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A Closer Look: Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop 2017 - Part 2

Playwrights’ Corner
On the left of the frame-Sam Chanse wears red glasses and smiles against a yellow background. On right-Rehana lew mirza frame from shoulders up smiles, a blurred background, maybe a coffee shop.

Scattered throughout the month of May, The Lark will host a series of readings in a culmination of the 2017 Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop. To help give you "a closer look" at the process, participating playwrights Sam Chanse and 
Rehana Lew Mirza discuss their experience in the workshop, the plays they'll be exploring through their readings, what scares them, and what makes them laugh. Check out their conversation below!

SAM CHANSE: So the workshop series will feature your new play Ladybits on May 23rd. I've loved watching this piece develop over the last several months – it’s seriously energizing to see a play focusing on women navigating the world of standup comedy. When did you start this piece, and was there any particular spark for it? What drew you to the subject?

REHANA LEW MIRZA: I started this piece mid-way through the Lark workshop when I realized the play I was writing about post-election life was depressing the shit out of me. So I wanted to amuse myself a little bit while also still depressing myself, and landed on female comics. I had actually been percolating on the idea of it from over the summer, when I wanted to talk about modern day feminism, and people’s aversion to that, and the F word, and preconceptions of what it means to be feminist. ‘Feminist’ seems to be a hugely strange trigger word and I was curious about exploring it, and how far women may have or have not have come.  And when I was looking at professions, the comedy world is one that seems mostly dominated by men and yet, also touted as having a heyday for women right now. I was curious if that’s true, or just one of the alt-facts we say in order to make ourselves all feel like the world is a just and equal place when it’s really not.

I can only hope some of this comes out in the play eventually. Right now I’m just riffing on jokes and going nowhere. Part of what I admire so much about your work is its intellectual engagement and rigor in terms of fully excavating theme and ideas. It’s so beautiful, the idea of existence and what we leave behind. Particularly in the opening monologue, so much of this comes across. Did you write that monologue first, or a scene? And did you begin with the idea of existence and use that as a frame?

SAM: The play started more as an impulse triggered by the landscape – I’d visited Joshua tree about a month before I started writing, and it’s a striking and haunting place that has a way of staying with you. A few weeks after being there (and while at a residency in another hot and dry place), in the final months leading up to the 2017 election, I wound up going down a sort of rabbit hole of link clicks, and immersed myself in how the Joshua tree was endangered, and the relationship with the now extinct giant Shasta ground sloth, and the impact of the changing climate on the ecosystem of the desert. And the combination of being immersed in those ideas while also being immersed in the political and social climate of Fall 2016 started me thinking about the competing forces of creation and obliteration, and how those immense, cosmos-level things interact with and illuminate the specifics of being a person in this country today – being a person of color, a woman of color, and wrestling with deeply entrenched racism and misogyny – as well as the specifics of the super granular aspects of being, like social media, which is also an ongoing obsession of mine. Our relationship with social media is something I keep poking at – possibly because I have such complicated feelings about it – I recognize its potential & power and its limitations and challenges (and I also fail at social media), so I’m always wondering how social media and the construction of our social media selves fit in with questions of obliteration and creation and meaning in general. And what it really means to survive in a world on the brink of extinction. And of course the concept of being on the brink of extinction took on a more vivid sort of meaning post November 2016.

Once I actually started writing, though, after a lot of thinking, I do think that Georgia monologue at the top, about the sloth in the lava pit, may have been the first thing I actually wrote. So yeah, it started with the landscape, and the extinct sloth.

Regarding your play and how you started it, that’s such a great question to tangle with – how far women have actually come – and questioning this notion of social progress that’s certainly started to look a lot shakier these days. That’s something I love about your writing as a whole – how your work is always challenging or defamiliarizing a lot of our assumptions about race and gender and religion (and many other things).

Have you come to any conclusions or made any discoveries with respect to this question in the comedy world? Also, you’d mentioned you were doing standup and developing a set as part of your research process for this play – could you share some of that, and how that experience shaped your perspective and/or the play?

REHANA: I love the rabbit hole! Your play is so much about sinking deeper and deeper into this well and being unable to escape. Not sure if you intended it but the play transmits a lot of that feeling.

SAM: Ah, thanks! I don’t know what I intend half the time. But I certainly experienced that sinking-deeper-and-deeper-and-unable-to-escape feeling in the writing. (And in life).

Rehana: But regarding how far have women come [in the comedy world?] I have made no conclusions or discoveries as of yet. I’m still in mid-process of writing so perhaps some sort of beacon of light will pierce the fog of my brain, but we will all be surprised on May 23rd. I suppose one discovery I made, that hasn’t been as much of a discovery as much as a reaffirmation, has been that there exists an overwhelming number of stories of misogyny and sexism that lady comics have witnessed and lived through today. And in hearing these stories, you could imagine a bystander exclaiming, “Boy aren’t you glad you don’t live in the 1950s” but the story is about what happened to a woman last week. I also just found out tonight there are some men who say they don’t find any female comics funny! Like NONE. Who KNEW?

SAM: [empathetic laugh-sigh of great commiseration and shared recognition of fucked-uppedness.]

REHANA: But yeah, I have been having a hard time figuring out the mechanics of stand-up and I signed up for this intro to standup class figuring it would be this nice easy overview. Instead I showed up and everyone was performing sets! I tried to hide in the back until time ran out but it eventually got to me and so I asked the instructor if I could just tell a story. He acquiesced, and I told my story, and he went: “That’s great! Now all you need are jokes!” So that’s been my journey so far. Over the course of the three classes I did end up writing a three-minute bit, which I’ve sampled throughout the play… but in different ways. I’ve realized the treatment of stand-up needs to be different within the context of what I want to do with the play, and so I’m still trying to figure out how to best do that.

SAM: That is some intense research experience. Seems like it really paid off, especially how you’re using the standup bits throughout the play. It seems like you’ve been finding a really great structure that successfully incorporates the mechanics (and pleasure, and awkwardness, and risks, and joy) of standup while also getting into the politics of the world and the individual journeys of the characters.

REHANA: So, I’m gonna throw something out there. What about this play most scares you/frightens you?

SAM: I think all my plays scare me on my multiple levels, but I’m an easily scared person in general. With respect to this play (and this is more about the play interacting with others than about me writing the play, although I do have endless fears with respect to the play itself, as well), someone recently said to me, after reading a draft, that the play “seems like it could be viewed as a pro-life [i.e. the political identification of pro-life, as opposed to pro-choice] play.” (important note: it is emphatically not.) Of course a play and an audience interact and the audience will take from it whatever it will, and that can often be a complex and wonderful thing. And it can also be weirdly alienating and scary and painful, if messages you never intend and might even find deeply problematic might somehow be read into your play.

How about you? What about your play most scares or frightens you?

REHANA: Aghhhh, everything scares me, so choosing one thing is gonna be hard. Apart from having no pages to be read in May, I think I’m afraid I won’t ever crack the code of this play. There’s a specific language to stand-up comedy, so I feel like I’m trying to learn how to speak a new tongue, but the fear is also amplified by wanting to have all the comedians have distinct voices. So I’m having a hard time trying to learn this, while also trying to figure out what the play is ultimately about. My tiny little brain cannot handle it! I can’t even rub my belly and pat my head at the same time.

SAM: My tiny little brain is inspired by your brain that’s right now deep into learning new tongues and cracking codes. So. Just sayin’.

REHANA: And how’s that rewriting process going? How do you do that? Will you do mine?

SAM: Oh man, will you do mine?