The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright Susan Goodell on Her Play: ‘After Unlocking the Universe’

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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.

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Susan Goodell

Playwright Susan Goodell.
Playwright Susan Goodell. Photo by Dennis Bradbury.

Selected from more than 500 nationwide submissions, Susan Goodell’s play After Unlocking the Universe is one of the six ten-minute plays featured under the Quests theme in this year’s Source Festival 2014.

A self-described late bloomer, Susan Goodell’s plays have received over two dozen productions in nine states. Currently residing in Weston, Connecticut, Goodell’s accolades include selection for the Djerassi Residence Artists Program, being nominated for a Denver Drama Critic’s Circle Award, and a commission by Steppenwolf Theatre Company where she also was awarded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company New Play Award. After a stage readings in Philadelphia and New York, the Source Festival is the fully staged premiere for After Unlocking the Universe.

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

Susan: I also write because I entertain myself. I was always fascinated by, infatuated with theatre from a young age, but didn’t venture playwriting until I took a Denver Free University class at age 29. (I also took dog obedience, light cuisine and woman’s self-defense.) My initial interest sounds pretty flippant: the parties seemed fun, and I always wanted to see a play with a character’s arm falling asleep. Initially I fantasized more about limelight. Now my commitment is around the journey of creating and the challenge of craft.

How disciplined are you about writing every day?

I wish I were more disciplined. I don’t write every day and have to shut out all distractions like music and business. It’s useful to have a structure such as a prompt or the momentum of a writer’s workshop. 

Was there a turning point when you considered yourself a professional playwright?

The first evening a full-length play received a strong audience response was a turning point – I began taking myself more seriously. However, I don’t generate the income boldly to call myself professional.


 

 What is the plot of your play in this year’s Source Festival 2014?  In addition to the plot, please detail the themes and discuss the characters.

After Unlocking the Universe is a parody on the human potential industry and the school that we can bend The Universe through the force of our own minds. It’s the story of Willow, who wishes a break from humdrum and seeks counsel from a confident life coach. However her new power succeeds too well, and she learns to be careful what she wishes for.

The story is sweepingly epic for a 10-minute play: two of the actors, Judith and Bernard, play nine characters between them. Willow is the play’s one constant, the seeker of greater happiness and transcendence. The play begins with Willow receiving a spiritual consultation from Judith, who clearly is a charlatan. It’s paradoxical that people can be instructed that humility generates some sort of superpower.

How did you come up with the idea for your script? What has been your biggest challenge?

I wrote the first draft for a reading at Philly’s Primary Stages. It was a Thanksgiving- week reading, and they asked for a short play around the theme of “thank you.” I’d already done a holiday table play there, so this time I brainstormed the word “gratitude.” I floundered before landing on an idea that would sustain a play. “A mission to get people to say thank you” and “women out-gratitude each other” were two of my rejected themes.

What was the time period between conception to completion?  How many drafts went into what we will see on stage?

I likely wrote the first draft in about 3 days after considerable brainstorming. The play probably has undergone about four drafts and other small revisions. There’s a quote attributed to Paul Valery, “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” I will revise again if I get that itch.

Amie Cazel, Teresa Catherine, & Jack Novak in 'After Unlocking the Universe.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Amie Cazel, Teresa Catherine, & Jack Novak in ‘After Unlocking the Universe.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

What do you like most about this script and has it ever been performed on stage before?

This play has received script-in-hand readings in Philadelphia and New York, but The Source Festival is its official fully-staged premiere. I enjoy the parody, the quick changes and skewering of pop culture.

                    A Deeper Look & Inspirations

What is your biggest struggle as a writer of getting your work read and performed?

I joke that I walk away from playwriting several times a day. My biggest struggle is committing to ideas, particularly full-length projects. It takes courage to continue when my early attempts are disappointing. I’ve had a couple dozen productions of short plays, and received my first main stage production this spring at Tri-State Actors Theater in Newton, New Jersey. 

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

I can’t draw a firm line attributing career set-backs to being a woman.  Beginning when I was older and being outside the MFA track is another barrier. I have such challenges creating the best plays I can, marketing them and guiding them through development, that I just keep going. I can always do more and do it better.

I’m 63 and give successful women my age large credit for overcoming my era’s cultural messages, particularly the opinion women ought mute their intelligence and initiative. Then I jump into the theatre world that demands ridiculous stamina, unrealistic optimism and an ultra-thick skin.  I’ve had to learn to filter the feedback. These were not lessons I received in my 1950s-1960s Texas upbringing.

What inspires you to continue, and who are your playwriting inspirations? 

Since my plays are comedies, writing can be a balm, a way of defying fear and pain and twisting the over-serious into absurdity. I take normal situations and then inflate them – giant Thanksgiving’s Day parade balloons. (Thanksgiving must be a leitmotif in these answers.)

I have endless fascination with the creative process itself.  I have to walk in other people’s shoes to create characters. Writing is its own wondrous and mysterious act of faith. I’m moving forward even when I don’t realize it. The other large inspiration is the fulfillment of working with collaborators. 

Do you have an all-time favorite play? Who is your favorite living female playwright that you’d recommend to others, or would like to see performed in the DC area?

I’m the short-attention-span kid when it comes to favorite work because a play may hit me on a specific day. My latest musical “crush” is the older She Loves Me. The story is moving, the music simply soaring.  A woman playwright’s whole body of work doesn’t come to mind, but I’ll name some individual titles: Charlayne Woodard’s The Nightwatcher, Nilaja Sun’s No Child, Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, Melissa James Gibson’s SIC and Julia Cho’s Durango.  I think the commonality of these is their keen sense of observation.  I found them all very moving.

Is there anything you like to share with DCMTA readers about yourself or your playwriting?

I’m now revising my full-length Heels Over Head toward a reading at The Barrow Group in New York City in September. A Chicago reading of my 90-minute Hope Throw Her Heart Away is in planning. I have a large cache of short plays which I’ve bundled into two collections, Walking the Floor in Limbo and One Exit Past Nowhere Delaware.  And I bravely accepted an invitation to write two 1-minute plays, my first at that length, due in a week.

I committed to arts and writing because those subjects were taught by my most passionate and creative teachers. Playwriting has taught me about myself and the world around me in ways I never would have dreamed. Arts education is not a “frill.” It’s an important tool in educating the whole person.

After Unlocking the Universe is performed as a part of the Source Festival – QUESTS: Six 10-Min Plays, which is playing on June 21, 2014 at 1:00 PM,  June 21, 2014 at 8:00 PM, and June 25, 2014 at 6:00 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:

Susan Goodells bio and list of works on the Philadelphia Dramatists Center’s website.

Doolee.com The Playwrights Database.

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

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

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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.]