She’s talking and laughing with the girl behind the counter when I walk into the coffee shop. Traffic has threatened to make me late, and I’m feeling a little frazzled, but she turns to me with a smile that is so sunny that any anxiety evaporates on contact. Mona Z. Smith is a delight to be around.
We take our coffee to a corner table and start chatting like old friends, almost before I can get my phone set up to record. Mona was a journalist before becoming a playwright, an old hat at interviews (admittedly a part of the above-mentioned anxiety), so we start with how that came to be.
MZS: I grew up in a town of 62 people. One main street, with no stop lights or stop signs. But there was a weekly newspaper. I was the manager for the baseball team, mostly because, in a town that small, you’re related to almost everyone, and I wanted to get out and meet other people. The editor of the paper didn’t want to go to all the games all over, so he said “Hey, you keep the stats anyway, do you want to start writing stories, I’ll pay you ten bucks a story.” Which was huge money back then!
From there I went to the University of Nebraska, which has a fabulous journalism program. I had some great mentors there and ended up, right after graduation, at the Miami Herald. My first ever plane ride was out to Miami. My first story was the execution of a teenager whose body was found floating in a canal – it was the cocaine wars. This was the early 1980’s. It was not at all like Miami Vice. It was ugly and not safe, and I was one of six police reporters, by far the most junior, so I was working the late-night shifts. So it was pretty grueling training, especially for someone who was from a town of sixty-two people. But I was in my twenties, young, stupid and brave. After almost four years I decided I needed to take a break. I just got tired of writing about all the horrible things that human beings are capable of doing. So I told my boss I wanted to take a sabbatical. We arranged for me to be gone for three months and I went to Paris for four years. Never went back to the Herald. And that’s where I discovered the theatre.
GLB: Why Paris?
MZS: There were various issues involved, including a guy. I think we were both running away from various things at the time, looking for a cool-off period. He was there to write the great American novel. I thought I would just be stringing for various newspapers while I was there, but I met these actors, and they really changed my perspective. I saw everything I possibly could while I was there. Art and architecture and theatre. I soaked it up like a dried out old sponge. I had never been exposed to these things in my tiny town. It was a shining moment to see all of the good things that human beings are capable of creating. And I thought that I couldn’t go back to writing about all the horrible things. Not that theatre doesn’t take that up, but there’s just something so positive about the act of creation, even when you’re dealing with some of the darker forces in human nature. It just felt like where I needed and wanted to be.
After four years, we found ourselves expecting a baby, and so we moved back to the States. So suddenly I was a new mom, which is certainly an act of creativity too, and managing to write and get ready to apply to Columbia Graduate School of the Arts. My daughter was ten months old when I started that three-year program to retrain myself as a playwright.
Pretty quickly, I realized that that was not a great pathway to making money. Things between me and my baby’s father weren’t going well, and I was looking at being a single mom with a career in the arts. So I went to the head of my department and told him that I needed some kind of work study, so that I would have the skills to get a job when I graduated. I ended up working at Second City for two years, and then in my third year Andrei Serban invited me to come work on a production of Tales of Hoffman at the Vienna Opera House. That experience helped me figure out how to be a practicing artist, have a career, be a single parent and somehow make it work. I leveraged that experience in non-profit administration to have a series of jobs for about twenty years and continued to write books and plays on the side. It’s not easy, especially as a woman. We tend to end up having to manage not only children but extended family, juggling all of those plates. But I managed to get a new play up every four to five years. Which seems like forever, especially when I watched younger, unencumbered, unattached writers who seemed to put out a new play every year. And I was jealous sometimes. But my daughter needed to come first.
I’m someone, I still have one foot in that 1960’s traditional world that I grew up in, and then the world that I’m also trying to inhabit, that says “it’s perfectly fine for you to be a playwright, pursue a career, be a creative. There’s a quote by Mary Oliver that I really love:
My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
GLB: Your work is really about big things. There’s a lot of research that goes into it. What draws you to that?
MZS: I think that’s informed by my initial career as a journalist. Even though it’s important to me to not write about the horrible things that people can do, I’m very aware that from the moment I started writing plays I was writing about the human condition, and often our failings, specifically where our American democracy falls short of its ideals. That goes back to early inspirations. I wouldn’t have been a journalist if I hadn’t lived through Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were superheroes to me. I feel that one of the roles of an artist is to be the Greek chorus, to call attention, and say, in a beautiful, compelling way, “we need to examine this. We need to look at our mistakes.” We should come out of the theatre feeling changed, and emboldened to make courageous choices and to ask others to live up to the ideals we all share as citizens of a democracy. That’s patriotism to me.
