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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.

So, the 2014 Season is live. Tickets are for sale. The buzz is buzzing.

2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_One_Night--2-17-2014 copyWe had the — and I’m being hyperbolic-free here — life-changing opportunity of hosting Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Charles Fuller with us this weekend as we announced this year’s line-up of plays.  He was, frankly, incredible  at the Shephedstown Opera House on Saturday.  He spoke from the heart and had the audience eating out of his hand. He has a genuine commitment to telling America’s story, warts and all, and to make the country a better place. If art can change the world–and we think it does–he has every intention of doing so. The standing ovation at the end of his talk with Ed could have gone on all night had he not insisted on stepping down from the stage.  Mr. Fuller has something important to say with his new play ONE NIGHT and he certainly intends on disrupting the universe a little bit with this production, as well he should. (It premiered this past fall at my old haunt, Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. Cherry Lane, under the leadership of Artistic Director Angelina Fiordellisi, commmissioned the play and co-produced it with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.)

The evening included Ed intorducing the full slate of plays on tap this summer (more to follow in a separate post on that front), a terrific clip from Mr. Fuller’s film adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A SOLDIER’S STORY (the movie, with a young Denzel Washington, is called A SOLDIER’S STORY and is definitely worth checking out), and then an hour-long conversation tracing his career, time in the military, and the impetus behind this new script. It was deeply moving and inspirational.

What an artist and what a patriot. Thank YOU, Mr. Fuller, for giving us the opportunity to meet you and produce your work. Ed will be directing this second production in the Frank Center and it will open the Festival on Friday, July 11th.

Here’s a terrific article in DC Theatre Scene by Mark Dewey about the evening and the roll-out of the ’14 season: http://dctheatrescene.com/2014/03/04/catf-makes-belief-shepherdstown-wv-announcing-season-24/

And a couple of photos of Mr. Fuller:

Ed and Charles

Playwright Charles Fuller talks with CATF Producing Director Ed Herendeen, Saturday, March 1, 2014, at the Shepherdstown Opera House.

 

Charles Fuller Delta Sigma Theta

Playwright Charles Fuller, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize, with members of the Eastern Panhandle Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. March 1, 2014.

Charles in Ed's Office

Prior to the Season Announcement, Charles Fuller met with Ed Herendeen about the script and process for ONE NIGHT. Note Ed’s original copy of Mr. Fuller’s A SOLDIER’S PLAY on the table. March 1, 2014.

-jkm

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

Ed Herendeen

It’s Worth The Trip

What dya’ say we go on an odyssey?… What a great sound that has.

What dya’ say we go on an adventure?

(pause, another approach)

How about…let’s just take a trek to Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia doin the newest plays in America?

It’s closer than you think…AND… It’s worth the trip!

So…what dya’ say?

Do you wanna be engaged?

Do you wanna be entertained?

Do you wanna be inspired, transformed and transported by the power of a good story?

(pause)

Where else can you see and experience FIVE new plays in rotating repertory in a beautiful, rural, historic American town? Where else can you meet other theater lovers like yourself and form an instant kinship and bond over art and ideas? Where else can you have total access to the makers of the art and engage in a living conversation? Where else can you dine, relax, walk and talk-theater?

(pause)

There is no place like the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Our 21st Odyssey continues with a rotating repertory of FIVE new American plays by:SAM SHEPARD. DAVID MAMET. TRACY THORNE. KYLE BRADSTREET.  LUCY THURBER.

So…What dya’ say we go on an odyssey…an adventure…and discover new American theater?

(pause, very simply this time)

How ’bout let’s just drop everything and go to the THEATER FESTIVAL?

Wanna join our artistic community…in July? Do you wanna share our journey to create the future?

Come on…What dya’ say?

BE AMAZED!– BE CHALLENGED!– BE ENTERTAINED!– BE INSPIRED!

Be present for the future of the American theater.

BE HERE NOW! The future spends the summer in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

So…What dya’ say?

Ed Herendeen, Producing Director