writers and students. Pairing honor students with playwrights in an intro to theatre class, for example, where the students got to explore all the usual subjects with an actual writer; it was exciting for the students, while the playwrights were ecstatic to have an eager young mind hanging on their every word — and thought! So glad I got into education after my service in the military! I had been working oﬀ-oﬀ Broadway theatre in New York, and could see a future in it, when I was drafted. But since the live theatre wasn’t very interesting by the time of my discharge (things change!), I opted for graduate school (USC) and wound up in Columbus, teaching and running a research collection, and working with theatre legends convincing them to leave their collections — among them, Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Twyla Tharp — but that’s all another story, for another time. I’ll just include this one special moment in connection with the Dramatists’ Guild’s Margo Jones Award when, in 2008, I got to escort Janet Waldo, Lee’s widow, known in her own right as the voice of Judy Jetson and Penelope Pitstop (among many others in her career as a preminent voice artist).
Janet Waldo and Alan Woods at the presentation.
Alan Woods is a playwright, dramaturg, and teacher. He can be contacted through his website: www.alanwoods.org
During the past few days I’ve been catching up with the second season of the Royal Court Theatre’s Playwright’s Podcast. Even though I’m not familiar with (i.e. haven’t read or seen the work of) all the playwrights on the podcast I find it both inspiring and liberating listening to them talk about their work, about theatre and writing, about how they got there.
It‘s similar to the feeling I had when taking part in World Interplay in 2007 and for the first time met people my own age who wrote for theatre. It was a mix of joy and relief. Interestingly both of these experiences are distanced from my day-to-day life, by geography, language and culture.
But perhaps that’s part of that strange feeling of relief, knowing that my baggage (or lack thereof) doesn’t count, people are reacting to me as a person, and to my texts as texts. In a way it’s like being allowed a new beginning. But that wasn’t what I intended to write about.
One of the questions that keeps popping up in this series of the podcast is what the writer’s first and last (i.e. current) script have in common.
Since it isn’t very likely I’ll be invited onto the podcast I’ll just go ahead and ask myself that question, because I think it is really interesting, and it is a different way of thinking about my own writing and the stories I’m drawn to and keep (re)telling.
Giving full time writing a go, until my savings run out, has given me the need to as well as the space to think about my writing and myself as a writer, as a playwright, as a storyteller.
My first play (which isn’t actually the first play I wrote but for different reasons it’s become my “first” play in the story of me as a writer) was a story about suicide.
I wrote it in my teens and it got produced by a local student theatre group when I was 17 years old, it was about half an hour long and had four characters (well, six characters, but two of them were a technical necessity and I didn’t have the tools to solve the problem in any other way than bringing characters onstage).
The play starts with a young girl taking her last breaths and dying and her older sister finding her dead. From there the play follows the two sisters, the younger one stuck in a sort of purgatory, constantly questioned and almost bullied by a man in black (cliché, I know, but I’ve forgiven my 16 year old self for not knowing that at the time), and the older sister who goes through a series of session with her psychologist.
The younger sister is questioned about her suicide while the older sister tries to come to terms with the younger sister’s decision to end her own life. In the end they both move on, in different ways, and one perhaps towards a more calm future than the other.
My most recent play, the play I’m working on at the moment, is a play that’s been with me for years and years. It’s a story about a women in her 30s losing both parents and having to deal with the inheritance left her, her own emotional connection to the place she grew up in and starting her own family.
I can’t really say anything else about it because I don’t really know, and it might all change in the current re-write. But what struck me when I started thinking about what these two plays have in common is that they are about dealing, successfully or unsuccessfully, with trauma, about moving on with your life, or trying to.
What’s even more interesting is that when I think about other plays I’ve written the same theme seems to be present there too. Not in all plays, by no means, but enough of them for me to think that maybe that is one of the stories, or questions, problems, I’ve been coming back to again and again since I first started writing plays over 15 years ago. Writing this I’ve realised that another thing they have in common is issues with time, but that’s for another time.
Now, if somebody had asked me “What do you write about?” or “What are your themes as a writer?” I probably wouldn’t have come up with this answer, I probably wouldn’t have come up with an answer at all to be honest.
It just goes to show that sometimes you need somebody to ask you the right question.
And that it isn’t always the answer that’s the point, sometimes looking for it is more rewarding than finding it, as nothing is ever permanent but keeps shifting as you move through life while the world around you moves too.
