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Aug 30, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 252: Maria Alexandria Beech

Maria Alexandria Beech

Hometown:  Anaco, Venezuela

Current Town:  Manhattan

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I'm writing a commissioned play for Primary Stages and Theatre Masters based on the Aspen Ideas Festival which I attended last summer. I'm also working Little Monsters which will be co-produced (with Primary) at Brandeis Theatre Company next February. Little Monsters is also part of Octoberfest at Ensemble Studio Theatre in September so I'm trying to get the play in shape for that. I'm also starting the NYU Musical Theatre Writing Program. For my day job, I'm co-authoring a case study on the film industry and writing an article about the Ford Foundation.

Q:  Tell me about the The Dorothy Strelsin New American Writers Group at Primary Stages and the The Hispanic Playwright's Lab at Intar.

A:  Primary Stages has been really supportive. I was asked to join the writers group as grad school ended and that was a great transition into professional theater. I've had a home to write plays, (I write best under deadline and they require ten-twelve pages a week). I've also had a chance to work with fabulous directors and actors during our spring reading series, and I cannot say enough how amazing it feels when a theater treats you with respect and professionalism. They approached actors like Frances Sternhagen, Maria Tucci, and Laila Robbins for my readings, and working with those iconic actors was a great boost for my confidence as a writer. The greatest component of the writers group is that you get feedback from your colleagues who are some of the most talented and accomplished playwrights in the American theater today. Over the years, I've been in the group with playwrights like you, Julia Jordan, Katori Hall, Cusi Cram, Neena Berber, Courtney Baron (who is a fucking amazing dramaturg), Tommy Smith, Bekah Brunstetter, David Caudle...listening to colleagues has made me a much better (and thicker-skinned!) playwright.

The Hispanic Playwright's Lab at Intar was a great experience. I wrote with Matthew Paul Olmos, Andrea Thome, Cyn Canel-Rossi, Mando Alvarado, and other talented playwrights and some of them are my best friends today. I also became invested in the community of actors and directors associated with Intar, and they feel like an extended family to me.

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 had a really lonely childhood in Venezuela. I grew up in an oil city as the kid of a mainly absent American Father and therefore despondent Venezuelan Mother, and I didn't fit in anywhere. I spent long afternoons eating green mangos in my treehouse, or wandering around the oil camps looking for friends. (I don't blame my parents for anything...they were two incredible people who tried to love each other and us...but it was a challenging situation.) There were tons of secrets at home, and nothing was ever answered. Painful as it was, it truly forced me to live in my imagination, and writing became a creative way of approaching all those secrets.

Q:  In your life as a reporter, what was it like interviewing Latin American presidents?

A:  President Serengeti of Uruguay had the longest eyebrows I had ever seen on a non-camel, and it was difficult to focus on his eyes. My interview with President Ortega of Nicaragua was surreal because his handler wouldn't let me do the interview if I didn't lend Ortega my facial powder. I kept pretending that the request wasn't on the table but every approach for the interview was met with: "only if you have powder for his face." I was visiting Venezuela and the only "powder" I had was my own Clinique, and his face ended up caked with it. It was strange to see that vanity and insecurity in a revolutionary who years earlier had dressed in camouflage. Interviewing President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela was like interviewing a wax figure. His answers were wooden and stale. He had just brokered talks between Palestine and Israel and I asked him about that. He was in the middle of a lengthy answer when his phone rang and he answered it. Nothing like losing a key moment in an interview. I met with President Chavez when I was at Lehman Brothers. He was shorter and more feminine than I expected. For some reason, he plays a very macho character during the hours (and hours) he spends on Venezuelan television but he has zero mojo in person. President Fidel Castro was a huge flirt. At first he was angry because I asked him about the poverty and recession in Cuba, and then he softened when I told him that I was frustrated that the US Federal Reserve had bailed out all those millionaires (longterm capital management) who had invested their money unwisely. President Toledo of Peru was tiny and perfectly lovely. I met with him when he was still a candidate, and I told him I didn't think Fujimori would ever let him win which is exactly what happened. President Menem of Argentina was running for office again so everything around us had his logo: Menem 2003, even the sugar packets that were served with our coffee. When I had to go to the bathroom, he insisted on accompanying me himself, so I was mortified to make any noise thinking he was waiting for me outside. President Fox was pragmatic saying, "I may sound like a populist but I have an election to win." Wouldn't it be refreshing if all candidates were as honest?

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Playwrights were originally called poets, and I love theater that feels like poetry. Words that are carefully chosen for their meaning, and strung together for their subtext. I love to feel that the playwright labored for just the right sentences. I love when the writing feels meticulous...Susan Lori Parks is a good example. I love work that feels real, and also that takes me on a strange journey like your pirates play or Courtney's play about heart break. I love intelligent humor, and also learning about other cultures...but it has to feel real. I think that what is incubating at the Public with the emerging writers group is VERY exciting - we need artistic diversity if we're going to survive as a culture - and I can't wait to see what comes out that project. I'm also into some musicals and experimental opera. Tod Machover and I are talking about writing an opera together, and to me, Tod is a glorious composer. Not only does he invent instruments but he envisions likely but non-existing worlds such as a future where we can download our brains into chandeliers. I also love simple writing that turns around and smacks you in the face - Matt Olmos or Andrea Thome come to mind. I love smart writers who forgo pretension like Chris Shinn. A favorite right now is Tanya Saracho in Chicago who writes these wonderful, ambitious plays sprinkled with Spanish. Last summer, I read over seven hundred scripts for two panels and a theater, so I could go on and on about the theater that excites me...your plays excite me, Adam. I'm really, really excited about the experimental theater movement in Mexico. (My essay on it for the Lark is here: http://larktheatre.blogspot.com/2009/12/december-2009-maria-alexandria-beech.html)

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

A:  This question is the reason it's taken me months to get back to you with this interview. So much to say.

