by Deep Tran
Keenan Scott II
Keenan Scott II is one of the 2020 NOW artists in residence for New York Stage and Film. He is the writer of the Broadway-bound play Thoughts of a Colored Man, which is about the emotional state of Black men in America. While in residence at NYSAF, Scott will work on a play called Migration LP, which is based on a one-person show he first performed in 2015.
Tell me about Migration LP.
A few years ago, I created a one-man-show called Black Cotton. I played seven different characters onstage. And after I was finished doing the one-man show, I felt that there was more I could do with some of these characters, because they were so rich. So I started to develop a whole world around these characters. And that eventually became the Migration LP. I kept the core of what I wanted to do with Black Cotton, which was to build empathy. And I wanted to build empathy by showing the evolution of the Black man through several decades in America, starting in the 1890s, right after the Emancipation Proclamation, into current times.
What I did with Migration LP is I connected some of the characters and I made them family. I wanted people to be able to see what happens when someone makes a decision for their family and how that affects that family, throughout generations. There's about seven people, and they each play about three characters.
I'm a performer first. So anything that I write, I like to be able to let actors really stretch their acting muscles, and really be able to sink their teeth into some work. So I like to write roles and situations in my story that can be challenging for performers, because I feel like that's when performers really arrive and are able to
do what they're trained to do.
Do you feel like a different artist now than you were when you created Black Cotton?
I've been performing and writing now for 18 years. Revisiting a piece like this that I performed five years ago, I'm a different person. I'm married now. I'm in a different space in life. And also, because I continuously work on my craft, I'm a better writer than I was five years ago. So now revisiting these characters, I look at them in a different way. And the way I develop characters, I do that in a different way because I've evolved in my craft. So it's definitely slightly different than working on it when I first originated these characters years ago.
As an artist, how does it feel that something you created years ago can continue to be relevant?
I started writing Thoughts of a Colored Man back around 2006, 2007. I always want my work to be timely, because that means it could grow and evolve and touch lives throughout generations. But there are certain things that I spoke on 13 years ago that are still issues today. What has happened this year, particularly with Breonna Taylor, with George Floyd.... What inspired me to write Thoughts of a Colored Man was that Sean Bell was killed in my neighborhood in Queens. And that was going on 13-14 years ago. I wish that some issues that I tackle and touch on and speak about, I wish that they wouldn't be relevant. I hope that a lot of those issues will be tackled. But I'm very happy to see the protests. I hope that we don't let off the gas regardless of what happens with this [presidential] administration. My work is a form of protest for myself, because I always want to build empathy—I always want to create great, full-bodied characters that exist in African Diaspora because normally, we are painted as monoliths. So my goal in my work has always been to dispel that.
Has creating during this time been difficult for you, because you can’t collaborate in person?
I've never had the luxury of being in situations where there’s an ideal writing or creation situation—I've always had to create them for myself. There's a place that I've created within myself in my mind where I go when I create. So during this time, it's been great to be able to kind of shut off the world, so to speak, because we had no choice. And having this kind of extra time, or to figure out how to utilize this time, for me artistically has been great. I've been able to really, really just up my level of production and execution with the things that I'm creating.
So this time has really helped me out because I've been able to spend more time with my family. And I've really been able to focus, hone in, and really realize my voice. So often I have different projects and different stages—where I work on it, then I don't look at it again for months. But during this time, I've really been able to lay out my work, and really see all of it at the same time, which really empowered me to be able to see my artistic voice like I've never seen it before. And it really enabled me to see my voice and what I'm doing as an artist all at once. So it's really been empowering for me during this time. I feel like my voice actually has gotten stronger during this time.
by Sarah Rebell
Estefanía Fadul is a director whose fresh, experimental work uses theatrical storytelling to respond to the current socio-political and cultural narrative. The inaugural recipient of New York Stage and Film (NYSAF)’s Pfaelzer Award, Fadul is currently developing two projects supported by NYSAF, Carla’s Quince and Agent 355. I recently spoke with Fadul about the importance of building community through theatre, what the pandemic has taught her about accessibility, the types of stories she is driven to tell, and more.
