Tuesday, November 27, 2012

RADIANCE Playwright Cusi Cram on Bar Plays, Craft and How to Stay (writing)

"It's been a little like playing the accordion with this play, there is a constant expanding and contracting..."
-playwright Cusi Cram

(Interview brought to you by Russian Transport playwright ERIKA SHEFFER. )

SHEFFER:  Theaterspeak (a.k.a. Micheline Auger) and I had the distinct pleasure of catching Cusi Cram's RADIANCE, produced by the Labyrinth and currently running at The Bank Street Theater.  Cusi is a brilliant playwright, who I've been playing six degrees with for some time, so I'm very pleased to get the chance to pick her brain.  (Some of these questions are lifted from a Daniel Talbott interview because he is awesome at asking interesting questions).
 Is there a subject or character that you would be nervous writing about?  If so, why?

Before writing this play, I was terrified of writing a play set in a bar. Seems like O'Neill and lots of fine Irish playwrights really cornered the market in that arena. I seem to have conquered that fear. I realized in spite of my apprehension, I do have some expertise in the field. In addition, a court room drama seems daunting to me, as does something set in a prison. A play about cannibalism or cannibals would be really hard for me too, as I don't even like saying the word. Also, anything where children or animals are hurt. I am a huge fan of both.

Do you have a regular writing routine?  What is it?

Well at the moment, it involves a dream of getting up very early and trying to get to my desk as soon as possible. This has gone to hell in a hand basket during production but I am trying to get back to it. I build up a lot of resistance to writing as the day progresses. I think tiredness helps in silencing the vociferous committee of  critics in my head. All this is to say, my routine is always changing but the more I read about writers who are in it for the long haul they seem to have rules about writing and a lot of them get up early and write first thing. Some of the dearly departed ones were drinking by 11, maybe that's why they wrote such fine bar plays? Napping is also a part of my regular writing routine. That is a constant.

RADIANCE grew out of the Cino Nights series at Rising Phoenix Rep. How did you go about expanding the piece?  Are their new scenes, drastic changes?  If you feel comfortable, can we look behind the curtain?

When we did the Cino Nights  version in June the play was just under fifty pages. Now it's about 84 pages. There is a flashback that is totally new. And I also pulled out some more things in the pages that I originally wrote. It's been a little like playing the accordian with this play, there is a constant expanding and contracting. It has a unique structure that has required a lot of fine tuning. It's also the only play that I have written that has gone from page to stage in six months. I've been learning the play and it's particular rules as we go. 

What do you love most about seeing your work produced?  What is the hardest part of the process?

I love rehearsal. Process is thrilling, inspiring and wildly exciting to me, pushing things toward production is less thrilling. Though I do love watching all the design elements fall into place. I am always moved at how hard all these different kinds of artists work to make something that first existed in my addled brain to life. If we could do the play for free for kind, smart folks and not worry about money, reviews or marketing---then I would be in total bliss. I would also be living in an alternative universe or France.

Do you have any plays that are strictly for the drawer (or hard drive)?  Something that along the way, you put aside, for whatever reason.  What's it about?

I don't have any plays that I have finished that have not had some other life, some of those lives have been pretty short and not terribly glorious. I have many, many, many unfinished plays. One was called Virginia Wolves. It was about a very sheltered woman who moves to New York from an island in South Carolina and falls in love with her gay Ecuadorean neighbor who has an exotic collection of cashmere socks.

What do you do when you're working on something, but you are just not feelin' it?  How do you inspire yourself?

I write out of order.
I write the scene I am most excited to write.
I write about why I think what I am writing sucks.
I write in another form. I like the personal essay as a form of escape.
I force myself out of the house, even though I am often very resistant.
I take a non-athletic walk with no particular destination, this usually involves pit stops for espresso and thrifting.
I sometimes go to museums. More often, I go through the New Yorker and circle all the things I want to see when I finish what I am writing.
I read poetry. I never tire of Mary Oliver.
I read the Paris Review interviews of writers I admire. This one is full of gems for the playwright
I complain to my sister.
I talk to my husband about what I would like eat (I am an expert food producer) sometimes my husband listens.
I think about exercising.
I meet my sister and brother in law for lunch at Elephant and Castle for more complaining
I sit at my desk and breathe.
If the sitting and breathing at my desk is a bust, I read this quote. It often works, making the above list an in depth study in procrastination.

  "Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure. So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to "stay" and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What’s for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can’t stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness."
                                    -Pema Chodron
Who is your hero?

Right now, the Obamas are at the very top of my list. I am crushing on both of them in a huge and crazy way. Above all, they both make me want to be a better citizen. I want to believe that better citizens make better art. Here's hoping...

RADIANCE is produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company, directed by Suzanne Agins with Kelly AuCoin, Ana Reeder, Kohl Sudduth and Aaron Roman Weiner. It runs at the Bank Street Theater and has been extended thru December 8th. You can get your $20 discount tix here (discount code "Thanks") DO IT.


Interview by Erika Sheffer:
Russian Transport, premiered at The New Group in January 2012. (Nomination, John Gassner Award by the Outer Critics Circle).  Playwright in residence for The Vineyard Theater’s upcoming season and recipient of The Paula Vogel Award.  Readings or development by The New Group, Naked Angels, Primary Stages, Upright Citizens Brigade, Dixon Place, and SPACE on Ryder Farm.  BFA in drama Syracuse University.

Radiance Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Susan Bernfield's Barking Girl Takes a Much Needed Other Look at Motherhood

" You might not realize that it’s kind of subversive..."
-Playwright Susan Bernfield

In your program notes, you talk about your experience having a baby ten years ago felt frustrating because of people's assumptions on parenting (and perhaps particularly in the theater industry). It sounds like you feel those assumptions have changed.  Is that true and can you expand on that?

