Into the LAByrinth: The Life of an Acting Writerby Cusi Cram
At my first meeting with a literary agent of some repute, I found myself nodding at everything she said, despite whether or not I agreed with any of her pronouncements. One thing I affirmed with my bobbing head was that I was no longer interested in being an actress. All that mattered to me, I assured her, was writing plays. She looked profoundly relieved and offered to take me on as a client.
I felt certain she would have been less enthusiastic if I had told her the truth.
I have always been an actress. My mother was a performer and dragged my sister and I along to wherever she worked simply because there was no one else to care for us. I grew up playing hopscotch in front of La MaMa and learning to read by memorizing Shakespeare monologues during summers spent at theater festivals across the country.
And though the last several years of my life have been more focused on writing, I continue to act when I write a play. I parse scenes as an actor would, breaking them down into beats, I speak the parts aloud to myself as I write them, making sure that each character speaks in her own unique voice, and I am always returning to that most basic of dramaturgical questions for actors and playwrights alike: what does a character really want in a given moment?
After more than three decades engaged in theater, a quotation from John Patrick Shanley, which prefaces his early collected plays, makes more sense to me than most things: “Writing is acting is directing is living your life….Acting is the same as playwriting.” That is not to say that either is easily mastered.
One theatrical group that shares this point of view, and of which I am a member (as is Mr. Shanley), is LAByrinth Theater Company. The company was formed over sixteen years ago by thirteen Latino actors in response to a comment by a New York casting agent who claimed no Latino actors were cast in Ariel Dorfman’s Broadway production of Death and the Maiden (Dorfman is from Argentina) because casting professionals did not know where to find these actors. The group was created to let the theater community know there were indeed exceptionally talented Latino actors in New York (surprise, surprise) who were serious about their craft and who were ready to work.
One of the primary goals of LAByrinth, both then and now, is to stretch artists to explore new aspects of theater that are unfamiliar to them. A lighting designer might try her hand at directing, a playwright could give acting a whirl, and actors are encouraged rather than discouraged to write plays. Perhaps the most high profile of these experiments is between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose first venture began in 1998 on Guirgis’ play In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. This collaboration has gone on for four more productions the latest of which was the The Little Flower of East Orange, co-produced with the Public Theater this past spring.
While the Hoffman/Guirgis partnership is perhaps the most high profile of LAByrinth collaborations; the company is also fostering a new generation of writers and directors who also hail from an acting backgrounds. Amongst these are: Raul Castillo, Paula Pizzi, Michael Puzzo, Melissa Ross, Forencia Lozano, Andrea Ciannavei, Megan Mostyn-Brown, Carlo Alban, David Anzuelo, Liz Canavan, and Salvatore Inzerillo, to name just a few. The company ends its 16th season with two development productions, (part of the Public Theater’s LAB series) by two writer/actors: Scott Hudson and Rebecca Cohen.
Scott Hudson has an impressive collection of credits as an actor, having originated roles in plays Off Broadway by Guirgis, Julia Cho, Bob Glaudini, and Rebecca Gilman, in addition to extensive regional credits. Sweet Storm is his first full-length work. The play chronicles the first night of a newly married couple in the early 1960s in their honeymoon suite—which also happens to be a tree house. Poignancy is added to the setting by the fact that Ruthie, the Bride, has polio. The play examines the universal question of the deep faith required to truly give oneself to another person and the complicated dance required to fully accept someone, faults and all. Set in Lithia Springs, Florida (near where Hudson grew up) Sweet Storm owes much to the work of Tennessee Williams and Beth Henley; it shares a poetic setting and a certain lyric quality with these writers. At the same time, Hudson does not let the poetry of the situation or his characters carry him away; there is a rigor and muscle to the text.
Padraic Lillis, the director of the production, attributes much of the play’s strength to Hudson’s intimate knowledge of acting: “Scott understands the importance of what each moment means, both the emotional situation of his characters and the event they are experiencing.” Hudson was inspired by the writers and actors in the company to write the beginning of the play at a summer retreat with the company in Bennington. ”I heard the way Stephen Guirgis caught the dialect of the street. I wanted to start writing from that place, but my dialect was different.” Fortunately, he heard the voice of a young intern, Jamie Dunn, from North Carolina and wrote a short play for her. Four years and numerous drafts later, Sweet Storm emerged.
Here, in a tree house, strewn with gardenias, Ruthie confronts her new husband, Bo about the absurdity of his romantic notions:
But I can’t live in these woods in a tree house Bo Harrison. What are you thinkin’? You gonna make me a little elevator too? I mean honestly now! If I were to get poetic, I’d have to say you are up a tree.