Hanna is a playwright, translator and dramaturg living and working in Swedish in Finland. Current projects include a opera libretto based on a childrens' book, a series for radio and a stage play.
I tell this story often and from different perspectives – the story about how theater saved my life in the early 1980s, during my last years in my native Romania, then a brutal dictatorship.
How it lifted me above the oppressive grayness filled with terror and myriads material and spiritual deprivations and it gave me a sense of purpose and even joy. This episode of my life never loses its relevance and over time it has acquired almost a life of its own.
Now I want to give it a different twist and look at it from the perspective of feminist aesthetics and connect it to some aspects of the American theater scene that I believe to be lacking.
Exile Is My Home. A Sci-fi Immigrant Fairy Tale, by Domnica Radulescu. The Theater for the New City, New York, NY. April 28-May 22, 2016. Directed by Andreas Robertz. Original music score by Alexander Tanson. pictured clockwise from left: Nikaury Rodriguez, Mirandy Rodriguez, Noemi De la Puente. Photography – OneHeart Productions
In my second year as a student at the University of Bucharest, I joined a theater called The Attic, because it was housed literally in the attic of the headquarters of the Romanian Communist Youth, and whose artistic director modeled the practice on the work of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and his Poor Theater.
I played several small parts in different plays, some Romanian, others in translation. But the one experience that changed my life in profound ways and has stayed with me throughout both my personal and professional life as teacher and creative artist is a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days whose female protagonist, Winnie, is buried to her waist in a mound of earth during the first Act and up to her neck in the second Act.
This was supposed to be a women’s project that the artistic director had entrusted his assistant director to develop with a group of the women actors in the theater, including myself. However, we were four women actors, and there is only one female protagonist.
That didn’t prevent our female director, to divide Winnie’s character into four different characters, each representing a different facet of the role. We did away with the mound of earth both from practical and artistic reasons. We made the play our own and attempted to suggest Winnie’s entrapment through other stage means, such as stacking chairs around the actors at different times.
Foreign literature in translation trickled into our highly censored state at a pretty good pace, escaping the scrutiny of the party and secret police particularly if it was in the genre of the absurd, or the surreal which Beckett’s play certainly is.
However, no other details of production from Western Europe reached us, so we had no idea of Beckett’s fierce strictness in terms of respecting his text to its last diacritic and stage direction. We wouldn’t have cared anyways. Living under so many rules, of which most were more absurd than the theater of the absurd itself, we delighted in breaking them any chance we had.
We practiced long hours into the night with irrepressible passion and engaged in what today would be called devised feminist theater, as actors and director, we all collaborated in bringing the final show to its premiere. To me the opening night and the shows we had afterwards were incandescent, freeing, transformative and they touched me for life.
Working with a group of women actors and a woman director in complete artistic collaboration, searching through our own personal experiences as women and bringing them to our different sides of the role, devising innovative stage actions allowed me to grow both as a woman and as an artist.
Now fast forward some three and a half decades later, to the person I am now: a university professor of Comparative Literature, theater director, playwright and novelist in the United States where I arrived as a political refugee in 1983. Theater has remained a constant and a life savior throughout all my years in this country.
I do not live in New York, considered the Mecca of American Theater, I no longer live in Chicago from where I moved 25 years ago to the small town in Virginia for a university job that I still hold to this day, but I have traveled copiously throughout the United States and different parts of the world.
Wherever I go I always look for theaters, shows, performances. I always carry Winnie with me in my carry on suitcase and I often use that experience as a measure of comparison to the other theatrical experiences I have, be it in New York, Paris, Chicago, Minneapolis, Belgrade, in my native Bucharest where I have been returning on a regular basis, or in smaller cities in the US or abroad.
I usually ask myself the same questions whenever I see a new show: is it theatrically innovative in ways which bring out to its fullest the potential of the actors’ bodies on stage, is the space used creatively, are there interesting, complex, multilayered female roles in it, are women’s bodies, voices, stories center stage?
I have of course assimilated much feminist and performance theory, since the Winnie in the Attic days when we couldn’t have cared less whether our show was feminist or not, as feminism was not even part of our daily vocabulary.
And much as Rita Anderson has beautifully articulated it in the previous blog article, “Fighting for a Female Sentence,” I too am always struggling to find, promote and/or create myself theater that not only brings center stage women’s experiences and voices in intersectional ways, but that equally embodies these voices in new aesthetics, a feminist aesthetics.
