BWW Interview: The 2017 New American Voices Play Reading Series Finalists
Step-sisters in a magical trailer park, a clash between past and present (that's a realtor's nightmare), an exploration of race and family in segregated Cleveland, a murderous family in the American West -- sounds like this year's finalists for The Landing Theatre Company's New American Voices Play Reading Series.
We were lucky enough to speak to this year's selected playwrights -- Alexis Schaetzle, John Bavoso, Barbara Kingsley and Anne Phelan -- about their plays, and Sam Mayer, Landing Theatre's Literary Associate, who sheds some light on what makes their work so special.
WANDA, DAISY AND THE GREAT RAPTURE by Alexis Schaetzle
"Schaetzle's trailer park is a place of magic, humor and real consequences. I love this play because it's got a fantastic sense of humor and poetry. And, of course, it contains one of the most amazing dramatizations of having braces that I've yet to come across. Schaetzle's voice is sharp, exciting, and unique," says Mayer.
BWW: What inspired you to write WANDA, DAISY AND THE GREAT RAPTURE?
Alexis Schaetzle: I was interested in exploring family histories and how our memories color our relationship to the present. My work often deals with families that are stitched together and non-traditional, and as the people in this world came into focus, the heart of the story was about two distinct step-sisters who were in deep conflict with their circumstances, and with each other. When I wrote the play, I was thinking a lot about how we take care of the people that are supposed to be taking care of us -- specifically if and how a child can find the vocabulary and the strength to ease a parental figure's profound pain. Being a member of a family is cyclical -- you're young and your parents take care of you, and then they get old, and you take care of them. That cycle and all of its humility is something that most of us can't avoid, and none of us is ever prepared for. I think it brings up those big questions that keep us up at night -- why are we here? What is our purpose? Do the answers lie inside of those tiny miracles we usually ignore? Or do we have to build The Miracles ourselves?
BWW: Who are Wanda and Daisy? What are they like?
Alexis Schaetzle: Wanda and Daisy are step-sisters who are very different, but share an unspoken, cosmic connection. Like most teenagers, Daisy is headstrong and sassy, which has gotten her into hot water in the past. She's charming and full of wit and opinions, but struggles to define herself in the world. Wanda is a few years older than Daisy, and has had to shoulder some very heavy, adult burdens that have taken a psychological toll on her well-being. She is newly religious, and hopes that her faith will relieve some of her suffering. They are both dealing with the death of one parent, and the slow decay of another, which given how young they are, is especially complicated. They come from generations of disadvantaged families, and often feel trapped by their circumstances, but are funny, smart and spirited despite it all. They can't quite articulate it, but they are both bound to the same yearning for something big to happen in their lives.
BWW: I understand WANDA, DAISY AND THE GREAT RAPTURE has elements of both magical realism and Southern Gothic. What drew you to these?
Alexis Schaetzle: My impulse to heighten reality comes from my intuition push emotional extremes, and to expose the extraordinary hiding beneath the ordinary. I think people do see the events of their lives as fantastical and dramatic, but only inside of their own heads -- it's why we can't wait to tell reluctant lovers about our dreams. That's what magic realism is to me -- an exploration of the revelatory moments between waking life and dreams. I used to feel trapped by "The Rules" for successfully telling a story onstage, so I would attempt kitchen sink dramas, and without fail, things would start falling from the sky, or alligators would eat the moon, etc. My plays usually begin with an absurd or dizzying image, which inspires the parameters of the world. I'm drawn to magic realism because it allows me to see the action and plot of the story as being driven by provocative imagery and poetry.
I love this Faulkner quote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I think this gets right to the heart of the Southern Gothic tradition, which is largely about a place, its story, and the sinister tendrils that creep through. In many ways, the Southern Gothic stories are about unearthing crimes of the past. After the Civil War, southerners were re-examining themselves in the wake of their dark history. There's a lot of work still to be done unpacking identity and existential anxieties, which my plays attempt to investigate. Hanging over the characters in my work is a sense of inevitability; they can't escape what they can't name. The past haunts them. Magic realism and Southern Gothic is a perfect marriage because they share the same ineffability. They both explore the otherworldly, and the delicious dualities of being alive: the tragic and the comedic, the lyrical and the banal, the divine and the obscene. My work is also rooted in the South's tradition of tall tales, which I think encourages a kind of creative truth. My mother has always told me ghost stories which were accepted and acknowledged by everyone she knows. Everybody has their own, with tiny variations, but the skeleton is imprinted upon the psyche of the region in this endlessly fascinating way.
