IN PROCESS: Talking with Jessica Dickey, Callie Kimball, 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: 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: A young mother and budding scientist takes up work in a Maine factory and learns about courage, longing, and sacrifice during WWII.
TP: This play was inspired by correspondence you discovered between your grandparents during WWII. How did you come across their letters and what was it about them that convinced you there was a play there?
CK: My parents divorced when I was quite young, so there was a gap in what I knew of my father’s side of the family. I was vaguely aware that my grandfather had died in World War II. Several years ago I was visiting family in Florida, and somehow we wound up looking at the letters my grandfather wrote my grandmother while he served. He was a Lieutenant in the Army and was stationed on the Aleutian Islands for nearly two years. He and my grandmother had already had one son, and then while he was away, serving on the island of Attu, my father was born.
The letters my grandfather wrote are loving and are also full of gloriously mundane topics. They corresponded about movies and music and family members and frustrations. They’re typical 20-something parents who happen to be living during wartime, a condition that raises extra challenges for both of them.
The day Germany surrendered, my grandfather died in an accidental fire in his Army hut. Most likely he was using the stove for heat, and it apparently exploded, and in fact, one of his earlier letters mentioned problems with the stove. They found his body near the door, and in a letter the Chaplain wrote to my grandmother, he says they thought my grandfather must have been trying to escape. My grandmother said that the night he died, he came to her in a dream and told her he loved her.
The letters he wrote in the weeks before his death are so eerie - he wrote of feeling like something was going to happen, and he wrote of how frustrated he was at being denied leave because he wanted to meet his son. Because of the delays in mail delivery, this meant that my grandmother would have still been receiving these letters weeks after she’d been notified of his death. These letters serve as the heartbeat of the play.
TP: You've tackled disparate styles and subject matter in your work. How would you classify the genre of this play and does telling this story represent any new challenges for you as a writer?
CK: My plays range quite a bit in style, for sure! I do love history, and this play will be a sort of cousin to my play SOFONISBA, which was on The Kilroys’ List and was a structurally traditional play about a Renaissance painter. That’s where the similarities end, because while SOFONISBA is about an artist working in an extraordinary situation with many constraints on her as a single woman in the 1500s, this play is about a young mother and aspiring science teacher who works in a factory during wartime, so her world grows larger and larger and she has more choices to make. Different challenges, different worlds, but with similar forms and historical settings.
RUSH was also a historical play, set in the Yukon Gold Rush, but with a fractured timeline and narrative structure. As much as I can, I like to set myself a challenge of writing in a new form with each play. This will be my first epistolary play. I like to try something I’m not entirely sure I can pull off. Otherwise it would be boring.
TP: I know you've already begun researching the period. Are you approaching your research with specific questions in mind? Is there anything you've uncovered so far that's been particularly interesting or surprising?
CK: I’m stuffing a huge notebook with a hodgepodge of ideas and facts. I’m tracking events and movements in the decades leading up to World War II—things like World War I, women’s suffrage, and the influenza epidemic of 1918. A large question I’m noodling is how attitudes around race operate in the play, and I’m learning about treatment of black Americans in the armed services, things like that.
While the letters are the inspiration, this is not a play about my grandparents, so I’ve invented all of the characters, and turned Peg, the young mother, into a factory worker. I thought I knew enough about working women during the war from a general idea of Rosie the Riveter, but I’ve learned there are many more layers to that. So many industries were desperate for labor, and they recruited women who were already working, and then they funneled young women coming out of school right into jobs who were eager for work.
It turns out the Rosie the Riveter campaign was targeted at a third type of woman who was a tougher sell—the upper class housewife. So just like in the war, where you had men (and women) from all walks of life serving together, you had women from very different socio-economic classes filling in all of these jobs and having to figure out how to work together. It was a steep learning curve for everyone and it was a time when our country came together and many people believed in the idea of serving for the greater good.
Another thing I was surprised to learn was that the Japanese actually invaded us. After Pearl Harbor and Midway, they attacked the Aleutian Islands, took over our bases, and took prisoners of war. So we had to conduct air attacks to drive them out and regain control of the islands. At the time, this invasion was kept secret because there was concern there might be panic in the American northwest if they knew of the Japanese invasion.
