October Round-Up II: Women Playwrights Produce, Make Money and Breakthroughs

Or put it another way:  At Theater J, we produce women playwrights and they deliver. They deliver great plays, they do their rewrites on time, they collaborate with gusto, and, in the case of Amy Herzog’s After The Revolution, they come in well ahead of single ticket sales projections. That’s important for us to state for the record: Women Make Bank. For years, the popular theater wisdom has been “Men Make The Money.” That’s how we might explain how over 80% of the national annual repertoire  is devoted to male playwrights.  They are the cannon; the stalwarts; the pillars upon which rests the great majority of our august subscription seasons.

Well, not for us, or not recently, and not this season especially, as Amy Herzog’s work opened not just our season, but a good dozen seasons for theaters across the country, whether it be Belleville (at Steppenwolf this summer), 4000 Miles (one of the most produced shows in the country this season), or After The Revolution (which ran as successfully at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre as it did at Theater J).

Our "After The Revolution" company, crew and staff at the closing night party.

Our “After The Revolution” company, crew and staff at the closing night party.

Important to note too that After The Revolution was staged by the amazing Eleanor Holdridge who was the subject of our first Director’s Forum on September 30 — who, in addition to being a great classical and contemporary director, has been a strong advocate for getting more women represented in our DC theaters, both as playwrights, directors, and as focal characters. The disparities have been staggering.

Again, this has been less the case for us here. Witness our Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Year-Round reading series. Below is the line-up for our 3 public readings this fall, together with an in-house workshop reading of Alyson Currin’s Return To Latin.  In taking in this grouping of accomplished female playwrights, take note of what a game-changer this is for our theater; that we have an ongoing and abiding interest in four new plays by local playwrights, all on their way to finding a mainstage production, perhaps all four on ours!  It could happen.  Because each of the works are wonderful.  Witness our audience members’ reactions to Renee Calarco’s play which was read yesterday in a brilliant presentation.  (see the comments below.)

locally_grownPeople of the Book

by Renee Calarco
Friday, October 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm

A New Play from the author of The Religion ThingCalarco’s play in development, People of the Book, asks us to consider how far we would go to believe a story that’s too good to be true. Partially inspired by the story of Rabbi Menachem Youlus—the self-dubbed “Jewish Indiana Jones”—the play goes to “some uncomfortable places,” according to Calarco.  “We all yearn for survival stories,” she says, “and I’m obsessed with the stories that we collect and re-tell and believe—beyond the point of reason. It’s a theme that I explored a bit in The Religion Thing, too, and I’m so grateful to Theater J for continuing to develop my work.”Renee-CalarcoRenee Calarco is a playwright, teacher and performer. Her plays include The Religion Thing(2013 nominee for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play), Short Order Stories (2007 recipient of  the Charles MacArthur Award), The Mating of Angela Weiss,Keepers of the Western DoorBleedFirst Stop: Niagara Falls, and If You Give a Cat a Cupcake. Her 10-minute play Warriors was published by One Act Play Depot in 2010.

Her plays have been produced, developed, and commissioned by Theater J, Charter Theater, Geva Theatre, Project Y, Adventure Theatre, Doorway Arts Ensemble, Pinky Swear Productions, and the Source Theatre Festival. She teaches playwriting and comedy improv at The Theatre Lab, and playwriting at George Washington University. Renee is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America and a licensed professional tour guide.


Reading: A Grand Design
by DW Gregory

Monday, October 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm
Tickets: $10/person- Purchase online or available at the door

Len and Claire sense they are in for some seriously bad karma when his offhand remark at a party inspires the break-up of long-married friends. But when an anonymous sniper appears on the scene, both couples are forced to reconsider the trade-offs they have made in life … and love …

A dark comedy.

