Friday, October 15, 2010

Dorothy Fortenberry's play GOOD EGG, directed by Kel Haney and produced by The Red Fern Theatre Company has its world premiere October 21st in NYC

"I am fascinated by families, especially families, like my own, where people struggle with mental illness and developmental disorders."

Responsible Meg has always taken care of her bipolar younger brother Matt. But when she decides to get pregnant—and have her embryos screened for bipolar disorder—is she taking the idea of "being responsible" too far? A funny and surprising play about bioethics, siblings, and the limits of unconditional love.

 What was the inspiration for GOOD EGG?

Honestly, this play began out of my own questions and anxieties about possibly one day having children (I started the play in 2007 when the question was pretty hypothetical). I was fascinated by the notion of choice and all the ways in which it has affected contemporary women's lives, especially around fertility.

Everything now is presented as a choice (to have children at all, when, how, with whom, why) and while I certainly wouldn't give back the invention of birth control, I also wondered, how far do these choices lead? What does it mean to approach motherhood with a set of options at your disposal?

I am also, on a very gut level, fascinated by families, especially families, like my own, where people struggle with mental illness and developmental disorders. I wanted to explore how these relationships affect the "sick" member and the "normal" ones, and how, in a lot of ways, the issues are the same as in any family: guilt, joy, resentment, companionship, betrayal, and love.

Also, I am a big fan of old movie musicals.

How was it developed?

I wrote GOOD EGG while I was in grad school at Yale, in my last year. I was very lucky and got to see a production of it at school during the Carlotta Festival of New Plays, directed by Snehal Desai, with John Doherty and Liz Wisan as Matt and Meg. I learned a lot from that production, and the play had several readings (at Arena Stage, at Ars Nova, at Geva Theater, at the ATHE conference) at which I continued to learn more.

For a while, it was the little play that almost could --it came close to being produced, but wasn't -- and then in 2009, just as I was getting ready to accept that it might never be seen, two things happened. I got an EST/Sloan grant to re-write the play substantially, and I had a reading at Red Fern of the new draft which led to the production.

Have you worked with Red Fern before?

Only at the reading.

How did you become acquainted with each other?

I got an email through Youngblood with their call for scripts, and GOOD EGG seemed like it might be a match for their mission.

You got your MFA from Yale. How has post-grad school life been?

It's been pretty good. I lived in New Haven and worked for Yale in the year after graduating, while commuting into New York for Youngblood meetings or to see shows or for auditions and rehearsals of my play CAITLIN AND THE SWAN. Then, in summer 2009, I moved to Los Angeles because my husband Colin Wambsgans was starting grad school at CalArts. The move cross-country has been a bigger adjustment than graduating, but I'm slowly figuring out my version of a bi-coastal life.

Would you recommend writers get an MFA and why or why not?

Oof. I think it really depends on what you want to get out of it. An MFA isn't permission - it's not some sort of document that makes you a more "real" playwright than anyone else. And it's not a guarantee that things will go a particular way -- plenty of writers get MFAs and struggle, plenty of writers who don't have MFAs are produced all the time.

I do think it provides a certain kind of opportunity (to meet great collaborators, to meet amazing faculty) but if you go into it for any reason other than you actively want to spend X number of years doing whatever it is you'd do at that particular program, I think that's a recipe to be a resentful grump. So, if you can find a place that you can afford that you think you'll actually like, go for it. I am really happy I went to Yale but I wouldn't recommend it to everybody.

What is your writing schedule like?

It completely varies play to play -- my most recent play, STATUS UPDATE, I wrote the 1st draft of in a month, working pretty much every day, as part of the Playwrights' Union play-in-a-month Writing Challenge.

Other plays take longer or take lots of research, or get started and put in a drawer and taken out after a couple months, like another play I'm working on now that seems a harder nut to crack. Every once in a while something will come really fast, especially if I'm under pressure, like my play JESUS LOVES YOU, MAKE A COLLAGE that I wrote for Chalk Rep's Flash Fest. I've also recently started writing screenplays and, for whatever reason, my screenwriting schedule is a lot more consistent (about 3 hours a day when I'm working on one) than my playwriting work.

What have you seen lately that you've liked?

Hmm, lots of stuff. I saw THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY which I thought was really cool and theatrical in a way that seemed exceptional to theater and probably really ordinary to wrestling, which is neat.

MILK MILK LEMONADE by Joshua Conkel  at Rogue Machine in Los Angeles was fantastic.

TIGERS BE STILL by Kim Rosenstock at Roundabout Underground.

