Work on the 50/50 Applause Award has shed light on that fact that there are many theaters around the globe whose mission is to produce only plays written by women playwrights. Read about two of them.
June Spotlight: Barbara Lhota
by Suzanne Richardson
Barbara tells her story of evolution from acress to playwright, embracing her sexual orientation, and plans for the future.
Barbara Lhota is a playwright and screenwriter from Detroit, MI. Currently living and working in Chicago, Barbara received her degree from Wayne State University studying acting and then going on to study at Brandeis to pursue Dramatic Writing. She was a winner of Babes With Blades' 2nd annual playwriting competition Joining Sword and Pen for her play Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished). Among many other accolades, her play Echo was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, as well as for the American Firehouse Theatre, and The Athena Project in Denver. Her latest show, 180 Degrees, was co-written with Margaret (M.E.H.) Lewis and finished its run in Chicago this past May. Today, she continues to write for stage and screen, and is an Associate Member Artist at the Babes with Blades Theatre Company in Chicago.
When did you start playwriting?
When I was at Wayne State University in Detroit, I was an acting major. I had a dream to be an actress but found that I lived too much in my head. I wasn’t yet out as a lesbian, and so I was a bit uncomfortable physically too. I believe when you have secrets about yourself or are holding back, I think that makes you less open as an actress or artist in general. Story writing and telling is generally revealing, so you have to be free to be yourself, with flaws showing.
I remember thinking in undergrad that the actresses were always short-changed on roles. In classics there are about three times as many male vs. female roles, and almost all the plays we were doing were written by men. Meanwhile, there were about twice as many actresses in the theater department vs actors. One of my best friends and roommate at the time, Barbara Kanady, encouraged me to write a play. That year, 1987, I started writing my first play in a coffee shop between classes. It had three women and one man. We produced it that year in one of Wayne State’s black box. My roommate directed it and my professors were quite impressed.
I did get into University Resident Theatre Auditions (URTAs) and ended up having a scholarship to be an acting major for grad school but decided not to go. Instead I ended up with a scholarship to Brandeis for dramatic writing the year after graduation. Longer story but Theresa Rebeck, who was in Brandeis’ PhD program at the time, played a large part in my deciding to go to Brandeis.
When you write, do you focus on developing characters first, or the plot?
Through the years, I have done both. When I was younger, I frequently focused on a leading character first. I was drawn into quirky characters and those I found challenging from my life. I used to struggle with plot, and now, I often hear that my plots are intricate. Certainly, my play, 180 Degree Rule, which was co-written with M.E.H. Lewis, was plot heavy. But despite that, I felt like we knew every aspect of the characters too. Both are so important and they can help feed each other.
I feel like now I start with ideas rather than characters and plot. For instance, I’m working on a play called 85 Billion Neurons to Forever. I was having dinner with a friend and she asked me how I wanted to be buried. I told her that I wish those who were dead could have their brains uploaded so we could ask their advice. I started to research transhumanism and cyborgs out of fascination. It got me thinking about what it means to be human. I started to develop the play using that idea as a question to explore.
When Margaret (M.E.H. Lewis) and I started to develop 180 Degree Rule, we were talking about how famous women artists were frequently dismissed over time. We started chatting about Dorothy Arzner, a film director from the 20s-40s, who was largely unknown. She invented the boom mic for God’s sake and managed to survive the studio system. In her films, she regularly slipped in feminist themes and lesbian overtones, which I consider pretty forward-thinking and daring. 180 Degree Rule was inspired by her and other forgotten female directors of the 30s because we started to ask questions about the struggles they faced – the life they must have or could have lived. It inspired us to fill in the blanks.
How did you learn about ICWP?
I joined a long, long time ago – in the 90s. I found the Listserv first because I had just graduated and I felt alone as a writer…it’s a lonely craft. I know I wanted to listen to other playwrights’ struggles and successes, particularly female playwrights. It also listed opportunities for women. I believe one of the leading members of ICWP at the time – maybe - Linda Eisenstein, was writing an article or quoted in an article so I went and found the site.