Let’s begin by talking about your current projects, Carla’s Quince, Agent 355, and La Paloma Prisoner.
Carla's Quince was a devised piece to mobilize Latinx voters to the polls. We finished performances last month; now, I'm starting to think about how the piece can be a tool for civic engagement. Agent 355, the other piece supported by NYSAF, is a musical about the unidentified female member in George Washington's spy ring during the Revolutionary War. The energy of it is radically joyful. We've been able to keep developing it during the pandemic. La Paloma Prisoner is a total passion project. The play takes place in a jail in Bogotá, Colombia. It's an ensemble cast of really complex women who have to find ways to get past their differences to see their common humanity. The play is a catalyst for change in criminal justice reform.
Can you elaborate on your belief that the pandemic might lead to more audience accessibility?
We were actively fundraising for Carla’s Quince. The goal was to tour the piece.
But with the pandemic, we were able to transcend geographic barriers and be in rooms with people around the world. Accessibility barriers have come down during the pandemic. How can we connect with people across distances when live theatre returns?
Carla's Quince is an immersive theatrical piece. How did that aspect translate into the virtual experience of Zoom?
We used Zoom in very unexpected ways. We played with how breakout rooms could be used, how audiences could still have that journey in groups and come back together in different ways. It was important not to ignore the fact that were on Zoom, but to actually use it to its full, creative potential.
Carla’s Quince looks at America in the present moment, while Agent 355 looks back at the early revolutionary period. Has working on these two projects simultaneously impacted your own viewpoint on this country?
Agent 355 looks at the unknown individuals who sacrificed and put their lives on the line. I think it's very similar to now; it's ultimately up to each of us to decide what we stand for. I think that's a thread in both plays. We’re thinking about how we can use this moment to transform systems and structures to create an equitable world where human rights are upheld.
In your bio, you describe your work as “socially conscious storytelling.” What does that mean to you? What stories are you drawn to tell?
My work is inherently political. For me, it’s important to ask: “why this piece now?” I'm drawn to things that feel like part of a larger conversation. I'm also drawn to characters that we don't often see on stage, stories of complex women or non-cis men. As a Latina, I'm drawn to stories of Latinx folks, stories that are not represented, or are misrepresented, in our mainstream cultural narrative.
You’re the recipient of NYSAF’s Pfaelzer Award, which enabled you to focus on Carla's Quince and Agent 355. What was it like to receive this award?
It was pretty amazing to find out; it was a total surprise. The support and belief from New York Stage and Film is incredible. My first assistant directing job was at NYSAF, and my first internship was at NYSAF. It feels really special to cycle back to that relationship. They've been such a big part of my artistic development.
How can we continue to use theater to build community when live theater returns?
People have recently returned to making more local theater, in communication with their communities. The possibilities and conversations within those communities can be richer, and lead to actual change. It's my hope, as we move forward, that we can imagine and enact the world that we wish to see.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Juan Michael Porter II is an arts & culture journalist. He has written for TheBody, Observer, TDF Stages, American Theatre Magazine, Time Out New York, SYFY Wire, AMC Outdoors, and Anti-Racism Daily.
Sandra Tsing Loh
She’s an award-winning writer, a New York Times notable author, and acclaimed performer, but more than any title adorning her creative crown, Sandra Tsing Loh is an innovative thinker who craves authentic connection. Recently she sat down with New York Stage and Film to discuss her 2020 experience and how she’s using her latest book, The Madwoman and the Roomba, to create intimate one-on-one engagements with fans.
Sandra Tsing Loh: I do these COVID-safe curbside pickups out of my garage where somebody meets me in their car. We’re in masks and gloves; I give them a signed book and Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler, and we chat in half hour appointments.
JMPII: I’m feeling really jealous right now.
STL: It’s really fantastic! Over the years I’ve had people say hello to me after performances, but we’ve never really talked. When I was a performance artist, I had this impulse to try to connect to people in one-on-one happenings. Right now you can’t do that except on Twitter. So I started making mail art and sending books to people along with these fabulous “goddess” yoga pants.
JMPII: Why “Goddess”?
