Dallas — Bishop Arts Theatre Center, celebrating its 25th season in Oak Cliff, brings back Down for #TheCount, a one-act play festival featuring the work of six female playwrights from diverse backgrounds. Directed by Camika Spencer, the festival fulfills BATC's mission of providing a platform for innovative theater where female voices can be heard in all their variety and intensity.
The Festival previews Thursday March 21, and runs from Friday March 22 through Sunday April 7. Plays range from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, and all six works are presented each evening.
TheaterJones talked with Dallas playwright Blue McElroy, born and raised in Oak Cliff, where she attended Rosemont Elementary and Bishop Dunne Middle School. She graduated "with the last class in the old building" from Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet. She lived in India and Costa Rica during her accredited gap year, then went to school in London for a year. She recently graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.Now she's back in Oak Cliff and thrilled about her play's acceptance in this year's festival. Meanwhile, she has applied to go to graduate school in theater in London.
The other playwrights are from around the country, and are: Emily Mann, France-Luce Benson, Kat Ramsburg, Kiana Rivera, and Gabrielle Denise Pina. Their plays and their bios are below the interview with McElroy.
McElroy is fascinated by topics people often don't talk about, even though they seem to be front and center. We talked to her about Cardboard Box, her Festival entry.
TheaterJones: What are the topics you address in your plays?
Blue McElroy: An earlier play I wrote deals with the drought in Texas in 2011, and the financial crisis it brought about, especially small towns. One town actually died that year. I wrote a single scene about this at Savannah College. Half the students asked what sort of weird, dystopic land I was imagining. The very real water rationing was deeply confusing to them. I love finding those things that are in your face in one geography, but in another place the subject appears strange and frightening.
What is Cardboard Box about?
It deals with divorce through the eyes of a child who is being talked around and not talked to. It's about the way people talk at one another, rather than to one another. When you talk to someone, you expect a reply, some sort of give and take. When you talk at somebody, your ears are closed off; it's just your opinion blasted out with no expectation of a reply. A stream of words is fired away. It's a little like a political stump speech, when the candidate is just making sure to hit the points.
You grew up in Oak Cliff and attended local schools. Is Oak Cliff the setting of your play?
No. It's an abstract play written for black box theater, envisioned from the perspective of a child. Three people sit in a box on the stage, and the parents tell their daughter they have to move and she must confine what she takes in a cardboard box, but she can't express what she really wants to take from the home she grew up in. How do you pack the mark on the doorway that shows your growth? I watched my good friend's parents go through a divorce, and her entire life was falling to shreds around her. What she heard came only from her parents' perspective. In my play, the child speaks an internal monologue to talk about what's important to her. That's the beautiful part about theater. I love how I can take everything to an extreme. A child doesn't have the words in real life, but she does on the stage. Films invite an audience to look for detailed accuracy in period and place. But in a black box theater a sign that says Edgar Allen Poe's house is enough. Everyone willingly suspends disbelief.
What does it mean to you and your work to have your play included in Down for #TheCount Festival?
It's everything. This is the first time my work has been produced that I wasn't paying to produce it. Also, no one is saying we'll give you $100 and then we'll own the rights to your work, as some festivals do. That's an ugly scam for playwrights. Teresa [Coleman Wash, BATC founder and artistic director] is adamant about the contract. It's a great gift to know that people will see my play, but nobody is going to take my work and do something with it I didn't intend. Also, it's such an honor to be included along with so many terrific playwrights in the Festival.
Anything else about the Festival?
It’s so important to support festivals like this. BATC's Festival is set up to produce short works to give audiences exposure to female playwrights. Only 20 percent of plays produced nationally are written by women, and that number goes down when you talk about plays written by women of color. The plays are a lovely mix of all different types of stories, from comedy to drama, and all come from a wonderfully diverse field of playwrights.
Down for #TheCount also features the following plays, with the playwrights' bios.
Under the Liberty Trees by Emily Mann (Princeton, N.J.): An enslaved family, working at the President’s House at Princeton, prepare themselves for separation through hard truths and tough love.
