Playwrights Discuss Landing Theatre's 2015 New American Voices Series

Playwrights Discuss Landing Theatre's 2015 New American Voices Series
Catherine Rush
Photo credit: Adachi Pimentel

This weekend The Landing Theatre Company presents their fourth annual New American Voices Play Reading Series featuring MY FRIEND DAHMER by Jake Arky, directed by Troy Scheid, EBENEZER CREEK by James McLindon, directed by Cheramie Hopper, LILY'S BLUE by David Alan Brown, directed by Jacey Little, and finally, THE ME GENERATION by Catherine Rush, directed by Paige Kiliany.

I got to talk to each playwright and hear about their stories from thier own mouths (or fingers in this case). Take a gander.

Catherine Rush: THE ME GENERATION


BWW: Could you describe your play in your own words?

Catherine Rush: THE ME GENERATION tells the story of two high-school seniors whose friendship is misunderstood and interpreted by others through their own particular personal or political lens. It's about the power of love and the strength to stand up for what you believe in, no matter the consequences.

BWW: What did you find important to express when you sat down to write it?

Catherine Rush: First off, let me say I went to an all-girls boarding school in the 70s and I loved it. I am a big advocate of single sex schools in high school. I could write an essay on that subject, believe me. But this play came about after a friend and I talked about how may things we just accepted back in the 70s and how many things we didn't even know. For instance, it wasn't uncommon for a teacher to flirt or in some cases kiss a student. And I'm not talking of the congratulatory kiss one the forehead kind of thing. And here we were on the backside of the "60s - the bra burning, Helen Reddy's "I am Woman"; Woodstock; Free love. - and really, what had changed? The only liberation that seemed to have taken place was that of the white male.

BWW: What intentions did you have in mind at the start?

Catherine Rush: I wanted to write a play about love. Most everything I write is about that. The two students in the play love each other deeply, but not in a sexual way. Many people misunderstand the depth of love two people can have for each other without sexual desire.

BWW: What sort of research did THE ME GENERATION entail?

Catherine Rush: Shortly after I graduated in 1978, an article appeared about two Stanford students who decided to do an experiment. They agreed to display certain behaviors in public - They would hold hands, sit on each other's lap, and kiss each other on the cheek. During the experiment they lost all their friends. Their boyfriends broke up with them. And they were ostracized from the community.

I tend to write history plays. I like thinking about what has passed and comparing it to where we are now. How far have we come? How much are we the same? Do we even want change or is comfort of the known better than the discomfort of living life with all its messiness. not everything has a category and a subsequent rule to manage it.

BWW: How long did it take for the play to come to fruition?

Catherine Rush: I began working on the piece 5 years ago. This is pretty common for me. The play takes only a few weeks to be written, but it takes years to be shaped, revised and refined.

BWW: What is your writing process? How do you approach each new project?

Catherine Rush: I let the play live in my head for a long time. I may outline or sketch characters on a piece of paper or on the dry erase board in my room. I play the "what if" game with them for weeks and months - "what if Cinderella didn't lose her shoe?" "what if the frog wasn't a frog but a prince?" That kind of thing. And then when it feels strong in me, I write. And I write and I write.

BWW: What would you like for the audience to experience or feel when they witness your play onstage?

Catherine Rush: I am hoping that they will find the play interesting, funny, and worthy of talking about and mulling over after they leave. I consider my plays successful if the audience is talking about it when they leave.

Playwrights Discuss Landing Theatre's 2015 New American Voices Series
David Alan Brown

David Alan Brown: LILY'S BLUE


BWW: Could you describe your play in your own words?

David Alan Brown: LILY'S BLUE is an emotional meditation on the grief process, particularly for men. It takes place in three acts over more than a year and a half as our "everyman" lead deals with the loss of his wife. I've tried to avoid sappy death bed drama or drunken binges and show the true emotional depth of a man reeling from the effects of sudden change. Three seemingly random conversations allow me to weave in some social commentary, art criticism and other thought provoking themes, particularly in homage to French critic Roland Barthes.

BWW: What inspired the play?

David Alan Brown: The idea phase for the play was a little strange, as the inspirational germ was merely the three scenes and the characters. I struggled for quite a while with why the images were in my head until I read excerpts of Roland Barthes' Mourning Diary and realized the play was to be about grief. Some of this was in response to the loss of my mom some years before. When I began to weave the ideas of Barthes' criticisms and philosophy into the process, I found I could make something with multiple layers that could appeal to a broader audience and provide many ideas for the audience to explore.

