There are moments--sometimes ten-minutes worth of moments--when you're so glad you're a playwright. They don't come often. Most playwrights who I know spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about being a playwright. But then, you have a night like I did, last Saturday, at Roxbury Repertory Theater's annual "Six Playwrights in Search of a Stage" short play festival, and you get this feeling that everything you've been working towards and dreaming about is right there in front of you.
My ten-minute play, Taking Up Space, was accepted into the festival. It was a play I started way back in 2010, and it's about Will, a man who has lost his job, and comes home from the unemployment office to find his new neighbor has parked his Jeep in the parking spot Will's been parking in for the last 16 years. Everything in his life that has given him self-worth--his job, his parking spot, his ability to provide and be a man--has been taken away. His wife is supporting them as a waitress, wearing her clothes to accentuate her figure because "...it's good for tips." The only jobs they're hiring for down at the unemployment office are for prison guards. "Did you apply?" Adele asks, and Will just looks at her. Will is just taking up space.
Marshall Hughes is the artistic director at Roxbury Rep, where he has consistently, and some might say, thanklessly, been producing relevant theater in Boston for...well, a long time. That night, Taking Up Space was in company of some other playwrights I know who quietly ply their trade in Boston, some also might say thanklessly, but don't stop writing compelling, relevant work despite a general oversight by the mainstream media: Robibe MacCauley, Peter Snoad, and Cliff Blake.
Alan White directed Taking Up Space, and while he and the cast were rehearsing he had only two questions for me. He wondered why it was Will, and not Adele, who remembered the social worker brought cookies when they first moved into their house and the state was investigating an injury to their son, Walt; and why does Will watch roller derby on television? Alan very sensitively directed Stephanie Cotton-Snell and Bill Marcus. Both actors afterwards told me how they could relate to the characters. The audience also seemed to be able to relate to the plight of two people who have been devastated by the economy, and who have only each other to cling to.
The reason I'm blogging about this is to illustrate a point I was trying to make in a comment to a story in the Boston Globe, when a reporter asked some Boston-based playwrights if playwrights should be responding to the Trump Administration. They all said, no, that playwrights and playwriting should take the long view of things. (You can read the story here.) Except for a very few playwrights (and I don't consider myself one of them) political and avant garde theater is all but non-existent in Boston. I don't think playwrights should or can be responding to current events in the way that, say, SNL does. You're talking about two completely different mediums. But in respect to making relevant theater, I think playwrights should be canaries in the coal mine, being sensitive to and reacting to toxicity in our society long before everyone else. I think playwrights should be writing about where society will be, just like a quarterback leads a receiver and throws the ball, not where the receiver is, but where he will be. In that regard, I think playwrights need to occupy a certain place in society, and that notion has caused me to question on more than one occasion just where are the radicals that I thought all artists are? Sometimes I think American playwrights are just too comfortable. I present Taking Up Space, a first draft of which I wrote in 2010 while still in graduate school, as exhibit A. I sat there that night, watching these two actors perfectly portray two people who society has all but abandoned, and some might say I arrogantly defy anyone to tell me it's not first a damn good, well-written play, it's relevant to the events of today in trying to understand how Trump came to power, and it should be seen on more stages.
If you'd like to read the script, you can find it here. Read Taking Up Space >>
One of the many themes that I'm trying to address with Plank is the individual's relationship with society. This video is a pretty good summation of how I feel about our world, and maybe what we're doing wrong.
AUDITIONS FOR ALLEY CAT THEATER’S
BY JOHN GREINER-FERRIS
DIRECTED BY MEGAN SCHY GLEESON
Alley Cat Theater is holding auditions for its upcoming production, Plank, by John Greiner-Ferris and directed by Megan Schy Gleeson, to be produced at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, August 26 – September 16, 2017.
We will be looking for three women and two non-gender-specific actors. The playwright encourages a diverse cast.
Auditions will consist of a one-minute contemporary or classical monologue of the actor’s choice, and readings from the script. If you don’t have a monologue, you can use one from the script. Because the play is movement-based, please wear loose, comfortable clothing for easy movement.
