Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 319: Stephanie Fleischmann

Stephanie Fleischmann

Hometown: London, England (til I was 7….)

Current Town: Columbiaville, NY, a tiny spot on the map, north of Hudson, NY, in the Hudson River Valley; & NYC.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I’m putting the finishing touches on The Secret Lives of Coats, a coatcheck musical with music by my Red Fly/Blue Bottle collaborator Christina Campanella—we’ve been developing it with director Hayley Finn, with much good support from The Playwrights Center, Whitman College, and more recently, New Georges, and the Anna Sosenko Assist Trust and a faculty development grant from Skidmore, where I teach. It’s about three coatcheck girls, their longing to escape the box beyond their coatcheck booths; it’s about the things we lose in the holes in the pockets of our coats. It’s funny and fun, whimsical, charming, surprising, mysterious, even. We’re doing a second NYC reading on Monday, February 28th at Chelsea Studios.

I’m just about to start a new short play, which I will interpolate into my larger piece, WHAT THE MOON SAW, a compendium of plays inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and set in post 9/11 NYC. Son of Semele Ensemble will premiere it in LA in September, in commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of 9-11. Matt McCray, the director, has asked me to set the new play in LA, and so I am collecting experiences re what it felt like to be in LA that day.

I’m beginning to push around pieces of the next longer work, tentatively entitled The Adventures of the Mousey Woman. It’s about invisibility and overcoming our deepest fears: of taking action, of being seen and not seen. And, in the same vein as Secret Lives, it’s also a whole lot playful and plenty silly, which is what I seem to be needing right now, lyrical and over-the-top, and, unlike much of what I write, eminently produce-able—all that’s needed is an empty space, 4 performers and one musician!

I am deep into a novel entitled The Trash Picker. I have always written fiction as well as plays, a habit that informs my playwriting, which is layered, and can be epic, kaleidoscopic, microscopic, and at times has been labeled, well, novelistic.

With director/collaborator Mallory Catlett, I’m in the very beginning phases of development for our next Latitude 14 project (a company I co-founded with Mallory, Christina Campanella, and Peter Norrman, when RED FLY got its legs, or I should say wings), which is an architectural intervention/historical/multimedia exploration of the Hudson Opera House, New York state’s oldest surviving theater.

And I am mulling over how to write about my father, who passed away last June, and lived a jam-packed and visionary life that may well have changed the course of classical music in the 20th century.

If this all sounds like a lot, it’s not. The writing comes in fits and starts, in jagged bursts, interspersed with the business (read: busy-ness) of living and being a writer in the world.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  First, there is the music. I grew up with music. My Dad ran the LA Philharmonic, and there was always music. That sort of says it all. But here are a few other childhood tales.

I was four. I have this dim but deeply etched memory of a party at my preschool in London, where we lived until I was seven. The performance: The shadow of a newspaper folded up and snipped at with a scissors, and then pulled on and pulled as before my eyes behind its screen it grew into a tree. Magic.

I was still four. I was taken to see Peter Pan. Neverland and flying children. We lived in Bayswater. Kensington Gardens was around the corner. I would go to the park and trace the footsteps of Peter Pan and Wendy and the boys. Literally. The imaginary world and the real world overlaying each other, dovetailing, careening together.

At seven, I visited my grandparents, who lived on the other side of the world in South Africa, where I watched a chameleon shift its colors. From green to brown and back again. This was the magic of the natural world.

I was 12. We were living in L.A., an edge-of-the-world land of sunsets and surfers and smoke and mirrors. I was a fish out of water and often felt an intense need to disappear. I found my escape hatch in books and in the enveloping dark of the theater. I grew up going to plays at the Mark Taper: Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and the touring version of the original production of For Colored Girls are plays that planted seeds. From them I understood the power and the lyricism of what a writer could conjure. And then. I was lucky enough to witness a rehearsal of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, I believe it was directed by Peter Sellars. I was so mesmerized I forgot to eat lunch (a first for me!). Music and narrative and strangeness and heart and angularity. And rehearsal…. I was hooked.

All this is to say that in part because we moved from London to LA, in part because my father moved from Germany to South Africa (where he met my mother) and then to London, I am from nowhere and everywhere; I hail from an intensely specific melting pot, and yet my family has nowhere it can well and truly call home. Hence much of my writing is about dislocation, prismatic notions of home. My earliest “magical” years in England and the clash that came about when we moved to L.A., a world that on many levels felt to me incredibly mundane. I am, to this day, obsessed with the magic in ordinary, everyday things, the stories these things have to tell.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I would make it adventurous all the time and accessible to everybody. I would make touring work internationally a bigger (budgetary & administrative) priority in an attempt to erase boundaries, cultural, aesthetic, intellectual (this happens so much more in Europe, for instance). I would raise the bar. By this I mean theater needs to push its own envelope if it is to be capable of not just holding its own but engaging in a conversation with the other art forms. I would empower writers to head theaters and encourage them to become producers. Half of the year. But most of all, I would want to rejigger the system so that theatermakers who have committed their lives to the stage can earn a living wage.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Suzan-Lori Parks. August Wilson. Ruth Maleczech. Brian Mertes. Reg Rogers. Jesse J. Perez. Anton Chekhov. Olga Neuwirth. Osvaldo Goliajov. Mac Wellman. Black-Eyed Susan. Nilo Cruz. Sound designers everywhere. Jim Findlay. Olivera Gajic. Melissa Kievman & Brian Mertes. Pina Bausch (Many years ago I was in Venice and so were they. Staying in the same hotel, no less. I watched them drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and eat together as a company. I watched them perform at the Teatro Fenice. I fell in love with these beautiful, itinerant performers whose work was their life.) Buchner. Bill Irwin. Lynn Cohen. Needcompany’s Lear. Enda Walsh. Sibyl Kempson. William Shakespeare. Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska. Arto Lindsay. Mark Ribot. Erik Ehn. Jane Houdyshell. Just about every actor I’ve ever worked with. Todd London & Emily Morse, of New Dramatists. Okay, you get the picture… I’m leaving out many, not intentionally, but because there are so many.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that makes me see and feel the world in a new way. Theater that is sensory and visual and lyrical and raw and subtle and in-your-face and compositionally rigorous and surprising and revelatory.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Carve out time to write. 5 days a week. Even if it’s just half an hour a day. It’s the rhythm of writing that helps you get over the hump. First day back’s always the hardest. Read everything. See everything. Know who’s out there—actors, directors, designers, stage managers, producers. Live fully. Be in the world. Then sequester yourself. Look inside. Ask questions of yourself and your world. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Have faith in yourself, your voice. Don’t be afraid to speak up in rehearsal. Show gratitude to all those who make your vision a reality. Make rehearsal happen by mounting your own work. Know what it is to make theater on every level. Dream.

Q:  Plugs, please:


The Secret Lives of Coats, Feb 28, 2011, http://www.thesecretlivesofcoats.wordpress.com

What the Moon Saw. Son of Semele, LA, Sept 2011


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