‘The Playwright’s Playground’: Allyson Currin-Part 1 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

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Welcome back to the new Playwright interview series –The Playwright’s Playground – a monthly in-depth conversation with a local female playwright in the D.C. Theatre community. Female Theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower.

In this continuing series I will interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in this area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Last month the The Playwright’s Playground debuted with an engrossing conversation with Jacqueline Lawton (The Hampton Years). This month it is my pleasure to share my interview with Allyson Currin, playwright of WSC Avant Bard’s latest Production, Caesar and Dada, now playing at the Callan Theatre at Catholic University.

ALLYSON CURRIN

Allysun Currin. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.
Allyson Currin. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

It’s been a sincere pleasure learning about what inspires the gifted and multi-talented, multitasking playwright, Allyson Currin. What is especially engaging about Allyson is just how real she is. She has an authenticity that demands respect. A straight shooter with no airs, it’s refreshing and enlightening to learn how she juggles the balancing act of her life as a single parent of twin teenage girls (her husband, Chris, passed away in 2005). You can’t help but to be charmed by her wit and intelligence.

As the author of more than twenty plays, and a two-time Helen Hayes Award Nominee (Church of the Open Mind and Amstel in Tel Aviv), Currin is a versatile writer that writes what she feels. She writes comedy. She writes drama. She writes historical. She writes magical realism. She writes musicals. Currin is not easily pigeonholed. The keen observance and verbal dexterity of her work is passionate and challenging, and the diversity and off beat humor of her plays always keeps you on your toes. Allyson is also an actress, and has performed on many stages in the Washington/Baltimore area, and she received her M.F.A. in directing from The University of Virginia, and her B.A., cum laude, in Theatre and English from Wake Forest University.

With seemingly few moments to spare, Currin has been on a creative roll!  She’s taught at George Washington University since 1998 and is the Managing Director of its New Play Festival, and in the last two years she’s had three World Premiere productions (Caesar and Dada, Benched, Hercules in Russia). She is also the Chair of the National Playwriting Program (Region 2) of The Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. 

When asked how do you do it? Allyson simply replied – “I don’t sleep.”

Sydney-Chanele: You act. You direct. You teach. You write. What led to your love of theatre?

Allyson:  From a very, very early point in my life I was writing. I remember writing absolutely awful poetry as early as six, really. Novels came next by third grade. They were awful too, and I must have written around thirty of them by the time I was twenty. My parents were very encouraging and on a few occasions used my lousy poetry for our family Christmas cards. They were incredibly supportive of pretty much any crap I wrote. Which was smart parenting – don’t push the “artist” in the kid, only praise.

I was always a writer first, although I never really shared my work with anyone. I refused to write plays. Just refused! Now I understand that I was unconsciously making my life some kind of private writing workshop so that when I was ready to “come out” I had actually acquired a few skills. I wrote constantly. Constantly. writing is really, really hard and very personal: to me, it is the most private of activities.

Theatre was different – it was always very public, and joyously so! As a child I fell in love with old movies (I still consider myself an old movie buff) – I loved Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in particular and wanted to be an actor of their caliber.  (Oh, well). By around fifth grade I started acting and was really an actor first.  LOVED IT – acting was my theatrical focus. I felt very much at home on stage, then and now. I love the trust and connection on stage, the sense of shared danger that is somehow safe… Directing came much later (in grad school), and teaching after that. But the strange thing now that I look back on it is that writing was VERY different from Theatre for me, and it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that the two came together.

Mundy Spears and Andrew Ferlo in 'Caesar an Dada.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Mundy Spears and Andrew Ferlo in ‘Caesar an Dada.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

What has been the most important experience in your training as a playwright?

Failing. There were many, many devastating experiences in my Playwriting career.  Success is nice. Success is great. When there is success, there are lots of people who tell you that you are brilliant. They are being very nice, and they mean it, but you can’t listen. Better to listen to the people (the ones you trust and respect – be picky!) who give you a hard time and push you. Those people who challenge to break you out of your little bag of tricks. (And every artist has one of THOSE. God knows I do).  I have learned a lot from really sucking: From getting nailed disastrously in that very public way. By having audience members walk out of previews because they didn’t care about the play. By no one laughing at a COMEDY.

There is far more instruction in failure. Failure sucks and no one wants to fail. But you learn from it, dammit. And here’s the thing nobody talks about all that often – if you fail big, that means you took a big chance. I would much rather fail spectacularly than fail in a small way. There are far too many artists out there who are taking small risks. That’s boring. Fail big. FAIL BIG.

Allyson, I love that. Such excellent advice and I couldn’t agree with you more. Let’s talk about your process. Where do the ideas come for the genesis of a play, and how then are specific characters determined and developed?

