IN PROCESS: Talking with Susan Winter, Will Arbery, Jessica Dickey, Rogelio Martinez, and Tony Meneses
ShadowCatcher's commissioned writers are currently in the process of researching and writing their new plays. SCE's Literary Director, Tom Park, recently interviewed them each separately to discuss the inspiration and vision behind the stories they're working on.
SCE Commissioned Work: In 1860s Paris, a 29-year-old intersex makes an appeal for universal compassion as they retell the story of their life from Catholic school girl to cause célèbre as a redesignated male.
TP: Can you describe how you got into writing and give us a little background on your life and career as a writer?
SW: Well, my father was a master at telling hilarious, improbable stories and I’m sure being raised in Florida with its curious mythology had an impact. My folks were designer-builders so I grew up around the "making of things." I started in poetry, music and the visual arts, did graduate studies with Will Hindle, one of the pioneers of American avant-garde film. Creating 16mm experimental shorts was a slow move toward independent film narrative and still influences how I approach storytelling. My feature, Pousse Café, focuses on a crossroads moment between a gay, NY performance artist and his retired, game show host father who’s writing a book on the history of cocktails. Their relationship evolves as a stylized, postmodern homage to American 30s-40s “cocktail comedies,” —that particular vision of the American Dream. Currently, I'm working on a novel, and a dark comedy, Orange City, about growing up with my war-vet father during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And now, this generous commission.
TP: Before we get into HERCULINE, you've been active in developing the television series The Hive with SCE Executive Producer/Co-Creator, David Skinner, and Executive Producer, Jane Charles. How's that experience been for you and any status updates you can share on the project?
SW: David saw Pousse Café and a doc I was directing about my friend, blacklisted film/theatre director, John Berry, who began at the Mercury Theatre and directed Obie-winning Boesman and Lena with James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee. That led to the offer to co-create and write The Hive, set in Santa Fe, a place both David and I have strong connections to. It’s been a great opportunity to work on an episodic story, exploring issues I care about: immigration, the environment (I’ve been a beekeeper), how we navigate these complicated times. Sold producer, Jane Charles, came on board bringing her great creative and development skills to the project. Since we began, The Hive has become timelier, with its story of a woman who risks everything helping young, undocumented border crossers, while her sanctuary community navigates uncertain federal policies. We’re excited to now be in development.
TP: With HERCULINE you're moving from screenwriting and The Hive to writing for the stage, a new medium for you. What is it about this material that inspired you to want to tell the story theatrically rather than cinematically?
SW: I was given the commission to reconceive my film script, Herculine, as a theater piece. Shifting to a medium that was flourishing at the time of this story is very interesting to me, so I’m diving into the creative possibilities unique to theater. The alchemy between live audiences and actors has always held a bit of the miraculous to me, particularly in productions like Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, Laurie Anderson’s United States, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. In searching for a new direction, I’m inspired by hybrid theater. I’m exploring a contemporary interpretation of string quartets and salon songs popular in 19th century Paris, when Fauré, Ravel, Saint-Saëns were composing to the (then) avant-garde poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine. Theater's bandwidth for using language, music and visual drama seems the perfect vehicle for telling this story that's intimate as well as mythic. And I’m circling back to elements of my early experimental film, poetry and music roots, which is exciting.
TP: Can you share some biographical and historical info on Herculine and explain what drives your passion to share this story with audiences?
SW: HERCULINE is inspired by the memoir of a 19th century, French intersex, Adelaide Herculine Barbin, later Abel Barbin, who was identified female at birth. Educated in privileged, all-girl, religious schools, they experienced their body developing as masculine at puberty. The presiding nuns kept their student’s transformation secret, and at twenty, Herculine fell in love with a fellow (female) schoolteacher. Concerned they were exposing the school to scandal, Herculine went through the French courts for gender re-classification, a legal precedent at the time. They gained the freedom to live as a man, but lost the love of their life. Newspaper stories of their gender change followed (the now) Abel to Paris, where they became a cause célèbre. Before committing suicide at thirty, Abel wrote an extraordinary account of their life, leaving their memoir with their body. This testament was later discovered in a Paris hospital file by writer, Michel Foucault, who had it published in the 1970s.
Reading the memoir for the first time, I was moved by the voice of this person who embodied the all of who we are as humans. Considering the times, the love and support Herculine/Abel did receive was as enlightening as the hard story of their social marginalization. I was inspired to make a pilgrimage to the places that were touchstones for them, and discovered they crossed paths with an ancestor of mine. Being in their environment, they came alive and fueled my desire to write the script. Now, years later, one can’t ignore the similarities in the political/social climate of their times and our own. For me, it makes this 176 year-old story all the more relevant and needing to be told.
