BWW Interview: Playwrights Talk Landing Theatre's New American Voices Play Reading Series
This weekend The Landing Theatre Company presents the 2016 New American Voices Play Reading Series. The series features new plays by four of America's top emerging playwrights. This year's NAV finalists are Patricia Reynoso's NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE, directed by Robert Meek; Steven Strafford's SMALL JOKES ABOUT MONSTERS, directed by Dylan Marks; Catherine Rush's TALL POPPIES, directed by Stephen Miranda; and Cecelia Raker's LA LLORONA, directed by Paige Kiliany.
The plays will be performed by local actors, and each reading will be followed by a talkback with the playwright, director and cast. We were lucky enough to speak to all four of the selected playwrights to learn more about their work.
NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE by Patricia Reynoso
A Navajo mother tries to protect her homosexual son from scandal in their predominantly Christian town by keeping his sexuality a secret. Not only does her son Yiska want to tell the world he's gay, he wants to tell the world how in Navajo culture a gay boy, a Nadleehi or a two-spirit person, is revered and holds a sacred place in the community. When Nina fails to keep him safe she turns to Navajo legend for guidance where the supernatural meets the ordinary.
BWW: What inspired you to write NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE?
Patricia Reynoso: I get most of my ideas from news stories. One day I came across the story of a young man named Fred Martinez in Colorado who was stoned to death because of his gender orientation. I really felt for the young boy because his life was cut short because of a senseless crime. What really resonated with me was his mother's dilemma. In the Navajo tradition you're not allowed to say the name of the deceased for fear that their spirit will be held in this world and won't cross over. Well, Fred was missing for several weeks before they found his body. His mother spent weeks calling out his name and, to make matters worse, the prosecutor wasn't going to prosecute it as a hate crime. An activist told Fred's mother that the only way to get the attention of the community and the prosecutor would be to get his story out which meant saying his name a lot.
In the end she decided she would get his story out because she could do good with it. If you live in a community that doesn't accept or understand homosexuality and then a person from that same community murders your son for something that is "wrong" in their eyes, I would imagine that one would feel conflicted. I really felt for the mother and I wanted to get their story out. I also think that the Navajo have a very beautiful way of interpreting homosexuality and the world needs to hear about it.
BWW: NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE explores the Navajo belief in (and of) nadleehi. What is a nadleehi?
Patricia Reynoso: A nadleehi is a two-spirit person, a person who possesses both female and male spirit. Traditionally, a nadleehi was revered, before European colonization. If a woman died during childbirth a nadleehi could step in and take care of the child. The Navajos held coming of age ceremonies in which they would accept that male into the female social circles.
BWW: What sort of research did you do to complete this play?
Patricia Reynoso: I read as many news articles as I could on this story. There's a really good PBS documentary called Two Spirits which is based on the life of Fred Martinez. I also researched a lot of Navajo origin stories and folklore, which the Nina character uses as part of her storytelling in the play.
BWW: Who are Nina and Yiska? Please tell us a little about them.
Patricia Reynoso: Nina and Yiska are very special characters to me, and in some ways are a reflection of the relationship that I have with my son. The single parent bond is in some ways more intimate than the bond that exists in a nuclear family. My son and I did everything together - laundry, grocery shopping, vacations, dinner and a movie on Friday nights. The reason that I felt so particularly drawn to this story is because although I can't relate to experiencing such a tragedy as losing a child, I can relate to being a single mom. I can relate to doing all you can to provide and do everything you can do to raise a good person when the father figure is gone. Nina is a hard working single mother who will do anything for her son. Everything she does is for her son. Yiska, on the other hand, is a dreamer. He only sees the good in people and wants to believe that there's good in everyone which is what gets him in trouble.
BWW: Some writers say they learn something new about themselves (and their craft) with each piece. Is this true for you and NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE?
Patricia Reynoso: NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE is a very special piece for me because it was the first full-length play that I wrote. It's the play that has taught me craft and it continues to teach me as I plan to revise after the reading with New American Voices. I've written more draft of this play than any other play. It's also the play that I used for my thesis and it won me a scholarship that paid for almost a full semester of graduate school.
BWW: Much of your work seems to explore some very heavy subject matter. Do you ever worry audiences will be put off by it? What do you hope audiences take away from your work, and NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE specifically?
Patricia Reynoso: Yes! I worry about this all the time. In the end, I always decide that the world needs to hear these stories. I want people to gain perspective. Most people who attend the theatre are pretty liberal but I wrote this play for the people who denigrate homosexuality. I want them to hear the nadleehi story and, just maybe, they might be inspired to change their opinion and treat everyone with respect.
SMALL JOKES ABOUT MONSTERS by Steven Strafford
Three brothers spend an evening at a rented beach house, trying to sort through the recent death of their father. Upon learning of their father's final wishes and with the unexpected arrival of their mother, the brothers come to terms with some ugly truths that lie underneath the humor they all share.
