Cut! Unscripting Reality with Crystal Skillman
It often feels like there are only a hundred or so emerging playwrights in New York and that they all know each other. As a producer, I’m keenly aware of this as I read the plays submitted to or solicited by my theater company, the Management. Picking a play can be a painstaking process for any producer, but I find it especially excruciating: I’m also a playwright.
Another truth about being a playwright is that there are only so many opportunities. It can be hard not to get competitive, even with your friends. I constantly struggle with cynicism, thinking “one more rejection letter and I’m going to quit this crazy business.” We playwrights get so much of our news in the form of finalists lists. “So-and-so has received the 2011 P73 Fellowship.” Or, “So-and-so has been accepted to the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers’ Group.”I have a good memory for names, and this is how I first came to know playwright Crystal Skillman: she was on a lot of lists.
She won an Innovative Theatre Award in 2010 for Vigil, a play about a medieval torture device. She’s also written serials for the monthly Saloon run by those kings of comic book violence and fun - The Vampire Cowboys. Torture devices? Comic book theater? She seemed like my kind of writer.
When I finally met her in person it was at the opening of a Red Fern Theater Company show for which we’d both been commissioned to write short plays. I recognized her at once and introduced myself.
She hugged me.
I’m an immensely shy and socially awkward person and Crystal’s warmth was the first thing that surprised me about her. This was the girl that wrote about torture? She sat next to me and began to gab as if we’d been friends for years. Crystal’s longtime friend and collaborator, Daniel Talbott, wrote that Crystal’s “spirit, quirkiness, and joy are infectious.” He wasn’t lying. This girl was nothing but smiles and jokes and an awesome pair of glasses.
The second thing that surprised me about her that night was her piece, which was the last of the evening. Her play, Crawl, about two African-American brothers selling their familial home in Crown Heights, was thoughtful, delicate, and quietly devastating. This was not the work I expected from a girl who wrote a Vampire Cowboys serial entitled Killer High, which Crystal describes as “third graders meets Apocalypse Now—manga style!” I was struck by the sheer range of her work.
“I always consider what I write drama,” she tells me when I ask her about this, “but these wild comedies do come out too, which are fun—kind of more the ‘geek’ theater thing—but as crazy as they might get, I do come at it from a place of drama and let the comedy happen more naturally, keeping it grounded in some way with characters you always feel for.”
Six months after meeting Crystal, the Management is producing her new play Cut, an incredibly sophisticated play about something trashy: three writers on a Real Housewives-type reality show.
Reality’s written. Reality’s planned. And the reality friend is when you look in the mirror but you don’t see anything just what’s filming in your mind.
There’s no cameras here.
Just you. And you’re—.
I’m not going out there.
I’m not telling them the truth.
—from Cut, by Crystal Skillman
Joshua Conkel (Rail): First thing’s first. How did you start writing plays?
Crystal Skillman: I was always in plays as a kid (and always cast as the “crazy person”...hmmm…), but while acting was fun, it never really felt right. Directing never did either. Even though I was reading so many plays it didn’t occur to me that writing plays was something someone living did—and in general, as much as I loved them, it seemed like older dead white guys were the only ones writing plays, as far as the plays being picked to be done in high school.
I loved visual art and doing photography (which I did during lunch since I didn’t want to be made fun of—I found eating in a room full of folks that were looking to pick on anything that moved just not a good situation, and with my black and red hair dyed unevenly with a spider shaved in the back of my head—no joke—I made a nice target.) I still love photography so much—I studied at the Hartford Art School and later Parsons School of Design, as I wanted to move into the city. It was at Parsons that I began interning as a theater minor at Circle Rep and Ensemble Studio Theatre, and it kind of just blew my mind. I began to write short plays and realized I never cried when making photographs. That seemed to mean something. Plus I knew I wanted my work to be in front of a captured audience as opposed to a gallery, harness stories being told in a certain space and time. I was encouraged by Curt Dempster and Chris Smith who put me in Youngblood at EST, and never really looked back!
Rail: That’s interesting. I always feel frustrated that theater is temporary. I know that’s also what makes theater beautiful, but I still get jealous of artists who are left with something they can refer to later. Tell me about your time with Youngblood. I’m in the group too and am aging out, which makes me really sad. Did you age out?