(Bo cracks up laughing.)
What? What is it? Why’re you laughin’?
C’mere sugar doll.
What? Don’t call me sugar doll now.
You are not gonna be livin’ in a little ol’ tree house. I’m fixin’ to build us a house. A real house out here. This is jus like I says, our little honeymoon get away. I didn’t mean to scare ya, havin’ ya think this is where ya was gonna live an all. My lord ya must a thought I was nuts. C’mere. (He gently leans to kiss her.)
Why couln’t ya have just a’built a place on the ground…
When I first heard Rebecca Cohen’s Penalties and Interest, now also being presented in the LAB Series, I was astounded at the originality and humor of her writing. Set in the fictional offices of “Parner, Moft and Gape,” her play places the world of office dynamics under a powerful microscope—familiar situations are examined so closely they begin to become increasingly unfamiliar and then suddenly careen toward the absurd. I asked Cohen to tell me more about the absurd bent of her work: “I think writing theater of the absurd helps me find humor in pain, and it is helpful for me to express it in an outlandish way rather than talking about it in a naturalistic or realistic way, which just seems like more of the same.”
Cohen’s dialogue is most certainly not “more of the same”. There is a remarkable spare humor in the way her characters speak to one another. The director of the Penalties and Interest, John Gould Rubin aptly describes this quality as “something ephemerally quirky”. Here is a sampling of how co-workers, Amy, Lyle and Lollie subtly torture one another during the course of the workday:
AMY (on the phone)
Parner, Moft and Gape. No, Gape is a silent partner. No, he’s silent. No, he has no communication, no communication whatsoever. Well he has equity. We have a good product. Lollie? Sure, who’s calling please? Oh Hi Carol, hold on. Yes, it’s Amy. Amy. Amy, the only other female here, we’ve met several times! I have black hair. Whatever! Lollie? It’s Carol, line three.
Hello, hey Carol, I can’t wait for tonight. Cancelling, why? A date, well that’s kind of last minute. He just asked you now? Well, can’t you tell him you made plans and you can go out with him tomorrow? Well, I might not ask you out again either! (she hangs up on her-growls)
Are you pissed off because you’re single Lollie?
I’ve been single since I was born, you’d think I’d be used to it by now.
You could have been with that one guy.
He was wearing a teal shirt! Who wears a teal shirt?!
You’re alone because of a teal shirt?
Cohen like Guirgis wrote this play for specific actors in the company. This is the first play she attempted to do this with. She says of this experience, “I think I would be leery to ever try it another way again, not that someone else can’t fill the role later, but it so helped me to have a real person talking, screaming and fighting for their lives, as opposed to my idea of a person.” In readings and workshops I have seen of this piece the chemistry between the actors is both kinetic and unexpected, a quality that I often find in LAByrinth collaborations.
Both Cohen and Hudson commented on how they have been encouraged and supported by LAByrinth to explore and challenge themselves as writers. Hudson explains, “you come into the company through one door, maybe you are an actor, or a writer but once you are in the door, you are simply an artist.” My own relationship with the company echoes this experience. Through my work with LAByrinth, I have come to understand that every aspect of theater is intricately interconnected and the less distinction we make between the forms, the more likely interesting plays will be made. Last spring, after a very long hiatus, I returned to the stage in LAByrinth’s production of Andrea Ciannavei’s play Pretty Chin Up. It was exhilarating, nerve wracking and forced me to remember just how complicated acting can be. That particular experience made me wish I could return years back to that 57th Street office of my former agent, and confidently parrot John Shanley’s wise words back at her. And when we get to the part where she asks me if I’m still an actress? My head stops bobbing, and I look her squarely in the eye: “You bet.”
Penalties and Interest, by Rebecca Cohen, directed by John Gould Rubin, runs June 10-28. Sweet Storm, by Scott Hudson, directed by Padraic Lillis, runs June 20-21. Both shows are part of the Public LAB series, presented by The Public Theater in association with LAByrinth Theater Company. Tickets: $10, at www.publictheater.org or 212-260-2400. For further info on LAByrinth, visit www.LABtheater.org
CUSI CRAM is a playwright, screenwriter, and a sometimes actress. Her plays have been produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, Primary Stages, New Georges, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, amongst others. She has received three Emmy nominations for her work in children's television and recently finished her second season as a writer on Showtime's The Big C.