In the Moment: Interviews with Women’s Voices Theater Festival playwrights – Part 1

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This is the first part of a multi-part series of interviews with Women’s Voices Theater Festival playwrights. In this series, I asked the same questions to a number of Women’s Voices Theater Festival (WVTF) playwrights. The questions were aimed at learning what led each playwright to develop their play.

This article is not about reviewing a particular WVTF production. That will be accomplished by my DC Metro Theater Arts colleagues. Rather this series is focused on bringing attention and a spotlight to the playwrights themselves; some of whom may not be well-known to DC-area theater-goers.

This first installment focuses on playwrights who penned plays that have a major social justice theme and that have already opened: Annalisa Dias, Olivia Haller, and Tracy Conver Lee.

I would like to thank the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, its staff, and each of the playwrights for their participation.

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Playwright Annalisa Dias: 4,380 Nights at Signature Theatre

David: What was the impetus for the play? And why now for its production?

Annalisa: I began writing this play in 2013 after noticing a three-sentence blurb in the Washington Post about the release of two detainees from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. I was surprised at what I perceived then to be our national amnesia about the fact of Guantanamo’s continued operation. We seemed to have forgotten that it was still open and that people’s lives were being torn apart there, in our names. Five years later, the detention facility is still open, and our current administration has no plans to close it (and according to the New York Times, they even have plans to open construction again for potential new detainees). This play has, somewhat sadly, become more and more relevant over the last five years. It seems there is no better time than now to examine how we got here and vision a future where places like Guantanamo might no longer exist.

Who/what are your influences as a playwright?

4,380 Nights wouldn’t be what it is without the work of Assia Djebar, an Algerian historian and writer whose lyrical prose inspired me to take risks with style and form; the words and unshakable hope of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, whose book Guantanamo Diary formed the basis of my understanding of the detainee experience; and the countless people with whom I’ve collaborated in the last five years, each of whom has had an impact on my thinking and way of making new plays.

What would you like the audiences to come away with after seeing your play?

I’m interested in sitting with audiences and wondering how we can exist in a room together knowing that places like Guantanamo are operating in our names. What does that mean about us, regardless of political leanings? Where do we find hope when the world seems to be fracturing all around us? How might we honor the past and its very real effect on the present, and vision a shared future?

If you could invite audiences to see your play, what would you say to them? Would you say different things to men vs. women, Baby Boomers vs. Millennials, POC vs. Caucasians, regular play-goers vs. infrequent play-goers?

This play is a very conscious meditation on power, history, and the things that we think divide us. For me, I’d love to say to everyone—we’re in this together.

Why is the DC Women’s Voices Theater Festival important to playwrights and audiences? How does our current charged political and social times affect the production, do you think?

Women playwrights are woefully underrepresented in the number of their plays that move to production in the American theater. A festival where an entire city bands together to shine light on powerful new work by people who identify as womxn is ideally an important way to move toward a more equitable theater ecology, both here in DC and nationally. It’s certainly interesting for this festival to take place in this historical moment where public discourse about legacies of oppression is so radically shifting. I’ll be fascinated to hear how audiences and artists receive the work produced over the month of the festival, and to find out how it adds to the ongoing conversation.

Annalisa Dias (Playwright)
Annalisa Dias is a playwright, performer, and director. Her work has been staged in DC, New York, London, and Glasgow. She is a Producing Playwright with The Welders, a DC playwright’s collective; and is Co-Founder of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice. Plays include: The Last Allegiance, One Word More, A Legacy of Chains, Servant of the Wind, and To Defend Freedom.

 

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Olivia Haller playwright: This is All Just Temporary at Convergence Theater

David: What was the impetus for the play? And why now for its production?

This play was inspired by true events that my family went through a few years ago. My younger brother, who has severe autism, needed resources that were beyond our capacity as his family, but we didn’t know where to turn to find those resources. There is a terrible lack of infrastructure for adults with mental disabilities who need full-time care, and I want this production to call attention to that.

Who/what are your influences as a playwright?