BWW: How much time did you spend on LILY'S BLUE? What sort of research did you have to do to complete the piece?

David Alan Brown: From idea to finish, about a year.

I did more research for this play than any other I've written. I read Barthes (and scholars talking about Barthes). I read a few works on how men grieve. Though the work is not historical, I explored some of the events Barthes refers to in his diary. Once I decided to utilize actual quotes from the diary in the dialogue, I contacted his estate and got permission. I did some study of the artwork referred to in the third act.

I do most of my work in my head over a long period of time prior to the final, frenetic act of actually putting the words on paper (and then, of course, the tedious work of editing and revising follows). I've been fortunate to be allowed the time to only work on projects that truly inspire me, so I find my thoughts going to them often during daily routine and eventually I come to a point where I have to start putting them on paper.

BWW: What are you hoping the audience recives from LILY'S BLUE?

David Alan Brown: Foremost I'm looking to make an emotional connection with the audience. That they may experience the depth of feeling this highly intellectual character is experiencing and empathize with him is success. Then, with their hearts open, I hope viewers will consider the ideas and philosophies being put forth. Hopefully they talk about it after and it sticks with them for a long time.

Jake Arky: MY FRIEND DAHMER

Jake Arky.jpg
Jake Arky

BWW: Could you describe your play in your own words?

Jake Arky: Jeffrey Dahmer, the early years. [Laughs] In all seriousness, it is about the origins of one of the most notorious serial killers in America and the strange relationship his friend had with him as they grew up in Ohio. How did a normal kid grow up into a monster and could anything have been done to stop him from turning into such a gruesome adult?

BWW: What intentions did you have in mind at the start? What did you find important to express when you sat down to write it?

Jake Arky: The play is adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Derf. I first found Derf's comic strip, "The City," in high school and pursued more of his work in college.

BWW: How did you decide to write this play?

Jake Arky: I wanted to write the play because it feels very timely to me. I grew up in the era of Columbine and Virginia Tech, a time where you could be murdered by a kid you used to play with a recess, and I wanted to encapsulate what a bizarre and unfortunate thing that is for kids these days.

Dahmer and Derf's story struck me because I, like, most people, knew someone like Dahmer in high school and who knows where they are now. Hopefully they are functional human beings, but perhaps not.

I also work with a lot of high schools and see the same issues in the play happening today, so in a way, it's sort of my cautionary tale to a modern young audience. Be good to other people and treat them with respect because you never know how something so small as calling someone a name could snowball into something else much more sinister in who they become as a person.

BWW: How long did it take for the play to come to fruition?

Jake Arky: All together, 6 years. I read the comic in college, contacted Derf for permission to adapt it, and staged it for a class at New York University. It went to a few workshops and small festivals until it became a full length, which was only in the last few years. I had to put it down for a while because I wanted to stop having dreams about Dahmer and living in that world. But then I pulled it off the shelf, touched it up, and started sending it out and it's found new life, which is fantastic.

BWW: How did you conduct research for the play?

Jake Arky: Some, but most of the research I didn't end up using. For a while I felt like I was a Dahmer expert (something every parent wants to hear!) but it was important to focus on his character before he became a serial killer. Back in 2008, I was in touch with Derf a lot about certain details and studying the comic over and over. Any research about his crimes only served as an end point for the character I was writing, because it isn't about him being a serial killer so much as transforming into one over the course of his formative years.

BWW: What is your writing process? How do you approach each new project?

Jake Arky: Crap, I don't know. [I Laugh] It's constantly changing. I used to say that I would think about a project for 2 years before I started to actually write it, but that's shifted now to when I get an idea I just try to sit down and write a draft by hand as quickly as possible. My feeling is that it just needs to come out of my head. If I can create a skeleton structure on paper, then I can come back later and fill in the character and plot details. One thing that remains constant in my process is that I work best in my underwear with a bag of chocolate raisins on my desk and a steady stream of hip hop songs I've heard a million times funneling through my headphones. Those seem to be the magic beans that get the job done.

BWW: What would you like for the audience to experience or feel when they witness your play onstage?

Jake Arky: I always like people to be a bit creeped out. Not disturbed or traumatized, but a little shaken. I want them to say to themselves, "Holy shit, I knew someone just like Dahmer. Where is that kid? Are they killing people? Did I have anything to do with that? Am I contributing to someone's life like that?" People should be looking inward and really finding how they can be better people. So I guess in a word: empathy, which is something Dahmer lacked because very few people were willing to pay him any when he was a kid.

