Monday, July 28, 2014

Deborah Dashow Ruth Interview

On July 2, the Virago Theatre Company staged a rehearsed reading of Deborah Dashow Ruth’s play A Routine Procedure, at the Flight Deck in Oakland.  Ruth’s play presents conflicts and tensions that follow an unsuccessful surgical operation, normally a “routine procedure,” that result in the patient—a woman who more than anything else wants to have children of her own—losing her ability to have children.  The female surgeon who performed the operation, troubled by her own traumatizing experience regarding a pregnancy, has to face disturbing questions when confronted later by her patient.
            After the performance of Ruth’s play, the audience discussed at length the issues of gender roles, expectations, and entitlements, and the extent to which these have changed in the last generation.

On July 11, I met with the playwright to discuss her background and interests as a writer.

                                      Cary Cronholm Rose, Stacy Ross, Deborah Dashow Ruth

dc: How did you get into playwriting?

Ruth:  For years and years, I wanted to write plays, but learning out of a book didn't appeal to me, and the only courses I could find were for screenplay writing. Meanwhile, I was doing other writing, first short stories, then novels—I have two unpublished novels in the proverbial drawer—and then poetry.  About 30 of my poems have been published.
Actually, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I read constantly, although I don't remember learning to read. As I told another interviewer, I feel like I was born reading. One experience that deeply affected me was when I read first read Jane Eyre. I was maybe 14. There’s that part at the end, where Jane, the narrator, referring to Mr. Rochester, says, “Reader, I married him,” and I looked around wondering, who’s she talking to? It was an incredible moment – that a character in the novel could address the reader! Sounds crazy but it really affected me. And somehow even increased my desire to be a writer.
Writing fiction was getting to be a burden, so I returned to poetry, which I'd quit years before. I got accepted into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, where, for a week, you have to write a new poem every day. The staff – which included some illustrious, prize-winning poets – have to do the same. I pulled a bunch of anxious all-nighters, and when my seventh (last) poem found approval from Galway Kinnell, it was a transforming moment. I really felt I wasn’t the same person when I got home. The following summer, as we were introducing ourselves, I told the group, “You know how the human body essentially replaces all its cells in seven years? Well, last year it happened to me in just seven days.” Then I began sending poems to little magazines and journals. Many of my submissions were accepted. I even had two poems nominated for Pushcart Prizes, which means that the editors of those journals thought they were good enough to nominate.
But in the back of my mind I wanted to be working on stage plays. Most of the courses available were for writing screenplays, which didn't interest me at all. Finally, I found a one-day workshop in the City just for stage plays, where we actually did some writing. Just before our lunch break, we were instructed to “go out and do some shameless eavesdropping.” So we all wrote down what we heard people saying, then came back to put it together, and we had little instant play readings. It was awesome hearing other people read the dialogue I wrote. Then I heard about Will Dunne’s workshops, and after two of them, I was hooked. The fact that his course meets one weekend every month meant that I had to have something for the actors he invited in to read—I work much better with a deadline anyway.
I also took an online course from Carol Wolf, a terrific teacher and prolific writer of novels, non- fiction, screen plays, and plays.  She wrote The Thousandth Night, which was produced at the Aurora Theatre where I met her and ended up taking the online playwriting course she taught at Foothill College. What I learned to do immediately was write ten-minute plays, which I was surprised to find I really liked doing.
The reason I like play writing, which I now regard as my métier, is that like in fiction, it has a narrative, a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and like in poetry, you have to be careful in selecting each word, or at least each statement. So it combines both types of the writing I'd been doing. The fact that I had always been complimented on my natural-sounding dialogue was also a plus.
            As for re-wtiting, I actually like doing it. Someone once said, “Stories are not written, they’re rewritten.” No matter how good you think your first draft is, it's still only a first draft. In my opinion, anybody who thinks they can “get it right the first time” has little chance of getting published.

dc: What do you read?