And THE SOCIAL NETWORK and TOY STORY 3 are sleek and smart machines that make you realize how much movies can accomplish when they work super-hard at being good.

What plays and playwrights do you love?

RUINED by Lynn Nottage. It is well-made. It is a play. And I think it was way more daring than most experimental work.

TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill. It's secretly about all the same things as GOOD EGG, but don't tell anyone.

ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard. This is an early love, and will always be a favorite.

ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS by George F. Walker. He is Canadian. It is fantastic.

How do you keep yourself inspired?

This is actually a really difficult question because many of the things that most inspire me (politics, the Internet, pop culture) are also the most powerful distractions that prevent me from doing my work. So, on the one hand, I'd say, watch lots of reality TV and read 15 political blogs a day. On the other hand, that's a great way never to write a play. I guess I stay inspired by staying confused and angry and fascinated by people, and then turning off my wifi so I can actually write.

GOOD EGG will premiere October 21 through November 7, 2010, at the LABA Theater located at the 14th Street Y at 344 East 14th Street between First and Second Avenues.

"Pay What You Can" 10/21 and 22nd. You need to make a reservation by emailing Also, $10 tickets for opening night 10/23 and Monday 10/25. Just enter KEL as the code upon checkout when buying tickets from the website or through Theatermania.

All other tickets are $25 and may be purchased by here or by calling 212-352-3101. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why You Need to Know About The Red Fern Theatre Company and Their Upcoming World Premiere

"I’ve never wanted to do plays that beat people over the head with ‘this is what you should believe’. I just want people to talk because in order to make social change you have to start a conversation."

In Part One of this two-part interview, Theaterspeak talks to Melanie Moyer Williams about Red Fern's mission to combine socially conscious material with compelling theater.

In part two, playwright Dorothy Fortenberry will talk about her upcoming production with Red Fern of Good Egg opening October 21st.

How did The Red Fern Theatre Company come about?

I directed Emilie Miller (co-founder) in Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball. At the same time, I had to do a submission, and part of the submission was to pick a Tennessee William’s play or a Shakespeare play and write a proposal for it. I didn’t want to pick something that everyone had seen and done so I found Candles in the Sun, which is actually his very first play and had never been produced. It’s about coal miners from the foothills of Alabama, which is where I’m from, and I just fell in love with the play. It had some really strong women characters in it. So I was telling the cast that I had just read a play that had two really strong female characters in it and they should read it. So Emilie read it and she loved it. A few months after we closed the show, the Sago Mine Incident happened where ten or fifteen miners died, so we thought we could do the play as a fundraiser for the families.

I have a major in both political science and theater, and my concentration was International relations and human rights violations so having a theater company that is socially conscience bridges both of my interests. I had also done another play in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival that had a lot of really heavy subjects in it – date rape, sexual violence and abortion. I felt it would be irresponsible to do a play that talked about rape and showed it on stage and not give women an outlet to get help afterward. I was very adamant with the producer that he provide information in the lobby about safe houses and places people could go to get help and what not after the performance. So the idea for me of pairing productions with other organizations came from that and then this play came along, and the Sago Mine Incident happened, and it all started to snowball.

Emilie was very interested and said, ‘I’d like to make this happen. What can I do?’ So we sent off for the rights for the Tennessee Williams play and came to find out that the Williams Estate doesn’t allow his plays to be done in New York unless they’re on Broadway. We had found a space so we were like, ‘alright, now what do we do?'

We started reading plays and we found Patient A by Lee Blessing, which is about Kimberly Ann Mary Bergalis who was one of the first non-gay people to come out with AIDS. She was one of the first to give a face to AIDS, and her parents commissioned Lee Blessing to write a play about her, and when he accepted the commission he said, ‘I’m very honored to do this but I will only accept the commission if I can tell both sides of the story.’

It was a very interesting play, because she got all this attention, and she felt uncomfortable because she knew that there were so many other people out there that had the disease but she was getting all the attention, and that people that really needed help were not getting it.

I’ve never wanted to do plays that beat people over the head with ‘this is what you should believe’. I just want people to talk, because in order to make social change you have to start a conversation. You have to get people who feel very strongly on both sides to have that conversation with each other. In order to create change, somebody has to give, and in that play, that happened. Both sides argue with one another and they come to some sort of agreement in the end.

We paired the play with Village Care of New York which runs the Rivington House, which is actually the first place I worked in New York. It’s a residential facility for AIDS patients, so it was neat to give back. They were wonderful.

How do you determine what amount goes to the philanthropies? .

