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. Welcome back to the conversation, and The Playwright’s Playground – an in-depth Playwright interview series with female playwrights in the D.C. theatre community.
This month it is a joy to share an interview with Anu Yadav, the award-winning playwright and solo performer of the Forum Theatre production Meena’s Dream that closed Sunday. Anu holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Performance from University of Maryland, College Park, and she is an 11-time recipient of a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant. Anu has performed nationally and internationally, including Studio Safdar in Delhi and the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Beijing and is a Forum Ensemble Member.
In Part 1: Anu Yadav discusses the inspiration, music, and creative motivations for Meena’s Dream, and she shares the challenges of performing an energetic, multi-character, one woman show.
In Part 2, Anu Yadev talks in depth about her playwriting and creative journey with Meena’s Dream, discovering her playwright’s voice, and offers her thoughts on what Theatres can do to nurture and increase diversity.
Sydney-Chanele: What was the experience or moment you considered yourself a professional playwright?
Anu: To be honest, it was at the Dramatists Guild of America conference at George Mason University a couple years ago. I went after hearing about it last minute and got to reconnect with DC area playwright Gwydion Suilebhan. We were talking and in that moment I realized I had never identified as a playwright even though I had written a play. The identity labels of various kinds of art, or even “artist” itself, can get so laden with connotations – who gets to create, who can call themselves that, who can’t. And I knew that if I was to encourage others to value the art in themselves, I have to do it for myself too. That’s when I realized I was a playwright.
Where do your ideas for the genesis of a play come, and how are specific characters determined?
Well, to be honest, I can say that I have written two pieces that I call plays. The rest are things like monologues, sketches, essays, or facilitating other people to write as well. I feel like I come to playwriting more as a performer. So as far as those two plays, they came from my own experiences and my desire to tell a story from those experiences in a way that can translate to other people. Specific characters were determined differently, depending on the nature of the two plays. For the first play, ‘Capers, it was winnowing down my writing to a few characters that could be followed throughout the course of the play. And for Meena’s Dream, I just decided to start with the ones I had created, and a few others popped up along the journey that focused on the main character.
What made you ready to write Meena’s Dream now?
It’s inspired by my upbringing, but it’s not really autobiographical. I think examining my own challenges through a longer process allowed me to really take on the world of fear and joy of this young girl and her mother.
How did Meena’s Dream creatively come together? Tell me about your adventure – the conception, writing, workshopping, and the eventual premiere at Forum Theatre.
Back in 2009, while I was trying to calm myself down from my own stressed, packed freelance schedule – juggling teaching and performing and making ends meet — I wrote a short story about a Worry Machine. Then in graduate school, I got a chance to work with playwright Dael Orlandersmith for a three-week workshop January 2011, who really boldly encouraged us students to dig deep. She really knows how to support writers to get to hard, raw, gritty emotional truth. It was powerful. It was also all autobiographical work too.
While Meena’s Dream is fictional, working with Dael really influenced my approach. How could I still get to that honesty in fiction? That fall, under the guidance of playwright/director Walter Dallas in a solo performance class, he really encouraged me to delve more into fiction and fantasy, since I had a lot of experience doing documentary-inspired theater work. I kept working on it for my MFA thesis and approached three musicians, Anjna and Rajna Swaminathan who are sisters, and Sam McCormally, if they would be interested in composing a score for the play.
We then presented it as a staged reading at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, produced by Subcontinental Drift December 2012, … then February 2013 I presented it as a workshop production at MFA in Performance Festival of New Works at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as my thesis … that’s when Michael Dove approached me about folding the play into their upcoming season. I kept working on it, and Patrick Crowley joined as dramaturg and director. I added more scenes, more of an ending, the musicians composed new pieces, and now we are here performing it at Forum in the World Premiere.
Meena’s Dream is a play that you also perform the leading role. How do you stop from continually tweaking the script? When do you know a play is finished?
YES I have two artists that are fighting within me – the actor and the playwright. And the directors always had to mediate. Over the three years I worked with directors Caleen Jennings, Paige Hernandez and now Patrick Crowley. I actually still want to tweak the climax. I’ve also been getting dramaturgical feedback from my partner Terah Jackson, who has really just sharpened his craft of screenwriting at graduate school. I think I have trouble letting go. Actor/playwright Will Power once told me that you can look back to work you created and know that despite its flaws, it was the best piece you could have written at that time, in that way, with the resource you had. Your craft is ever evolving and as your art develops, you will see your previous work differently. But it doesn’t mean that it was ever bad. My first play ‘Capers, I actually performed a few months ago and I see it through newer eyes now, with more writing experience and understanding now. I see where there are holes, but it’s also okay to let it be, even though that’s hard for me.