Ruth: My late husband was a lifelong mystery fan, and I caught the bug from him. Before his death two years ago, we read mysteries together, and I became a big fan, especially of English mysteries.
  We would both just eat them up. However, I mostly read mainstream fiction. My book group that has been going on for at least twelve years, meeting every three months, gets me reading books that I would not normally have selected. Nowadays I’m reading a lot of contemporary plays, especially those written by women.

dc: What writers, or artists of any medium, do you feel have influenced you, thematically, or in terms of style, or perspective?

Ruth: For fiction, Laurie King's mystery series about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell features complex plots and excellent writing. Also, her novel Folly, about a single woman living alone on an island, was fabulous. I also like Julia Spencer Fleming’s series about an unmarried female minister in a New England town and a married chief of police. As the series progresses, so does the relationship between these two characters as well as the relationship between the new minister and the small town. Except for the fact that the plots involve murder and other nasty deeds, these books read like well-written mainstream novels. They don't really influence me as a writer, though, but it's inspiring – and encouraging – to read books with good writing, good plotting, and good character development.
For plays, I'm a great admirer of Tom Stoppard. When Arcadia appeared at ACT, a friend urged us to read it first. Good advice, because a lot of the funny bits are cleverly intellectually funny, and since my husband and I had read the play, we were often the only ones laughing. Stoppard's frequent play-making technique is to take two events—sometimes newspaper items—that are totally unrelated, hoick them together, and that becomes his play. Very impressive, though so far I haven't been able to do it myself. But as far as inspiration goes, I think somewhere down deep I'd really like to be able to write like Stoppard.

dc: When you think that someone’s work is affecting you as a writer, do you see it as shaping anything specific about your writing, or is the effect something more general?

Ruth: It’s more inspiration. I haven’t found myself thinking, “I ought to try this voice.” I probably should, at some point, try modeling. I’ve done some modeling with poetry but I haven’t done it with a play. So it’s mostly both inspiration and admiration.

dc: What are themes, situations, or issues that you are interested in exploring or exposing in your work?

Ruth: I don’t start out with a theme in mind. Usually it's a situation or a relationship that I want to explore. Actually, I'm interested in long held secrets in families. Many of the blurbs I read about plays nowadays have to do with revealing a long lost relative, or document, or hidden relationship, but this theme has a special interest for me because about ten or so years ago that I learned certain things about my own family that I was totally unaware of. I had always assumed that my family was “normal” – whatever that means – but via rather casual remarks from my two brothers, I began to understand what “dysfunctional” meant. The first play that I ever wrote was called Sibs, about a brother and a sister who have been estranged for years, and one of them says let’s get together and clear the air. In doing so, each one reveals secrets from the past. This play was inspired by a situation with my own older brother.
I also like the theme of girls or women who are assumed to be not capable of x, y, and z, because their fathers or mothers or textbooks say that these pursuits or interests are inappropriate for females. I was raised in the 50s and am especially sensitive to that. In my writing I often have to decide what era it should take place in. With A Routine Procedure, I see that I am going to have to do more with the language to make it contemporary. Generally, also, I have to take away stuff that’s not the play. Wasn't it Michaelangelo who said that in creating the statue of Moses, all he did was take away the stuff that wasn’t Moses?
The second ten-minute play I ever wrote was called True Colors. I did many revisions and submitted it to many places with no luck until it won first prize in a national competition and was performed as a reading in Washington, D.C., in September 2012. The play is about a lawyer, and a lawyer friend of mine who saw the play assured me that, yep, the lawyer stuff was accurate. I need that sort of accuracy. For example, I want to expand the operating room scenes in A Routine Procedure, so I have contacted my gynecologist who helped me with the original play and has agreed to help me again.

dc: What other projects are you working on now?