How a story is told is at least as important as what the story is about. Feminist theater aesthetics, with non-linear narratives and plots, with discourses emerging from woman “writing woman” and woman “writing her self,” and her body which “must be heard,”as Helene Cixous beautifully puts it in her “Laugh of the Medusa,” theatrical forms and languages quivering with feminist humor that subverts and bursts the self important bubbles of sexism and “upstage Big Daddy” of canonical discourses as Gay Gibson Cima has shown, languages which in the apt words of Judy Little “carnivalize the sentence,” and that choose “the margin as a space of radical openness” in the inspired words of bell hooks – all this is largely absent from main stream American Theater or an oddity at best.
The revered New York theater scene of the Broadway and off Broadway shows and musicals, or the main stream theaters of say Chicago, Washington DC, the likes of Steppenwolf or Arena Stage Theater still largely indulge in traditional theatrical forms, linear plots, stages filled to excess with a ballast of realistic sets and objects.
Exile Is My Home. A Sci-fi Immigrant Fairy Tale, by Domnica Radulescu. Pictured clockwise from left: Vivienne Jurado, A. B. Lugo, Nikaury Rodriguez, David van Leesten, Mirandy Rodriguez, Noemi de la Puente, Mario Golden. Photography – OneHeart Productions
There are a handful of New York theater spaces that have satisfied my appetite for such feminist innovative aesthetics and that are also affordable for most regular people, including the many striving artists of the city: Ellen Stuart’s brilliant creation of the La MaMa theater, the New York Theater Workshop, the Women’s Theater Project, or the Theater for the New City where I had the honor of having my own play Exile Is My Home. A Sci-fi Immigrant Fairy Tale produced under the startlingly creative and feminist direction of Andreas Robertz.
But these spaces and theater practices are still considered by the masses of theater goers as the “weird” shows, the “political” in the bad sense of the word shows in opposition to the “entertaining” ones. Their actors and directors are barely or not paid at all.
We All Have the Same Story, by Franca Rame, directed by Domnica Radulescu. National Theater of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, January 2009. Diana Rosca
To each Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel or Susan Lori Parks that makes it to the top or in the center stages of American Theater, and very deservedly so, there are however scores of women theater artists whose works never get past a first round of readers who might consider their plays not “well-constructed” enough, or ‘strident” or “confusing,” and such readers, sadly often include women too.
It is not the playwrights and the theater artists that drive the market, it is the market that too often drives the art. And it is the same market that thus drives the public tastes and the theater education. Too often students’ only idea of theater when they first arrive into one of my theater or women and gender studies classes is either a Shakespeare play or a Broadway musical.
They are startled to discover lesser known, American or International theater works or forms of theater making: women’s monologues by Franca Rame, plays and performances by Deb Margolin, plays of Sarah Kane, the feminist DAH theater in Belgrade that emerged as a response to the genocidal war of the nineties, or one of my own plays.
At first they may be reluctant, shocked or even uneasy to enter into such disruptive, or zany universes which they sometimes call “all over the place” or “confusing.” With discussions and collaborative, devising work and techniques, they invariably end up inhabiting these universes with the joy of discovery.
The Presence of Absence; DAH Theater, Belgrade, directed by Dijana Milojevic; devised by DAH Theater Ensemble photos by Dijana Milojevic, October-December 2013.From left to right, clockwise: Maja Vukovic, Sanja Krsmanović Tasić, Nemanja Ajdačić (man with violin, also composer of violin music). An example of DAH Theater’s ability to create visually startling moments and even beauty while bearing witness to the grief caused by the disappearance of people and the need of survivors to tell their stories.
In the darkest years of Communist Romania, we created our Winnie show with only a few of the chairs that were our only movable set pieces in the theater, with sheets, props and costumes we found among our own meager possessions.
Yet, the entire experience felt rich, enriching, incandescent and glorious. Andreas Robertz, directed my play in the smallest basement theater space of the iconic Theater for the New City, on “a shoe string,” as the saying goes, with minimal set, but with extraordinary actors and inventiveness, bringing out the best of the feminist theater languages of my play.
He made sure the cast embodied the very diversity of my characters and created a universe in which the margins became “spaces of radical openness,” as my two protagonists, a lesbian couple, traversed the galaxies and dystopian landscapes, some very similar to our own earthly spaces, in desperate search for a home.
