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“CATF at 24” by Scott Cawood

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The author: Scott Cawood

The late Gabriel Gracia Marquez begins his novel “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” by describing a ragged band of gypsies setting up camp on the edge of a village each spring and who, with great fanfare, would display the new inventions of the world.  When their leader, Melquides, demonstrated his magical irons (magnets) he proclaimed, “Things have a life of their own. It’s only a matter of waking up their souls.”

Twenty four summers ago a ragged band of gypsies showed up on the edge of Shepherdstown with enough clang and clatter and lightning and thunder to wake the town dog sleeping in the middle of German Street. And as it has come to pass, Shepherdstown has never been the same. I was lucky enough to find their camp early on courtesy of OG, (original gypsy) Mollie Brown, who led me by way of a complimentary ticket to a series of Sam Shepard vignettes in which she and fellow OG Joe Costa were performing.  And I was stunned! Just as stunned as those villagers who had witnessed the miracle of magnets…and Melquides turned out to be Ed Herendeen. But it wasn’t science or inventions he was demonstrating; no, it was the raw, searing power and sweeping range of human emotion caught up and twisted by life, and played out on stage. As I say, I was stunned; so much so that afterwards I went out and read everything Sam Shepard ever wrote. But even larger is that I saw theater completely different from that moment on; no longer as entertainment but, in a deeper sense, as Art. I had felt the direct and unmistakable gut churning power of Art. And it changed my life as that was the tipping point in which I realized that I, too, had the heart of a gypsy, an artist. Such is the magic of gypsies.

Nowadays the gypsies are a bit more polished, one could say (a few lost ponytails included), but I don’t hold that against anyone and it certainly hasn’t affected their ability to bring the magic. And true to those very first plays in the un-air conditioned old gym with a complimentary bottle of spring water and a wish for a cool breeze to arise out of nowhere, right on through to the contemporary ambience of the new Marinoff Theater, the festival’s mission of developing cutting edge contemporary storytelling has not waivered one iota. That’s twenty four solid years of addressing current issues, gloves off and daring to focus on often overlooked and uncomfortable facets of our contemporary existence. This is Art by mirror and what we see may not be pretty, but it is beautiful in that it touches us and makes us think… and that is a gigantic accomplishment. That’s why this Festival is so important and that’s why it increases the quality of life for everyone who attends, especially those folks who live right here in Shepherdstown.

I’ve watched Shepherdstown grow with the festival and I’ve watched as summers have gone from overloaded hay wagons meandering down German Street, dodging sleeping dogs, to this lively and exciting arts scene with galleries and restaurants and venues of all shapes and sizes swept up in the excitement. The whole town buzzes and talk on the street centers on the plays. Creativity is everywhere.  I’ve come to see this festival as a celebration of Truth played out by gypsies who come every summer and bring with them this huge swirling ball of creative energy. It’s very exciting to be around a group of dedicated, professional artists and to feel their energy and share creative exchanges; not many small towns can offer that.

Another endearing aspect of CATF for me has been the many great friendships I have developed with other professional artists over the years including writers, techies, designers, directors, and actors. Many of whom I remain close with even after all these years. It’s the closest I get to having a feeling of belonging to a family of artists; and since all artists (and gypsies) are basically self-imposed orphans, those friendships bring me much joy and comfort.

And while you can plainly see the beneficial effects CATF has had on local businesses, the local Art scene and the University, I think the largest, most positive and far-reaching effect CATF has had is on the thinking of the individuals who have attended plays or spent the summer as part of the theater company. I personally feel like my decision to become a full time artist was greatly influenced by my interaction with CATF, and that was the most positive decision I’ve ever made.  While I don’t believe or expect that everyone finds those kinds of seeds there, CATF is one of the few places I know of where they are made readily available if you care to gather and plant them. I have to wonder how many other souls have carried away with them some sort of inspiration which, in turn, has expanded their thinking to a much larger understanding. I’ll wager many….many, many. And believe it or not, that is the true beginnings of a better world.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago this was all set into motion by the vision and determination of one man, Shepherdstown’s own King Of The Gypsies, Ed Herendeen, who like Melquiades, has proven that things do have a life of their own and that it is only a matter of waking up their souls. That’s no small feat. And Ed has done it by starting this creative fire, and then nurturing it, and then feeding it as much fuel as it can stand… and then looking for more to burn.

