Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Playwright/Actor Chris Harcum on Writing & Playing Martin Denton

 What was the development of Martin Denton Martin Denton?

Several interviews with Martin and some others from the indie theater sector > over 400 pages of transcriptions + other research > first draft in mostly chronological order > fact checking from Martin > second draft with the style of the play more solidified > first reading > fix, fix, fix, fix > second reading > three other drafts (we’re at 250 hours at this point) > Aimee Todoroff’s directorial magic + Marisol Rosa-Shapiro’s creativity in rehearsal > 40 hours of running lines on my own > Matthew Fisher’s design brilliance > stress and sweat > show > interacting with people after the performances and online.

What is it like playing and getting inside the minds of Martin and Rochelle?

This piece is a hybrid of the interviews and my own playwriting. It is Chris playing several characters and Marisol playing like 28 characters. It is a very difficult piece for both Marisol and me to perform. It needs to feel very loose and relaxed but we must be very precise and work at full-tilt for 95 minutes. We switch styles a lot and quote productions from the last 20 years throughout the piece. It is very comedic but turns on a dime and it is quite emotional in places. There are several layers of reality happening at once wrapped around some straightforward storytelling.

Neither of us leave the stage at any point in the show and we each do the work of 10 actors. The physical, mental, and vocal energy is intense. I have a ton of facts, names, and numbers that I dole out throughout the night so I need to be clear-headed. I feel like I’ve done two solo shows when I leave the stage and I have to keep after the athletic portion of doing this thing. Marisol, on the other hand, can have a fried chicken sandwich 30 minutes before curtain and be fine.

Several people have told me that I really captured Martin in certain moments. Erez Ziv from Horse Trade said there are times where I drop away completely and he only sees Martin when I’m performing. Others have said to me how Marisol is channeling Rochelle.

I'm assuming that Martin saw the play and if that's the case, what was it like playing Martin
Chris Harcum and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro
Denton to Martin Denton?

I’ve performed pieces as the person I’m playing for the actual person before now so that wasn’t difficult. Plus Martin had read the script several times.

We’ve had great audiences. Some are loud. Sooz Nolan said last Thursday’s show was like being at church. There were rolling reactions. The show ran seven minutes longer without any changes to the text.

Martin attended our second matinee, which was comparatively quiet but the audience was present. Like no one wanted to miss anything. Lots of laughing under their breath. There was a little more fragility crackling in the air. I try to recalibrate the performance to meet the audience where they are but to pull them along or kick them in the rear, if they need it. This one, I tried to allow more space to let it be received however it was being received.

We went to B Bar after the show and shared a meal. It was a pleasant experience.
Do you have a day-job and if so, how do you organize your creative bad-ass self?

My Clark Kent job is as a staff editor at a news organization. In addition to acting and playwriting, I’m the Producing Director for Elephant Run District and the Director of a Bright Future for the League of Independent Theater. I work on things project by project. I try to get the work and business stuff done first so I can let loose with the creative stuff.

What's it like collaborating with your partner-in-crime/director/Elephant Run District AD Aimee Todoroff?

We try to be very aware when we work with others so they don’t feel like they are in the middle of our relationship but are working on a production. We keep a very professional relationship in the rehearsal room and in the theater. I don’t get special treatment as an actor. We were two months into a project for another company when someone in the cast asked me what my wife did and I pointed in the direction of the director’s table.

It’s sometimes hard during ERD projects because the work comes home with us. The producing stuff and the work to get ready for the next rehearsal. So it can feel like we don’t get a break when we’re in production. We have to carve out time to be a couple and relax. Aimee suggests more fun things to do and I panic that I’ll never be ready if I take a break. But you can’t let life pass you by while you create it.

Of the two of us, she is the more fun and outgoing one. So it’s kind of funny that she’s the director and I’m the performer. She’s much better about talking about a show than I am and people generally like her more. Maybe we’ll get wise and switch places.
Chris Harcum and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro
What's coming up after this?

I don’t know. This was a big rock to push up the hill so I’ll take a bit of time to recharge. I’ll also get back to my advocacy work with the League of Independent Theater. This is an election year in the city so we want to get arts-friendly, local candidates into office.

Anything you'd like to add?

The conversations after the shows have been amazing. People who make indie theater are having some emotional experiences and it is great to talk to them. I heard a woman who is not in the theater saw the show. When asked what she thought the show was about, she said, “How life is pre…” and before she could finish saying “precious” she started crying. This has been quite a special show to make and do each night.

