In a recent Online Chat, ICWP Sisters and a Mister took turns speaking about their favorite useful playwriting tips, techniques, tools, and practices. It’s my pleasure to share an edited version here with the entire ICWP membership, with the intention that we all benefit from one another’s wisdom.
Diane Rao Harman shared a writing tip that came from a costume design professor. She recommends using photos, images, and pictures… not as literal inspiration, but to examine the raw form and be inspired. View the colors: how are they similar or different? Look at the negative space. Is the image of something anchored and heavy, or light and delicate?
Then, complete these three statements
The visual solution is not literal, but prod to get to something new. For Diane, the visual of a chicken coop nudged her to consider all its aspects: pulling something in, protecting something, and the concept of hope as represented by the eggs. Diane recommends we try using these statements, and visual anchors, to offer inspiration.
Alan Woods shared several ideas. He recommends we consider writing plays specifically for older casts. His own short plays for senior actors have been widely performed. His suggestion to seek inspiration: go to the website meetup.com. You can join different groups representing all kinds of interests.
A book Alan recommends is “The Year of Lear,” the history of British theater in 1606. Alan says he’s learned about other playwrights that were writing at the same time as Shakespeare, and he’s been inspired to write a whole series of sequels and prequels to Shakespeare's plays.
Collette Cullen’s background is in Special Education. She told us, “These are kids who have trouble getting their voices heard, or who have had their voices stolen from them. I'd write with my Special Ed kids. They taught me. I set a timer that makes a noise, a ticking, and we’d write together.”
Collette recommends using Text Edit or Google doc to listen to your work. You can also use Google Translate, which can read your script back to you in the original language. The other members on the call all agreed that listening to one’s work read aloud is important. Most smartphones can record your own voice reading a scene.
Another suggestion of Collette’s is: Create Your Village, and make it a playgroup. She said, “When I steward others; it nourishes my voice. Play make believe. I create a party to read my work: we do a reading with actors.
Let the baby go out into the world.” Collette said she finds writing very hard, so she makes rules and sticks with them. “Sometimes I don't write till 4 pm, but it's my rule that I must write. Suzi Lori Parks’ ‘Watch me Work’ (a regular writing session at publictheater.org) keeps me in the room longer.”
“Put yourself out there. I printed up a card that said I was an actor, author, and educator. So I was. Honor your own voice. When you apply to fellowships and grants, you honor your work. I made an online portfolio of my work on my website. Hold your work in high regard,” Collette said.
Carol Libman described for us her process, very early, before she has even a draft. She reports, “I don't write in sequence, I jot down my ideas. I do research. Sometimes I don’t know the characters; I have to find them and develop them. I write everything that comes out. It’s messy, and that’s fine.
When I go back later, I read it out loud. I use ‘markers’ on the pages I’ve written on the word processor to indicate what I want to keep and what I want to delete, as well as notes for further development. Yellow for deletions, red for what stays. The notes and markings are great when I’m working with a dramaturg.”
Carol recommends that playwrights become affiliated with a development group so that your work gets developed through a number of stages. Writing a play is a long process, and putting your work through multiple stages of a development process will get it in shape to be produced onstage.
Donna Gordon uses journaling. She recommends two books, “Writing down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg, and “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott, that illustrate its value. Donna said, “With journaling, you write every day. Journal prose is more transparent and personal, and you can use the material for monologues, taking out topics that interest you.”
Donna also likes the editing tool in Google docs as a means of sharing your play with someone else. People can read and add comments and questions to your draft, in color. Finally, Donna urged us to make connections between the bits and pieces in our minds, and bits and pieces from our journals. “Write a sentence about x. What interests you about x? Can that be a play?” asked Donna.
Domnica Radulescu writes every day, in several genres. Domnica told us, “It can be hard to find motivation and inspiration these days, so I turn to what I call “Travels through the Darkness to Get to the Light.” I always go to three periods in history. The bubonic plague in Italy and the work of Giovanni Boccaccio (‘The Decameron’). The country was devastated, but wonderful storytelling emerged, including great humor. I also turn to the Holocaust in WWII, and the work of Albert Camus, including ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ and ‘The Plague.’
This is motivating me to sit and write. It's what I can do even when the world is collapsing. I also turn to my own strategies of survival growing up during a dictatorship. I believe in the power of creativity: it's my life vest, and it’s what I do best. I give myself permission to explore, and write in all the genres: prose and plays, essays, storytelling, and crossover genres. In March, I started "The Crown Diaries": plays, monologues, essays, short stories, and I’m up to 150 pages. It’s very satisfying, telling the same story in play and story form.
“Promoting other people's work helps me,” Domnica said. “I created the Play Slam. Focus on others: it's life- affirming to be part of writing communities. Giving themes to the group, I also give myself the same challenge. I enjoy (ICWP member) Emma Goldman's workshop, which offers readings by professional actors. There’s a caveat, though. We may have a tendency to join too many groups right now. It’s a danger to spend a full day in Zoom meetings. Devote one hour a day to write. It doesn't matter when.”
Rahmat Zakari couldn’t join the Chat live, but offered this recommendation by email. “What works for me is having to beat deadlines; like the zoom meeting on (ICWP Chat) Writing from Isolation. Knowing that I need to meet up on a group task inspires me. Being part of a group and doing things together is a strong motivation for me.”
