Former Presidents of ICWP, Jenni Munday and Paddy Gillard-Bentley, launch the ICWP Centre Stage Podcast .
Jenni ( pictured left) Interviewed Paddy about her play " Accidental Fish" (subtitled Coping With Life Badly).
Paddy reads an excerpt from the play and talks about what inspired her to write it.
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I strive to create plays to find the commonality as much as the distinctiveness, inherent in all of our “life detours” – finding that universality is what makes me “tick!” The community aspect of theatre has always been tremendously important to me. A month after being discharged from the Columbia Presbyterian Surgical ICU, I joined a local theatre’s production of Oliver, to once again immerse myself experience of being part of a community ensemble, and creating theatre together - a driving passion that anchored my childhood.
When I was a child, the arts were my passion and identity. Later, when my traumas occurred, they became my lifeline. I grew up all my life in theatre. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality. Theatre was my language I could access to truly know who I was, no matter what was going on in my life, and I was singing, dancing, acting and creating from the time I could talk. I lived my life believing I would carve a beautiful career out for myself in the world of musical theatre, be on Broadway, and conquer the world.
My community experience as a playwright would come years later through an unexpected detour, which started as purposeful isolation. For years, I was seeking to find that universality within the confines of my bedroom, barricaded from the outside world, while I waited six years for my digestive system to be reconstructed. My creativity was spawned from an abnormal period of medical isolation. Only after I regained my health, and ability to digest food, could I re-experience the magic that comes from working with others. Playwriting granted me creative ownership, launching me back into society as a storyteller, rather than a victim, and storytellers thrive in community. I realized that creating theatre could facilitate healing for both the artist and audience, as they engage with the story. Theatre was a “great equalizer” which created a common language, and bridged divides.
Because of my coma, I ended up attending college as a 25-year-old, and just graduated at age 30. My senior year at Hampshire College, I had the opportunity to apply to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theatre Institute, where I studied devising performance, playwriting, stagecraft, puppetry, composition, and a range of skills that were new to me. But the greatest new exposure was devising theatre with other artists, from a range of backgrounds, passions and perspectives to create theatre based in found objects, reimagined texts, collaboratively generated themes and other group-formulated prompts, given a steady focus through a shared love of creativity and theatremaking.
Studying through the National Theater Institute, forming comraderies and connections through this guiding passion which aligned all of us, made me feel more connected to myself, my world, and theatre’s possibilities. Our company told stories through mixed media art, movement, music, and text to make reimagined meaning from our own personal detours.
Being part of this community was an extraordinary opportunity to bring ideas to fruition, generate new ones, and collaborate in a risk-taking, supportive environment. I’ve lived and breathed theatre as my own life force through the ups and downs of my traumas– but this air was richer and much easier breathed when with others! Becoming a part of NTI, where I could develop this passion in the company of like-minded artists, was the greatest gift. Never had I felt so part of the world.
Now, I’m passionate about creating theatre that keeps this channel of communication open, challenging ideas, and cultivating compassion. I’ve learned that, just as healing, and cultivating this compassion, cannot take place in a vacuum, neither can true theatre, and that I could greatly benefit from the chance to both give and receive feedback on new work, as I did at National Theater Institute. It became a privilege to share and hear excerpts of work with peers, and to learn from the O’Neill staff and guest artists. With no end to my overflow of ideas, the months spent at the prolific theatre-making hub provided the time and support to not only cement them, but fuse them with the ideas of others, creating a final theatrical product that none of us could have anticipated. Coming away from this experience, I gained connection, collaborative tools to further focus my vision, and the diversity to add perspective to my artistic intentions.
Within this group of passionate young artists, I felt comfortable taking the risks needed, to discover that theatre must be lived and worked through, not lying dormant on a laptop. I witnessed firsthand how theatre can challenge ideas, create compassion and bring out the stories that unite us all. Through the transformative power of writing and theatre, we feel heard, gain clarity and can problem-solve. As creators and audience members choose to create and interact with the space and one another through theatre, they engage in a vital conversation on how we view obstacles.
I learned that, just as Patty sings in my play, LEFTOVERS, “The Only Time That I’m Real is When I’m Singing,” the only time that I’m real, is when I am creating in the presence of others.
