Is There Room for an Introvert in Theatre?

Consider this an open letter to any writer who ever struggled with the concept of “self-promotion,” a term many of us find distasteful on its face.

 

I have been thinking about this for a long time, because for me, putting myself front and center has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do—so hard that there have been times when I’ve thought about giving up on theatre altogether, because I did not believe that there was a place in it for someone like me—a naturally shy individual for whom social events are frequently the occasion of anxiety, rather than celebration. For years I went into a crowded room with a pounding heart, panicked over my awkwardness, marking myself unworthy of anyone’s interest. It took many years and studied practice to overcome that attitude, but even now, given the choice—and I recently was given the choice—of attending say, the White House Correspondents Dinner, or hanging out with my spouse in my own dining room, I took the beer and pretzels option.

Lone_female

Among writers, shyness and self-doubt are fairly common traits, and among women writers, even more so, because we have been socialized—at least, my generation has been socialized—to defer to the men in our lives, to defer to the men in authority, and to discount our own perceptions. (That is, in fact, the topic of my most produced play, RADIUM GIRLS.) And when we find ourselves in a position of challenging a man in authority, it is a deeply uncomfortable place, even now, for many women, well into the 21stcentury.

 

But lately I found myself exactly in that position and it has given me an opportunity to reflect on this concept of self-promotion and why it is so hard for women to get past the guilt that goes along with making an honest effort to put themselves forward. This is more than an academic question for me. I recently got into a confrontation with the moderator of a Facebook group intended as an open forum for D.C. Playwrights. And I am told this forum is “not for self-promotion” and therefore, member writers cannot talk about their own productions or readings; we cannot announce our triumphs—if we win a grant, place in a competition, land a fellowship, make it or nearly make into the O’Neill or PlayPenn or Seven Devils—this is all forbidden, by the rules of the group. Although, apparently it is all right if someone else announces these developments for you, then that is not self-promotion.

 

Set aside for a moment how easily that loophole can be exploited by an enterprising writer with a lot of friends. And set aside the inconsistency with which the rule is enforced—apparently self promotion is forbidden in a post, but forgiveable in a comments thread? For someone who has been a longtime member of the Playwrights Center, the Dramatist’s Guild, the Philadelphia Dramatists, the International Centre for Women Playwrights (and a former member of the D.C. Playwrights Forum and Chicago Dramatists), I want to say that this is one of the most bizarre restrictions I have ever come across in any organization that presents itself as existing for the benefit of playwrights. Every one of these organizations provides some opportunity for members to announce their activities. I don’t know of a single playwrights’ service organization that penalizes its members for seeking to promote a reading or a production; many seek to encourage it, offering a blog or a newsletter or some other means for members to announce their productions and other events. Since this DC group communicates primarily through Facebook, it seems perfectly reasonable that posting an invitation to a reading or production on the front page itself ought to be encouraged, rather than penalized.

 

But my opinion counts for naught, and this strange restriction persists.

 

It occurs to me, however, that such a restriction is far more punitive for many women than it is for men. Not that there are no shy or deferential men out there; they surely exist. But it’s my observation that many men are far more comfortable and adept at muscling their way into the center of the room, and the center of attention, than many women are, and I think it has a great deal to do with differences in gender socialization in this culture. For men, attention and favor is a birthright, for women it is perceived as a privilege—that is, a reward that is earned on the basis of merit—and that is no minor distinction.

 

I know several young women of considerable talent who confide that they recoil from blatant self-promotion on the grounds that they don’t quite deserve the attention. “I know my work isn’t all that good,” one tells me. For the record, I disagree. But such is her perception, and as admirable as that humility is—it won’t get her very far.

 

And yet I am a bit hard-pressed to tell her that muscling her way into the room is really the answer either, because I am not entirely convinced that the rules that apply to ambitious young men also apply to the women. I sense—though I have little concrete evidence to support it—that even now, a young woman who attempts to promote herself as forthrightly as any young man will somehow be seen the lesser for it. I fear she will be punished for it.

 

Which is why this strange prohibition against self-promotion among the D.C. playwrights galls me so. Because it plays right into the worst stereotypes we all share of self-promotion—that it is somehow distasteful and vulgar and inappropriate for any of us—particularly the women among us—to brag on ourselves. Surely the merits of our work should rise to the top like so much cream and be scooped up by the makers of theatre around us, who will see the beauty of our efforts and reward us, both for our modesty and our artistry.