So Thank You Ed, for twenty four years of gypsies, inspiration, and fire….and for waking up souls. Especially mine.

-Scott Cawood
July 2014

Scott is a self-taught artist and nationally recognized steel sculptor from right across the river in Antietam, MD. Past CATF exhibitions include: 1996 Flames; 1998 East West Highway (commissioned visual component to Carry The Tiger To The Mountain); 2007 A Retrospective; and now this year’s Scrap Yard Salon. www.cawoodart.com

His work can currently be seen during the Festival in Room 113 of the Center for Contemporary Arts/I (92 W. Campus Drive). The gallery for the “Scrap Yard Salon” is open before and after performances of Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons.

Chisa! (Part Two)

PART TWO: Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller. READ PART ONE OF THE INTERVIEW HERE.

CATF: In his book The Savage God (written after the suicide of his good friend, poet Sylvia Plath), A. Alvarez describes suicide as, “ . . . a closed world with its own irresistible logic.”  Is “Dead and Breathing” a closed world with its own irresistible logic?

CHISA: Yes, I think so because it departs from conventional ideas of morality.  It’s not necessarily about what’s right and what’s wrong, but rather what’s beneficial and what’s not. I think it’s definitely a world of its own, but one that I hope is still intriguing for folks to visit for an hour and a half.

CATF: I read that one of the things that inspired you to write plays was a debate you heard between August Wilson and Robert Brustein about color-blind casting.  I once saw a scene from the play, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman – about a daughter announcing to her mother that she plans to commit suicide – with two white actresses, and then saw the same scene with two black actresses.  The two scenes felt very different to me.

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Nicole Ari Parker and Daphne Rubin-Vega in 2012’s Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

CHISA:  They should feel different!  The black actresses add a whole other dimension.  I felt that way when I saw, “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway with multi-racial casting. When the sisters are talking about their struggles and struggling in the South, it takes on a whole other meaning. When you cast a black actor in a role that is traditionally white, of course it’s going to “color” it differently just because of our cultural baggage which can, actually, heighten the dramatic narrative. It can certainly refresh it.

I also think, though, that it can hurt the actor.  Having been in the position of playing a white character, it’s hard to fully commit to a role that you know wasn’t really meant for you.  You’re constantly thinking, “I wonder how the audience is feeling about this? Are they taking this differently than the way it was intended?”  Black actors should have the option of getting their own narratives out there; to play a role that was actually intended for a black actor, otherwise it’s going to be intellectual acrobatics throughout the audience.  That is, people will be focused on figuring out what statement the director is trying to make by casting a black chick in this role. I think it does a disservice.

CATF: Would it do a disservice to “Dead and Breathing” if it featured two white actresses?

CHISA: To an extent, yes.   There are elements in the play that are distinctly African-American, and I think that they would either be lost entirely or take on a whole different meaning if they were performed by non-black actresses.  Not that I’m not open to that, but it is a different interpretation.  As a playwright you have to accept that people are going to take liberties. You try your best to make the blueprint as clear as possible, but people may have trouble casting the eight black people and the one white person; they’ll have to use a couch instead of a bed, and so forth.

CATF:  You have said that you write plays to “make yourself and others like you more visible”. Why do you need to make yourself more visible?

Chisa Hutchinson

Chisa Hutchinson, playwright of “Dead and Breathing”.

CHISA: Why the hell not?  If I see one more damn play about a white chick who is restless in her marriage . . . please, just get a divorce and be done with it so I can go home.

African-American culture?  It doesn’t get more dramatic than our experience.  It just doesn’t.  If you want to put something electric on stage, put black people on stage. First, we have very interesting experiences that go beyond self-indulgent fluff that I really can’t get into.  Enough already with the whining.  If you want a play that’s about something bigger, a play about people who struggled mightily with something beyond themselves, put black people on stage. Second, I think about audiences. I’ve had former students email me out of the blue to thank me for the race-appropriate monologue they performed in my theater class; how it inspired them.  There’s something motivating, too, about seeing yourself on stage, about seeing yourself in art. It’s incredibly validating.  It’s not just a fluffy, fun experience.  When you feel important enough for someone to make art about you, you are motivated to go out and achieve something and contribute to the world.

CATF:  Is that the singular, peculiar, unique thing about art?

CHISA: I think so. People for whom going to the theater is a regular Sunday afternoon and who regularly see themselves on stage – those people begin to take this art for granted. For others it is a relatively new thing, “What?  There are black people on stage? There are Asian theater companies out there?” For people for whom this type of theater is different . . . they can feel it and appreciate it in a way that may be lost on others who’ve been able to take it for granted.