I think I maybe feel like those assumptions have changed just based on casual observation, but I may be very sensitive or wrong… or guilty of making new assumptions!  Because people still seem to relate to the play, fortunately!  It felt lonely and unusual then, to be a parent, and some of those assumptions I think came from my being kind of a strange and curious animal among the people I knew.  I’d “out” myself as a parent, and suddenly it was like I was from Mars, I needed to be treated more sensitively or something.

There are simply more examples now, and those examples are more out there, in social media and stuff, and they’re just, well, cooler, I mean, obviously people had kids before, but maybe it was less of a “thing”?  Definitely a different culture of parenting, and again, in my perhaps biased or ridiculous observation, it comes from the aggregate, from everybody doing it in every neighborhood, not just the traditional NYC bastions of stroller-pushing, and that everybody has made it fashionable, and the media and marketers have latched onto that, making it even MORE fashionable, there sure was no cool baby gear back in the day!
Not that it isn’t still difficult, not that people don’t still feel conflicted… and I think there’s a whole different kind of pressure, actually, that comes from all that attention, all that awareness of other people’s babies, that’s probably makes it more difficult now in many ways.  Also, maybe I was just always a little older or more settled down than my colleagues?  

 But a lot of my issues with being called a “mom” and conforming to other people’s ideas of what a “mom” is and not wanting to renounce professional or even just human aspects of my identity – or if not renounce, then just not have this additional identity supersede the others – are very much more about my upbringing, with a re-entry mom for whom going to work was a really big deal, and her working identity was something she fought for, whereas being a parent was just… a natural part of life, no big.  So who knows, starting out today I might not have the same issues.  But then again… I might.

 Rae has some very un-Parenting Magazine/popular culture reactions to becoming a mom, how has her character been received both ten years ago as the play was being developed and today?

I remember in a rehearsal of a workshop of it long ago, the actor who played Gil said about one of the lines, “oh, but she doesn’t really mean that,” and I was like, yes she does!  And the experience this time has been pretty much the same, at least talking it through in rehearsal, the realization of what she’s really saying kind of creeps up on you. 
I think the play’s had a hard road because at first glance people are dismissive of a “baby play”  (I am too, I never intended to write one), if you’re not in the middle of it you might not realize that it’s kind of subversive.  It’s so so nice now when people say “wow, nobody ever talks about this” and you know they’ve had similar experiences.

How did you, and do you in general, like to collaborate with your director (in this case Pirronne Yousefzadeh)?

I love working with collaborators, and Pirronne was awesome.  It’s so nice to get to rehearsal and you have a partner and advocate in the director, that we get to have a similar experience from different angles.  I have tremendous respect for directors, because I couldn’t do that job, I express things so poorly when they pertain to my plays, and a director translates me in such a smarter, more succinct, MUCH more productive way.  Mainly with directors I try not to put my foot in my mouth in front of everybody else!  Which doesn’t always work out…. I tend to say too much, or the wrong thing.  Terrible.

How did you become involved with Chrysalis?

My friend Sonya Sobieski saw Chrysalis’ call for submissions, which was looking for a very specific kind of play, and she thought of this one.  So I sent it.  And Adina picked it!  Which is awesome.

There's a line that Rae says - something about the "barking girl" flaunting her freedom - which really stuck out  in a powerful way and then was sort of circled back on when Rae receives the news on the phone... what was the inspiration for that particular story and what were your thoughts on weaving it throughout?

Y’know, I really did see a girl like that in a small, beautiful museum on the Riviera.  I already had a kid, and the circumstances of my visit were different, and I think I didn’t know why I was writing about it when I first wrote about it…  but clearly I felt that she was able to release in a way that made me very uncomfortable, that scared me, that rubbed against my in-controlness. 

The first scene of BARKING GIRL was originally a 10-minute play which was performed a few times, and I didn’t write the rest until 2 or 3 years later.  I love it, though, when you write something, and then you discover how it’s really gonna resonate later on, often WAY later on.  You come up with these things, and they’re just sitting there in the play, and something else emerges and suddenly you know why you came up with them in the first place, and there’s an arc in more than one way.  I’m glad they resonated for you.

How do you write? Writing schedule? Idiosyncrasies/routine? Has it changed in the last ten years?

I get so busy I sadly never have a schedule!  Although I’ve been trying to be better about that lately.  I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that my writing life is cyclical, there are going to be times when I have the time or mind-space to write, and times when I don’t, but during those times I have to trust that it will come back someday.  And then when it doesn’t, ha, I have to at least find some time and make myself work a little more! 

I think it’s harder now, I’m older, and things don’t just spew out like they used to – like this play did, finally, nearly fully formed after 2 years of false starts (I was in an airport rental car lot when I suddenly saw the second scene and had to sit on my suitcase and pull out my notebook so I wouldn’t lose it).  But these days, if I somehow finally find myself on a roll, I appreciate it more.

How did you come to theater?

I started being in plays at the children’s theater in my town when I was 9.

How do you juggle producing and playwriting?

Oh, I don’t!  See “cyclical,” above.  But seriously, though I try to balance, the producing (and administrating, really) stuff is more deadline- or real world-heavy and it tends to win.  For the past year I’ve been trying to take a “creative day” once a week, and that’s been productive, or even when it’s not at least it reminds me that I AM creative, gives me focus.

What's inspiring you right now?


Barking Girl, with Adina Taubman, Max Arnaud, Meg MacCary and Tom O’Keefe is produced by Chrysalis Theatre Company and runs through December 2nd at the 4th Street Theatre. You can get your tix here and enter NGFriends to get your Theaterspeak discount.

Photo Credit: Isaiah Tanenbaum