Everyone on the call mentioned gathering in community with other writers, even while isolated, online, by phone, however we can. Rahmat added, “Taking inventory of life or events around me especially when I retired for the night is the best quiet and personal time with myself; that is the time that I listen to myself and form my stories.”
I hope you’ve found something useful from this generous group of ICWP playwrights! If you have something to share, we’re enjoying another Tool Exchange Chat 10-11:30 PM EDT , Thursday, May 28. We’d be delighted if you’d register to join us.
After you register, you will receive a link to the Zoom chat. You can join Zoom chats on a desktop computer, tablet, or phone. You can choose whether or not to have video on or off.
Growing up, everyone in my family was unhealthy, unhappy, AND deranged. Go ahead, laugh. But it’s True. So thanks to our global pandemic, I’m again wrestling with the same issues that plagued me as a kid: loneliness, anxiety, confusion, panic attacks, and eating at 4:30am. Usually, I sneak into the kitchen for yogurt and bananas, instead of Dunkin Donuts. Well, maybe just one little chocolate glazed?
My heart goes out to anyone sick in a hospital, fighting for their lives. And to all the doctors and nurses risking their lives to save others.
I’m blessed that my problems aren’t serious. So here’s a lighthearted list of tips for anyone restless and bored.
HANG OUT WITH OPTIMISTS
My comedic husband Kenny begins every morning with “the funny of the day.” Here’s this morning’s joke: “There will be a Weight Watchers meeting Monday evening at 7pm. Please enter through the Wide Double Doors.”
Ha Ha. And yes, I’ve put on four pounds. But it helps to laugh, yes?
Then there’s my always sunny artist friend Missy Gentile. When her art classes were cancelled, she launched a new business called “Be Well.” She finds and paints river rocks with encouraging statements like “Do Small Things with Great Love,” “Trust the Timing of Your Life,” and my favorite, “Keep your Attitude in the Altitude.” Her day glow pink, turquoise, and lime rocks decorate every room and keep me smiling.
Other friends who uplift me are author Carole Longmeyer and artist Caroline Carpenter, gal pals living in Beaufort, South Carolina. Every Friday, we meet on a gorgeous riverfront bluff, and relax six feet apart in beach chairs. We sip cocktails, share positive happenings from our week, and eat homemade sandwiches. I’ll bring brownies, Carole brings red velvet cake, and Caroline bakes pecan pie. (Why I’ve gained those four pounds.)
Our “Fabulous Friends Friday,” is the only social occasion, and the highlight of my week. But two upbeat hilarious friends are better than fifty “downer” buddies, so find your Optimist Tribe. If you can’t meet in person, there’s Face time and Zoom.
HANG OUT WITH MOTHER NATURE
Having killed hundreds of flowers, I’ve never considered myself a gardener. But Kenny dragged me to a country garden center, where we looked like bank robbers in our masks and rubber gloves.
Next thing I knew, the back seat overflowed with magenta hibiscus, white Mandeville, and the most adorable yellow gerbera daisies. Now I’m mother to needy flowers who beg for expensive fertilizer, water, and endless pruning. But what else am I doing?
Our exquisite flowers attract cardinals, blue birds, emerald hummingbirds, monarch butterflies and double winged dragonflies. I‘ve become quite addicted to my garden and you might too.
The other place I steal away is to the beach. Twenty minutes from my front door, is the soothing Atlantic Ocean. Last Sunday we watched toddlers building ornate sandcastles, willowy teens sporting bikinis, and a grandma flying an orange long tailed kite, next to a squadron of pelicans. Mesmerizing. Hope you’ll discover Mother Nature near you too.
HANG OUT WITH MYSELF
Too much time during the day, gave me the courage to throw away a bad one-act play and revise it into a two-act comedy called “Birthday Party at the Dalai Lama’s Palace.” I’m submitting this play via all the playwriting websites. I also wrote a 10-minute play about teenagers addicted to social media, because I’m addicted to social media. And a radio play about two women who find healing at the beach, because that’s my healing place too. That play is called “And Now for Some Good News from Pollyanna” because well, you know my nickname is Pollyanna.
I’ve found a new best friend: YouTube. I can watch documentaries on everything from where to dive with manta rays to how to paint like Matisse.
I’m also practicing self-care: giving myself bad manicures, and blow-drying my Diana Ross curls into a strange grey rooted hairdo. And just because it’s 2pm, can’t I luxuriate in a lavender bath? Some days I throw on a bit of eyeliner and lip-gloss so I don’t scare myself in the mirror.
Yesterday, I tried on my favorite lace cocktail dress, added pearls, and sparkly pink flip-flops. As I waltzed into the living room, Kenny asked: “Well, pretty lady, just where do you think you’re going?”
“Over to Dunkin Donuts,” I flirted. “ Picking up one little chocolate glazed.”
“Bring two,” he smiled.
Stay sane, my Friends.
Sharon Baker lives in Bluffton, South Carolina with her golfer husband Kenny Baker, their white cat Sage, and a ridiculous number of flowers.
She’s writing new plays and glad to be alive.
Email her: email@example.com
Here we are living day to day in this strange, upside-down world that we all thought at one time we knew...We had all figured out a certain level of comfort or at least familiarity with it to be...well, ok.
