By Joan Alperin
Skylight Theatre has long believed that art can change the world. This season features plays by two breakout dramatists who have finally reached a point in their careers where they are making a living at their craft. Stephanie Alison Walker whose play The Madres ran at the Skylight from March 10th through April 29th and Michelle Kholos Brooks whose new play
Hostage is about to open. While not necessarily writing only "issue" plays, Walker and Brooks both believe that they are activists. Walker hopes her plays will "inspire a new perspective and understanding to promote positive change." While Brooks feels that being a woman "inherently makes us activists."
Both women writers took time to share their perspectives with me in this interview:
Do you consider yourself to be an activist?
Walker: I believe my writing is a form of activism. I do believe that theater has that power. At the same time, I am a member of a group in Los Angeles called PUSH (People Unwilling to Sit on their Haunches), which promotes volunteerism and progressive activism on a local and national level. They raise money for local causes and support organizations such as the Hollywood Food Coalition. They're currently harnessing their resources to help flip California's 25
th district from red to blue in the next election by supporting Jess Phoenix, a female scientist running for Congress for the first time.
Brooks: We are always fighting for space, speech, recognition, safety and the well being of our children. We're not always marching but we're always fighting. That being said, I have marched, signed petitions, agitated and raised my fist a lot more in the last year than I ever have.
Are the stories in your plays mined from your own priorities of activism, or concern?
Walker: My plays are born from a place of wanting to better understand. I always begin with a question. With
The Madres, the question is how do you go on? And then, how do we make sure nothing like this ever happens again?
Brooks: I am not an "issues" writer in that I choose an issue and formulate a story around it. I have great respect for people who can do that but, for me, there has to be something deeply personal that sparks my interest in the bigger picture. For instance, I came to the story of
Hostage not as an activist but as a mother in awe of another mother who went a great personal and physical distance in an attempt to save her son. As time went on and my research deepened, I became fascinated with the politics surrounding the Iran hostage crisis. That, in turn, has helped me formulate some of my political views, which have become deeply personal. It's a pretty thrilling cycle to get caught up in.
Is there an experience from your childhood that defined your career path as a writer?
Stephanie Alison Walker
Walker: I think it was an accumulation of things. I come from a family of storytellers. Both of my grandfathers were storytellers. My dad's dad told long bizarre and sometimes completely absurdist tales about a family of feet. My mom's dad enraptured my brother and I with stories of a magical leprechaun who had an affinity for the sea. My mom was a journalism major and has always been an avid reader and adventurer. My dad traveled internationally for work, lived in Argentina and has always been an avid reader and storyteller. Knowing the benefit of experiencing other cultures, both of my parents always encouraged adventure. By the time I was five I had already lived in London and visited Buenos Aires. Living abroad and traveling internationally at a young age contributed to my desire to explore and understand things. This has influenced the way in which I approach storytelling. As for the desire to become a writer... I think that was born in elementary school. I had a wonderful teacher in grade school who encouraged us to write fiction and arranged an "author's tea" for all of the young writers where we read our work in front of an audience. I think it was then that I decided I would be a writer.
I had a really mean English teacher in eighth grade named Mrs. Jackson. She was a stern taskmaster and liked to humiliate us by intercepting our notes and reading them out loud, or announcing our weekly averages to the entire class. One day she stood up and read an excerpt from a short story I had written for an assignment. When she finished she looked up at me over her severe glasses and said, "You're going to be a writer." I loved Mrs. Jackson.
Who are the writers, and women, that have influenced you the most?
I've been surrounded by strong women my whole life - my mom, my grandma, my stepmom and my aunts have been my models for being strong and using my voice. It's always hard to answer this question as to which writers have had the biggest impact on my work. So I'm going to keep it to three: Lucia Berlin - my former teacher and a brilliant fiction writer, the work and teaching of Paula Vogel and the work of Caryl Churchill.
This is a rough question for me too because it sends me down the rabbit hole of having to chose one amazing writer over another. If I start to answer this question I won't sleep for a week. But I will tell you that right now I am very inspired by women like Eve Ensler and Anna Deveare Smith who investigate individuals in order to be able to drill down to essential truths of humanity. Both of them are beacons of light.