 

How lovely if the world were so just.

 

The bitter truth we all have to face—and figure out how to overcome—is that when it comes to plays, the work is not selected on merit alone. Very often it is not aesthetics, but economics, that drives the choices. As well as convenience. Let’s face it. This is an exhausting undertaking, to produce a new play. And sometimes you simply cave to the choice that is close at hand. So if an enterprising writer can put himself on the radar screen of an overworked artistic director, so much better are his chances that his play will receive consideration.

 

We all know this. So why should we hesitate when it comes to self-promotion? Why should we feel any sense of shame that we do what we can to put ourselves forward?

 

Do you think that Katori Hall hesitates to put herself forward? Does Mike Daisey choke up shyly and decline to work every angle he can think to get his name across? Did a young David Mamet come to fame by modestly decrying his worth to anyone close enough to hear? You already know the answer.

 

Rather than a prohibition against self-promotion, what we really need is an invitation to do it more—and do it better. Rather than forbid us from talking about our work, demonstrate to us exactly how we should talk about that work. How can we advance ourselves without making ourselves an object of disdain? How do we put ourselves forward without also irritating the very people whose interest we seek to attract? If you want to be a service organization for playwrights, think about providing that service.

 

For the fact is, for many women, the question is not whether we have the right to talk about ourselves, but whether we can overcome decades of conditioning to become comfortable doing it. Many of us need encouragement and help in learning how to navigate these unfamiliar waters. What we don’t need are more roadblocks to our own advancement, put in our way by a group whose stated purpose is to celebrate and develop D.C. writers. Why refuse us a forum to talk about our work? What we need is to celebrate the triumphs, large and small, that propel us to keep on working.

If you want to be of service to us, then make that happen.

 

[UPDATE: Yes, I know that the page provides a Word doc file where writers can post their events–but that’s the equivalent of putting up a concert poster on the back wall of a shop, rather than the front window. You have to know it is there, and you have to remember to look at it, so its usefulness is dubious on its face.]

The Christmas Card from Hell

I got a Christmas card today from the child molester’s wife.

 

This is not an unusual event. For the past several years, this woman has persisted in sending me birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter greetings—this despite what should have been a clear directive to her years ago never to contact me again. Yet she persists.

 

For years I evaded her ridiculous missives, but somewhere along the line one of my misguided relatives gave her my current address and so, for the past few years, I have suffered through a series of “greeting cards” from this woman. Usually I throw them away. But tonight, for some reason, I am moved to action.

 

The door that wasn’t opened …

You see, I have the misfortune of being related to her husband and, thus, I was one of his targets. I prefer “target” to “victim” because I decided a long time ago that what he did to me was not going to define me forever. And if I was a victim once, I am no longer. But God knows how many more children have come into his line of fire—how many of his own children? We cannot begin to know; his life is a lie wrapped in denial, embroiled in deception. We can guess, but we don’t have the luxury of the confirmation. Once, long ago, I confronted him in the belief that I owed it to his children to try to stop him. But I could not stop him. The lie was too strong.

 

But his wife is a great curiosity to me. When we undertook to confront him, my sister and I,  in the process, we confronted her as well. Her anger was a sight to behold. She literally shook with rage. Not at him, of course. At us. For daring to tell. For daring to say what had happened and demanding—how dare we demand it!—an apology.

 

We never got it.

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Breaking the Block Part 6: Cooking With Commies

I confess to a panic attack the other day when I realized that not only  am I behind on the promised scene, I cannot tamp down my anxiety to write it. The excuses are piling up—production, yadda, hurricane, yadda, production, yadda, nostalgia tour, yadda, yadda, yadda—and now the latest: a nasty flu, which I soothed with multiple toddies  (yes, there was whisky involved, sue me) and homemade soup (leek and potato, recipe to follow. I do try to please.)

 

Chopping leeks had me thinking about what my characters might be having for supper on a Sunday night, and it occurred to me that I ought to scout out a Russian cookbook somewhere, circa 1930 (but in English please!) to get a sense of what Alexei’s mother might put on the table. Then again—a 1930s cookbook would have to be approved by The Party, I imagine, and would a bowl of Communist borscht taste different from the pre-war Tsarist variety? Alexei’s mother in 1930 would be at least 50 and presumably have learned to cook sometime before the turn of the century and very likely, with no assistance from formal recipes at all, so I imagine what she put on the table would be in no way influenced by Party approval but certainly by any going food shortages at the time.