I used to look forward to Friday and Saturday nights. Once I got the girls tucked away in their beds, and the kitchen cleaned, I would sit down at the living room table to step into whatever world I was writing about at the time. It was my escape, my reward, my vice. I looked forward to a couple of drinks and a date with the characters I was creating on this keyboard in the quiet comfort of candle light. You see, I was very unhappy in my marriage. He would walk off to the pub and I would walk into my imagination. It was a sane and easy way to cope with things that I wasn’t satisfied with. No one needed to know. It was just my way.
Before this pandemic smacked us all right in the face I got out. The details are messy and unnecessary for you to know...but I moved myself and my children (fifty percent of the time) out into a beautiful little house with a pool. There’s something lovely about a new home that is not bogged down with years of memories, clutter, and piles of unnecessary stuff. So here I am, in my new home with lots of storage but not too much stuff to fill it with...and I get to enjoy a clean break. During a pandemic when we are all forced to remain at home, my home is a beautiful new space that allows me to be...me.
I have to admit, that because of my own personal circumstances, I find myself rather grateful for this forced break of reality. I have been able to use this time to rediscover, to reconnect with ME. And I’ve written many blogs, and I’ve drawn many portraits and written a couple of songs...but I’m not yet ready to step into another world. I’m consciously avoiding it. Perhaps it’s because I’m already living an alternative life right now...or maybe it’s because I no longer require the escape the way I used to...or maybe I’m just not yet ready to open myself up to meeting and developing new characters and worlds outside of what I find comfortable within my new home. Whatever the reason, it is what it is. I’m accepting this play writing dry spell for what it is. In fact, I have put together a fantastic idea for my next play. I’ve laid it out, and solidified the characters, and even some of what the characters do...but I can’t bring myself to write it. Not yet. And I think that that is ok.
We can’t lay pressure on ourselves to produce during this very confusing and alien time. Although we may find ourselves with more available time to create, it doesn’t mean that we are ready or able. And that is ok. I‘m not a big supporter of self-care. I find it to be hokey...and maybe that’s my own problem because I was always brought up to just ‘buck up’ and deal with crap as I needed to. But in this particular situation...I don’t believe that any of us should push ourselves, put pressure upon ourselves, or feel forced to produce in a time in which even the intelligent, balanced adults are struggling.
If it flows for you...then relish and enjoy. If it doesn’t...then be patient and understanding. These are strange times for all of us and as much as I want to take advantage of the time and space I am privileged with, I am not ready yet to write my next play. And I’m ok with that. I am restless and probably drinking more than I should...but I’m ok. I’m getting through these days one day at a time...my ideas are flowing at their own pace, my creating is welcomed when it comes...but I refuse to force anything.
Although we don’t have all the time in the world...we still all have time.
Former Presidents of ICWP, Jenni Munday and Paddy Gillard-Bentley, launch the ICWP Centre Stage Podcast .
Jenni ( pictured left) Interviewed Paddy about her play " Accidental Fish" (subtitled Coping With Life Badly).
Paddy reads an excerpt from the play and talks about what inspired her to write it.
Listen now - click the arrow to play the Podcast.
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I strive to create plays to find the commonality as much as the distinctiveness, inherent in all of our “life detours” – finding that universality is what makes me “tick!” The community aspect of theatre has always been tremendously important to me. A month after being discharged from the Columbia Presbyterian Surgical ICU, I joined a local theatre’s production of Oliver, to once again immerse myself experience of being part of a community ensemble, and creating theatre together - a driving passion that anchored my childhood.
When I was a child, the arts were my passion and identity. Later, when my traumas occurred, they became my lifeline. I grew up all my life in theatre. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality. Theatre was my language I could access to truly know who I was, no matter what was going on in my life, and I was singing, dancing, acting and creating from the time I could talk. I lived my life believing I would carve a beautiful career out for myself in the world of musical theatre, be on Broadway, and conquer the world.
My community experience as a playwright would come years later through an unexpected detour, which started as purposeful isolation. For years, I was seeking to find that universality within the confines of my bedroom, barricaded from the outside world, while I waited six years for my digestive system to be reconstructed. My creativity was spawned from an abnormal period of medical isolation. Only after I regained my health, and ability to digest food, could I re-experience the magic that comes from working with others. Playwriting granted me creative ownership, launching me back into society as a storyteller, rather than a victim, and storytellers thrive in community. I realized that creating theatre could facilitate healing for both the artist and audience, as they engage with the story. Theatre was a “great equalizer” which created a common language, and bridged divides.
Because of my coma, I ended up attending college as a 25-year-old, and just graduated at age 30. My senior year at Hampshire College, I had the opportunity to apply to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theatre Institute, where I studied devising performance, playwriting, stagecraft, puppetry, composition, and a range of skills that were new to me. But the greatest new exposure was devising theatre with other artists, from a range of backgrounds, passions and perspectives to create theatre based in found objects, reimagined texts, collaboratively generated themes and other group-formulated prompts, given a steady focus through a shared love of creativity and theatremaking.
Studying through the National Theater Institute, forming comraderies and connections through this guiding passion which aligned all of us, made me feel more connected to myself, my world, and theatre’s possibilities. Our company told stories through mixed media art, movement, music, and text to make reimagined meaning from our own personal detours.
Being part of this community was an extraordinary opportunity to bring ideas to fruition, generate new ones, and collaborate in a risk-taking, supportive environment. I’ve lived and breathed theatre as my own life force through the ups and downs of my traumas– but this air was richer and much easier breathed when with others! Becoming a part of NTI, where I could develop this passion in the company of like-minded artists, was the greatest gift. Never had I felt so part of the world.