TP: There's been an encouraging wave of awareness and acceptance of queer, intersex, and trans issues and enlightened attitudes toward gender and sexual fluidity in recent years, but there's still a lot of fear and misinformation. How does your interpretation of Herculine's story reflect or contribute to contemporary conversations we're having around these subjects today?
SW: We’re living in highly schizophrenic times. On the one hand, you can point to genuine strides in LGBTQI social/cultural/biological understanding and inclusion, and on the other hand, we’re in the midst of a troubling backlash against a movement that champions full rights and dignity for everyone. When I first started the project, Herculine was little-known. Since then, they’ve become an iconic figure for many in the LBGTQI community, with their 19th century story being interpreted through the contemporary lens of sexual/gender politics. As a storyteller from outside this community, I’m inspired by Abel's passionate voice speaking from the heart on what it is to be human, to be viewed as “other.” In forwarding Abel’s call for universal understanding, I’m reframing their own question: In a world that’s often driven by hate, why is the message of love and acceptance so controversial? This stage interpretation will explore that question through the story of a remarkable character who is All of Us.
SCE Commissioned Work: SINGING TO MYSELF follows Ginny, a 30 year-old woman with Down syndrome, as she begins taking music lessons from a prickly outsider artist in a small Texas town. A play about unlikely collaboration and creating through grief.
TP: Without giving too much away, can you briefly outline the story, characters, and central relationship in the play?
WA: SINGING TO MYSELF is a play about Ginny, a 30 year-old woman with Down syndrome who's living with her older sister after the death of their mother. Her sister, Chrissy, is a hard-working woman in a small Texas town, and she doesn't have the time to tend to her sister full-time. Ginny grows depressed, spending most of her days on her iPad, watching Disney Channel shows, and dreaming of being a pop star. Desperate to get Ginny out her funk, Chrissy sets Ginny up with an artist, Lot, who lives outside of town in a shack. Lot is rough around the edges, wounded and raw, but kind. He's an artist-of-all-trades, making distinct music, sculpture, paintings. Despite unproductive initial sessions, he and Ginny form a bond, and more than that, they inspire each other to make beautiful work. What follows is the simple tale of two outsiders making music together.
TP: It sounds like you're looking forward to approaching SINGING TO MYSELF as a bit of a departure from some of your recent work? Is that accurate, and if so, how?
WA: That is accurate. Much of my recent work has been intense, weird, a bit self-loathing, and dark. PLANO is a wild, time-traveling ghost story play, WHEELCHAIR is a dirge, and HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING is a gut-punch about the political divide. My recent work has required excavating my whiteness, as well examining the conservatism and faith I was asked to inherit. It's been a bit grueling! When I learned about ShadowCatcher's mission to make work with "hope, humor, and heart," I realized how eager I was to create something simple and straightforward. I'm sure it will still be informed by the more political work I've done lately, but it won't tackle those themes directly. I want to make something lovely, contained, and optimistic.
TP: This story is inspired in part by your sister, Julia, who has Down syndrome. SCE's always been attracted to stories drawn from deeply personal experience, and while SINGING TO MYSELF isn't strictly speaking autobiographical, do you know yet how will your sister's experience, and your relationship, will inform the play?
WA: Yes, absolutely. I'm so inspired by Julia, and I write about her all the time. I grew up the only boy among seven sisters. I was the second-to-youngest, and Julia was directly above me in age. Having Julia as my sister, friend, and hero became essential to the work that I do. She was crucial in developing the way I see, the way I use language, and the way I love. This play is inspired by the time Julia and I made a short film together on my parents' property in Wyoming. She performed the lead role, and she was excellent. The experience of making the film was hilarious and exhausting and fun. Even though SINGING TO MYSELF is about the act of creating music, rather than a film, I'll be drawing on those memories.
TP: Music is an important element in the play. Can you share some of extraordinary music and artists inspiring you as references for this piece and talk about the role of music in this story?
WA: I would love to share some of the musical inspirations! I've been diving into "outsider music" for this play, and I've been particular inspired by: Gaelynn Lea. Arthur Russell. Vic Chesnutt. Johnnie Frierson. Blaze Foley. I like songs where you can feel the air in the room in which they were recorded. I like music created against all odds, created in the (sometimes freeing) pigeonhole of obscurity. I've never written a play with music before, so this will be an exciting new challenge. A lot of Ginny's dive into music-making will be reflections of my own dive!
TP: Are there unique challenges to developing a story with a fully dimensional disabled character at its center? From an inclusion and representation perspective, do you have specific goals for the piece - or tropes you specifically want to avoid?