BWW: Some writers say that they learn something new about themselves (and their craft) with each piece. Is this true for you and WANDA, DAISY AND THE GREAT RAPTURE?
Alexis Schaetzle: Absolutely. This piece taught me how to be malleable and patient with my "process" and with the play itself. Since I wrote it a couple years ago, WANDA, DAISY AND THE GREAT RAPTURE has had many different incarnations -- as the narrative and characters continuously changed, I had to give myself permission to experience the ritualistic roller coaster of emotions that I feel when I'm writing. I go from total self-hatred and misery, to hopeful and delighted, to almost abandoning the whole thing, and then, somewhere along the way, there are these tiny moments of transcendence when the writing process and the way the story unravels itself feels almost spiritual. It so rarely happens, but when it does it's like a drug. A new play is hungry and has no manners, and I've learned that while I think it's good to be critical of your work, you also have to try and be fearless and patient during its inevitable period of growing pains.
BLIGHT by John Bavoso
"BLIGHT is another play that's urgently relevant to the time we live in now. I was impressed with Bavoso's scope: the house of the play fills with people from the past and the present. A terrible event lies at the center of this play and the house in it, but it's the vivid, real characters that give this play life," says Mayer.
BWW: There is a lot going on in BLIGHT. What inspired you to write this play?
John Bavoso: You're definitely not the first to notice that there's a lot going on in the play! It was inspired by a brief article in The New York Times about Newtown, Connecticut's attempts to figure out what to do with the house in which Adam Lanza, the young man who murdered his mother and then massacred 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was raised. I knew instantly that there was a germ of a play in that article. One of my favorite classes in college was entitled "The Politics of Memory and Forgiveness," and ever since taking it, I've been fascinated by questions of how individuals and societies choose to move on in the wake of tragedies.
BWW: What is your writing process like? Both in general and for BLIGHT specifically.
John Bavoso: My process tends to be of the "hurry up and wait" variety. I'm a fairly quick writer once I know how I'm going to approach an idea and have laid out a structure, but getting from the initial idea to the point when I'm ready to sit down and start writing can take an agonizingly long time. For example, with BLIGHT, I wrote the first draft between late February and early April in 2016, but I read the article that first inspired it in late 2014, so the huge bulk of that process was just letting it tumble around in my brain and hoping a play would emerge.
BWW: There aren't ghosts in this story, but there is some "rememory" going on in the house. How does this aspect enhance the story you're telling?
John Bavoso: I really wanted to give a sense of how history doesn't necessarily repeat itself exactly, but can echo within a given space. I think most people who've lived in a house they didn't build have wondered what its previous residents were like, and the beauty of the theatre is that there are interesting ways to explore that through movement, props, etc. I also wanted to interrogate the line between public and private space and what happens when that line blurs or is reinforced. Cat and Silvia and Loretta and Kristofer are both suffering as a result of living in the house but for opposite reasons -- in one case, due to isolation and the other due to intrusion -- but both situations are because of stigma. As their stories begin to parallel, I wanted the barrier between their lives on stage to begin to dissolve as well.
BWW: I understand that, as written, the play calls for the stage to become more lived in as Silvia and Cat settle into their new home. Since this is a reading series, that particular element will be lost. How do you think this affects the play (and its impact) overall?
John Bavoso: This is the area of the play that remains the most mysterious to me. I've done an informal reading of the script with Pinky Swear Production -- the company I'm a member of -- and a workshop and reading with Theater Alliance here in DC, but obviously neither of these incorporated the physical aspects you mention. This early in the play's life, however, I'm really trying to focus on ensuring the authenticity of the characters' voices and the tone and things like that, so a reading is perfect, because it forces the audience to really focus on the dialogue and characters without getting distracted by the other elements of the production.
BWW: Some writers say that they learn something new about themselves (and their craft) with each piece. Is this true for you and BLIGHT?