Martin Denton, Martin Denton written by Chris Harcum and directed by Aimee Todoroff plays through July 23th at the Kraine Theater. To purchase ticket, go here.

Photo Credits: Cilla Villanueva

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Playwright Adam Szymkowicz on Getting Produced

"You really need to send each play to at least 100 places if you want a production."
-Adam Szymkowicz

Last week, there was a popular thread on Facebook started by a post from prolific playwright Adam Szymkowicz about how many times he submits his plays in order to get a production. The post garnered a great deal of response in the form of questions about how he submitted etc., (as well as a post from playwright/TV/Screenwriter & reporter Aurin Squire seconding the sentiment) so I reached out to Adam to see if he'd like to chat about it for Theaterspeak and he did, so here it is. Hope it serves to inspire and motivate.

How many times did you submit this year? And what were the responses?

Most I have not yet heard back from. I sent 60 in '17 so far, and two of them have led to productions. This is very good numberwise. I think a lot of playwrights don't send many plays out. You really need to send each play to at least 100 places if you want a production. That takes time.

Is this for productions or also grants and fellowships?

This year?  Just for productions. Those don't make a lot of sense for me right now. Or maybe some of them do but I find that applying for the things everyone else is applying for makes every submission more of a long shot. I try to send to small theaters and big theaters (sometimes) who might be a match. But also, that's because of the kind of plays I write. I don't get awards and fellowships usually.

Someone on Facebook had asked if you cold submit - meaning you submit to places where you don't have a contact, and you said you did but you didn't used to. Can you talk about that?

I think I've always cold submitted and over the years have had luck with that. I think it's a lot about your play and about luck and not about a lot else.

If you don't know someone at place do you do 6 degrees of separation and see if someone does know them and can put in a good word?

Not a lot. Sometimes. I think a lot of theater people know who I am at this point but yes sometimes it helps if someone who knows how things actually happen at the organization is advocating for you. Other artists can be very generous that way.

How much time to you spend on submissions daily, weekly?

I have a reminder telling me to submit every Monday. I have no idea how much time I actually spend. The reminder helps me remember it's something I want to concentrate on more but math wise to get the number of productions I want I actually should be submitting at least one thing a day every day.

Do you have an agent and how do they (or have they) helped?

Yes. I think agents are all overworked. They can only do so much. Eventually we have to make our own relationships and no one should stop sending plays because they have an agent.

Same goes with manager? (Some people say that managers are more helpful...). 

For TV, managers are helpful. I don't have one.

Where do you find your submission opps?

Mostly I look for theaters using google. I tell people to google plays like your play and approach the theaters doing them and see if they'll read your play. It only works for theaters that do new work so super famous plays aren't the ones to google. Which means reading and seeing a lot of plays. And really figuring out what your aesthetic is and who it matches with.

How do you track/organize them?

Poorly. In a notebook at the moment. Here's the thing-- everyone should submit the way they do it. You don't have to be super organized. You don't have to be famous.

How do you feel about paying to submit?

I pay for the big things only. Like things that would help my career if I got them.

Do you submit everywhere or are there some places you won't? What's the criteria and has that changed throughout your career?

It has changed. I sort of don't know how to answer this question. People should judge for themselves where to send plays but don't be afraid to put your stuff out there. No one can discover you unless you put yourself out there.

How do you negotiate payment for your productions? Do you use your agent or some other resource like the Dramatist Guild?

My agent does the contracts. Most of my contracts are for premiere productions. Most of my productions overall are from publication of plays that had premiere productions. Which means my agent might take care of one or two productions and then the publisher takes over collecting money from theaters.

How do you balance creating new work and submitting work and seeing other people's work? (And a family?!)

Badly. I am always overextended.

Do you have a day job as well and how do you (or have you) managed that?

I am the Lit Mgr at the Juilliard School. It's a cool job and it's flexible but it's a lot of work.

What about Film and TV?

I had a TV job once and I lived cheaply off that money for a long time.

Is there anything else regarding the submission process that you'd like to share?

People might like your play and never tell you. The new norm is to just not ever send a rejection so you should expect to never hear from anyone again and if you do hear from someone, that's really good.

How can people see/read your work?

I'm about to have my 10th play published. Amazon has lots of them.  Go to the Drama Book Shop and pick them up there. Or check my blog to see upcoming productions. If last year is any indication, I'll probably have 20-something productions of my full lengths this year.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Playwright Hollis James on Drugs, Trepidation & Writing His New Play KYLE

Playwright Hollis James
Playwright Hollis James
 "I think a misconception about abusing drugs and liquor is that the people doing it know why they’re doing it."
-Hollis James

What made you write KYLE? 

