San Diego Playwrights

Getting San Diego Playwrights Produced on San Diego Stages

HARLOWE–An Interview with Jennifer Lane

Center Theatre Group has announced the 10 finalists who have been chosen for the first annual Humanitas/CTG Playwriting Prize. The award will be given to the best new and unproduced play written by a Southern California playwright. San Diego Playwrights caught up with finalist Jennifer Lane to discuss her play, HARLOWE.

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Jennifer Lane

About HARLOWE: After suffering a potent physical trauma, Harlowe loses her sense of touch. When her sister brings her home to convalesce, she retreats to the bathroom and spends hour after hour languishing in the tub. Harlowe is a story of sisters and bodies; it is a story of how we heal.

 

During my second year of graduate school, I hit a bit of a dry spell. Maybe it was because I’d spent the last year and a half writing more than I ever had before in my life, or maybe it was because I’d just moved, or maybe it was because I was told that I needed to begin thinking about my thesis play and I was worried that I just didn’t have anything good left in my brain. Regardless, I wasn’t writing. And when you’re in grad school for a writing degree, and you’re not writing, it’s kind of a problem.

 

I do a lot of things when I’m not writing, mostly they involve streaming video on the internet or drinking coffee and staring at ceilings. But this time when I couldn’t write, I took a bath. This time, when I was stuck, I submerged myself under the water and held my breath until I couldn’t any more. When I was under the water, I listened to my heartbeat, and I was soothed, connected to something primordial. And when I got out of the water, I sat down at my computer, and three days later I had the first full draft of Harlowe.

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This is one of those magical stories of creation that artists chase for their whole careers, and rarely get. I didn’t have a play; and then — boom — I did. I don’t remember what it was like, writing it. I only know that it popped into being like Athena out of Zeus’ forehead, whole, fully formed.

 

Harlowe has never needed the major overhauls that some of my other plays have required, and as such, it bears a striking resemblance to that first, magical draft I wrote in those three mystical days. But I have had the privilege of developing the piece with a number of remarkable theatre artists, to whom I owe a great deal, who have made the play what it is.

 

First, Sarah Ruhl mentored me on it. There’s this pretty great part of being a Columbia grad student where they hire your number-one top-choice living playwright to mentor you on your thesis play, and I chose Sarah. I chose her because of Eurydice and In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play; I chose her because she began her writing career as a poet, and I needed a poet’s eye on the lengthy, metaphor-heavy monologues that littered the play. And she helped me sculpt those monologues into poetry in their own right.

 

From there, it was performed as part of the thesis festival at Columbia, directed by Jess K. Smith, and featuring a team of actors I still think of in my head whenever I work on the play. They got it up on its feet, water and all, and I learned how submerging your lead actress in water has an astounding impact on the speeches, and it remains one of the most satisfying artistic collaborations of my life.

 

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Columbia University Thesis Production of HARLOWE

 

After grad school, it was further developed during the Alec Baldwin Fellowship at Singer’s Forum, directed by Marlo Hunter. We focused our attention then on a character that had, up until that point, been mostly just a foil for everyone else on stage. She brought a phenomenal actor into the role and helped me dig into the character, and the entire process taught me an invaluable lesson about excavating theme to anchor characters to the heart of a story. Concurrently, it was presented in Washington D.C. at the Inkwell Theatre, directed by Lee Liebeskind. And I got to travel there to see the excerpt they presented. This was my first taste of travel for writing, and I was hooked.

 

Then, I put it away for a year before I took it to the Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, Florida where it was part of their New Works Festival, directed by Lou Tyrell. Lou helped me polish it, til it had that production-ready shine, and then he brought it to his own theatre festival at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab. There, it was directed by Matt Stabile, who showed me that I was wrong when I thought there was no work left to do on it. His keen insights and unabashed enthusiasm about the play have blown it wide open for me, and I see it anew because of him and Lou and my cast at FAU Theatre Lab.