What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals?
My process is different for every play. I don’t want to impose too many rules or rituals. The process is like cooking for me. I don’t tend to strictly follow a recipe. I throw in what I need at the time…I see I need more research in a moment. I do the research. I see I need a bit more understanding of the backstory. I take some time to free write about a character’s backstory. This way I stay open to possibilities. I don’t impose too many rules and obligations. It stays spontaneous and fun.
Some plays flow out pretty easily and others seem to require a lot of outlining, research, wrestling and tears. I don’t know that those that came out easier are better. The couple of things I always try to do now are 1) outline what the main character wants to have happen and what are the major obstacles, (What does the audience want to see happen?/What are we waiting for?) 2) outline first scene, act one ending or mid-way climax, and ending, 3) know in chronological order the full relationship and major events that happened between the main/pivotal characters (even if those events are never shown on stage), 4) What question am I exploring?
I also always mouth all the lines as I’m writing or re-reading my work. I play all the parts. This is why I no longer work in coffee shops. I look a bit nutzo.
Do you often work in tandem with a theatre company, or seek out a theatre after you have written a show?
I work a lot with Babes With Blades Theatre Company (BWBTC) in Chicago, where I am an associate member artist. The mission of BWBTC resonates with me. BWBTC is also a company of highly-collaborative, supportive, responsive, clever, resilient women. I tend to naturally write plays where female characters are active and the primary focus. I’m quite fond of male characters as well and like them to be uniquely placed in roles that tend to be more gentle and supportive. Because I’ve always lived in cities and grew up in Detroit during a highly turbulent time in history, violence has been part of my life experience. I think I am drawn to explore the effects of violence, which is very in-line with Babes’ mission.
I definitely match my plays to appropriate theatres and their mission. I think you have to focus on that as you try to step into the role of marketing your play. For Warped, for instance, I definitely targeted Stage Left Theatre in Chicago. I knew that play would provoke debate because it was inspired by a debate/discussion between friends. When I finish the full-length version of 85 Billion Neurons to Forever, I will definitely seek out OtherWorld Theatre Company since their mission is science fiction.
Where do you pull most of your inspiration from when creating characters?
My family and friends. I have extremely unique individuals in my life. I draw from those around me.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to write? (Comedy, drama, fantasy, etc.)
Drama mostly with a lot of comedy laced throughout. My experience in life is that somebody always cracks a joke in the middle of the most tragic circumstances. I like drama but if the play has no humor, I find that unreal.
What would you say was your most rewarding moment as a playwright or writer in general?
There are so many rewarding moments and most heart-warming moments are not about awards or fabulous reviews. What I love is that moment alone when I’m working on a particular difficult moment in a play (the part where I’m stuck or unsure) and the answer just presents itself. It’s like God or the story is talking to you. There’s so much reward in that. When I was working with Margaret (M.E.H. Lewis) I loved that because it happened a number of times when we were outlining together and we got to share that kismet moment together.
My other biggest reward in playwriting is when the director and actors get all excited about some moment in the play that was a bit of a struggle to figure out. They not only figure out how to do it, but do it better and with more gusto than I could have imagined. I love the creative process and the collaboration most of all.
What advice would you give to a young woman just starting out as a playwright?
Work on the basics: scene work with conflict and surprise, action, distinguishing character voices. Volunteer to be a script reader for a theater. If you can intern at a bigger theater company, even better, but do it where you can read a lot of scripts. It gives you a lot of insight. Read and workshop your plays, even if that’s in your living room with actors you know. Listen to feedback that is repeated by multiple people and from those you trust. Write a lot – as much as you can. Send plays that are ready out. 100 a year to try to get any response. Treat your fellow artists (directors, actors, designer) with respect and love. When you are discouraged, read the many stories of famous writers’ woes. There are many of them out there on the interwebs…find them. You are not alone.