STL: In my book, I talk about having my 57th birthday. So instead of “Happy Birthday”, it’s “Happy Goddess Day”. Goddess being the term for ladies of a
and maybe a certain hip-width. So it’s like, “I’m not fat; I’m goddess-y”.
JMPII: I want a pair.
STL: Give me your address! I’ll send you a pair; they’re unisex.
JMPII: I will. You’ve made an amazing career out of being flexible as a performer and creator. Have you ever felt like someone was trying to hold you back?
STL: In my early 30s, CBS asked me to write a sitcom. I'd done two Off-Broadway solo shows and I thought I'd get to be in it. Maybe not the star or wacky best friend, but if it’s like Cheers, I figured I should at least get to be the 11th guy to the right at the bar who says, “Hacky Sacky” or something because I wanted my face to be in it. But Les Moonves said, “No. She can’t.” It was like, "Sandra, you're trying to make tea and this is a coffee maker. You can't do both.” That happens to a lot of women, especially from my generation. We’re always being left holding the bag or being blamed for something.
JMPII: Where do you think that comes from?
STL: I think it's sometimes that people don't like their moms, and they want to call them out, but they can’t so they go after us instead.
JMPII: What’s something you’ve learned recently.
STL: It’s about the use of pronouns. I was told that I could refer to myself as she, him, mother or father. If I could choose another pronoun, instead of mother, I would say, I'm your father. Because I'm a shitty mother, and I'm a fantastic father.
JMPII: What are your hopes for yourself in the future?
STL: I want to write about my experience without trying to make it about anything other than my experience, in this time and place. I want to create work that is honest and that shows how universal the human experience can be. I want to create language that brings us together; not language that splits people apart.
Here’s to a future with more work from Sandra Tsing Loh, accompanied by “goddess” yoga pants with delicious wine coolers on the side.
By Andy Lefkowitz @andylefkowitz
Monet Hurst-Mendoza, a dynamic playwright who had an NYSAF mentorship, has kept busy over the past several months despite the shutdown of theaters caused by COVID-19. Hurst-Mendoza, who is also a staff writer for Law and Order: SVU, spoke with NYSAF about the play that landed her that TV-writing day job, the sold-out phone opera she recently collaborated on, and the Zoom production of one of her plays that allowed both of her parents to be audience members from afar.
Have you remained busy artistically during the pandemic?
Yes. So I’m currently a staff writer for Law and Order: SVU. So a lot of my projects lately have been related to my day job, which is writing for television, for that show. And then I’m also working on a play about immigration, and that was something I did with New York Stage and Film as part of their mentorship program with Migdalia Cruz. The play is inspired by this silent retreat that I took with Erik Ehn two years ago now. I started writing it there. It is a play about identity and what it means to be Latinx in the American theater, and it’s also commenting on immigration in the United States.
Backing up a bit, how did you get involved in Law and Order: SVU?
I transitioned into television writing to sort of support my playwriting habit, if that makes sense. I told my agents that I really wanted to make that transition. I met with an executive at NBC in Los Angeles, and it was my play Blind Crest that caught their attention. It’s a play about a man on death row and a female prison guard who make a pregnancy pact—and it’s inspired by a true story. The executive really liked it and was like, “I’m going to pass this on to our showrunner, Warren
Leight, who’s a playwright.” He won a Tony for Side Man in 1999. Anyway, I met with Warren maybe a week later, and it was a great, great conversation. I got the job a few weeks later, and I’ve been there ever since.
Since the pandemic began, have you taken part in any social distance–related theater?
I actually had a phone opera that just premiered in the United States and then transferred to Australia. It’s a Beethoven song cycle about love. I’d never written for an opera before, but basically the actors would call [the audience] and be like, “I’m about to sing now.” And I would do a little bit of dialogue with them, and it was interesting for the opera performers also, because it required them to do a little bit of improv, as well. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it in the future, but it seemed to be really popular here. It sold out and extended three times.
Several plays have been produced on Zoom throughout this pause in theater production. Have any of your plays gone that route?
