Fast Forward Friday with Robin Rice

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed award-winning playwright Robin Rice. She has written 50 one-act plays and 20 full-length plays and they have been produced from Off-Broadway to Mongolia, South Africa to South Korea and London to Seattle.

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

Margie Ditches the Expandable Pig is a great big armload of a play I am rewriting in preparation for a reading for industry in the fall. A wonderful director Marcus Yi, contacted me recently and asked what I had that he might like to work on. I sent him several plays and this one really grabbed him. He was trained in Hong Kong in physical theater, so this is a perfect fit.

The play is about how being overweight can tear a woman down to the point of giving up entirely. The characters in the play  – the cast size minimum is eight with a lot of double casting, up to 22 – all women –  are mostly pairs of women’s breasts. Did I say I like magical realism? The breasts of women from different places, ages, sizes and backgrounds – these breasts have stories to tell. They try to bolster Margie’s self-confidence so she can face the world.

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

I don’t remember the initial inspiration – but Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was part of it. I started out writing a lot of essays about breasts, calling it The Breast Monologues. I interviewed many people, like the young actor in a play of mine running in Louisville who had had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Of course I also called on my memories of my own experience breast feeding and my own lousy body image.   

When the breast monologues were done, I put out an invitation on Facebook: Women actors, would you like to come and read a new monologue for me? Seventeen women responded. Seventeen actors generously gathered one winter evening in my apartment and performed the monologues for each other. It was thrilling! I knew I had something. The most gripping monologue, for me, was the very last one – Margie’s monologue. So I made Margie the protagonist and have worked to break the monologues (not all of them) open and form them into the full-length play.  

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

I didn’t start writing plays until I was 50. Previously I was a newspaper reporter and then a fine-art print maker.  At 50 I got my Master’s Degree in playwriting and haven’t looked back. I have always been inspired by Thornton Wilder’s creative layering; Irene Fornes’ wide-open, magical way with words; and, of course, by Tennessee Williams’ color in characters, situations and place. Specifically, however,  seeing Tony Kushner’s Angels In America had a huge impact. The play shouted: Mix it up! Go where you want to go in time and space!

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

It’s certainly not the endless submission-rejection process. When I began writing plays in the early 1990s, theaters would report that they were getting around 300 submissions a year. They now report getting 1,000. And it’s not the discouraging percentage of women playwrights who get produced year after year. And it’s definitely not rampant ageism in the theater world. When I was just starting out I was told by editors and agents that they wanted to sign on young playwrights so they could build a history with them. Sorry, guys, I was never a young playwright.

I’ve always been stubborn. That may be the main thing that keeps me going. I’ve had quite a few productions all over the world, which is a big motivator. It seems like just when nothing is coming up – something always suddenly happens. So far so good. The thrill of working with good collaborators – sitting in the room with a creative director and fine actors working to bring my play to life – that keeps me going maybe most of all. In the past month I have been lucky enough to work with two wonderful groups on my drama Everyday Edna Mae and my black comedy Listen! The River. The plays were in a festival which means short runs and all the lousy things that a festival involves, but the rehearsals were absolutely wonderful. And the performances were so good I already have a rewrite of Everyday Edna Mae ready to send out to other producers.

A final word about inspiration. I never understood people who come up to me and say “I have a great story you can make into a play.” I have an abundance of stories of my own. There is nowhere near time enough to tell my stories. Those stories are the seeds. I could plant a field of flowers without running out of ideas – if I had forever.

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

I have a drama Lust & Lies that was adapted from a true crime novel (a New York Times bestseller) about a murder that happened in rural Pennsylvania in 1831. This play has two readings with two different groups in NYC in the fall. So I’ll be listening to those and diving into rewrites of that play along with whatever happens with the reading of Margie Ditches the Expandable Pig.

Next week while I’m at Antioch College for a work project fixing up the campus and reunion I’m also going to do research on Susannah Way Dodds, the woman a hall in my freshman dorm was named after. This is for the 365 Project – women playwrights all over the world write plays about real women who have affected our world. I’ve been part of this project since it started four years ago. Watch for a reading of exciting plays next March at Theatre for the New City in NYC as well as 365 readings worldwide.

