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The Importance of Community for Playwrights

There is no theatre without the playwright. It is our duty to confront the blank page and create the story that will be handed over the producer, director, cast, crew, and audience. With the recent strikes, closings of theatres, the resignations, the restructuring, the reorganizing, the budget cuts, the challenges of the pandemic, and all the increases in the cost of living, artists are working hard to find new processes of making and disseminating their work. As we strive to unlearn old systems that are tied to supremacist culture, I’ve witnessed a trend that playwrights from historically marginalized communities are predominately the conduits of change.

In my work as a New York City-based theatremaker since 2015, I’ve had the pleasure and pain of doing a lot of fast and furious festival work (which could be called guerilla theatre) over the years. Writing short plays is a great way for emerging playwrights to not only get practice and experience, but also to connect directly with theatres, audiences, and other artists.

I texted with three fellow playwrights I’ve met through this festival work who are making a difference: Christin Eve Cato, Alexis Roblan, and Marcus Scott—all accomplished multi-hyphenates who have been making groundbreaking work not only within New York City, but outside of the city and through other means of creative writing.

It starts with the writing! These characters we create need to start and continue the conversation about inclusion.

I got to know all three writers within the same fast-paced space—working for the LGBTQIA+; Black, Indigenous, person of color (BIPOC); and female/femme-led Exquisite Corpse Company (ECC), which focuses on presenting and supporting the work of folks from those underinvested communities.

I met Alexis first in 2017. She presented a piece that was written and directed within twenty-four hours for ECC that delved into the darker side of theology, and I warmed up to her play immediately—an absurd comedy about a quirky priest on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Alexis’s show at the Tank NYC in 2021, entitled Samuel, was a remarkable departure from traditional methodologies of theatre presentation. It went up right around the time theatres reopened after the lockdowns—when there wasn’t an adherence to the old Western theatre style of sit down and shut up in the dark while you’re watching something happen on stage. We were lead through a veritable memory-haunted house of theatrical motifs that handled storytelling in an innovative and masterful way, spearheaded by scenic designer You-Shin Chen. Samuel opened the doors to people who don’t go to the theatre often; I attended previews and the run, and I noticed it was frequented by a large number of younger folks on dates and rendezvous with friends because you could interact with and within the space.

A group of dolls sit at a dimly lit restaurant booth.

Scene from Samuel by Alexis Roblan at the Tank. Directed by Dara Malina. Scenic Design by You-Shin Chen, with Installation Artists Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma and Yizhu Pan. Lighting Design by Kate McGee. Photo by Toby Tenenbaum.

I took a break from the double tapping, the emoji comments, and sending memes and started a chat with Alexis first.

Louis “DeVo” DeVaughn Nelson: You’re in the Los Angeles area now?

Alexis Roblan: Yep!

DeVo: These strikes are such a major reckoning right now and causing a very difficult, albeit important, domino effect. How’s the theatre scene out there for you right now?

Alexis: Honestly, I wanted to move to Los Angeles for film/TV, but I have been so pleasantly surprised by Los Angeles theatre, in multiple ways. For one thing: I've been seeing a lot of great theatre, in both small and larger spaces. I went to theatre school here, so obviously always knew work was being done, but I remember the quality feeling much more hit-and-miss fifteen years ago. The quality of the work happening now is very high. And also: pretty quickly after getting here, I got into the Writers Room at the Geffen Playhouse—their yearlong writers group development program—and won the Echo Theater Company's inaugural New Play Competition. Both of those are companies I've admired for a long time, and those really felt like signs that I'm where I'm supposed to be.

DeVo: Is there any one project you have on the burner right now that you think exemplifies or resembles what new healthy processes can look like, ones that are in line with dismantling supremacist systems?

Alexis: I'm very much in the "sitting at home writing by myself" phase at the moment, and I've sort of been there since leaving New York—so it's hard for me to comment on how collaborative processes are happening now from personal experience. I will say that I'm always trying to have that process conversation with myself and the script, right from the start, and earlier today I was actually writing the character descriptions for the play I'm working on with the Geffen. At this stage, at least, the play requires six femme performers, and because part of the play is based on my own experience as a teenager, I'm interested in making sure that nerdy awkward teen girls aren't played by gorgeous skinny twenty-something actors who put on glasses and wear a baggy t-shirt. It would be great to see performers of actually different sizes, and it would be wonderful for young femme people to be something other than “hot” or nonexistent.

I'm interested in how to start those conversations at a script level so they can't be avoided later on.

