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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

May 25, 2019

I Interview Playwrights Part 1039: Shairi Engle

Shairi Engle

Hometown: Born in Cortland, NY.

However, now that any temperature below 68℉ requires my winter gear, I can safely call San Diego my hometown.

Current Town: San Diego, CA

Q:  Congrats on the Bridge Award. Tell me about that play please.

A:  Thank you, Adam! I’m so honored to be receiving this award and, to be frank, still processing the fact that Mr. Driver read the title of my play - out loud.

The seeds of this play started while I participated in an intensive PTSD therapy program through the VA. I needed, truly needed, to explore my own strength and power and the idea of being ‘broken’. I have difficulty with the words ‘healing’ or ‘survivor’ because they seem to cut the conversation short. With each iteration of myself, every stretch of growth, there’s a renegotiating of power that takes place between me and my abuser. It’s a relationship that evolves and shifts. I wanted to ask: What does it mean to be a survivor? I wanted to have a conversation about it … outside of my therapist’s office. I also wanted to be able to laugh while doing it.

This play is a story about pain, trauma, rape, breathing, therapy, shame, PTSD, the occasional dead dog, and what it means to survive. All presented in a small little package. The package in this case being a tampon. Oh, and it’s called Tampons, Dead Dogs, & Other Disposable Things. (I know, I know …)

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  AITAF is generously organizing a reading of my play. It’s a difficult story for me to work on, but this recent acknowledgment has emboldened me to dig deeper. It’s always easier to go into dark spaces if you know someone else is there with an extra flashlight. I’m looking forward to workshopping this. I’m really grateful to have this support.

I’m also working on a short story inspired by a summer I spent on my dangerously old and unkept sailboat by the name of La Diabla. No tampons in this one. So far.

Earlier this year, I received my first commission to write a 10-minute site specific play for the Without Walls Festival here in San Diego. I screamed in my car when I got this offer (in the good way). The play is being held this fall in a location very close to the San Diego Airport departure corridor; sound is an interesting challenge. But there’s the story you set out to write and then the story you uncover while writing that original idea. So now I’m getting the bones together for a story inspired by my time in the USAF as an Air Traffic Controller. This will feed into a full length play one day - I’m pretty excited about this one.

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

A:  Oh man, you asked me to tell a story - about my childhood. Alarms are going off in my head - which means I’m going to answer your question.

Growing up, I was surrounded by people that made connections with God. God was connected to a sunny day, a blooming flower, the tragic car crash … you get it. God found his way into everything and made sense of it all.

I was taught, in order to maintain this connection to God, you had to swear off homosexuality, premarital sex, and Madonna. Madonna was the Devil’s attempt to lure me away from divine connectivity. I was young, but I knew I was God’s child. I knew this because I loved sunny days and flowers. I didn’t seek out secular music. And I understood that there was a reason for everything. Everything.

But when I was 8, my connection was cut short by a man that showed me almost daily what hypocrisy, pain, and hatred looked like. I was cut loose to float aimlessly around a broken home struggling to convince the world otherwise.

So, I made my own connections. Through anything and everything. I built my own stories to explain the sunny days, the flowers, and eventually, car crashes. These stories connected me to the world. It wasn’t God I subscribed to - it was something else.

Eventually I found Madonna. Then I found my way out of that house. Then I found art. Then writing. Then theatre. Then a group of writing veterans willing to keep me at their table. I found my voice. Then, I found an iteration of myself I could finally stomach. A moment of security in uncertainty. Right now.

I’ll reread this answer in a moment and say, “this doesn’t totally explain me!” But I’ll send it to you anyway. And maybe, somewhere between ‘Oh man’ and ‘uncertainty’, we’ll find the tiniest hint of connection.

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

A:  Besides making it free for the public and a decent living for theatre professionals everywhere?

Theatre is pretty much like an intimidatingly beautiful person I admired from afar. It took me a long time to conjure up enough courage to go introduce myself. I’m happy to report, we’ve started getting serious. Really serious. But, we still have a lot to learn about one another. Ask me again when we’ve reached the 7 year itch.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  My favorite moments are when I’m made to question some part of myself. I love moments that really turn me upside down and give me an idea or a question I can’t shake.

But really the truth is, I’m just excited to have a seat. There’s no sign of that changing for me.

Every discounted, full-price, preview, free-only-on-wed-and-thur-afternoon, or standby ticket I get is a permission slip.

Even if a show falls short of expectation or doesn’t fully land with me, I still walk out having seen a group of people examine a question that’s been asked by a writer. I know I’m going to walk out of that theatre with renewed permission to use my own voice, however weird, silly, or painful. Every permission slip I get is another chance to see what’s possible. It excites me to no end.

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

A:  I don’t feel qualified to give advice. (Do we ALL say this?)

I’m just starting out, really.

But, I’ll share the things I tell myself in the bathroom mirror:

Write. As honestly as you can until dishonesty turns out to be the more honest angle.

Read other people’s work as often as you can.

See other people’s work as often as you can.

Read your sh*t out loud.

Ask people to read for you. Pay with beer if you must.

That one part that feels icky and cliche? Dig at it like a scab until it bleeds something authentic. Apply Neosporin, a bandaid, and keep working.

That moment when you question yourself as a storyteller, artist, or human? It’s a part of the process. Keep writing. You have work to do.

Oh, P.S. Don’t take advice from strangers. (We all say that too, huh?)

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  If you find yourself in San Diego, come see VAMP, a monthly showcase of storytellers put on by a local literary non-profit, So Say We All. This show is one of SD’s best kept secrets held in a dark, cash only bar. VAMP is an at-capacity-listen-in-through-the-windows type of show.

It’s a beautiful, often hilarious, and continuously surprising event that focuses on voices that really need to be heard. Anyone can submit to this and the selected writers are not chosen for their understanding of grammar but for their STORY. This experience has changed many lives, including mine. To learn more go to: sosayweallonline.com

Oh, and if you’re in NYC October 7th, The Public (thank you thank you thank you) is holding a staged reading of TAMPONS, DEAD DOGS, & OTHER DISPOSABLE THINGS.

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