Dallas — North Texas audiences were introduced to Chicago playwright Susan Felder in August 2015, when a traveling group called unMasqued Theatre produced her Vietnam play Wasteland at the Studio Theatre at Stage West in Fort Worth. That was directed by Dallas director/actor/designer Jeffrey Schmidt, and his relationship with Felder led to Echo Theatre being given the world premiere of her play Temple Spirit, which is currently running at the Show Place Theatre in the Creative Arts Building in Fair Park.
The play was workshopped with Cliff Chamberlain and playwright/actor Tracy Letts, who took time out of his schedule for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Steppenwolf Theatre to invest in new play development.
The Echo production, which is directed and designed by Schmidt, uses several Japanese folktales in the hero’s journey of a samurai/priest, Jogen (played by Anthony L. Ramirez, the role partially developed by Letts). The cross-cultural cast also features Brittney Dubose, Ian Ferguson, Nicole Berastequi and Danielle Pickard.
In the script, Felder writes that "the actors in Temple Spirit need not be Japanese any more than Romeo and Juliet need to be Italian.” We chatted with Felder as she was in town on opening weekend. She talks about her career as actor, director and playwright, the inspiration for the play and cultural appropriation.
TheaterJones: What’s the process been like for this world premiere of your play? Have you been involved with the rehearsal process?
Susan Felder: We did some cuts and rewrites and things over the internet but this is the first time I haven’t been really involved with the rehearsal process of one of my premieres, so that’s trippy. Last night [Thursday, March 31] was the first time I saw it.
Since you’re in Dallas only for a short time, where is your home base?
I was based in Chicago for 25 years, and the last couple of years I’ve been teaching all over the country, and I just accepted a job at Cincinnati Conservatory so that’s where I’m from. But Chicago, that’s where most of my theatre work was.
Do you teach playwriting? Is that your primary focus?
I started out as an actor, an Equity actor and a director. I teach acting and movement, and Shakespeare because that’s what I got my Master’s in. I love it but I’m kind of moving away from that, I really like contemporary plays and writing.
After 9/11, that was something really important to me. I was also going through a shift because I am middle aged and the roles are running out for actresses, so I was looking more and more at directing and teaching. I was doing a show at the Goodman [Theatre] at the time, it’s one of the best places in the world and it was ok… and then I would go into the classroom at Loyola and it was like summer in there. I thought, “No! I’m an actor not a teacher!”
In the same way, there’s this whole thing in Temple Spirit where [the hero] Jogen says: “No I’m a samurai! No wait…. maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m a priest.” I was like, how can I give up acting? I can’t do this. Not to mention the fact that people weren’t needing me as much anymore.
How fascinating! If your primary background is in acting, how did you get into playwriting?
I think when you have things in your life that you need to work out you either get some major therapy for it or you bore your friends with it or you write a play. But it was about getting an experience concisely out of myself. And to this day that’s what drives all of my plays, they’re a demon I need to exorcise or explore. And I love language.
What sparked the idea for Temple Spirit?
I was directing The Tempest for Montana Shakespeare and I decided to set it in Japan, on an island. And I wanted something very foreign. Since then, animé has really taken off. We’re very entrenched in Japanese culture; we weren’t when I started writing this play. I did all this research, I had to find demons or ghosts for Ariel or Caliban. As I started to do it, I realized that they were so familiar. Yet, I had never read them before…any fairy tale kind of has that sense of familiarity.
I became fascinated with them, and then I came across this one story that wasn’t about demons at all, it was about this priest who had to go up to the temple and spend one night. I was really taken with the fear of that, the idea of having to go some place, it’s the only story I have sort of bastardized a little bit. In that original story, he goes up to the temple, sees a bright light, and then the next thing you know, it’s morning and he’s dead. I was in grad school around 9/11, entrenched in Shakespeare, not just in the plays but in the writing and how it came about. I became fascinated with having source material because none of his stuff is original. The Tempest, that's the closest that he comes to being original. I thought, “How do you do that? How do you take source material and turn it into iambic pentameter?”
So, I started and it was so fun. I found that I was being fed by the rhythm to go places and that there were things in the stories that wanted certain rhythms, I was still reeling from 9/11 and really upset about our country and what we had done going into these places swinging. What would have happened if we had gone in with mercy?
Can you talk about your feminist point of view in writing?
It’s weird, I get flack about “Your leads are men!” all the time. And I have other plays where the leads are women. I have another show that Jeffrey [Schmidt] directed, Wasteland. It’s two boys in a hole in Vietnam. Rather than advance the cause of women through numbers, I’m interested in the feminist agenda.
I don’t have to tell women not to kill each other, but if I have two guys that are learning it, my agenda is taken care of…I’m not preaching to the choir.
Middle-aged women are there to be annoying in a lot of plays; they’re either supporting or they’re there to be the annoying one dimensional neighbor. So then I get asked a lot “Hey why don’t you write more plays with women?” I am. This doesn’t happen to be one of them. I just think, this moves me, I’m a woman, I’m gonna write about it. I don’t want to have an agenda thrust on me.
No one gives Tracy Letts flack for writing women. It’s funny what we demand of each other.
How did Temple Spirit end up at Echo Theatre?
One of my students was looking for a director in Texas and they picked Jeffrey. I had never met him. So he did this and fell in love with the language in Wasteland. It’s a whole different thing, because it’s the F word every other word, it’s in Vietnam. But it’s still got some language in there cause I’m a fiend for metaphors. Later, Jeffrey says, “Does she have anything else? I’ve got this slot at Echo and we can’t do the show we were supposed to do.” So I sent them this and he thought that was cool. It all happened very fast.
I’ve been blessed with several of my shows. Usually it takes several years and a relationship with a company to get new work done. Two of my shows, the companies read and produced them three months later. I’m feeling really blessed in that way.
Now, Temple Spirit has been around since 2001. It’s been workshopped at House Theatre in Chicago and they got some big names in the show as well. I love those boys, but they approached it in a very linear way.
So, when Echo approached me, their mission statement intrigued me. And I think I was just ready. I’ve had my fists tightly wound with this play for a long time, several people have wanted to do it, but I had been waiting for the right place. There was something about it being in Texas, and this company and Jeffrey.
As an American writer, did you have any hesitancy using these Japanese stories? Did you worry about authenticity or cultural appropriation?
Everybody’s got a mission, at the same time we have got to stay respectful of the source material. I know that some of the things that Shakespeare did with source material, those people would have been outraged.
To be culturally sensitive is important. One of my goals here, or one of my hopes was to bring these stories to a new generation and in a new way. I think they’re gorgeous stories and they can give us a view into a culture. I did not hesitate to take these stories and use them as source material, like Shakespeare. The real human connective tissue of these stories is what I’m interested in and that they’re cross-cultural. So don’t tell me to keep your hands off your culture, cause it’s like saying “keep your hands off our humanity.”