Now, I’m passionate about creating theatre that keeps this channel of communication open, challenging ideas, and cultivating compassion. I’ve learned that, just as healing, and cultivating this compassion, cannot take place in a vacuum, neither can true theatre, and that I could greatly benefit from the chance to both give and receive feedback on new work, as I did at National Theater Institute. It became a privilege to share and hear excerpts of work with peers, and to learn from the O’Neill staff and guest artists. With no end to my overflow of ideas, the months spent at the prolific theatre-making hub provided the time and support to not only cement them, but fuse them with the ideas of others, creating a final theatrical product that none of us could have anticipated. Coming away from this experience, I gained connection, collaborative tools to further focus my vision, and the diversity to add perspective to my artistic intentions.
Within this group of passionate young artists, I felt comfortable taking the risks needed, to discover that theatre must be lived and worked through, not lying dormant on a laptop. I witnessed firsthand how theatre can challenge ideas, create compassion and bring out the stories that unite us all. Through the transformative power of writing and theatre, we feel heard, gain clarity and can problem-solve. As creators and audience members choose to create and interact with the space and one another through theatre, they engage in a vital conversation on how we view obstacles.
I learned that, just as Patty sings in my play, LEFTOVERS, “The Only Time That I’m Real is When I’m Singing,” the only time that I’m real, is when I am creating in the presence of others.
I got to be surrounded by this unfathomable creative energy I’ve never felt with such intensity. At the O’Neill, we did everything, literally all day long and sometimes through the night – playwriting, composing, directing, acting, singing, devising, sharing, moving, feeling, and creating some more. It’s amazing how collaboration, and connecting with the hearts, minds, souls, and passions of others can make you feel like you’ll never run out of creativity, energy, stimulation or time. My favorite part of being at NTI was participating in a theatre lab every week. Every week, we would be assigned an excerpt from a play or musical, new, old, or in between. Although eventually our schedule became too jam-packed to keep it going, upon arriving, I tried to journal as much as I could.
Here’s what I wrote the first day:
“This is going to be amazing. It took nearly three hours to introduce everyone, because everyone is so amazing and wonderful to get to know. These were passionate, connected, present, truthful stories of why theatre was so important to all of these people – and all for extremely diverse reasons. Who knew this would be a spiritual experience. The grounds are so gorgeous here, and we’re surrounded by a quaint, New England town. I see the pianos hooked up to composition software, and I immediately get roused with that spark in me that wants to try composing again...and everything else! I feel home, with a family I’ve always sensed, somehow, but have never actually experienced.”
Collaboration forced me to surrender my preconceived notions of what I felt my play “should be about.” Community brought clarity to my work, and let others into a play that started out as “dense fruitcake.” I learned that I didn’t have to always be the “lone survivor” that made it through unimaginable hardship. It was okay to collaborate – in theatre and in life. This community experience ended as the greatest lesson of all: Theatre grants us the clear space to spark new ideas with others.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking. As the creator of "Gutless & Grateful," her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, she's toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences.
By Amy Drake
You’ve worked really hard to hone your craft and set your sites on reaching the next level. Now what? You need a game plan. Even when we playwrights have gotten a play accepted at a theater we often find ourselves cast in the role of producer. My play, SOMEWHERE I CAN SCREAM, is going up at The Players Theatre in April 2020. It is now late December and I have many things to do before opening night, but I will share with you my steps to getting there, current tasks, and work to be done.
Ask yourself if your script is really ready. Even if your play has already been produced you may want to look for ways to improve the script before submitting it to the theater you really, really want to have stage it. SOMEWHERE had a successful run in Ohio, where it is set, but I had my sights set on a New York run. So, I sent the script to trusted colleagues, script doctors if you will, Clifford Lee Johnson III before the Ohio run, and Eric Webb before submitting the play to The Players Theatre in New York. The critique and suggestions of both improved the play significantly, and as I work with the director it is still undergoing changes.
Look to your contacts to make a connection with the theater of your choice. Who do you know who could arrange an introduction for you with the artistic director? Set a meeting for coffee to find out what types of plays the theater is looking for and consider how your play might be a good fit before making a pitch. Another approach is to contact an ally at the theater who could read your play and make a recommendation to the artistic director. A third approach is to get involved with the theater and let them know that you have plays available for production. What all of these methods have in common is a personal connection. Theater, like any other business, is about people working with people.
Go within your professional networks to build your creative team. I am in the early stages of this process, but have already found a wonderful director, Kevin Davis, through mutual membership in Ken Davenport’s Producer’s PRO Inner Circle, now called The Theater Makers Studio. Think of the recommendations of your colleagues as testimonials of professionalism for those who could work together harmoniously. I believe it is a good idea to work collaboratively: when professionals come together on a project, the project improves, often in unexpected ways.
Marketing is essential to building your audience and now there are so many ways of promoting a show. Begin with creating a Facebook page and building a website. Not a graphic designer? Hire someone to build the web site for you. It is your online business card and essential for professionals in today’s business world. Build an email list, post on Facebook and Instagram, which has a substantial user base.