I think that KYLE was a story that I wanted to tell eventually, but I never thought I was ready to tell it until I sat down and the pages poured out of me. I think a misconception about abusing drugs and liquor is that the people doing it know why they’re doing it. I’m a bit vague in the show about why the lead character begins using, because to this day I can’t put my finger on exactly why I got hooked. It’s sort of the same with writing; I can’t really explain why I needed to tell this story or even why the story chose this time to get told. All I knew was I had to write it.

Did you experience fear or trepidation in any point of writing and developing something so personal, and if so, how did you deal with that? 

I didn’t feel any fear while writing it, which is probably why I managed to be so truthful. But I definitely felt some trepidation once my wife Emily suggested that we actually produce the play. I immediately pictured my octogenarian parents sitting in the front row, watching their former-altar-boy son do blow for ninety minutes! Luckily, that feeling passed by the time I had my final draft. I used to joke that I’d be a hell of a writer once my parents died. But I’ve reached an age where writing about certain topics is no longer off limits, no matter how bad it might make me look.

Kyle Production Photo

What has been the development process?

KYLE started as a couple of small scenes. I’m a big dialogue guy, so I just had two characters talking
to each other. Then I realized one was based on me during a very tumultuous time in my life. I wasn’t sure who the other character was. A few more scenes made it clear to me what was going on with those two. Before I knew what happened I had half the play written, and my wife, Emily, said, “We’ve got to produce this.” We filed paperwork to form Hot Tramp Productions later that week.
I don’t have much experience producing indie theater, but I do know this is break-neck speed compared to most shows’ development!

What is it like working with your spouse as your director and co-producer?

It’s great. I love that we get to share this experience together. I also can’t imagine trusting anyone else with a story so personal to me. Whenever you do anything creatively, you need at least one person you can always count on—because there are armies of people lining up to say “no.” My best friend, Ted Alexandro, and I found that out making our web series, Teachers Lounge. We were always there for each other, stoking each other’s confidence and manufacturing positivity. Emily and I have different skill sets that compliment each other well. I never doubted Emily and I would succeed, because everything we do is always better when we do it together. That’s why we got married!

What is your writing schedule like?

I mostly write early in the mornings or late at night. I think that comes from my background in magazine publishing, where I was constantly on deadline. When I get an idea, I write as much as I can as fast as I can. I don’t judge it; I just keep going until I reach a point where I get stuck. An important part of my writing process is sleep, which is never easy for me because my mind is constantly racing. But when I finally manage to get to sleep, I usually wake up the next day with answers about where to go with the story.

What is inspiring you right now?

I’m still drawing inspiration from a lot of the same figures that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I’m a big non-fiction fan, so in the last two weeks alone I’ve read books on Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, The Kids in the Hall, The Compass Players, and am currently reading a biography on my beloved Peter Cook. There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for all those people who created the art that hooked me as a kid. These days—where art itself is under attack—I like being reminded of the impactful and transformative power wielded by artists.

What's next?

My pal Ted and I are at work on a new full-length screenplay. It’s in the hush-hush stage right now, but we’re hoping to go public very soon!

Anything you'd like to add?

Only that the cast Emily and I have assembled are the ideal actors to present this gritty little play. They totally got what Emily and I were trying to do from KYLE’s very first read through, and we feel lucky to have them onboard. I can’t wait for show time!

KYLE will play UNDER St. Marks March 9-25, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm. Tickets ($25) are available online at 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The "Most Offensive" Play for a Most Offensive Time: Director Michele Travis with writer Libby Emmons

HOW TO SELL YOUR GANG RAPE BABY* *FOR PARTS is a comedy about internalized misogyny, rape culture, and the road to being your best self. It was born from a site-specific series of short plays set in bars that ran in NYC called Sticky. Co-producers Libby Emmons and  Ali Ayala (dir/co-pro) appeared together in a series of these shorts featuring the characters "Ali" and "Libby". These shorts became HTSYGRBFP.

An earlier incarnation of the play (titled PUFF PUFF) won “Most Offensive” in Jacquetta Szathmari's Festival of the Offensive in 2014 (dramaturgical support from Brad Rothbart and directed by Michael Domitrovich). Michele Travis (Sticky co-producer 2015-2016), directs HTSYGRBP for Horse Trade’s Frigid Festival this month and spoke with Libby about the play.

