Fast Forward Friday with Cornelia Ravenal

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For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed the multi-talented award-winning writer-producer-filmmaker-visual artist Cornelia Ravenal. Her work has been performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and regional theaters, published in magazines in Asia and the US, and screened at international festivals. For more information, visit www.wildernessfilms.us.

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I’m working on several projects, each at a different stage. I never know which is going to move forward or when, so I have to keep teeing them up. These are the most current:

MOVING STORIES, a documentary I produced and co-created, premiered at MoMA last year and has been in almost 40 festivals to date. I’m still working daily on it, because we’re in the marketing, distribution and social impact phase.

As a writer, I’m juggling a few things. My script ON THE BLADE won a spot at the Writers Lab funded by Meryl Streep a few months ago. To push that forward, I recently wrote the script for a “proof of concept” short that my husband and filmmaking partner, Mikael Södersten, will direct.  We’re now strategizing how to shoot it.

I’m also in the middle of a first draft of a thriller, a dark, modern retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. But I took a break from it last week to write some marketing materials for comedy called THE INtiMATES for a producer in LA. Otherwise, I’m waiting for notes from another producer on a comedy called A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS MOOSE STORY; as soon as I get those, I’ll dive into the rewrite. In musical theater, I’m writing lyrics for BOYNTON BEACH CLUB, a musical that goes up in a regional theater this fall.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

The documentary is about an acclaimed NY dance company that goes to India, Romania, Korea and Iraq to teach the tools of choreography to at-risk and often traumatized youth. When I first heard about the work they were doing, as a former journalist in India, I knew it was a story that had to be told. And as a trauma survivor myself, I know firsthand the power of the arts to heal.

The musical … when composer Ned Ginsburg and Susan Seidelman asked me to write lyrics for a musical based on one of her films, I jumped. Susan directed DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, which had a big impact on me early in my career.

The scripts I’m writing all have personal connections. ON THE BLADE is inspired by the true story of a brutal hazing at an Ivy League school; it came out of my husband’s experience. Two of the other scripts explore marriage, one comically, the other as a thriller. And MOOSE was inspired by my experiences living in Sweden. It’s about a hapless American who gets lost in Swedish Lapland on the way to the wedding of a Facebook friend. (Not that this happened to me. But close.)

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

I’ve been inspired by many people. When I was a teenage songwriter, my artistic inspirations were Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. Several careers later, I look to legions of women filmmakers for inspiration: directors like Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay, Angelina Jolie, Jill Soloway, Patty Jenkins, Kathryn Bigelow, Greta Gerwig and Lynne Ramsay; actor-producers like Elizabeth Banks, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Penny Marshall and producers like Gale Anne Hurd and Christine Vachon.

All this said, the artistic hero who has had the biggest impact is my mother. She’s a painter and art historian who made a career for herself at a time when there were many more obstacles than there are now. She continued to paint into her 70s and to write into her 80s. She’s continually curious about the world and is inspired to create daily.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?

The work itself. I like making something out of nothing. I’m really stimulated by the process of creating and of problem-solving in words, sounds and images.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

I started out as a performer and I still sing. I recently pinch hit as a studio singer. After I sang with a jazz quintet in Sanders Theater several years back, I promised friends I’d make a CD.  I’ve been putting it off for a while, because of the demands of other work, but plan to do that this year, if only for family and friends. I’m also a visual artist. My work has been in a few gallery shows, including a solo show in Sweden.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

Anytime something I’ve made gets up out of the crib of creation, gets to its feet and walks on its own tells me I’m living in my vision. That’s as true for finishing a first draft of a script as it is for seeing a musical or film on its feet.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

There have been so many barriers to entry and advancement over the decades that I’ve been working, it’s hard to say. If I hadn’t encountered them, I might have made the natural transitions from writing to show running to creating TV shows or directing feature films.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Fear, both conscious and unconscious. But the biggest obstacles have probably been all the barriers to entry and advancement. Any woman reading this knows what forms those can take. But when I think of obstacles, I tend to think of solutions. So, one way I’ve dealt with professional barriers is to create groups to empower myself and others who may be dealing with the same things. The most recent, which I started 5 years ago, was for women producers. Fifteen of us met once a month in my living room. It’s since become WIP (Women Independent Producers), with close to 60 members..

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

There are so many things I enjoy creating that I’m rarely not in my creative self. But in the last several years, one of my projects has involved an overwhelming amount of non-creative work, so I’ve had to fight to stay connected. To stay connected, I prioritize the time to create. I minimize distractions. I make deadlines for myself that I stick to as rigorously as deadlines from outside. I put the work first. I turn down invitations. I don’t pick up the phone. I create a cocoon. I’m fortunate that my husband is also a writer-filmmaker-producer, so often, we’re in the cocoon together.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

Fear.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The life’s work of photographer Sebastião Salgado. Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING. Brahm’s violin concertos. The works of choreographers Ohad Naharin and Pina Bausch. The musical, FIDDLER ON THE ROOFwhich I just saw again, this time in Yiddish. (Best production ever!) Too many films to count, although right now, it’s the Yorgos Lanthimos film, THE FAVOURITE, which is transgressively brilliant.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

I admire people who lead and inspire, despite obstacles and fears. I think that’s why the first names that come to me are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Gandhi,  for reasons everyone knows. But I’d also have to say: my husband. He treats people with respect.  He’s also extremely ethical. I’ve seen him lead and inspire and take care of people in ways that remind me daily of what it means to be a leader.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

My creative work.  

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Resilient.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

Exotic ice creams, like rose petal and kulfi.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t give anyone the power to diminish you. Don’t be afraid.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

I used to have favorite places – India, Sweden, Italy – but these days it’s anywhere I can write. Right now, I’m on a train and that seems pretty good to me.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Being recognized for what I’ve created.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

Creative exploration.

Q: Final Thoughts?

Gratitude.

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