Ruth: I wrote a complete play, starting early 2013, and had a reading of it in November—the fastest I have ever written a play. Somehow, I think my husband's death the previous year may have had something to do with it, but I've never felt like analyzing that. The play is titled The Fairest of Them All. The cast consists of a King; his son, the Prince; a woman who’s the Palace Wizard; and the Wizard's sister. This was the first time in Will’s course that I came up with something that does not take place in the 50s. After a delightful staged reading last year, I'm ready for the next rewrite. Someone who is interested in seeing the revised version gave me the deadline of August 15, so I have that to work toward. (Remember, I said I work better with deadlines.) I also started something new in Will’s course last year, called Top 40, which – lo and behold – takes place in the 60’s! I have decided to do some mining of my history with my first husband. We lived in Chicago for two years, then moved to Berkeley in 1964 when Mario Savio burst upon the scene. So I set this play in 1965, and I am weaving in whatever seems useful from my own life back then, which I hadn’t done previously. However, I did start writing poems about my first marriage. The most ambitious was a Chaucerian tale in rhymed couplets – the “Aromatist’s Tale.” It's somewhat autobiographical, but I believe that poetry is fiction, so at the end, I have the narrator say, “You know that I would never lie to you./Everything that's not made up is true.”

dc:  When artists expose themselves a lot to another artistic medium, whether or not they are conscious of it, it’s likely that they are influenced by that medium. I know that you are very involved in music—you attend concerts at the Freight & Salvage here in Berkeley, you are wearing a Jazz T-shirt, and you always have jazz playing in your home. What is your interest in music?

Ruth:  Just as I feel I was born reading, I feel I was born with music inside me. In fact, my most developed sense is hearing. My older brother started piano lessons when he was nine or so. At one point, when I was about six, I sat down at the piano and started playing his recital piece. Obviously, I was the one who should be taking piano lessons. I studied classical, but also bought pop song sheet music to play for fun. Then my parents sent me to the Northwestern University Preparatory Department of Music, where I had a private lesson every week and class lessons on theory and harmony.  Meanwhile, my older brother, a jazz fan, would buy a 45 rpm record and play it on his Victrola—remember those?—over  and over and over. That rubbed off on me and made me a jazz enthusiast. When I went to Wellesley College, I majored in English and minored in music. My first husband, a music lover, adored Mahler and Bruckner, and always played his records very loud – and neighbors be damned! In the mid-60s, Bruckner was hardly ever performed, and when he found that Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was being performed at the newly opened Lincoln Center, he and I and a friend left Chicago on a Friday night and drove straight through to New York where we went to a matinee of Bruckner’s Seventh. On Sunday, as we were driving home, the recording of that concert was aired, so we heard the entire performance again. That was a big adventure at the time.

dc: When I first asked you about your interest in writing, you mentioned dialogue. It’s possible this is your hearing at work.

Ruth: Hmmm . . . I hadn’t thought of it that way. But you’re right. I have to keep reminding myself, though, that spoken English is much more casual than so-called “written English,” which served me well at college when I had to write term papers!

dc: A whimsical question:  If you could instantly become fluent in another language, what would it be, and why?

Ruth:  I have an old preference and a new one. Previously, I would have said Italian, because my younger brother has lived in Italy since he was about 25 and is totally bi-lingual. His wife is Italian, so of course, that's what they speak at home. The sound of Italian is gorgeous to me, and I wanted to be fluent enough to carry on real conversations with my brother's in-laws. But my new preference is Spanish. I've been hearing so much of it recently, and I've come to love its sound. It's a beautiful language.  Also very practical in twenty-first century California!

dc:  So we return to your recurring motif, about the importance of the sound of things!

Ruth: Right. The sounds. Absolutely!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charley Lerrigo Interview

On June 18 The Virago Theatre Company staged a rehearsed reading of Charley Lerrigo’s play Fluffy:  A Gorilla.  The play tells the story of complicated consequences after an engineer and manufacturer of robots and droids gives to his thirteen-year-old daughter a droid in the form of a full-size purple gorilla that is programmed to do whatever it takes to “make Suzie happy.”   The performance was followed by a lively Talk Back during which audience members discussed the play with Mr. Lerrigo, Laura Lundy-Paine (Director), and the cast.  

