Supporting creative work by women
For over 14 months, Works by Women has organized group outings to see over 50 shows written, directed and/or designed by women. We realize that another part of the equation is going beyond the stage, promoting female theater artists and highlighting their many accomplishments. To that end, we are formally launching our interview series with playwright Stefanie Zadravec, whose award-winning play Honey Brown Eyes opens January 9th at Theatre Row. The piece is produced by Working Theater, a 26-year-old company dedicated to producing “high-quality affordable theater for and about working people.
Zadravec’s plays have been presented at The Barrow Group, The Kennedy Center, Bay Street Theatre, Theater J, Phoenix Theater, and Vital Theater among others. She is a member of The Women’s Project Lab 2010-2012. Honey Brown Eyes (Kennedy Center, Theater J) won the 2009 Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play or Musical and was published in the February 2009 issue of American Theatre Magazine. It was a finalist for the 2007 Smith Prize, a semi-finalist for the 2008 Princess Grace Award, and nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
A member of the Dramatists Guild and The Barrow Group, Zadravec also teaches playwriting workshops in New York City. She received a BA in Theater and English from Connecticut College (Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude), and lives in Brooklyn with my husband and twin sons.
1) When did you begin working on Honey Brown Eyes? How did you develop the script about two friends in Bosnia?
I wrote the play in 2007 in The Barrow Group Playwrights Lab. Three writers were given 6 months to write a new full-length play; I decided to stretch myself in terms of topic and style. I had worked in a restaurant run and largely staffed with emigres from Kosovo during that part of the war; I learned a lot about the effect of war working with these people night after night, even though we were half a world away from the bombs. While customers were laughing about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, they had no idea the people serving them dinner were waiting and hoping to hear from their families.
I tend to write small stories that fit within a larger context, and as with any known topic I had to discover a way into the story. What I thought would be a ‘political play’ about women and rape camps, became the story of two young men who are forever changed after spending a day with two women war has stranded in their kitchens. By bringing the war right inside a familiar location the dialogue and characters came alive. A Serbian friend sent me a playlist of the music he and his friends were listening to in the 1980s before the war. It was so much like the stuff we followed in the punk/alternative scene in D.C. where I am from. Suddenly I knew exactly who these men were and what they wanted before the war. It made portraying them during the war that much easier.
2) The play won the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Play or Musical for the production in DC in 2009. Have you made any changes to the play since then? If so, what?
Yes. This play had the opposite problem than most playwrights face: it had almost no development. A couple of months after completing my first draft, Theater J in Washington offered me a slot in their 2008 mainstage season. We did one reading at Theater J and on at The Kennedy Center, but I’d never played with it on its feet.
In the Washington production, there were two separate kitchens until the last scene of the play. However, although this play is specific to Bosnia, it could also be happening in Rwanda or Iraq or any war-torn country, and it got me wondering, what if there were just one kitchen that kind of evolves into a universal space. Coincidentally, my director, Erica Schmidt, had been thinking the same thing. I rewrote or re-wove the second act to fit this idea.
3) You are currently a member of the Women’s Project lab. What is that experience like? How has it benefitted you as an artist?
Thanks to Julie Crosby and Megan Carter’s extraordinary vision for developing female theater artists, the Women’s Project offers something entirely different from any lab model that I know of. Unlike most labs or fellowships that bring you on board to work on one play, The Women’s Project gives you a two-year tenure where you get to know the work of 5-7 female directors, 5-7 female producers, and 5-7 other female playwrights. We have artistic debates. We create work together. We’re required to meet one-on-one outside the lab. Not only do you become part of the stable of artists from which The Women’s Project builds their programming, you form relationships with directors and producers with whom you can go out into the world and work. Lab playwrights get the best deal though – we get everything I mentioned above in addition to an extraordinary monthly writers group. Our group consists of seven utterly different, equally strong voices; I’m giddy every time I leave Lab meetings. So far I’m already working with producer Stephanie Ybarra and lab advisor/director, Daniella Topol on my next play The Electric Baby at The Playwright’s Realm… who knows where I’ll be when our lab ends in 2012!
4) As a female playwright, what do you think the biggest challenge facing female theatre artists is at the moment?
Women playwrights have to work harder to be taken seriously. Period. As a writer I have to think about the subjects I take on, and how I decide to tell stories. If something is perceived as a ‘women’s issue play’ nine times out of ten, it’s going to get marginalized.
5) What gives you hope for women working in American theater?
Many things – some of the best reviewed plays of the year were by extraordinary women writers (Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Sheila Callaghan, Sarah Ruhl). Molly Smith not only rebuilt Arena Stage, but she made national news with her unique playwright residency program, showing there can be new ways of doing things. And I think the 50/50 in 2020 movement has shaken something loose. There is an abundance of talented women theater artists thinking differently about our place in the big picture. We’re rededicating ourselves to the idea that a small slice of the pie isn’t enough.
For more information on Stefanie Zadravec, visit her web site.
On Saturday, we will post an interview with Honey Brown Eyes director Erica Schmidt.