JUNE 2019

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Theater

“WHY WAIT?” On Being the Artistic Director of Your Own Work

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
No One Is Forgotten
July 8 – July 27
224 Waverly Place, Manhattan

Let’s face it—there are more playwrights writing plays than ever. Or, at least, it feels that way, right? And, proportionally, there are a very small number of theaters out there producing new work, especially if we want to see our plays be mounted in a timely way. Hopefully you’ve found an opportunity through a champion or program to help develop new work. Maybe you got on a list, maybe you didn’t get on a list; maybe you were a finalist, maybe you won, maybe it was just another pass; maybe a lot of things. But even in this current incredible moment of a rush to produce more plays by women—which we hope is a permanent shift of balance as opposed to a fad—many worthy, terrific plays by women are still struggling to be seen. We see this even more clearly now that we have found ways to be transparent with each other virtually. When I log onto the New Play Exchange, I read amazing plays and I think, “Wait, why isn’t this being produced, like, now?” On Facebook, I visit Gina Femia’s Rejection Roundup, which she still continues as she gains success, and I can read threads where I see who else got knocked out of the first round of submissions. And it’s shocking: great writers and great plays are turned away at a rapid rate. While this is daunting, I’ve also found it invigorating. It has made me more committed to communicate about my work and plays, and I have also begun to see how that road can pave ways for other playwrights. Two of my playwright friends who I have made along the way, Winter Miller and Andrea Stolowitz, have seized the moment for their work and are self-producing. Both of their plays have won awards and accolades, and have had great notice from theaters, but now they are on the verge of being produced. They are playwrights who stopped waiting and started doing. I wanted to ask why.

Crystal Skillman (Rail): Winter, Andrea—I remember the first time I read and heard No One is Forgotten and The Berlin Diaries. I found them to be incredibly striking and important plays to be seen. I am thrilled that we’ll soon see productions of them. For the Brooklyn Rail readers, how would you describe your plays?

Winter Miller: No One is Forgotten is the story of two women who are held captive. They don’t know where in the world they are, how long they’ve been there, or if they’re ever getting out. I’d describe it as high-impact, physical, terrifying, and at times very funny. Like if Waiting for Godot starred two women and had sex, violence, and jokes.

Andrea Stolowitz: The Berlin Diaries is a beautiful 80 minute two-hander about my quest to understand why my extended family isn't closer, using my great-grandfather's 1939 diary as a guide. It's a detective story that follows my real-life year long trip to Berlin as I uncover answers to questions raised in the diary. The Berlin Diaries is a meditation on how we inherit and process historical/ancestral trauma, put into a very elegant, joyfully theatrical form. It takes the trope of a solo play, in which one actor plays many characters, and raises it by a power of two, so that two actors share many characters, magically trading roles throughout. The play has much to say to the world today; a world in which new historical trauma is created on our own borders.

Rail: Winter, you just had an incredibly successful campaign on Kickstarter for your play which you are producing at the Rattlestick Theater. Can you tell us more about your working relationship with Rattlestick?

Miller: I actually sought co-productions with theaters to no avail, so I took matters into my own hands. This arrangement is a curated rental with Rattlestick, which I’m thrilled about. I really wanted my play to be in their space; after they carved up the space for Sam Hunter’s Lewiston/Clarkston last December, I knew I’d be able to set this with audience on all four sides, which was always my intention… I was flying home from California when I learned that Rattlestick had rental opening in July, and I jumped on it. I had no grants lined up for this play, there simply wasn’t time, it all happened so fast. Daniella Topol, the Artistic Director of Rattlestick, knows this play, my work, and me, and she and her staff have been super supportive. They’ve helped to make this production a reality in such a short timeline. If you told me I was going to try to raise $75,000 in three months, through large and small donations, in-kind gifts, and a very ambitious Kickstarter campaign I would have said, “Not possible.” More than 350 people have pooled resources to bring No One Is Forgotten to production.

