In the Moment Part 2: Interviews with Playwrights Dominique Cieri, Wendy Graf and Hope Villanueva (Women’s Voices Theater Festival)

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This is the second part of a two-part series of interviews with Women’s Voices Theatre Festival playwrights. In this series, I asked the same questions to a number of Women’s Voices Theatre Festival (WVTF) playwrights, questions designed to learn more about what led to the development of the 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 aimed at bringing notice and a spotlight to the playwrights themselves; some of whom may not be well-known to DC or Baltimore area theater-goers.

This second installment continues to focus on plays that have a major social justice theme and that will open in February. This installment focuses on playwrights Dominique Cieri, Wendy Graf, and Hope Villanueava.

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

Dominique Cieri: Count Down at Strand Theater Company, Baltimore, MD

David: What was the impetus for the play?

Dominque: As a teaching artist, I have had the opportunity to teach, literally, thousands of students from diverse populations; mainstream gifted and talented students, incarcerated boys and young men, learning and developmentally disabled students of all ages, and young neglected and abused girls in shelters and homes. Count Down was born out of a need to give voice to young girls who are our most neglected citizens. I sensed that the girls and boys I’ve taught in facilities and homes were a microcosm of today’s youth, their problems, buried aspirations, and struggle to grow up in a society where they are undervalued.

And why now for its production? The Strand Theater’s mission is to empower women through the arts giving voice to women. In this moment in time, women are finally being heard with a clear purpose of exacting change. Count Down addresses sexual abuse, the psyche of the adolescent girl, and a spectrum of deeper social and artistic issues and questions about girls.

Who/what are your influences as a playwright?

My most current work explores the dysfunction in our societal structures as it affects us individually. I have begun work on a new play that takes up where two characters in a previous play are left believing that they will prevail, but a threat that is both personal and societal hangs over them. What I come back to time and again in my writing is the struggle of ordinary people in a harsh world. I am drawn to acts of defiance to gain visibility, or freedom from the unfair dictates of culture; the ways in which victims of violence, neglect, or whatever the challenge is in their development, keep themselves intact and functioning. Inspiration most often begins with an inarticulate vision, not words. My work is deeply impacted by family; my personal and professional experience of the many years of teaching challenged individuals’ literature; art; playwrights Caryl Churchill, Suzan‐Lori‐Parks, Chay Yew, as well as Sarah Kane —  and the list could go on.

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

Art takes time.

Learning takes time. Leaps of faith and accomplishment are made in the connection of one art form to another. The potential for discovering hidden connections to learning for these students is incalculable. And that is the real crime: loss of potential. There is no greater crime committed by or perpetrated upon a child than the loss of his or her potential. Once the opportunity of education is squandered by or taken away from any individual, that individual will never know freedom. The arts are a national treasure.

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’d thank them for supporting the arts and women in the arts! I think I would have questions for them and hopefully they would have questions for me. There would be nothing more welcome than an open and far-reaching dialogue on the subject of our girls in today’s society.

Incarcerated boys came to see Count Down at a workshop production and afterward, on their way home in the van, boys who were profoundly moved by seeing the outcome of girls who had been abused, seen purely as sexual objects, opened up about their own lives. They expressed having a far deeper understanding of how abuse, verbal and physical, impacts behavior in boys and girls. These boys were ages 13 to 18, Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian. Abuse and neglect of children exists in every segment of our society. While the play addresses many serious issues, it is also filled with dance, movement, theater games, and truly funny moments that spring out of the girls’ resistance to an arts program. The boys saw themselves in these girls! I don’t think I would speak differently to boys or girls, men or women. Baby Boomers have grandchildren; Baby Boomers have been parents, teachers, social workers, artists. They will recognize the struggle of teaching and its unpredictable outcome. Millennials will see aspects of themselves in the ensemble of girls, whether male or female. For non-theater-goer — this is multidisciplinary, multiple art forms, including masks and movement, that is often raucous, furious and mean, joyous and shocking in its portrayal of a hidden part of our society.

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

Any opportunity for women to be heard is crucial to the well-being of our society, especially right now. There could be no better time for The Women’s Voices Theater Festival to be addressing the many issues that have gone unheard for so long. It is important for young girls to see women in the arts and realize that they too could be a playwright, an actor, a lighting or sound designer, a stage manager, and artistic director, and yes, a teaching artist reaching out to the underserved.

At this moment in time that is so rife with disrespect, willful ignorance, and an outright assault on values that we, as a nation, hold dear to us, The Women’s Voices Theater Festival allows women to be heard and to be an integral part of the momentum to resist ignorance, change silence to the full power of our voices. Women’s Voices Theater Festival offers  the opportunity for women to speak, be seen, and valued through their art.

Dominique Cieri (Playwright)
Dominique Cieri is the recipient of two Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Playwriting Fellowships. Her plays have been produced in New Jersey, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. She is a master teaching artist dedicated to her work with incarcerated young men, girls in group homes, learning-disabled students, and a Holocaust program, adapting over 20 Holocaust stories for the stage. Her arts and education essays have been published in the New York Times and Teaching Artist Journal.