BWW: What inspired SMALL JOKES ABOUT MONSTERS?
Steven Strafford: When I was in college, I came up with a theory that there were three kinds of funny people using Japanese movie monsters as avatars for the different categories. It's a theory that has stuck in my mind for a long time. When I sat down to write the opening scene, I decided to create fictional versions of my own family discussing this theory. I thought to myself, "What would it take for these three funny brothers to stop joking?" This play is an answer to that question.
I think this play ends up being a look at what happens when something is so terrible it can't be joked about.
BWW: In discussing your one-man show METHTACULAR!, the artistic director of About Face Theatre, Andrew Volkoff, said you have an ability to take what "some people might look at as a harrowing or appalling story, and find a way into it through redemption and humor." Are there elements of this - taking ugliness and exploring it with redemption or humor - in SMALL JOKES ABOUT MONSTERS?
Steven Strafford: Yes, certainly. There are some very ugly and uncomfortable things discussed in this play, but my hope is that the humor (dark, though it may be) keeps strong during even the most difficult moments. I am of the firm belief that there's nothing out of bounds with humor as long as it isn't mean. That is not to say that I don't find mean jokes funny. I do, sometimes. What I mean is, I don't like it when I write mean or cruel jokes. I like writing jokes that arise from discomfort around dark subjects. I think that's true in all of my writing, at least I hope it is.
BWW: Please describe your writing process. How do you approach a new project?
Steven Strafford: Oh, to have a process! I tend to write whenever I am caffeinated and have some free time. I get distracted very easily, so I actually prefer to write out of my apartment. I find that if I go somewhere else I am more likely to write than if I am home with my husband and TV and internet.
I tend to be someone who writes and writes and sees where it takes me. I didn't know where this play would take me. There were moments in the plot when they arrived, I was completely surprised. I try just to keep open to the rhythm of how these people are talking and assume eventually something interesting will happen.
One thing about the process of writing that I do follow pretty regularly is that I ask people's opinions a lot. I figure you either need to listen to no one or everyone, and I choose to listen to everyone. If you have an opinion about what I've written, if it's solicited or not, I'll listen. I find that keeping open to people's opinions keeps my work honest. I still edit METHTACULAR! And I've been working on that show for seven years and performing that show for four. I'm always open to cutting more, to making it leaner. Now, that is not to say that I change my work based on everyone's opinions. I am just open to hearing criticism, whatever the source.
BWW: You have quite the acting resume. How has your experience as an actor informed your writing? What kind of perspective has it given you?
Steven Strafford: Thank you. That's kind of you to say. I think my experience as an actor has taught me what sort of roles I want to work on in a rehearsal room and what sort of roles I want to perform night after night in a run. I want to create shows that actors really want to do. I feel like audiences can tell when actors are thrilled to be in a show. You can feel it in the room. I want to create those shows.
BWW: Some writers say they learn something new about themselves and their craft with each piece. Is this true for you and SMALL JOKES ABOUT MONSTERS?
Steven Strafford: Yes, definitely. I think I learned that I don't like resolution that feels tacked on. Now, don't get me wrong. I love a sitcom. I was raised on sitcoms. I love a neat and tidy ending to a 30 minute (with commercials) situation comedy. However, I think I like theatre to leave me with some questions about what comes next. I like giving the audience the chance to decide that.
I also realized how much I love crafting a play together. Playwriting is still very new to me, but it's something that has lit up within me. I am working on two other plays right now, both very different from this one and from each other. It's exciting to find myself able to tell stories in this new way. I hope it continues on and on.
TALL POPPIES - Catherine Rush
It's 1975 and 52 year-old American, Stewart Carver, is living in his empty luxury lodge with his mistress in the southern wilderness of New Zealand. He's bewildered at the way the tide has turned against him. When he first arrived everyone was his friend and the luxury hotel he built and ran was considered revolutionary. But now, he's fighting his wife, his lawyers, the bank and the Prime Minister. Stewart's determined to win back and reopen his business, but everything and everyone is getting in his way. It seems the only friends he has are the rutting stag outside his cabin and the bottle of booze in his hand.
BWW: You once said, "Everything I write comes from some sort of personal experience." Is this true of TALL POPPIES as well?
Catherine Rush: Yes, I have to say that quote still holds true. My father decided in 1969 to move his family to New Zealand to begin an exclusive hunting and fishing lodge in a remote area of the South Island. I was eight at the time. It was a remarkably important time in my life.
BWW: If you would, introduce us to Stewart Carver. Who is he? What is he like?
Catherine Rush: Stewart Carver is a proud man, born well but not wealthy; he married money. He is also a severe alcoholic in a very low point both in terms of his disease and his life. Stewart is a man struggling with who he is and who he thinks he should be. The more he pushes to be the man he thinks he should be, the more he is confronted with who he is.
