My Sexual Harassment Hat

I have a sexual harassment hat. What is that, you might ask? It's a hat that, when you wear it, you get sexually harassed. I didn't know it was a sexual harassment hat when I bought it. Here's the story of how I figured it out.

I was in rehearsals for my play, A WOMAN, which, ironically is about how women are still excluded from church leadership positions in many church denominations. On our first day of rehearsal, one of the actors, who was the only man in the room, asked a simple question about a story of minor sexual assault that the main character in the play shares, and we, the three women in the room, all laughed at his surprise, and casually shared our most recent stories of sexual assault or harassment. He was stunned to discover that every single woman in the room had a story similar to the character in the play.

I had bought a new hat. It was summer, and I wanted to keep the sun off my face. It's a simple white straw hat with a medium size brim.

The next day I was walking with my foster son's case worker. We were having a professional conversation about Noah's care when we passed a man who gave us the rape eyes. It was just a look, but it was long and it was sexual, and it was invasive, and abusive, and violent. So much so that we both stopped talking mid-sentence. His look struck us speechless. We didn't stop walking, of course; survival instinct always tells you to keep walking. When we were a safe distance from him, I said, "wow." She said, "yeah." And that's all we needed to say. We were both shaken. She said she thought it was the hat. I thought she was grasping for a reasonable explanation for what we had experienced.

A few days later, I'm walking in down town Manhattan telling this story to the director who was directing my play, A WOMAN—I'm telling her the story because I'm wearing the hat. As I'm telling her this story, it happens again. A man steps in our path, and looks down at us with rapey intent and keeps his eyes glued to us until we'd round the corner. Again, we shared an unspoken acknowledgment of how violated we both felt. "Maybe it IS the hat," I said. She laughed darkly.

A few days later, I'm standing outside the building where we're to rehearse. I'm early and so the building is locked. I'm standing there alone. A man walks by, sees me standing alone, looks me up and down, and says to me, "Do you wanna take me upstairs?" I did not want to take him upstairs; I wanted to claw his eyes out. I said, "no." He walked away, pleased with himself for the power he felt he had exerted over me, someone he perceived to be less powerful. I shook. There had been no one around at that moment. The story could have ended much differently. I took off the hat and waited for someone to show up that had the key.

A few days later, I'm walking through downtown and a man yells out to me, "nice hat!" He doesn't have the rape eyes. He's wearing a nice friendly smile. He's not trying to violate me. I smile back politely, "thanks!," I say and keep walking.

A few days later, I'm not wearing the hat. I get on a bus at Port Authority. It's standing room only and the people standing in the middle haven't moved back and there are more people in line behind me that want to get on. So I call out in a loud, authoritative, but respectful voice, "Everyone move back!" It catches one of the passengers’ attention. He smiles at me. “It's not a rapey smile; it's an admiring one,” I tell myself, so I smile back and roll my eyes as if to say, "I know right, can you believe people don't move back without being told?" But then he continues to stare at me. Every time I look over at his side of the bus he does his best to catch my eye. He's making sexual advances non-verbally, and I'm sending him all kinds of "buzz off" cues and he's not taking “no” for an answer. Now I'm feeling violated, so I reposition myself so that my back is turned to him. But I can still feel his eyes on me. And when I get off the bus, his eyes follow me, and I'm praying, "please God, don't let him get off the bus, too." Because it was night, and I didn't want to get raped.

I appreciate the male solidarity on the Me Too thing—men posting “#MeToo” to show their support. But I wonder, do they know that feeling? I’m not sure they do. I’m not sure “#TheyToo”. And I don’t feel comfortable with them joining that party.

The stories I posted happened in a course of maybe ten days. Wow, you might think, rough two weeks. But the truth is, this is every week.

Last week, I was walking home from work, and a man saw me coming, and he locked his rapey eyes on me, and I decided not to cross to the other side of the street. I decided to hold my head high and walk right by him. I met his eyes at one point, wanting him to see my courage and look away. But he didn't. He kept visually raping me, so I broke eye contact and looked straight ahead, but kept walking. The sidewalk was narrow because there was construction/scaffolding. By the time I got about ten feet from him it occurred to me that at the moment I passed him, if he wanted, he would be close enough to touch me. And when that thought entered my head, I realized, as if I were outside of myself, that if he did that, I was gonna go ape-shit and start punching. He didn't touch me. I walked right by him. I didn't speed up. He didn't touch me. One time a guy did. One time I was groped. Momentarily. Randomly, by one of these men with the rapey eyes.

All of these stories are minor examples of sexual assault and harassment. I'm one of the lucky ones, because nothing worse has ever happened to me.