DeVo: Oh yes! It starts with the writing! These characters we create need to start and continue the conversation about inclusion, and this is a very auspicious way to do it. To be in that space and have a commission gives you the freedom and privilege to start putting folks on stage who are not there very often (if at all!). Thank you so much. It is so appreciated.

Are you satisfied with Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike results?

Alexis: I am! I'm a very proud union member, and as scary as this time has been, it's also been really inspiring.

DeVo: Indeed. Thank you so much for your input. You were the first at bat in helping me craft this piece.

DeVo and Alexis pose for a photo.

Photo with DeVo and Alexis at the Drunk24 Festival presented by Exquisite Corpse Company.

Marcus Scott and I were paired together for another twenty-four hour play festival also curated by ECC but in 2019. Slave Play (Jeremy O. Harris), A Strange Loop (Michael R. Jackson), and One in Two (Donja R. Love) were all making big waves at the time so it was perfectly timed: two Black Queer writers given a topic and a few hours to come up with a piece of theatre to be presented to a young, hyper-intellectual audience in Brooklyn.

We hit it off immediately because we’re both huge horror buffs, so we talked about our biggest fears and how we could present them in a work of art that would be intense, have a lot to say about our community/society, and be completely unforgettable. To the shock and awe of the typically boisterous crowd ECC provides, we wrote a piece about a white gay serial killer.

I have been following Marcus’s career for the past few years, seeing him contribute to major publications and find himself in performing arts spaces outside of theatre, notably the Metropolitan Opera.

The starving artist life is “cute” if you’re a trustafarian with a vast network and financial assets, but for most of us it’s a semi-charmed kind of fresh hell.

DeVo: I’m searching for a golden thread connecting the three playwrights I’m “interviewing” for this essay. We’ve all met or worked with each other through Exquisite Corpse. I’m trying to paint a picture depicting the survival of the playwright outside of New York City proper—and I’ve taken note of how you’ve been working closer to home, which is in New Jersey. Is that a matter of desire or circumstance?

Marcus: Both? I was originally hesitant about working in New Jersey, mostly because I’m not from the state and I’m not very familiar with the arts community. When it comes to the New Jersey playwrights I’ve met, there’s a kind of close-knit approach that seemed to be a kind of barrier for me; at least, these were the kinds of impressions I had. I was also kind of elitist about to whole thing because I moved to the city to be a writer and moved to New Jersey out of necessity to be closer to New York City and to keep the dream alive. Getting involved in the community really only happened since the pandemic.

DeVo: So far it seems like it’s not so much survival but finding a way to create within your own means and desires, to have artistic license in a way that is grounded in a process outside of the structures we were taught. We, as playwrights, are the baseline, and it’s our job to create not only stories that show society to itself, but to craft characters that are new and memorable—at least I think that’s what is most attractive about theatre of the now.

What’s keeping you going?

Marcus: Oh, I would argue it’s also survival. I mean... I’m working and submitting and what not, but it’s not like it hasn’t been a struggle. I am literally putting one foot in front of the other trying to get through, hoping that something sticks and finds a life and so I can make a living.

The starving artist life is “cute” if you’re a trustafarian with a vast network and financial assets, but for most of us it’s a semi-charmed kind of fresh hell. I am a first gen college student turned first gen graduate student turned first gen professional artist. Mommy and daddy aren’t coming to save me; it’s up to me to make it and write myself out. That doesn’t stop me from taking long walks, from having bouts of imposter syndrome, from having writer’s block, from falling into bouts of depression and anxiety... That’s the process, and the process ain’t for the weak.

As for theatre of the now, I’m interested in a lot of theatre that is pushing the form. I know you’re asking, “Marcus, what does that mean?" 

It means theatre that is actually challenging the culture, that is pushing back against a lot of what I feel is very toxic about our current system and political zeitgeist, where people are afraid of context or nuance.

A selfie of DeVo and Marcus.

Photo with DeVo and Marcus at a presentation of Wookies in the Wilderness presented by the Fire This Time Festival.

Not long after I met Alexis, I ran into artist Christin Eve Cato during the Frida Kahlo-inspired immersive piece A Ribbon About A Bomb by ECC, in which small groups of visitors were escorted through a house on Governors Island by three famous female artists from history. Another interactive, visually stunning haunted house fueled by multidisciplinary collaborations that drew young audiences—they sold out several times over.

I already knew Christin from seeing her perform with many Latinx-led organizations all over the city, and I was lucky enough to snatch her up for a play I wrote and directed for the HOT! Festival at Dixon Place in 2017.