The following interview was conducted July 9.

dc:  Tell me how you got into playwriting.

Lerrigo: I didn’t formally study “play-writing” until about eleven years ago, after retiring from a dual career as a journalist and as a pastor.
            When I was a kid, I loved to make up stories, become a character or characters—cowboys, soldiers, magicians.  I’d dress up, dance around.  Have fun. The key word when I was a child was “play.”  It was not writing a play for someone else, but making the play for myself.
            In that sense, the written play is not the thing.  The “thing” we desire is play.
            When I was a journalist, I would tell the story as well and clearly as I could, to help readers decide how to respond to the world we share.  When I was a pastor, I would take old stories we thought we knew and playfully reshape them so we can alter our inner landscape, and learn how better to love one another.  And as a playwright, I try to create a dramatic world that has the same effect—and which sometimes just helps us enjoy life, and play with all the serious things we must do.  
When I was a student at the University of Alabama, studying Journalism, I wrote a play, supposedly in the flavor of Samuel Beckett, whom I loved.  It wasn’t as good as Samuel Beckett [laughs], and I thought, “Well, maybe I don’t need to do this.”  I wanted to be a journalist, and that’s primarily how I’ve made my living.
            For many, many years, I loved theater, and thought, maybe I could do that, but I never seriously worked at it until I started working as a United Methodist pastor.   I’m retired now, but I have served about seven churches.  I’ve also worked for the church at local, state, and national levels, as a journalist.  The last thing the church paid me to do was to be pastor of a church in Vacaville, CA.  I would preach on Sunday mornings, but I began to take some of the biblical stories and write them differently.  Many of the biblical stories lend themselves to an imaginative retelling. 
On of my first plays was about Zacchaeus, the man who climbed into a fig tree to see Jesus through a crowd that had gathered.  Jesus sees him and says, “Come on down because we’re going to your house.”  Zacchaeus says, “You don’t want to come to my house because I’m a tax collector.”  Jesus says, “Yes, I do want to come to your house, because you’re a tax collector.”  Zacchaeus winds up giving half his income to those he had cheated, and to the poor and needy.  I wanted to tell the story about when Zacchaeus goes home and tells his wife, “We’re not going to have the money for the piano lessons because I just gave half of my money back to the people, and I owe some more.”  She’s going to say, “Don’t hang around that Jesus guy!” 
At the church, we had some amateur actors who loved the opportunity to perform, so I started rehearsing them on Saturday afternoons.  I would tell them my ideas about the story, and how their characters would interact.  Then we would stage the little plays at church on Sunday.  Our little group of readers, our “theater,” started doing this every four or five weeks.  Instead of a sermon we’d have a staged reading. 
            Then I retired, and started thinking about how what I had always wanted to do was write plays.  I realized, however, that I actually didn’t know what the craft and art of classic play writing is all about.  So I started participating in activities offered at places like the Playwright’s Foundation in San Francisco.  In that way I had the opportunity to study with a lot of people who were successful playwrights and teachers.  I am still wrestling with all that, since there are many different ways of looking at how plays are written.  I’m on the steering committee of the Play Café at the Berkeley Rep. where we do scene readings, cold reads.  I’m also on the board of the Playwright’s Center of San Francisco. 
            Theater, in a sense, has become my work, sometimes as a producer and director, but mostly as a writer.  I woke up yesterday morning at 3:00 a.m. and wrote for three hours, and I said, “Well, there’s a new play!”  Then I share it with my colleagues and they help me tear it all apart and tell me how horrible it is [laughs].

dc:  What are you reading?

Lerrigo: I don’t read a lot of fiction any more.  I have a large library, but it’s mostly books that have titles like Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith or The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.   And there are how-to books like Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion.  I’m much more interested in film.  If I were not writing plays, and I had the right connections, I would be doing film.  When I was getting my theology degree, I studied film.  As [Rudolf] Arnheim observes, film allows us to play with time and space in a way that theatre doesn’t.  In stage plays it’s very hard to do that.  People like Caryl Churchill have done some of that, but it is hard to do. 
            And oh, yes, I do read newspapers. The New York Times provides a steady supply of stories or events that I think could become a play by Charley Lerrigo—if he had more talent and time.

dc:  What are artists, of any medium, who have influenced you in your thinking or your approach to drama?