We can't be okay with this. We can't respect men who do this. We can't put them in positions of authority. We can't let them shape our culture. Women are not things that God made to pleasure men. Women reflect the image of God. To violate a woman, even in your imagination, is to deface the image of God.

What The Fairy Tale Princess Can Teach Your Daughter, If You Let Her

(This article was originally published on PolicyMic.)

Has anyone noticed the recent conspiracy to force the fairy tale universe into our own? From SNL’s recent sketch The Real Housewives of Disney that depicted Cinderella as a "big f***ing mess," to photographer Dina Goldstein’s Fallen Princesses series that challenges fairy tale princesses with the struggles of the modern woman, we can't get enough of this problemantic version of the leading lady. Broadway recently brought Cinderella back to the Great White Way in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderellaand Disney has its own plans for the come-back girl, with a new Kenneth Branagh Cinderella film slated for 2014. 

So what's a feminist parent with a princess-obsessed four-year-old to do?

Here’s the good news about fairy tales — they aren’t love stories. At least, not in the chick-flick-rom-com sense. They're also not about gender — at least not in the XX/XY chromosome sense. Fairy tales are about the human experience, through a "feminine" lens. And their lessons are crucial to all of us.

Most fairy tale princesses — including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Belle, and Sleeping Beauty — emerged from the oral storytelling tradition in ancient Europe. The Grimm Brothers granted the princesses eternal life by publishing their stories, but before the Brothers Grimm, these ladies’ lives were in the hands of common mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers: the people who took care of children. It’s almost as true today as it was back then (for better and worse): children live in a world run by women, while the adult world is predominantly masculine.

Fairy tales weren’t only told to girls in ancient times; they were teaching tools for boys, too. Cinderellawasn’t originally about the "uncool" girl dreaming of meeting a handsome prince; Cinderella was about how kindness, goodness, and patience never, ultimately, go unrewarded.

But what do we do about the problematic prince who always shows up at the last minute, insisting on executing a rescue? It’s true that Cinderella is rescued by Prince Charming in the original text, but their story is not so romantic. They meet at a ball. He finds her beautiful. They dance and share momentary bliss and happiness. Then, the clock strikes 12 and she disappears, losing her slipper in the process. The prince wants her for his wife, so he sends a footman to find her. The footman does, and Cinderella and Prince Charming live happily ever after. This prince is a distant figure. He doesn’t even have a name. All we know is that he found Cinderella beautiful. Some feminists hate that. But ancient beauty was different than the beauty we know now. Cinderella didn’t wear makeup, didn’t go to the gym, and she certainly didn’t get a boob job. Beauty wasn’t Cinderella’s currency for getting a prince.

Nature made her beautiful, the thinking goes, because she was kind.

Fairy Tales choose feminine heroes because fairy tale heroes get their strength from the natural world, not from human hierarchy. Their heroes are powerless because children are powerless. They are physically weak because children are weak. But fairy tale princesses are strong in spirit and integrity, and nature acknowledges this where men don’t. Nature helps these heroes along — until the prince comes. But the prince isn’t really a man. He’s not Angelina’s Brad or Beyonce’s Jay-Z; the prince is the divine. The prince is God. The moral of the fairy tale story? It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, gay, bi, or straight — when it seems that no one loves you and that you are powerless against injustice, know that there is a divine prince who loves your inner beauty and, if you persist in goodness, someday you and your prince will live happily ever after.

Peggy Orenstein, author of the 2011 New York Times best seller Cinderella Ate My Daughter, might argue that the original meaning of these stories is completely lost on today’s children because the "pink and pretty" princess image has forever destroyed the Cinderella of old. But the fairy tale’s power comes not from great CGI or sparkly costumes; it comes from the imagination, which is still shaped by the people who enter the child’s imagination with them. More often than not, those people are still women. So, maybe, fairy tale princesses can still be good, kind, and brave, not for a man, but for all humans.

Maybe it’s not actually necessary to throw the princess out with the breast implant saline water. 

Transformation and Enchantment

(This blog was originally posted by The Public Theater.)

I have a four year old daughter who is completely enchanted by fairy tales. Of course, the versions she knows and loves are Disney’s remakes, but the heart of these stories hasn’tchanged so much over time. As I watch my little girl drop to her knees and beg the Snow White on her television not to eat the apple for the hundredth time, I marvel at the enduring power of this form of storytelling.

Literary scholars have written volumes on this subject, but as a playwright, one characteristic of fairy tales interests me in particular: the world of the fairy tale is ruled by transformation. Kitchen maids transform into princesses, beasts and frogs transform into princes, queens transform into witches, and gardens transform into mazes of thorns. Fairy tales present a world in which people, objects, social hierarchies and power structures can change in the blink of an eye. True, magic is often involved, but most often that magic is brought about by human action.

