The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – An Interview With CJ Ehrlich on Her Play ‘Picnic on the Lake’

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Welcome to the conversation and The Playwright’s Playground, an in-depth conversation with female playwrights 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 Interview Series, I’ll introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and the motivations and struggles to write and produce their art.

In this special edition, I am overjoyed to feature the ten female playwrights of Source Festival 2014.  Led by the Artistic Direction of Jenny McConnell Frederick, Source Festival 2014 is a three-week performing arts project of CulturalDC that cultivates new work in a nurturing environment and spotlights the witty, incisive, and thought-provoking writing from today’s emerging American playwrights. Building the path for the next generation of outstanding performing artists, The Source Theatre Festival (June 7-29) presents three themed full-length plays (Mortality, Revenge, Quests), three experimental Artistic Blind Dates of created original work, and three thematically grouped programs with six 10-Minute related plays to enjoy.

  CJ  Ehrlich

 CJ  Ehrlich.
CJ Ehrlich.

Selected from more than 500 nationwide submissions, C. J. Ehrlich’s play Picnic on the Lake is one of the six ten-minute plays featured under the Revenge theme in this year’s Source Festival 2014.

New York-based CJ Ehrlich’s award-winning one acts have been produced in many states around the US and internationally.  In addition to playwriting, Ehrlich works as a book editor, a writing consultant, a tutor and an EMT.

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Sydney-Chanele: Why do you write, and more specifically why do you write plays?

CJ:  While I write in many genres, including journalism, training manuals, lyrics, I relish the challenge of playwriting. It’s a very complex craft. Say you are a sculptor. First you learn to sketch, then to draw, then to understand light and shape, eventually you graduate to working with say, stone or clay, to bring it to life in three dimensions. Now imagine the only way you can work on your sculpture is to chase after it as it scoots around your atelier on a flying pizza box. That’s playwriting. For me it’s very hard, very daunting, and takes loads of time because I’m a slow writer and often hiding under my desk until it all goes away. On the flip side, playwriting is a wonderful blend of solitary and collaborative. The biggest rush I know is finally getting that play in front of an audience and feeling them react to my words.

As far as why I write, I’m one of those people who, when something hits me as really ‘right’ – and onstage this could be a great speech, or a tiny gesture punctuating a hidden intention, or a beautifully wrought piece of scenery, or that swell of energy before everyone breaks out in a kick-step – it hits me like electricity, and makes me start quietly crying like a idiot. Writing helps me put that somewhere. It’s a sickness.

Was there a specific event when did you considered yourself a professional playwright?

My first sense of “getting onto the playing field” was having my comedy Tuesdays in the Park with River Apple performed at the American Globe Theatre’s 15-Minute Play Festival in NYC. It was a lot of work but we had a fantastic audience reaction. The joy was the whole experience and hearing the audience have a great time. Also, they paid the writers. Not much but it made you feel like an honored guest.

Do you have a writing process? Are you disciplined about writing every day? 

I can’t say I have a “process.” I write when I can, sometimes every day, sometimes not for weeks, maybe on a computer at the library, or scribbling on a yellow pad on the bus. Right now I’m working on a farce that has so many characters coming and going I can only keep track of them with a little stage populated by Lego figures. Other times it’s index cards. One thing’s consistent: when I work at home, I speak all the dialogue out loud. I’m afraid the dog thinks I’m crazy.

           Source Festival Play

How would you describe Picnic on the Lake – your play in this year’s Source Festival?  How did you come up with the idea for it?

Picnic on the Lake is about a couple who crest a mountain trail to have a romantic picnic by a glacial lake. The view is spectacular, but the sun is setting and their car is a long way down. I won’t say any more. The play was inspired by an enigmatic Edgar Allan Poe poem, The Lake, and informed by interviews I did for an article on domestic violence. I spoke with a number of brave women who had passed through a women’s shelter after leaving dangerous relationships. In writing the play I tried to imagine the successful reconstruction of a relationship gone sour.

What has been your involvement with this Source Festival production, and what was your biggest challenge with this script?                                                          

As a NY-based writer, it wasn’t feasible for me to attend rehearsals for this particular play. Fortunately I had the pleasure of working closely with Source DC’s dramaturg, Kathryn Coughlin whose insights helped to flesh out certain moments in the play, and when I was asked to cut to the bone, she held my hand the whole time. My biggest challenge was that after the play was accepted into the festival, it ran long in the table read and I had to cut seven minutes out of a ten-minute play.  Harder than it sounds.

How many drafts went into what we will see on stage? Are you still rewriting?

I wrote the first draft a few years ago. An early change was moving the action from a secluded corner of Hampstead Heath up to a secluded mountaintop with a better view. You get great insights when the play first gets on its feet. I’ll likely do more rewrites after I see it at the Source Festival.

In general I’m always rewriting. David Mamet said something like, “You write the first draft. Then you throw 90% of that away, and start to write the play you meant to write.” When a play of mine entertains me, I tend to keep plugging away, rooting for it to get seen by an audience. Sometimes there’s affirmation right away. But in most cases, I get loads of rejections and each makes me ask, “How can I improve this one?”