The piece in development with Theater J is entitled A Grand Design, a three-actor piece inspired in part by the DC sniper shootings a decade ago. It is a dark comedy that, as Gregory puts it, “wrestles with the tradeoffs we make between security and satisfaction, and how those calculations are thrown into disarray when the shooting starts.” Discussing what drew her to work with Theater J, Gregory explains, “I started writing plays in the late ‘80s in Rochester, NY, and one of my inspirations was a playwright named Ari Roth [Theater J’s current Artistic Director], whose play Oh the Innocents was featured in a festival at GEVA Theatre Center. So it would be about coming full circle, for me.”

APDWGregoryDW Gregory writes in a variety of styles and genres, from historical drama to screwball comedy, but a recurring theme is the exploration of political issues through a personal lens. The New York Times called her “a playwright with a talent to enlighten and provoke” for her most produced play, Radium Girls (Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey), about dial painters poisoned on the job in the 1920s. A resident playwright at New Jersey Rep, she received a Pulitzer nomination for the Rep’s production of The Good Daughter.

Other plays include The Good Girl Is Gone (Playwrights Theatre); October 1962 (NJ Rep); andMolumby’s Million (Iron Age Theatre Co.), a comedy about the boxer Jack Dempsey, which was nominated for the 2011 Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play by the Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia. Ms. Gregory is also a founding member of the Playwrights Gymnasium, a process-oriented workshop based in Washington, DC.

locally_grownReading: House Beautiful
by Liz Maestri

Friday, November 22, 2013 at 2pm
Tickets: $5/person- Purchase online or available at the door

In a decaying town, one lone house still stands. Inside, three generations of a family weather the end of an era.

Maestri’s current one-act in development, House Beautiful, demonstrates her clear sense of what interests her as a playwright.  “My work is often influenced by a fascination with things supernatural and found in nature.”  She was impressed by last year’s Locally Grown festival, remarking “Locally Grown is an important, exciting, and highly visible program…DC is my home, and I’m deeply connected to the city in most ways, so I look forward to becoming a more active player in my artistic home-base.”

55f927ced2afb22280906489f75c368eLiz Maestri represents the next generation of playwrights that Theater J looks forward to cultivating. Maestri studied playwriting with the “24 With 5” Collective at New Dramatists in NY, and received her B.A. in Theater from the University of Maryland (College Park Scholars in the Arts; Theatre Patrons Award winner).

Liz’s plays include Owl Moon, (world premiere Taffety Punk Theatre Company); Somersaulting (workshop presentation at The Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage and The Artists’ Bloc Downtown Series); Tinderbox (ReActs series/Forum Theatre); Fallbeil (Great Plains Theatre Conference, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Young Artist Program grant); and multi-disciplinary collaborations The Pressure Cooker for the 2012 Source Festival (Creative Communities Fund) and Genesis with E.M.P. Collective.


11 thoughts on “October Round-Up II: Women Playwrights Produce, Make Money and Breakthroughs

  1. Despite the lack of a stage, costumes, or even a finished script, I enjoyed the reading of “People of the Book” immensely, perhaps even more than some of the full productions that I have seen thus far in DC. The two most intriguing aspects of the play for me are also those which the post-show discussion seemed most to dwell on: the humor, or lack thereof, present in the play, and the effectiveness and appropriateness of the ending. For me, the humor was entirely acceptable, even if it did push the limits a little bit in some places. I did not find it to be stereotypic in the least, but instead felt that it was satirical, that it was knowingly poking fun at stereotypes of the Jewish community, rather than ignorantly reflecting the wider society’s flawed perception of that community.