BWW: Stewart is an expat living in New Zealand, and TALL POPPIES is written as a one set play. I can't help but think of isolation and claustrophobia. Please talk a little about the significance of both of these elements to the story.
Catherine Rush: Yes, I'm glad you mention that. I was wanting to write a play that was in a physically small space. You have two people living in a hotel room and trying to make it a workable living space. The mini bar is their refrigerator and a hot plate their stove.Then, just outside the sliding glass doors you have a deck - an area confined by a railing that overlooks a vast open space with fields and rivers and wildlife. And, as you say, this claustrophobic world is juxtaposed against this natural emptiness and the fact that they are living not only in an empty abandoned hotel, but a place that requires driving eleven miles on a dirt road to visit.
The setting speaks to the characters living there. Stewart and Fiona have locked themselves into a way of being that reflects their thinking. The isolation they live in is in part because they believe that is the only option they have. That "you and me against the world" mentality that rarely is an accurate perception of the situation.
BWW: Some writers say they learn something new about themselves and their craft with each piece. Have you found this to be true for you and TALL POPPIES?
Catherine Rush: That is definitely true for me. I often start a piece thinking I am writing about one thing and for one purpose, but by the end of the first draft I realize I am writing about something completely different. At least now after many years of writing I know whatever I am writing will surprise me. With TALL POPPIES, I began the play thinking I was telling this story of an alcoholic with the delusions of grandeur and just what a total mess we humans can make of our lives. By the time I was finished I was full of such love and compassion for Stewart. I understood his persistence and courage in fighting to salvage a dream. It made me reflect on my own courage and persistence. Could I have more strength pursuing my passion? What am I willing to risk for what I believe is the right thing?
BWW: And finally, this is your second play to be selected for the New American Voices Festival (after THE ME GENERATION). Clearly, you're doing something right! Do you have any words of wisdom for writers just starting out?
Catherine Rush: I have been very fortunate to have a second play selected for the New American Voices Festival. I love the Landing Theatre's dedication to new works and I am thrilled that what I write resonates with their aesthetic.
I can think of three things that I would like to tell any writer just starting out: 1. Just keep writing and submitting. Write, rewrite, submit. Wash, rinse, repeat. 2. Pick something to write about that you feel passionate about because chances are you will be working on that play for years. It has to stand the test of your own interest in it. 3. Every time you get discouraged ask yourself, "Do I still want to write plays?" If the answer is yes, then keep writing. If no, find something that you are curious and desiring to know more about and follow that impulse.
LA LLORONA - Cecelia Raker
When Maria, Rachel, and Molly, three girls from very different worlds, got thrown together on a school project about the local urban legend, they didn't quite bargain for some horrific ghost lady to start tampering with their lives. La Llorona, with her irreverent, haunting advice and strange versions of the story, seems intent on steering them away from her fate--or is she just luring them to a watery demise?
BWW: Being Hispanic and growing up in central Texas guaranteed that I knew who La Llorona was before I said my first sentence. Being from New Mexico, was La Llorona a ubiquitous bogey(wo)man of your childhood or something you learned of later in life?
Cecelia Raker: As a gringa growing up there, I probably didn't hear the story quite as early as my Hispanic friends who told it to me - but that telling happened pretty young! My house backed up to an arroyo, and whenever I was down there at dusk or at night I was stark terrified. My room looked out over the arroyo, so on windy nights when the branches of the pinon trees scratched my window, I was certain those were her long, bony fingers ...
BWW: What was the inception of LA LLORONA?
Cecelia Raker: In 2012, the theatre I was working for, Company One in Boston, put out a call for ten-minute plays about urban legends. I've always been fascinated by myths and fairytales, so I was excited to participate, and I just kept coming back to La Llorona as I tried to write. This story kept pulling me back into that childhood terror, which felt really strange as an adult examining it through a feminist lens, asking questions about motherhood and partnership and theology. I was scared and fascinated at the same time, which is the perfect way to start writing a play for me. So the piece started as that ten-minute kernel, which was a very early version of the climactic scene with Maria down by the arroyo. Then in 2015, I got a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council that gave me the financial space to spend a month home in New Mexico just focused on writing, and that's when the piece grew into a full-length play. It was then that I had the chance to explore more versions of the story than I'd known, and to discover connections between the Llorona and the Jewish mythologies of weeping women from my own background.
BWW: Who are Maria, Rachel, and Molly? What are they like?
Cecelia Raker: They're all fifteen or sixteen, juniors in high school who get thrown together on a school project to research and present on a fairytale or myth.