TP: Although this is a period piece one of the things that really drew us to your proposal was the story's relevance to today on many levels. Can you talk about that?
CK: One of the impulses to write this play comes from wanting to write a large-scale holiday drama that offers emotional resonance and heft to a contemporary audience. I think the overall themes of the play dovetail nicely with the historical backdrop: family celebrations, believing we each can make the world a better place, communities working together during hard times, and wisdom gained through suffering. My aim is for the play to land squarely in the tradition of holiday plays while being a timely story about issues that face many of us today.
The more I learn about what was happening politically in the years around the war, the more astonished I am at the parallels to today. I’ve listened to hours of FDR’s “fireside chats.” He was the first president to use the relatively new medium of broadcast radio for political ends. He was quite savvy, and used this new technology much the same way Obama used social media in the 2008 election. Another fun fact is that my grandfather was a radio operator in the Army, so this technology runs through many aspects of the play.
FDR was elected after the Great Depression began, and he lead the country through some of our most trying times as a nation—people were starving because of the poor agricultural practices that lead to the Dust Bowl. He created many work and welfare programs like the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Housing Administration - the list goes on. I recently read that he created around 100 agencies.
He had political enemies, but overall he was a popular president because working-class people understood that much of their suffering had been caused by unchecked greed, and there was a sense that this needed to be addressed through thoughtful government intervention. There was a view of serving the common good that was not in conflict with capitalism, but was seen as necessary to regain and build a thriving economy.
TP: What are you specifically learning about military service and combat that is relevant to today?
CK: Something I’m considering deeply is the difference in who served in our military then and now. During World War II, the draft for the armed services meant that every young man had to register to serve. Because you had shopkeepers, barbers, Ivy League college students, and garage mechanics from all over the United States serving together, there was an understanding that you had to put your differences aside to work together. Your very survival depended on your ability to succeed at teamwork.
Today the average service member is a teen or a 20-something man or woman who sees joining the military as his or her only shot at getting a leg up in life. So we have this strange disconnect today, where so many middle- and upper-class Americans never have to endure the kind of sacrifices many American families make every day to protect their privilege. I think we’ve lost something along the way, the ability to compromise and complement each other’s strengths in service of a common goal. We can’t see past our own self-interest in many situations.
World War II was a very clear and urgent war, in that the morality of the cause made the fight feel necessary. People were united in common goals against common enemies. I’m hoping this play will show average young people working with their families, coworkers, and communities, trying to improve their world. I’m also hoping that the ideas of service and sacrifice can inspire people to find their commonality to address serious social problems. I want people to feel like they can make a difference.
TP: One of the things I love about your writing is your plays vary so widely in terms of style and subject matter. I’m curious what you think is your “signature” or the common denominator, if any, running through all your work.
CK: Thank you. I’m endlessly curious, both about form and the questions that get me going on a play. I feel like I never want to repeat myself, I want to surprise the audience.
I tend to use place as a character, setting my plays in storage units, submarines, and the Yukon. Because of this, for a while I was convinced I was writing a brand new play each time. Then I’d get about 40 pages in and realize I was writing yet another dark comedy about a working woman, often with shades of mother-daughter angst, and attempts to break free from social constraints.
I also usually include a game in each play. It’s a little bit of a trick, but how someone interacts with a game tells us volumes about how that character moves through the world. So in DREAMS OF THE PENNY GODS, a play built on lies, they play a round of Go Fish, a game of questions in which you cannot lie. In COWS OF WAR an adaptation of Aristophanes’ play PEACE, the two farmhands play the card game War and wax philosophical on the nature of conflict. And in SOFONISBA they play chess, which acts as a metaphor for all of the careful political maneuvering in the play. The games Uno and Cribbage make appearances in other plays, and there are probably more I’m forgetting. I’m pretty sure Poker will be the game for this play.
When I teach, I tell my students that a play can either confirm or challenge a worldview, and they should know where their play lands. I’d like to think that my playwriting palette uses a sly mixture of the two, by creating stories that ask original questions in the context of familiar themes and that offer new perspectives through traditional storytelling tropes.
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.