What do you like most about Picnic on the Lake?

Normally I write comedies so I had to go outside my eruv to try to write drama or in this case melodrama. I enjoy the characters’ journeys, and I love Erik’s backstory. I’m working on another drama, about a sociopath with a bizarre hobby and a potential girlfriend.

Daniel Corey (left) and Sara Barker (right) in 'A Picnic on the Lake.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Daniel Corey (left) and Sara Barker (right) in ‘A Picnic on the Lake.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 A Deeper Look & Inspirations

As a playwright, what has been your biggest struggle in getting your work produced?

My one-act plays have enjoyed over 80 productions around the US, from Boston to Austin, Chicago to Kealakekua, and internationally, in Canada, England, India, Panama, Mexico and other countries, and are published in several of Smith & Kraus’ annual Best Ten-Minute Plays anthologies. So I guess I’m doing something right, even if I’m still a goldfish in a pond full of shimmering koi. (That’s a very female comment, isn’t it? Would a guy say “my career is a shark on steroids, booya!”)

The struggle is to find the time. First the time to write, then the time to get the work out there. Marketing requires a set of skills completely antithetical to writing. Like many playwrights, I don’t have an MFA or a drama program or an agent behind me, so I spend a huge amount of time rolling that boulder uphill, and each of my plays is judged on its own merit. You have to be involved with other artists; the Westchester Collaborative Theatre, for example, is an amazing group of talented actors and writers I’m working with. Remember too that theatre is a team sport.

How do you feel about the disproportionate number of female playwrights consistently being programmed by theatre companies?

Well, I know the numbers andthe problem is getting lots of attention from the theatre world at large, men and women alike, including a group I’m involved with, the ICWP (International Center for Women Playwrights). We are far from the goal of 50-50 in 2020 and it’s frustrating, I mean at this point in human evolution, geez. On the other hand, why would there be a bias against women playwrights? It makes no sense. Theatre is a business. Ticket buyers, by a large majority, are women. I’d also ask, what percent of playwrights are women, and how does that figure in to the statistics? Or perhaps the core of the problem is that theatres cling to the proven audience pleasers, and women’s work isn’t in that pantheon. Then, as Marsha Norman says, “At the very least it’s a bad habit. And it needs to be broken.”

Instead of “girlcotting” theatres who don’t make the 50-50 bar, let’s support the ones putting on work we want to see. From my view in the trenches, I know many, many female playwrights whose work is being produced around the country. Check out the “Links” page on my website.

For example, the New Georges in NYC only produces innovative works by and involving women – no kitchen sink dramas and you better meet the Bechdel Test. So donate to them, see their shows, and tell your friends.

You can also cry agism or racism or reverse racism or heteronormity or whatever is the opposite. For me the worst bias is the one against comedy in favor of “meaningful” work. What’s important to me is to write the best plays I can, whether I’m a female or a male or a singing moose.

What is your all-time favorite play? And who are your favorite living female playwrights that you’d recommend to the DC area?

Sydney, that’s like asking me which is my favorite child. I mean, between you and me it’s [redacted] but don’t tell him that. Let me think. I saw the Broadway production of Fences with Denzel Washington and years earlier with James Earl Jones, so I could be biased by stellar acting, but that’s just a wonderful play. People struggling with forces bigger than themselves – the social environment, the twisting of perspectives between generations, obligations versus this American notion that we should all do what we want. So many others. I like Shakespeare because you always feel like you’re listening to a foreign language and yet the gist of their desire is so available and timeless. Richard III in particular is great because descends to the depths of human depravity yet crushes evil in the end.

As far as living female playwrights, Yasmina Reza has a gift for limning the unseen with the smallest of gestures and tiny reshufflings of expectations until she builds to an implosion. What she does with just one olive in Art blows me away. I recommend Out of Orbit, by up-and-comer Jennifer Maisel, who’s got a great voice, smart, dark and funny. Tina Howe and Naomi Wallace write with an archness, a dryness, a sharpness that I like. Recently I discovered Molly Picon, a Yiddish actress, playwright, singer, songwriter and acrobat. Her writing was not profound but she was fearless and prolific, though in the minus column she’s dead.

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Picnic on the Lake is performed as a part of the Source Festival – REVENGE: Six 10-Min Plays, which is playing on June 20, 2014 at 4:00 PM and June 28, 2014 at 4:00 PM, at THE SOURCE THEATRE FESTIVAL 2014  (June 7-June 29, 2014) at Source–1835 14th Street. NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call OvationTix customer service toll-free: 866-811-4111, or purchase them online.

Source is located 2 Blocks from U Street/Cardozo Metro Station on the Yellow & Green Lines.

LINKS
Upcoming and recent productions of CJ Ejrlich’s plays.

The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright A.K. Forbes on Her Play: ‘Collateral Damage and Other Cosmic Consequences.’

Anne Tsang’s review of Revenge Six 10-Min Plays.

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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.]