Some people are going to be shocked and scandalized by the ending to “Dead and Breathing”, but I was not shocked, and I did not write the ending to scandalize anyone.  Perhaps I am taking the dramatic narrative for granted.

CATF: Why even take the risk of scandalizing an audience? 

CHISA: Again, I honestly did not set out to scandalize the audience.  I just didn’t.  For me, it is what it is. That’s all I can say about it.

CATF: Alice Walker said that, “Life is better than death because it’s a lot less boring and it has fresh peaches in it.”

CHISA: I would have said mangoes.

CATF:  You have said that this line from the poet, Mary Oliver is “everything”: “There are so many stories more beautiful than answers.”  Why is this line, “everything”?

CHISA: Whenever anyone asks me a question, I can only answer in stories.  The questions and answers that delight me the most are stories.  It’s the way we connect to each other as humans. Stories are the best way for us to make sense of anything.  Sharing our stories literally is everything.

 CATF: What’s your story, Chisa?

CHISA: I came.  I wrote.  I conquered.

Chisa! The Playwright of ‘Dead and Breathing’ (part one)

Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller

 

CATF:  Whenever you describe the play “Dead and Breathing” you say, “It’s a comedy.  Swear.” What’s funny about being in a hospice for two years dying of cancer?

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Chisa Hutchinson. Photo by Seth Freeman.

CHISA HUTCHINSON: Exactly.  There’s really nothing funny about it. Whenever I tell people what the play is about, it always sounds so heavy and bleak. If you’re living in hospice or a hospice worker, you cannot be in that space all the time.  It would be exhausting. Hospice workers have to have a sense of humor otherwise they would scratch their eyes out and never come out into the light of day.

Comedy is a defense mechanism.  It’s the way we survive.  If people who are suffering just dwelt on the suffering, it would be totally exhausting and unpleasant.  If you plan on living, you’ve got to have a sense of humor.

 CATF: One of the characters in “Dead and Breathing” is based on your favorite aunt.

CHISA:  When I finished this play, I was so excited to send it to my aunt to get her stamp of approval. She loves it and has shared it with everybody.  She’s a nurse who has seen a lot of suffering, yet she is probably one of the funniest women I know.  She’s got such a wry sense of humor and is relentless with her comedy. She is a joy to be around, and I hope that the audience will find her as enthralling as I do.

 CATF:  Did you follow her around with a tape recorder or a pad and pencil? How much of this play is comprised of her actual words?

CHISA: It’s more that the characters are inspired by her.  It’s more like I’m asking, “What would my aunt do if she were in this position?”  Yes, I’m transplanting her into this fictitious situation, but the character is very real with my aunt’s attitude, her humor and her quickness.

CATF: What would your aunt say was your greatest strength and what would she say chisa threewas your greatest weakness?

CHISA: She would say that my greatest strength is loving and my greatest weakness is loving.

CATF:  You have said that your plays are about three things: race, sexuality and gender.  Is this true about “Dead and Breathing”?

CHISA: I always have an agenda, but I don’t like to beat people over the head with it. Whenever you have to give your pet a pill for medication, they won’t swallow it.  But if you stick the pill in a piece of cheese or wrap a piece of chicken around it, they’ll eat it.  I feel that way with plays that have messages. If you wrap the message in something else — like a narrative about mortality and morality, faith and forgiveness – it makes a message about race or gender easier to swallow.

CATF: Is the play more about the relationship between the two women or about death and assisted suicide?

CHISA: The relationship is the vehicle that carries the message.  How can men in your audience come to care about women? How can you make them give a shit about gender issues?  They won’t if you don’t give them something broader to relate to. How can I write a play about race that people who do not identify as people of color can relate to? The trick is to focus on the human relationships and present another angle to sneak the message in.

Chisa four CATF: For being so young [34 years old], you seem like an old soul.

CHISA: I hear that a lot.

 CATF: Why is someone as young as you dealing with assisted suicide?

CHISA: I have multiple sclerosis, and I wonder sometimes – and this is kind of morbid – when I’m going to die. I have fears and concerns about how MS will affect my breathing or my heart or some other function that I really need. Right now it’s just in my legs.  I wonder if it ever got to the point where I was unable to function, if I would decide, “Wow, this is not really the quality of life I want.  I really would rather not go on like this.”  I wonder if I would decide that, but I don’t think I have the courage.