I got to be surrounded by this unfathomable creative energy I’ve never felt with such intensity. At the O’Neill, we did everything, literally all day long and sometimes through the night – playwriting, composing, directing, acting, singing, devising, sharing, moving, feeling, and creating some more. It’s amazing how collaboration, and connecting with the hearts, minds, souls, and passions of others can make you feel like you’ll never run out of creativity, energy, stimulation or time. My favorite part of being at NTI was participating in a theatre lab every week. Every week, we would be assigned an excerpt from a play or musical, new, old, or in between. Although eventually our schedule became too jam-packed to keep it going, upon arriving, I tried to journal as much as I could.
Here’s what I wrote the first day:
“This is going to be amazing. It took nearly three hours to introduce everyone, because everyone is so amazing and wonderful to get to know. These were passionate, connected, present, truthful stories of why theatre was so important to all of these people – and all for extremely diverse reasons. Who knew this would be a spiritual experience. The grounds are so gorgeous here, and we’re surrounded by a quaint, New England town. I see the pianos hooked up to composition software, and I immediately get roused with that spark in me that wants to try composing again...and everything else! I feel home, with a family I’ve always sensed, somehow, but have never actually experienced.”
Collaboration forced me to surrender my preconceived notions of what I felt my play “should be about.” Community brought clarity to my work, and let others into a play that started out as “dense fruitcake.” I learned that I didn’t have to always be the “lone survivor” that made it through unimaginable hardship. It was okay to collaborate – in theatre and in life. This community experience ended as the greatest lesson of all: Theatre grants us the clear space to spark new ideas with others.
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.
By Amy Drake
You’ve worked really hard to hone your craft and set your sites on reaching the next level. Now what? You need a game plan. Even when we playwrights have gotten a play accepted at a theater we often find ourselves cast in the role of producer. My play, SOMEWHERE I CAN SCREAM, is going up at The Players Theatre in April 2020. It is now late December and I have many things to do before opening night, but I will share with you my steps to getting there, current tasks, and work to be done.
Ask yourself if your script is really ready. Even if your play has already been produced you may want to look for ways to improve the script before submitting it to the theater you really, really want to have stage it. SOMEWHERE had a successful run in Ohio, where it is set, but I had my sights set on a New York run. So, I sent the script to trusted colleagues, script doctors if you will, Clifford Lee Johnson III before the Ohio run, and Eric Webb before submitting the play to The Players Theatre in New York. The critique and suggestions of both improved the play significantly, and as I work with the director it is still undergoing changes.
Look to your contacts to make a connection with the theater of your choice. Who do you know who could arrange an introduction for you with the artistic director? Set a meeting for coffee to find out what types of plays the theater is looking for and consider how your play might be a good fit before making a pitch. Another approach is to contact an ally at the theater who could read your play and make a recommendation to the artistic director. A third approach is to get involved with the theater and let them know that you have plays available for production. What all of these methods have in common is a personal connection. Theater, like any other business, is about people working with people.
Go within your professional networks to build your creative team. I am in the early stages of this process, but have already found a wonderful director, Kevin Davis, through mutual membership in Ken Davenport’s Producer’s PRO Inner Circle, now called The Theater Makers Studio. Think of the recommendations of your colleagues as testimonials of professionalism for those who could work together harmoniously. I believe it is a good idea to work collaboratively: when professionals come together on a project, the project improves, often in unexpected ways.
Marketing is essential to building your audience and now there are so many ways of promoting a show. Begin with creating a Facebook page and building a website. Not a graphic designer? Hire someone to build the web site for you. It is your online business card and essential for professionals in today’s business world. Build an email list, post on Facebook and Instagram, which has a substantial user base.
Create content to take your followers on the journey of producing your show through videos, blogs, articles, and posts. Get the buy-in of everyone on the project to taps into their own social media platforms to promote the show: the reach to potential ticket buyers grows rapidly. Consider buying Facebook ads. Don’t forget traditional methods, such as print ads, distribution of hot cards, and cross promotion with related businesses, such as dinner packages with restaurants including tickets for your show.