When the play opened, three years ago almost to the day, I was the same age as the Winnie I had played as a young woman. I would have never imagined then that our production would remain a model of theatrical inventiveness, and feminist art, or that one day my own play would be produced in a very similar manner in no other than New York City, but that such experimentation is to this day more of a rarity than a common occurrence in the theater world.
Were we ahead of our time out of desperation, or is the American art world slow if not stagnant in terms of allowing ex-centric forms and voices to have a full seat at the table?
I honestly do not know how to answer these questions in ways that would not lead me to either hopelessness or anger. But I do know that if I keep listening to Winnie’s urges I can at least get solace and by achieving even temporary solace, I can keep going, fighting, singing in my own voice.
"No, something must move, in the world, I can’t any more. A zephyr. A breath. I hear cries. Sing. Sing your old song, Winnie. Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day.” (Samuel Beckett, Happy Days!)
Domnica Radulescu is an American writer of Romanian origin, living in the United States where she arrived in 1983 as a political refugee. She has chosen English as the language of her written expression in all her nonfiction, fiction and dramatic works.
She lives, functions and writes in the hyphenated spaces between cultures, languages and artistic universes. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Train to Trieste (Knopf 2008 &2009), Black Sea Twilight (Transworld 2011 & 2012) and Country of Red Azaleas (Hachette 2016) and of award winning plays, of which Exile Is My Home was produced off off Broadway, at the Theater for the New City in New York, in 2016 and received the Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Cast Award from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors.
Her first novel Train to Trieste was translated into thirteen languages and received the Best Fiction Award from the Library of Virginia in 2009. She is twice a Fulbright scholar and winner of the 2011 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State of Virginia.
She is Distinguished Service Professor of Comparative Literature at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
The Henley Rose Playwright Competition for Women was founded by Yellow Rose Productions, with permission of Beth Henley, to encourage and recognize the new works of female playwrights. The Henley Rose Playwright Competition seeks to honor both the writings of Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley and those of future winners of the Henley Rose Award.
Submissions are received July 1st of every year and capped at 200. It is a submission with a fee, but it is waived for Dramatists Guild members. You can find more information on the competition here: http://yellowroseproductions.org/henleyrose/
Ellen Wittlinger was a finalist in the 2018 competition with her play THE SUMMER DRESS.
How did you hear about the Henley Rose Playwright competition?
I first heard about it through the Minnesota Playwright’s Center where I’m a member.
Is it something you would submit to again?
What types of plays or work do you write?
I started out as a poet, I segued to fiction, started writing plays in my late 20s. But soon I had two young children and it didn’t seem possible to do the kind of unpaid travel all across the country that was the prerequisite for getting a career going in playwriting….But I'm older now and can afford to "retire" from writing for children, so about 4 years ago I went back to writing plays. That was always my first love and still is.
At this point I'm trying lots of things, some traditional 2 act comedies, full-length dramatic pieces, a hybrid of those two, some one-acts, and some 10-minute plays. These have primarily been more traditional kinds of plays, but I'm hoping to try writing something more experimental now as well.
Are there any other conferences or competitions that you have been a winner or finalist for that you have enjoyed or been a part of?
I've only been sending things out for about a year and I'm just figuring out what to send where. I was a semi-finalist with a 10-minute play at The Actor's Studio of Newburyport in Massachusetts last year. In my earlier playwriting days I was also a finalist for Ensemble Studio Theatre's one-act competition.
I just found out another of my full-length plays, LEFTOVERS, is a finalist for the New Works Festival at the Garry Marshall Theatre in LA. I'd love to be able to go to that!
Melissa Bell’s play LADY CAPULET was a Henley Rose finalist in 2017.
How did you hear about the Henley Rose competition? What led you to submit?
I saw the Henley Rose competition on a listing of submission opportunities. I had spent the year writing, workshopping and revising LADY CAPULET and felt that it was in a good place, so I began submitting it for various opportunities. With the Henley Rose Competition for Women I felt I had a level playing field. There is an incredible bias in the theatre world for plays written by men with men as the central character and women in supporting and subjugated roles. I often don’t submit to competitions with fees, but the fee was waived for members of the Dramatist Guild, which I am. As emerging playwrights, we need to submit to competitions, not just to win, but to have our work read by the judges, who then become familiar with us and our work.