It occurred to me that transformation is also at the heart of both the content and form of theater. Plays tell stories about characters encountering an obstacle that requires them to transform in some way or die—a young mother transforms from a girl whose life doesn’t exist beyond the confines of her household duties to a woman who finds existence beyond the doll’s house walls both imaginable and possible; a young man transforms from a nuisance of a lad into a King that will lead an army into the breach of battle.

As in fairy tales, magic, often lovingly referred to as “theater magic,” happens in the theater, and that magic is brought about by human action on stage. This human action on stage also requires transformation—a young man from New Jersey transforms into Hamlet, a Texas beauty queen transforms into a quiet, common Irish girl dancing at the festival of Lughnasa. Fairy tales, in their original form, also included this live transformation of the storyteller who shared the story orally with the childhood listener.

Often, theater artists tell stories hoping that their audiences will also be transformed in some way. In fairy tales, this is also true. For fairy tales, the focus of this transformation seems to be on belief; we want our children to believe that love can transform a beast into a prince, that kindness can transform a kitchen maid into a princess, that friendship can conquer evil and restore good.
As a playwright, I want all of these transformations. I want to write stories of people who are courageous enough to become what they are not because, for them, all the world depends on it. I want the actors telling my stories to transform into something they are not because they believe the audience depends on it. And I want my audience, upon seeing and hearing the story, to transform into something they are not because they know their life depends on it. This may sound ridiculously ambitious but, from my experience, both theater makers and theater goers are in it for exactly this—the magic of transformation.

Writing the Past

(This blog was originally published by The Public Theater.)

While Pia was watching a movie from the 80’s set in the future, (see her recent EWG blog post titled “Writing the Future”), I was watching a movie from the 21st century, set five hundred years in the past. I found myself sighing at the dark medieval shadows and the serious looks on all the characters’ faces. (Didn’t people joke around or fall in love in the middle ages?) Despite my disinterest in the film, I was excited by the challenge before me: I’d just been commissioned to write a play about the same historical figure lurking in the shadows of my television set.

In her blog, Pia claims that writing about the future is as much about commenting on the present as it is predicting what is to come. I’ve never written about the future, but this makes sense to me because, anyway, how can anyone predict the future with any real hopes of accuracy? The question before me now is whether Pia’s claim is also true about writing about the past.

I’ve watched two films and read five biographies, one play, and several journal essays about my historical figure, the Great Reformer Martin Luther. I’ve also read numerous essays and sermons by him, and I’ve only begun to break through the top soil of the information about his life. I’ve hired a brilliant assistant to read and report back, hoping that between the two of us I can fulfill my due diligence. I am surprised at how much I’m loving this research process. I hate history. It was the only AP test I failed in high school. I do not care to memorize the names of the people who signed a particular document or first landed on a particular piece of earth. But when I research this character, I feel like I am doing something illicit–peeking into his diary, unmasking the hero and seeing him for the rascal he really was. I love it.

There is a character in the play that I feel a certain kinship with–Martin Luther’s wife, Katie Von Bora. My assistant laughed when I confessed this to him, and rightfully so, because this character and I have nothing in common. She lived in the middle ages; I live now. She had no family; I have an amazing one. She lived as a nun for fifteen years before her courageous escape from the convent…strangely enough, there’s something in this that echoes in my soul. No, I was never a nun and I never lived under the strict code of silence that she endured, but I grew up as a missionary kid then later left the bible belt to come to NYC…I am learning something about myself as I learn more about her.

Is this irresponsible, to use my writing of the past to unearth the secrets in my own heart and my own times? Am I lying about these people, twisting their stories for my own purposes? Am I dishonoring these people who I have fallen so madly in love with? Am I betraying them even, when they have trusted me with their secrets? I know, it sounds like I need to see a therapist. But these are the very real struggles that face me.

Relativism repeatedly declares that history cannot be known. It is always told from inside the bias of the teller, and that is unavoidable. If this is true, why do we care? Why study history at all? Why reach for something that isn’t even there? And when we study it, why do we want it to be true? I want it to be true. I want to do these people justice. But if I am honest I have to admit that it is not the history that interests me, it’s the story of these courageous characters triumphing and failing, and showing me how to do both.

I suppose this is why I am a playwright and not a historian. I am scared of the historians. They will say I am wrong no matter how right I try to be. Pia says that “no one will ever be right…only right now.” But I feel the burden of both. God help me.

A Playwright's Pilgrimage to Lutherland

(This blog was originally published by The Public Theater.)

I spent the past year making daily trips of the imagination to the world of Medieval Germany, the setting of the play I’m writing about Martin Luther. But as I started to make sense of the history and politics of Luther’s universe, my imaginary voyages felt increasingly insufficient. I decided I had to go there with my body. So I bought a plane ticket and I set out to see what traces of Medieval Germany I could still find.