    In regards to the ending, I felt that it was somewhat rushed and that it could benefit from one, either being extended out, or two, simply removing the final scene ostensibly meant to convey the triumph of justice. To explain, as a viewer ignorant of the fact that the play was premised on factual events, the ending as it stands seems truncated, like it was simply tacked on at the end almost as an afterthought. Therefore, if it was expanded somewhat to include some of the repercussions of the rabbi’s actions in the community and on certain personal relationships, so that those ignorant of the true events behind the production could began to more fully appreciate them, I feel that it would be substantially more effective than it currently stands. Alternatively, and what would be my preferred solution, the play could simply end ambiguously, leaving the viewers to wonder if the rabbi did act mendaciously or not. I find this to much more unsettling from a moral standpoint, as it seems to present a moral dilemma that is then left up to the audience of whether or not it matters if he deceived the congregations, if the ends justify the means. To me, the current ending instead shifts the focus to the fact that he did deceive them, thus obscuring much of the debate in the play over whether it is at all relevant if he deceived them, as well as the debate over whether would it be worth it to seek “justice” for that deception. Therefore, although it may be critiqued for its obliqueness, I feel that an ambiguous ending is much more powerful and poignant, both from the perspectives of those in the play and when related to the world writ large.

  2. Viewing a reading of Renee Calarco’s “People of the Book” (as well the post show discussion) proved to be a fascinating and challenging theater experience. Through the story of Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-proclaimed “Jewish Indiana Jones,” Calarco explores themes of faith, trust, and the human desire to create an uplifting narrative. In Calarco’s words, “We all yearn for survival stories.”

    Watching Calarco’s play reminded me of my high school Senior Thesis, of all things. In my thesis, I argued that a significant portion of Holocaust literature and historical accounts tended to romanticize the Jews, as if the behavior and actions of the victims must intrinsically be good and pure because the Nazis were evil. I was originally intrigued by history book covers that advertised the struggle of the Jews as some sort of a “triumph of the human spirit” or single-mindedly focused on acts of bravery or heroism. Many of the survivor accounts, however, portray a different world; a world where isolation, self-interest, and (at times) manipulation are more prevalent then say, kindness or cooperation. I argued that this romanticization stemmed from an attempt to understand the Holocaust, to interpret the horrific event in a way that makes sense to us, when really the Holocaust can only be seen as a black mark in the history of humanity, with no positive or uplifting takeaway.

    The connection I saw (besides the obvious Jewish one) was the lengths the characters went in “People of the Book” to believe the narrative they wanted to, because it was comforting and because they were not really interested in the truth. As Roberta heard piece after piece of incriminating evidence against the Rabbi, she clung to her belief that his story was authentic and he was genuine. Even from my seat in the audience, it became clear that Roberta did not truly believe her own rationalizations and justifications for holes in his story. Perhaps the best example of the forces at work in this play come from Larry, when he describes the real estate process, and “staging” a house to make it look as nice as possible (or as far removed from an actual “home” as possible”). “People aren’t interested in truth,” Larry says, and goes on to talk about how homeowners believe what they wish to see. Larry’s explanation of his work as a realtor succinctly mirrors Roberta’s thought process when evaluating the Rabbi’s word.

    To be clear, I do not mean to equate the deceitful actions of Rabbi Menachem Youlus to overly positive or optimistic portrayals of Jews in concentration camps, I just couldn’t help but notice some select similarities between my “People of the Book” and my own thesis. The reason I drew the connection was to concentrate on stories, why we believe them, and how they can serve our own interests.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed a reading of Renee Calarco’s “People of the Book” and taking part in a discussion that will facilitate the further evolution of the work as it makes its way to the stage.

    Many post-reading discussion participants voiced their opinion on the amount and tenor of the humor in a production based on a “locally grown” true story that truly alienated and deluded the D.C. Jewish community. Being neither a D.C. resident or Jewish, I did not feel qualified to comment on the distinctively and almost stereotypical Jewish humor. In retrospect, however, I found myself reconsidering this insight and further evaluating the production because, after all, not every Theater J theatergoer is Jewish. And I believe the play is effective in this respect: the humor, though Jewish in flavor, is more a reflection of relatable common relationship dynamics like those between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, adult son and parents, a newlywed couple, and two adult female friends that need not be Jewish. And the fundamental yearning for survival stories that communities collect, re-tell, and believe beyond the point of reason is certainly most poignant for Jews, but certainly not exclusive to Jews, evoking feelings of empathy and indignation for me not cheapened by the interwoven humor. Being of Polish descent, I am cognizant of the many stories that define the Polish national identity, one laden with a struggle to survive as a sovereign nation in the face of numerous partitions, wars, Nazism, communism, etc.