I did do a Zoom play. Saudade Theatre in Los Angeles, it’s a Portuguese theater, they did a ten-minute play I had written a couple years prior. It’s called Work It Bitch, A Girl’s Guide to Code-Switching in the Workplace. It’s about colorism and code-switching in an office setting. We rehearsed it over Zoom, and they performed it over Zoom. And I forgot about this, that both my mother and my father were able to attend separately through Zoom. They were able to watch it on their phone. My parents are separated, or divorced rather. But my mother was able to watch it from her home. My dad was able to watch it from his home. And they both had conversations with me about it afterwards, something that they would not have been able to do prior to this. So that was powerful.
Jose Solís is a Honduran cultural critic/art lover/activist/dog person based in NYC. @josesolismayen
Brian Quijada & Nygel D. Robinson
Creation can sometimes happen by kismet. Bryan Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson met in February of 2020, attending a workshop organized by a mutual friend. Fascinated by Quijada’s talk about looping, Robinson approached him. Two weeks later they were jamming together. Robinson mentioned something he’d read about “an underground railroad that went South to Mexico.” Here they talk about the project born from that meeting.
What is Mexodus?
Brian Quijada: Mexodus is a reverse border story done as a 12 song musical, with one song released each month over the span of a year. I was interested in it because the education system failed me.
Nygel D. Robinson: Every time we tell someone about it they think they know about the railroad but they have no idea.
How has the pandemic changed your artistic process?
Nygel D. Robinson: I call us Dr. Frankenstein, Brian came up with the idea to do it out of chronology and do one song from each section each month. So I come up with 16 bars of this thing, and Brian says he wrote this thing too, we're creating motifs. It's an interesting formula, and a formula nonetheless.
Brian Quijada: Creating in quarantine is strange. Even the highest internet speed doesn't allow for two people to be able to jam. But it’s also alone time and sending files back and forth has actually proved to be quite effective.
What’s it like to work on a musical out of order?
Brian Quijada: It’s bananas to write like this but the liberty of doing it like this is that at the end we'll have all these tracks, and we'll see how they kind of flow as a complete thing. We'll use that as source material to put the musical up on its feet.
As BIPOC artists in America is the project in a way also an exploration of your roots?
Nygel D. Robinson: I was just thinking that this story mirrors right now, or at least what needs to happen right now. Because it's about unity between different types of brown people. No one had to help any runaway slaves. It's just interesting to me that another country, opened up themselves to another oppressed people when they were already oppressed by that one country. I think we're doing a service to our ancestors for even talking about it.
Brian Quijada: When George Floyd was murdered we bonded together, just like when kids were being caged, it was a Black woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty. It’s been interesting to work on a story that’s about lifting up.
What has your experience working with NYSAF been like?
Brian Quijada: We’re theatre-makers learning so much about film because they asked us: what do you need? Our films are getting more intricate, by the end we’re gonna be in costumes and everything.
Nygel D. Robinson: They’re supporting us in making something that means something. They’re hands-off. They’re just fans, parents and fans, we love.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in Los Angeles. He writes a weekly film newsletter.
Haitian-American playwright Phanésia Pharel is staying busing during quarantine. For one thing, she’s creating new worlds for her characters to live in. From the age of 15, Pharel has been writing and publishing the kinds of plays that push the American theater toward a deeper understanding of humanity. In 2020, amplifying that humanity through exuberant plays like Black Girl Joy and her newest work for New York Stage and Film, Lucky. These plays about Black women, however, are not meant as morality plays. They’re not meant to be redemptive. Instead, they’re meant to break viewers out of complacency and address the reality of living in a world that doesn’t believe in the humanity of the “other.” I spoke to Pharel about her work with New York Stage and Film, America’s toxic political climate, and the playwright’s very generative year.
Tell me about how COVID has changed your relationship to writing and creating.
It’s been a generative year, which is interesting. I take long breaks from Twitter, but something I think about a lot is like, “you don’t have to be super productive and feeding into capitalism all the time.” And there’s a lot to that, but also, I’m a first-generation Caribbean American girl who grew up working class. Taking breaks is really hard for me. Burnout is something I’ve dipped into, not all the way, but it’s been really rough. I’ve been trying to take care of myself. I almost lost my grandmother this year. I lost a mentor. I’ve experienced housing insecurity. It’s been a crazy year, but then also because people started paying more attention to Black Lives Matter, I’ve gotten more opportunities than I ever have as an artist, which is great. It’s very morbid why, but it’s great.