Plank is about Potpee, who, happy and content, adrift in the middle of the ocean on a plank of wood. Then she is “rescued.” Plank uses a mix of traditional theater and nontraditional, experimental theatrical elements that include movement, magical realism, and poetic language, addressing some of the more compelling issues of our time: climate change, refugees, individual rights, the importance of the individual in today’s society, social media, and nature vs. society.
These are all speaking parts, there is a stipend, and we will be looking specifically for actors who are very comfortable with movement and dancers who are comfortable acting. Actors will play the range of characters, from people to whales to seagulls to parts of the ocean, and must be comfortable morphing from one character to the next.
Auditions will be held:
Saturday, March 25 from 2:00 to 6:00
Sunday, March 26, from noon to 5:00
Callbacks, if needed, will be Monday, March 27, from 6:00 to 9:00.
Charlestown Working Theater
442 Bunker Hill Street
Charlestown, MA 02129
Parking for the theater is available along Main, Bunker Hill, and Medford Streets
To learn more about Plank and Alley Cat Theater, and to download a copy of the script, please visit www.alleycattheater.org/current-projects.
To reserve your audition slot, please email your resume and headshot to email@example.com
Alley Cat Theater is committed to fostering a diverse theater, hiring theater artists including actors, directors, dramaturgs, and designers regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, religion, or sexual orientation.
John Greiner-Ferris is the founding artistic director at Alley Cat Theater.
Do you ever get the sense that the problems in the world are just too immense? That there are forces at large that are so powerful and have so much momentum that any of us, as individuals, are powerless, or even worse, that we simply don’t count?
I know as a playwright I wondered what I could do about a world that I felt was rapidly moving away from my own values and how I would like to see our world. We writers tend to be an introspective, introverted lot, and so, like many writers, I kept to myself and thought and observed.
Before I explain what I came up with, I want to say that I did come to the conclusion that more than ever, the role of the individual in our society couldn’t be more important than it is now. Our individual rights and therefore our dignity as human being is being stripped away (and sometimes I think we’re just giving it away.) Individually, I pondered about what I could do.
And here’s what I came up with. Here’s what I can do.
I can write; it’s really all I know how to do. I can write plays that address the issues of today in what I feel is an intelligent, compelling, and thoughtful way. I can produce these plays. I can hire people, giving them the opportunity to ply their trades by helping me put on these plays, and while I can’t offer a living wage, I can continue to work towards being able to pay more than I have in the past. It’s a small list, I’ll grant you. But you try doing it. This list keeps me busy throughout the day all through the week, and keeps me awake in the middle of the night.
Plank, our first full-length production that opens this August, is one of these plays.
There are layers to that list, though, and I don’t want to delve into any of the layers except one. There is so much conversation in our country about diversity, race, and gender. Some have even blamed identity politics as the real or partial reason for the current political climate and administration. I don’t know about that. Again, just like same sex marriage, I see these issues simply as civil rights issues, and you don’t brush civil rights under the carpet. Maybe you can see how this relates to my conclusion about the importance of the individual and individual rights.
I do feel strongly about the need for diversity in the theater. Many of you who are reading this right now may feel the same way I do—birds of a feather and all of that. But maybe some of you don’t. If you don’t, it’s you I’m talking to right now. For many years, I was a contract editorial writer for a pretty good newspaper. Now, this isn’t my idea, but another columnist said that when you write, there are three things that can happen: 1) the reader will say, that’s what I think, I agree with you; 2) the reader will say, you’re crazy, and shut you down; 3) the reader will say, I never thought of that, I’ll think about it.
I’m going for #3.
Here are the reasons I value and promote diversity at Alley Cat Theater. It is a value I have in my life, and if you’d like to understand why, you can read my bio here. People have helped, and continue to help me, along the way, and I stand with one of the characters in my play, Highland Center, when it comes to helping people:
Not when I’m with you. I never understood why misery loves company, Hank. Why do people say, well, I suffered so you have to suffer too? I walked two miles in the snow so you should too? Shouldn’t it be if you suffered you don’t want anyone else to go through what you went through? Shouldn’t it be that we should want to stop suffering in the world, not preserve it? Hank, take care of Henry. Do your best, and don’t quit. Don’t run out on him. Hank, we all end up in the same place, the only difference is how we get there. A pine box, Hank. There. (Pointing to her headstone.) We all end up there.