John Bavoso: In a very technical sense, this is the first play I've written using an outline and this experience -- along with a string of half-finished scripts -- has taught me that I very much need one to stay on track. It's also shown me that it never hurts to stick your neck out and make requests of total strangers. The character of Dave is based on a real person who was quoted in The New York Times article I initially read. I decided on a whim to look him up online and send him an email asking if he wouldn't mind spending 30 minutes on the phone chatting with me about his life and his work -- and to my surprise, he very generously agreed. That conversation completely changed how I approached writing the character, and I think made him much more compelling and interesting. It was nice to be reminded that most people are very much willing to help you if you're willing to put yourself out there and ask. Finally, I learned that if you call your father (who's a retired real estate attorney) with lots of questions about real estate agents disclosing deaths in houses and the legality of arson without providing any context, he will become very concerned about your well-being.
UNDER THIS ROOF by Barbara Kingsley
"This play is set in segregated Cleveland. In it, the care of an aging African-American man by a down-on-her-luck white woman is the center around which the play swirls. Secrets, prejudices, and much more simmer in this play and, in its transcendent moments, bubble over. This play is a moving examination of race and family," says Mayer.
BWW: What inspired UNDER THIS ROOF?
Barbara Kingsley: Oh, so many things ... true and imagined. There are stories in both my family and my husband's family that are carried with love, respect and a margin of leeway into the world of the play. I write the quiet stories of love and loss and small kindnesses from unexpected places.
BWW: I understand that one reason you wrote UNDER THIS ROOF was because there were not a lot of plays that would allow you to work with actors of color. Why was that important to you?
Barbara Kingsley: I'd like to clarify that it's not necessarily the plays that didn't allow me to work with my colleagues of color. Until recently there's been a dearth of meaty roles for actors of color, actors with disabilities, transgender actors, and elder female actors. But there are plenty of plays, already written, that could and should be open to inclusivity and diversity in the casting process. I think we're seeing progress but we have far to go. In writing UNDER THIS ROOF I was committed to creating roles for elder female actors, actors of color and actors with disabilities. I built the diversity into the play because, yes, I wanted to ensure opportunities for those historically left out of the conversation within the theatrical canon.
BWW: You chose to set UNDER THIS ROOF in Cleveland, and then traveled to Cleveland to do some research. How did that trip help? Did you find anything that surprised you?
Barbara Kingsley: My early research came from an eleven-hundred-paged tome called The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. It was frustratingly vague in its coverage of Cleveland's Black history while I was determined to learn about a significant neighborhood that had been squeezed out of existence, over 50 years ago. In 2011 I was awarded a MSAB/NEA Artist Initiative Grant that allowed me to travel to Cleveland. My first stop was to visit the Cleveland African American Museum but it was closed due to lack of funding -- which explained why my phone calls had gone unanswered. I finally connected with Marsha Howard, a former docent at the African American Museum. With Marsha's help I was able access actual archival copies of The Cleveland Call and Post, a Black newspaper founded in 1928. The Call and Post provided authentic perspective -- from articles by Black journalists and print ads from the local Black businesses in the 40's and 50's.
I had also reached out to several people, in hopes of getting an oral history of the Central neighborhood. The day before I had to leave Cleveland an elderly couple, who grew up together in Central, and eventually married, agreed to be interviewed. They declined to be taped but allowed me to take notes ... so many stories! At the end of the session I remember Mr. Franks telling me not to worry if I was going to "get it right" because there was no way I could possibly get it right -- the reality of the Negro situation in Cleveland, in the late 40's and early 50's -- but he didn't see any reason why I shouldn't keep trying. It was after meeting Mr. and Mrs. Franks I gave myself a kind of nudge to carry the work forward. I finished the first full draft of the play in 2012.
BWW: You have an extensive acting resume. How does your experience as an actor inform your writing? What kind of perspective do you think it gives you?
Barbara Kingsley: I've had the benefit of working on new plays for the past 35 years. My immersive training took place at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. As an actor I've worked with hundreds of playwrights. I was in the room -- sometimes weeks at a time -- with the likes of Lee Blessing, Steven Dietz, Jeffrey Hatcher, Winter Miller, Laurie Carlos, Carson Kreitzer, Carlyle Brown and Marion McClinton. I learned, first hand, about genre, style, arc, pacing, rhythm and structure. Those workshops and readings laid the groundwork for my playwriting. And because I've been an actor for so many years, I'm asking "actor-tracking" questions even as I'm working as a playwright.