My best friend and I arrived in Berlin with plans to spend the day visiting the city sites before beginning our Martin Luther pilgrimage the next morning. Rather than take a cab from the airport to our hipster hotel in East Berlin, we decided to bus it to a central location and walk the rest of the way. The streets of Germany taunt unsuspecting visitors with dizzying twists and turns and shapeshifting names that change almost every block. We arrived at our hotel so exhausted and confused that it took us at least thirty minutes to figure out that we had to insert our key card into an electricity box to turn on the lights in our room. Thirty minutes later it took us another ten minutes to figure out that we had to do it every thirty minutes to keep them on. Our hotel was the only thing we found in Berlin.

The next day we woke up early and set out with our German rail pass to find Wittenberg. Note, there is no “e” on the end of that word. The Wittenberge we went to, however, did have an “e” on the end of it. Wittenberge with an “e” is almost all the way to Poland. We returned to Berlin and boarded a train to the right Wittenberg.

Wittenberg is the Luther Mecca. This is where he wrote the 95 Thesis against the corruption in the Holy Roman Church. This is where he preached, lectured, lived with his wife Katie and their children, and hosted star-studded “table talks” about the formation of the new church. Outside Luther and Katie’s home there stands a statue of Katie that so perfectly captures the beauty, strength, and quiet stubbornness I’d imagined had defined her. I felt that at any moment that statue might come to life and busy itself with the gardening and the beer brewing. She might welcome me in, offer me a seat at the Lutherhaus table. I might stay for days, or weeks, as their visiting scholars often did. I would ask Katie why she did it, why she singled out such a problematic man to marry. And she would laugh as if the answer were obvious and offer me a beer and then go about her business of muscling forward a thought revolution.

The next day we missed our train to Erfurt. Actually, we were on the right platform looking down it and discussing whether the train at the other end was ours or not. It was. It left without us. We caught the next train.

Erfurt is the Germany of fairy tales, with cobblestone streets so narrow that we could barely walk down them side by side. A tiny puppet theater charms passersby. I imagined that the magic elves of Luther’s Prussian childhood stories must machine it. Luther spent his college years in Erfurt studying law until he was caught in a life-threatening thunderstorm immediately after which he knocked on the doors of the Black Monastery and told the stranger who answered that he wanted to became a monk. We stayed in a bed and breakfast situated right next door to the Black Monastery. I wondered if the fragile creek that ran by it was there for Luther to enjoy as a young friar.

The next stop on our pilgrimage was Eisenach where we found Luther’s boyhood home. Low ceilings, dwarfed doors. People were shorter back then, right? Around the corner from Luther’s home rests the house of Bach. There I discovered that Luther was Bach’s hero; Bach had adapted many of Luther’s hymns into symphony form. I also discovered that the instruments Bach composed with looked nothing like the instruments we have today. So the Bach I listen to on my ipad actually doesn’t sound the way it sounded when Bach played it? I thought of Luther’s writings. Luther wasn’t using the same writing instruments that we use today either. His words, also, must have sounded different when he spoke them than when I hear them now.

From Eisenach we hiked up to Wartburg Castle. The fortress stood atop a magnificent hill, with smaller ones rippling out from it in every direction. After Luther delivered his famous “Here I Stand” speech in which he refused to recant his 95 Thesis, Luther was kidnapped and whisked away to this impenetrable structure. Everyone thought he was dead. Instead, he was working on what would become his greatest achievement: his translation of the New Testament into the German of the common people. I wandered through the time-warp of a museum until I found his study. Before me sat his desk, his window. I imagined him hunched over, working furiously in ergonomically pathetic posture. It was here that Luther first met the devil in person, he tells us. The demons he met in this room followed him for the rest of his life.

Strangely, my tour book said nothing about the town of Worms where Luther was tried before the Emperor. I was nervous about going so far out of our way in search of Luther’s trial location if it wasn’t worth seeing, but I decided to risk it. When we arrived at Worms there wasn’t much in the way of tourist information. My traveling companion pointed to the only large structure on our map. “That’s gotta be it,” she assured me. The massive Medieval palace was now an intimidating Catholic church filled with thousand-year-old stone caskets and ghostly sculptures. There was no trace of Luther anywhere. Then it occurred to me–this church is Catholic; they probably hate him. There was one unimpressive gift shop outside the Cathedral. I timidly asked the attendant if this was the place of Luther’s famous trial. She smiled and nodded. I shivered. The thought of standing trial in that Harry Potter-esque structure terrified me.