    With that being said, I was unaware of the true story that the production was based on and now find it crucial in order for the production to deliver its full effect. Furthermore, the post-reading discussion brought to light some disagreements in the Jewish community–a community that is certainly not monolithic in nature as evidenced by the reception of the planned production of The Admission–over which kind of Jews were being portrayed in the production, the treatment of the Torah, Jewish stereotypes, and how all Jews would subsequently receive the production at Theater J. Therefore, I believe this play can be wildly successful as it provokes crucial questions and discussions within the Jewish community yet is concomitantly resonant for a wider audience, an effect of many Theater J productions.

  4. The Locally Grown reading for Renee Calarco’s PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, was followed by a stimulating post-discussion.
    The reading gave the audience and the Jewish community insight into horrific fraud case that actually occurred. Reminiscent to Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation, the knave’s actions brought community leaders to confront the power of stories. Stories not only from people but also from the Torah. It made one really grapple with the human need for authenticity. The comedy and humor gave life to the script and drew the audience closer in the minds and faces of the characters.
    The post-discussion revealed reasonable contention of terms like Jewy or mimicking the disabled community. After a member of the post discussion group expressed discomfort from the term Jewy sparks scattered in the sky. The African American women said she would “never use that word”. She further said that it was uncomfortable for her that the reading showed stereotypes of the Jewish community and that the term Jewy was not well received. A couple of members from the Jewish community shared her sentiment, however some did not.
    A woman who says she knows members who were personally wronged by the Con man in real life took a defensive standpoint. Understandably, the Jewish woman retorted the black woman telling her that your not Jewish so you would not use that word, “ It is like how you all say Nigger.”
    I took some offense to her insensitive and completely inaccurate comparison of the words. Fist of all, the black community would more than likely replace the “er” of that word with an “a” making it contemporary slang. Second of all, the use of the slang term is widely controversial and many of scholars debate its common usage. Third of all, the two words are incomparable to one another. How can you compare a historically oppressive term to Jewy?
    What also bothered some of the members in the group about her comment was that the African American women clearly knew and openly said that she was not apart of the Jewish community. She did not even want to say the word in public given her thoughts about its use in the reading. She did not say Jewy at all, however the other group member openly said, “Nigger” with a misguided cultural context. One should always strive to be culturally competent and sensitive in discussions about someone’s community.

    • very true and well said – carefully observed and well-rendered, Kevin
      I comment hear to affirm your accurate reporting of the discussion in our library

  5. It has always interested me how little different races or religions know about one another and the reasons why particular things between these groups are considered taboo. Renee Calarco’s “People of the Book,” provided me with an inside look into the beliefs and ideologies of a Jewish couple and what they found most important in their lives. In addition, the post-reading discussion also informed me of some of the idiosyncrasies of the Jewish community, specifically in how they interpreted the play.

    The initial post-reading debate arose as to whether or not stereotypes were presented in the play. A young African American woman felt that these were present in the play, thus making her uncomfortable. However, many Jewish attendees believed that there weren’t any particularly offensive stereotypes, if there were any at all. In my opinion, there were not overtly offensive stereotypes, although I was surprised at how much money was nonchalantly thrown around by characters in the play. For example, two characters mentioned spending $50,000 on a child’s Bar Mitzvah, or spending $15,000 on a journal that may or may not have belonged to Anne Frank. This seemed to play into the stereotype of a wealthy Jewish person.

    Another hot topic was the use of the word “Jewy” by characters in the play to slightly foreshadow the essence of the play. A young African American woman mentioned that she found the word offensive, to which an older Caucasian lady mentioned that it would be like “how you all say Nigger” in a humorous way. I personally have not heard the word “Jewy” nor had many of my fellow peers in the audience. I was offended that she chose to not only link the two words, without even a basic understanding of how the word “niggER” is used in the black community (certainly not humorously), but she also presupposed that this young lady used the word. However this young lady mentioned that she, like myself, would never use this word. After Kevin explained to her that nigger would not be used but rather “nigga”, she replied by stating “nigga” which also offended me because it seemed to be misplaced and excessive usage of this word.