So, here are my reasons for insisting on diversity at Alley Cat Theater:
One I first saw her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Four separate compartments in a wall that contained shoes, and over them, cowhide that was roughly stiched on with black thread, the kind used for stitching gashes in a human body. The shoes, ghostly remnants behind the stitched cowhide, belonged to people who had been murdered in Columbia's civil war. Such a powerful depiction of the concept. The staff person helpfully told me that I could see more of her work at the Fogg Museum at Harvard.
I like to explore all kinds of artists' work because it makes me wonder how I can transfer their ideas to the theater. (Did I just admit to stealing ideas? I think I did!) I l search out someone like Salcedo's work and think, could this be a set for one of my plays? Or I look at work like hers and think what, play could I write with these sculputures in it?
At the Fogg we went looking for her exhibition. You know how it goes in museums--sometimes you wander from gallery to gallery, not even knowing what you're looking for, but you know whatever it is, is around here somewhere. It's the nature of elusive art; it's not necessarily working in the same reality we're living in, not playing by the rules we live by, it won't necessarily raise its hand in greeting like a friend saving a seat at a cafe. But on an upper floor we stumbled upon a room filled with sculptures of chairs set willy-nilly in the space, and for a while I stopped looking for Salcedo's work because of the power of the sculpture in that space distracted me from my search. I can continue in a minute, I thought; meanwhile I want to examine this.
What struck me was how the artist used and filled the entire space, which is how it is for a theater artist. We fill spaces--we do, that grand empty stage--and someone knew what they were doing with that space. It made me laugh and smile, which I do a lot in museums when I see something that makes me happy, like the time I saw a nail driven into a piece of 2 x 4 and presented as sculpture. Simply brilliant! Sometimes I've had the staff think I was laughing at a piece because I thought it was perhaps silly (like the nail in the 2 x 4!) as if maybe they thought I was some anti-NEA nutjob. Times are a little weird right now. But the laugh is a reaction to pure delight of seeing a work of art just nail what it was saying. It's like "hearing" a language that you can understand, only the hearing is sight behind your eyes and the resonance isn't in your eardrum but in your chest and your brain. And so it was with this exhibition. And of course, you probably knew before me that it was Doris Salcedo's work I was looking at.
And here we weren't looking at little shoe-size compartments cut into a wall. These were entire rooms filled, or rather, they commanded the space but not really "filling" it. The pieces filled the space with their power, and not their physicality.
One gallery contained individual silk-like sculptures constructed of handwoven silk threads filled with tiny needles, like nasty little booby traps hung on the wall, you put one on and you die from a hundred pin pricks. The size of a shirt, one sculpture could command an entire wall.
Another gallery contained a tapestry lying on the floor comprised of thousands of preserved hand-sewn red rose petals (rose petals! sewn together!) the work is intended as a shroud for a nurse who was tortured to death in the Colombian war. Tender and duplicitious, our action and reaction to death.
Trying to "make it"--whatever your definition of that is--as an artist is a constant struggle. I don't think I've ever felt pressure like this, even in my early years as a starving freelancer (starving freelancer/starving artist; they're really one and the same because starving is starving) when I said I would only work for companies who I felt were making the world a better place and with people who I liked. You have your underlying ideals and your principles that form the basis of your company, and you stick to them, and you have faith that by following your heart you'll make it--again, whatever that means, though here with Alley Cat Theater I can define what success is. Part of it my idea of success is sharing ideas like this.
But it's hard enough to be an artist, but if you want to make it doubly hard, here are some hard and fast rules you should follow.