I try to make the work a space. I’ve been mentored by the playwright Chiara Atik, and she told me, “just write something that will make you happy. Make writing a space of joy.” Through doing that, I’ve gotten a lot of writing done, because I shifted the way I thought about it.
I’ve grown up with a lot of fear. I was taught as a kid that I needed to overcompensate because like, who would want just “me,” right? The whole “you have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have.” It’s systemic racism, and it’s also a way of teaching kids to overcompensate.
Totally. You internalize it and it becomes part of you.
If you’ve grown up with any identity that isn’t upheld by colonialism and the hetero-patriarchy, it does. I did hit rock bottom at one point emotionally, and I started reading Brene Brown and people like that. I thought, okay, maybe shame isn’t something I should be existing in. The place I write from now, it’s not about what other people want. It’s about writing something I’m interested in, but also making sure I have something I need to say about it. Like, if you don’t have something to say on what you’re writing, there are plenty of people out there who do, and they should have a chance to speak.
Your plays Black Girl Joy and Lucky are so stylistically different-- can you talk a bit about the writing process for them?
Writing Lucky was a mindfuck. Black Girl Joy just came so easily, it flowed out of me. But the first draft of Lucky was perfectly imperfect. I was so focused on making an aesthetically pleasing play, but I think I didn’t create enough statements when I first wrote it. But I think the waitress character was my device of discovering the piece. I was like, oh cool, she’s writing a book about this girl, and it came from there.
What do you find yourself writing about now?
I’m writing about things I want to imagine. The world is very scary right now for most people in different ways. I think about the 55% of white women who voted for Trump, and I'm like, well doesn't that scare you at all? But maybe they’re hiding behind their own whiteness. Growing up as a young Black girl and a Black woman, I’ve never personally felt that a man can protect me.
It’s interesting to see it play out over this past election.
I’m happy Biden won because it means that Trump lost. But there are so many people who are like, “normality is going to come back.” And that’s a fantasy of its own. A fantasy of white liberalism. People want to half-ass progress.
When you consulted on a production of The Great Gatsby at Columbia, you noted that conversations about colorism hadn’t been mainstreamed yet, and now they’re starting to be. How has that changed things?
I think what’s weird about it is that it makes you feel like your identity is a trend. And humanity is not a trend. For me, pronouns are a larger conversation about humanity. Colorism is a conversation about humanity. When I was at Columbia, there was a reason why all of the actors cast were half-white. It’s because white people don’t want to fully address people of color. They want to see themselves in them before they can address their humanity. So they’ll take bits of what you’re saying as a consultant and maybe put a token dark-skinned person in their show, but they’re not going to look at the actual structural racism that’s there. Anyone can do a show about Black people as part of a trend, but like, A Raisin in the Sun is not a fucking trend. We’re going to be talking about it 300 years from now, even if housing and equity are not as racialized. We’ll still have something to say about it, because it’s a good play.
That’s what I realized this year. If a play is good enough, you’re doing justice to the things you’re talking about. Right now, I’m interested in pushing past that fake, liberal, on-the-surface conversation of making people comfortable. I’m like, let’s talk about poor people. Let’s talk about people who exist at the intersection of poverty and immigration and all of these things. People that I grew up around, people in my family. Part of why I feel entitled to write about those things is because these are the people that raised me. It's a reflection of me. I’ve stopped saying, “who’s going to want to see this play?” Because I don’t care. I’m still going to write it.
by Gordon Cox
Gordon Cox is the contributing theater editor at Variety and the host of the Stagecraft podcast.
Tommy Crawford, Alex Grubbs
How do you make a musical during a pandemic? The three creators of the new musical “Miss Mitchell” -- playwright Kristin Slaney and composer-lyricists Tommy Crawford and Alex Grubbs, both members of the band The Lobbyists -- spoke to Gordon Cox (over Zoom, of course!) about the challenges and unexpected joys of collaborating in the era of social distance.