I’m back at my desk in 21st Century America, now, writing in the same ergonomically preposterous positions Luther must have written in. The masochistic body posture is trivial, I suppose, but it’s something tangible we have in common, and since my trip to Germany these tangible connections have become increasingly important. Other tangible commonalities now include: Luther and I both enjoy German beer; when I sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” I now think of Wartburg Castle as he must have when he wrote it. Even with these helpful links, Medieval Germany still feels distant, (and I am thankful for that on many levels). But it felt good to get my imagination and my body together in the same place. I’ve been in Luther and Katie’s home; they welcomed me. And now, in some strange way I feel like I have Luther and Katie’s permission to tell their story.

Write What You Know?

(This blog was originally published by  The Public Theater.)

I was pursuing an MFA in Directing when I began to suspect that writing might be my true calling. I can identify the very moment, actually. I was at a writer’s retreat that I’d be invited to based on theimpression one of my plays had made on the retreat’s director. After a week of the typical readings, workshops, and feedback sessions, the retreat director, Bryan Coley, led the writers onto a stage and proceeded to ritualistically wash our feet. I was completely stunned, and when it was my turn to approach the wash-basin, my legs shook, and when Bryan began to wash my feet, I broke down sobbing.

I returned to my graduate program at Baylor to attend a playwriting seminar by Horton Foote, whose work I had appreciated for some time. I sat with my newfound sense of destiny, ready to soak in all the wisdom that this revered theater sage might offer, and I remember my heart breaking every time he repeated these words: “write what you know”. Of course, “write what you know” does not belong to Horton Foote; it’s an age-old piece of writing wisdom. But Foote, with all his plays about the same small town of Harrison, Texas, seemed to have found the “write what you know” sweet spot. And I began to wonder, in light of Foote’s wisdom and experience, if I could ever be a playwright, because no town was my town—I didn’t know anything.

I’m a third culture kid that never belonged anywhere I lived. Though I am Caucasian, I was born in the Philippines and raised in various parts of Asia. When, in my teens, my family returned to the United States, I felt even more out of place than I did living overseas. I never had a town like Foote’s–one that I knew inside and out like he did. The culture most think is mine, because I am white and well-educated, isn’t really my culture—I didn’t listen to the music they listened to, watch the same T.V. shows, play with the same toys, wear the same clothes. Actually there is no culture that did those things with me, because even the children I grew up around in China or Hong Kong didn’t grow up as I did—an American in a foreign land. How do you write what you know when everything you know is from the point of view of an outsider?

I’ve run into this quagmire over and over again in my writing. The play I wrote during my time in the EWG was about three heroic Nigerian women who stood up to the Oil Company in their village. I don’t know Nigeria. I know some Nigerians who were part of this story, but I’m not one of them. Similarly, the play I wrote that got me into the EWG is a play about a Palestinian priest who stayed to protect the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem from Palestinian gunmen taking refuge there during an intifada. I’ve been to Bethlehem, but I don’t know it. I’ve often wondered: am I writing the wrong stories?

A few years after moving to NYC I took a playwriting class from Arthur Giron at Ensemble Studio Theater. It was the usual structure—students bring in work and get teacher and peer feedback. But one day in class Arthur challenged us with a question about truth. An uncomfortable, even semi-painful energy materialized in the room. The writer across the table from me stiffened and balked, “Truth! What does that have to do with playwriting? Why should I care about truth?” Arthur turned his neck without moving his body, and his words froze us in our seats. “Because if you don’t, you will go to hell,” he said, his face stone serious. My stomach dropped, and I knew in my gut that he was right.

I recently had a revelation that has allowed me to connect these three definitive events. Foote was right—write what you know. Write what you know. Don’t write what you think. Don’t just write well. Write what you know to be true about this world, this thing we’re doing, this living. Arthur was also right–it has to be true, not in the journalistic sense, but in the meaningfulness of life. That part can’t be a lie, because if it is it’s the worst kind of lie—deliberate and pre-meditated. Bryan was right, too—there’s a sacredness about it all that requires a willingness to let others touch our dirt and cleanse our filth no matter how humbling that may be.

Write what you know, what you know more than anything else, what you know more than anyone else. I’m sure I’ll fall short of this most of the time. But the times I don’t, I’ll do good work. And in those times I’ll get the satisfaction of knowing I’ve fulfilled my calling as a writer.

Wilde Tales

(This post was originally published by The Public Theater.)

Over the past two years I’ve formed an illicit romance with Oscar Wilde. (Yes, my husband knows.) So, when Firebone Theatre decided to put together a festival of fairy tales, I immediately suggested Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. Wilde wrote his tales to be read aloud to children. This is, of course, in keeping with the oral story telling tradition. Much of the fairy tale’s form is determined by this parent/child oral exchange. As I began this adaptation only to discover that some of these formal elements contradict the traditional “rules” of modern playwriting.