Sometimes I’m writing outside of culture. For instance, I wrote a book about Canada Lee, a Black actor and activist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and whose death was attributed to that blacklisting. And I wrote a play about Japanese American soldiers during World War Two, and the racism they faced. But I have chosen to do that on occasions where I felt like the story really deserved wider attention and just wasn’t getting it.
GLB: What are you working on now?
MZS: My current project is actually the first full-length play I wrote in graduate school, Fire in a Dark House. But I picked it up again because it’s about anti-immigrant fervor during World War One. It looks at the impact of that on two families in a small town on the Great Plains. It’s based partly on research I’ve done into my own family history, one side of which is German American. It looks at the effects of propaganda and media in terms of shaping that anti-immigrant sentiment, so it’s really a timely piece. I actually did my first television pitch for this project, with my long-time collaborator and writing partner on this project, Traci Mariano, to a room full of people my daughter’s age. I was so nervous, but I did it, because I never want to stop learning!
GLB: So you start with a big idea, like the Japanese American battalion, for instance. And obviously in the case of your current project you had a personal connection, but when you don’t, how do you break it down and make it personal, make it theatre?
MZS: I do a lot of interviews and listen to a lot of oral histories, so that I can hear people talking about their stories in their own language. And then I read and research and try to immerse myself until I land on a story, a voice, a circumstance, a plot point. Something I know I can build around. Something that feels close to me, that I can live with for a while. Because if it doesn’t really touch you, then how are you going to live with it for, in my case, the four or five years it takes to get a project done, working nights and weekends and when my kids are in bed. Which is when it gets done.
Fire in a Dark House will be read on October 26th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre in Peekskill (more information in the link).
I love living in the Hudson Valley. It’s beautiful. It’s full of inspiration. The people are interesting and the food is fantastic. So why, when I think about submitting my work, do I not think of starting at home? Well, for one thing…maybe it’s the only thing: ignorance. I don’t know what’s up here, what’s available to me as a playwright. And maybe it’s a little about insecurity, too. Maybe it’s easier to picture rejection from some faraway theatre that I’ll probably never see anyway, than from somewhere in my own backyard. And then there’s our proximity to the epicenter of American Theatre, New York City. Everything must funnel to and from there, right?
It turns out that that’s a common misperception. And Dominic D’Andrea is trying to do something about that. He’s the new (and first) Hudson Valley Regional Ambassador for the Dramatists Guild (DG). He has the job only because he asked the question: who represents the Hudson Valley? “You, if you want it,” was the answer. Now he’s on a mission.
D’Andrea gathered Hudson Valley playwrights, actors and dramaturgs (both DG members and non-members) in July for a four-hour convening, “…the DG’s very first endeavor to bring together the vast community of playwrights living and working in the entire Hudson Valley area, from Yonkers to the Capital Region.” On the hottest Sunday of the summer, about 40 of us gathered at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre in Peekskill. (Fortunately, their air conditioning was working, mostly.)
After a friendly meet and greet, we got to work in a fun, innovative and ultimately very productive way. Dividing ourselves into groups based on which meal is our favorite (breakfast, obviously), we began to learn to work together. Coming up with reasons why we liked that meal the best (coffee!), then coming to a consensus on three things we all agreed made our meal awesome, within each group. These organic groupings kept going, forming and re-forming like a giant theatrical amoeba, until we were discussing what it means to be an artist in 2019, and a Hudson Valley artist, specifically. That’s where the feeling of lack of opportunity started to come up. And was countered by people who were excited about the chances to work here. That’s one of the wonderful things that started to happen, as we pooled our knowledge and experiences.
From there we got down to specifics: why some of us felt a lack of opportunity up here, where the obstacles are, who the gatekeepers to access are, what ishere, just waiting for us, and, most importantly, where we might go from here. We made a map of theaters and groups from Yonkers to Albany (I put Get Lit Beacon up there!) There is a surprising amount, especially in Poughkeepsie. Who knew?
I left the meeting feeling inspired. I met new writers. I learned a lot about what exists in my own back yard. And I’m excited that there is new energy being poured into my beloved Hudson Valley. There is opportunity here, and there will be even more. And we can all be a part of it. The plan is for more of these convenings. I’ll spread the word when the next one is scheduled. You should come.
Photo Credits: Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre, The Arts Center of the Capital Region, The Lark.
I was feeling pretty crappy the day that I had scheduled an interview with Karen Malpede. I was just hoping I had enough energy to make it through without sounding like an idiot. And I was nervous, because, well, it’s Karen Malpede. She is a playwright, a director, a teacher, an ecofeminist, a renegade artist, and co-founder of Theatre Three Collaborative. She’s dedicated her artistic talent to making a difference in the world. Her latest book, Plays in Time, collects four of her plays in which “nature, poetry, ritual, and empathy are presented in contrast to the abuse of persons and world.” And they’re funny, too.