Every play has a different genesis, but very often my plays are initially driven by a character or relationship that I’m trying to capture. I don’t often work from an outline: I’ve learned that my process is very much about making my inarticulate gut impulse articulated through the process of writing. I find my way through the writing, then struggle like hell to find an ending. Endings and titles are the hardest parts for me. Very often I find that I fall in love with my characters so much that I can’t think objectively about them. That’s when I have to back off and write something else for a while, until I can think clearly. I also value feedback from Theatre friends. When I’m really stuck, I invite people over to my living room for wine and munchies, to read through what I’ve got. That always helps.  Fresh perspectives help, and I am pretty good at recognizing what comments are useful and which ones aren’t.

When do you know a play is finished and it’s time to walk and move onto your next project? Describe the feeling when you have completed a finalized draft of a play.

It depends on the play. Sometimes finishing a play has made me cry. Sometimes it’s an absolute relief. Some plays are easy, and some plays are hard. My plays are like individual people to me, so I treat them all differently. Finishing a play, though, also means you have to market it, and I suck at that. The business of Theatre is always frustrating for me. Tech weeks and openings nearly kill me every time. My stress level just is off the chain.

You spoke earlier about a play being driven by a character or a relationship, and your new play addresses both. Congratulations on creating the vibrant and stimulating, Caesar and Dada!  The current production by WSC Avant Bard has been well received, and you have folks excited about its freshness and imaginative concept. What has been your experience thus far with this World Premiere production?

This world premiere production has been a delight, which is a very welcome relief given the uncertainty that WSC Avant Bard has been facing after losing its venue at the Artisphere. This is one of the most committed, dedicated casts – the actors stuck with the project through thick and through thin because of their belief in this play. In fact, belief seems to be what has carried this production through to success: first, from former Artistic Director Christopher Henley, then from current A.D. Tom Prewitt. The designers have been amazing and really unleashed their imaginative forces on this play, which gives it such a unique look and flavor. Set Designer and Assistant Director Steven Royal in particular brought such creative and distinctive ideas to the table. I’m thrilled with the production, and very relieved and happy that it is doing as well as it  is.

How did Caesar and Dada creatively come together, and how long was the entire Playwriting process (and how many drafts)?

This play is in its twelfth draft. I re-worked the second act a fair bit as a part of the production process, but the script was pretty solid when we started rehearsals.  (It’s not always that way). This play cracks me up because I literally dreamed it one night – or dreamed the idea of it. I had a dream about what a Dada theatre troupe would do to a production of Julius Caesar. I mentioned the dream to a playwright friend who told me to write the play. And so I did! I’ve been working on this play for probably…five or six years? Some plays just pop out in a few months, and others take longer, especially if they are more complicated or ambitious, as C&D is.

Lee Mikeska Gardner, the Director of Caesar and Dada, is an excellent interpreter of your work, and she has directed another play written by you – Learning Curves. What is it about you two than makes for such a winning theatre combination?

Ah, Lee … One of my favorite people. This is actually the third play we’ve worked on together. Years ago we also created a new musical for The Washington Jewish Theatre with Michael Stebbins. Lee and I work extremely well together. She is very patient when I am flipping out and isn’t afraid to lovingly tell me to leave the Theatre during tech. She is this wonderful combination of patient and no-nonsense. Lee is particularly good with new work – my new work, at least – because she is the QUEEN of tracking. She can map out an arc like nobody’s business, which is wonderful for me.  When I’m in the thick of re-writes, sometimes I can’t see the forest for the trees. She always can. Plus, she just gets me. We have a very wonderful partnership.

How attuned are you to the audiences’ reactions to your play, and how does that influence rewrites and the approach to your next project?

I have never re-written anything based on audience response when a play has premiered. By that time I have lived so thoroughly in my play for so long that I accept audience responses for what they are – their personal reactions to my finished product. Earlier in the development process, during readings and talk-backs, I am much more open and take the good note from wherever it comes, regardless of whether or not I know the person. I also have to shut down a lot of unwelcome comments, like any playwright has to. You have to be a strange combination of open and protective during the development of a script.

When a play is in full production, I’m that weird playwright who goes to as many performances as I can. That’s not an ego thing – I think it’s at least partly an actor thing. I’m SUPPOSED to be there for the performance! It’s also what playwrights live for, yes? To see their plays alive in front of an audience! That’s the POINT of what we do, so I try to take advantage of that gift as often as possible. Plus, I learn a lot about writing technique from an audience. There is a difference between a well-written moment, a well-directed moment and a well-acted moment. I spend a lot of time dissecting what it is that I have created when I attend performances. Where is the director or a well-acted moment salvaging second-rate writing?  Why does something get a laugh one night, and dead silence the next? Have I as a writer exerted enough control over that moment? Is it a production problem and not a writing problem?