The second challenge of adapting a fairy tale to the stage is that the fairy tale offers little in the way of human relationships. Most fairy tale heroes are isolated from the rest of humanity both geographically (a tower, a cell, a forest), and socially (fairy tale heroes
are usually either royalty or social outcasts). Wilde’s giant has no friends. Well, he has one, but he doesn’t live in the location of the story and Wilde says that they have little to say to each other. Wilde’s giant also isolates himself geographically by building a wall around his garden and home. When he finally comes in contact with other humans, their interaction is limited. The one character the giant enters into a relationship with remains distant for most of the story, and only draws close as the giant is about to die. This strange fairy tale form supports its meaning. Fairy tales concern themselves less with human relationships and more with divine ones. The fairy tale seeks to answer the question “how do I, a human, relate to my universe?”, rather than “how do I relate to my family or my lover?”. This is a common mis-interpretation of the princess fairy tales. Modern Americans often frown on the male/female relationship depicted in, say, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella. Women are not meant to sit around waiting for a prince to rescue them, after all. But those stories are not about male/female love relationships. How could they be? There is no male/female relationship in them. The princess is on the journey alone. The prince only enters in the very end, and he rescues and loves her without her even knowing who he is. These are not stories of human romance, these are stories of the romance between mankind and its divine prince.

I’ve already spoken of the supernatural several times in the piece, perhaps to many of my readers’ discomfort. This element is a third challenge to the modern playwright. In the fairy tale, the supernatural is common place. Characters in the story do not react in surprise when animals talk or magical objects present themselves. The modern psyche wants to explain away the supernatural because we are uncomfortable with it. But the fairy tale won’t allow it. The boy at the end of Wilde’s The Selfish Giant bears the marks of Christ on his hands and feet. He is not a literal Christ, but he is clearly a divine being. During the time that the fairy tale form developed, most people believed in supernatural miracles. Today, even religious people deny the supernatural as a probable explanation for anything. But yet, the fairy tale cosmology attracts the hardest cynics, suggesting that perhaps beneath our surface disbelief lies a dormant wish for the divine.

Similar to it’s embrace of the supernatural, the fairy tale completely disregards of our modern sense of time. Time passes at lightning speed (Sleeping Beauty) or doesn’t pass at all. And there is little trace of its movements, one way or the other. Like Wilde’s manipulation of the effects of time in Dorian Gray, in the fairy tale, time serves to mark the development of man’s soul, rather than the circular travels of clock hands. Perhaps it is their disregard of time that has allowed fairy tales to persist through time, or rather, suspend themselves permanently outside of it.

Despite the challenges of adapting Fairy Tales to the stage, I believe that the fairy tale form showcases what theater does best: exploring the human soul. Many mothers discourage their children from allowing their imaginations to be swept up into the fairy tale universe, fearing that little girls who fantasize about becoming a princess will grow into spoiled brats. That may happen, but it will not be the fault of the fairy tale. The fairy tale hero (often a princess) “is cast into suffering and want, evidently destined to endure privation, misunderstanding, and malice, and yet summoned to a regal existence”.* Cinderella, perhaps the most popular fairy tale hero, bears the mark of the dead in her very identity (cinder=ash). The happiness and light in the fairy tale is found in the capacity for humans to change, “that the lowest can rise to the highest and even the highest can be destroyed”.* This is the stuff of great theater.

The fairy tale is not a form that most contemporary playwrights write in. It’s a unique, pre-Freudian art form that communicates a certain way of understanding human existence. When the form is broken, the meaning dissipates. Wilde preserved both. My hope is that, in my adaptation, I will accomplish the same. *Quotes from Max Luthi’s “Once Upon a Time, On the Nature of Fairy Tales.”

Where I Write

(This post was originally published by The Public Theater.)

As I pulled into the dark driveway of the remote mountain cottage, I heard the deep aggressive bark of what sounded like a very large dog. It occurred to me that, considering my wilderness location, the bark actually could belong to a wolf. I saw the doe at about the same time that she saw me. I was still in the car, but my interior light had come on, and so maybe it’s reasonable to believe that she looked me in the eyes, as I imagined.  It was early January and I’d never been to this place before. There was snow and ice on the ground, and as I stared at the frightened deer, I questioned the maturity of my decision to come here alone.