 

All this ruminating takes me back to my basic problem: To write a scene of any authenticity I have to know a little bit of something about the characters and their physical world, and for this play especially, I feel a deep need to immerse myself in the culture and currents of the era. For book research, I have turned to the brilliant Orlando Figes and his phenomenal account of ordinary life in the Soviet era: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. (Even as I write these words I realize I need even more than that. A book alone will not do it—I need a tangible experience, but a visit to Red Square in not yet in the cards.)

 

Forty pages in, the takeaway from Figes’ work is the extreme intrusion of the Soviet state into the private lives of its people, the widely accepted understanding that privacy and personal happiness are luxuries that the people can no longer afford; their focus must be to build the ideal (Communist) state, and to do so, they must cast aside any notion of a personal life. It is heartbreaking in its idealism, realizing the number of lives shattered by the grinding machinery of Stalin’s police state. Even those of the truest believers.

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Salvation Road Opens Tonight

Salvation Road opens tonight with a cast of thousands ….

 

It has been a long process developing this play, a comic drama about a boy searching for a sister who has disappeared into a fundamentalist cult.

 

Originally a one-act for three actors (hated that version) the play underwent a massive rewrite in the summer/fall of 2008. I got up my nerve to stage the retooled one-act version, but on advice of a high school drama director — the fabulous Jennie Eisenhower — I developed it into this version, a full-length for 15 actors.  Jennie did not think the subject matter would intimidate a lot of schools, but the cast size–five to eight actors–would discourage a lot of high schools. A cast of 15 to 16 would be a much easier sell. With that in mind, I revised the play into a large-cast version. It subsequently received a developmental workshop at The Utah University Youth Theatre in 2011 as part of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s Playwrights in Our Schools Program.  This year the play was accepted for development during NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences workshop at Provincetown Playhouse this summer. Ironically, the Provincetown project focused a full-length with a small cast (six actors doubling into nine parts).  This is the first time I’ve written a play with two versions–one aimed at professional production, and the other aimed at the youth theatre market.

 

 

The  Theatre Department of the Steinhardt School at New York University trains drama teachers — and there could be no better match for this play than a premiere of the full-length youthversion in a departmental production. It is a challenging topic for young actors and for their audiences, but I strongly believe young people have more going on inside than many of their teachers, and sometimes parents, appreciate.  My hope is that schools across the country will not be put off by the subject matter, but will embrace this play as an excellent opportunity for their students to explore issues of faith, spirituality, conformity, and control through the story of two boys caught up in the cult phenomenon.

 

The next stop for Salvation Road is a production at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 8-18. I’ll be going out there for a post-show discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

Playwriting: Breaking the Block Part 3

Last week I wrote about an exercise from Michael Dixon to help raise the stakes in a scene. And here it is again:

 

1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. Write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.

 

Working on my play about the man with the phenomenal memory, (working title: A Hero of the Revolution) I have decided that because the  patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes, there is more mileage to be gained from another, less expected scenario. What I come up with is a scene between an interrogator and his prisoner–in this case, the psychiatrist who is treating our guy. For the sake of the exercise (if not the play), the doctor is a woman, Natalia; the patient is Alexei, and the interrogator a tough character named Kreplev.  What Natalia and Kreplev share is a seething hatred for this man:

 

"Tsar Nicholas II"

The wrong guy at the wrong time

 

Tsar Nicholas II, an inept and bloodthirsty ruler of a nation struggling to emerge from feudalism at the end of the 19th century.

 

If ever there were a nation in need of a revolution it was Russia in 1917 — but ultimately what emerged was a government even more oppressive and bloody than the monarchy it replaced. In the Birth of the Modern, World Society 1815-1830, Historian Paul Johnson explains why, in a nation in which the concept of individual rights did not exist,  Russia’s fate could have been no different.

