Salvation Road at PTNJ

 

On March 15, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey will feature a reading of Salvation Road as part of its ‘Forum Soundings’ series, focused on youth-centered theatre. This is the latest step in an ongoing development process for the play, which originated as a one-act at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009, was workshopped at New York University and the Utah University Youth Theatre, produced at NYU in October and at Walden Theatre in November and is due for another production at Seton Hill University in April.

I sat down with  Jennifer DeWitt of PTNJ for a brief interview. The interview and more details about the series  can be found at PTNJ’s blog.

 

1.       What inspired you to write “Salvation Road?”

Originally a friend of mine who was active in what was then known as the Cult Awareness Network commissioned a play about the cult experience. I agreed to write the play, which I had intended as an “issue” play for theatres that tour to schools. But I didn’t really like the results; it was didactic and a bit predictable. So I tossed it in a drawer and did other things. Then in 2008 the successor organization to CAN–now called the International Cultic Studies Association–was holding a conference in Philadelphia and my friend wanted to present the play there. I went into a panic because I just did not like the script, but by then I had decided to take a different attack on the subject matter–which was to write about the people who are left behind, trying to make sense of what is going on. I had some experience with that–my sister was involved briefly in the Unification Church a number of years ago–and so I drew on a few details that I remembered from that time. So for me the play is really about the brother who is confused by his sister’s rejection of the family and trying to make sense of her need for an organization like the Disciples.

 

2.       You write in a variety of styles and genres. Do you let the subject matter dictate this or do you wake-up and say “today I plan to write a historical drama therefore I must find a subject?”

Plays for me are about wrestling with a question or an observation. The inspiration comes from all sorts of places–something I read in a newspaper or online, a book I’m reading, a photograph or an anecdote–even a painting or sketch I see in a gallery. I come across something that triggers a question. With Radium Girls, the immediate trigger was a chapter in a book on mass media that I came across online. I read the story of the New Jersey case and thought “How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?” And I developed an obsession with the story. I knew starting out that the play was going to deal with the uses of denial in some way. But then I set out to do my research and in the process realized that I also wanted to tell the story from two points of view—the women in the factory and the men who owned the company.  It was a long struggle to come to a structure that worked, because it was an early play and I was not really confident in myself to do the story justice. But really I borrowed from Brecht, working in presentational scenes with more naturalistic scenes—and advancing the action in an almost cinematic way. So Radium Girls is really Epic Theatre.

 

Most of the other plays I’ve written are historical in nature–period pieces–though I am starting to write contemporary stories. And while in many cases the exchanges between characters are naturalistic—the structure usually isn’t; there is usually some element to the construction of the play that departs from 20th Century Realism. One artistic director described me as an “impressionist.” And I think that is largely true–certainly was true of The Good Daughter. There, the idea was to approach the scenes like photographs in a family album–that as you flip through the pages and through the years–a story emerges–and there are great leaps in time between the photographs, but you ultimately get a sense of an arc and a resolution.

 

I am drawn to period pieces because, like Shakespeare, I think audiences needs to look backward in order to look at themselves. You put some distance between the experience of contemporary audiences and the story you are telling them—and they can receive it better, especially if you are delivering a fairly harsh critique wrapped in the form of entertainment.

 

But I’m also interested in finding a shape or an approach that suits the material—and how this comes about is a bit of mystery. I sit with the idea or the characters for a while sometimes before the answer comes. Salvation Road is essentially a buddy movie on stage–two guys hit the road looking for a girl. And the structure is cinematic because the audience I am aiming at is used to receiving information in short bits; they are used to film and video and online entertainment and gaming–and that informs the way the play is put together. The newest piece I am working on now is a mash-up between a social satire and a murder mystery–with no solution to the mystery, which I am sure will really infuriate the audience. So it starts out as a comedy and gets darker as it goes. More and more I guess I am interested in bending forms—taking very familiar forms and working in that framework to force the audience to adopt a point of view it might not otherwise adopt. So I think the work is subtle in that respect—and I like to think it’s subversive. That’s what I tell myself.

 

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From STEM to STEAM: Putting the ‘Art’ Back in Science Education

On Saturday Feb. 23 I crossed something off my bucket list–and was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Theatre in Our Schools Mini-Conference in Richmond, a project of the Virginia membership of the American Alliance for Theatre & Education. Organizer Steven Barker invited me to speak on the topic of incorporating the arts into other core education courses. Here’s what I had to say:

 

Steven asked me to join you today to think through a most intriguing question: How can we transform STEM to STEAM? Or more to the point how can  that missing “A” can be incorporated into—and actually enhance—the teaching of  other core subjects?

 

STEM as we know is an initiative to emphasize SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, and MATH in the classroom.

 

For lovers and teachers of the arts—all manner of art—-the fact that music, painting, dance, theatre—even literature—is missing from this initiative is not just an unfortunate oversight, it is troubling evidence of an attitude that pervades our culture, which is that the arts are secondary—extraneous, fluff, unimportant—while science and technology are essentials.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour

 

To believe that is to be blind to the role of the arts not just in education but in our very lives. As theatre artists, we know that the arts and humanities are vital to helping young people develop essential skills— not the least of which is the exercise of the imagination. Without the ability to envision, the scientific mind would never think past the world as it exists now in the present.

 

 

In a recent essay, Princeton University Professor Danielle Allen reminds us:

 

 

“That you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and … reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.” And, I would argue—by classes in drama.

