A Roundtable with Stacie Chaiken, Mildred Inez Lewis, and Troy Loftin, moderated by Josh Gershick
Josh Gershick: What in the last season touched your hearts? What moved you? What inspired you?
Mildred Inez Lewis: I have two. One was Chicanas, Cholas y Chisme, part of a twelve-play festival, “Stand Up and Speak Out,” at Casa 0101. It was such an amazing night of community, watching emerging artists find their voices and established artists nail it down. The festival dealt with women and violence, but also empowerment. There was a kind of spirit and joy in that evening that made me so hopeful for LA theatre. Casa 0101 almost went out of business, and it was a joy to see how many people from the community turned out—a truly diverse audience—African American, Latino, old and young, in addition to people who were coming from all over the county. It’s something I hope to see more of, particularly in places like Atwater Village. There’s amazing work going on at The Echo Theater Company, IAMA Theatre Company and the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA (EST-LA), but when I go there I don’t feel like it’s connected to Atwater Village in terms of the people who actually live there.
Josh Gershick: Is that a matter of outreach?
Mildred Inez Lewis: Well, not just outreach, but collaboration – like you see Rogue Machine Theatre partnering with the Boys & Girls Club, or you see Rogue Artists Ensemble partnering with East West Players. I’m interested in an LA theatre that is growing, that empowers people beyond theatre people and reaches beyond the standard subscription audiences. So, I look at Chicanas, Cholas y Chisme as a model for what can be done, given the kind of city we are and the kind of talent we have. The other show I loved was Soft Power [by David Henry Hwang]. What a bold experiment for The Ahmanson.
Stacie Chaiken: I loved it! Soft Power was a big, brawling, fantastic mess. And it felt like a huge risk for everybody involved. Wow.
Mildred Inez Lewis: I think that Soft Power and Block Party really have re-positioned Center Theatre Group [CTG] within LA. What was great about Block Party was what was great about Chicanas, Cholas y Chisme and Soft Power: People taking chances, and seeing that taking chances doesn’t automatically mean box office failure. And seeing that being grounded in the community is what actually gives you the opportunity to take those risks. I think that being in touch with the intimate, small companies has made CTG a better partner and has made them artistically more vibrant.
Stacie Chaiken: The one production that was most powerful for me was Hostage [by Michelle Kholos Brooks] at Skylight Theatre. It was a visceral experience. It was a lot about perspective and empathy. It created a lens through which we could see people who are not us, and see through their eyes. And Tracie [Lockwood’s] performance was amazing. I also loved Sarah Jones’s Sell/Buy/Date, which I saw at the Geffen Playhouse Theater. I’m a solo performer, and I write for solo. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen for a solo performer. In Sarah’s show there was a person who went on a journey, whose body was in the room with mine, and my heart beat with hers. It was beautifully crafted in terms of who she was and where she went.
Josh Gershick: What in the next season, and in seasons to come, would you like to see more of?
Mildred Inez Lewis: I’d like to see more comedy that doesn’t feel like a slightly elevated sitcom. One of the things I loved last season was Canyon [by Jonathan Caren, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center]. That’s not a comedy, but the moments of comedy between that newlywed couple – and between the Mexican father and son – I felt were stellar. I brought people along with me who don’t go to the theatre often, and they went back to IAMA [Theater Collaborative] as a result of that, and have since gone to the Latino Theatre Company. In this season, with all the difficulties, politically and with regard to climate change, I do want theatre to be a space where we can all go laugh.
Josh Gershick: You’re describing a form of comedy as “sitcom.” What are the elements of that?
Mildred Inez Lewis: When the humor is too dialogue-based and there’s not enough richness built into the human comedy. When I see plays written by people who are crossing over from television, the dialogue is very funny, and then afterwards I feel that I’ve not been left with as much as I would have liked.
Josh Gershick: Sitcom writers often go for the laugh.
Mildred Inez Lewis: Yes. And I think it’s possible to go for the laugh and have some depth as well. I think classics like [Norman Lear’s] All in the Family show us that you can do both.
Josh Gershick: I’m thinking of classic plays that do both: Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin comes to mind.
Stacie Chaiken: Sitcom comedy is kind of glib. But real comedy, deep comedy – that’s character based, where the stakes are life and death. That kind of comedy, in a moment like this, is essential.
Troy Loftin: I’d also like to see a bit more fun in theatre. When times are tough, it’s very easy to get into your sad brain and write your best drama, but it’s also important to lighten up. To focus on ways to tell important stories that are funny as well as touching, because life is pretty funny. It’s important not to lose sight of that, especially when everything around you points towards life being a bit dark. Something else I would like to see more of – in my work, but in LA theatre at large – is experimentation. That’s why I really liked [Jefferson Mays’s adaptation and performance of] A Christmas Carol at the Geffen – because it took something I thought I knew and turned it on its head. Another show I really enjoyed was How We’re Different from Animals, [a devised piece] by the ÉLAN Ensemble, [a diverse troupe of actors “rooted in an innovative physical approach to theatrical creation”]. ÉLAN took the short stories of Miranda July and turned them into movement theatre pieces. In experimenting with form, to me, it’s not even so much about breaking the mold as examining the mold. I am not a revolutionary. My writing doesn’t go off to totally new places or explore uncharted territory, but I do like to be cognizant of what’s come before me and how I can expand that in my own way.
Stacie Chaiken: I’m intent, in my own work, on responding to what’s around me, so I’m interested in what’s going on here in Los Angeles. I’m also interested in politics, and those things that are underneath politics. How we wound up here, how we live through this, and how we move ourselves out of the situation that we’re in, in terms of polarization and inability to hear one another. I agree that the opportunity here in LA is to make stuff that’s really rooted here – to make theatre that belongs to us all.
Mildred Inez Lewis: I think Stacie’s put her finger on it. We’ve talked for so long about the differences between Los Angeles theatre and theatre in Chicago and New York, and the struggle for branding really comes down to understanding where we are. I’m shocked by the number of people who have never been to Little Fish [Theatre] in San Pedro, or who aren’t aware that we have a vibrant community theatre scene. I live in the South Bay, and there are all these little theatres, in Inglewood and Hawthorne, that are doing real work. I think understanding who we are right now is the task. We have something unique to offer that’s already here. It’s first becoming cognizant of it, and then celebrating it in the way that Troy was talking about, each writer sort of bending the craft to his, her or their will.
Josh Gershick: Any special shout-outs?
Mildred Inez Lewis: I think we would be remiss in not mentioning some of the spaces that have opened up this year: I want to shout out Rotterdam [by Jon Brittain, produced by Skylight Theatre and remounted at Block Party 2019]. I took two trans students to see it, and they were amazed by it. To see what their potential experience could be, say ten years from now, writ large, really just left them speechless. While you might say it could have been bolder, it could have been more political, the reality is that everybody is not there. Rotterdam meant the world to those students, and that meant the world to me. Rotterdam cannot be the first and last trans piece on a major or minor stage in the city. But the visibility that it got, partially because of Block Party, has really ignited people beyond the normal theatre community, and that means we have a future.
Josh Gershick: I imagine there’d be no argument if I characterized the present moment in the U.S. using the WWII acronym, FUBAR – F**ked Up Beyond All Recognition. What does this moment demand of us as writers?
Mildred Inez Lewis: We have to be the people who don’t allow the very disturbing and alarming events that are happening, not just here in the United States but worldwide. We must envision what we would like to be, in addition to acknowledging what is. One of the things that I think is toxic about our politics is that very few of the politicians are future oriented in any meaningful way. Everybody is talking about going back to the past, “Making America Great Again.” I think that artists are charged with thinking about what could be, with presenting a vision of a world that is distinct. Our second big responsibility is to remember who we were—truly who we were. It’s alarming to me when people talk about how things have changed. As an African American woman, I see many, many things that are the same or worse. It’s disheartening sometimes to realize how unaware people are of what was going on in my community, unaware of what was going on in the LGBTQI community. We have the opportunity to go back to the past and present it in a realistic, powerful and profound way.
Stacie Chaiken: This moment demands that I have a huge and open heart. The hardest thing for me right now is sitting through stuff that’s just feels unbelievably cruel. The physical response is to close down; the psychic response is to lash out or to get pissed off, or to harden. So, my whole practice is about opening heart and following love because that’s where we will see one another.
Troy Loftin: We need to write truthfully. In the past, I’ve thought, “What can I write that’s important? What can I write that people want to see?” But that’s not the correct question. The question is, “What do I experience that I want to tell? And what can I uncover through that re-telling?” That’s what people want to see when they go to theatre—lives on stage. And if you can tell a good story that is compelling, or funny, or touching, it has the power of 100 issue plays. Just showing lives on stage is better than a diatribe or preaching.
STACIE CHAIKEN’s play The Dig, death, Genesis + the double helix won the 2017 Los Angeles Stage Raw Theatre Award for Solo Performance. Other plays include What She Left (World War Two narratives) and Looking for Louie (family secrets). staciechaiken.com
MILDRED INEZ LEWIS writes and directs for theatre, film and the digital space. She currently is writing a full-length, hypertheater piece based on the life of Jesus de Pio Pico, The Secret Life of LA Freeways, for the Rogue Artists Ensemble LAB.
TROY LOFTIN is a playwright and screenwriter and serves as assistant administrator of EST/LA’s NewWest Playwriting Program for writers under 30. His most recent full-length is Just So Typically Me, which you can find on newplayexchange.org.