 CATF: Here’s an excerpt from a short story called, “Go Like This” by Lorrie Moore. The story is about Elizabeth, a married writer with one child who has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and announces to her friends and family that she has decided to end her life: “I tell them the cancer is poisoning at least three lives and that I refuse to be its accomplice.  This is not a deranged act, I explain. Most of them have known for quite a while my belief that intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to the stupid lingering of a graceless death.”  What do you think of that description?2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_Dead_Breathing--2-17-2014 copy

CHISA:  Wow.  Wow.  That is the best articulation of that I have ever heard. This applies directly to “Death and Breathing” because it is the struggle between this nurse whose job is to nurture life, and the patient who asks her to end it. It goes against what the nurse believes.  Her function is to tease out the difference between intelligence – as in intelligent suicide – and ingratitude for life. The nurse feels like this woman who has been in hospice for two years has had two years of life. The nurse can’t shake the feeling that this woman is totally ungrateful and has wasted two years worth of life.

This play is a question: Is there a difference between that intelligence and that ingratitude? Between rationally wanting to end your life and being ungrateful for the life you’ve been given?

CATF:  Are you grateful for the life you’ve been given?

CHISA: I am absolutely grateful for the life I’ve been given.  Every day.  Every day. I sometimes wonder if there will come a time when I’m not grateful or when I will say, “Okay, time for that intelligence.  Time for the intelligent suicide that could be a grateful way of going.”

Read Part Two of CATF’s interview with Chisa Hutchinson here.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.

Charles Fuller Discusses ‘One Night’

Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller

CATF:  What was the most important thing the military taught you?

CHARLES FULLER:  I enlisted in 1959 and was there until 1962.  While there, I had the opportunity to read all the great works in English.  I had an opportunity, in a sense, to finish college. I had left Villanova my junior year because I wasn’t happy. My father had two jobs to keep me in college, and I thought that was a waste of his money, so I left. In those days, you couldn’t sit around your parents’ house; the next best thing to do was to join the military, so I joined the Army.

 CATF: Your experience in the military was essentially a good one?

FULLER: Yes, but it is profoundly disturbing to see the kinds of things that are happening in the military at the moment – these extraordinary charges of sexual assault.  This was probably going on when I was in the military but at the time, there was no large female population.

 CATF: What convinced you to give a voice to women who have been sexually assaulted?

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Charles Fuller, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. Photo by Seth Freeman.

FULLER: This may sound naïve, but sexual assault is simply wrong.  You can’t keep brushing things under the rug and believe they will suddenly disappear.  You can’t keep maintaining that all the male soldiers who came home were heroes when last year the estimate of sexual assaults was 26,000.

I didn’t start writing to tell happy, little stories.  I started writing to make some impact on the world in which I live. If you don’t want to say anything about sexual assault, that’s your business, but I want to say something about it.  I think it is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.  We have no right because we are in the military to rape fellow soldiers who just happen to be females.  A lot of victims are male as well.  In the Army I was in, the life of the person next to you was as valuable as your own. You would never do anything to hurt your comrade.  Your life depended on him, and in the case of Iraq, those gentlemen’s lives depended on the women they were raping.  It’s horrifying.

 CATF:  Why is war hell?

FULLER: Because it’s justifiable murder.  The idea that the only way we can change things or convince people or defend religions or overthrow governments — whatever those reasons for starting wars — the idea that the only way we can do that is to kill one another is horrible.  It’s horrible because there’s a kind of acceptance; a kind of behavior that maintains that during certain operations we can and must kill one another in order to succeed. That’s absolutely insane.

 CATF: Does war corrupt the military?

FULLER: I’m not sure about that.  What happens is this: when we come to believe that the only way to make change is to murder one another, the idea of “the other” makes less valuable the human life it possesses.  As a consequence, we can kill the “other” and not feel guilty. Unfortunately, human beings spend too much time rationalizing that war is right under certain circumstances; that it’s okay to threaten and kill other human beings.

 CATF: You have said, “Plays are about language”.  The military today trains soldiers to “neutralize” and not to “kill”.  Does the military dehumanize people?

Charles Fuller with the poster from 1982’s “A Soldier’s Play”.