Welcome New Members
Mayura Baweja has been working in the theatre as an actor, writer and director for more than a decade. Her first full length play Paper Thin was part of a staged reading last year in Singapore. Passionate about finding and making spaces for women's voices in theatre, she is thrilled to be part of this writing community. She currently resides in Bangalore.Susan Miller, USA
Articles of Interest
by Patricia Morin
Carol Lashof, a longtime ICWP member, launched Those Women Productions along with Libby Vega in 2014. Their amazing journey began in the metal shop of a school, and grew into producing women's plays at Live Oak Theatre, Berkeley, CA. They were also voted the best new theatre of 2015.
How the company began:
I pitched a production of my play "Just Deserts" (the Oresteia from the pov of the Furies) as a co-curricular event to the Seminar program at St Mary's College. I told SMC we were doing a production in Berkeley and could bring it to the College. In fact, we had no plans to do the play at all and no infrastructure. SMC said yes and we scrambled to figure out what the hell we were doing. An anonymous donor emerged out of thin air (so it seemed to me) and I opened a checking account in the name of Those Women Productions. (See Those Women’s website www.thosewomenproductions.com or/and www.facebook.com/CarolSLashofPlaywright/)
Those Women Productions is a professional theater company with deep roots in the Berkeley community. Libby Vega and I met at the Berkeley Public Library and were drawn together by our shared loves of classic literature and feminism. We did not see a local theater company where those passions were integral, so we formed Those Women Productions to shake up the patriarchy while telling great stories with broad appeal. Our inaugural production in 2014 was the world premiere of my play, “Just Deserts”, a darkly comic retelling of the origin myth of the jury system told from the perspective of the avenging furies. It was performed at The Metal Shop Theater, where we began, at Willard Middle School. In 2015, Those Women Productions mounted two full productions. They returned to The Metal Shop Theater to stage “In Plain Sight”. This show offered new takes on old tales from diverse world cultures and featured the work of five Bay Area playwrights, all women. The San Jose Mercury News described it as “…a provocative mix of voices and perspectives.” The Express also named Those Women Productions the “Best Year-Old Theater Company” of 2015. The Dramatist Guild lauded Those Women for joining the fight for gender parity, “turn(ing) patriarchy on its ear.”
Those Women Productions is an adventurous theater company dedicated to exploring hidden truths of gender and power. The company aims to bring marginalized voices to the center of the stage, to ask bold questions and instigate conversation. Because conversations are more exciting with diverse participants, they practice Radical Hospitality: everyone is invited to the theater regardless of ability to pay.
About Carol and her Work:
Carol’s plays have been broadcast on BET and NPR and staged on five continents—from the Magic Theatre and Piano Fight in San Francisco to Peking University and the University of Guam. Her publications include several scripts for teens available from Youth PLAYS, as well as work in numerous anthologies. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and is Professor Emerita at Saint Mary’s College of California. Carol’s been a member of ICWP without interruption since 2011. “But very long ago,” Carol said, “and possibly in the early 1990s when her children were young and listservs were a totally new cool thing, I was on the listserv. I can't remember how I first heard about ICWP or came to join it, perhaps through the Dramatists Guild - I've been a DG member since 1981. Anyway, I couldn't keep up and was shoving my playwriting "career" to the way-back burner, so I dropped off the list.”
Trials and Tribulations of Beginning Your Own Theatre Company:
Affordable, accessible, and available performance space is extremely difficult to find in the Bay Area. Our next show, Margaret of Anjou, will be shown at Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley, CA., a new venue, another step forward.
Trying to figure out all the various media necessary for promotional tasks.
Making time for everything that needs to be done probably is the number one issue.
The potential for very public failure and consequent humiliation is terrifying.
- Asking people for money is also terrifying and requires overcoming shame.
- Ditto self-promotion.
- As a producer, there is always more to do. It's like a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Don't be afraid to ask for help!
Yours for innovative, engaging, and equitable theater,