I’ve been following her work for the past seven years, and in it there is always an effortless presentation of powerful, compassionate, relatable, and important storytelling that includes a broad scope of topics and characters from a plethora of backgrounds and ages. Recently, she added the word Obie to her resume.

DeVo: I was shocked but not surprised to see you go off to get your MFA for playwriting, you were a star in my book, and I was lucky to have had you for a staged reading. You were so brave and offered so much to that role for my whacky horror play. THANK YOU!!!

I wonder if you miss the stage, from a performance perspective...

Christin Eve Cato: I do miss the stage from time to time, and I still perform. Being an ensemble member with Pregones/PRTT often lends me this outlet. So does the Latinx Playwrights Circle—I often participate in readings of new work. At the moment, I am also exploring the aspects of performing in my own work.

DeVo: That could be cathartic!

Did you go full throttle on writing because you thought there was a gap for you to fill?

We would love to see more programming to support living artists and find innovative presentation methods to attract new audiences.

Christin: I’ve always been a writer. I would say I was a writer before I was an actor. I think what made me go full throttle into writing for theatre was the silencing I kept witnessing. The silence, exclusion, the lack of representation. As a person with a Jesuit education (Fordham), I was taught with an emphasis on the meaning of existence, the importance of archival work, and documentation as a necessary tool for the preservation of history. This is the school I come from, and theatre operates very similarly. Plays are literature. It’s history. As I came to terms with the ways my experience and the lives of so many others have been neglected by the American theatre canon, I felt called to write.

Writing comes very natural to me, and so does acting. However, writing feels easier and more accessible to me. Quite frankly, I think actors in New York theatre are often overworked and underpaid, which can get really stressful. I think this is one of the main reasons why I want to venture into solo performance. I want to perform on my own terms and hours and just be the kind of performer that I haven’t been able to be yet: absolutely 100 percent me, Cato in the raw.

DeVo: Have you seen any productions recently that have shown some strong examples of how we can decolonize the theatre space?

Christin: I’ve seen great things developing in the Black and Latino theatre spaces. There’s a deeper focus on collaborations and co-productions, and the results have been some really strong and exciting seasons. Like how in spring of 2023, three Afro Latina playwrights had their Off-Broadway debuts (me, Guadalís del Carmen, and Julissa Contreras). Our shows sold out. My play Sancocho and Julissa’s Vámonos were extended twice by popular demand... this is how we decolonize spaces.

DeVo: I’ve been talking with colleagues about how the process of writing has changed so much for a lot of us since the pandemic hit. You are a champion of creating new spaces, which I love. Can you talk a little about “survival” and “rituals” and the way your work has adapted over the past two years? What have you’ve learned? What methods have you shed?

Christin: I think the pandemic also gave many of us the gift of pausing and having time to reflect on the things that needed improvement, art we’ve been dreaming of creating, and significant changes that had to be made. Although the shutdown hurt many artists financially and emotionally (physically as well), many of us had no place else to turn except inwards. This was the survival. This place of stillness is where creativity and inner strength is found. I think the practice of intentionally taking a pause is extremely important and essential for the creative mind.

DeVo and Christin pose for a photo.

Photo with DeVo and Christin at a staged reading of Stoop Pigeons presented by the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

The common threads between us came up very organically in these text conversations—conversations that continue as we keep building community. The pandemic took us away from the outside world, and we need community to thrive. We need folks to give us a supportive space to tell our stories on our own terms. We need to know that the characters we write are going to look the part, not dumbed down or dolled up or white-washed versions that pays heed to toxic beauty standards.

A lot of emerging artists have left the city since the pandemic started, and many who have returned have little time outside of their survival job to continue their creative pursuits. Rebuilding a community has been a part of my own journey, and networking opportunities have dwindled due to COVID concerns, the outrageous costs of going outside, and the increasing difficulties riding the subway in New York City. I’ve been working more off-site, outside of the physical theatre space as a dramaturg, editor, and grant review panelist to hold space for Black queer men in order to increase diversity behind the curtain as well as continuing to write more roles for us.

While some of us find safer homes in minority-led nonprofit theatre spaces, many of those places aren’t getting the financial access that the larger houses are getting. Even without the draw of big names, big budgets, bigger funders, we have the astounding ability to make magical art; but a big part of inclusion is equity. We would love to see more programming to support living artists and find innovative presentation methods to attract new audiences.

If you know a playwright or you are a playwright, I encourage you to join us in these conversations—whether it be through a comment on a post, a question after a staged reading, or a text message talking about a show you just saw that you can’t stop thinking about. Closed mouths don’t get fed, and we are all a part of this very valuable food chain that is having a hard time sustaining itself right now. 

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