Are there certain themes, characters, human qualities that you are trying to address in your plays?
Yes, definitely. I believe all art is inherently political. We are political creatures, and everything we do and say carries significance that stretches out beyond just ourselves. I think it’s important for artists to understand that, for anyone really, because that is really about understanding our significance to impact the world and people around us. ‘Capers was more ‘directly’ political, in that it was about public housing residents who were protesting the government-funded demolition and relocation of their community. I felt that their stories were not being offered enough of a platform, and I wanted to use the medium of the theater to craft a narrative that honored their experience, with them having a say in how they were being represented.
With Meena’s Dream, my aim has been more to look at the external and internal oppressions that stop us from trusting our minds and building community with each other to build the kind of world we all deserve to live in. I’m really interested in the stories of working class communities, communities of color, and how the arts I do can support people to keep creating change in their communities toward a vision of economic and social justice for everyone.
Real character development inherently dismantles stereotypes. That is powerful. Given our current social climate that vilifies people if they are poor, I think there is real power in creating nuanced characters who are struggling economically, and still very human. That is real, but unfortunately that is not what is portrayed.
How is playwriting a tool of consciousness for you?
Right now, I am using my playwriting as a vehicle for my work as an actor and ‘cultural worker,’ which I define as someone who uses their art or expression as a means toward engaging with questions of social transformation. By bringing art in front of a group of people you have the power to influence what people think about. It is a great way to pose larger questions about how we live as a society, and how we want to live. It can open the door to a striking intimacy among strangers by virtue of telling stories that people are moved by, feel connected to, and then offer a space for people to share stories themselves.
A number of people have come up to me after seeing Meena’s Dream saying they too experienced similar economic hardships as Meena and her mother, being moved to tears of both joy and also sorrow. That is real and speaks to the huge stigma there is surrounding our varied experiences of poverty. And those same people as well as others spoke of how the play reminded them of their own big imaginations as young people. Art offers a powerful tool to help people think and reflect about the biggest picture possible of both themselves as individuals, and also as part of a larger community.
What lasting impression or inspiration do you want your art to make?
I think it’s important to address this idea of hope. It isn’t cheesy, it’s very much needed in a society that is built on keeping people in their place, and only ‘allowing’ people to dream as long as it is within the lines. In order for any real change to happen, people need to believe it’s possible. In order to believe that is possible, people need reminders of their own ability to effect change, that they matter. We need more than just food to sustain us. We need art to nourish our souls, and our imaginations. Because I ultimately believe that a liberated imagination paves the way for a liberated society. To believe poverty can be eradicated is an act of a liberated imagination. We need that.
I don’t want my art to punch someone in the gut and leave them a mess on the floor. I want my art to reveal something truthful, vulnerable, and connect to that deeper place within the audiences, and leave them feeling buoyed at the end. It’s important to go to dark places, but for me as an artist, I want to leave people with some light at the end. Danny Hoch once talked about comedian Lenny Bruce, how he had apparently said that you get people in a room, you get them laughing. Then what? That ‘then what’ is a very powerful place, and I want to explore more of that place as an artist in connection with community organizing groups and facilitators.
How can regional theaters do more to nurture new playwrights and provide audiences with alternative and diverse voices?
Theaters can start by taking the risk of asking questions, and inviting more people to submit work. If theaters want to increase their audiences, why dismiss everyone who helps the theater run? So many times, the way power works is that there are brilliant people on staff who are not rewarded to think, but “do their job.” The job of a leader is not to have all the answers, but consolidate and act upon the best thinking of the group, including their own. That means listening. Then systematically listen to and build relationships with the local communities – artists and audiences.
To me, theater at its best is a creative form of community-organizing, which is founded on the art of listening. To serve a more inclusive community, theaters must integrate the act of listening within their organizational structure, how they engage their audiences and artists, as well as the stories theaters value enough to produce. Truly valuing people’s stories on and off the stage can have a ripple effect, extending to who gets thought about in the larger society, how resources are distributed, how policies are crafted. Everyone’s stories matter and I believe theater – and the world – should reflect that.
The Playwright’s Playground: Part 1: ‘Meena’s Dream – Process and Performance: An Interview with Anu Yadav’ by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins