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Curious Clips: Excerpts from the Curious Report

Wednesday, March 15



Written by Victoria Myers
Excerpt from The Interval: The Smart Girls’ Guide to Theatricality

One of the things that we thought was great about Sex with Strangers was that you had a female protagonist creating art, and that was part of her story and journey in the play. We think it’s important to have that depicted. Would you mind telling us about that?
A lot of what Olivia is struggling with in the play—which I think is an understandable struggle for women artists—is, “Will my voice be heard?” or, “I had a chance for my voice to be heard and it didn’t go that well. Am I going to get another chance?” Because women don’t often have the opportunity to fail the way I feel like men do. If you’re a female playwright, and if you have a production in New York and it doesn’t go well, the chances of getting another production in New York are really challenging. So, I think that struggle of women making work and the questions—of how do I get it out there, how do I get it seen, how well does it have to do, how well does it have to do to get another chance—are very interesting to me, and something I think about myself a lot. The show did very well in New York and I’m very grateful for that because there’s the potential for another chance, whereas if you get killed in the reviews it’s very hard to feel like more opportunities will follow.
We’ve been talking a lot about critical reception to women’s work. Do you feel that work by women is spoken about by critics the same way that men’s work is?
I really think there’s a significant gender bias in the way women playwrights are evaluated by male critics, and some female critics. I feel like they bring a set of tropes and stereotypes to the lens through which they view the show, and it makes it really hard to view the work. I think it’s tricky in terms of reception, but I also think it’s tricky in terms of construction. It was very important to me in Sex with Strangers to have the character of Olivia have this distinction. She’s very confident in her abilities—she knows she’s a really good writer—but she feels she’s been misunderstood and misrepresented in terms of the packaging of her book. She’s not insecure and she’s not weak. She’s actually very confident with a lot of ambition, and trying to make peace with the opportunities not yielding the results that she had hoped. And it was so interesting to me that in previous productions, even though it’s counter to a lot of what’s in the text, critics would say, “She’s insecure and weak,” because they are bringing that lens to that character. So I continued to work on the text to make sure the volume was up on that quality of hers, so there was no way it was going to be misinterpreted as insecurity, but I still feel that is really hard for people. […]
We’ve noticed that women’s work is taken much more literally; people don’t see the metaphor and heightened theatricality, and instead just see the plot. Or they assume it’s autobiographical.
I get that a lot. In Sex with Strangers, for example, people would be like, “You’re Olivia, right?” And I’d be like, “I wrote the whole other character, and actually there’s as much of me in him and maybe even a little more than in her.” And that’s hilarious to me. I wrote the whole play—I didn’t just write her. I don’t know what they think—that we don’t have the imagination to make things up? I think it’s so hard. Because we’re caught a little bit in this dynamic of wanting it to be a level playing field, and don’t differentiate between us [and men], make it about the work—but I do think some female playwrights are interested in exploring work that’s less linear, more metaphoric, more atmospheric, that’s more about idea as opposed to plot, and that the show accumulates in a different way. I think there is some difference in women’s work that is beautiful and should be celebrated, and more room needs to be made for it. I think work that doesn’t fit the more mainstream perspective isn’t getting produced, and I think women are writing more of those plays; I think how we make more room for those plays is a really important question.
What is your process as a writer like?
I think for a long time before I actually sit down and write. I read a lot and I keep a giant folder on my computer of articles and ideas that are interesting to me. And then a big idea for a play starts to gather—often out of that a character will show up, then a situation will show up, and then dynamics and scenes. I’ll start to write in my head, and I’ll often write in my head for about a year. Once I have enough of it in my head, I sit down and either write a 25 page outline of the play or I’ll write a first draft—like a 60 page first draft—in four or five days. Unlike a lot of writers who write 150 page first drafts, my first draft is this very essentialized 60 pages; the themes and ideas are a little too forward, the dialogue is too on the nose, it’s all very clear. Then, the next part of my process is fleshing it out, throwing some dirt on it, and kind of making it have more breath and space in it that’s more about the characters and less about the big ideas. I rewrite a lot. I’m open to a lot of rewriting in rehearsal and production. I feel like you actually become a playwright when you’re in rehearsal and you watch a scene that doesn’t work, and you have to rewrite that scene or write a brand new scene in 24 hours, and the quality of the work you turn around in 24 hours has to match the quality of work you’ve had three or four years to develop. When you’re finally able to turn something around that quickly, in the pressure of production, then you’re a playwright. It takes a long time and a lot of productions to get the confidence to stay clear headed under that pressure. It’s a muscle, and you only develop it when you have a chance to do it. There’s no replacement for the heat of production. That’s why I think these development programs that actually give you a workshop production—where the actors aren’t at music stands but it feels more realized—are the greatest gift you can give to an early career playwright, because you have to learn to rework your play in space, in real time.
It seems like new play development is really geared towards readings, and readings that aren’t leading to anything. How do you think that’s affecting the writing?
Yeah, it’s really different to write to a reading than to write towards a show moving in three-dimensional space. If you want to have a big movement sequence, how are you going to do that in a reading? How are you going to show that part of what you’re using is how these actors relate to each other in space, and it’s not in the text, but it is a really important part of the story? In the theatre, the story doesn’t just live in the words, it also lives in the physical relationships between the characters. I have a new play that I’ve developed a lot and done a lot of readings of, and there’s a character who is sort of haunting our protagonist in her mind. That character becomes literalized on stage; the actor who is playing the character that she meets and is haunting her in her imagination is physically in the room. You can’t get the impact of that in a reading and how powerful that could be in a scene where she’s having a conversation with her husband but actually kissing this other man. When you talk about it, you don’t get the same visceral response, and it’s one of the most important parts of the show. That’s why I think, after awhile, time behind the music stands begins to be diminishing returns.
When you’re writing, how much do you think about visuals and staging?
Well, I do original work and I do adaptations and I do books of musicals. My theatre company in Chicago [Lookingglass] is a very physical and visual company. We often tell stories where the physical life is speaking the story as much as the words are. Often in my adaptations, more than my original work, the physical life of the play carries a lot of the story and is extremely important. I’ll write scenes in my adaptations that are all stage directions. This is another big topic—people ignoring or disregarding stage directions. Of course there’s room for interpretation, but because it’s a play and not a book, what the playwright is trying to tell you in terms of the story, that the movement and action is trying to carry, is often embedded in the stage directions. For me, I think to not allow ourselves to create sequences that are physical and not just living in the words, is limiting the tools we’re using, and it’s problematic. But it’s tricky. I was once told by a director I was doing a workshop with, “You need to stop directing the play when you write it,” and that was really upsetting to me. I feel like, as a generator of work, I’m allowed to write a sequence that is wordless but carries story. Directors can choose how they’re going to execute it—they don’t have execute it exactly like I have it in the script—but I have to give them a version of it so they can understand the story points. I was really distressed to have a director basically say to me, “You stick to the words and I’ll handle the visuals,” because we’re creating something that lives. I’m not a novelist. I’m allowed to create and ask to have a certain physical thing happen in space. […]
You’ve been working on House of Cards. We’re always interested in the dialogue between mediums. We were wondering if working on a TV show has affected your idea of theatre and how we tell stories?
I think they’re different mediums, and I think you approach them differently. What I think about a lot is the reach—how many people you reach—and how even with a very successful play, the number of people you reach is so much smaller. And the opportunities, even with a show like House of Cards that I think people find very entertaining. The episode I did was in season two, where Claire admits to having an abortion in an interview on national television and then she twists it in a, hopefully, interesting way. Then, one of her causes for the year, which comes out of this very personal place, is sexual assault in the military. Now that wasn’t paramount to the series, but the amount of attention we were able to shine on sexual assault in the military… And it was all part of the plot. We don’t have an agenda to do good at House of Cards, but there’s something very gratifying about being able to shine a light, and get it out to that many people, about things that are important. I think that’s very exciting. I can feel sometimes that the reach of theatre can feel so limited, and that can be hard when you work so hard and feel like so few people hear what you’re trying to put out into the world.
You were Artistic Director of Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. One of the ideas we’ve been toying with is that the infrastructure for producing theatre is antiquated, and maybe there are ways to change it to make it more conducive to producing more diverse voices. What do you think?
I have some thoughts. I think institutions get so entrenched in their own institutional history, how it’s gone, and the subscriber model, that the thought of turning everything upside down seems really scary. The next generation needs to say, “You guys, seriously, this is how it can be different.” I think one of the ways to try and get more exciting, innovative, interesting work is to create a company structure that isn’t beholden to one space. Having a company that is project driven, instead of season driven, allows less room for panic because it’s less about, “We have to fill these slots and they have to tick off certain boxes to get our subscribers to come.” If the art is the center and everything is emanating out, then it’s like, “Look, we want to do this piece and we know it’s a challenge, so we’ll do it downtown. And these are the other companies we’re going to target since we know there’s a crossover. We’re going to do it in a timeframe where this actor who we really want to work with, but is busy doing other stuff, is going to have a window.” There are ways of constructing it all so you’re responding to the reality that there is a bottom line, but you’re not in the hamster wheel of season planning. As someone who has been in the hamster wheel of season planning, it’s very hard—even from my company, which is very adventurous—the bottom line of having a space and a big staff is that it’s hard to take risks. There’s the possibility of failure. So, I think letting the art lead as opposed to the facility and the staff lead is helpful, but that’s very antithetical to the way most regional theatres work. […]
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
There are two things that come immediately to mind. The Piven Theatre did story theatre and I took class there, and when I was eleven I saw their Young People’s Company perform a collection of short stories including an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair, which was incredible. Then, I saw a production when I was twelve or thirteen of A Streetcar Named Desire that was life-changing.
When did you first feel like a grown-up?
I feel like the bar is ever raising. Like, you think you’re a grown-up like, “I have a job and I have an apartment and I’m paying for my whole life,” and that felt very much like a grown up moment to me. But then more milestones happen and it’s like, “I thought I was a grown-up, but I was so not a grown-up.” It’s an ever-evolving process. […]
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I feel like if you’re talking about theatres with subscription audiences, the best thing would be for audience members, subscribers [especially], to call and write the artistic directors and say, “We want more plays by women.” If subscribers are calling them, the money talks in those situations. I feel like the more calls those artistic directors get that lead them to believe that programming female playwrights isn’t a risk, the more they’ll hire female playwrights and directors. And then, I think it’s important that we keep talking about it. I think there’s been a switch in tone from acknowledging the absurdity of the situation, to then giving a positive action [people can take]. I think the Kilroy’s example is fantastic. I know there was backlash from people who felt hurt or excluded, but as a writer who knows all of those people and was also not on the list, I feel like them very positively offering up forty really good plays, it’s really pushing to the positive.

You can follow Laura on Twitter: @LEasonNYC.
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Curious Clips: Excerpts from the Curious Report

Wednesday, March 8


As with all areas of creative activity, there are standards of prestige applied to the various publishers of literature. There are, of course, many ways to measure a publishing house: the size of its booklist, annual sales revenue, the number of awards won by its authors. How does one measure an ineffable quality like prestige in the world of publishing? The conventional standard that is applied is one used in many fields to measure and compare different institutions: selectivity. The more works a press refuses (the assumption goes) the higher the quality of the work they choose to publish. The industry is often broken into the presses who do Trade publications (text books, printing for particular industries, or books with mass-market appeal) and those that do the more prestigious literary publishing, which, even with all the prestige, may not have the same kind of financial security. For example, the publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, or FSG, mentioned in our play, is one of the most highly regarded presses of the 20th Century for literary publishing. In its promotional blurb it notes that its authors have won “numerous National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and twenty-two Nobel Prizes in Literature.” Even a press as highly regarded as FSG is not immune to market forces and the imprint is now a division of Macmillan.
The idea of prestige in publishing has been tested, too, by the advent of the Internet. As with so many creative fields such as popular music, filmmaking, and art, the Internet has, to a fairly significant degree, recalibrated the equation between the creators of work and the purveyors of those creations. Up to the earliest days of the 21st Century, in order for a writer to come to the attention of a wide audience, she or he would have to be “discovered” by a literary agent or publisher who would recognize her or his genius and deliver their work to a mass audience by means of the time-honored tradition of publication. The Internet made it possible for writers to directly access readers; in effect, artists are now able to self-publish in a meaningful way for the first time. What we might call the “Justin Bieber effect” was born as the Internet became a viable outlet for artists to directly share their creative work with audiences. The means of production have been put in the hands of the creators of content. There are upsides and downsides to that shift. The upside of the Internet for writers and artists was clear: one could make work and make it available to a potentially HUGE audience with relative ease and without the gatekeeping of a publisher or agent or other form of institution that held the keys to the audience. The downside of putting one’s work out on the Internet was also clear: one would receive no artistic input or support and also likely no payment for one’s work. In fact, often the hosting website would reap the rewards of one’s work through ad revenue in exchange for providing the platform and access to the audience.
Even given the possible downside to content generators, one could use the Internet as a potentially effective self-publishing avenue to pursue acclaim and garner success. Publishers no longer had exclusive access to the audience that they could grant to or block from a writer. Some entrepreneur-writers have used this to great advantage. There are apocryphal stories of stay-at-home moms now earning six-figure incomes from the ad revenue on their blogs and examples of serious journalists and others who produced high quality writing on their blogs and turned the success of those online activities into viable careers.
There are also, of course, potential downsides to consumers of self-published work through open access to public platforms on the Internet. In recent months we have been learning of the perils of putting the means of production in the hands of the people, some of whom are bad actors. The focus on Fake News during and after the recent election produced a New York Times story profiling a recent college graduate who made $22,000 in ad revenue by producing provocative, but entirely false, news stories. The Fake News phenomenon shows us that while we have generally become more savvy about what we read on the Internet, we have also fallen into cleverly disguised traps. The New York Times:

It was early fall, and Donald J. Trump, behind in the polls, seemed to be preparing a rationale in case a winner like him somehow managed to lose. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” the Republican nominee told a riled-up crowd in Columbus, Ohio. He was hearing “more and more” about evidence of rigging, he added, leaving the details to his supporters’ imagination.

A few weeks later, Cameron Harris, a new college graduate with a fervent interest in Maryland Republican politics and a need for cash, sat down at the kitchen table in his apartment to fill in the details Mr. Trump had left out. In a dubious art just coming into its prime, this bogus story would be his masterpiece.
Harris bought a domain name for $5 and cunningly crafted his fake news story, feeding on the supposition brought up by then-candidate Trump and even finding a photo (taken out of context) to illustrate it. His story was shared numerous times on social media and drew traffic to his website.
Likely we have all fallen prey to a provocative headline shared on social media. The social media dimension brings in the affinity that we may have for the friend who shared the story, to the point that we may not fully vet the source of the story before clicking on it or even sharing it ourselves. The openness of the Internet and the platform it provides has positive effects but it also can have negative effects when the usual gatekeepers are taken out of the equation. The caveat of “buyer beware” must certainly be applied to the online arena.


Curious Clips: Excerpts from the Curious Report

Wednesday, March 1


In Sex with Strangers, our two characters, Olivia and Ethan, first meet each other in person when they are snowed in at a remote bed and breakfast in Michigan, but increasingly digital tools are part of dating in the 21st Century. In fact, Ethan’s online persona on his sex blog—and the line between the truth and fiction of his identity—becomes a central issue as they date.
Recently a story was reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune of a rape case involving an online “pick up artist” and his online course and blog. An excerpt of the story from the front page on Sunday, January 29, 2017, is below.

