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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?

chisa two

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.

CATF Talks to Playwright Thomas Gibbons

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

CATF:  What does “uncanny valley” mean?

TOM: It comes from the field of robotics.  It is the idea that people are fascinated by an artificial being that is somewhat human-like, but the closer it comes to being more truly human-like, it becomes creepy.

CATF: Why write a play about it?Uncanny

TOM: The sound of the words – uncanny valley – really appealed to me.  I didn’t have a title when I started the play, but I like to have a title as early as I can.  I also liked that no one knew what it meant.  I have a weakness for cryptic titles.  Also, when I go to the theater, I like a certain element of mystery – not a “who-done-it”, but a certain amount of mystery where I don’t quite know what I’m in for.

CATF: What do you want your audience to have realized after seeing “Uncanny Valley”?

TOM: That’s the kind of question that I really don’t like to answer. I hope that 20 different people will walk out with 20 different things. However, one of the things I want people to think about is this: as technology blurs the line between human and mechanical, artificial or whatever word you want to use – how is that going to change our definition of humanity?

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LifeNaut’s Bina48

CATF: “Uncanny Valley” has been described as traveling “to the ethical heart of humankind’s bid to outrace mortality.”  What’s that about?

TOM: The idea for the play came from a National Geographic article [click for story] that I came across in my dentist’s office a couple of years ago.  The article was about the LifeNaut Group in Vermont [visit LifeNaut website here] which is exploring the idea of downloading human consciousness into a mechanical or artificial body in order to extend our life span by hundreds of years.  People in this field seriously talk about immortality. That article included a photo that I found absolutely fascinating and haunting . . . I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. One of the LifeNaut engineers is sitting in a chair facing a table on which is an artificial head. This head is called Bina 48, and she is probably the most advanced robot in the world right now. I’ve since found out through research that lots of other people are working on this very idea.  In fact, an article in the New York Times last June entitled, “This Man is Not a Cyborg, Yet” [click here to read article] is about a Russian multi-millionaire named Dmitry Itskov who is putting a lot of money into this idea because he wants to live for a long, long time.

CATF: Do you want to live for a long, long time? Do you want to be immortal?

Tom2_small

Playwright Thomas Gibbons. Photo by Seth Freeman.

TOM: No, I don’t want to be immortal, but it is hard to answer that question.  What does immortality mean?  Dmitry Itskov is having a cyborg created that is basically identical to him. By the way, I had never heard the term, “uncanny valley” before I read that National Geographic article.  So I started to do some research.  It’s a really well-known concept in the field of robotics, artificial consciousness and the whole field of computer animation.

As I began to work on the play, the word, “valley” became very important because it has many metaphysical implications: the valley between life and death, the valley between the creator and the created, the valley between parents and children.  I’ve come to realize that this play is very much about parents and children.

CATF: What was the first play that made an impression on you?

TOM: The year I graduated from college, I went to England and saw a lot of plays.  One play in particular called, “Destiny” made a huge impression on me.  It was about the rise of right-wing politics in England, and I was struck that “Destiny” was about something happening in England at that moment. I decided that I wanted to write plays that were very urgently of the moment. “Uncanny Valley” actually takes place 40 years into the future, but it’s of the moment in that is deals with research that is happening now and just extrapolates from that.

One of the important questions the play asks is this: Is Julian (the artificial human) conscious?  Even though the field of study I’ve been researching is called, “artificial intelligence”, it seems to me that what researchers are really talking about is “artificial consciousness”. They are a little bit slippery about the distinction.

CATF: What is the distinction?

TOM: In my play, Claire (the human) says, “There are people in my field who don’t make much of a distinction; they say that to be conscious is to know. But that’s not true.  To be conscious is to know we know.”  This is the fulcrum of the play.  What is consciousness?  How do we measure it? How is it signified? Can an artificial being be truly conscious?

On the face of it, the play is very simple: two characters in one room and the relationship between a neuroscientist and an artificial being, but as the play goes on, it gets deeper and deeper and deeper.

CATF: Do you like one character more than another? And why is the scientist female and the artificial being male?

TOM: I like them both. I first wrote the play for two actors I knew and they, in fact, did the first reading of the play.  But the more I worked on it, the more I realized that the scientist really needed to be a woman.  I thought the play would be too icy if it were two men.

CATF: So a woman brings a certain warmth that you needed?

TOM: Exactly. And then Julian ended up being much younger, so the two original actors were no longer right for the parts.

CATF: So this is where the mother and child dynamic comes in?

TOM: That is part of it, yes. Whenever you write a play, you always hope it will go in directions you didn’t plan or expect.  I didn’t realize when I started it that it was so much about parents and children.  My wife and I have a son who is now in his first year of college. When I started the play, I was acutely aware that he wasn’t going to be around here much longer and very much thinking about how much I was were going to miss him. Those feelings worked themselves into the play . . . in some things revealed about Julian and in some things that Claire reveals about the past and her own daughter.  The play really is about actual and metaphorical parenthood.

CATF: What is the best thing and the worst thing about being a parent?

TOM: There are so many great things about it.  The best thing is just seeing how this being that you helped to bring into the world grows and develops and changes; and how completely fascinating that is on a day-to-day level.  The worst thing is realizing that you raised your child to be a separate being and there is something definitely bittersweet about that. You can raise a child and be with them constantly from the time they are born and – any parent knows this – you will be surprised by something at some point. You think you know everything about your child, but you don’t.

CATF: Here’s a “101” question: what percentage of the play you originally wrote ends up being the one we see on the stage?

TOM: At the moment, I’m working on draft #15. The reading and research never ends. I finish a draft, and then it away for a couple of months. Then I go back to it because I want to make the play deeper and richer — to have what I call, “poetic density”. It’s not just what the characters are saying, but also what is being suggested.

CATF: Why do you keep your eyes open like you did that day in the dentist office?

TOM: I read the papers like a mad man everyday because most of the ideas I have for plays have come from things that I’ve read.  I know I’ve hit on a good idea when I can’t forget something I’ve read, but I deliberately don’t start writing right away.  I let it sit, and if I still can’t forget it in a couple of months, it probably needs to be written.  And I’d like what I’ve written not to forgotten by the folks who see my plays.

 

The CATF production will be directed by Tom Dugdale.

“Uncanny Valley” is presented as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in conjunction with San Diego Repertory Theatre and InterAct Theatre Company.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.