Other female playwrights I think are really interesting right now are Sarah Ruhl and Annie Baker. Besides being wonderful writers, they both have tremendous intention and I deeply admire the way they trust their impulses to the end, without apology. As a side note I am currently crazy about Pamela Adlon and Tig Nagaro's shows on cable. They are both so brave and sometimes their respective brands of funny are so funny that all you can do is weep.
Do you think that it's getting easier for women playwrights to get produced?
I don't think there is anything easy about getting produced. I've been lucky to have my work championed by women, like Ann Filmer of 16th Street Theater. She produced my play The Art of Disappearing when I couldn't get anyone to consider it and I didn't have a good agent. Russ Tutterow of Chicago Dramatists gave me a Saturday Series reading slot for the play and asked Ann to direct it, she later decided to produce it herself. It was a very long path to production and I'll be forever grateful to Ann for taking a chance on me-- an unknown playwright. The path to production for
The Madres has been shorter than that one, but not 'easier.' It takes work and relentlessness to get produced. There are so many no's.
It's wonderful that there are people like Nan Barnett creating opportunities like the Women's Festival in DC. It might be easier to get read. If Artistic Directors continue to keep the focus on parity, then it will get easier. It is exciting to see theaters like Skylight who aren't afraid of plays by women or programming more than one slot by a playwright who is a woman.
Nope. But I'm deeply admiring of theaters like the Skylight that make an extra effort to ensure that a wide range of new and diverse voices get heard.
What's your favorite thing about theatre. And, your favorite part about having your play at the Skylight Theatre?
I love working with people who believe passionately that art can change the world. I love the collective experience of empathy that happens while watching live theater, the bravery of actors who put their trust in the play and the director. My favorite part about having my play at the Skylight Theatre is the trust they have put in the process and the passionate support everyone invests in the show. It feels very good to know that there is a team of people willing to do whatever it takes to make sure this play has a long life.
Michelle Kholos Brooks
Brooks: I love writing for the theatre because I can dream up a story, gather some actors and then receive the enormous gift of getting to hear my thoughts outside of my head. It's pretty exciting. Also, nauseating. In terms of
watching theater-- it may be masochistic but I kind of like that once the curtain goes up, I am trapped in that theater and have to endure, confront and (hopefully) enjoy, whatever comes at me. Even if a play is not my cup of tea, I get to respond to a dynamic event. There is always something useful for my own writing and my own learning in that experience.
I love that The Skylight is committed to new plays. Not just because-y'know... I only write new plays, but because the audience gets to reflect on the concerns of the day as they are happening. The Skylight is a great space with a sexy courtyard and I love that it's located between a bookstore (remember those?) and a yummy bistro. It's a little artist's haven over there.
What's next after this run?
The Madres is opening in Chicago at Teatro Vista in April followed by Moxie Theatre in San Diego and Shrewd Productions in Austin. I have a second production of my play
The Art of Disappearing opening this summer in Calgary and a reading of my newest play,
Friends With Guns, coming up at Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City. I'm hoping that the NNPN Rolling World Premiere of
The Madres will ignite interest in my companion play,
The Abuelas. This is by far the busiest I've ever been in my writing career and it's so exciting.
Brooks: I'm fortunate in that another new play of mine,
Hitler's Tasters, is about to open at Centenary Stage in New Jersey and will then be produced by the New Light Theatre Project in New York in October. Like
Hostage, the story in
Hitler's Tasters is based on true events.
Another project I'm really excited about, War Words, is being developed with the support of the Atlantic Council, a D.C. think tank, and revolves around interviews I'm doing with people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a project that's become a great passion of mine-one of those things I wish I could work on forever. But, I guess I'll have to put the breaks on at some point.
While change may come slow, Walker and Brooks are leading by example. Never sitting on their laurels, but constantly hustling, learning, fighting and most importantly, creating. What are both women hoping for the future? In a word, parity.
Michelle Kholos Brooks
, opens at 8:30pm on Saturday, May 26
thand continues with performances Fridays and Saturday 8:30pm; Sundays 2:00pm; Mondays 8:00pm through June 24, 2018.
Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $15 - $41. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or 866-811-4111. Online at