WA: Yes, there are certainly challenges. This is a mode I've worked in before. I created my play WHEELCHAIR for the performer Matthew S. Joffe, who has a spinal condition as well as a rare neurological disorder called Moebius syndrome, which limits his ability to use the musculature in his face. The fixed nature of his face has led to many misconceptions in his life, such as the idea that he's intellectually disabled, or asexual. Matthew wanted the play to examine his sexuality, and so it did. He also wanted to be portrayed not as helpless but autonomous, not as innocent but complicated. That process gave me the confidence to build a theatrical play around a performer with Down syndrome. There are sort of three misconceptions about people with Down syndrome. One is that they're cherubic balls of light who exist in that mode 24/7, and who exist to cheer other people up. Another is that their life is more challenging or somehow less-than, something to be hidden away or institutionalized. Still, a third: that they're asexual. I'm looking forward to breaking all of these notions down. I'll accomplish that by approaching this character the same way I approach Julia -- matter-of-fact, with a lot of love, and on her own terms.
TP: Although one of its central characters has Down syndrome, SINGING TO MYSELF isn't conceived as a play about disability. If there's a unifying theme or core idea you want to communicate through this story, what is it?
WA: Right, it's not a play about disability. The goal of the play is not to teach the audience something about living with Down syndrome. Rather, there is a crucial act of representation at the center: yes, the actress playing Ginny must have Down syndrome. But the plot does not revolve around the character of Ginny having Down syndrome. This play is about the act of collaboration, and the healing power of creating art through grief. It's about the feeling of being an outsider. It's about creativity despite limitation, and friendship against all odds.
SCE Commissioned Work: A play about the sex lives of senior citizens.
TP: Can you describe the inspiration for this particular play?
JD: Oh, some magical combination of the following: my grandparents (who lived with family my whole life); my parents' relationship to their bodies and each other; the man I love; my own curiosity and sensuality - mixed with a little outrage that the elderly are often unheard (like older actors, who have more to offer than ever, have so little work available to them in our field). And the fact that at key moments in my life I’ve written a letter to my 85 year-old self and asked her questions about my choices and my path. She’s always written back.
TP: You recently told me when people ask what you're working on and you say "a play about the sex lives of senior citizens", they light up, Why do you think that is?
JD: Well, we are all sexual creatures and we are all going to get old, and yet the intersection of these two things is a mystery, so it feels like peering into the future. There is such intense privacy around our sexuality and our aging - they are both subjects that expose our interiority in some way, and yet both are hyper-externalized in our current culture. So I think the subject awakens an intrinsic curiosity and vulnerability.
TP: Are you or will you be conducting any research in conjunction with this piece? If so do you have specific questions or lines of inquiry you want to pursue?
JD: I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and there is some wonderful literature out there - Atul Gowande’s Being Mortal is a profound work on becoming frail and our communication around it as a culture, as well as with ourselves and our loved ones. But more specifically about sex and the elderly, I’ve enjoyed an assortment of wonderful authors, including Jane Juska and Joan Price. And of course periodicals and medical journals. But I’ve also been talking with senior citizens about their sensual lives and how they feel about it. I’m currently in a dialogue with a wonderful woman, age 82, who was a sex therapist in her career and now writes poetry and essays; she is absolutely incredible. I feel very privileged to discuss this subject with the people I’m meeting.
TP: What stylistic or thematic elements in this play do you see as being consistent with your body of work? Conversely, does this piece in any way represent a departure or unique challenge to you as a writer?
JD: All plays feel like their own ecosystem, and how to best work within that ecosystem is a question I’m constantly asking myself. But along the way major themes do keep coming up. Most of my plays are interested in death and time and the body, and the poetry of the body. And our deepest yearnings and what they reveal about who we are. And a relish of language and human folly.
TP: On a personal note, the late, great John Mahoney made what sadly turned out to be his final stage performance in your play THE REMBRANDT at Steppenwolf last year. Do you have any special memories of getting to work with him?
JD: Just that he was very loving and admiring and respectful of the text. And of all art! THE REMBRANDT is about a museum guard who decides to deliberately touch a famous Rembrandt painting. So one day during rehearsal we realized that you could divide all people into two categories - those that would touch the art, and those that wouldn’t. So we went around the room and asked everyone if they would touch the art, and I think most of us were a yes, but John Mahoney was an “Oh my, no!” When we pressed him further, he said with his mouth wide open, eyes alight, “Oh, I could never touch a great work of art. I just wouldn’t dare!” He said it with such certainty and humility. I thought it was a wonderful window into who he was.