How did you choose the title? 

The play was born with the name Puff Puff, and when asked what it was about by Festival of the Offensive producer Jacquetta Szathmari, I said "it's about how to sell you gang rape baby, for parts!" And she said, "that should be the title." So I changed the title. I've gotten some push back, mostly from people like my mom, and I've been sort of concerned about that whole trigger thing, but I figure it will draw the crowd that would enjoy having their buttons pushed, or at least I hope so.

What's the origin story of the Libby and Ali characters (also known as The Pusses)?

Libby and Ali are modern women who don't like working for a living, and can barely get with the pretense of living at all. That sounds bleak, but really it's funny.

The plays started as shorts for the Sticky series. Mostly about trips, more like misadventures. Then they got a little political, then more political, until finally you have what we have here, an anti-Trump, post-feminist, satirical dark comedy inspired by the true events of house party gang rape, human and organ trafficking, sex dolls, extreme body modification, and a whole bunch of other things that are really about how much everyone hates women, or at least loves us to death.

Libby Emmons and Ali Ayala in Libby's RE:DUCKS
What did you change when you decided to rewrite the play for this Trump-era Frigid Festival run? 

Mostly what I changed is that the fun-loving, life-affirming intern who gets knocked up the hard way is a Trump supporter. But also the pusses (aka Libby and Ali), are spurred on by their need to take positive, political action in this new dumpster-fire atmosphere of these United States.

Most of your plays are comedies centered on women characters, and deal with things that are usually not considered inherently funny.  When the Libby/Ali shorts were performed at Sticky, I remember the women in the audience were the loudest, longest laughers, while most of the men looked really uncomfortable.  (This is one of the reasons I love directing your work -- it's hard for the audience to just sit there and not have a point of view.) Are you deliberately trying for this effect?  To make women feel less alone, while discomforting men? 

No, I just write as honestly as I can. I had a professor at Sarah Lawrence, Cassandra Medley, who said "go to the place where you're afraid, and start from there." I still do that. Another guiding principle is this: when I was a teenager hanging out in bookstores, I searched the shelves for books about me, about what I was experiencing, about my perspective on the world. I was looking for a friend in a book. I often looked to women authors, and instead I found these depressive figures-- sad Ann Sexton, sad Sylvia Plath, sad Virginia Woolf, over-sexed but prudish Anais Nin. The closest I could get was Dorothy Allison, and yeah, she's good, but like... So I write for the me who is sixteen, looking for a friend just like me in a book, and to her I say: have a laugh, I love you, it's all hell, but it's all brilliant, and you are brilliant, and you make existence worthwhile, and I am just like you, and we matter.

What are you working on now? 

I've been working on a novel about 13 year-old best friends who have to face their worst fears in order to find out who they really are. It's called Emmy Archer and the Mad Secrets, and I just quit my job to write it. I'm working on the developmental reading end of a full-length called Hippopotamus, with actress Richarda Abrams, about the stay-at-home artist-mom in a two-mom family, who has to readjust her expectations and question her priorities when her son is recommended for special ed programs. I have a one-minute play coming up in the One-Minute Play Festival at The New Ohio in early March. I'm working on As I Lay Dying with Live-Series. Also I'm trying to get my son through first grade, which is both less easy and more fun than I thought it would be.

What do you most enjoy about making theater?  

The part where it's super scary and you feel like you can't possibly do it and then you do it and it's a blast and the lights feel warm and so do the laughs.

HOW TO SELL YOUR GANG RAPE BABY* *FOR PARTS runs in the Frigid Festival at the Kraine Theatre, NYC, February 18th – March 4th. Advance tickets are available online.

Logo by Christopher Guerrero
Photo: Libby Emmons and Ali Ayala in Libby’s RE: DUCKS, directed by Michele Travis. Beauty Bar, 2015. Photo credit Mike Olivieri. (RE: DUCKS is a sequel to HTSYGRBFP)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Theater Family Values with Playwright Lawrence Dial

"Theater is one of the odd professions where you can find an above average percentage of middle-age couples without kids, and it often seeps into what we eventually see on the stage."

What is your play DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA about?

I wrote DKDV in response to two great plays I’d seen earlier that year: DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, and THE REALISTIC JONESES by Will Eno.  Both plays featured two heterosexual couples coming together, becoming friends, and collectively dealing with life issues.  I loved each play, but upon introspection there was an obvious omission:  neither play even remotely mentioned children.  I thought ‘In what world could four married heterosexual couples throughout two different plays, each character in their mid to late thirties, not at some point when discussing various life issues, mention children?’  I know a lot of mid-thirties couples who do not have kids, but all of them mention it quite often, but lament that because of their choice to pursue theater, doubt they’ll never be financially stable enough to raise a family.  In truth, theater is one of the odd professions where you can find an above average percentage of middle-age couples without kids, and it often seeps into what we eventually see on the stage.