How has the pandemic changed the development process of “Miss Mitchell”?
KRISTIN SLANEY: Obviously being in person is always going to be the more ideal thing, but I did find, when we were working over Zoom, that it was very useful for me to hear the play in a different kind of way. To turn off my camera and pretend I’m not in the room, versus being very much being a presence in the room, as the playwright.
ALEX GRUBBS: I’ve found it a real challenge as a writer-composer, especially because Tommy and I, in our band The Lobbyists, do so much work together. I rely a lot on Tommy and other members of the band to help me understand what a song is going to sound like. So it’s been a real pivot for us to say: Okay, we’re going to have to learn how to help each other out in different ways.
TOMMY CRAWFORD: Making demos has become a huge part of the process, more than it used to be. Working on “Miss Mitchell” over Zoom, we decided that we would do a script-focused reading, really honing the character’s journeys, and we incorporated the music by using the demos. But we didn’t do anything with underscoring, because you can’t play music and speak simultaneously over Zoom.
How has the era of social distancing influenced your own personal routine as an artist?
KS: There is a definite difference now, because theater is a team sport. I’m part of this group of playwrights and writers that get on Zoom every day from nine to twelve. I usually turn off my camera, and we’re all on mute. It’s just silent, but it’s kind of an accountability thing. It’s an extension of what used to be this group of playwrights that used to get together in physical rooms and do the same thing. I’ve found it integral to my own personal sanity!
TC: In the middle of the summer my wife and I moved from Manhattan to Astoria, so that gave me the opportunity to set up a little bit of a home studio. That’s crucial right now.
AG: Something that I hadn’t realized how much I’m missing, or maybe I haven’t allowed myself the space and time to really mourn, is that part of being a New York theater artist is not only the work that you get the opportunity to make, but it’s also the work that, in normal times, you get the opportunity to see. Whenever I hear now about people making things that are new, there’s a part of me that’s just sad, like “Ah, it’s too bad I won’t get to see that live on stage.” There’s a weird sort of pain that goes with that.
How has this time made you think differently about your work and the kinds of stories you’re interested in telling?
AG: Everything that’s happening, particularly in the American theater, with the refocusing on the way that we approach whiteness, and on our white supremacy default -- that’s certainly affected the kind of work we’re doing, going forward. It really is a line in the sand, for me personally and the group The Lobbyists, and it has us asking questions about this project that we weren’t asking when we started.
KS: It’s definitely influenced the piece. For our main character, one factor that underlies her achievements is the fact that she was a white woman, and it was integral to her being able to accomplish everything she did. That’s an awareness we’ve been working to infuse in the piece, along with this idea of fighting not just for yourself but for others. And we’re still asking the questions about how race factors into this play more broadly.
What other projects have been able to work on during this time?
AG: We’ve started a podcast series called Lobbycast. It’s a great way to keep tapped into each other and to keep our ideas generating,
TC: It’ll be a mix of audio plays, like little mini-musicals, but also song sharing, song circles, interviews. We’re trying to look at it as a pretty holistic series that can have a bunch of different types of episodes.
KS: I’ve been working on a lot of different plays and also a few different film projects. I do think there has been a major realignment for me in terms of what are the things I actually want to be working on. There’s something about this time that forces that question on you: What are my values, and how can I infuse my work with the things that I want to see in the world?
What are you most looking forward to being able to do, once we’re all able to gather safely again?
TC: Playing music with other people in a room!
AG: Singing together is more than performance. It’s more than even an occupation; it borders on an avocation. It’s a calling. It belongs on a whole different plane. It’s a very healing process, just getting together and singing.
KS: The thing I can’t wait for is that feeling of being in an audience when you’re really excited about what’s about to happen. That feeling right before the lights come up, and also right at the end, when you’re left with what you just saw. I just miss experiencing things with other people! The community of that, and the group feeling. I miss it so much. I really do.
by Andy Lefkowitz
Christina Quintana (CQ)
The pause in live theater production caused by COVID-19 has created challenges and unexpected developments for artists worldwide. For Christina Quintana, a.k.a. “CQ”—a rising playwright who had a micro-mentorship through NYSAF—the pandemic has given her the time to rethink one of her plays for the audio landscape and produce Zoom readings to support COVID-related charities. Quintana took some time to chat about how the pandemic has readjusted her slate of projects but kept her optimistic about what lies ahead.