You want to break new ground. You want to do something different. You want to build a following for your theater, made up of people who are interested and look forward to the work your theater presents, much in the same way that people anticipate a movie by their favorite director, or a book by their favorite author. And that desire takes up a large portion of the worrying that you do as you build a new theater, trying to figure out how you do it, because in theater, the old try and true methods don't seem to be working anymore.
And then, on a cold, wintry day after Christmas, when you and your wife are out trying to find that place where you can rent kayaks in the summer on the estuary that leads out onto the bay, you stumble upon an unkempt amphitheater, something that looks like something out of ancient Greece. And you suddenly remember that play your friend has that would be perfect for this setting, and you think of the short play that you have, and maybe some of your friends have other short plays you can present (and you think, of course they have short plays I can present; the problem I'll have is having too many short plays) and imagine the stone steps filled with people, and lights coming on on a summer night, and microphones--will they need microphones, or will the actors project?. And the next day you look at the pictures, and the theater looks definitely like a fixer-upper, the kind of place where you fall in love, and only you can see the beauty and possibility.
If anyone who's reading this knows how I can get this done in Quincy, Massachusetts, please message me. Let's put on plays in the park in the summer, giving people a chance to put down their phones and sit together on a balmy summer night and listen to stories and laugh and cry a bit, and go home, maybe changed just a little bit.
My medium is everything available in the traditional theater (e.g. lighting, costumes, dialogue, sound) as well as non-traditional theatrical elements (e.g. movement, multimedia (video), puppetry, magical realism) to address burning issues of our times, e.g. Turtles and single mothers and Plank and individual rights and climate change. My purpose for using non-traditional elements isn’t for the shock value, but for the way they force people to look at “normal” things differently. I investigate the theater world in the same way painters—abstract expressionist, for example—explore and push the boundaries of the canvas, only instead of painting pictures, I’m telling stories by pushing the boundaries of the theater. I’m inspired by any artist who pushes the limits of their medium. Examples of these techniques in my work include:
My vision is Alley Cat Theater, a diverse theater that promotes and introduces Boston audiences to new, non-traditional work addressing today’s issues.
My good friend, Bonny Saulnier, is one of the people who is helping organize the Massachusetts Women's March on Washington on January 21st to affirm on the first day of the Donald Trump's presidency that we will never accept racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and environmental destruction. Each state is organizing for the Women's March, and people (not just those from Massachusetts) might want to connect with their own state organization to help out. She sent me the information guide, asking me to share it widely.
To cut right to the chase, you can click the image to get the Women's March on Washington Information Guide.
I initially thought that I'd post it to my Facebook page, but Facebook doesn't let you attached a big PDF like this. I thought about email and Twitter, but then, right about the same time I realized I could just use the same technology that I use to share news about Alley Cat Theater, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, a member of the cast read a statement during the curtain call, and President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter, basically saying that sort of thing has no place in the theater.
To use a delicious word from my childhood: Bushwah.
The theater--art in general--isn't just about entertainment, though at times it could be. The institution of the theater, though, is capable of so much more than entertainment. It is capable of nourishing and supporting a community the same way a church could. Theater nourishes the entire human spirit. It nourishes not just our need to be entertained and to laugh, which is so important but the theater shouldn't be limited to just that. Theater also addresses our need for the the spiritual and the political. It is a place to dream, and it is a place for catharsis. What happened the other night with Pence was very small potatoes; that space traditionally has always been as political as the town hall, as spiritual as a church, and as earthy as the local pub.
As a playwright, my characters all pretty much reside on the fringes of society. They constantly are looking for their place in society as individuals, battling the forces in our world that, I feel at least, beat down the humanity and try to strip them of their individuality. For that reason I've always considered myself a very American playwright--something that I've always been proud to feel. When I applied to Boston University for its playwriting program, I wrote in my letter of intent that, among other things, I wanted to continue the kind of work I did as a columnist for a newspaper, only do it in the Boston theater scene.
Theater isn't just about producing plays, and for that reason I have decided that Alley Cat Theater will do whatever it can, whether it be through the plays produced, blog posts like this one, or any other action I can take, to support the values of individuals whenever I feel they are being trampled.
Get the Women's March on Washington Information Guide >>