Member Spotlight: Laura Shamas
by Debbie Miller
Laura Annawyn Shamas hails from Oklahoma and has lived in Tulsa, Denver, and L.A. She writes plays, non-fiction, screenplays, and fiction and blogs about art and creativity. Her education includes a B.A. in Theater Arts from UCLA, an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Colorado-Boulder, and an M.A. and a PhD in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She's a member of ICWP, the Writers Guild of America West, PEN USA, the Dramatists Guild, the League of Professional Theatre Women, and Women in Film. She lives in Los Angeles.
What is your experience with and what is your impression of play festivals that feature plays by Native Americans?
I've been to quite a few as an audience member, and have participated as a dramaturg in one and as a playwright in five: Native Earth Performing Arts/Toronto; Native Voices at the Autry/Los Angeles; Native Festival at The Public Theatre (New York); Five Civilized Tribes Museum (Muskogee, OK); and I just got back from Oklahoma City Theater Company's Native American New Play Festival of 2015. I love attending them. My impression is that they are excellent and needed.
Why is it important for Native American playwrights to get their work produced? Why are their works important?
It's crucial for Native American playwrights to have their work produced today because they are the First People of this country, and they were systematically killed or removed by those who came later. The works of current Native American playwrights represent these cultures, and speak for their ancestors and for the future. These traditions and people are still alive in spite of the cultural, social, and political genocide launched against them for hundreds of years. Last year I had a research fellowship at the Autry Museum related to Native residential school experiences in the U.S. and the intergenerational effect of those schools on native families. I visited Carlisle, the site of the "first" military-style residential boarding school for native children, as part of this project. I will never forget seeing the many graves of "unknown" native children who died while attending Carlisle. Here's a link to my summary post: http://blog.theautry.org/2014/11/memories-that-haunt-and-reaffirm/
Do you self-identify as a Native American playwright? What is your connection with that world?
My heritage is mixed. My last name is Arabic - "Shamas," which means "light," from the Sumerian-Babylonian sun god Shamash, a god of justice. Both my parents have native ancestry, and of different tribes. As is traditional in terms of matrilineal roots, I'm a member of my mother's tribe, the Chickasaw Nation. I also have English, French, Irish, Lebanese and Scottish heritage. I was born in Oklahoma and grew up there, so that's my connection. Some of my plays are archived at NAWPA, the Native American Women Playwrights Archive: http://staff.lib.muohio.edu/nawpa/
Tell me about one of your environmentally themed plays. Is environmentalism a passion of yours?
The play I'm most proud of in that vein is CHASING HONEY, about the devastating loss of the honeybees, which I wrote in 2007. I'm sorry to say the play is still entirely relevant. The play has an all native cast, and is about two native families and Colony Collapse Disorder. It was analyzed by Yvette Nolan, whose work I love, in an essay published last year: "The Collapse of Worlds in Laura Shamas's Chasing Honey," in Enacting Nature: Ecocritical Perspectives on Indigenous Performance (Peter Lang Publishers, 2014, Birgit Dawes and Marc Maufort, eds.).
Environmentalism is a passion of mine, and is addressed in several of my plays. I do have a new pitch for an environmental play that went out in the past year. It would be the most environmental one yet! And the feedback I've gotten on the outline has been positive, but no one has chosen to fund or commission it and it does have a lot of on-site research involved.
Tell me about your latest ventures.
In 2015, I have 3 new theatre projects in development. One is CIRCULAR, a new two-person show about Circe, Odysseus, and PTSD. It's about a young female psychiatrist in the Army who becomes entangled in the world of The Odyssey as she serves in Afghanistan. It's a psychological study, and you don't know what really happened until the final scene of it. It had its first reading at the Lark Play Development Center in New York in April.
The next project I have coming up is a new musical that composer-lyricist Lisa Donovan Lukas (lisadonovanlukas.com) and I have been working on, LADY-LIKE, a musical biography of "The Ladies of Llangollen." It has a cast of 3 women - huge roles! Our first reading of it is going up at the end of June in Santa Monica. I'm directing the reading and I cannot wait for everyone to hear Lisa's music and lyrics. I’m honored to work with Lisa; I'm the book writer and it's adapted from one of my earlier plays also called LADY-LIKE.
Tell me about LUCKY IN HOLLYWOOD. You mentioned the Native American New Play Festival in Oklahoma City
That's my third new theater project this year, and it's based partially on an old family story. It spans the years from 1943 - 2024. It's about a native family and a "Hollywood" family, and how their lives intertwine for generations when "Lucky," a native American WWII gunner who miraculously survives a bullet straight through his bubble, is given a scholarship for acting at a famous Playhouse in the Los Angeles area. I do have a Chickasaw ancestor whose story was the spark for this. I was so thrilled that it is a 2015 finalist at the Oklahoma City Native American New Play Festival. It was wonderful to see 4 new plays at that festival last month, and they did a terrific job with my reading - very helpful to see it.
What type of characters are your favorite to write? Do you write mostly female or male characters?
I have several all female cast plays (including one co-written with esteemed ICWP member Paula Cizmar!). But all in all, I'd say it's a fairly even split for me in gender categories. For characters I like to write: characters who take action, who do actually do things. I find it's extremely tricky to write passive characters, even though we all have passive aspects to our lives. I also love to write smart female and male characters.