I watch the audience – they telegraph all of this information in their reactions.

That’s very interesting, and I can see how you would learn a lot from that detailed dissection. Your work is always recognized for being very smart. How do you play with language in Caesar and Dada, and what do you hope is the take away for audiences?

I enjoy language very much, and try to relish it in my work.  Words are fun, and I like characters that celebrate them. I hope the audiences will enjoy that celebration. This is probably a silly, and obvious thing to say, but I love this play and these characters. So, I hope the audience does, too. I hope the audience has fun with it, and goes on the ride with enthusiasm and laughter. More than that, however, I hope the audience is moved by the struggles of these lovely, damaged people, and identifies emotionally with their journeys. Even though the play is set in 1918, I want audiences to see their own contemporary struggles in Caesar and Dada.

What have the Caesar and Dada audiences taught you so far?

I’m pretty happy to say that C&D audiences so far have validated that play to an enormous degree. That doesn’t always happen! I have learned that this play does shock them when it’s supposed to shock them. It moves them right where I wanted to move them. And they laugh where I had hoped they would. WHEW!

Currin at work on' Love and hisky .' Photo by Clinton B. Photography.
Currin at work on’ Love and hisky .’ Photo by Clinton B. Photography.

Do you read theater reviews during the run of your production? How important or relevant are reviews for a Playwright today?

I read reviews and I keep every single one of them in a book: the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you read the good, you have to read the bad too. It is an essential lesson in humility. Reviews are a part of the process, and a playwright needs to learn to take the heat. I got panned a couple of times, and it always hurts. But what I do is public by nature, which means I don’t get to pick who to listen to once my work out there.

What is DISLIKE PASSIONATELY is what the internet world has made available in a big way: anonymous posting. As a person who stands by her words as a way of life, I resent that people can speak out in any way, for or against, a public artist, without owning THEIR words. In the words of Peter Marks, an anonymous posting is not a contribution: “It’s graffiti.” I mean, what’re you going to do…? Consider the source, know yourself, trust yourself and use only what is useful to you.

What themes are consistently represented in your plays? Is there an Allyson Currin style when it comes to your work?

The theme of home keeps cropping up: what is home, what defines it, how to do characters build a home for themselves, or try to escape one? I am drawn to stories and characters that balance “brain” and “heart.” I write smart plays, definitely, but I don’t think the ideas ever obscure the compassion I feel for my characters. Character creation is definitely a strength in my work. I consistently struggle with structure and plot, but complex and believable characters are always easy for me.

I’m a southerner. The “homeplace” is a big deal for us. It is for a lot of people, of course, which makes the issue a universal one. As a theatergoer I look for plays that are funny, meaty, powerful and passionately told, so that’s what I try to do in my own work. I have found that my plays generate passionate responses (usually pro, occasionally con) in audiences and other artists, but I would rather be a writer known for writing from a place of truth and commitment.

Tell me more about your pursuit of excellence. What is your working style, and what disciplines do you apply to succeed with your writing (from page to production)?

I don’t write every day. I only write when I feel inspired. I know that goes against what almost every other writer says to do, but it works for me. I also have a lot of projects going at the same time, so I can pick what I’m in the mood for at any given moment. And setting external deadlines is essential to me. In the absence of deadlines, I wouldn’t get anything done. I almost always write at night.

But sometimes you just have to give yourself a talking to and sit your ass in a chair and just get the damn thing done. I’ve spent a lot of my life procrastinating and then scolding myself into work. Not the healthiest process, but there you have it!

What drives your passion as a creative, artistic person?

In a word, communion. I think it’s amazing when artists and audiences come together, to buy into the worlds that Theatre builds. We’re all in it together, and we all commit to giving ourselves over to believe in the fiction. I think that’s an amazing event. That definitely drives me. It’s the most wonderful feeling when your play makes an audience laugh, or gasp, or cry. It means you’ve reached out across the abyss and connected with another person. In acting, you’re doing the same thing, building a relationship of trust based on creativity and story. I love that.

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On Monday, in Part II – Allyson defines her definition of success, discusses her struggles with the business side of Playwriting, and shares her thoughts on the state of theater today and the best ways for audiences to support New Works and local playwrights.

LINKS:
Allyson Currin’s website.

Terry Byrne’s review of Caesar and Dada on DCMTA.

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Caesar and Dada plays through July 14, 2013, at WSC Avant Bard at Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at 703-418-4808, purchase them online, or make reservations by e-mail: wsc.tix@gmail.com.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]