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Wendy Graf: No Word in Guyanese For Me at Rainbow Theatre Project

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

Wendy: The first thing I’m always asked about my plays is, “What inspired you?” In No Word In Guyanese For Me I wrote of themes I return to again and again: family, identity, home. In much of my work these themes have played out against a backdrop of the social, political and religious landscape of our times. My original inspiration for the play initially grew out of a play I wrote in 2009, Behind the Gates, which asked some very hard questions about women’s cultural, sexual, and gender roles in Jewish orthodoxy and fundamentalism. That play led to more questions and an investigation of similar issues and themes in other orthodox, repressive societies — this time, the Muslim world. My dear friend and favorite actress is half Pakistani, so I started writing little scenes for her surrounding these themes, trying to explore these questions. It developed into No Word in Guyanese for Me. Additionally, at the time, I was also inspired by Heather Raffo’s play, Nine Parts of Desire, so I decided to try the solo show format. Incidentally, Raffo’s play Noura is in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as well, and I am staying over in DC especially to see it before I return to Los Angeles! Full circle!

Who/what are your influences as a playwright?

Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim (because his lyrics are really like little plays in themselves and I’ve devoured his two books, aspiring to “make a hat”). I’m inspired by the writing and direction of Moises Kaufman and also by the late Mike Nichols’s direction. Most importantly, my mentor, the late Gordon Davidson, director extraordinaire and Artistic Director of Center Theater Group for 35 years, still is my biggest theatrical influencer. My play Lesssons was the only play he directed after retiring from Center Theater Group. During that over two-year collaboration I learned so much from him — about theater, writing, character, dramatic structure, how to show rather than tell, how to be a storyteller, what needs to be said and what doesn’t, how to be brave and listen to my gut. Every single day I find his words and adages echoing in my head.

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

I am often asked, “What do you want the audience to take away?” I don’t presume to offer answers, only questions, vantage points where we can pause and ask, “What if?” I have no agenda for the audience other than to see the truth of human behavior and something of their own humanity. See what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes. To see something of themselves reflected in the characters and, without necessarily condoning or accepting them, to somehow understand their actions. I leave it up to the audience to answer the questions. I hope it will start conversations about why, and maybe if we can talk about why and try to understand, change will become possible.

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 say the same thing to all because the issues of the play are universal and eerily timely, even though it was written eight years ago. It speaks for those who have no voice and for those whose voice has been stifled and silenced. Ultimately the play is about faith. Faith in oneself, faith in forgiveness and keeping the faith when it refuses to keep you, and when all else fails. I would tell them the theater is dedicated to creating, developing, and producing daring new theatrical works that probe the social and political landscape of our time. With understanding comes change — and hope for a better future.

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

First, let me say I am incredibly honored to be part of this festival and among its celebrated playwrights and proud to be sponsored by the Rainbow Theatre Project and happy to be promoting their mission and values. To answer your question, I went back and looked at my original comments at the time of the World Premiere of No Words in 2011: “It’s a plea for understanding and tolerance at a time of fear and religious, moral, and political polarization. …This is the story of a young girl who, in the end, is forced to give her family a choice: accept her as a gay Muslim, or lose her forever.”

Sadly the issues explored in No Word are every bit as relevant today in the age of Trump as they were when I wrote it. One’s need to find their voice and not be afraid to use it; the religious, ethnic, and gender persecution of Muslims and “the Other”; humanity in our society; and civil, religious, and gender rights — every way challenged today just as they were in 2010, maybe more. #MeToo, #Time’sUp, the Muslim ban, immigrant animus, legitimized racism and white supremacists, attempts to roll back LGBTQ rights….could it be any more up to the minute?

Have we come so far, only to be back here again? Do we need to learn the lessons of equality and humanity over and over until we get it right? Hopefully, No Word in Guyanese for Me can play a small part in helping to get it right this time.

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Hope Villanueva: The Veils at Nu Sass Productions

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

Hope: I had been in a relationship with a man who was struggling with the transition out of being a Marine and back into civilian life. Not too long after, a friend suggested I write a comedy and I thought, “The opposite of a Marine is a girly bride.” The two ideas kinda merged together. My Marine, Mel, is a woman planning her wedding while she’s on leave, but still very much dealing with what she’s seen in Afghanistan.

I wish I could take credit for it being done now. It’s my first full production, so I’m grateful it’s happening at all. Though I’m glad it’s coming at a time where the emotional needs of our veterans is starting to come into focus.

Who/what are your influences as a playwright?

Paula Vogel did a week-long residence with my college playwriting class and I still credit her as being one the first people who put a real faith in me that I could do this. Her plays also spoke to me with her combination of humor and intense drama. I’m also a Stoppard fan and Arcadia is my favorite play ever. I also had a big soft spot for Stephen Deitz’s Lonely Planet and was lucky enough to meet him and have him note this play at The Discovery New Play Festival at Ball State University this past spring.

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

I hope that the piece lands on different levels. I want people to see Mel as a complete person, with strengths and weaknesses and romantic, platonic, and familial relationships. I think we’re coming to a place where audiences are going to demand that our women and our heroes aren’t cookie cut-outs anymore. And I while this play can go to a pretty dark place at times, I hope that it will also give optimism to people struggling with mental illness or PTSD that there is a light to be found.

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 don’t know if I would say different things by gender or background, though I might lean into the wedding/family drama part or the wartime/PTSD part of the story, depending on the background of the person I was talking to. I also like to remind people that it does have a fair amount of humor, despite the heavy overarching themes.

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

I think we’d needed the door kicked in for women, people of color, and other minority groups for a while, and what’s going on here in DC politically lit a fire under people’s butts. Groups that might have accepted the idea of waiting quietly for their turn are finding that they’re tired of waiting for the slow hand of progress and that things happening now are unacceptable. The Festival feeds that fire in a healthy way that moves us forward. We’re living through a moral and societal reckoning… my fingers are crossed.

More information on The Women’s Voices Theater Festival can be found online.