Create content to take your followers on the journey of producing your show through videos, blogs, articles, and posts. Get the buy-in of everyone on the project to taps into their own social media platforms to promote the show: the reach to potential ticket buyers grows rapidly. Consider buying Facebook ads. Don’t forget traditional methods, such as print ads, distribution of hot cards, and cross promotion with related businesses, such as dinner packages with restaurants including tickets for your show.
Coordinate efforts with the theater: Michael Sgouros and Brenda Bell at The Players Theatre have been enormously helpful and supportive. Look for promotion opportunities such as writing guest articles and blogs for theater groups with a large following, give interviews and do podcasts. Consider radio and television advertising. When you’ve gotten your show to this level and need some help with bookings you may consider it worthwhile to hire a press agent or marketing agency to arrange bookings for you.
As we look toward holding auditions in a few weeks, there is much work to be done and we only just getting started. It’s very exciting. Position yourself for success by putting together the right team to bring your play to life.
Amy Drake is a playwright and author. Please join her arts marketing Facebook group, Toot Your Own Horn, to share your ideas and suggestions for promoting plays and musicals.
LOVING OUR CHARACTERS (Part I)
By June Guralnick
Cupid’s arrow “pierced my heart like a red-hot dagger.” (Touché! I’ve wanted to use E.T.A. Hoffman’s sizzling cliché since I first learned how to spell ‘metaphor’!) And the cause of my lovesick state, you ask?
Kilt-wearing, sword-wielding, “Jamie” MacKenzie Fraser in Diana Galbadon’s Outlander books (played by Sam Heughan in the heart-palpitating Starz series adaptation). Even as I write this, I feel an avalanche of roiling emotions (embarrassment, self-disgust, amusement, and oh my – lust!) for committing the unpardonable sin of falling in love with a fictional character.
Society tolerates – in fact, encourages – children’s adoration of imaginary characters (called fictiophilia). Proof? More than five hundred million Harry Potter books have sold and Little Women has been in print since 1868. But fictiophilia-afflicted adults? Tagged “sick losers” - and bundled in with the porn addicts!
Eager to avoid that sticky purgatory ☺ - I decided to investigate just how abnormal it is to fall in love with a fictional character, and explore what types of characters commonly tug on our heartstrings. (Bear with me, friends – I am wending my way to playwriting.)
After exhaustive research (some internet ramblings, fast flips through dog-eared psych textbooks, and mocha java infused chats with gal pals), what did I learn?
1) Falling in love with an imaginary character is a hell of a lot easier than loving flesh and blood beings who often break our hearts.
2) We seek out fictional characters whose struggles mirror our own in some way – or, on the flip side, we embrace characters who live a life we want!
3) Loving fictional characters probably won’t f*ck us up – although if obsessive, may prevent healthy interactions with ‘real’ people.
4) “Whether or not characters are ontologically ‘real,’ our familiarity with them renders them very emotionally potent.”
Potent indeed. I’ll be running to a meeting and boom! – Jamie pops into my head and my heart momentarily stops!
I can hear some of you thinking (ok, shouting): “Get a life - it’s not real love! You’re just (fill in the blank) daydreaming, horny, lonely, avoiding ‘real’ relationships, and looking for love in all the wrong places!”
Je confesse! But just maybe there’s something else happening here too.
Experts tell us the emotion of empathy (if I understand the science correctly) is part of our neurobiological makeup and enables us to fall in love with a fictional character.
I recently returned to civilization after being shipwrecked on an island to discover the world of fan fiction, defined as: “Fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from a particular TV series, movie, etc.” There are literally millions of people who are so utterly in love with a character that they have created stories, poems, films, etc. imagining into the life of their amour. (Check out the online Archive of Your Own where you’ll find 2,205,000 users and 5,436,000 fan fiction works!) So - we are not alone!
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d lay odds that larger-than-life, heroic, complex – yet ultimately empathetic and seriously conflicted characters – are the types that capture people’s hearts. I fell in love with Jamie (and upon occasion, other men and women characters) because he is compassionate, courageous, capable of deep, abiding love, (and yes, sexy!) – but also flawed and vulnerable, driven by compelling contrasts (for example, Jamie unabashedly engages in violent battle, yet can’t bring himself to give his wife an injection because it might cause her pain).
Which brings me to plays (ha ha – you thought I would never get here)! Which characters in drama demand our love and affection? In Aristotle’s Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher claims characters must be good (I interpret this to mean living by a moral compass), true to life, and acting consistent with their own nature. Are those qualities still important for our dramatis personae?
The bottom line? Even though many thousands of plays are being written every year, how many people outside our profession are passionate about the characters we create? In fact, when was the last time YOU fell in love with a particular character in a play (as opposed to a character in a book, film, television series, or animation)? And if your answer falls into the “not since disco was king” drawer, are we somehow failing in our job as playwrights to create characters that can elicit this kind of passion?
Sharpen your pens and arrows, because I want to hear from you! Tell me if you’ve ever loved a fictional character and why – and what qualities they possess that touched your heart? After I receive your comments, my next blog will ruminate on how we might inspire audiences to fall in love with the spirits we create that haunt our minds and plays – and ultimately take flight on stage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Photo by Teresa Pigeon
June Guralnick has created plays, performance projects, and large-scale community cultural projects for four decades. Her works have been performed throughout the U.S. – and beamed to the Space Station! Awards include the Silver Medal-Pinter Drama Review Prize, Second Place-Judith Royer Award for Playwriting Excellence, North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellowship, Southern Appalachian Repertory New Plays winner, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Writing Fellows, Hambidge Center for the Arts Writer-in-Residence, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar (University of the South). June’s new full-length play, LITTLE ♀, will receive a staged reading at Burning Coal Theatre in partnership with Justice Theatre in 2020, and her one-act play, SPACE INTERLUDE, will be published in early 2020. For more info, visit juneguralnick.com.