SCE Commissioned Work: As a music revolution explodes in the early 90s, a group of Cuban outcasts come together under extraordinary circumstances and forge a community inspired by the power chords and punk energy of Seattle grunge.
TP: This is the first full-length piece you've tackled since completing your Cold War trilogy. Does this play feel like a clean break from those stories or is it in some ways an extension of the themes and ideas you explored in the trilogy?
RM: You can never make a complete break with your past no matter what anyone tells you. The same applies to writing. I see it this way. You have a groundplan for a house and soon you start building but as you grow older there are things you want to change…maybe you feel too confined so you go and add a new room. The foundation remains but change is inevitable.
As it applies to this play, I do see it as an extension of some earlier ideas; but things have happened in my life that have transformed me forever. The most obvious is that I am a father. I’ve become very conscious of community. As I watch my oldest discover new friends only to be separated from them by no choice of her own (new classroom or a snub) I see in her a desperate need to carve out her place in the world. I see in her a strong desire to find her tribe. Mind you, she is only six but the need to be close to those who share her interests is already there. This is going to continue all throughout her life. In a sense, this play is more inspired by her than my own Cold War past. People need communities. People need to find companionship. People need to be reassured they are not alone in the way they think. People will go to extremes to assure that happens.
TP: Much of your work is inspired by historical events but this is the first time you've explored Cuban history and culture in one of your plays. What is it that drew you to want to tell this particular Cuban story, and why now?
RM: I explored Cuban history and culture in the past but haven’t done so in maybe ten years. At that time I found I had nothing else I needed to say. I had nothing to add to the conversation. With this play I feel like I do have something to say. This has to do with the psychology of a people who have lived under a dictatorship for close to sixty years. In fact, this play will be ready by 2019, the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of that particular chapter in Cuban history - perhaps there is a better word than anniversary but let’s stick with that one. I did not want to write about history as much as I did about a minority who were desperate to find others who shared their interests. This is a play about people who were not interested in a regime change. They could care less. They just wanted to be themselves and find reassurance that there were others like them.
TP: Is there a specific challenge you've set for yourself as a writer working on this story? Is there anything about the material that makes this one easier or harder to write?
RM: They’re all hard to write. I have so many false starts. I write pages and pages and don’t think too much. Eventually characters will come forward and say, "Hey, look at me! I’m who your play is about!" My past experience is that it takes a while before this one character steps forward and says, "Let’s go for it". The lead character is always shy at first because they’re the one who is going to have to bare their soul for you to exploit. Sounds rather cruel, doesn’t it?
As far as challenges for myself, yes, there is one. Six characters on stage at the same time talking one on top of one another one. Let’s see if I meet it but if not there is always the next play.
TP: Your plays have often featured real-life and in some cases iconic historical figures - i.e. Nixon and the Reagans. There are composites of real people in this play too. What it is about them and their stories that captivated and inspired you?
RM: The play is about a group of young people who were social outcasts. It takes place in the early 90s. These people didn’t fit the norm as dictated by Cuban society; so they took a radical step. They tried to find Utopia via the most unusual of methods. To get into the specifics would be to start talking the play out of me. It’s also about a different person from a different world who ends up in this group - an outsider amongst a different group of outsiders.
TP: Congratulations on the success of the Goodman's world premiere of BLIND DATE! What was it like working with Robert Falls as your director, and how did your collaboration - and putting the work in front of an audience for the first time - most significantly impact the play from first rehearsal to opening night?
RM: Working with Bob was a terrific experience. Immediately he understood that the play had to move fast. There is a certain momentum written into the fabric of the play and if the play were to slow down for a big scene change or even a blackout we would lose it all. To this end, we had to work together in figuring out how to make that work because at times it just had to do with problems inherent in the text. In the original draft there is a lovely scene that happens years after the events of the play. It was a scene I was attached to but if we went forward with it the play would come to a screeching halt with only eight minutes remaining. It was almost technically impossible to pull off. We had to figure out how to preserve the scene’s tone which was the most important thing to me. The solution now makes for a lovely scene that strengthens a secondary character's bringing his journey to a satisfying conclusion. This final arc was not in the original. The solution was not an easy one to figure out but with the help of Jonathan Green, the dramaturg, Justin Sacramone, the assistant director, and Tanya Palmer, the director of new play development, we all arrived at something I’m quite proud of.
I mention the above names because theater is a collaborative art form and each of these people had an impact on the show. I worked closely with Jonathan. We would sit together and play out a solution. I would then go ahead and write the scene and bring it to Bob. And, of course, that’s when the discussion would begin. There were quite a few times when the rehearsal would end and we’d end up in conversation for another two hours. I remember at least two times we went to midnight after seeing the show.
