Supporting creative work by women
One of the plays I’m very excited about this fall is LAByrinth Theater Company‘s production of Radiance by Cusi Cram. In June, Rising Phoenix Rep presented the play in its initial incarnation as part of its Cino Nights, a one-night only performance in the back room at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village of New York. I was lucky enough to catch the very charming, funny and pulsating play, one that still resonates with me three months later. That’s not a surprise, particularly for anyone familiar with Cram’s gorgeous work — Dusty and the Big Bad World (Denver Theater Center), All the Bad Things (LAByrinth Theater Company at the Public Theater), Fuente (Barrington Stage), The End of it All (South Coast Repertory), and A Lifetime Burning (Primary Stages).
Cram spoke with Works by Women about her favorite inspiring place in New York, how Cino Nights helped to ignite the creation of Radiance and how she helps other female playwrights.
WORKS BY WOMEN: A version of Radiance appeared for one night in June as part of Rising Phoenix Rep’s Cino Nights? How was Cino Nights helpful in the development of the piece?
CUSI CRAM: The play would not exist, in any shape or form if it were not for Cino Nights and the good folks of Rising Phoenix Rep. There is nothing better than knowing that something you have written will most certainly be performed. It is such a profoundly hopeful thing for a playwright and hope is important in a profession that abounds with all shapes and sizes of despair. Also the space, the back room of a bar, in some ways dictated the play to me. The constraint of that forced me to think inside the box, rather than outside of it. I was extremely unoriginal I set this play in a bar. I have never wanted to write a bar play. And I did.
The experience also afforded me the opportunity to work with two of the actors who will be in the production. They taught me a great deal about the characters. As did our director, Suzanne Agins, who is also directing the production with LAByrinth. An experience where everyone is working from their first impulses and have completely thrown the idea of any sort of perfection out the window is very liberating. It’s such a jumpstart to a play. I entered the process not knowing if what I had written was a play and left certain it was. That is a huge amount to accomplish with twenty hours of rehearsal.
WBW: What can audiences expect from the LAByrinth production of the play?
CUSI: The acting as per usual with LAByrinth will be top notch. My cast is dreamy: Ana Reeder, Kohl Sudduth, Kelly Aucoin and Araon Weiner. Also, we are really transforming the space at the Bank Street Theater, it will feel very different from how it usually does. I’m very excited about all the designers we are working with. I think they have such a deep understanding of the play and the feeling I want the visual elements of the piece to convey. And the story is surprising, sad and a little funny even though it’s about quite serious subject matter.
WBW: Are you still planning to write other plays that deal with the bomb? Has this production helped you develop your ideas further about the other plays?
CUSI: I am still really interested other stories about the atomic and post atomic age and how the bomb has affected the course of American history. I think it’s the defining moment of this century and the deeper you dig the more wild stories come to the surface. I don’t have a specific story I am aching to tell right now but a more general sense that I want to explore more stories based on historical fact. I think Radiance could be part of a trilogy about America. I suppose I am at a point in my life where I am trying to grapple what is means to be an American in the time we live in. I think you need to go back at least as far as 1945 to figure that out.
WBW: You grew up in Manhattan. What is one of the city’s hidden gems? A great place for inspiration?
CUSI: I have always been partial to the Frick Museum. It’s such a reasonable size and has a wonderfully curated collection of paintings. The courtyard at the Frick is where I go when I feel like the world makes no sense, or if I’m sick to death of the city. It restores my faith in most things.
WBW: You just participated in WRITE OUT FRONT. What was that experience like?
CUSI: It was incredibly fun and weird. It’s odd to have people watching you when you write. It is normally such a private thing. That said, I think anything that makes people think about playwrights and what we do is a good thing. One forgets that writing is also a physical act. I felt very conscious of that. The pages I wrote were not very good.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
CUSI: I think the main challenge is that we are under produced. Most theatre professionals are aware of that fact after the various large-scale conversations that have been going on around the subject over the last few years. There has been a bit of a shift but not a seismic one. One way we can help change the status quo is by women supporting other women theatre artists. I try to do this. I recommend female writers to theatres and agents. I write about writers I think people should know about. I have helped develop a prize for emerging women writer’s (www.leahryansfeww.com). I believe that building an extended community of women who do this impossibly hard thing is one way to not get discouraged and stop writing. My motto is: if we write it, they will come. I know it’s idealistic but I have faith in small groups of people to change the status quo by being steadfast and dogged.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
CUSI: I think that theater still exists is hopeful for women, and everyone else who feels compelled to be involved in theatre. It’s this strange ancient form that in many ways is not particularly relevant in our culture. Particularly as the way we watch things has become less communal. It seems like the norm now is to have a very individualized experience of entertainment that you can watch on a variety of different sized screens. And yet…people still write plays, and other people still produce them. That very fact gives me hope. I feel like we are on the Titanic, but the orchestra is still playing. I suppose that is not a particularly hopeful image but there is something beautiful about holding on to this rich form in spite of the world of entertainment changing around us as we speak. I think the primal need that people still have to tell stories for the stage and that people still show up to be moved, angered, and enlightened is wildly hopeful.
Radiance begins performances at the Bank Street Theater on November 1st. Suzanne Agins directs.