For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed playwright Fengar Gael. Her plays include The Usher’s Ball, The Portraitist, The Gallerist, Opaline, Touch of Rapture, Gift of a Forgotten Tongues, The Cat Vandal and Sycorax: Cyber Queen of Qamara. She has had her plays developed and produced at The New York Stage and Film Company, the Sundance Theatre Lab, New Jersey Repertory, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, InterAct Theatre of Philadelphia, the Salt Lake Acting Company, Kitchen Dog Theatre, The Venus Theatre, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, The Landing Theatre, The Outcast Theatre, The Rorschach Theatre, MultiStages, Turn to Flesh Productions, Playwrights Gallery and The Ego Actus Theatre Company. To learn more, visit www.fengar.com.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
I’m working on a louche tale of the supernatural called Passing Parades that features an idealistic young woman who undergoes a radical transformation after a bomb shatters the lives of marchers gathered to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage. The woman awakens from a coma convinced she’s possessed by the soul of a pioneer suffragists who died in a similar explosion in 1850. She must now adjust to the social and technological advances of today’s world, and is the subject of much speculation until she disappears and becomes the object of a citywide search.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
I was inspired by research on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the subject of a short play commissioned by the Hangar Theatre of Ithaca to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State. The first wave of feminism took place in the mid-19th century at the same time as the abolitionist movement. Participants for both causes were subject to constant abuse and ridicule, and I couldn’t resist returning to that period of history – the decade before the civil war when our country was divided by geography and politics. Today our country’s divided once again, only this time it’s by the politics and geography of urban verses rural regions.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
There are too many poets, novelists and playwrights to list them all, but the revelations I felt reading the magic realism of Latin American writers had the greatest influence, especially the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Feuntes, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende. All my plays possess metaphysical dimensions mixing fantasy with reality, the past with the present, humans with animals, the living with the dead.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
Everything in my phenomenological sphere inspires me: my family, friends and enemies; art, music, films and literature; nature’s abundance of animals, trees and flowers; political essays in newspapers and magazines, and all the emotions evoked attempting to stay sane in a world perpetually at war.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I recently finished a fourth draft of Smile Like a Knife, which is my “resistance” or “catharsis” play: a theatrical response to living in uniquely conflicted times with a contentiously divided government under the leadership of a miserly, mean-souled president who prefers building walls to bridges; denies the reality of global warming; champions the rights of white males to women and immigrants; and who threatens the values of our once proudly progressive democracy.
Smile Like a Knife is a dystopian exploration of life on the shrinking island of Manhattan after global warming has wreaked havoc and forced humanity to become both organic and mechanic. One hundred years from now, an androgynous guide is speaking to an audience of tourists observing a simulated habitat of a drama that took place in the early decades of the 21st century: In the heart of the city’s most prestigious shopping district stands a watch shop located directly across from a renown residential building where powerful corporate magnates convene and conspire to control global conflicts and economies. In the shop window stands an alluring robotic mannequin equipped with a camera that spies on the constant stream of marchers protesting the country’s dysfunctional plutocracy. The play explores the corrosive effects of a divisive government as well as the human capacity for romance, redemption and invention.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
Is it really my vision? Sometimes I feel like a puppet whose strings are being pulled by perverse, mercurial gods who like to trick me at every turn. Yet most mornings I feel I’m living in my own vision because of the singular instance of wanting to wake up – perhaps to hear birds chirping, voices beckoning or simply to taste that first cup of coffee, or the chance to escape the building and join the huddled masses on the streets, the subways, shops, theatres and museums of the city.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?No barriers?! None?!! Then I’d correct the gender imbalance of power in the world, redistribute the cultural, educational, agricultural, and economic wealth, and melt all the heavy metal weapons of mass distruction into a giant pyramid. Then I’d escape this mortal coil to the Gates of Paradise Theatres where all my plays are being produced simultaneously, ha, ha! But while I’m here on planet Earth I’d like to be rehearsing my musical, Soul on Vinyl, in big a Broadway theatre with the composer, Dennis McCarthy, sitting beside me in the audience while fabulous actors are singing under the direction of an inspired conductor. Dream on dreamer …
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
That depends on which vision. My vision for the country depends on the departure of Trump and his fellow plutocrats, but the biggest obstacle in achieving my vision as a playwright has been the American theatre’s relentless preference for domestic realism, linear “carpet-slipper plays” that tread softly, offend no one and simply mirror or affirm our quotidian lives (which television and movies do very well). I wish that literary managers in the gate positions of theatres, as well as their artistic directors, would cease underestimating the imaginations of audiences,and start producing more creative, theatrical plays that take the audience to unfamiliar worlds. Another obstacle is the oppressive insistence that it’s wrong for writers to appropriate cultures different from their own which means they’re expected to police their imaginations and define themselves strictly in terms of their own race, age, gender, and ethnicity.
Also our paganistic celebrity-worshipping culture has hurt the theatre in that plays seem to be chosen to accommodate movie or television stars and not for the merit of the plays themselves
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
My creative self seems to require NO self, an emptying out of the ego in a place of utter silence so I’m grateful to live in a building with thick walls and quiet neighbors. This emptied self requires the companionship of a cup of coffee and a sense of solitude so I can be available to hear the voices of the characters willing to appear. This means avoiding the distractions of the Internet and being a weak person, this also means escaping the presence of the computer so I wield a pen on paper, then later in the afternoon transcribe the scribblings to the computer. So it seems my creative self is connected to my body, to my hand holding a pen and sometimes a brush since I’m also a painter and illustrator.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
My often crippling self doubt rooted in the isolation of a childhood of constant traveling, and forced to endure the consequences of exclusion.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
This is simply impossible to answer – there are just to many that qualify as favorites.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
There is no singular person, and I resist the idea of idols of any kind, but I do greatly admire my parents, both deceased; my brothers, my amazing friends; and the authors, artists and everyone everywhere struggling to express themselves with dignity, grace and compassion in a volatile world.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
I would like to be known as a benevolent faith healer with the power to cure the afflictions of the doomed, but since I’m the wickedest person I know, and since my circle is small, and the few times I’ve been celebrated have rarely led to the opening of doors I dared to dream would open, then I cannot seriously imagine being known or celebrated for anything while I’m alive, never mind dead, and after all, life is for.the living. However, the artistic director of the Venus Theatre said to some people I’m known as “the animal playwright” which shocked me — until I realized that nearly all my plays do indeed feature animals, ha!
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
I’d say, “You fool! Stop dwelling on your failures! Stop wasting precious time and energy trying to convince the unconvincible that you’re worthy of their time and resources. There will always be people on whom you are utterly lost, so let them go their own misguided ways. instead learn to appreciate and celebrate your true and loyal friends, and try to see the genius in everyone!”
Q What is your guilty pleasure?
I have more than one guilty pleasure, and they are too personal and possibly illegal to discuss in a questionnaire that might fall into the hands of the FBI or the CIA.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
I would like to live wherever the people I love are living. I’ve traveled extensively and lived many places, but my heart’s home is New York. That said, I wouldn’t mind leasing one of Mad King Ludwig’s Bavarian castles where my partner and our friends would spend our days creating, reading and producing our plays for our mutual amusement in between hiking in the forest, swimming in the lakes, dining like kings, dreaming in the moonlight …
Q: What is your idea of success?
I’m already living my idea of success: I have a loving partner, wonderful friends, a comfortable home, breakfast with coffee, dinner with wine, and I’m not confined to a padded room in Bellevue which is where I’d be if I did not have a vocation that allowed me to express the demons within. Yes, success for me means survival through the creation of plays and paintings and beyond that the bliss of enduring relationships.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?