Writing space became a sacred thing to me after giving birth to my daughter, Kansas, which I did smack dab in the middle of my time in the EWG. At that time, the EWG was the biggest break I’d had, and so I was obsessively determined to keep up despite my pregnancy, 33 hour labor, and subsequent sleep deprivation. Every weekday morning I woke up at 6am, breast fed my daughter, put on a hat, shoes, and hoodie, and walked three blocks to a nearby Fort Greene diner. I ordered one egg, grits, toast, coffee (which cost me $4.50), and I wrote for two hours. I had to be home by 9am, when my husband’s animators arrived in our apartment to begin working. Before giving birth, my best writing time was in the evenings. But after my daughter was born, I grew to love those early morning writing sessions. I craved them. I did good writing there. And when that diner shut down two years later, I genuinely grieved.

When we moved from Fort Greene to Weehawken (coincidentally shortly after the diner closed), my writing was thrown off because I no longer had a writing space. Don’t get me wrong, I still wrote, but I was like a nomad searching for a writing home. I tried Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, a wine bar, another local diner, a local reading garden, nothing stuck. Thus, the insane pilgrimage to the scary mountain cottage.

So, I summoned the courage to get out of my car and go into the cabin. It was breathtakingly perfect, a small one bedroom literally sitting on a lake. The entire wall facing the lake was glass, and it offered a stunning view of glistening water, imposing rock, and mysterious forest. But the initial wave of romantic inspiration exploded into horror-movie-terror when I found that I had no cell phone coverage and no internet. There was a land line phone on top of a charming hope chest, but when I listened to the receiver, it was dead.  I had wanted writing solitude; I got it. I felt like the cabin was challenging me: “how bad do you want this?” So I stuck it out and I slept with the fire extinguisher beside my bed–the only weapon-like object I could rummage.

That cabin and I became very intimate. It not only became part of the life of the play I was writing, it became part of my life as a writer. I went back there one more time after that initial trip, and then the person who had provided the space for me let go of the lease, and so again, I was in writing-space-mourning.

I’ve found that when I’m writing the first draft of a new story, I need a sacred space. It needs to be private, and it needs to be big enough for me to walk around, and do jumping jacks, and execute my ritualistic giant-sticky-note story development process.

I’m an alumna of the O’Neill, and my experience there with my musical Son of a Gun was so artistically transformative to me that I journey back to their campus every chance I get. There is a spirit there that not only provides time and space to write, but also an incredible amount of emotional support for the writer, which makes me tear up even as I write this.  Last weekend I artificially generated my own writing retreat by booking a Montclair space on Airbnb. It was a lovely space, but it wasn’t sacred.

When I’m in revisions mode, I can work anywhere. I can work at home with Power Rangers playing in the background. I can work in my office at The King’s College with students dropping by for personal advice or to use my French press. But the initial stages in a project have to feel indulgent, like I’m treating myself to something I don’t really deserve, or maybe something that the project itself hasn’t quite earned yet.  Now that I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps making a sacred space for a project is an act of faith–a way of saying, “I believe in this even before there is anything for me to believe in.” It’s a tithe, a mass, a making space for the something that is to come, not unlike preparing a nursery.

Chris Cragin-Day is currently working on two commissions–her play titled Martin Luther on Trial and a Christmas musical which she will co-write with Don Chaffer, her Son of a Gun collaborator. Her musical adaptation of Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, co-written with Michael Castillejos, played in Firebone’s Long Long Ago Festival this past December.

Why Write Plays?

(This blog was originally published by The Public Theater.)

In my dramatic writing class this semester, I found myself, on a number of occasions, trying desperately to explain to my college students the differences between writing for the stage and writing for film. Beyond the basic form issues, the amount of dialogue vs. visual story-telling, the length of scenes, etc., I wanted to communicate that the shift from screen to stage and vice versa doesn’t just change the way we tell the story, it changes the heart of the story entirely.

One of my students was working on a screenplay about two teenage counselors at a wilderness
camp for kids. The first time she brought in her pages we all thought it was a horror film. This
befuddled her. There was no indication of “horror” film at all on the page. Week after week she
brought in more pages and week after week she got the same feedback: we are expecting
someone to die.

At the end of every semester I make my students adapt ten pages of something they’ve been
working on from stage to screen or vice versa. This student brought her camp story in, this time
as a play. As a play, the universe of the story opened up and the setting, which would no longer
be actually seen by the audience, suddenly connected to the inner life of the characters. The
horror story expectation had vanished and the relationship between the two characters, and our
own memories of our camp loves, came to the forefront. Why?

Last night I was at the AWG—the group of EWG alumni that still meet together at least once a
month to share pages. The group is focused around members offering constructive feedback to
each other on whatever play we’re writing at the time, but we also speak a lot about craft: what
is this thing we do, why do we do it, what do we know about it, what are we missing? One of our
members, Don Nguyen, is writing a play that compares human conception to space exploration.
And as I write this blog…Eureka! That’s it! In the theater, human conception is like space
exploration. Because, like Don’s play, theater makes the human experience its whole universe.