    Ultimately, I enjoyed the reading, although the post-reading discussion seemed to be an event within itself. I have never experienced the Jewish culture, having never been to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, thus seeing a glimpse into the life of this Jewish couple and the things that were important to them, such as the Torah, Anne Frank’s private notebook, and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs was all rather new to me.

    It can often be interesting how little we know about someone with whom we share so much of the world.

  6. The reading of “A Grand Design” by DW Gregory at the Theater J library was very different from the full productions I’ve seen, and even from the reading I saw previously at the Kennedy Center. It was small and intimate, and comfortable because everyone seemed to know each other. The actors, I felt, did a wonderful job. Even without a set or any moving around, they really drew me into the script and made me feel as though I was seeing a play.

    I didn’t realize until the post-show discussion that the play was still in progress, versus a play almost ready for production. I was confused about the play, and confused that I was confused. It seemed unfinished, and there were questions that were not answered to my comfort. I thought that was how most plays were anyway, leaving viewers with something to ponder and wonder about.

    There were so many things going on in the play, from the sniper to the squirrels to the relationships, and so many themes, that I think there were too many things that needed to be tied up. I found myself becoming absorbed into the drama of the relationships and the fear of the sniper, but when the play ended, I felt the relationships wrapped up well but the sniper didn’t have much of a purpose. Maybe leaving him out would have lost some fundamental aspect of the play, but I felt like it would have been an interesting play without him. I’m also not sure what DW’s intention was for Len and Claire post-play, because it didn’t seem like they had much of a connection, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they separated. This comment was brought up during the discussion, but it would have been nice to get a glimpse into the core of their relationship.

    Overall, I enjoyed this experience because it was different from what I had experienced before.

  7. I found the reading of the “A Grand Design” to be quite well done, especially once it is considered that the play is still in development, and that the characters are still defining their relationships with each other and the emotions that they therefore going to embody. I especially liked the addition of Beth as an unseen character and felt that her presence, though she was not there physically, helped to enhance the relationships between each of the other characters. More specifically, I thought that her addition really changed the way that Hal and Len viewed each other, as the involvement of those three people predated the marriages of both Len and Hal.

    I also found the surrealism of the play to be an asset. For instance, the way that the audience was unsure of whether or not what they were viewing was actually taking place or was merely a figment of Claire’s imagination added an additional layer to play. By not knowing what was real or not, there seemed to be a slight sense of unease and uncertainty added to the production that then undergirded the entirety of the dialogue, forcing the audience to pay closer attention than they otherwise would have, to think more intensively about what it was that they were watching, something that I always view as a positive development. Looking at the surrealism from another perspective, the fact that a surrealistic scene was the final one of the play actually left the ending somewhat ambiguous, in that we could interpret what Claire was going to do in regards to her relationships with Hal and Len based on what emotions of hers the final scene ostensibly represented, but there was no way to be sure. Perhaps in this situation, in contrast with my comments on the ending of “People of the Book”, more concreteness would help to strengthen the ending, in that as much of the play is ambiguous some concreteness may allow the viewers to gain a more full understanding of the meaning of the production.

  8. Experiencing “A Grand Design” by DW Gregory at the Theater J library as a reading was a very new experience. I have very little theater experience in general so I was just starting to get used to live performances when I had the opportunity to see the reading. It was really cool to see the actors still trying to figure out how their character feels in each scene. In some of our past post-show discussions we had the opportunity to hear about the artistic process of becoming a character and it was awesome to get to see a character really being built. With that said, readings are really confusing. With everything so stripped down and no set or lighting to help bring the audience into the story I sort of felt suspended between real life and the story. I could not separate the actors from the characters.