I have two children, and the premise for DKDV at first seemed very simple:  write a play with two married couples (a later draft nixed the heterosexual part) dealing with life issues while ALSO being parents.  I looked to DINNER WITH FRIENDS for inspiration, but didn’t relate to the class-level of that play (they’ve got a goddam summer house—who’s got a summer house?), and also, GOD OF CARNAGE, but felt uncomfortable with that play’s missing kindness I’d experienced from almost every parenting couple I’ve ever met.

So the formula for me was PARENTS + CHILDREN + LOWER/MIDDLE CLASS + KINDNESS = DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA.  I added the setting of a Brooklyn Park, and then waited to see what happened.  If you’ve ever tried to write a play with kindness in mind, real quick you realize kindness and drama do not go together.  So I struggled for two years with it.  It was harder to write than I prefer.

How did you decide on the title?

Oh man, this is a long story I’ll try keep short, and not talk too much smack.  I had gone up to YALE to interview for their playwriting program, and the first interview with Jeanie O-hare went amazing; she seemed to like the play, and enjoyed that I was writing about parents and the difficulty of parenthood etc.  It was very encouraging.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to move my family up to New Haven, have my wife quit her job, re-enroll my kids into another school etc… but she didn’t seem super fazed by this, and the interview ended positively.

Next, I met with Sarah Ruhl, and the entire experience was like slowly letting air out of a balloon.

She asked me important, but from my perspective, inappropriate questions:
What does your wife do for a living?
And I told her, and then somehow answering her own question she hadn’t yet asked, she responded with “Yeah, I married a doctor…”  The subtext was That’s how I survived.

I got the hint fast, and became a little gloomy, because Sarah’s got her own kids, and I had expected us to bond on this, for her to have loved my play about the difficulties of parenthood, but what she was showing me was she felt threatened somehow.  Or was just unable to disguise how doomed she believed I was.  Which I get, honestly.  Being a parent and a playwright and living in NY—it’s doom.  And most grad schools don’t want doom in their programs; they want diversity of voice, and ease.  They want the safest bets they can place, and a stay-at-home parent is not one of them.

But at some point Sarah says:  “Talk to me about your title.  What’s up with it?”  I tell her it’s called THROUGH THE TREES, which is part of the saying 'You can’t see the forest through the trees.' the idea being you’re too close to a thing to see what it actually is.  Which I thought was a wonderful metaphor for the conflicting emotions parenthood can inspire (there’s also a fallen tree in the play; wind through the trees etc.).

She shook her head slightly, nope.  “It’s doesn’t have the heart of your play in it.   It doesn’t capture what your play is about.”    Uh…  I mean, what do you say to that?  This is Sarah Ruhl telling a perspective grad student, a playwright who is so excited just to be sitting in New Haven even being considered for this program, that his title doesn’t work.

I’d like to say that I didn’t change the title from THROUGH THE TREES to DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA entirely because of Sarah Ruhl (nevermind if it’s even a better or worse title or more fully captures the heart of the play), but she’s probably part of it.  I left the interview and bought a six-pack and rode the train home; I was not surprised when a three-sentence form-letter rejection showed up in my inbox a week later.  I think Sarah’s a great playwright, and I imagine an even better mother, but I can say with confidence she’s a reckless interviewer, and I can’t speak on her abilities as a teacher.

What was its development?

The first person to really believe in DKDV was Tessa LaNeve at Primary Stages.  I had been workshopping the play through ESPA with Julian Sheppard (who also liked it; a great teacher and playwright), and I later submitted it to ESPA’s drills program (twice actually; they rejected the first draft), and Tessa and Sarah and Miranda all liked it.  We took it up to Teresa Rebeck’s summer home (Teresa Rebeck has a summer home, that’s who) and workshopped it for a week.  Later, we did a very successful reading of it at the Duke, and a lot of people came to me afterwards and gushed about it, but no one wanted to produced it.   It’s a play about parents and kids, and Theater (with a  capital T), unfortunately, doesn’t really relate to that.  That is until Jeff Wise came around…

How did you hook up with Wheelhouse Theater Company?