Skillman: Tee hee! I didn’t age out. I loved my time there and I’m honored that the group I was there with (Chris Shinn, David Zelnik, John Belluso, J. Holtham) were the ones who started actual productions. I got a few EST/Sloan grants and later became a member so there was a natural progression before my “Twenties visa” ran out. But EST has been really important to my development in general—Daniel Talbott and I will be doing a workshop of my play Sleeping World at some point this year—hopefully this fall.
Rail: Let’s talk about Cut. Where did the idea come from? What are the challenges it brings as compared to your other plays in terms of its development?
Skillman: I’ve had the idea of doing a series about three reality TV show writers as webisodes for a few months now. I’ve realized for a while that when I talk in my head to myself— that I’m speaking not only monologues about how my day is going, or what I’m doing next. But I’m actually visualizing myself at times being that “talking head” talking to a camera. Instantly I was like—wait a minute! That’s theater— these “talking heads” are actually soliloquies. I thought instantly of how wonderfully low and high brow this could be—to take something that most folks put down as trash—like reality TV—and to tell the story of the people behind it and how their own lives fall apart the more they try to perfect someone else’s “reality” which ultimately, while true, can’t help but become fictional. I do indeed watch Bravo and its housewives, and I found myself fascinated not by the scenes themselves but how they’re constructed. I started to look into how programming that is called “unscripted” is actually scripted, how the writers pull the five minute confrontation, or one minute revelation out of the hundreds of hours. It’s amazing to me that they work in teams, from the story editor to the story planner, and after all that hard work don’t receive any credit at all. And how personal does it all get? All good writers put themselves into their work, and I wondered what would happen if these “writers” did the same.
Rail: What are the challenges in developing the piece?
Skillman: The challenges of the piece really helped me decide how to let this story unfold, and it’s a great example of how to turn complications into strong storytelling choices. When I had the chance to write a short play for Chris Bannow’s new play company Special Sauce, (for a reading this past February), I thought: this is the perfect time to mess around with this idea! Although I knew I wanted monologues in the play, I started by writing some scenes. I was surprised to learn that just writing the play in scenes was awful. It just didn’t work. But when I took the separate lines of the characters and put them in their own separate intersecting monologues for the characters, letting each give their own take on their urgent day going soooo wrong (they have to re-cut their season finale in three hours) it was pretty powerful, intimately funny, and disturbing stuff.
Special Sauce had just rocked the piece in a night at Jimmy’s No. 43 that included a great line up of playwrights, when I realized for the first time—this really should be a full-length play. Through totally wonderful chance and luck, playwright Kristen Palmer heard that the lovely Meg Sturiano of your awesome company, Management, was looking for a piece for their awesome ensemble (Megan Hill, Nicole Beerman, Joe Varca) to go up May 19 at UNDER St. Marks theater.
She loved the piece and where it was going and asked me: do you think you can really write the whole play to start rehearsals in April? And luckily my work with Daniel Talbott and Rising Phoenix Rep (Nobody, Birthday), Vampire Cowboys (Hack, my new play Geek), and Impetuous Theater Group (Vigil) had completely prepared me to work quickly with a great ensemble (which is the greatest gift any writer can ask for and how I excel). So of course I said yes!
One of the great joys in creating the full play is that there are these little mini-scenes that break into the play and these flashbacks of scenes that show what they were like when they started working together six weeks ago. It’s a really fun but heartbreaking play investigating the little choices we make in how we treat each other that make all the difference in our lives. It’s been amazing to work on it with this team.
Rail: I love that you mix high and lowbrow influences and this is what made us want to produce Cut in the first place. Pop culture, especially “throw away” garbage pop culture, can be a wonderful point of inspiration, I find. I’m always stunned by playwrights—especially young ones—that look down on pop culture. Of course, you’re writing about something trashy (reality television) but Cut is so sophisticated, even when it’s being trashy. It’s quite a feat.
And it’s weird but I’m doing what I haven’t done in days: Giving a shit about the work.
Springing into action, pulling up my log files.
I label all the files of all the footage that no one else has the time to watch. I like to think I’m a spy that spies on people who’ve been put into some box that has been filmed to capture all the fucked up things they do in the box. And I’m all about finding those things.
“Vomit at the Coke Party”
“Three Way at the Polo Grounds”
“Bitch Slap at the S&M Club”
Danno’s always saying it’s like Our Town but in the Ladies of Malibu everyone’s rich and we narrate their lives.