Do you write plays to inform people, inspire them, educate them, or something else?
Something else: You have to entertain them or else you're not writing plays. I do try to do all of the above, too, but in the end, if it's not entertaining, it's not going to work onstage. I don't think "entertaining" people in a theater is easy to do, by the way, because you're asking a group of people to suspend disbelief, to let their own thoughts and worries go, and to follow your imagination instead. That takes a lot of writing effort, especially in today's world, when most of us are now in the habit of scrolling our lives away on smart devices at all times.
Welcome New Members
Andrea Markowitz, Arizona, USA
Hooked on theatre since age seven when I saw my first Broadway show, I earned degrees in English literature, musicology and psychology, and landed jobs in several industries before authoring the play, “Feeding the Furies.” I write in multiple genres, but playwriting is special to me because of the immediate focus on character and dialogue. A New Jersey (USA) native, I moved to Arizona in 2002, where I am currently writing a second play. I would love to connect with other ICWP members to share tips, expertise and experiences that will help us reach our fullest potential.
Elaine Fernandez, Hudson Valley Playwrights, USA
Elaine Fernandez is founder and director of Hudson Valley Playwrights, a theatre workshop for local writers developing new work. Most recently, her 10 minute play "Almost Home" received a staged reading at the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff, New York, and her One Act play, "Hey, Driver," was produced at The CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck on May 9, 2015. Elaine is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America.
Laurine Smilan, Emerging Playwright, Recovering Lawyer, USA
Eliza Wyatt, England
Eliza Wyatt has been active in the theatre for more than thirty years, mostly in Boston, Mass. and now in England. She has won many awards for her plays, competitions and Firsts. Her plays can all be accessed and read at: www.elizawyattplays.com
ICWP will hold its annual meeting July 10-17, 2015, and we invite all our members to participate in the online forum on the website. One of the most important issues in this annual meeting is the election of new Board of Trustee members. Any member is eligible to be nominated. Trustees are elected to the Board for two-year terms and help to run the day-to-day operations of ICWP as well as plan for the future. Members who have served on a board previously are especially welcome and if you feel you can offer some energy, experience and general good ideas we'd like to see your name in the list of nominees.
Three of the current Trustees, Suzanne Rakow (Treasurer) Geralyn Horton, and Kris Bauske are ending the second year of their current two year term. This leaves at least 3 positions that need filled to reach the legal minimum of nine Trustees. The maximum number of trustees who can serve on the Board is 15. So please consider putting your name forward or the name of someone else you know would be a good Trustee.
Suzanne Rakow, who has served faithfully and efficiently as Treasurer for 8 years, wishes to give up her position on the Board, so we are especially looking for a Trustee who has 501-c-3 accounting or bookkeeping experience along with knowledge of software like Excel and online banking. Other open positions are: President, Vice President, and Secretary. One of the main duties of Board members is to participate in quarterly Board meetings, which take place online in the same type of forum as the upcoming Annual Meeting. During these meetings, the Board discusses different initiatives for the organization, such as participation in the Equity in Theater Conference and joining the Women in Arts & Media Coalition. The Secretary also has the responsibility of writing the minutes of said meetings.
To nominate someone (or yourself), please complete this online form. Please click the link to make a nomination. Nomination Form. If you have any trouble with this link you can email ICWP Administration using the link at the bottom of this newsletter. (firstname.lastname@example.org.)When making a nomination, please make sure that you have the member's permission and that they are interested in serving on the Board. The date for submitting nominations has been pushed back to 26 June, 2015. Nominations can also be made during the online meeting, but those names will not appear on the member voting ballot.
50/50 Applause Award Update
It may appear June is a quiet month for ICWP’s 50/50 Applause Awards, but nothing could be further from the truth. When nominations closed, the committee was left with a great deal of raw data that needed to be examined, organized, and verified. Each nominated organization has been contacted for additional information, and there are always questions about what does and does not make them eligible. The data is updated daily as each organization responds, and all nominees are then sorted into either the Eligible or Ineligible category. In many instances, the committee is still awaiting final responses from nominees. Co-Chairs, Elana and Kris, have also been interviewing volunteers to work on the exciting 2015 Celebration video this year. Much like the duck, all may seem still at the surface, but the committee continues to paddle ferociously underneath!
Articles of Interest
Seattle novelist Nicola Griffith has some great posts this week related to the content of novels about women, female authorship, and winning awards. Many see the correlative to theater:
excerpt: “…. I feel the part of me that floats between physical and sexual aspects of my life is the truest part – a neutral space not limited by binary concepts that make us either male or female. I have made being this “alternative hero” my work for two decades in a world where it is still prevalent in cultures dominated by ancient religions that women are considered lesser in their very essence than men, and they still have no voice. It is a privilege and joy to step outside my own gender, and let the neutral in me – and in us all – sing."
Alice Coote: My Life as a Man
Ahead of her solo Brighton festival appearance showcasing Handel’s gender-bending operatic writing, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote reflects on the complexities of a creative life playing ‘breeches’ roles.