BWW: Some writers say that they learn something new about themselves (and their craft) with each piece. Is this true for you and UNDER THIS ROOF?
Barbara Kingsley: I'm a multi-tasking theater artist. I've been acting, teaching and writing for almost 40 years. I tend to process growth in increments rather than significant revelations. UNDER THIS ROOF was a major undertaking for me -- it was the first piece I wrote that demanded extensive research before giving the characters their voices, in a place and time outside my purview. It's a humbling experience. I guess I learned I'm drawn to challenge and I like homework ... lots of homework.
THE BENDERS: A DARK WESTERN by Anne Phelan
"THE BENDERS is a large play about a tiny moment in American history. Full of violence, love, and vivid images of the American west, THE BENDERS struck me with its prescience. At a time when the 'American dream' is being re-examined, it's fascinating to be reminded that the real-life Benders took both the 'American dream' and notions of family into their own, very bloody hands," says Mayer.
BWW: I'll admit I was unfamiliar with the Benders before this. How did you encounter the story?
Anne Phelan: Back in 2003, I was fortunate enough to receive my first residency at the William Inge Center for the Arts, where I stayed in Inge's childhood home, and worked on a play about two emigres from Hungary in 1956. Next door lived Andy Taylor, editor of the local newspaper. Andy and I talked about famous people from Independence and its environs (Vivian Vance, Louise Brooks, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.), and he asked if I'd heard of the Benders. I had not, and Andy lent me a book about them. I was hooked. I was invited back for a residency in 2012, and we workshopped THE BENDERS. The rewrite that I did after that workshop will be read as part of the Landing Theatre's New American Voices Play Reading Series.
BWW: What about it inspired you to write this play?
Anne Phelan: I wanted to understand who the characters were and what drove them. Sure, some of their motivation was greed, but it was more than just that. Particularly given the time (1870s), I found it interesting that a young woman like Kate had as much power as she did. Also the fact that they were presenting themselves as a family (though they weren't actually), and that that somehow made them safer and more accessible to strangers. And finally the fact that the Benders lived quite near the Ingalls' "little house on the prairie" (not at precisely the same time, but within a few years of each other). What a strange juxtaposition is that?!
BWW: Much of what is known about the "Bloody Benders" seems to live in that hazy area between conjecture and legend. What kind of freedom does that afford you? Or is it constraining in its own way?
Anne Phelan: I think it cuts both ways. I mean, the agreed upon history is clear enough, but there's no ending to the real-life story; there are only opinions about what may have happened -- the Benders were murdered by the posse, though they didn't admit to it; two women thought to be Kate and Ma were arrested many years later; they escaped, and there were reports of them being seen all over the U.S.; their ghosts still haunt southeastern Kansas. Those facts (or lack thereof) forced me to make decisions as a playwright. I had no problem making things up; that's what playwrights do.
BWW: Comedy isn't always an obvious choice, maybe especially in a play about serial killers. How was that choice made?
Anne Phelan: The play is a drama with comedic elements, which was a choice I made so that comedy distracts us from the gore. Likewise, the violence is very stylized, not unlike SWEENEY TODD. I wanted the play to upend the romanticism of the Old West. Violence is nothing new in the United States -- we kid ourselves when we idealize the "good old days."
BWW: Some writers say that they learn something new about themselves (and their craft) with each piece. Is this true for you and THE BENDERS?
Anne Phelan: Wow, sometimes I feel like I've been working on it for so long (on and off for 14 years) that I'll never get it just right. When I started writing it, I remember telling myself that it would be a pretty easy play. I was wrong! A few years ago, I started writing a musical version with my friend composer John Prestianni; totally different process. And a very different second act.
Don't miss WANDA, DAISY AND THE GREAT RAPTURE (1 p.m.) and BLIGHT (7 p.m.) on Saturday, April 1, and UNDER THIS ROOF (1 p.m.) and THE BENDERS: A DARK WESTERN (7 p.m.) on Sunday, April 2 at The Docks, 1119 Providence. each reading will be followed by a talkback with the playwright, director and cast. Each reading will be followed by a talkback with the playwright. For more information, call 562-502-7469 or visit landingtheatre.org. Free, but donations suggested to support new play development.