FULLER:  I don’t think so, but over time the language of war has changed.  When I joined the Army in 1959, we learned how to “kill” the enemy. When I was a kid, a person was “homeless” and a guy without a job was called a “bum”. When is the last time you heard that term used in current language?  Language has changed over the years, and that’s reasonable.  To be concerned about another person’s feelings despite what they are or what they are involved in is okay. CATF: You have said, “sexual assault in the military is now academic”.

FULLER:  It is something that is accepted.  What I find very strange is that we haven’t worked out a way to do very much about it. The bill that was going through Congress at one time was not passed because it would take some power away from commanding officers. To solve this problem, we have to bring people who are accused of sexual assault into civilian counts.

 CATF: What do you think about the recent increase in rape scenes on TV?

FULLER:  I don’t know what the heck is going on with that. Most of those scenes are extremely poorly done and seem done only so viewers have something to talk about at work the next day. If you’re not serious about doing something about rape, you shouldn’t even think about writing about it. After a rape scene, you have to see that someone is punished; that they are made, in some way, responsible for what happened.  It is not something to laugh about, it not something to dismiss.  That kind of behavior is not entertaining.  It dehumanizes women. It’s horrible.

CATF: Thirty minutes before this interview began, the Washington Post published an article entitled, “Jurors to weigh whether ex-Marine should be executed”. [LINK TO ARTICLE HERE] The convicted Marine attacked a soldier – at random — wrapped her neck with the power cord of her pink laptop and sexually assaulted her until she was dead.  Should this ex-Marine be executed?

FULLER: I don’t believe in the death penalty. People should be isolated from other human beings. That’s enough punishment – isolated for the rest of their lives.

[Charles Fuller “in conversation” with Ed Herendeen during the 2014 Season Annoucement, Part One.]

[Click for Part Two, Part ThreePart Four, and Part Five

CATF: About America and Americans, you have said, “calamities seem to bring us together but we discard things quickly”.  Are we discarding women in the military?

FULLER:  Today, a strong, religiously evangelical tint seems to be growing in the military. Yes, there is respect for women, but women are considered less than men. The more religion enters into the military, the more this happens. When I was in the military, I don’t recall any evangelical preachers trying to change things or baptize people. I saw chaplains who would talk to you and help you through difficult times.  Today?  I recently read of the extraordinary increase in the number of evangelical preachers and congregations growing in the military.  Some of the precepts of evangelicals who believe in the strong translation of the Bible are that women have very little place aside from being helpmeets to men. I also think some people don’t want women in the military at all because it equalizes you. That’s dangerous to men because they believe they are stronger and more important than women.

 CATF: There is a blues song called, “Mean Old World”.  [LISTEN TO THE SONG ON YOUTUBE] Do we live in a mean world?

FULLER: The world is a product of human beings, and we can change the world.  The world is not, in and of itself, mean.  It’s just what it is.  We have made it whatever it is — we cannot blame it on wildness or Mother Nature.  We have destroyed whatever was good. To say that the world is “mean” is to not understand our place in it or to not understand what we have done to it.  The world was not mean when it was created and if it is mean now, we have made it mean because the meaning of mean is something we describe.

2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_One_Night--2-17-2014 copyCATF: You have such a peaceful presence, but you can write a visceral play like, ‘One Night’.  Did writing it help you dissipate your anger about sexual assault?

FULLER: Every day, I confront things that upset me, that I think are wrong, that don’t make sense.  But the only way we can deal with them is rationally.  You can’t write “crazy” things.  Art is about framing.  A picture that encompasses the whole world is one that has no frame.  How can you know what it’s about? The best art is framed.  Books are framed from cover to cover. Plays are framed by where they begin and where they end.

Art is something you must think about in terms of how much you do and whether or not what you do is sufficient for the idea or the anger that you have. You can’t do that irrationally.  If you do, your art is irrational, and no one will understand it.

 CATF:  Has your art healed you?

FULLER: Sometimes.

 CATF:  Should art heal?

FULLER:  It can suggest ways of healing. The weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing, and that’s what art can suggest for us.  Where is the weather vane turning? What direction? I have no idea whether or not art can overcome evil, but it can suggest that maybe we need to think more about an issue.  I don’t think art can win wars.  I don’t think art can overturn nations.  But art can tell us which way the wind is blowing and that just might help us to better understand the world in which we live.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.

‘One Night’ was commissioned, developed, and produced by Cherry Lane Theatre (Angelina Fiordellisi, Artistic Director), in conjunction with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.