On October 26th and 27th the Statera Arts conference was held at the City College of New York (CCNY), and brought nearly 200 participants together to focus on parity and equality in American Theater.
For those of you not familiar with Statera Arts, Melinda Pfunstein and Shelley Gaza founded it in 2015 with the mission to take “positive action to bring women into full and equal participation in the arts.” This was the 4th annual Statera conference to date and “offered individual artists, arts administrators, academics, and students the opportunity to innovate around unique strategies for manifesting gender parity in our work, our organizations, and our institutions.”
There were over 65 speakers and panelists and attendees “from all over the country as well as international guests from Prague, Nairobi, South America, and Toronto.” Workshops topics ranged from “Bridging the Inequality Gap with Improv” to “Culture Bending with the Bechdel Project” to “Writing Gender: Tools for Playwrights” and beyond.
There was a SWAN day panel on supporting woman artists as well as a Parent Artists Advocacy League (PAAL) panel on “Parenting/Caregiving on the Road to Parity” and some fantastic performances. The Keynote speakers were May Adrales, Associate Artistic Director of Milwaukee Rep, and Broadway star, Joanna Gleason.
I was thrilled to attend the conference with my co-workshop presenter, Namrata Jain, and lead a breakout session on “Collaborations in Global Feminist Performance.”
Wendy-Marie Martin, left. Namrata Jain, right
One of the absolute highlights of the weekend, however, was the opportunity to meet two of my ICWP sisters, Elana Gartner and Sophie Dowllar Ogutu. Having only see their names on the connect serve or as part of the 3-Minute play submission process, it was wonderful to meet these amazing women in person and get to know them and their work a bit better.
LL to R. Wendy Marie Martin, Elana Gartner, Sophie Dowllar Ogutu.
Not only was I able to attend a couple workshops with Elana and Sophie, but Elana and I were able to watch Sophie receive the Visionary Woman in Leadership Award, which is given annually to “a visionary woman* who uplifts, amplifies, and advances women in the arts.”
Sophie was honored for her activism for women in the arts, specifically for her work creating and continued to fostering SWAN day in Kenya. According to her nominators, “Everything Sophie does is WOMEN-centered. She introduced international grassroots feminist women to us here in Kenya. She also introduced SWAN Day Festival. She believes in empowering women. She truly is a believer of women's advancement and true empowerment.”
The weekend overall was inspiring and deliciously exhausting and gave me hope for the future of gender parity in American theater.
It’s an experience I continue to carry into my work as an educator, arts activist, and playwright. Experiences like this are the reason ICWP has created the educational opportunity Development Fund, and I am beyond excited to see our ICWP representation grow at conferences around the word moving forward.
ICWP Board Member
Fundraising Committee Member and 3-Minute Play Contest Coordinator
Auschwitz. A camp I heard so much about. In books and stories in history. But what I crave was more than history. I wanted to know what it must’ve been like for my grandmother, as she survived, but all that followed, and how she pieced her life back together after such life shattering trauma.
It was my Uncle Morris, whom the rest of my family told me was more passionate about playing bridge than telling stories, that finally came to my rescue.
I interviewed my uncle for nearly a year, and for someone whom I hadn’t even met yet, we developed an indescribable closeness through our vulnerable exchanges on life, love and loss.
“We never thought of the fact of whether we would see them again or would not see them again, I just don’t think we thought that way, you know, every day was a survival day, and we lived for that day. Thank God we all joined up after the war.
It’s funny that you mention it, that I never thought to ask Hannah what it was like to be liberated from the camps. I’ve often felt that pain from all of this – the war years, that she went through as – the worst possible thing that a woman could go through.”
Through my relatives, I found a way in. I found that just by asking, their words opened up new worlds not only for me, but for them.
“Besides her lemon bars which my mouth waters every time I think of them, I remember that she always loved me and made me feel important. It was your grandma that gave me the confidence that I have always had. That’s what I enjoy remembering about her. I will continue tomorrow because right now my tears blind me. Love you, Morris.”
I learned how to be strategic with my oral history interview questions. We only remember something that we have recorded or encoded at the time we experienced it. Something may trigger or jog our recollection. One vivid memory might take us back to a whole series of events. A photograph can trigger a memory, response, or arousal. Once the event is recalled, it is ordered and shaped by the narrator. Memories are not just stored, they are newly constructed, combining information to support the immediate situation.
I started a weekly dialogue with Morris and could never have anticipated what I’d learn.
“I can’t even imagine how life would be different without the war, and all of those millions who perished and were tortured.
It’s always been a puzzlement to me, for my survival, because I was such a sick child, knowing that many of my friends did not survive after the war, or my oldest brother. Unfortunately, everyone is gone right now, except myself.
My view of heaven is being together with family from the past who have passed away, and still getting the care and love that I felt from each one of them. when I look at an old picture of my family, I just remember especially how… special they made me feel. They were so wonderful to me, and I don’t know if I ever told them and I am sorry I didn’t, how special they were all to me.
What would Grandma be like today?