I don’t know what Our Town is.
—excerpt from Cut
Rail: That is incredibly sharp writing. Funny, but also sad and really, really true. I take a lot of inspiration from things that aren’t plays: old soap operas, punk rock, horror movies, weird things like that. I know you do too. Where do you get inspiration besides theater?
Skillman: Oh! Good list! I feel the same way. Horror movies are big for me. Rosemary’s Baby is my favorite movie—it’s probably the film that taught me the most, as it is so deep, scary in a simple way and is brilliant in how we follow Rosemary’s discovery of the mystery and sadly, who she’s destined to be as she finds at the end. Musicals inspire me a lot. Good unique ones like Last Five Years or Anyone Can Whistle, and I do love the music of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I’m a big comic junkie, and obviously a big fan of my hubby Fred Van Lente.
Rail: Tell me about Fred. What’s it like being married to another writer and does it have any effect on your writing?
Skillman: It does so much, it’s insane. We’re always there for each other’s work and I’ve learned so much over the past few years from his work—he’s even faster than I am as a writer and is wonderfully obsessed with making sure each story or project is unique and different but is him, his voice, and to make sure each one dares and risks. That’s everything I love about being a writer—and we’re there for when it is working out so well and when it’s not which is so important. We’re starting to work together on a few plays and other projects. I’m honored to be adapting his amazing indie graphic novel/comic Action Philosophers! (created with and drawn by artist Ryan Dunlavey) into a play for a run being put on by Impetuous Theater Group and directed by John Hurley (Vigil, Hack!) at the Brick Theater in their very awesome Comic Book festival this June! (My play Mrs. Perfect, about indie female superheroes, also running in the festival with Theater in a Van, takes inspiration from his extensive Marvel knowledge as well.)
Rail: I’m writing my first graphic novel for First Second books. It’s an adaptation of my play, The Chalk Boy. Man, it is a completely different animal than writing plays. Plus, I think the first half of my advance was more money than all of my plays combined. Speaking of, finish this sentence. “I wish more plays were…”
Skillman: “…given a chance sooner.” I’m stunned when I hear larger theaters at odds with “finding new plays and voices.” I have a list for you that’ll knock your boots off. This is an amazing time globally for great plays. I see amazing new work in indie theater, overseas (I was done in London last summer), and in writing groups like Woman’s Project Lab. For the plays I see, I try to accept the play that the playwright was trying to write in whatever I see. I do think, as playwrights, we need to be pro-active about what works for us development-wise. At times it seems that plays are a wee over- or under-developed, but in general we’re trying to create perfect stage time for 90 minutes or less in most cases. We picked doing one tough job! That’s why we get the big bucks...Wait a minute...!
Rail: One thing people always say about you and your work is how kind and hard-working you are and how much you love theater. I always feel like I’m one rejection away from quitting. I’m going to make you drop the niceties for a moment. Is there anything about theater that you fucking hate?
Skillman: OMG! There is actually! It’s when theaters or organizations don’t take the time to really welcome their audiences. Make sure they’re comfortable, safe. Or heck— have beer or a drink. I think theaters should have a fun spirit about them. I don’t like it when there’s the “it’s theater—deal with it!” attitude. I want my work to ultimately bring in folks who wouldn’t ordinarily go to the theater to have a new awesome, challenging experience—FOR AFFORDABLE PRICES. I do hate how expensive tickets have gotten, and I get the producing cost issues, and if we’re going to have theater be relevant and reach new audiences, we need to really figure that out.
Rail: That is such a nice person answer.
Cut by Crystal Skillman, directed by Meg Sturiano, presented by The Management as residents of Horse Trade Theater Group,runs May 19 – June 4 at UNDER St. Marks(94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave and Ave A), Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets ($18/$15) are available online at smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. For further info, visit www.managementtheatercompany.com.
Action Philosophers! Comic Book by Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey, adapted by Crystal Skillman, will run June 12 - July 1 at the Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn). For tix and further info: http://www.bricktheater.com.
JOSHUA CONKEL is a playwright whose work has been seen all over the country, and is also the Co-Artistic Director of the Management. His plays include MilkMilkLemonade, The Chalk Boy, The Sluts of Sutton Drive, I Wanna Destroy You, and more.