Supporting creative work by women
The Lark Play Development Center announced its second annual Van Lier Fellowship Program recipients last month. Playwrights Anna Moench and Christopher Oscar Peña each receive $8,000 and access to other support services over the next year. They will work on a variety of projects during the fellowship.
Baltimore-raised Moench is a member of EST’s Youngblood and an alum of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Program. Works by Women interviewed Moench and found out about her first theater memory and what the Van Lier Fellowship Program means to her.
WBW: What’s your first theater memory?
AM: A puppet company came to my elementary school and did a show that was supposed to teach us about kids with disabilities. To this day, I still have vivid memories of the part where wheelchair-bound puppet experienced the sensation of smelling eggs before he had seizures, at which point he leapt from his wheelchair into the air like a gymnast before falling to the ground and writhing around for a while. It’s terrible, but I got in trouble for laughing uproariously at that point. That was probably more of a formative artistic experience than I’d like to admit.
WBW: What inspired you to become a playwright?
AM: I wouldn’t say there was any particular event or moment that made me decide to become a playwright, but rather that I became more and more fascinated with theater over time. As that happened, I explored lots of ways to engage with theater or make theater, and eventually found that playwriting was the best fit for my abilities, interests, and personality. I like being able to go through periods of working alone, generating a lot of work and forgetting to bathe, then switch over to periods of collaborating with lots of fellow artists to develop and produce the work. I bathe a little more frequently during those periods.
WBW: What playwrights inspire you?
AM: I’ve been fortunate to be a member of several writing groups over the past few years (Youngblood at EST, the Emerging Writers Group at the Public, and the Jam at New Georges), and have participated in many other workshops where I’ve shared work with other writers (the Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee, the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Alaska, the Inkwell in DC, the Winter Retreat at the Lark, among others). All of these have introduced me to the work of phenomenal fellow playwrights and have given me glimpses of plays at all stages of development. The collective and diverse voice of my peers is the most inspiring force I can imagine.
WBW: What does the Van Lier Fellowship mean to you at this point in your career?
AM: Well, it has very few strings attached. It’s designed to let me decide what my goals are for my year, and then adapts to help me achieve those goals. There’s something about that design that is very freeing, and it feels like a vote of confidence in my ability to manage my time and my work. It’s like getting your first real job and realizing it’s up to you whether you eat ice cream for dinner every night. The world trusts that you are grown up enough to not do that. Not every night, at least.
WBW: What will you work on during your Van Lier Fellowship?
AM: I’ll be workshopping the puppetry elements of my play Hunger, and finishing up my first musical with composer Rob Rusli which is close to a complete first draft. I also have been commissioned to write a play about freeganism for NYU’s grad acting students, working with director David Frederic Chapman, which will be produced next December. This summer I’m biking across the country with improv actor and all-around badass Molly Gaebe, and we’ll be creating a documentary play from the conversations we have with strangers along our route. So I’ll be spending some time on that in the fall, assembling the raw “footage” and seeing what this piece can become. I also have a couple ideas for new pieces that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, which is good, because I’m busy enough and I really shouldn’t be starting new stuff until the plate is a little less full.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
AM: I think there’s a general prevailing attitude that male stories are universal, and female stories are for women only. That attitude makes it harder for women (who write about women more often than men do) to get their plays produced, it probably makes it harder for women to get directing work, and it certainly makes it harder for women to get acting work if there are fewer roles written for them (particularly leading roles, which develop and showcase an actor’s abilities better than supporting roles usually do). I personally think that that idea, more than anything else, is the challenge that we’re faced with, and time and time again I choose to write plays about women precisely because that’s the challenge. It’s up to us to change that attitude, by writing plays that are undeniably universal and compelling to audiences, even if they’re about women, and it’s up to us to give our female colleagues opportunities.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
AM: The talent and the market. There are so many powerhouse female artists in the American theater, and they’re becoming the rule, not the exception to it. The talent is there. As for the market, I think women are getting tired of being told they aren’t worth talking about. The more work is produced that acknowledges the role of women in our stories as participants rather than set dressing, the more women will choose to see it. I think our opportunities will continue to grow if we continue to support one another as audience members and collaborators.