BWW: Is there anything you would like to say that I haven't asked?

Jake Arky: My mother and father would be very upset if I didn't mention that while the play is a nightmare on stage, their son is a well-adjusted and (mostly) functional human being who writes and produces plays in the Bay Area.

James McLindon: EBENEZER CREEK

James McLindon.jpg
James McLindon


BWW: How did you decide to write this play? What intentions did you have in mind at the start?

James McLindon: One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, many Americans remain ignorant of the facts on the ground that confronted slaves, soldiers and civilians in the South as the war drew to a close and in the chaotic year that followed. The North had won the war, but would tragically go on to lose the peace, allowing white oppression to reassert itself unchallenged for nearly the next century. I have been drawn to write about this time in our history because it is both so critical and so poorly understood. I wanted to consider the viewpoints of three groups in particular that were instrumental in shaping post-war America.

BWW: What three groups?

James McLindon: They are [the] 1) Union officers and soldiers in Sherman's army as it marched to the sea and beyond, some of whom were abolitionists, some of whom were professional soldiers with little concern for the issues animating the war, and some of whom had owned slaves and supported both the Union and slavery. The clash of these differing viewpoints created daily tensions in an army struggling to win a war and simultaneously deal with the thousands of slaves following their army to freedom. 2) Southern slaveholders and participants in the slave trade, who were attempting to hold on to their way of life and livelihoods as both crumbled around them. Such owners, traders and auctioneers alike denied until the end and beyond that slaves were anything other than content and better off in bondage, then fought a ferocious and ultimately successful rearguard action in the "peace" that followed by which they successfully sought to recreate slavery by a different name in as many respects as possible. 3) An African-American family of slaves, separated as so many were at the end of the war by the sale of some members deeper into the South in the face of the advancing Union army. The resulting diaspora requires this family, like so many newly freed ones, to attempt to find both their way in a strange, new world of purported freedom, and each other.

BWW: What did you find important to express when you sat down to write it?

James McLindon: The play attempts to show what went right and what went so terribly wrong, and prompt discussion about how this history still affects (and damages) us as a nation today. The story this play tells will hopefully be epic (although requiring just seven actors) in scope, but personal in the telling.

BWW: How long did it take for the play to come to fruition?

James McLindon: I began writing the play during a fellowship as a Member of the Lark's Monthly Meeting of the Minds last year. It's a terrific program where, once a month, you meet with five other fellow playwrights and bring in 10-15 pages of new work. I wrote the first draft of the play over several months, then had a table read at the Lark. I'm still of course working on the play.

BWW: How did you conduct research for the play?

James McLindon: I am fortunate to have access to the Smith College Library as well as the Five Colleges library system. Much of my research was from sources I was able to obtain there. They included original texts such as slave narratives and the interviews of slaves conducted by the WPA in the 1930's, as well as military and political histories of the period.

BWW: What is your writing process? How do you approach each new project?

James McLindon: Generally, I start with characters and a general sense of where I want to go. I begin writing scenes and dialogue. Usually in the course of this process the characters begin to tell me whether they want to go where I intended them to go. Sometimes they don't, and I've learned to follow them rather than force them down any preordained path.

BWW: What would you like for the audience to experience or feel when they witness your play onstage?

James McLindon: Many things. For one, I want them to feel what a great chance this nation had to get race relationships right at the end of the Civil War, or at least much closer to "right" than what eventuated. I want them to think about why we failed, and particularly about what powerful currents ran through both the North and the South that would ultimately cripple this effort. And I want them to feel what that failure cost us as a people - first and foremost African-Americans, but indeed all of us.

Why should audiences see the production?

James McLindon: Ignorance of this part of our history makes it much easier to think that we live in a post-racial America, one for example where the Voting Rights Act is an anachronism or where Ferguson is an anomaly. For a long time, film and literature (e.g., GONE WITH THE WIND) have given us a gentle, romanticized view of what slavery was. More recently, films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE and FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS have begun to remind us what it really was. EBENEZER CREEK attempts to further that trend from a variety of perspectives.

I know, I know. You've missed three of the plays, and they all seemed killer (especially the Dahmer one). However, the New American Voices Play Reading Series is from March 13-15 at Frenetic Theatre (5201 Navigation Blvd., Houston, Texas 77011). You can still catch THE ME GENERATION on Sunday, March 15 at 3pm. Admission is free.

For more information on tickets, the plays, and the playwrights, visit http://www.landingtheatre.org.

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From This Author Katricia Lang

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