Rail: Andrea, you just won a major grant from the New York City Women’s Fund. What made you seek funding for this play and seek co-productions or partnerships with theaters? 

Stolowitz: Just as you say, Crystal, the play has been developed all over and won numerous awards. Not only does The Berlin Diaries use text in formally inventive ways, it tells a compelling specific story about my specific journey to put together the keys of my family which has been shattered by the Holocaust. The Berlin Diaries asks us to apply this lens to other legacies of historical trauma perpetrated by us in the United States. I believe in the play, what it says, and the theatricality with which it says it. Ultimately I decided that the best audience for this play should be a New York audience both because The Berlin Diaries is a New York immigration story and because New York is where theater is created and launched. Since no New York theater was putting the play in their season, I decided to do it myself.

Rail: What challenges have you found? What joy?

Miller: The initial challenge was to make the leap. My strategy was to dive in so deep that I wouldn’t be able to step out once my senses returned, and I was terrified of screwing it all up. I’m a first-time producer, first-time director, I’m learning everything on the job. Which is why I’ve hand-picked a really specific crew of people to round out my team. There will be all sorts of challenges, ones that I hope will work to our advantage—NYC is not known as a July theater destination, but we will be right here, with our blood, sweat, and tears on the stage every time we step out. I think that’s super exciting.

Stolowitz: There is great artistic joy and agency in being able to take the reins of the creative control and find the right partners for your own project. Instead of waiting for my play to fit someone else’s mission I can recognize the value the play has, apply for grant funding, receive grant funding, and then produce the play. Granting agencies, development programs, and funders have always loved this play, and that gave me the confidence to decide to produce it. The challenges all have to do with budget and money. Raising enough money to pay everyone well, creating a show with great artistry while keeping within its budget, all of this on top of making sure I have enough money for promotion and press so audiences will come. Raising money is hard. Staying within a budget is challenging. The joy is all in the fellow artists and creators I am meeting.

Miller: With regard to fundraising, I thought I hated the phone, but it became my best asset. Each time I placed a call I was prepared for a no and optimistic about a yes, and for any amount. I felt empowered simply by saying, “This is my vision, this is my intention, this is how I’m going to go about it.” When 350 donors jump on board to support you, if you don’t take pleasure in that kind of community building and support, you’re in the wrong game. I spent at least three to five hours every day lining up donors and strategizing about how to leverage donations on Kickstarter. I studied successful campaigns. I set up meetings with easily 15 producers, from people like Andy Bragen, a playwright who started his own company; to Young Jean Lee, who ran a successful company and produced and directed half a dozen of her plays; to the women who run New Georges and have been producing in smaller theaters for 25 years; to people like Rachel Chavkin and Mara Isaacs who have made the leap from off-off, to off, to Broadway. People were very generous with their time and advice. Bragen spent time examining my budget with me, and as soon as I announced my Kickstarter, he was the very first donor. There’s a lot of collegiality.

Rail: Andrea, you talked to many independent producers and playwrights currently working on co-pros. What have you learned in those conversations? 

Stolowitz: I learned that you need to know why your play needs to be produced in New York. Once you can answer that question, you can order your choices and priorities. I learned that there is a huge new wave of theaters recognizing that they want to serve artists whom they cannot put into their season by providing curated rentals and other forms of support to meet the artist/producer halfway. I learned that there is a new wave of playwrights self-producing and that I am just one among them. I learned that ultimately you are the artistic director of your own life in this art form.

Rail: Yes, that has been a huge mind-shift for me as well, and has really helped lead to success. Andrea, who is directing The Berlin Diaries?

Stolowitz: Portia Krieger directed an early version of the play at New Dramatists. We loved working together, and I knew I wanted to continue working with her in New York.

Rail: And Winter—you’re directing your play! Talk to me about that.