We take into account how active the philanthropy has been with us. There are some that have been there throughout the process and have been very active in getting people to come and see the show and have participated in a number of talkbacks. We don’t discriminate either way. We prefer to give light to other small, struggling organizations like ourselves that need just as much help as we do.

There are so many amazing people in New York City doing things for others and they need another springboard and another sounding board. We can introduce them to an audience and they can introduce us to their people. It’s worked very well for both sides. We’ve had people who have become volunteers for their organization. We have people from the philanthropies come back and see other shows so it’s building a community on both sides.

It’s a really tricky thing with a nonprofit, because if you are a nonprofit giving to another nonprofit, the government really watches you. When we wrote our bylaws and all of our paperwork for the IRS, we had to be very strict with how we give because we can only give to another nonprofit organization which is frustrating because it is a very difficult thing to get your 501c3 status.

How long did it take you?

We actually got it on the first try but I was very meticulous.

Had you done it before?

No, I just read everything and followed all the guidelines. I had a lawyer friend look over it and he said if you have a question about anything in this, they’re going to have a question about it, so explain it. When we applied online, it said that you can fall into three categories, either you’ll get cleared right away, or you’ll be assigned to a case worker who will have a few questions for you, or you’re considered a very questionable organization. Even that B category of being assigning a case worker was, at that time, taking six to nine months for them to even call you, so we were very lucky.

How long did it take you to do it all from start to finish?

Incorporating was easy and the rest took a few months. You just have to gather all the information and do so many budget and contract things, and foresee your future, and then they also want a copy of your entire website and programs - just everything to make sure that you’re legitimate and that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do.

Basically, we did our first show in April of 2006. We incorporated in December of that year and functioned for a year and then, in January of 2008, I started all the paperwork and we had all the papers in hand by April. It’s backdated to whenever you incorporated. We were under the umbrella of NYFA so we could apply for grants through them, which gave us a year to get a history for the IRS to see what we were doing and how we were doing it. The lawyer said if you can wait and it doesn’t prevent you from getting major funding, you’ll have a much better chance of not having any problems with them approving you.

Why did you decide to discontinue working under the sponsorship of NYFA?

Because there are some grants that won’t allow you to apply through a sponsor, and it limited us. We were like, there’s no reason not to, except for the hassle of doing the paperwork.

How did you go about creating your company and board?

It’s been very grassroots from the beginning. I think what’s great about us is that it was just started by Emilie and myself, and then people who became involved in the productions believed in the production value we put forth as a very small company, which is why I wanted to start it.

I had been burned very badly by some producers and had been unhappy with some other situations. If you’re going to be doing indie theater, you’ve got to treat your people right. If you’re not valued as an artist, why are we doing it? All of the people who have worked with us, are like, ‘I know you can’t pay me, but we’re doing good work, and it’ll help me somewhere else.’ Most of the people that have been in our plays before have come back to help or audition again, so the people for our board have either been in a few plays or are theater supporters in the financial world. We try to keep it balanced so that we’re getting the perspective of our audience as well as from the artistic side.

Do you work with a publicist?

We started to last year. Katie Rosen with Kampfire PR and Marketing did it for us.

Did you notice a difference?

Yeah, but I think it’s also going to take some time. Like any relationship, you see what works for them and what works for you and it takes a little while. For the +30NYC production there were a lot of pieces that didn’t fall into place until much later on which was frustrating for Katie because she was like, ‘I can’t publicize it if you don’t tell me what it is!’ (laughing) But I mean, she got the word out there in a very short amount of time which we couldn’t have done with all the other things that we were trying to do, so Katie did a great job, and I’m looking forward to working with her.

Do you accept submissions?

Absolutely, the information is on our website. We read them all, good and bad, and there are a lot of bad ones but we’ll read them. Last year, we all kind of split them up, and were like, ‘ Ok, these are the two that we liked the best,’ and then everybody read those two. Then we conversed about the pluses and minuses of them - the cast size, the things that they would need, and all the different things that go into the budget for a show, but most importantly, is it right for the company mission-wise? In terms of the casting process, we do open EPA’s and we also do accept submissions of head shots. We don’t do open calls. Last fall, we had six to eight hundred submissions and out of those, we called in two hundred people and had them read sides. 

The Red Fern Theatre Company's upcoming world premiere of Good Egg by Dorothy Fortenberry will be performed October 21 – November 7, 2010, at the LABA Theater located at the 14th Street Y at 344 East 14th Street between First and Second Avenues. Tickets are $25 and may be purchased by here or by calling 212-352-3101.