EMILY MANN is a multi-award-winning director and playwright in her 29th season as Artistic Director and Resident Playwright of McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ. It was announced in January that her 30th season would be her last as Artistic Director. Under Ms. Mann’s leadership, McCarter was honored with the 1994 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. Her nearly 50 McCarter directing credits include productions by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Williams and the recent world premieres of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express; Baby Doll; Five Mile Lake; The Convert; The How and the Why; Miss Witherspoon; and Me, Myself & I. This spring Mann will direct the McCarter-commissioned world premiere of Chris Durang’s Turning Off the Morning News. Broadway: A Streetcar Named Desire, Anna in the Tropics, Execution of Justice, Having Our Say. Her plays: Having Our Say, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth; Execution of Justice; Still Life; Annulla, An Autobiography; Greensboro (A Requiem); Meshugah; Mrs. Packard, and Hoodwinked (a Primer on Radical Islamism). She collaborated with Gloria Steinem on Gloria: A Life and is working on the stage adaptation of The Pianist. Adaptations: Baby Doll, Scenes from a Marriage, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, A Seagull in the Hamptons, The House of Bernarda Alba, Antigone. Awards: Peabody, Hull Warriner, NAACP, Obie's, Guggenheim; Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle nominations, a Princeton University Honorary Doctorate of Arts, a Helen Merrill Distinguished Playwrights' Award, and the Margo Jones Award given to a "citizen-of-the-theatre who has demonstrated a lifetime commitment to the encouragement of the living theatre everywhere.”
The Talk by France-Luce Benson (New York): A recent widow awakens her daughter in the middle of the night to ask a wildly inappropriate question, beginning a contentious confrontation that transcends into an honest dialogue about intimacy and identity.
FRANCE-LUCE BENSON is an award-winning New York-based playwright. She is currently working on Deux Femmes on The Verge De La Revolution (Dramatist Guild Fellowship), The Deportation Chronicles (Ensemble Studio Theatre w/ the ACLU), and was awarded a new play commission from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Other plays include Fati’s Last Dance, Boat People, (Princess Grace Award 2016 Runner Up), The Devi’s Salt (Alfred P. Sloan New Play Commission), The Talk, and Risen from the Dough (Winner of the Samuel French OOB Festival 2016).
The First Step by Kat Ramsburg (Los Angeles): It's Callie's first day in New York, and where she takes her first step will make or break her.
KAT RAMSBURG is a Los Angeles-based playwright. Full-length plays include Anatomy of a Hug (Semi-Finalist, O’Neill Theatre Conference), Stupid Hope, (Drama League New Directors/New Works grant), Wendy Unwritten, Drive You Happy and Love Cloud. Her plays have been produced, commissioned and developed by Primary Stages: ESPA Drills, The Great Plains Theatre Conference, Trustus Theatre, The Road Theatre, Northern Writer’s Project, Acadiana Repertory Theatre, The Bechdel Group, New Origins Theatre, The Bridge Initiative: Women in Arizona Theatre, The Evergreen School, Ugly Rhino Theatre Company, Rising Sun Theatre Company, Exit 7, and The Little Theatre. By day she works on the Netflix original series, 13 Reasons Why.
Puzzy by Kiana Rivera (Hawaii): Mele is just your average Samoan Jehovah’s Witness on a quest for true love—except she’s a lesbian.
KIANA “KIKI” RIVERA (she, we, us) is an internationally produced, award-winning theatre artist, educator and arts activist. Kiki has a BA in Theatre from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM), MFA in Playwriting (UHM) and member of the 2018 ArtEquity cohort. She is also associated with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) as a Region VIII Respondent. Original plays include Puzzy (featuring award-winning New Zealand Playwright Victor Rodger), Faʻalavelave: The Interruption and Lost Boy featured in Plantation Plays commissioned by The Leeward Theatre at Leeward Community College. As an educated gender-queer person of color (Samoan-Filipinx born and raised in Hawaii) that is cis-femme presenting, Kiki recognizes her privilege and responsibility to those marginalized communities. Her work focuses on cultural and sexual identity and the effects of colonization. Kiki is one of many voices for Pacific Islanders in the diaspora and is published in Samoan Queer Lives edited by Yuki Kihara and Dan Talaupapa McMullin. Kiki believes in self-reflective storytelling from a contemporary indigenous perspective and creating space for marginalized theatre artists of color.
Uncommon Revelations by Gabrielle Denise Pina: A mother’s spirit, left bruised by a loveless marriage, finds redemption in reconnecting with her estranged gay son.
GABRIELLE DENISE PINA is a poignant and masterful storyteller. Ms. Pina’s novels have been described as “ever suspenseful” by Black Issues Book Review and “a spectacular effort” by Written Magazine. Pina was viewed as “the writer to look out for” when she published the acclaimed short story Uncommon Revelations for the ESI Anthology. That year also featured the birth of her thesis project, Bliss into her first novel, which culminated in a three-book deal with Random House and a national book tour. Pina’s long- awaited sophomore novel, Chasing Sophea was released in October 2006 and has become a book club favorite.