Coordinate efforts with the theater: Michael Sgouros and Brenda Bell at The Players Theatre have been enormously helpful and supportive. Look for promotion opportunities such as writing guest articles and blogs for theater groups with a large following, give interviews and do podcasts. Consider radio and television advertising. When you’ve gotten your show to this level and need some help with bookings you may consider it worthwhile to hire a press agent or marketing agency to arrange bookings for you.
As we look toward holding auditions in a few weeks, there is much work to be done and we only just getting started. It’s very exciting. Position yourself for success by putting together the right team to bring your play to life.
Amy Drake is a playwright and author. Please join her arts marketing Facebook group, Toot Your Own Horn, to share your ideas and suggestions for promoting plays and musicals.
LOVING OUR CHARACTERS (Part I)
By June Guralnick
Cupid’s arrow “pierced my heart like a red-hot dagger.” (Touché! I’ve wanted to use E.T.A. Hoffman’s sizzling cliché since I first learned how to spell ‘metaphor’!) And the cause of my lovesick state, you ask?
Kilt-wearing, sword-wielding, “Jamie” MacKenzie Fraser in Diana Galbadon’s Outlander books (played by Sam Heughan in the heart-palpitating Starz series adaptation). Even as I write this, I feel an avalanche of roiling emotions (embarrassment, self-disgust, amusement, and oh my – lust!) for committing the unpardonable sin of falling in love with a fictional character.
Society tolerates – in fact, encourages – children’s adoration of imaginary characters (called fictiophilia). Proof? More than five hundred million Harry Potter books have sold and Little Women has been in print since 1868. But fictiophilia-afflicted adults? Tagged “sick losers” - and bundled in with the porn addicts!
Eager to avoid that sticky purgatory ☺ - I decided to investigate just how abnormal it is to fall in love with a fictional character, and explore what types of characters commonly tug on our heartstrings. (Bear with me, friends – I am wending my way to playwriting.)
After exhaustive research (some internet ramblings, fast flips through dog-eared psych textbooks, and mocha java infused chats with gal pals), what did I learn?
1) Falling in love with an imaginary character is a hell of a lot easier than loving flesh and blood beings who often break our hearts.
2) We seek out fictional characters whose struggles mirror our own in some way – or, on the flip side, we embrace characters who live a life we want!
3) Loving fictional characters probably won’t f*ck us up – although if obsessive, may prevent healthy interactions with ‘real’ people.
4) “Whether or not characters are ontologically ‘real,’ our familiarity with them renders them very emotionally potent.”
Potent indeed. I’ll be running to a meeting and boom! – Jamie pops into my head and my heart momentarily stops!
I can hear some of you thinking (ok, shouting): “Get a life - it’s not real love! You’re just (fill in the blank) daydreaming, horny, lonely, avoiding ‘real’ relationships, and looking for love in all the wrong places!”
Je confesse! But just maybe there’s something else happening here too.
Experts tell us the emotion of empathy (if I understand the science correctly) is part of our neurobiological makeup and enables us to fall in love with a fictional character.
I recently returned to civilization after being shipwrecked on an island to discover the world of fan fiction, defined as: “Fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from a particular TV series, movie, etc.” There are literally millions of people who are so utterly in love with a character that they have created stories, poems, films, etc. imagining into the life of their amour. (Check out the online Archive of Your Own where you’ll find 2,205,000 users and 5,436,000 fan fiction works!) So - we are not alone!
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d lay odds that larger-than-life, heroic, complex – yet ultimately empathetic and seriously conflicted characters – are the types that capture people’s hearts. I fell in love with Jamie (and upon occasion, other men and women characters) because he is compassionate, courageous, capable of deep, abiding love, (and yes, sexy!) – but also flawed and vulnerable, driven by compelling contrasts (for example, Jamie unabashedly engages in violent battle, yet can’t bring himself to give his wife an injection because it might cause her pain).
Which brings me to plays (ha ha – you thought I would never get here)! Which characters in drama demand our love and affection? In Aristotle’s Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher claims characters must be good (I interpret this to mean living by a moral compass), true to life, and acting consistent with their own nature. Are those qualities still important for our dramatis personae?