I am inspired by the casual, stream-of-consciousness dialogue of Bekah Brunstetter, and separately I am also drawn to Surrealism and the works of Salvador Dali. On the one hand, I want to put words to things I have always thought but never said, but at the same time I recognize that there are certain concepts and images – like in dreams – that are cheapened when I try to put words to them. Live theater has the wonderful advantage of being able to incorporate multiple performance languages, so I have loved working with my director Elena Velasco to create movement sequences and soundscapes to flesh out the world of the play.

What would you like the audiences to come away with after seeing your play?

My wish for this production is to normalize the experience of individuals with mental disabilities and their families. I want to raise up those stories in the collective consciousness by telling my own story.

If you could invite audiences to see your play, what would you say to them? Would you say different things to men vs. women, Baby Boomers vs. Millennials, POC vs. Caucasians, regular play-goers vs. infrequent play-goers?

I am indeed inviting anyone and everyone to this play! Diversity of perspective and background in audiences is key to promoting productive discourse. I have personally invited other families of folks with disabilities to see the show because I want their voices to be in the conversation, but at the same time I hope that those who don’t have that experience see the show so that they can understand that perspective.

Why is the DC Women’s Voices Theater Festival important to playwrights and audiences? How does our current charged political and social times affect the production, do you think?

It’s very important in terms of visibility and representation. Even though there is a wealth of extraordinary plays by women, plays written by men are still far more widely produced. The personal is always political. Playwrights – and all artists – are the conscience of our culture no matter which administration we’re in.

Olivia Haller (Playwright)
Olivia Haller is a DC-based dramaturg, playwright, actor and Convergence company member. Recent credits: Witch (Convergence Theatre) Klecksography (Rorschach Theatre), Bhavi the Avenger (Convergence Theatre), and It’s What We Do (Capital Fringe Festival). Olivia serves in the Connectivity department at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Education: BFA, Theatre Arts, Boston University. www.oliviahaller.net.

 

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Playwright Tracey Conyer Lee: Rabbit Summer at Ally Theatre Company

David: Who/what are your influences as a playwright?

Tracy: I am a full-time actor turned playwright and I have long lusted after the characters created by Lynn Nottage. As a longtime fan, I choose to still read her work as an actor, not as a playwright (though there is much to model in her storytelling). I think her influence on my artistry reveals itself in the deceptive uncovering of many conversations being had under the guise of one or two. The onion effect. LOL I like to come sideways at you with a whole bunch of stuff you didn’t realize was being unearthed. I remember, a decade ago, before I began writing, the gasps from the audience the two times I performed in her Intimate Apparel, the energy that response sent onto the stage. I have been that gasping audience member in others of her works. I want to create the opportunities for actors who do my work to experience that genuine collective release of an audience on a journey. But I’d be remiss not to say I’m challenged by the work of Ayad Ahktar and Marcus Gardley and propelled by “newer” writers like Kevin R. Free and Stacy Rose.

What would you like the audiences to come away with after seeing your play?

Conversation. And a lot of it. I want them to be simultaneously mad and giddy and then talk about why. I want them to ask me, as many have, why I would choose this or say that. As long as the conversation around our humanity is earnestly continued, I feel I have done my job as an artist.

If you could invite audiences to see your play, what would you say to them? Would you say different things to men vs. women, Baby Boomers vs. Millennials, POC vs. Caucasians, regular play-goers vs. infrequent play-goers?

I would first ask them if they have a family. Then I’d ask if they have a friend. I’d ask if they’ve ever questioned how to help family or friends through a shared ordeal of any kind. Finally, I’d ask if they like to laugh. Loudly. If the answer to at least two of these questions is yes, then I don’t need to differentiate between demographics. It is truly my belief that there is a character to love or love hating and a passion to glom onto for any adult of any race and that non-theater goers may find Ally’s production less alienating than whatever has kept them from theater in the past. It’s reality based, it’s relatable, it’s America.

Why is the DC Women’s Voices Theater festival important to playwrights and audiences? How does our current charged political and social times affect the production, do you think?

The Women’s Voices Festival is important because it brings a national awareness to the value of these formerly non-sought out stories. I have been grateful for the theaters around the country who have made female inclusion part of their mission, but as pervasive as the conversation may seem to some, those theaters are still comparatively in the minority. The WVTF is making clear that the shift will continue and in a united front. Unity. That’s what so much of our struggle towards transcendence is lacking. Not here though… Thank you, Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Playwright Tracey Conyer Lee