 

All of that is by way of prologue. For our purposes, we fast forward to the 1930s, when Stalin’s paranoia has kicked into high gear, and here we open our scene:

 

 

 

A HERO OF THE REVOLUTION, SCENE ONE

Lights rise on a drab office with sick green walls and a window overlooking a brick wall that sports an enormous banner picture of Stalin. Only a quarter of Stalin’s face is visible, an eternally staring eye. Kreplev, a government official, sits at a desk and Natalia leans against the wall opposite.

 

Kreplev has several files, which he taps on the tabletop. Each time he taps the files, the sound is like a rifleshot. Tap — tap — tap. Tap — and last tap, a light flashes outside the window — as if a gun has been fired, and the report of the rifle report echoing, echoing, echoing, gone. Natalia reacts to this by moving away from the window, but Kreplev does not respond to the sound. It is as if he so accustomed to the sound of gunfire that he can no longer react.

 

KREPLEV: Now then. I have very little time today, comrade doctor. And I imagine you too have pressing business.

 

Beat

 

KREPLEV: I do my best to keep things cordial. Please never let it be said that I have no respect for your profession.

 

NATALIA: Of all the things on my mind this morning, comrade, that … that is not something I have been troubled by …

 

KREPLEV: I will consider that a humorous rejoinder comrade doctor and not make a record of it.

 

NATALIA: Does it matter? Surely someone is taking notes.

 

KREPLEV: It is always possible. But if we have nothing to hide—then we have nothing to fear.

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part 2

I have a play in my head that has frightened me for a long time because it will require considerable research to write authentically—and the stack of books I’ve accumulated to begin the work is a bit intimidating. Not that I can’t read; I figured that out when I was six, but there is a gap between book knowledge and lived experience—and what will be required ultimately, is an avenue into the lived experience of  individuals who struggle under constant scrutiny from the state. Now I have a great resource that I will talk about in future posts, but for now, let’s return to this fun little exercise:

 

Last week I wrote about Marsha Norman’s five sentences, in which you can get  at the arc of a story by filling in these blanks:

 

  1. This is a play about _____.
  2. It takes place _____.
  3. The main character wants _____ but _____
  4. It starts when __________
  5. It ends when __________.

 

 

For purposes of the exercise, as well as this new play, I have filled in the blanks as follows:

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Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Me and Jackie

The wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton has included me in her series on women playwrights in D.C.

My newest best friend

You can check out the interview here.

Thank you Jackie for thinking of me and including me in such illustrious company as  Laura Zam, Karen Zacarias, Renee Calarco, and Jennifer Nelson.

And you can check out Jackie  here.

And do check her out because she is one cool cat. She would be cool even if she didn’t write about me.

Unexpected Impacts

Trolling through Google with coffee in hand is a favored Saturday morning time-waster, but this morning I came across a stunning discovery — Google images, more than 100, of various productions of Radium Girls.

To wit:

Radium Girls, Boston University

This visually arresting production, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue at Boston University, was one I had the privilege to see.

But there are many others, some obviously more successful in the design and execution. The play has not made a big impression in professional theatre — but in universities, high schools, and now community productions, the story is told and retold. Fascinating to see how different and yet how consistent the interpretations seem to be.

 

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Membership in a Lie

In the summer of 1974, over the objections of my parents, my sister G. and her friend D. set off on a long bicycle trip to New England.  Their ambition was adventure and a much needed change of scenery from the dead-end job she had been working in central Pennsylvania.

 

My parents feared for two 19-year-old girls out on the road alone, and with more reason than any of us could imagine at the time. Of course the obvious danger for any young women traveling alone was to encounter a man with ill intentions; this was probably what my father feared most. He could not have imagined the real dangers that waited for them at a festival in a park in Amherst, Mass., one sunny summer day.

 

The Celebration of Life seemed like a hippie fest—free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. D., the worldly skeptic, had no great attraction to the raggedy kids who preached the gospel of love and peace that day; G. was a different story.

 

“They all seemed so happy,” G. told me later. “I had to find out why.”

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The Long Shadow, Part One

Late in September 1920, a notice appeared in the Springfield, Ohio, newspaper that the young wife of Bill Collins had died. The cause was edema, a complication of pregnancy that she might have survived had her caregivers not put her to bed—and thus ensured the onset of the pneumonia that took her life. The fluid that swelled her legs also filled her lungs. Feverish and weak, she passed away within a month of giving birth to her only son, my uncle Jack.

 

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