As far as the audience’s influence on the play I would have to say that from the start the audience was with the play. We made quite a few adjustments but they were things we noticed that would strengthen the play — pockets of air that we could get rid of. There was a scene with Gorbachev and his advisors. It was a funny scene and the audience responded well to it but Bob’s instinct was that the scene would distract from the greater story. What we did was fold the scene into the second to last scene of the act. It’s now my favorite scene in the play. Mind you, there were changes right up to the moment we had to freeze the script. The rehearsal was over at 5pm and I remember running to the actor playing Reagan and giving him one last line at 4:55PM. He went for it and it paid off. It was not just a funny line but it also connected us to an earlier idea that had been set up late in the first act.
SCE Commissioned Work: Whether on stage or film, put a woman of color in a maid's uniform and that imagery will spark controversy. A THOUSAND MAIDS looks at that legacy, from cinematic foremothers to contemporary actors still struggling to be seen behind the apron.
TP: You've said your plays "always include a Latinx point of view". Why is that so important to you and does it ever feel limiting in any way to have your body of work governed by that steadfast commitment?
TM: To quote the new adage going around, representation matters, and if that’s what I can offer my community - have them see themselves more - then that feels like both a gift and a responsibility. The fact is Mexican immigrants aren’t seen in a kind light (uh, see the news), and this has honestly always been the case for us. But since this is my story in this country, my family’s story, it is important to me to combat the false impressions of who and “what” we are. And if storytelling is how I do it, then that’s my task. I would hardly describe it as limiting at all. My passion is this point of view, and I am always looking for exciting new ways to explore and further the narrative of the Latinx diaspora.
TP: Who are some of the writers that have influenced your work, particularly fellow Latinx playwrights?
TM: I was an English major in college so a lot of my early influences are more literary (Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, James Joyce, and of course Gabriel Garcia Marquez); I’d like to think I still borrow from the ethos of these icons. On the theater side, I’m a sucker for Chekhov and Ibsen, but then also thank God I got educated in the classical canon of writers of color who also had a huge impact on me, writers like Angelina Weld Grimke, Theodore Ward, and Luis Valdez.
TP: The play you're developing for ShadowCatcher contains a lot of signature elements that make your work so distinctive - exploration of class issues, ethnic stereotyping, and cultural assimilation, as well as vivid, multidimensional roles for Latinx women. In what way, if any, do you want this piece to be a departure from or expansion of your previous work?
TM: Each new play is its own challenge, and I find that there are things I want to make sure to get right. For this one, it’s an all female ensemble, so I want to make sure that these are dynamic characters for women to play and avoid the usual trappings of men who don’t write women well. It’s also a diverse and inclusive cast (Latinx, Black, and Asian), so the balance of voices is also a priority, that each is vital and anchors the play in their own way. It also dramatizes the lives of two real life actresses, Lupe Ontiveros and Butterfly McQueen, so research is also essential to this process. I definitely don’t want to eff up the legacy of both these women.
TP: You're currently enrolled at Juilliard. Can you talk about the rigor and specific challenges of the playwriting program?
TM: Unlike grad school where I was used to one play a semester, a structure I pretty much have maintained since graduating in 2010, Juilliard asks us for three plays a year, which is a lot, especially the older I’m getting (where all nighters are less and less feasible). The program also asks for first drafts, nothing we’ve shared before getting to school, so needless to say, we’re always working and generating material. The school is known for its rigorous acting program where the actors are working like 12 hrs a day; feels that way for us too but instead of being in rehearsals the way they are, we’re at our computers all that time!
TP: Being a teacher yourself, what have you found most helpful and stimulating about the structure and curriculum there?
TM: I teach my college students introductory material to the disciplines of Naturalism, Tragedy, Epic Theatre, and Post-Modernism, so having an academic point of view on playwriting, in addition to my creative point of view, allows me to abstract what I’m doing sometimes and see how my plays are behaving according to “formal rules”. It can be invaluable when you’re trying to figure out the shape of something new you’re working on that you don’t quite yet have a handle on.
TP: You're incredibly prolific with ideas for new plays and we explored several proposals before landing on this one. Was there something about this particular story that convinced you it was destined to be "the one" we'd collaborate on?
TM: It did feel a little like kismet when I sent this idea off. For one thing, this one seemed to resonate with the work you’ve seen of mine before that you’ve liked (a theatrical, female led story), so sensibility-wise I already felt like I was on the right track. Plus this piece has a lot to say about many of the things we talked about in this interview (representation, inclusivity, the point of view of artists of color), so I hope to continue this conversation in the work now.