Maria is driven and smart as a whip, and she has it all figured out: she's the token Mexican they let into Harvard next year. As long as she stays busy enough, she never has to deal with the aching absence of her workaholic mother and the father she's barely met. Everything was on track until the guy she's been in love with since freshman year finally went all the way with her, which despite her best efforts at safety seems to have stopped her period from coming and given her sore boobs ... not to mention how her grades in Trig have tanked.
Molly lives with her dad on the Cochiti reservation. She's got plenty to say to her mirror about the stupid white-people capitalists who refuse to make clothes with horizontal stripes for her fat body, her mother's recent departure to rehab, and this encroaching feeling that she's invisible. Bu as La Llorona starts to invade her private moments, she's startled to discover that beneath the Hispanic story she's always heard, there's an older story about a Native girl resisting the conquistadors.
Rachel is a Jewish girl from Connecticut whose family just moved to New Mexico this summer so her dad could pursue his midlife-crisis passion of painting. She's got a constant stomachache but wants to switch from ballet to playing rugby just to piss off her overbearing mother. She's mystified by this creepy Spanish ghost lady [that] keeps showing up and shoving her head into the sink, despite the fact that she's not even taking Spanish, she's taking Chinese. As she learns more about La Llorona, though, she begins to suspect that there's someone she knows about from Hebrew school underneath that terrifying veil.
BWW: Within your work, there seem to be a lot of fantastical elements, and supernatural and mythic characters. What do you think draws you to these things?
Cecelia Raker: I think I've always seen the world as being made of more than just the scientifically verifiable and tangible stuff. To me, showing the magical and supernatural is a form of hyperrealism--these ghosts and angels and golems are just as real, when it comes to emotional, mental, spiritual, and even sometimes physical experience. I've heard a lot of people talk about my work using the idea of magical realism, which makes me a bit uncomfortable - many of the far more talented writers than me whose works are characterized that way actually resisted that term, for good reason. Making a distinction between the rational and the magical along the lines of Western European colonial thought means that the very real experiences of indigenous and non-White peoples (and even some marginalized peoples with white skin) get classified as somehow less valid, imaginary, "magical." I guess I feel like I can't capture the reality of the world without things that our dominant culture might deem supernatural.
Also, it's just plain fun to access those instincts for belief and pretend and play that we get self-conscious about as adults.
BWW: Some writers say they learn something new about themselves (and their craft) with each piece. Is that true for you and LA LLORONA?
Oh, absolutely! I mean, it's helped me conquer that visceral childhood fear a bit. I'm always going to avoid arroyos late at night, but at least I've spent some time focused on the more benevolent sides of the Llorona! But it's been fascinating to wrangle such a personal story while also being hyper-aware of the potential pitfalls of writing a piece centered on Native and Latina characters as a playwright not from those backgrounds. It's vulnerable to write outside your identity, to know that despite all your work to listen and learn and seek feedback, you're probably going to get it wrong sometimes. It's scary to know how easily this sort of thing can skew into harmful cultural appropriation, and to still claim ownership of my job as a writer to amplify marginalized voices and stories. This play has made me a lot less precious about my work, and a lot more focused on crafting a narrative lens that's authentic to the world of the play, that's maybe subversive to the lens through which the audience might be used to looking. It's a piece that's taught me how to be an activist in my writing while prioritizing the simple humanity, the fun and drama of the story.
BWW: And finally, how are staged readings like this helpful to you as a playwright?
Cecelia Raker: You can get mired in a hundred-page document, losing the forest for the trees. Hearing the play out loud is an awesome way to learn which trees need pruning. But the most useful and important part of this sort of reading is the opportunity to collaborate with brilliant actors, and a director. I've learned things in rehearsals for readings like this one that have helped crystalize a whole play. The joy of theater is that it's collaborative, that there are many voices which contribute to the whole of the play.
I, like most playwrights, dread the talkbacks after this sort of thing. As Abbey Fenbert writes, "A talkback is when upper-middle-aged-and-beyond men will explain the play to you." Truly, though, when it's not too wildly awkward, I actually am fascinated by what audience members have to say. Even if they have tons of questions, it's useful to know where they got confused or what they thought the play was about. Sometimes it's nice to have people explain your play to you!
Don't miss your chance to see NADLEEHI AND THE COYOTE by Patricia Reynoso (April 22 at 7:00 p.m.), SMALL JOKES ABOUT MONSTERS by Steven Strafford (April 23 at 1:00 p.m.), TALL POPPIES by Catherine Rush (April 23 at 7:00 p.m.), and LA LLORONA by Cecelia Raker (April 24 at 4:00 p.m.) at The Landing Theatre Company's new home, The Landing Theatre @ the Docks, 1119 East Freeway (Providence Street), Houston. For more information, call 562-502-7469 or visit landingtheatre.org.
Editor's Note: Updated 4/22/2016 to include interview with the fourth NAV finalist Patricia Reynoso.