Lerrigo: I’m not sure there’s any one person I can single out who influences my playwrighting.  I could talk about a number of film directors who enrich my creative juices.  But everybody I work with, whose work I see, shapes my thinking and writing.  Other playwrights, actors, directors, even the audiences who give me valuable feedback, all nourish and challenge me.
             In the various playwriting groups that I am in, I attend a lot of new plays, some of which are musicals.  I’m attending one tonight, in fact.  I sometimes read at these events, and participate in discussions afterward.  I watch their work, then sit back and try to tell them how they should have done it! [laughs].  I attend a lot of plays—I will see three this week.  I am mainly interested in things that lead to stories.

dc:  In your play Fluffy:  A Gorilla, one of the things you are working with is artificial intelligence.  What are themes, situations, issues, perspectives—including artificial intelligence, if you want to say more about that—that you are interested in pursuing in your work?

Lerrigo:  Almost all of my plays, including Fluffy, have a moral, or a message, to them. 

dc:  [laughing] So, you haven’t entirely abandoned your calling as a preacher, right?

Lerrigo:  I still have a pulpit, except that the pulpit works differently!  And I think now that after doing this for about eleven years, I realize that the pulpit in the church needs to be changed.  I think we’d do well to see the pulpit and the altar more as stages for interaction than as residues of wisdom.

dc:  Right.  In “The Dangling Conversation,” the Simon and Garfunkel song of the 60s, there is the line, “Is the theater really dead?” Joan Baez later covered the song, and changed that line to “Is the church really dead?”  You seem to be conflating those questions.

Lerrigo:  Theater and church are big parts of my life.  And there are times when religion—or drama—becomes “dead,” dried up, out of touch with that green fuse we call life. We’re all trying to tell a story about the way that we see life, the way that we experience life, or the way that we might like to experience life.  Or the way that we don’t like to experience life, and bewail it.  So, on that kind of stage in which we can move, or that kind of pulpit where we can stand, we want to create an experience.  That experience, that mix of script, direction, acting, and even the audience reaction is what has the power to create new life. The best preachers I have heard, when I leave them, I am not thinking about what they said, but about how I felt. 

dc:  Audiences who know that you have been a preacher might expect your plays to be essentially didactic, yet they are are not. 

Lerrigo:  Right, and the best sermons are not didactic, either.  Good sermons come out of one’s heart, out of one’s deepest place.  I also tend to be a teacher, because I interpret old things.  I like to take a topic and say, “Forget what you thought about it; look at it in this way.  It’s like you have a diamond, and you can look into the diamond and see its multiple facets.  It’s a mystery in which we participate.  And that changes us.  And that I hope is what play writing does, at its best.  And Fluffy is a good example of that.  People have often responded to Fluffy by liking the first half, but once Fluffy starts to play with young girls, they don’t like it any more.  I point out to those critics that when some “dude” messes with girls in the ways that young men interact with young desirable girls, you seem to accept that as part of life.  Why are you uncomfortable when you face that same thing coming from the droid Fluffy, who has no intention of harming the girl?  The situation is turned around to be looked at differently.   We see Fluffy learning to kiss by using the Internet, but then the girl has to tell him that she is not interested in that.  He protests:  “But I learned on the Internet and in books that kissing is what girls like!”  And he learns that the standard thinking that comes out of the Internet and books is not always right.
I have listened to a lot of responses to that play.  It has been read three times now, and I can see that I am going to have to work on it some more to get it to become the story I really wanted to tell.  One thing that I liked about the Virago reading is that we had a twelve-year-old boy there who spoke up at the Talk Back, and he actually got what the play is about!  I thought to myself, “My God, I have written something good!  A 12 year-old understands!”  At the same time, however, I learned in the Virago reading that it was not clear to the audience that the young girl in the last act is not Susie, but a droid.  I have to work on that.

dc:  What else are you working on now?

