You came all the way from Seattle to do In Our Name at the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival. Why here? And how was the Fringe experience for you?
I love Seattle and we do have a theatre scene here, but New York is still New York. Both Rebecca and I wanted the opportunity to be a part of a project that performed there. I’m also a huge fan of fringe festivals. I’ve worked in festivals as a performer, writer, and director in the past, including founding a few, so participating in the one in New York was something I’ve wanted to do. It was a fantastic experience. We had an ideal venue for our show and the people who ran the venue and the festival were great. We felt very well taken care of.
What did your cast and crew do as far as lodging, travel arrangements, and all the rest?
Rebecca and I both got ourselves to New York. She lives in Eugene Oregon, so we met here in New York. Our crew was friends of mine who live here in New York, so we only had to find a place for the two of us to say. We rented a terrific apartment that hosts visiting artists from out of town.
What was the inspiration for your play?
I have been writing about war for a long time. Though I was interested before, it moved to the forefront of my work when our country planned to invade Afghanistan back in 2001. I was horrified that was our reaction to 9/11 as a country. 9/11 was a tragedy, but to kill other people in reaction seemed insane to me. It still does. When I look at the quagmire our actions have created in the Middle East I become overwhelmed. The only way I know to deal with my anger and frustration is to write about it, perform it. I often think that people compartmentalize war too much to ever stop supporting it. We tend to think in terms of the years we attribute to specific events, like World War II (starting December 7, 1941 and ending in 1945), but that’s not how it works. People still reel from the events of that war, veterans, survivors of the camps, the fallout in Hiroshima — these things continue more than sixty years later. It’s those long term effects that interest me the most. War destroys not just the present, but the future. And people are impacted far beyond the reach of the battle grounds. Deep down I hope that if enough people recognize that we’ll stop supporting governments that profit off the deaths of others and the destruction of our environment.
Any thoughts on how theatre today should address current events/global issues? Or does it even need to?
I think artists in general have a responsibility to address current events and global issues. We are the voices of our cultures whether we like that or not. Though I don’t think all theatre has to be about serious issues, some of it should be. There are also a lot of ways that we can respond to issues as artists, it doesn’t have to be serious. I recently saw the show Get Your War On by the Rude Mechanicals out of Austin Texas. It was hysterically funny while simultaneously skewering our government. People have a responsibility to make the world a better place regardless of what they do for a living, whether that is raising a compassionate child or changing the business practices of Wal-Mart. As artists, we need to reflect what’s happening with the hopes that audiences will be impacted into action. If we don’t, who will?
As for does it need to — absolutely. Scientists predict our oceans may be empty in 40 years. Recent information has pushed the melting of the polar ice caps into a much earlier time frame than first expected. These things will end life on earth as we know it, probably in my life time. War, corporations, healthcare, poverty, global warming, these things are all interconnected. Those of us paying attention are scared, but trying to affect change. Those who aren’t paying attention, or choosing to look the other way, have exactly the same consequences coming down the line.
How did you first get involved/interested in theatre and playwriting?
I’ve been a writer my whole life. I remember making books as a little kid, complete with illustrations and fancy binding. The shift from writer to playwright was a natural one. I got interested in theatre as a student at Grossmont Community College in El Cajon, California. I went back to school after a first career as a mechanic. I worked heavy line in truck shops and as an auto mechanic for a few years after dropping out of high school, but that’s a whole other story. Once I decided to go to college I took an acting class out of curiosity, but it was love at first experience. I’ve worked in just about every aspect of theatre since then.
You're very involved in the Seattle theatre scene. Could you tell us a little bit about that scene and what it's like?
Theatre in Seattle is like everywhere else in America. We never have enough money and theatres come and go, but we have a good core group of artists who make their homes here. Over the last decade I’ve seen some great companies go under, and some mediocre ones succeed, both for a variety of reasons that we love to speculate about out here but probably can’t really explain. Mostly I think we love the place we live in and want to make our way here both financially and artistically and that is complicated in any locale. I’ve recently become a part of Live Girls! Theater in Ballard. The artistic director, Meghan Arnette, created a company that supports the work of women writers so it’s definitely aligned with my own personal mission. I also currently work for StoryBook Theater. We do musicals with adult actors for children. It’s a terrific company and I love being a part of their mission as well. We have a few big union houses, which have garnered national attention over the years, though we recently lost the Empty Space which was a huge loss to playwrights and other artists as they consistently did new works. We also have a fairly active “fringe” scene, though venues and finances have taken a toll there as well. The days of finding cheap warehouse space in this city may be a thing of the past. It’s hard to make a full time living here in the theatre, but there is a lot of good work that happens and it’s an amazing area to live in. Most of us find a way to balance our creative sides with a day job. I’m just lucky my current day job is in the theatre.
You are the founder of both Iron Pig and the Mae West Fest. What are those, and how did they both first come about?
Iron Pig is still evolving. Rebecca Nachison and I wanted to work together. She’s the most amazing actor I know and though we’ve known each other for about 15 years, we’d never worked as a writer/actor/director together. Though I hope others perform In Our Name, I wrote the pieces specifically for us. She gets the bulk of the stage time — I know who the better actor is! But it was a joy to do this project with her. We are continuing to perform In Our Name, with a show scheduled at Live Girls! in Seattle January 25 and 26, and I’m working on a solo piece for her that we’ll produce as an Iron Pig piece as well. Though our long range plans are unfolding, we hope to have a repertoire of plays that we can perform at other festivals and venues around the country, or even outside the U.S. I would like to go back to the Edinburgh festival at some point, and there are festivals in other countries I’d like to try, also.
The Mae West Fest is a festival celebrating women writers and directors I co-founded back in 1997. We started it because there was so much great work by women and so few ways to produce it. We decided to do them all at once. The first festival ran four days and had something like 28 different scripts. Very exciting. Though I’m no longer involved with the festival, I’m very proud of it and hope it continues to exist at a time when new plays and works by women continue to be less supported.
Do you have your next project (or projects) lined up?
Many projects. As I mentioned before, we’ve teamed up with Live Girls! to do In Our Name at the end of January. I have several new scripts I’m working on, including a musical with New York composer Garrit Guadan. I also write in different genres so I’m working on some non-theatrical projects as well.
Interview with Elena Hartwell was conducted by Michael Criscuolo January 2008.