Only three months ago I had another play up called IN THE ROOM, and we had cast Matt Harrington in the lead male role.  Matt’s a great actor, and a founding member of Wheelhouse Theater Company, who were looking for another producing credit, and we were glad to have them onboard.  Near the end of the run on the show, Jeff Wise (one of Wheelhouse’s Artistic Directors) came to me and asked if I had any other plays he could consider for production.  At the time I didn’t realize that Jeff was a stay-at-home father to three kids, and skeptically I forwarded him DKDV, not really thinking he’d be very interested in it; it’s very different than IN THE ROOM.  But he read it and love it, and I encouraged him to direct the production based on his presence during IN THE ROOM, and the insight he could bring to these characters I’d written.  I’m not sure anyone else could have seen what I was going for with this play, other than Jeff.

What is your writing schedule?

When I’m working on a project I’m writing six days a week, and I’m usually working on something. Only when I’ve got a play in production do I slow down.  Or between projects sometimes.  But generally, more than anything, I enjoy writing and love getting lost in it.

How do you organize yourself?

Kids do it for you.  It becomes very easy to see what little time you have available after you have children.  You can look at your day and see the exact time you have to write, and that’s useful because you know if you don’t do it right then, it won’t happen until the next day.  With DKDV (roughly four years ago) both my kids were home with me all day, and I was writing only about 45 minutes or maybe an hour and half each day.  So it took a while, around two years.  I remember lamenting this to Stephen Guirgis, and he told me he had a buddy who wrote a whole novel at only one hour per day. And sometimes, that’s really useful.  When you can’t move too fast, it forces you to slow down and think about each interaction with great detail.  But you can also get bogged-down this way, and stop seeing the bigger picture of what you’re writing.   So you have to find the right balance.

Who inspires you?

I think I value perseverance over talent or success.  I enjoy my friends' work the most.  I’m inspired by the off-off Broadway plays that mostly go unnoticed by the big names out there.  Struggle inspires me, I think.

What's next?

I HAVE TO WRITE A TELEVISION PILOT.  There’s no way I can sustain playwriting and a family without another income, and my waiter job is killing me.  So this year I’m focusing on TV.  And maybe a play about a climbing gym.  Or a driverless car.

Anything you'd like to add?

I didn’t get to mention Padraic Lillis; he helped me a lot with the first draft of this play.  I can sit in the audience tonight and hear some lines and remember some things Pad had suggested during one of his writing classes.  Pad’s a great teacher, if you see a writing class of his out there, sign up.  Also, check out my website.  Most of my plays are on there:

Production Photo Credits: Steve Fallon

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Baby Mama: Mariah MacCarthy's Bold Journey Into the Heart

 “You’re gonna cry, you're gonna have a good time, and you’re also gonna feel things and maybe call your mom."
-Mariah MacCarthy
playwright, performer & producer

The Award-winning Baby Mama: One Woman’s Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People tracks Mariah MacCarthy's true-to-life adoption journey, from accidental conception to the placement of her child with the gay couple of her dreams. All the while MacCarthy manages to live her life, date, and even attend the occasional orgy. 

What made you decide to write and perform this show?

Diana Oh. I saw her first solo show, Diana Oh Is Going Rogue, at IRT (where Baby Mama is happening!) in 2013 - about six months after I'd had my son. (She also makes a number of appearances in Baby Mama, as "Didi.") For most of my life, pretty much anytime I'd seen a solo show, I'd always thought, "This would be better as a traditional play with characters played by different actors who talk to each other." The only exceptions were Mike Daisey's work and I Am My Own Wife. But with Diana's show, I saw, "Oh. The medium IS the message, and she is her own medium." I saw how simple a solo show could be: just tell your story and be honest and open.

I also talk a great deal in the show about feeling profoundly alone with this experience, because no one around me knew what I was going through and despite the incredible love and support I was shown, it was still really isolating. I feel like this show is the closest that I can come to making people really know what it was like for me. And a huge part of that is that they're looking at the person who went through it - that it's a true story.

Many people may know you as a playwright primarily. Do you have performance/acting in your background?

Not to brag, but I won "Best Actress" my senior year of high school for playing Frenchy in Grease, so you're looking at a pro here. Actually, that was the last time I performed something longer than ten minutes; I did The Vagina Monologues and some scene study in college, and occasionally I'll get onstage and rap about vegetarian girls or do some burlesque, but I didn't really get back into acting until Baby Mama. And now that I'm here, I've got even more respect for actors than I already did. This shit is exhausting.

