Posts

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.

Streetcar

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.

SATURDAY: WE ANNOUNCE

From a staff perspective, we’ve known the five plays that will occupy our lives for the next six months for a while now. But it never seems real until they flash across our website, show up on Google Alerts, and the–hopefully–constant buzz of the box office phones kicks in.  We’re no different than other theaters in, that, the selected season–the chosen few–dominates our hearts and minds: they are, for an appointed amount of time, our singular purpose, our motivation, our full-time occupation. But unlike more traditonal theaters that stretch out their season over, say, 10 months, we keep ours super compact–as a package, a bundle of explosive activity that bursts on the scene, and then is gone just as quickly. As far as we are concerned, in our CATF lives, these are the most important plays in the world. And we will give them our all.

We finally get to let you in on the secret we’ve been keeping since December. That’s not to say we have just been resting on our laurels, waiting around for an opportunity to make some noise and get some press.  We’ve been busy getting ourselves ready to launch this 24th repertory–some of it sexy, a lot of it not. And we’re almost ready. It’s exciting. It’s a little nerve-wracking. It’s why we do this.

I think you’re going to like the plays Ed has selected. I think you’re going to like them a lot. On Saturday, we will officially reveal them to anyone and everyone who cares to know how we’ll be devoting our time and treasure from now until early August. And “devoting” is right: this is a devotion for us. For Ed, Peggy, and me. For Patrick and Trent and our production staff. For Gaby talking to you as you sort out your ‘ultimate theater experience’. For our support teams who design our graphics, insure our stages, and balance our books. For our extraordinary board. For our donors and funders. And for you, I hope, our patrons.

We make art because we have to–nothing else compares. And you allow us the extaordinary privilege to create theater for a living. It’s a honor we do not take for granted. Thank you.

So, please join us this weekend as we announce the 2014 season and welcome the esteemed American playwright Charles Fuller to Shepherdstown. Once we unveil the season, it’s going to be a mad sprint to the finish line. Hang on tight.

-jkm

CATF_March 1_General Admission copy

Welcome to the Marinoff!

Last week, Shepherd University President Suzanne Shipley announced the official name of the theater housed within the new phase of the Center for Contemporary Arts.  This 180-seat flexible space will be called the STANLEY C. AND SHIRLEY A. MARINOFF THEATER in honor of a recent legacy gift made by Dr. Stanley Marinoff to the Shepherd University Foundation. This endowment gift will be used for the long-term support of CATF’s programming and education initiatives.

READ THE PRESS RELEASE HERE.

In January, at the CATF annual board retreat, Dr. Shipley and Ed Herendeen announced this to the board at a private event in the lobby of the new theater (scroll down for more photos):
Stan at podium

Dr. Stanley C. Marinoff

Dr. Marinoff made the following remarks:

This Endowment gift is a continuation of the Marinoff family’s commitment to the Contemporary American Theater Festival. There has been a Marinoff on the board for 21 years, and in fact, Shirley was an original board member and one of the first in the community to see CATF’s potential. She would be proud of this day and to see how far we have progressed over these years.

I remember early-on in the Festival’s history when I had to co-sign a bank loan to keep everything going; now we have financial stability–a testament to the great strides we have made. This is a gift that will last forever.  It is made to help enshrine a permanent future for CATF and guarantee that the organization can forever benefit and know that it can count on my family’s support.  It will ensure that future students, artists, and audiences will be impacted by this gift for years and years to come. It is a long-term pact that will serve the organization and community in perpetuity. With this gift, I am able to know that every future CATF season, and future University students, will be supported by the Marinoff family.

Shirley and I first discovered Shepherdstown the same year CATF was founded and as soon as we built our house here we became involved in the organization. I have witnessed this community and campus expand and grow over the last 23 years along with CATF.  The cultural fabric—and quality of life improvements—that the Theater Festival and the University has provided Shepherdstown is proof of the power and importance of the arts.

The University has supported CATF and has provided us our own modern theater. CATF’s partnership with Shepherd remains paramount to my support as both education and the arts share a mutual mission of opening minds and inspiring critical thinking.  Shepherd’s focus on a liberal arts curriculum, and CATF’s commitment to thought-provoking new work, continue to successfully fulfill this important need.

With this gift, our internship program will be expanded and a future generation of theater students will be given the opportunity to begin their careers at Shepherd University and CATF. Many former Marinoff Interns have gone on to work in theater around country, including our own James McNeel who was an intern in 1998.

There are so many needs in the world, and often the arts are the first to be cut.  This gift will, hopefully, help shelter CATF for when times are tough; and expand and develop the organization when things are not.  As Ed always says, the arts are not a luxury, but a necessity of a civilized society. This organization and this university are the pillars for the continued vibrancy of Shepherdstown.

Finally, I hope this gift will inspire others to consider the future of CATF by building up its endowments and continuing its home here on Shepherd’s ever-growing and beautiful campus. It is rewarding—even fun—to donate money to something you believe in deeply. —Dr. Stanley C. Marinoff, January 12, 2013.

Here are some additional photos from this festive day–one of the great keystone moments in the history of the Festival. Thank you Dr. Marinoff and the Marinoff Family!

(photos by Seth Freeman)

Allison hugs Stan

(pictured above) Dr. Marinoff is hugged by his daughter Allison Marinoff Carle, with Ed Herendeen and Trustees Ray Smock and Elena Echenique

SU Drum corps

(pictured above)  Members of the Shepherd University Drum Corps provided the musical backdrop to the announcement.

CATF board applauds

(pictured above) Members of the CATF Board and Honorary Board applaud the announcement.

theater2

(pictured above) Billy Thompson and Mary Hott sang in honor of the Marinoffs–the unofficial first performance in the theater!

Stan and Allison

(pictured above) Dr. Stanley Marinoff and Allison Marinoff Carle.

in the theater

(pictured above) On the (at that point unpainted) floor of the Marinoff Theater.

on the grid

(pictured above) “Up on the catwalk” – taking a tour of the theater: the Marinoffs with Dr. Mark Stern, Marjorie Weingold, Ray Smock, and Gary Horowitz (CATF Trustee R.B. Seem snaps photos in the distance)

Ed with Stan

(pictured above) Ed Herendeen shares a private moment with the Marinoffs. There has been a member of the Marinoff family on the CATF board since the Festival’s founding. Stanley’s late wife Shirley (Allison’s mom) was an early advocate and supporter of Ed’s work and vision.