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Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario

Some years ago I came across a funny yet utterly serious book called “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” by Joshua Piven—a guidebook on how to survive a series of unlikely disasters—from an avalanche to a shark attack to the crash of a jumbo jet. So I immediately bought a copy for  an artistic director who has suffered through enough near misses over 25 years of running a not-for-profit theatre to write a guidebook of his own. John is also a risk-taker dedicated to new work and has a keen eye  and a lot of good advice for writers.  Early on, his advice to me was that I needed to “raise the stakes” for my characters, another way of saying I needed to put more pressure on them—because it is only under pressure that character is revealed.

 

It is true in life and true in drama that the way we deal with mess says a great deal about who we really are. The same fire that melts the fat hardens the iron—to borrow a borrowed phrase from some advice columnist I used to read religiously like a fool  (she gave a lot of bad advice). But it is also a no brainer to say that any character in desperate pursuit of something is always more interesting than someone who can wait another week or so and won’t suffer for the delay. What audiences want—savages that we are—is to watch someone suffer–intensely. The more agony for the character, the better for the story and the more interested are we in the outcome.

 

James Stewart’s manically lovesick detective in Vertigo comes to mind—it is part of what makes that improbable (and creaky) ghost story so watchable 60 years later. Nobody suffers better than James Stewart, but most of us are not going to get a Jimmy Stewart to play our leading man, so what we lack in spectacular acting talent we have to make up in a riveting script.  (Not that Vertigo isn’t riveting, but you have to admit it does defy logic. Why, for example, would anyone cook up such a convoluted murder plot that hangs on such an unpredictable element—the detective’s inability to overcome his fear of heights? Scotty conveniently falters on the bell tower stairs, but he could just as easily have closed his eyes and charged ahead, at which point the whole plot would unravel. And then there is the murderer’s great good luck in escaping the bell tower undetected—apparently because no one without vertigo bothered to go up the tower steps to investigate what actually caused the victim to fall.)

 

But plot weaknesses aside, Vertigo is a terrific example of a character under extreme pressure. The woman Scotty thinks he adores is actually someone else, hired to use him as a pawn in a plot to fake a suicide as a cover for murder.  And once the real Madelyn dies, clueless Scotty is skinned alive during the inquest that follows, as an investigator coldly concludes that his cowardice was a greater cause of Madelyn’s demise than the mysterious emotional upset that sent her up the tower. Who wouldn’t end up catatonic in a nursing home after that?

 

We have to admit—when it comes to scenarios for losing your sweetheart, this has to be one of the worst case scenarios of all time—as well as one of the more original.

 

This, then is a useful question to keep in mind when sketching out the scenario for your play. Aside from the obvious–have we ever seen this before?–we need to ask ourselves how we can crank up the pressure on our characters.

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Where Does a Song Come From?

While I’m off on a holiday, I get by with a little help from my friends. One is Mike Diehm, a songwriter and poet who accomplishes what I can only dream of—he writes music.  As someone who has no musical talent, I stand amazed by anyone who can pull a few chords together, let alone write a six-minute ballad that lingers in my mind for days. So I asked Mike how he does that, and this is his answer.  Be sure to click on the links below for clips from two of the songs he discusses. D.W.G.

Songwriting Process

The following is from my favorite poet, H.W. Longfellow:

 

Before a blazing fire of wood

Erect a rapt musician stood;

And ever and anon he bent

His head upon his instrument,

And seemed to listen till he caught

Confessions of its secret thought

 

 

From “The Musicians Tale; Prelude; The Wayside Inn”

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

The songwriting process for me is very cathartic. I know I’m not the only songwriter to say that I write songs because there is some inner turmoil going on. I guess that’s why I’ve written so MANY songs, lyrics and poems. I am currently compiling a complete collection of my poetry, short prose and lyric poems. This process has been very therapeutic, something that I need right now. As I go through and do some edits I am realizing that I have been searching for a long, long time for a certain something. That certain something, I now believe, after almost 35 years of writing, has been a search for my SELF. I know myself much better these days, and I like it.

 

For me (as I’m sure a lot of songwriters will tell you) a song does not always begin in the same way. Sometimes I first come up with lyrics, sometimes a particular chord progression or even just one chord or, in some cases, just one NOTE. Other times a song will start with a melody stuck in my head. But no matter how a song comes to me if it feels “labored,” if I have to think too much about it, it will invariably be tossed, ripped up or otherwise discarded. The sixty or seventy songs that remain to this day are all songs that came quite naturally.

 

Mike Diehm, on the guitar

Feeling the muse

A lot of my songs and poetry do not even tell a “story,” instead there are more like moments in time, sometimes down to feelings that come and go in seconds or minutes. As a music lover and intense “listener,” I know I’m not alone in this. It’s like a piece of visual art. Everyone who views (or listens to) a piece of art will get a different feeling. That’s because the song CAME FROM a feeling that might have been very fleeting.

 

My best songs and poetry just “happen.” My best lyrics usually come out, literally, in minutes. The musical part of it can come quickly too, but in a song some arranging is necessary. It’s sort of a mathematical process. Finding a progression that is pleasing to the ear or at least makes sense mathematically.

 

Here are some examples. I’ll start with collaborations:

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Doors & Windows

Let us consider a simple mystery.

 

A man at a party lights a cigarette; from ten feet away, at the end of a narrow hallway, a woman observes him. The next room buzzes with talk and laughter, the rattle of glasses over a Patsy Cline record in full croon. But she sees only him.  For months he has been the focus of her fascination, moving at the edge of her circle of friends, chatty and charming, always clever, usually evasive, never alone.

 

And now there he is: by himself, striking a match with one determinedly casual stroke, a movement so sleek that she wonders if he had practiced it before a mirror. She smiles at this idea, and as she does, she catches his eye. This time, she holds his gaze. Continue reading

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