Lerrigo:  I have several full-length plays in different stages of disrepair.  But almost all my plays are iconoclastic.   I take a great myth, a great story, a particular idea, and flip it.  One of my plays has Jesus coming back as a black woman in the 20th century.  That’s a one-act play that I would like to expand.  I also have a play that I have been working on for a few years about Pasiphae, the queen of king Minos.  In the classic story she is the one who gives birth to the Minotaur because she mates with a mythical bull that comes from the sea.  King Minos sees the Minotaur as a threat, so he has Daedalus, the science-technology guy, build a place to keep the monster away from others.  In my play I want to retell, rediscover that myth. 
A lot of my plays draw from the work of Alan Turing, the philosopher/mathematician who gave us the model for what computer intelligence could be like.  His test is still used:  If I can put you in a room where you cannot see the voices talking to you, and you talk to a computer that responds in such a way that you cannot tell that it is not human, then we have created something that is equal to human intelligence.  2010 was a classic movie about this.  Spielberg’s film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is another. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Her, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay, is another.  That is the genesis of some of my work.  I am interested in asking:  What is intelligence, and does it differ if it’s created by organic or electronic means?

dc:  You have been writing primarily short plays.  What are advantages of short plays?

Lerrigo:  That you can actually get something produced somewhere.  A theater company will do only a few full plays a year, and there are a lot of playwrights—and they don’t all come from this area!   Another advantage is that the short play is a good learning place.

dc:  I like to end an interview with a whimsical question, so tell me, if you could become instantly fluent in another language, which would you choose, and why?

Lerrigo:  The first thing that comes to my mind is French because I have a degree in it, but I’ve lost the fluency.  If I could really become fluent, it would be a language like Hebrew, which is a magical language that is verb oriented and that has countless meanings, layers and layers of them.  Each letter, each shape of a letter, means something.  It lends itself to mystery.  Another language that would be interesting to learn is Chinese, because it is ideographic. 

dc:  Anything else?

Lerrigo:  I have been a journalist, and I have been a pastor. Pastors are always about teaching, and journalists tend to be about explaining.  Playwriting is a little bit of both, but it’s not that.  Now I’m trying to be a good playwright, and playwrights need to find some new skills, which don’t always come easy.  Fluffy: A Gorilla has taken nearly two years to get to the place it is.   Playwriting is something different.  It’s more about creating a world in which the audience participates.  And everybody—from the playwright to the playgoer—who becomes part of that creation is part of the new world we all want to see come into being. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Theatre or theater? 

I prefer American spellings to British ones (“humor” over “humour,” “center” over “centre,” “judgment” over “judgement”), so theater has a native appeal to me, and theatre seems affected. 

But I’m getting over it. 

As it is, the usage is not consistent among theater/theatre companies in the U.S., though professional companies are more commonly using “theatre.” 

Some like to apply theatre to the art form and theater to the building.  Thus,

There should be more national support of theatre in the U.S.
The theater on Main Street is being painted next week.

This distinction has no formal support—standard dictionaries do not acknowledge it.  I find the distinction compelling, however, because it enables the language to do some fine tuning, and I like to take advantage of such opportunities.  Synonym distinctions, for instance, when observed, empower the language significantly:  it is useful to distinguish between artificial, synthetic, spurious, and specious.  In this light, I welcome the distinction between the building in which plays are performed (the theater) and the genre of drama (the theatre).  I want people to know what I am getting at when I write:

That’s some noisy theater!
That’s some noisy theatre!

Without those semantic distinctions, however, I don’t see the point in using theatre, and I am not comfortable seeing theatre used in both senses:

Acme Theatre Season Opening
We are soliciting donations to support the restoration of our main theatre.

I would prefer to see theater in that second sentence.