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By HILARY BETTIS
When you ask six playwrights to write short plays on the theme "the morning after," what do you get? A stage full of mermaids, Amish teenagers, soccer dads, women's libbers, dirty dishes, and broken hearts.
I was lucky enough to be included as one of the playwrights in F*It Club's 3rd annual Spring Fling, a short play festival that runs through Sunday at the Medicine Show on West 52nd Street. Since creating the festival was such a wild ride, I sat down with my collaborators to discuss the challenges and joys of mounting a fast-paced DIY production.
What follows is a combination of my own observations, my interviews with the incredibly talented writers (Nick Jones, Krista Knight, Janine Nabers, Heidi Schreck, and Joe Tracz), and my conversations with the amazing producer/actors who created Spring Fling, Mara Kassin and Allyson Morgan.
Let's begin with Allyson and Mara, who created F*It Club's Spring Fling because they were tired of waiting for opportunities to do the kind of work that excites them. In only three years, their festival has been nominated for six Innovative Theatre Awards, winning Outstanding Original Short Script in 2011 and Outstanding Lighting Design in 2012. And they've worked with an impressive roster of talent, including downtown favorites like Anna Ziegler, Bekah Brunstetter, Lucy Boyle, Isaac Oliver, May Adrales, Josh Hecht, and Annie Baker.
This year, in only three weeks, they've mounted six new plays with six directors, a cast of eighteen, and a full design team.
Mara Kassin on juggling producing and acting:
For me, when I step in the rehearsal room, for those few hours I try to forget about producing. Until something happens that I need to fix, then you have to go into producer mode. In tech it's really hard because there are so many producer issues to tackle. So tech for me gets tricky. My mind goes between actor and producer really fast. When we open I'm just relieved to get on stage and act.
Allyson Morgan on some of the challenges facing young indie companies:
One of the biggest challenges with a new company is building credibility and momentum. Which is another reason why we do a series of short plays as opposed to one full production. It allows us to work with a lot of different artists in a short period. It allows us to build a family, and if we treat people well and they have a fun and rewarding experience, they will tell those they know. These are also people that we want to work with again and again down the road.
Mara Kassin on producing Spring Fling with a limited budget:
Budget was never a concern for us. Really, it became like an experiment. How much can we produce for no money? We knew the kinds of work we wanted to do, so approaching that by putting a budget first would mean we'd never get anything done. That actually became part of the fun and challenge, because we had to be innovative. It's easy to solve problems when you have money. When you don't have it, it forces you to find other ways to solve problems.
I asked my fellow playwrights about their interpretation of this year's theme, "the morning after." This is what they had to say.
Nick Jones on Thanks for the Bowl With the Spoon In It, Helen!
I've been experimenting with writing monologues in the last couple years, which is a form that is new to me, since I basically learned to write writing for puppets, which aren't fantastically nuanced instruments for speechifying. I currently don't have a roommate, but I do remember having insane issues with certain roommates related to cleanliness. I thought I'd try to dig into that and try to portray a character debating herself over the appropriate response to a problem with her roommate, which of course is not really about her roommate, but about her projecting her frustration with a number of things onto...well, in this case, some unwashed dishes in the sink.
Krista Knight on Coach Darling:
The theme made me interested in what happens the day after a catalytic event: In the case of the play, the disappearance of three young boys from a soccer field. I knew I wanted to write something that played with rhythm. I knew I wanted it to have a story and hopefully a reveal at the end.
Janine Nabers on Us; a Memory:
I really wanted to write a monologue play. I haven't done it before and think there is something about intimacy in this play that helps with the formula for being a monologue.
Heidi Schreck on Hello Ms.:
When I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, my mom and all her friends spent a lot of time agitating for women's rights, making us listen to the Free to Be You and Me album, and constantly assuring us that little girls could grow up to be president. Even though I was very young, I remember vividly my mom's grief when the deadline for the ERA expired in 1982, and for a long time I've been wanting to write about that time, to honor those women and remind people (and myself) of the amazing work they did. When the article came out in New York magazine celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ms. magazine, I'm sure I'm not the only writer who wanted to turn that into a play or film or TV series. Gloria Steinem is actually quoted as saying that the struggle of trying to start a magazine controlled by women in a world accustomed to the authority of men "should be the subject of a musical comedy." That quote I think inspired the tone of my little play.
Casting Annie Baker as Steinem was a huge joy for me because she is even more obsessed with Gloria than I am. She actually showed up to the first rehearsal with two different pairs of Steinem glasses to try out. I believe this is not the first time Annie has impersonated Gloria Steinem.
Joe Tracz on Beyond the Sea:
I'm a lifelong cartoon lover, and my other job is actually writing for animation, so I spend a lot of time thinking about Disney movies. And The Little Mermaid, while awesome, is also deeply weird. An interspecies love story in which one half of the couple literally has no voice for the entire courtship? Sure, bring the kids! So Beyond the Sea is a riff on that. But I also thought it was a great metaphor for a relationship as a voyage of discovery. What are the things you don't discover about your partner until, y'know..."the morning after?"
Also, I once promised a producer I'd write a play that brought to light a certain startling fact about marine biology. So, Stephanie Ybarra, here's the play you may not even remember you once asked for!
My inspiration for The Mud Hole:
I had another piece I was working on. I was frustrated and stuck and had been staring at a blank screen for hours. There's only so much smashing my head against the wall I can take before writing is a lost cause for the day. So I searched for a documentary on Hulu. I have an unhealthy obsession with documentaries. Usually, I watch documentaries on politics or weird diseases or serial killers, but in this moment the Amish youth jumped out at me. I always assumed the Amish were these pure and holy beings. But here were these kids struggling with drugs, sex, alcohol, religion, family, doubts, and their place in this world. In other words, they were normal teenagers. There was a scene with three boys in a run-down living room, passed out from heavy partying the night before. The sun was just coming up. A train roared outside their window. It was a beautiful and human and nostalgic and innocent and painful and sad and lonely and freeing moment captured in a few seconds of sleeping children. That was my play.
For me, being a part of Spring Fling meant I had the opportunity to do what I love with people I so deeply admire. It was challenging and rewarding and humbling to see a play go from conception to production in only three weeks. But more importantly, this experience has taught me just how vital the community is behind our endeavors---from those who made indiegogo donations and provided free furniture and costumes to the talented actors, designers, and directors who gave their time and energy to bring these stories to life. This is what I will remember the morning after The Spring Fling closes.
Hilary Bettis is a playwright and screenwriter. Her awards, residencies, and commissions include the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, the James McLure Fellowship/New River Dramatists, the Sloan/EST Commission, the John N. Wall Fellowship/Sewanee Writer's Conference, a Blackburn nomination, and a Cherry Jones and Abingdon Theatre Company grant.
photo by Sean Fader