The bottom line? Even though many thousands of plays are being written every year, how many people outside our profession are passionate about the characters we create? In fact, when was the last time YOU fell in love with a particular character in a play (as opposed to a character in a book, film, television series, or animation)? And if your answer falls into the “not since disco was king” drawer, are we somehow failing in our job as playwrights to create characters that can elicit this kind of passion?
Sharpen your pens and arrows, because I want to hear from you! Tell me if you’ve ever loved a fictional character and why – and what qualities they possess that touched your heart? After I receive your comments, my next blog will ruminate on how we might inspire audiences to fall in love with the spirits we create that haunt our minds and plays – and ultimately take flight on stage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Photo by Teresa Pigeon
June Guralnick has created plays, performance projects, and large-scale community cultural projects for four decades. Her works have been performed throughout the U.S. – and beamed to the Space Station! Awards include the Silver Medal-Pinter Drama Review Prize, Second Place-Judith Royer Award for Playwriting Excellence, North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellowship, Southern Appalachian Repertory New Plays winner, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Writing Fellows, Hambidge Center for the Arts Writer-in-Residence, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar (University of the South). June’s new full-length play, LITTLE ♀, will receive a staged reading at Burning Coal Theatre in partnership with Justice Theatre in 2020, and her one-act play, SPACE INTERLUDE, will be published in early 2020. For more info, visit juneguralnick.com.
On October 26th and 27th the Statera Arts conference was held at the City College of New York (CCNY), and brought nearly 200 participants together to focus on parity and equality in American Theater.
For those of you not familiar with Statera Arts, Melinda Pfunstein and Shelley Gaza founded it in 2015 with the mission to take “positive action to bring women into full and equal participation in the arts.” This was the 4th annual Statera conference to date and “offered individual artists, arts administrators, academics, and students the opportunity to innovate around unique strategies for manifesting gender parity in our work, our organizations, and our institutions.”
There were over 65 speakers and panelists and attendees “from all over the country as well as international guests from Prague, Nairobi, South America, and Toronto.” Workshops topics ranged from “Bridging the Inequality Gap with Improv” to “Culture Bending with the Bechdel Project” to “Writing Gender: Tools for Playwrights” and beyond.
There was a SWAN day panel on supporting woman artists as well as a Parent Artists Advocacy League (PAAL) panel on “Parenting/Caregiving on the Road to Parity” and some fantastic performances. The Keynote speakers were May Adrales, Associate Artistic Director of Milwaukee Rep, and Broadway star, Joanna Gleason.
I was thrilled to attend the conference with my co-workshop presenter, Namrata Jain, and lead a breakout session on “Collaborations in Global Feminist Performance.”
Wendy-Marie Martin, left. Namrata Jain, right
One of the absolute highlights of the weekend, however, was the opportunity to meet two of my ICWP sisters, Elana Gartner and Sophie Dowllar Ogutu. Having only see their names on the connect serve or as part of the 3-Minute play submission process, it was wonderful to meet these amazing women in person and get to know them and their work a bit better.
LL to R. Wendy Marie Martin, Elana Gartner, Sophie Dowllar Ogutu.
Not only was I able to attend a couple workshops with Elana and Sophie, but Elana and I were able to watch Sophie receive the Visionary Woman in Leadership Award, which is given annually to “a visionary woman* who uplifts, amplifies, and advances women in the arts.”
Sophie was honored for her activism for women in the arts, specifically for her work creating and continued to fostering SWAN day in Kenya. According to her nominators, “Everything Sophie does is WOMEN-centered. She introduced international grassroots feminist women to us here in Kenya. She also introduced SWAN Day Festival. She believes in empowering women. She truly is a believer of women's advancement and true empowerment.”
The weekend overall was inspiring and deliciously exhausting and gave me hope for the future of gender parity in American theater.
It’s an experience I continue to carry into my work as an educator, arts activist, and playwright. Experiences like this are the reason ICWP has created the educational opportunity Development Fund, and I am beyond excited to see our ICWP representation grow at conferences around the word moving forward.
ICWP Board Member
Fundraising Committee Member and 3-Minute Play Contest Coordinator
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...
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).
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