In the fall I’ll be writing a new short play for Articulate Theatre Company’s Articulating the Arts and hope it’s chosen for production. I’ll also be working as a board member of a new theater company, Rebel Playhouse, as they continue to generate projects aimed at opening young people’s minds through theater.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some projects. Oh – right! In June I went to a performance of an old Commedia dell’Arte play that was directed beautifully. Afterwards I chatted with the director and she invited me to send her a script. I sent a long one-act play that takes place in ancient Greece but has a contemporary feminist spin. She loved it. Yay! She’s out of NYC directing across the country, but when she gets back in the fall she wants to give the play a reading and take it from there. Watch For The Length Of A Dream. This one has been sitting around gathering dust, waiting for the right opportunity.

My goals for the upcoming year are to focus more narrowly on where I send scripts when I’m looking for producers, and to try to avoid using up time writing and sending out 10-minute plays. It feels good when those shorts are produced, but it’s like eating popcorn. It’s not all that nourishing in the long run.

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

When I was a print maker, my vision was realized on paper. When I segued over into theater, I could  lift my vision from three-dimensions into four and bring it alive with movement, sound and lights. When creative, smart directors, actors and tech people are brought into the mix, my vision soars and I can really live it. A good example is Alice In Black And White, which has had productions in Louisville, KY, and 59E59 in New York. The story is about a Victorian photographer, Alice Austen, who became the first woman photojournalist. Projections of her photographs were used as the backdrop in the productions. Having lived in Alice’s shoes during the writing of the play, experiencing the productions by Looking for Lilith Theatre Company was truly living my vision!

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

Having a play produced at the Humana Festival in Louisville – and then on to a rolling premiere.

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

Age. Theater loves youth. One drawback to not being younger is that I can’t stay up to wee hours and network. I have to be in bed by 11 or I’m a zombie the next day and unfortunately networking is huge in the business.

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

The question should be what do I do to stay connected to my non-creative self.

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

Having learned the hard way, I think I’ve finally let go of it. Sometimes I’ve been too trusting. I didn’t always heed the warning of red flags when I saw them. Empathy caused me to not watch my own back. There are directors who want to realize their own vision of the play, not yours. There are producers who talk a big game but don’t follow through. There are people who give you advice who are really looking out for themselves. It’s a learning process. My rule now is: See a red flag, go the other way. A director I know has a rule for himself that I like: “Don’t work with bloodsuckers.”

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

There isn’t one favorite. But two that had an overwhelming effect on me recently were the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre. I studied so many years ago in Art History, but seeing it in person – oh my! And Monet’s garden and home in Giverny. His painting of water lilies – all his paintings – the light and colors were there in his home and garden and the real pool of real water lilies that he painted.  The real things are themselves a breathtaking work of art.

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

I can’t name one. I simply can’t. The women who fought and fight for their rights throughout time and all over the world are primary, but no one can be singled out. As soon as I start naming names I’m leaving out someone who qualifies.

American educator Horace Mann said: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.” The people I admire have won these victories.

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

Creating beauty. That includes more than writing.

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

Focused.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

Reality TV: Project Runway and Face Off in particular. Both involve starting with nothing and creating something awesome.

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

Choose a graduate school that has status in the theater world.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

I moved to New York City when I started writing plays and this is totally the place I would most like to be. I should have moved here years earlier! I wouldn’t mind living in London half of the year too.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Everyone always says “happiness.” Here’s what would make me happy: My goal when I started playwriting was to be published. I’ve had only one full-length play published (Play Nice!) so far. You need to have productions with decent runs and good reviews to be published by a good publishing house. So my idea of ultimate success would be to have those productions of all my full-length plays (all 20 of them) followed by publication. I don’t want to end my playwriting career with a pile of unpublished scripts that nobody will ever see.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

See the answer to the above question. A shelf-full of my published plays is the legacy I’d like to leave for my children and grandchildren. I’d like to think that in a hundred years one of my plays would be performed and bring happiness to everyone in the production as well as to the audience.

Q: Final Thoughts?

This year I felt myself moving increasingly into the role of mentor. I have had one-on-ones to help a number of young playwrights. I was asked to be on the Rebel Playhouse board and to be a panelist for the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival. This follows my resolution to never produce my own work in a festival again. It’s like stepping up a step and arriving at a point where I can see the view better and the view includes sharing what I’ve learned.

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