Why do I write plays instead of screenplays? Well, actually, I write both. But like “actors who
sing” or “singers who move”, I see myself as a “playwright who screenplays.” And I’m still
learning both forms. Right now I’m tackling the popular new-wave full length one act.
Completely character driven. Very little plot. Let’s get to the heart of this theater thing, baby. I’m
also about to start a new musical, small cast, acoustic—never done that before, oh, wait, I did
once. It went well. Phew. Maybe I do know something. And I have a never-done screenplay that
I’m turning into a novel, so clearly, I’m not a form purist. But…

Aristotle said that art imitates life and that theater imitates human action. I don’t think that he
means that theater is about people on a stage pretending to be other people. I don’t think that’s
what actors do. Theater imitates human action, human life, and that life is fleeting. It’s pulsating
with danger, with risk. It’s gorgeous and soul-filling, and then it’s done. And it can never happen
again. It’s here for a time, a beautiful, precious time, and then it vanishes…and yet something
lingers. I think I see myself in this art form, my past, my slippery present, and my future. We
write plays because we believe that in imitating human action, in putting it on the stage and
watching it, naming it, we claim its universe. We get to be, (like the sperm and the egg, Don),

What I love about writing screenplays is that it forces me to communicate mostly through the
unspoken. And that’s a poetic language muscle that I don’t want to let atrophy. But you don’t
write a screenplay looking forward to the first time actors will get in a room, sit at a table, and
speak it into being. A screenplay must be filmed into being. (Or these days, digitally recorded.)
And then once it’s in the box, edited to perfection, and distributed (whether in a cinema or on
you tube), it’s what it will be forever—it doesn’t change. Theater invites people—actors, directors,
audiences—into the co-conceiving process. There is something eternal about the life of a play
because even if it fades out of fashion, there is always the chance that some director, hundreds
of years from now, will find it, love it, and breathe life into it anew.

Writing for Children

I’ve never had any interest in children’s theater. In fact, as a result of a few unfortunate children’s theater experiences, I confess I’ve actually held it in contempt.  Even after entering motherhood wonderland, I resisted the idea of writing for my own daughter. But now I find myself writing, not just children’s theater but a children’s musical.  There’s only one way this could have happened–Oscar Wilde tricked me into it.

Anyone who knows me knows of my fascination with Oscar Wilde. This obsession is partly due to a fairy tale he wrote–The Selfish Giant.  In the context of Wilde’s essay De Profundis (which he wrote while imprisoned for Sodomy), I developed a literary curiosity about the fairy tale genre and it’s connection to humankind’s pursuit of the divine. My theory was confirmed by my research and, suddenly, through the fairy tale, children’s theater beckoned me.

I’m currently writing the book and lyrics to a short musical adaptation of The Selfish Giant with Michael Castillejos (music and lyrics). Firebone Theatre is producing the musical as part of a Holiday Fairy Tale Festival this fall (also featuring EWG alumn Pia Wilson’s hilarious adaption of Perrault’s The Fairies). As I write, I find myself experiencing a strange giddiness imagining the response of the children in the audience. And I feel a grave responsibility knowing that the magic of the childhood imagination, which I’ve come to see as sacred will, for the duration of the show, rest in my hands.

Spoiler alert: Wilde makes the children fall in love with the giant and then Wilde kills him. At our first read through, this made some people in the room uncomfortable. “Do we really want children thinking about death at Christmas time?” they gently questioned. Here’s what the fairy tale gets–children know. They know about death, instinctively, by about age three. They want to talk about it frankly. They want to know if they should be afraid. Wilde says they shouldn’t. He sends a boy to welcome the giant into death with wide open arms. And, as in all fairy tales, love conquers death. It doesn’t eliminate death–it is victorious over it.

The childhood universe is inherently mythological. When I tap into that, I can write for children with as much writer’s integrity as I write for a sophisticated audience as that of The Public. The challenge of writing for children is that you can’t cover up half truths with intellectual banter or pop culture references.  Children’s eyes and ears cut through that much more sharply than our own. Children demand truth and honesty, and if you don’t deliver, they’ll call you on it. Wilde knew that. (Yet another reason to love him.)

Writing for children thrills and scares me. Their precious little hearts and psyches literally contain the hope of future generations, and I do not want to break them. But fairy tale tellers believe that, in the face of evil, children must muster courage, and they determine to teach children how to do just that. So, we’re using the typical children’s theater tricks: audience interaction, physical comedy, and upbeat dance numbers. And we’re feeding them marshmallow hot chocolate and cookies. And, I guess, ultimately, we’re relying on their imaginations to grasp for the divine in ways that, perhaps, we’ve forgotten how to.

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