As a finalist, you had to beat out 200 submissions. What do you think is captivating about your script that got you to the finalist level?
For a play to work, the stakes must be high. The characters need to have skin in the game. No one in LADY CAPULET is passive, everyone is active; each character wants or needs something from another, especially the lead character, Rose. The play begins with a sexual betrayal, and Rose is driven by a tremendous secret as we follow her journey from budding country girl to powerful Lady of Verona. Rose is more like Richard III than Juliet in her actions to get what she needs.
Moreover, the premise of the play, “what caused the feud” of Shakespeare’s most well-known play, peaks people’s interest. They know there is a feud in Romeo and Juliet, but no one knows what caused it--he doesn’t say. Once Rose makes up her mind to be a player rather than to be played, the audience knows they’re in for a rollercoaster ride.
Would you encourage other playwrights to submit to this competition?
There are few opportunities for women playwrights that provide a forum for our unique voices to be heard. The Henley Rose competition is one. I would encourage women to submit a play that has had some early developmental work, such as a reading, dramaturgical feedback and several rounds of revisions. Submit something that is well-cooked. With only 200 submissions, you have a pretty good shot.
What types of plays do you write?
I create new works for the stage grounded in plot-driven storytelling, featuring a strong yet flawed woman as the central character. These women are active participants in their world who want something more than their current social or gender experience allows them. I am interested in re-imagining and responding to classic themes and texts. I don’t write straight adaptations; I use a source text as a jumping off point and respond to it, pushing it forward rather than looking backwards.
I am increasingly aware that as playwrights we need to differentiate our work in theatre from that of film and television, and that is through “theatricality.” To that end, I belong to a physical-theatre group, Farm Arts Collective, which devises short performance pieces on conservation and social issues, touring at festivals and conventions in the Catskill region. This type of work goes against my inclination to write scenes with “three people in a room.” Writing a scene for a group of people walking on stilts teaches a lot about theatricality.
How do you feel the Henley Rose competition help your play in its development to this point?
When I saw that LADY CAPULET was a finalist, besides being thrilled, I felt incredibly validated as a writer. The Henley Rose Competition's only agenda is to support women playwrights.
The competition is about the work and whether the play is good on its own terms. I knew that people enjoyed LADY CAPULET, but I didn’t know if it was a good play. Being a finalist means I have one unbiased confirmation that LADY CAPULET is stage worthy and worth an audience’s time to watch. Luckily, Emily Gallagher, Artistic Director at Barefoot Shakespeare, agrees. It will be presented free and open to the public at Summit Rock (W 83rd St & CPW) in NYC’s Central Park by Barefoot Shakespeare, August 22nd to September 1st 2019, and is available to download on the New Play Exchange. Additionally, I was an honored Finalist for Women in the Arts & Media Coalition’s 2019 Collaboration Award for COURAGE, produced by NACL Theatre.
Recently, I ran a theatre salon in Cincinnati where one of the participants—an academic and an aspiring playwright—told me a disturbing experience she had had in a writing class. “One of the gentlemen, mind you, wrote about women who had been left behind by their fishermen husbands and brothers. The instructor told him (and the class), ‘You’ve missed the boat. The story’s out there,’” pointing, I assume, to where the men-of-action lived offstage.
This story now comes to mind when I hear women who select plays for theater seasons and competitions criticize female playwrights for “not writing like their male counterparts” or for “failing” to create female characters that are “active,” only “reactionary.” It’s not that these female artistic directors are trying to pick all male writers—but they are trying to pick a “solid” season that comes together in a thematic or unified way. This approach will, yes, identify and reward women writers who are good mimics, amongst other things, writers who have perfected the male sound, the male play, the male sentence.
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In the first part of this discussion on why achieving gender parity in theatre continues to be so problematic, I argued that women have been conditioned to adopt male patterns of thinking, reading (i.e. the world as well as texts), and writing. Assuming a male writer’s primary crisis is a tendency to emulate his favorites and that women writers search for such heroes in her own likeness but don’t find them and so suffer an “anxiety of authorship,” with so little women’s writing preserved or cherished as literary legacies who could her heroes be and where might they be found?
