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On Friends and Fellowship: Two Van Lier Fellows in Conversation

Equity in the Arts
Susan Stanton and Christopher Pena

The Van Lier New Voices Fellowship supports playwrights of color under 30 who demonstrate financial need. Fellows in residence at The Lark become part of a community of artists at various career levels from across the country and around the world, gathered to explore and illuminate the most important issues of our time. We asked former Fellows Christopher Oscar Peña and Susan Soon He Stanton to tell us more about how their lives and careers were impacted by their time spent in the Van Lier New Voices Fellowship.

Susan Soon He Stanton: So, Chris, my fellow Van Lier, one question I have for you, and one I've been reflecting on is where you were at before Van Lier, and then after?

Christopher Oscar Peña: I’d been in New York for a while, having gone to grad school here and then being a fellow at New York Theater Workshop.  But I didn’t feel like I was part of the community or that people were taking me and/or my work seriously.  I also don’t think that I was making as much work as I should have.  I think, for me, it became easy to say, no one cares about my work, so why make any?  That’s just me.  Other writers probably write regardless, and I envy them, but for me, it was getting me down.  So The Lark really changed that.  Professionally, people started paying attention.  I’d be having conversations with people and they would be looking behind me or past me, and then that what are you working on question would pop up, and I’d say, I’m in residence at The Lark and suddenly, you could see, I was worth paying attention to.  So it gave me cache.  It made me matter.  But more importantly, all that bullshit aside, The Lark really empowered me.  They gave me a home.  They gave a community of collaborators.  And they paid so much attention to me and my needs, that it not only enabled me and inspired me to write - it made me feel like I had to!  It’s that thing I (and probably many people do) have with my parents.  These people have given me so much, how can you not work your ass off and make them proud?  I wrote four plays in two years at The Lark.  I think that’s when I became a real writer, a serious writer.  It also enabled me to take risks.  Lloyd Suh, Daniella Topol, May Adrales, Suzy Fay, Lisa Rothe, Andrea Hiebler, and John Clinton Eisner himself - they were incredible cheerleaders.  They were human beings that were incredible artists in their own right, and just really good people - they became a family I was proud to be a part of and that that I didn’t want to let down.  And also, the Van Lier itself - Robert O’Hara, Diana Son, Lynn Nottage, Tanya Barfield, Michael John Garces - to be a part of that artistic lineage meant something.  It was validating.  Seeking validation is a complicated thing, but getting it from them meant the world.

SSHS: I like how you say empowered. I think The Lark is a safe space to create plays. One of the things I really appreciate is the variety of programs they have there, that I was able to participate in as a Van Lier Fellow, and then beyond. Playground allowed me to hear small segments of a play on its feet with actors making very immediate choices. It was free and joyful. The Winter Writers Retreat was a daily intensive that challenged me to begin a brand new play and share pages with fellow writers as quickly as possible. Vassar was a beautiful and immersive place where I wrote a new children’s musical with Michael McQuilken. I had an amazing time in grad school, but Yale is also a bubble. After Yale, I decompressed in Hawai‘i for a few months. I stopped writing and started planting trees behind my parents’ house. “Please stop planting trees and go back to New York and do this thing you keep talking about,” they would say. But I was so apprehensive about moving to New York and getting lost. The Lark and the Van Lier really opened up the New York Theater Scene for me. The Lark was a pipeline where I formed so many important relationships, professional and life lasting friendships. The Lark gave me a community. That all began here. Something else that I really appreciate at The Lark is that feeling of generosity and willingness to provide the support you need for your individual project. One of the best things I did at the end of my fellowship was have Stanton-fest, a day-long series of maybe five continuous Roundtables where everything I wrote and significantly rewrote was read back to back. All my friends who stuck through the entire thing were champions. What did you write during your year?

Susan Stanton and Christopher Pena
Susan and Christopher at Sundance, Summer 2015 (photo by Chay Yew)

COP: Lloyd Suh quickly figured me out and became a huge champion for me.  I made it very clear very early on that I needed deadlines to write and to be held accountable.  So he invited me to any and every Lark program he could get me into to make work.  I did the Winter Writers Retreat and wrote the first draft of my play alone above a raging sea. I remember Ken Lin and Betty Shamieh were in that retreat and Rajiv Joseph facilitated.  I’d been huge fans of them for a long time so having their helpful feedback and just support in the room made me dig twice as deep as I normally do.  And then I went on the Vassar Retreat.  I wrote the first draft of my Chekov inspired Three Sisters remix there.  I love that play and so many people have gone on to champion it from that retreat.  But for me, what was even more meaningful - I can very clearly point to that time as the moment when I bonded with Carla Ching and Rey Pamatmat.  They have become two of my best friends in this world.  Carla and I share the same manager now and work on TV in LA so we get together often and gripe about TV and how we wish people understood diversity and where we fit in.  Rey and I read each others work constantly.  I think we share with each other pieces that maybe we aren’t ready to share with others yet, but we really value and trust each others opinion.  You know, the work is everything.  But for me, almost equal to the work, is your community.  Your tribe.  The people that believe in you and keep you balanced and are your family.  That’s a huge thing The Lark gave me and you shouldn’t underestimate how valuable that is,  The other big thing that I have done with The Lark is be part of their Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop led by Arthur Kopit.  He’s become a great friend and a huge champion. And that video!  Do you remember that video we did with José?  

SSHS: That was quite a video. It was very Twin Peaks, but at the same time, I couldn’t believe I was in a playwriting series with you, José Rivera, Dominique Morisseau, and A. Rey Pamatmat. What a powerhouse group of writers. I have that feeling a lot at The Lark though. What an amazing group of writers and directors and actors, and also, weirded out that everyone is so nice. When I was younger, I always thought talented people needed to be divas, and now I feel like all of the artists that I most admire are kind and supportive. They send the elevator back down and make space for fellow artists.

COP: What was the most unexpected thing that came out of your Van Lier year for you?

SS: The realization that I had an artistic home in New York, after looking for one for so long. One of the best things I did during the Van Lier was that I sat in on Roundtables as an observer and in the Monday Night Workshop [The Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop]. I love listening to how other playwrights talk about their work and interact with directors. I’m in a lot of groups where playwrights talk with other playwrights, but its different with the way playwrights speak with directors.

The thing with The Lark is you get what you put in. When my fellowship year ended, I thought that my time at The Lark was over. I was grateful for the year but I didn’t go to The Lark much. That was a mistake. John
Eisner has told me The Lark is dedicated to cultivating career-long relationships. It’s not about The Lark liking a particular play or favoring a particular playwright over a short period of time but supporting the voices of its playwrights over their careers. Lloyd Suh and Krista Williams are really good about reaching out. Whenever I’m away from The Lark for too long, I feel like Lloyd has a Spidey-sense that reaches out to me and makes sure I take part in a program, and it completely rejuvenates me. Now I go to The Lark to say hello all the time, and write in the writer’s room. It’s a good place to be.