    In addition to seeing the actors building their characters, we got to see the play write in the process of constructing the play. I was astonished to realize that she had what could have been a complete play already written yet she still seemed not to know what the moral of the play was. It was a unique look into the arts that I’ve never seen before.

    There was a lot to take in from the play. There were so many different elements that didn’t seem very related that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of the play. All of the different story lines seemed to be fighting with each other instead of working coherently to bring a complete experience. I wasn’t sure if the focus was supposed to be on interpersonal relationships or the idea of having skeletons in a closet or if it was a murder mystery or if it was about the relative merits of living a life the way you want regardless of what it will do to other people. I wish I could have the opportunity to see the finished product. There is so much good in this play and I think that when DW Gregory sorts the rest of it out it could be extremely exciting and powerful.

  9. “How do I convey a serious message through humor?”, “How far should this humor go– how far is too far?”, “What elements of real events are important to retain and which are not in order to effectively deliver my message?”. These are some of the questions I imagine Renee Calarco asking herself when writing “People of the Book”. The subject matter in itself is both contentious and, in some ways, comical in its absurdity (The Jewish Indiana Jones, that’s a real title?). Regardless, the question of how to do those involved in these events when the very events deal with notions that are, to some, critical to their religious identity is no easy task.

    As I sat through the discussion I found myself faced with two interesting perspectives. One woman felt Ms. Calarco had captured the events perfectly while another, whose Synagogue had purchased one of the items, first commented that she felt certain of its authenticity and second criticized several events in the play. We would never do that, she said referring to an instance where children read from a Torah thought to have been found in Auschwitz. Perhaps she is correct, however, I disagreed with her suggestion to explain or omit that part of the play. When I attend a play, and I feel most audience members also feel this way, that is meant to be satirical (or, honestly, even if it’s not), I do not walk away feeling that, having watched that play, I am suddenly qualified to make judgements on the reality of an entire culture. Instead, when faced with rituals I am uninformed on, I try to relate them to my own experience and discover a deeper meaning or theme.
    Frankly, omitting this humorous (perhaps controversially so) scenes would make the play weaker, in my opinion. I don’t believe it was the intention of the playwright to inform people on the rituals of all of Jewish culture; in fact, the play opens with an emphatic denial that it isn’t. Rather, she is trying to grapple with ideas that aren’t limited to Jewish culture– perhaps related to excess and to our ability to question events when the events are so closely linked to our identity. To me, the play seemed to blur the notion of “right” and “wrong” as the characters questioned the impact of revealing a respected man as a con artist, and it did so with humor (which I always appreciate).

  10. The reading of “House Beautiful” this past Friday was very relatable for me, as I can relate first-hand to the dynamic that was exhibited throughout the play of the difficulty, for all involved, that a slow drawn out death in the family can exact. From the ostensibly drug, or cancer, induced hallucinations of Edwin, to Victoria’s helplessness and seeming inability to understand or accept what exactly her grandfather’s illness means, to Fran’s standoffish and perpetually busy approach, it all seemed like it was something that I was watching my own family members do, as though it was something that I had already experienced and was strangely seeing these strangers act out for me. In that respect, I found the reading to be quite literally without flaw and felt as though it replicated that situation seamlessly.
    From a more technical standpoint, as was touched upon in the discussion following the reading, I did, however, find the fact that the legal standing of Jane seemed to be tenuous at best and probably nonexistent to be a distraction. Although there may be some legal wrangling that could make what she did possible, it seems more than likely that there is not and that if she had ever been seriously challenged in court that she would not prevail. Continuing in this vein, the fact that both Fran and Edwin took such offense at Viola’s will and Jane’s subsequent handling of it would seem to make it more plausible than not that one of them, if not both, would have opted to pursue a remedy in the courts, a deduction which makes it all the more troubling that this aspect of the play is left largely unexplained. In short, while explaining this can be a relatively easy fix, and it is largely background information anyway, it nonetheless detracted from the reading for me in that it dragged my attention from the more important events taking place.

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