If a woman traditionally “surrenders” her natural forms to comply with institutional male models (and by this, I mean the metaphors, language, and structure women might have used instinctively to shape her stories), then how does “she” recover that, after assimilation? Can she? Having learned how to codify: to decode her female nature and encode male logic, language, and strategies, can she return to an informed innocence—in order to re-shape her experience? [As girls, we had to code through the universal “he” to share in much of the written word.]
Photo by Bohdan Maylove on Unsplash
“Herstory,” then, is really about trying to un-imagine the damage of that impact and, as stories are made of smaller units called “sentences,” this re-imagining must include a valuing of a female sentence. Not only must the culture deem “her” stories important, but also it has to recognize her way of telling a story--the words she chooses and how rhythmically or circuitously she strings them together to form meaning. What if her style isn’t linear?
What, then, might her sentence look like—had it lived freely to spawn female libraries and literary canons to influence us? This is what I’m asking. This is the sentence I am after, hers. What is her sentence and how is it different from the standard stock and trade? Will you recognize it, if and when you hear it? Is it a welcome addition to what should be a growing lexicon, syntax, and pallet of voices, voices and words, words and ways of speaking and storytelling? Or will the Otherness irritate because it goes against all that training, consciously or unwillingly, you’ve internalized?
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If we’ve debunked the myth that female playwrights are rare and if women comprise 52% of the world’s population, then why aren’t women’s plays, naturally, selected at least half of the time, even now? Are her stories consistently subpar—or could it be her sentence or storytelling blueprint that is different? Will her content and the structure she comes up with to carry her message alienate you, if she deviates from the “norm”? They may—but couldn’t you learn to “hear” it her way, adjusting to her storytelling methods? Her style may not be simple or clearly straightforward but comprised of sentences that curl into a story that circles. Curling sentences and circling stories that repeat to redefine and reinforce through repetition.
We love to discuss diversity (over uniformity) and a multiverse (instead of a universe) but, seriously, what if her sentence isn’t his economy of words? Or if her style “fails” to replicate his focus on action—making her stance a “reactive” posture, which thereby “reduces her characters to inert followers”? And if her concerns for community aren’t things the standard models value?
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Who hasn’t memorized--into the fiber of our consciousness--what that aesthetic is in literature? Perhaps not the novices, emerging playwrights who aren’t yet expert impersonators. This notion is confirmed when “Bitter Gertrude,” whose posts I enjoy, blogs that 75% of the playwrights her theatre produces are men and how hard it is to find new, female playwrights who don’t make the same “beginner’s mistake. Their characters suffer a lethal passivity and don’t have active desires. This is only a problem [with] emerging female playwrights. [V]eteran, more established women writers write active main characters, just like their male counterparts.” There is no incentive then for women to try and think outside this box so how will “she” find more organic ways to produce meaning? Will we ever achieve accepted and esteemed “alternative discourses”?
Virginia Woolf wrote, “However much we may go to the work of male artists for pleasure, it is difficult to go to them for finding a voice,” and I’m not sure how much has truly changed on this front in the century since. I’ll need to write my dissertation, however, to develop this argument into its truest potential, but I will finish here with these thoughts. My frame of reference changed 20 years ago when I read Luce Irigaray (“This Sex Which is Not One”), Ann Rosalind Jones (“Writing the Body”), Helene Cixous (“Why so few texts? Because so few women have as yet won back their body”) and others. Ideas about “renversement” as a process and as a worthwhile, final product. That it’s important to keep blowing up an idea with questions, not always aiming to answer them—and I don’t mean that dismissively or to suggest that art can just be a hot mess with no craft involved.
My argument for learning to identify what a woman’s sentence might look like isn’t one in support of an anything-goes approach devoid of merit, artistic method, or a stylized talent. It is about multiplicity, building up, including. How? I don’t have those answers. Why? Because we can’t just release young women back into the wild and tell them that, after years of acculturated evisceration, “It’s okay to throw like a girl now. Take it back. Reclaim those words and what they mean.” We have to show her the ways she can #FightLikeAGirl and #WriteLikeAGirl. But first? First, we must help her find her sentence. Why? Because to cure rot you must diagnose it from its point of origin. Culturally, we can slap down new linoleum but the floorboards will groan until we rip them up and replace them—maybe even go so far as to reconfigure the floor plan. In a less-linear fashion.
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Rita Anderson is an award-winning playwright and poet. She has an MFA Creative Writing and an MA Playwriting. Contact Rita through her website: http://www.rita-anderson.com/index.html
Read more about Rita in her member profile.
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