May 28, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 459: Adrienne Dawes
Hometown: Austin, TX
Current Town: Austin, TX
Q: Tell me about Am I White.
A: I distinctly remember my senior year of college sitting behind a huge, messy pile of paperwork (old notes and shitty first drafts) and thinking out loud, “This is it. This is my play.”
I first read about Leo Felton in an article in MAVIN magazine and couldn’t believe I hadn’t encountered his story elsewhere (especially as I was living on the East Coast at that time). First incarcerated at age 19 for assault, Leo Felton entered the prison system with the word “Skinhead” tattooed onto his scalp. During his eleven year stint, he quickly rose in the ranks of the White Order of Thule, described as an "esoteric brotherhood” dedicated to “revitalizing the Culture-Soul of European people." Eighty days after his release, Leo and girlfriend Erica Chase were arrested exchanging counterfeit bills at a Dunkin Donuts. The subsequent search of their apartment found bomb-making materials, illegal weapons and plans targeting the New England Holocaust Memorial. Shortly after his arrest in the summer of 2001, the press revealed Leo’s mixed race heritage: his father, a Black architect and his mother, a former nun with Jewish ancestry. Leo’s parents married just a few years after Loving vs. Virginia passed.
I began the sort of draft that came quite naturally as a twenty-one year old playwright: “HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? WHO IS THIS PERSON? Blah blah blah add some AVANT-GARDE SHIT.”
Several years and several messy drafts later, Leo wrote me (via email through a pen pal on the outside) after he found out about my play. This was pretty unsettling for a number of reasons: 1) Aside from a reading at Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX, the play only existed in my brain; 2) someone actually reads my blog; and 3) my lead character basically wanted to talk to me - from prison.
I had never, ever had direct contact with anyone that inspired any of my plays, despite the fact that just about everything I write comes from what I read in the newspaper (or in the case of You Are Pretty, what I watch on HBO really late at night). It took a few letters for us to determine a comfortable communication process. I had to make it very clear that I was creating a fictional piece based on his story. Overall, our exchanges have been very positive. As Leo has been completing his memoir, I’ve been writing my play.
So I’m in this story now. This is it. This is my play.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: As if Am I White wasn’t heavy enough, I’m working on a play about the Haitian earthquake, violent sex and PTSD. I’m in a real mood right now . . .
I’m also developing two screenplay projects and in post-production on my web series, Completely Normal Activity. Completely Normal Activity is an improvised paranormal comedy about a twenty-something slacker who tries to document suspected paranormal activity in his apartment. Our second season is a prequel (a nod to the Paranormal Activity movies) so we like to pitch it as “what happened before nothing happened.” New episodes will be released this Fall but the entire first season is available online for free, forever, at http://www.completelynormalactivity.com
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I taught myself to read when I was three years old so very early on, I felt a sense of ownership of story. I could escape to my books whenever I wanted, with or without my parents. I experienced a great deal of emotional trauma as a young child and my transition to storytelling was extremely empowering. When I could not speak, I could always write and did so voraciously.
My earliest stories were autobiographical, attempts to explain my “difference.” Let me just say that I grew up in Central Texas in the early 90s (pre-Jolie-Pitt era). I’ll also say that I am mixed-race, I have White adoptive parents and come from an interracial, differently-abled family. There was a lot of explaining to do.
I was excited to find my first audience in my classmates, who would excitedly pass around handwritten pages of my Wiccan sagas and pester me for advance chapters. I was extremely shy and introverted, so this was a huge push of encouragement to share my voice.
Unfortunately, this also meant I could get in trouble for what I wrote. I’m embarrassed to admit that I authored and illustrated several inappropriate comic strips, based on playground gossip or national tragedy. I was in every other respect a model, straight A student so my terrible sense of humor came as quite a shock to my teachers.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Lack of an inclusive community.
In part, it’s us. Theater folk. For all our ability to transform and transport audiences, theater artists lack a lot of basic social skills when the house lights rise. “Thanks for your $35, now get out.” Audiences and emerging artists desperately want in. Open a door or in the very least, open a window. There’s room for all of us.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Naomi Iizuka, Suzan Lori Parks, Vicky Boone, Jenny Larson and Christine Farrell. Special love to Mary Siewert Scruggs and to Paul Ryan Rudd, who helped me fall in love with Shakespeare again.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Two productions changed everything for me: Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of The Blacks and Propeller’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Now I want every play to be dangerous, strange and funny. I want to be an active participant of a theatrical event that cannot be reproduced or accurately recorded by any form of technology. I want narrative in the moment and only in that moment. I want to go home after a show and dream about it that night.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Truth be told, I’m still just starting out. I’m about ten years into my career and I hope I get another ten to continue to “emerge.” I will say that it’s impossible to be a playwright without a supportive community. An academic environment comes with a lot of built-in resources but if you are just out of school or in an academic limbo (as I am), you have to find your artistic home(s). You have to seek out creative partners and collaborators. And quite frankly, you have to stage manage a whole lot of shows before anyone will remember your name.
I found a way to work with every company in Austin after college and that’s how I met most of my collaborators. I’m not particularly out-going or extroverted but I work really hard and am organized. I believe if you put good work karma out into the community, it will return to you.
Be grateful whenever anyone reads your work. Have a law school friend or family member to help you read contracts carefully. Expand your friend circle to include some non-theater friends. Find some “extracurricular activities” to exercise other creative muscles and distract from writer’s block. Go easy on yourself (playwriting is not a competitive sport) and your peers (please do not under any circumstances talk trash about a show in the theater lobby or bathroom directly after a performance).
Q: Plugs, please:
A: like meat loves salt will be produced as part of Eat Street Players’ Fresh Bites One Act Festival (Minneapolis, MN) which runs May 31st thru June 9th: http://www.eatstreetplayers.org/onstage/freshbites.html
My short comedy LARPers in Love will premiere as part of American Theater Company’s Big Shoulders New Play Festival (Chicago, IL) June 19th at 7:30pm: http://www.atcweb.org/about/about.php
Am I White will receive a reading as part of Blackboard’s Reading Series (NYC) in November. More details will be up shortly on my website: http://www.adriennedawes.com and http://www.blackboardplays.com