 

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Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab reading of HARLOWE

 

Now, it’s a finalist for this amazing prize. To win the prize would be a huge honor all on its own, but what’s remarkable about this particular prize is that they attach money to the play itself as an incentive for a California theatre to produce it. That’s huge. That’s the dream. And I know I am echoing the sentiments of all of my fellow finalists when I say how thrilling that is.

 

I am in astounding company as a finalist, and it’s such a privilege to be in the running alongside such fantastic SoCal talent. And as I wait to hear about Harlowe’s status, I can’t help but think about the many remarkable artists who have touched the play, whose fingerprints are all over it. I’m writing this as a sort of love letter to them all, to say… Thank you. Working on this play has been a joy, and an education. You all have changed me utterly.

Thank you for sharing the story of HARLOWE, Jennifer! Good luck on its journey to production!

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WINDOW OF SHAME–An Interview with Aleta Barthell

Aleta Barthell’s play, Window of Shame, is a finalist for the 1st Annual Humanitas/Center Theatre Group Playwriting Prize. The award will be given to the best new and unproduced play written by a Southern California playwright.

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Aleta Barthell

Tell us about yourself.

I am an actress turned teacher and writer. I found myself frustrated as an actress with the roles that were available for women.  I decided to focus my effort on writing…and writing stories that show women making choices in their lives.

Tell us about your play.

 

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My play, Window of Shame, is based on a real event that I learned while on a ghost tour in New Orleans in 2002.

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Yolanda Franklin in New Village Arts Theatre reading 2012

In 1834, Doctor and Madame LaLaurie are famous in the French Quarter for their elegant parties in their resplendent home, but suspicions arise after a young slave woman climbs out of a darkened window on the second floor and jumps to her death, leaving Sally, the cook who is chained in the kitchen, to risk her own life to expose the horrifying secret that lives upstairs.

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Katie Calvin, Ashleyrose Gilham (on floor), Rhys Green and Kiana Jackson in New Village Arts Theatre reading 2012

 

In Window of Shame, I want to explore how moral atrocities are ignored and/or go undetected in a community and what finally pushes an individual to step forward to stop it. I want it to be a story that fills our senses with sounds (rhythms, chains, trumpets), flashes of light (lightning) and visual images using choreographed movement to convey the supernatural and grotesque in the story. I want the play to show an individual with seemingly the least amount of latitude for action, who exposes the moral outrage around her.

What are your challenges? What are your successes?

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Aleta Barthell in rehearsal for Fountain Theatre reading 2011

My initial challenge was to decide why it was important to tell a story about slavery and torture today. Then the U.S. invaded Iraq.  Then the U.S. tortured detainees.  Then Hurricane Katrina ripped open a window to life in New Orleans that no one believed had existed.  Suddenly, this story felt very resonant.

I also have wrestled with telling a story from a voice that is far away from me culturally. I have been fortunate to have an uncle who is a professor of slavery in the south who helped to guide me in my research to understand this world.

I had an actress, Judith Scott, drive down from LA for an initial reading of the play. She liked the piece so much that she gathered actors in LA and we had two readings of the piece in theatres in LA and also two readings in San Diego.

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Rhys Green, Kristianne Kurner, Manny Fernandes, M’Lafi Thompson, Abner Genece, Yolanda Franklin, Jarrod Weintraub, Fred Harlow, Katie Calvin, Milena Phillips, Aleta Barthell, Kiana Jackson and Ashleyrose Gilham in New Village Arts Theatre reading 2012

What is your next step?

Before I knew I was a finalist for Humanist prize, I had been working with a director/dramaturg from LA, Alan Freeman. Alan approached me after he heard me speak about the piece at the Dramatists Guild National Conference this summer in La Jolla, he wanted to know if I would be interested in doing some readings in LA and San Diego to garner interest from producing bodies and get the play on the road to production.  I said, “Yes!”

We are tentatively planning a reading here in San Diego at New Village Arts Theatre in February. I have also been fortunate to have the support of an excellent San Diego grant specialist, Lorraine Demi, who is helping us find grant sources for these readings and future productions.

Click here to watch the Window of Shame video promo.

Thank you for talking with us, Aleta! And good luck with Window of Shame!

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