She would have been so very proud and happy to see you Amy, that you have survived your own ordeal, as she had survived hers, and so proud of what you went through now, connecting, organizing and getting all of this information about her, and her family.
I hope all of this comes together eventually, and perhaps, wishful thinking, I’m hoping that you and my son can write a book together when this is all finished. I will try to gather whatever photos I have and make copies, and whatever I can send you, I will send you directly to your house, myself.
I guess the only time I really think of Hannah now is when I look at the pictures in the house and I see her. And it’s the same as the rest of the family – my dad, my brothers – but I guess that is why you have pictures, so you can remind yourself once in a while, of the past.
I don’t know who said this, but I think I remember someone saying that as long as we carry our loved ones in our heart they are never truly gone. You and I and the rest of us, when you were, cannot possibly imagine the excruciating pain and suffering she has – she was forced to endure in concentration camp – oh yes we have all even pictured it and know her stories, so we think we know, but we don’t.
I know you personally have survived your own very tragic and painful time in your life, and I am sure you continue with this pain to this day. But you have grown to be a survivor and heroically tell your story to all who will listen so they can also learn about human suffering. It is important for them to know. Especially people who are fortunate enough not to have walked through those gates, but even the ones need to know that they are never alone.
Cherish your gifts and talents to spread the news. It is how civilization survives. We all learn from it.
I personally do not agree with those who say, “As they come in, they come out.” How would that be possible? Some people are born very poor and get very rich, and vice versa. Life is constantly changing and giving you opportunities.
For example, my own life story is…. difficult for me to believe. From a small town in Europe, we came to the greatest country in the world, and have been blessed with many brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and cousins and…. many others who are now in all fields of human endeavors, touching so many lives as they go along the way. What we learn most from your grandma is to carry on and do the right thing, and to set a good example for others to follow. I think that is the best way to honor their legacy.
Anyway, I will try to continue later on. Thank you.”
These words opened up worlds. They opened up my heart. They opened up a family to possibilities that no one knew existed.
I put together hundreds of these transcribed words and created a solo performance piece, “FIBERS” in honor of my Grandma, whose skillful sewing saved her life in the concentration camps.
When I performed FIBERS in public for the first time, not only was I giving voice to Uncle Morris, the story of my Grandmother, and her eight siblings, all but two who had passed on. I was giving voice to an entire era that is threatened every day to fade from history if we don’t keep asking questions.
Stories can not only give a voice to the powerless in society, but can help the individuals find their own power and move forward in their lives. In telling the story, for example, of my great uncle Morris, his family members told me he had never been happier, and was opening up for the first time. I was allowing my family members to tell their stories, and allowing them to move on after such a horrific past in surviving the Holocaust.
I have high hopes for my docudrama, FIBERS. For 90 minutes, I’m embodying 12 family members’ accounts of what they could remember. But what makes for more fascinating material, is what they couldn’t remember. Writing this play was about putting these puzzle pieces together and allowing a powerful story to be fully realized in the process.
Those that argue that oral history is not “reliable” are countered by those who believe the experiences of ordinary people, and their anecdotes are truer than written document. In order to write FIBERS, my job as a playwright was to facilitate remembering. I became fascinated with the stories that the subjects create to hold the memories together – not just the memories themselves. Without memory, there are only cold, hard facts. Theatre is about heart. So is life, and so is the family I came to know in the process.
FIBERS was inspired by the literal sewing my grandmother was forced to do in the concentration camps in order to stay alive. And by telling stories, asking questions, and not giving up our innate capacity to stay curious, we reconnect the fibers of our past, our legacy, who we are now, and the future we can create.
I’ve always known theatre has been about collaboration. But this was the greatest collaboration of my entire career.
Of course, I’m only 30.
But as I learned from interviewing my great-great-uncle Isi in Belgium, keeper of the family’s genealogy…we’ve been around for centuries.
Now THAT’S a long-term collaboration!
AirPlay Presents: Amy Oestreicher's Fibers: https://podtail.com/en/podcast/airplay-1/airplay-presents-amy-oestreicher-s-fibers/
“How could you not remember when you found out Grandma was a Holocaust survivor?”
Marilyn: I don’t remember.
Amy: Well…[getting frustrated] okay. But like –
Amy: Well when did you know what the Holocaust was?
Marilyn: I might have blocked it out. Who knows. Ask my brother.
Amy: I’m wondering why you don’t remember –
Marilyn: I just always knew it. No, I probably – probably heard it when I was younger and just didn’t understand it.
Amy: Well…having always known it – how did that make you feel then?
Marilyn: What do you mean? I just accepted it.
Oy. That’s how it all started.
I wanted to know my more about my grandmother who had passed away while I was in a coma at 18 years old. I had always looked to her spirit for strength, through my own dark times.
I decided I wanted to ask other relatives – people I only had seen in old wedding albums and on Facebook feeds.
At first, I was discouraged to delve into my family history. Why didn’t anyone think this was worth the pursuit?
I called my uncle. His response?
“You’re not gonna get anything – unfortunately I reached out to all of the relatives, everybody, and I’m telling you and nobody knew any of the story – just so you know, when I was going to write my book, after a while I realized there was so little information, like accurate information, that it was gonna have to be a fiction based on historical events. None of this is non-fiction. It’s very frustrating.”
The more relatives I asked in my family, the more I resonated with my uncle’s frustration.