Miller: I had never really considered directing my own work; but I saw this play so clearly in my mind. I had visions about the set and staging certain moments, and I thought, this must be some kind of instinct kicking in. Look, no sane person should hire me as a director, I’d say no, but I heard the call. I tell the playwrights I teach, “If your words offer you a yes, follow it where it goes, even if you want to say no, this is an exercise in trust.” My whole life is a study in trusting my instincts and being true to myself; this circumstance is no different. Pam MacKinnon generously agreed to let me shadow as she picked up the Artistic Director reins at A.C.T. in San Francisco directing Seascape. I was curious to see how she would interact with her actors, when was it time to sit patiently and when is it best to step in and say, “Let’s try it this way.” MacKinnon is patient, as egoless as it gets; she values the best idea in the room, but she knows what she’s working towards.

There are moments when doubt creeps in, and a booming voice asks me “who the hell do I think I am?” I take a breath: I believe art heals and provokes, therefore I want a place at the table. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who braved higher hurdles, said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I see this as bringing dozens of folding chairs—one for me, one for the artists involved, and enough for audiences. I remind myself daily: as long as no one is dying or being harmed, mistakes are okay, not knowing is okay.

I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy hiring people! I’m providing work and remuneration, that’s so cool. I made a commitment at the start of this process: an artist’s talent must be equal to their kindness towards others, and at least 90 percent of our team would be cis women, people of color, queer or trans folks. That’s the representation I wanted, and that’s what we have. I think gatekeepers are finally starting to pick up on this: If you want broad representation in the arts, hire like you do. It’s that’s simple. The pipeline is deep.

Rail: There are many great new Artistic Directors on the rise. Pam MacKinnon, is clearly one of them of course. Do you find any hope in this? 

Stolowitz: Yes. I live in Portland, Oregon. In my home city alone new play advocate Marissa Wolf just became the Artistic Director of Portland Center Stage. Six years ago New York director Adriana Baer became AD at Profile Theatre and then three years ago handed the reigns over to the visionary lover of new plays Josh Hecht. In 2013, Dámaso Rodriguez became artistic director of Artists’ Repertory Theatre (where I am a playwright-in-residence) and is changing the landscape of the kinds of plays Artists’ Rep produces and who the audiences are. And just now, farther south in my home state, Nataki Garrett has taken over at OSF. It is exciting to see so many diverse and young advocates of new plays and playwrights have power at institutional theaters. It does feel like the theater landscape is changing, and that is positive. Ultimately, though, I think the issue is and will always be that we have many talented writers and not enough slots to showcase their work. In the United States we do not have subsidized art like in Europe. I do not know how the budgets will grow and allow even more risks to be taken and even more talented deserving playwrights to be served in the current model. I really do see the model of “curated series” as a potential way forward. The institution and the artists come together to present the work in partnership. It is not ideal, but I think it is a positive way forward that can have good results.

No One Is Forgotten, written and directed by Winter Miller, runs July 8-27 at

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, Manhattan). Tickets: $20/$40, with ten $10 tickets available online every night. Visit www.nooneisforgotten.com or call 866-811-4111.

No One Is Forgotten is part of Rattlestick’s curated rental program and is a New Georges Supported Production.

The Berlin Diaries, written by Andrea Stolowitz, directed by Portia Krieger, will be produced in NYC in the 2020/21 season.  For updates, visit  http://andreastolowitz.com/work/berlin-diary/.

Contributor

Crystal Skillman

Crystal Skillman’s plays include GEEK, CUT, WILD, KING KIRBY, PULP VÉRITÉ and RAIN AND ZOE SAVE THE WORLD; she is the bookwriter of MARY AND MAX the musical, which has just announced its European premiere this fall.Her new play OPEN will feature Drama Desk Nominated Megan Hill in its premiere with All for One Theater Company this June 7th-22nd at the Tank in a productiondirected by Jessi D. Hill. https://www.crystalskillman.com/

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JUNE 2019

All Issues