As soon as she said ‘hello’ the conversation flowed and I forgot to be nervous after all. Suddenly an hour was gone, and I realized how incredibly lucky I am to have spent it with her. The conversation was energizing and wide-ranging. Below is a some of what we discussed. But don’t stop here. Karen will be our guest on June 9th. Come and be inspired for yourself!
GET LIT BEACON: You call yourself an ecofeminist playwright. What does that mean, and how does it inform your work?
KAREN MALPEDE: It informs my work in every possible way. Ecofeminism is a way of being that is always aware of the importance of the earth and her many creatures, and the interconnectedness of all beings – the nonhierarchical relationship between healthy living systems. It’s an assumption that the world is wrong-side out, that the relationship with self, with others, could be very different than it is. I try to show that in my work.
In Europe, it’s assumed that theatre plays a role in reflecting the wrongs of society in order to work toward change. Theatre has a political voice. It’s located in a social political system, which is human-made, suffered in by humans, and can be opposed, changed, by humans.
American writers, on the other hand, are influenced still by McCarthyism. There’s a sense of self-censorship, maybe unconscious in many playwrights. So we have dramas about isolated families in a vacuum. What’s going on in the outside world doesn’t appear, the focus is on the personal. I call it domestic drama, or couch drama. A story that doesn’t impact your worldview, and where what’s happening in the world doesn’t impact the play.
GLB: You’ve classified your plays as outside of the mainstream, as “renegade art,” and you started your own theatre to produce them. Was your initial dream to see them produced on Broadway, or in the many regional theatres in America? Or did you always want to give them their own home?
KM: Never! Mainstream theatres tend to be funded by corporations who invest in the industries I’m criticizing. There is an economic censorship inherent in the way that they choose their seasons.
I came out of the mainstream theatre. But the theatres that inspired me as a young writer were the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, the Bread & Puppet Theatre. Theatre for the people, with a political sensibility, that was much closer to European theatre than what was seen on mainstream stages. And it was much easier to start your own theatre at the time I did it. I had patronage, city money, grants. You could live cheaply in New York City. That sort of thing is much harder now. I don’t really know how you would do it now, when no one wants to take a chance.
My play, Prophecy, for example, links vets in Iraq and Vietnam. Links the trauma of both. It has two Palestinian characters, and shows the trauma of the bombings by Israel of Lebanon. Charles Isherwood, of the New York Times, showed up to review it. Isherwood hates political theatre – it was a savage review. I felt brutalized. I had been in talks with the Public, but they called off a production of the play, calling it too risky.
I sent my play about climate change, Extreme Whether, to other theatres. The Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group wrote an editorial about it, saying how important the play was, but no one picked it up. She suggested that American Theatre Magazine publish the script but they declined. I sent the first draft of the script to the Sloan Foundation which funds plays about science. They ranted that they’d never fund a play with ‘villains’ in it. The so-called villains were oil industry lobbyists. The Sloan Foundation is funded by the railroads.
GLB: In addition to writing plays and running a theatre, you teach both theatre and environmental justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It surprised me that theatre was offered there. What does it bring to these students?
KM: They have an environmental justice minor and a theatre minor at John Jay. Most of the students that go there couldn’t contemplate a career in the theatre. They need jobs, pensions, healthcare when they graduate. Most are inner city kids and immigrants. Many are the first in their families to go to college. It takes financial backing to contemplate a career in the arts these days.
In my Theatre and Justice course, I start with James Baldwin. He’s one of the most important American writers, and yet most of my students have never heard of him.
I had nine students in another course writing plays about the war in Yemen. There was a Yemeni student in the class, but most of the others hadn’t heard of Yemen, didn’t know that there was a war going on there. A student from Haiti later said that she hadn’t understood what Yemen could possibly have to do with her life, and then after listening to the Yemeni student, she realized that she is from a country of freed black slaves. And that Haiti and Yemen have a lot of similarities.
GLB: This has been an incredible discussion! Is there anything else that you want talk about?
KM: Ecofeminism isn’t exclusive to women. My partner at Theatre Three Collaborative is a man, George Bartenieff. The cast in my plays is fifty-fifty, men and women. The audience is similarly mixed. Men are equally wounded by sexism. I’m thinking of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur. I had a student at NYU in the 80’s, Anohni. Dinnerstein’s ideas are so important to them. They are now a world-renowned musician. They were called Antony at that time, I knew them as a man. Now they have no sexual gender, but they are an embodiment of an ecofemnist: caring, non-hierarchical, nurturing, fierce. They despise identity politics. They envision coming together as creatures. That’s what their work is about.