My grandmother, a Jew in Czechoslovakia during World War Two, had been married just 5 weeks when she was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, separated from her 8 siblings and saw her husband shot and killed. She survived the war. She made it to Brooklyn, NY, on a ship that marked the rest of her life with an overwhelming fear of the ocean, married a tailor, and together, they established a successful sewing corporation in the garment district. She, and others like her, never really got to talk about all they had seen, and having endured more pain and felt more fear in those few years than most people in a lifetime, their generation raised children while trying to keep so much bottled up inside. She did her best to keep this fear and pain from her daughter, my mother, and while my mother remembers her as the most loving, sweetest mother, she also remembers feeling a real sadness and fear in her home.
Was that why my mother had “blocked it out?”
When “Nothing” Becomes Everything
According to my mother, my grandmother never spoke much about anything.
“She never talked about the atrocities. She would talk about bread, pieces of bread, people stole from people, she said there were all kinds of people in the camp – good, bad, generous, they lived off potato peels. She said that when they first got there, they had to go in lines, and Dr. Mengele – the crazy “doctor” who did all of those experiments – he told them which line to go on. And Grandma always said that one nurse talked to Mengele, and while she was talking to Mengele, Grandma pulled her friend to the other line, and that is what saved their lives. Grandma also had an abortion. After I was born – she felt like she was too sick to have another baby, and she went to a terrible abortionist in someone’s living room – who almost killed her with a hanger – you know, that’s how they killed them in those days, and she felt guilty forever – you know, a lot of guilt about a lot of stuff…”
One question was leading me to traumas I didn’t even know I should be asking about. Was I ready for that?
The Power of Asking
I realized that one, unassuming question (combined with a bit of gentle prodding and persistency) could open up a stream of remembrances and possibly unjam Lethe’s river of forgetfulness. Perhaps every “I don’t remember” and “They didn’t tell us anything” was simply a deceptive curtain. I read books on history and memory, the generation of postmemory, dug through oral history archives and Jewish history databases, and I searched through oral history archives, called museums, libraries, and old diners in Brooklyn where I knew my grandparents had frequently dined. I went on to create twelve comprehensive oral history guides for family members I hadn’t even met. I was determined to follow the trail of (or lack thereof) memory, too see where it may lead.
One relative connected me to another, and soon, I was getting emails and Facebook Messages from people I didn’t even know I was related to. I introduced my quest with one question:
“Do you remember my Grandma?”
Mostly, the answer was, “A bit. She was sweet. Quiet. Great cook.” But the more questions I asked, the more discoveries I made… including the passionate longing my grandmother always felt for her first husband.
What? A first husband? Before my Grandpa?
One relative recalled, “That’s what she seem to have trouble talking about, just that she loved him a lot . But not much else… like, you knew that the Holocaust had taken a toll. You’d ask her about what it was like, in the old country, and she would make little asides and not even know it? Maybe nothing specific, but you could just tell there was something.”
Between the “I can’t remembers” and “I don’t knows,” the more I asked, the more people seemed to remember about my Grandma’s first husband – the mystery man with no name, photo, or documentation. Another relative revealed, “When they separated the two of them, they were hiding in a tobacco farm. She and her sister were playing outside. Nazis came, and they grabbed her and beat her. Her older brother ran out of the house, and said “Don’t touch my sisters, take me.” First they put him in a jail, and Grandma and Aunt Betty would sneak to the jail, where they saw him tied up in chains, and grandma always felt guilty. Her brother went to the camps and died there, but everyone else in the family survived. Everyone got separated, they were separated for months – it was a miracle they all met back in America. Sad – Hannah [my Grandma] always thought she would die and her husband would live because she always said, he was so strong. Same with her brother.”
Wait, Grandma’s brother died?
“You’ll Never Find Enough Facts”
Every “answer” led to more unresolved questions, which opened more gaps in what I thought I knew. Soon, I was prompted to ask about events, places and people I never had heard about in my entire childhood from a family I thought I knew inside out.
An aunt then warned me as I dared to tread further, “It was kind of an unstated rule when you’re with Holocaust survivors that you don’t go there. and nobody comes out and says it, but it’s true for all of us that are first generation – you just grew up knowing you didn’t go there.”
But I went there.
I went “there,” just to end up in a maze, in search of facts, dates, and places with no “finish line” in sight. Throughout this tireless pursuit, my relatives were sure to constantly remind me that I’d never find enough facts.
“It’s like the telephone game. The story changes the more people you talk to.”
“All you’ll get is memory. No history.”
But in the end, what was I looking for that was really important to me? History or memory?
What I discovered was an even greater gift than history. I found precious family anecdotes that even my own mother didn’t know. I discovered that every family member had a personal piece of history and in stringing them together, I was creating the family narrative.
I interviewed nieces, nephews, great aunts, uncles, grandparents, distant cousins, and far distant cousins from Belgium, France, Prague, Israel, and San Francisco. I went to research and history archives and uncovered photographs and old documents from my past, including the ship that my grandparents came to America on. I logged hours transcribing tape upon tape and discovered that a word can become a whole world.
Humans claim to love facts, but I think we truly, in our hearts, treasure stories and memories more. What I uncovered were greater truths than I ever could have found in a history book. These words of my family members – many of these words just telling me “I don’t know anything,” opened up an entire world for me.
Part 2 to be published soon...
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