Victim’s detective work spurs rape convictions
Blog entries on website bragged about night she was sexually assaulted
By Dana Littlefield
Out there in the not-so-dark recesses of the Internet exists evidence of a company known as Efficient Pickup, which purports to teach men how to seduce women.
The idea, apparently, isn’t to find The One, or even a special one among many conquests. This is a numbers game, with the word “game” and all its connotations being the operative term. The goal is to sleep with as many women as possible.
“Our method is based on that kind of ruthless, very straightforward, very easy to assimilate method that’s going to give you consistent results with high-quality women,” says one of the company’s operators in a video on YouTube in 2015.
But this was no game for a woman in San Diego who was raped while she was passed out at a Gaslamp Quarter apartment in 2013. Although she reported the crime immediately, she also took it upon herself to find and identify her attackers.
She found them through an Internet search that led her to a website for Efficient Pickup, and blog entries in which the men had bragged about the night she was sexually assaulted.
Two of the men — Alexander Markham Smith, 27, and Jonas Dick, 28 — were identified as instructors with the company. Each was convicted of rape charges and sentenced last year to eight years in prison.
A third man, Jason Berlin, was a student of the others. The 28-year-old is scheduled to be sentenced Friday in San Diego Superior Court in front of the same judge who ordered prison terms for the other two defendants.
Last month, Judge Jeffrey Fraser had harsh words for Smith, also known as Beryl, who was seated at the defense table with his attorney.
“The fact is, the defendant did treat the victim in this case not as a human being but as simply an object,” Fraser said, according to a transcript of the proceeding. “And I got to tell you, having sat up here for 18 years, there’s a lot of people that have sat in that chair ... murderers, rapists, kidnappers — go down the list.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen one that has been as mean and cruel as you have been,” the judge continued. “What you did to that woman, I mean just — just cruel. And all for your own personal reasons.”
The judge noted that the crime was committed with a level of criminal sophistication not usually seen in sex cases. He said the defendant had his own school, apartment and terminology — “Pull O’Clock,” for example, is the time right after a bar has closed when it might be optimal to pick up women — all used to teach men not to interact with women, but to rape them.
“In order to protect society, you need to be put away,” the judge told Smith. “This is not a hard decision at all. In fact if I could give you more time, I would.”
The crime occurred in October 2013, after a 31-year-old woman and her girlfriend left a Gaslamp-area bar about 2 a.m. As they waited for a taxi, the women were approached by two men identified later as Smith and Dick, who invited them to an apartment on J Street, according to court documents.
When they arrived at the apartment, a third man, Berlin, was asleep on the couch in the living room.
The woman was raped while she was passed out inside one of the apartment bedrooms and separated from her friend. After her friend found her, and she had regained consciousness, she said she had been raped and wanted to call police.
Officers went to the apartment and knocked on the door, according to court documents. They could hear noises coming from inside, but no one answered.
Surveillance video showed Smith, Dick, the victim and her friend entering the apartment complex. The victim appeared to be staggering, and she was still staggering when she left the complex about an hour later.
Her blood-alcohol content measured 0.15 percent around 5 a.m. Biological evidence was collected from her body for DNA testing, some of which was compared later to Smith’s. It was a match.
But the real break in this case came from the victim’s own investigation. The friend who was with her that night remembered Dick’s name, which led the woman to a website for Efficient Pickup that listed Dick and Smith as instructors.
The website appears to have been taken down, but a link to an archived version of that instructor page shows Dick’s photo along with a bio. It reads in part: “This guy’s game is on another level that no one has ever seen. He pulls every single night he is out.” […]
The website also featured a blog called “Tales of a Sex-Addicted Narcissistic Player,” in which the writer implied that the apartment on J Street was rented for the sole purpose of seducing women.
One blog was posted by Berlin and contained a vivid description of the October 2013 incident, according to court records. Another was posted by Smith about an hour after the sexual assault occurred.
Under state law, a person who is intoxicated, asleep or unconscious, cannot give legal consent to a sex act.
Prosecutor Lisa Fox said it’s common for the District Attorney’s Office to receive reports from investigators alleging rape of an intoxicated person. (The office has a page on its website devoted to the subject, offering tips on prevention and ways to get help if a person has been victimized.)
But this case differs from most, Fox said, because the perpetrators were an organized group that taught others how to pick up women — usually at bars and clubs — and bring them home. Then they wrote about their conquests.
“They’re bragging about it online so that others can see how successful they are,” Fox said. […]
In this case, the victim told San Diego police about the website she found. At Smith’s sentencing last month, the judge said the woman deserved an award for her investigative work on the case.
“But for you, he wouldn’t be here and the others wouldn’t be here. Nobody would be held accountable,” Fraser said. “In fact, worse than that, things would have gone on and there would be other victims, and it is quite possible we would have never learned about this. […]
Smith was arrested in January 2014. At the end of a Superior Court trial, he was convicted of rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person, both felonies.
In an interview with a probation officer, he maintained he did have sex with the woman, but he did not rape her. “I own up for being an asshole, but in my opinion she wasn’t too drunk to give her consent,” he said. Smith has filed an appeal.
Dick and Berlin were arrested in March 2015. They each pleaded guilty to rape charges. […] On Friday, Berlin could be sentenced to up eight years in prison.
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