What has been the biggest challenge/obstacle in creating this piece?
- also, in performing it?

Talking for that long. Seriously. Try it sometime. Your tongue dries out. Honestly, writing it was the easiest part, because I have very little filter as it is, and I don't mind writing down the words "and then I went to an orgy" or "then I cried for a month" or whatever. Performing it is infinitely harder. I've got to, like, stop eating pizza for a month and not drink alcohol and be very very conscious about every single thing I do to my body. I can't believe that actors have the willpower to live this way all the time.

What has been the unexpected rewards in both?

Hearing a whole audience sniffle in unison. God, it's the beeeessssstttt. Or the stories I get afterwards. "You made me want to find my birth mother." "I would've had a kid by now if I'd had the money; thank you for talking about the financial aspect of this." "I lost custody of my daughter in the divorce and I felt just like that." People respond to heart-opening with heart-opening and it's really really moving.

You recently launched your Patreon profile. Tell us a little about that.

Patreon is amazing! Patreon is the future! For those who don't know what Patreon is, it basically takes the crowdfunding model of Kickstarter or Indiegogo and makes it ongoing and sustainable. So people sign up to support you on a monthly basis (or sometimes per thing that you make, per song or per video or whatever). Right now I've got 55 patrons and I'm getting $167/month from them, or $2000/year. In exchange, they're getting Cool Insider Shit. Behind-the-scenes photos and videos, exclusive pictures of my cat, postcards in the mail, deleted scenes or works-in-progress, and if you pledge $10/month or more you get a video of me singing a song of your choosing. They're supporting me because they believe in me and they want me to keep Making All the Things. It's also a way to circumvent the antiquated, gatekeeper-guarded, not-remotely-artist-centered venues and structures for Making Things. Go straight to the people who want to see you succeed, rather than keep competing with a million people fighting for the same, like, ten opportunities. It's way more efficient and way more connected.

This was something I wanted to start for years before I did, and part of why it took me so long to start was because I couldn't see how the platform could work for playwrights. How do you create an online, virtual support system (and reward patrons appropriately) with an art form that is so stubbornly and relentlessly live? Only once I started really spending a lot of time on forms of writing other than theater - namely, fiction and nonfiction - did I feel like, OK, it makes sense to ask for pledges for this. Here are some forms of writing I can share with my patrons that aren't, like, paling in comparison to the way it's actually supposed to be consumed. I do think that Patreon would be a fantastic platform for theater companies who make work on a more consistent basis than mine does. Like, I think Flux Theatre Ensemble is a prime candidate for Patreon. Talk to me, Flux!

(And if you wanna support me on Patreon and be part of the revolution, you can do so here!)

Who are your inspirations?

Taylor Mac. Amanda Palmer. Monica Byrne. Diana Oh. Leta Tremblay. Jody Christopherson. Leah Nanako Winkler. Kevin R. Free. Naomi Elizabeth. Jen Dziura, Daniella LaPorte. Stoya. My son. His parents. Social workers and nurses. The Obamas.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I'll be 35, my cat will be nearly 6, and my son will be NINE OH MY GOD. I hope the answer is
"financially stable, traveling a lot, and doing only the things I want to do," but I have no idea. Anything between "famous show runner" and "still temping" is possible. I just did a "Plan Your 2017" worksheet thingie, and it looks like last year I did approximately half the things I wanted to do, so if I keep up that rate of success I'm probably in really great shape!

How do you organize your days since you run a theater company, are writing a YA book, performing and the myriad of other things you're doing?

It's SOOOOO HAAARRRRRD. Champagne problems, for sure. I no longer have a "day job"; I quit a year ago and now I'm freelance full-time, working from home, 100% my own boss. It's AMAZING. It's exactly what I want. But it's SO HARD. It's hard to prioritize, it's hard to keep all the balls in the air, it's hard not to get bogged down with busywork. I have a project management app (Asana) which I just use as a to-do list. And I use the "snooze" function in Google Inbox a lot, so emails come back when I need them instead of just sitting in my inbox staring at me and taking up valuable space. But, I don't really "organize" my days, I just wake up and start flailing around. I have an amazing daily planner and I'm just not using it at all. I really do want to get organized. I did a time-tracker spreadsheet yesterday, tracking how I was spending my time every fifteen minutes. It definitely helped me see where I was wasting time. There was too much Facebook on that spreadsheet.

What's next?