- First, it's important to know that if you feel like you're a playwright, you probably are. It's an unsexy and unrewarding life for a long time...so you have to stick with your conviction that you're a playwright no matter what a million people tell you...your parents, people who give you tepid feedback...that feeling you have inside that you're a playwright is an avocado seed that takes years and years to grow into a tree. At first, you may be the only one who truly knows you're a playwright but if you stick with it, eventually you'll start to convince others because your work will get better.

- If you're thinking about grad school, go but try to get scholarships. Grad school forces you to write...and that's what you need to become a better playwright. You'll get feedback from other theater artists, and you might make friends. You'll also see your work staged and if you're fortunate enough to work with people like Anne Bogart or Kelly Stuart, you might learn a few things. If you can't go, don't worry. Public libraries and drama book shops will give you everything you need. All you really need is writing tools.

- Intern at a theater. I worked at the Cherry Lane for two years and it was a very important experience. Most theater appreciate the free labor, so just call up and offer your services.

- Take a production course. Often, playwrights are scared of numbers but it's important to know the "business" of theater. The idea that you can produce yourself will console you when there's no production on the horizon. Understanding how the "business" works gives you the option of producing smaller-scale projects that will keep you occupied and improve your work.

- Join or form a writers group. Writing with colleagues is cool as shit. Again, it forces you to write.

- Don't worry about getting an agent. A lot of people think that an agent validates them as artists but I've formed relationships with theaters (by submitting) and negotiated multi-thousand dollar contracts alone. More than once, I've been told that an agent will appear when my career is ready...and that's been my path. The deal is to become the best playwright possible so agents want you.

- If you're writing from your personal experience, you can protect your privacy. When people ask, "did that happen to you," you can say, "it's not really appropriate to ask an artist that question. I don't think Frida stood around a gallery and explained that the babies hanging from umbilical cords in her paintings were hers."

- The theater is small. I try to avoid gossip and mean-spirited conversation though venting is sometimes necessary. I've decided over time that I won't work with people who gossip a lot because gossips can ruin a reputation. I've seen it happen, and it's pretty sad when it does.

- If it's one of your first projects, understand what a director wants to do with your play. Also try to know whether he or she will listen to your input when you don't agree with their choices. I lost a wonderful friend once because I didn't understand at the start that he didn't want any input from the playwright, and that he wouldn't change important things I didn't like. Conversations are a must.

- Nurture relationships with mentors. That doesn't mean weekly meetings. It means having relationships with more experienced playwrights (and other theater professionals) who can guide you through a confusing situation when the time comes up. Sometimes, that means an email every few weeks or even months.

- I'm a naturally shy dork and I'm socially awkward around uber cool people. Since there's a hegemony of cool people in the theater right now, you may sometimes feel like an outsider. YOU'RE NOT. Just be yourself and eventually other dorks will find you. And some of the cool people may even eventually talk to you...but even if they don't, theater isn't high school. It's not a popularity contest. It's a place where people come together to create worlds and people that have never existed, and as such, our purpose is greater than liking each other.

- I remember every single compliment I've ever gotten over my work. If you like someone's work, tell them. It's a huge boost in a path rife with rejection.

- Rejection will become your best friend. Rejection letters, etc. (Don't save them.) Get used to it and also, get over it and move on to your next submission.

- Read tons and tons of plays (Drama Book Shop and public libraries let you read them without buying them) and also watch past productions at the 4th floor of the New York Public Library of Performing Arts. Don't let the people there intimidate you. When they ask what your purpose is for being there, say, "I'm writing a play and I need to watch this production for research."

- If you feel at home in the theater, you are. Take off your shoes and stay awhile. Don't wait for permission or a production. The most successful people in the theater often say they just stuck around long enough.

- Submit and submit. Join The Loop and Facebook playwrights groups that send you submission calendars. Rogelio Martinez once said, "you never know when someone out there is going to read your play and become your fan. Even if your play doesn't get produced, that person may eventually have a position of influence that allows them to re-visit your work." I've actually seen it happen.

- Have fun. Remember. This isn't an emergency room. We're not saving lives. We're storytellers, and in the best of circumstances, mirrors of what is and what could be.

Q:  Plugs:

Little Monsters, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Saturday, September 25th at 4:30 pm
Little Monsters, Brandeis Theatre Company, February 17-21, 2011

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is one of the best interviews I've read in a long while.

The stuff about her work as a journalist is great.

And her advice is just about the best there's been on this site so far.

Can't wait to know this playwright's work.