What projects are you currently working on?
As of now, I’m doing a lot toward television, film, podcast stuff. But I also got a commission through the Audible Emerging Playwrights program. The funny thing is, I’ve been thinking a lot about adapting a play that I had worked on with The Lark, which actually was when I was coming on board with New York Stage and Film. So I spoke to Kay Richardson, who’s a really fabulous sound designer. As we were talking about it I was kind of thinking about this play and how it might live as a pod, like as a piece for the ear, because it sort of has that sense. The play is about this sanitation worker who is in the midst of deciding whether to transition and it’s very kind of rhythmic. And I think there’s a lot of it that just sort of feels like it could really lend itself to the audio format. So, that’s been really fun.
The Audible program is so interesting because it reminds me of radio plays, which used to be popular back in the day. It’s kind of neat to see writers revisiting that format.
It’s so true. I feel like podcasts on their own, before COVID hit, were really starting to become a huge thing. And right now it’s exciting to see how so many
playwrights are taking to the form because it does lend itself [to audio]. I’m part of the Writers Guild and there’s been this whole movement within to really amplify podcasts so people who are writing them can hopefully eventually get Guild credit, which would be great. There are so many playwrights who are writing for television, writing across form. I’m part of the listserv and it’s kind of amazing, every day I feel like somebody else is introducing themselves like, “Hey, this is what I’m working on.”
Speaking of television, I know that you wrote a pilot, Invisible Lily, which received a lot of acclaim, and that you were also a staff writer on ABC’s Baker and the Beauty. I love seeing when writers are working across mediums.
I think some of the most exciting television is happening through playwrights. I was just watching the She’s Gotta Have It adaptation on Netflix and so many great playwrights wrote for it. I mean, it was like Lynn Nottage, Antoinette Nwandu. Invisible Lily is a dystopian drama, very different from Baker and the Beauty. But I think one of the exciting things about this moment for writers is that we can actually stretch ourselves and be a lot of different things. All the time, I hear writers, especially television writers who were in the business for a long time, say that it used to be like, if you were a drama person, you did drama, if you were a comedy person, you did comedy. And I think it’s an exciting moment that now there’s so much more flexibility. There are so many poets writing novels, writing YA books. There are essayists in writers rooms. And I think it’s going to make all of the forms stronger.
I know that you’re also an accomplished writer of prose and poetry. Has the pandemic afforded you with added time or inspiration on that front?
It’s actually been a really great time for me in terms of writing both prose and poetry. I co-run this reading series with two other great writers. One is the author Tim Murphy, and the other is a poet, Jerome Murphy. Funnily enough, no relation, they just have the same last name. It’s specifically an all-genre, all-queer reading series that we run out of the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division. So, when COVID started, Tim was like, “What if we did the next event on Zoom?” Since then we’ve done five events as fundraisers for different organizations that have been helping throughout the pandemic. And that has been, I have to say, one of the saving graces for me with everything going on. Because it’s felt like the closest thing to a live experience.
Elysa Gardner is a contributor to The New York Times and Town & Country and the host of Broadway Direct's podcast Stage Door Sessions @ElysaGardner
Kirya Traber was a rising poet when, while still in her 20s, she was drawn to theater. The writer, performer and self-described cultural worker, who is the winner of NYSAF’s Founders Award this year, has since garnered commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center Education, WNET Thirteen, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Ping Chong & Company. Also a podcaster and PBS host, Traber has been nominated for a New York Emmy Award and received an Astrea Foundation Award for poetry and a Sundance Foundation Award for Activism in the Arts. Creativity runs deep in her blood: “Both my great-grandmothers on both sides were artists, and my grandmother and mother are artists,” Traber notes. “Art is really valued in my family—so much so that I tried to avoid it for a while. But it found me.”
Tell us about Lucky, the play you’re developing.