Right after we finish the NYC run, Baby Mama is heading to Cincinnati for a couple performances. Then my YA novel, Squad (about a cheerleader whose relationship with her best friend falls apart), is due to the publishers on March 15th, so I'll be spending February in a mad dash to get that done. I'm also taking Baby Mama to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. No idea what's happening in between. It depends on a lot of things that are out of my control. Which is actually fine with me because then I don't have to do anything until I know. I'm all about having fewer things to do right now.

Anything you'd like to add?

I love my son. I love my community. I love you.

Baby Mama: One Woman’s Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People is produced by Caps Lock Theatre and Jack Sharkey and directed by Sara Lyons. It runs through January 29th at IRT Theater located at 154 Christopher Street, 3rd Floor Theater. For more information and tickets, go here.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Does Violence Trump Love? Alligator by Hilary Bettis

"...the only survival tools these people have are instincts and violence..."
-Hilary Bettis

What was the inspiration behind Alligator?

Poverty, living with an alcoholic, caring for a close friend who was dying, feeling hopeless and lost and needing to find something in that chaos.

You have said that you start with place when writing a play, how did this place and setting inform the rest of the play?

Place is always the first (and largest) character in anything I write. Environment determines everything. What kinds of resources do or don't exist, what obstacles come with place, etc., and everything else stems organically from that. Alligator is a play about survival, and the Everglades is a harsh environment to live in -humidity and heat, invasive pythons and anacondas, blood-sucking insects, and it's the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles exist together. People who call the Everglades home inherently understand that it takes real grit and unapologetic instincts just to survive. The Everglades becomes a huge metaphor for what these people are struggling with emotionally, and the tragedy of the play stems from that, too. Because the only survival tools these people have are instincts and violence, they don't know how to communicate the love and vulnerability they're all desperate to express.

Bobby Moreno and Lindsay Rico
I remember from when you participated in Write Out Front you said that you like to write in the wee hours. Is that still the case? How do you juggle new writing projects with being a staff writer on The Americans?

Ha! Nope, not anymore. That was a luxury of getting to write on my terms. Writing for TV means I'm at my desk in the AM m-f, 40 plus hours a week. I don't mind it, though. I actually get a lot more done. I have a fair amount of down time, so whenever I have a free hour or two I work on other projects. I've also had to learn how to be fast. Nothing is precious anymore, and I think that's a good thing. I used to treat playwriting like it's "high art", but really, that was a way of only writing when I felt "inspired". Being a professional writer means you write whether you're inspired or not, and in doing so, I've gotten much much better. I'm more efficient, I'm not married to any one idea, which means there's always room to grow and I have to trust my craft and instincts.

In the window of the Drama Book Shop, part of Theaterspeak's WOF 2012
How did you meet your director Elena Araoz? How do you collaborate together?

Elena and I met in 2012 at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. She directed a reading of Alligator there, and we hit it off. I was really drawn to her as a director because of her background in Opera. She understood the musicality and epic nature of the play.

Collaboration is really like a marriage. You have to constantly be checking in with each other, even on things that feel little or mundane. The moment one person starts making decisions without talking to the other, is when resentments and assumptions creep in that can color everything. We really learned to be vigilant of that, and make sure we were talking daily.

What was the development of Alligator?

Talene Monahon, Lindsay Rico & Bobby Moreno 
This play has had a very long and winding road to get here. It was the third play I ever wrote, and it's taken me a lot of years of writing other plays and learning craft before I knew how to rewrite this play. I wrote an early first draft in 2010, did more readings and workshops than I can even count, and then put the play in a drawer for years. It's one of the first plays I wrote, and there's a rawness to it that I sort of love, even though it doesn't fit into the mold of a "well-made" play. That's something that felt important to hold onto, even though I know it's something theater critics will see as a "weakness".

What do you do to organize yourself while working on multiple projects?

I'm still figuring out how to do this so if you have any tips or advice, please let me know. Deadlines are everything.

How did you come to playwriting?

Survival :-)

Sean Smith, Julian Elijah Martinez & Dakota Granados

What's next?

Just keep writing and throwing it out to the universe. That's all you can do. I have a few TV projects and a feature in development, so those will take up most of 2017. And I'm working on a commissioned adaptation of Miss Julie called Magic City that'll be done in Miami next year.

Dakota Granados & Lindsay Rico

Anything you'd like to add?

Our run is almost sold out, so get your tickets soon!

ALLIGATOR is presented by New Georges in collaboration with The Sol Project at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street and 10th Avenue) November 27-December 18 with performances until December 16th.Get your tix here.

Photo Credit: Heather Phelps-Lipton