Lucky is set in Northern California in the late '90s, and it's loosely based on my own childhood experiences, as a queer Black girl with a white mom in a small white town in a really unique niche cultural environment - that is Northern California in the center of the weed economy, before weed was legal. It takes place the summer that Lucky, a Black boy, wanders through town, and Lucky and the main character meet. A stranger comes to town, and who knows what'll happen next.
Chrysalis is another project you’ve been working on at NYSAF; could you describe it for us?
The full title is Chrysalis: A Black Healing Project. It’s not a play or a production; it’s a leap of faith. It came out of an invitation from Chris (Burney) and Liz (Carlson,
respectively Artistic Director and Artistic Producer of NYSAF); they asked if I wanted to do something by and for Black artists. It was within a week or so of George Floyd's murder. My first slap in the face with the reality of police brutality was with Oscar Grant in Oakland, 2009, so I've been on this pony ride before; my first thought was not, what is facing the broader country at this moment, but, what do I want to do for Black people who’ve been organizing for racial justice, who need a moment to care for ourselves, and each other? I pitched the idea to pair Black theater artists and Black healers for one-on-one peer mentoring—to ask, what do we have to offer each other? What does Black healing look like in this moment? I'm not sure what's going to come next, but it’s been very rewarding.
How has the pandemic had an impact on your work?
I think that once we get past the trauma and horror of this moment, there’s a little bit about it that’s freeing. Freeing me to connect with people regardless of where they live, freeing me not to worry about the end goal as much, freeing all of us to be interested in craft and purpose and intention in genuine ways that are not beholden to any commercial box office deadline.
You define yourself as a theater artist and a cultural worker. What does each of those terms mean to you, and do they inform each other?
In my later teens and early college years, I was part of an organizing culture. In a very organic way art and community organizing were integrated for me from the beginning. At an early point it seemed like there would have to be a choice, but with all the social movements I've seen I know how the two co-exist. The term “culture worker” comes from Audre Lorde and June Jordan, Black womanist scholars. That is a movement started by my foremothers, and now I stand in that lineage.
You’ve said you find your work through your body, and yet language has clearly always has been central to your work. How do you reconcile the physical and the verbal?
You've unwittingly stumbled into a big existential question in my life. Again, it's a false dichotomy; there's not a war between the two. But—I'm so comfortable in my head, so comfortable with the word. I'm a facilitator as well, an organizer, someone who is led by political thought. There’s a lot of careful word choice. But on a very personal level, I've been the most transformed by moments in which I'm forced to be in my body. When I have the opportunity to play in that space, so much discovery happens.
Could you identify a common thread that runs through your writing?
I care a lot about character. As a person who holds a lot of marginalized identities, my first reason to write was to reflect myself where I didn't see myself reflected. There was that impetus. I want to write Black people, I want to write queer people, I want to write angry people. I want to write what I feel. But I’m also, being a nerd, really interested in research and history and archive and interview.
You were working on a musical based on a historical figure when COVID-19 struck.
Yes, If This Be Sin. I've had a long romance in my mind with Gladys Bentley, a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance. In the '30s, at her peak, she would wear a white suit with tails and a top hat and a cane and sing raunchy ballads, with a chorus of drag queens behind her. She was so bawdy that she would be censored today. Then in the 1950s, she wrote an essay in Ebony Magazine called “I Am A Woman Again,” about conforming into Christianity and wifehood, in a straight marriage. Scholars would tell you her essay was more an attempt to avoid the blacklist and scrutiny under McCarthyism, but it's probably not quite that cut and dry— like much of history if you really dig into it.
How did you connect with New York Stage and Film?
Liz and I knew each other from when I was a collaborating artist with Naked Angels, and right as the pandemic hit she was emailing artists, just checking in with people, and she said something that was a lifeboat for me at the time, about (NYSAF) being a process-centered company. I’ve always thought process is so important, and to hear her say that was like a lightning bolt. A couple of weeks later she and Chris invited me to be the Founders Award recipient, and what has meant is a lot of generosity and a lot of brainstorming about what might be useful in this moment – and a lot of saying yes.