Friday, June 20, 2008

Day 5 – Coming together

Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

Friday showcased the week’s readings with a culminating presentation on 2ST’s mainstage. John Partilla, President of Time Warner Global Media Group, and Daniel J. Osheyack, Vice President of Time Warner Philanthropic Initiatives, spoke about the commitment that their corporation has to fostering new artists in the entertainment industry. Following their remarks, brief excerpts were presented from each of the eight readings. Lynn Nottage, who’s first play Crumbs from the Table of Joy, was commissioned by Second Stage Theatre, spoke about the play she is currently writing for this commission and then introduced Carole Rothman, Artistic Director of Second Stage. Rothman conluded the afternoon’s event by explaining what it takes to put on a festival of this magnitude and thanking all those who made it such a success.

So what are the actors saying?

“I just love and appreciate new works—I think that is our future. Renditions of old classical plays are great to bring back, but new voices, new opinions, and new thoughts are much, much neater. To be a part of this is something special. And here we have the cream of the crop, and the cream of the crop is teaching the next generation that’s come to be a cast member or audience member in this process. Any little bit that I can be involved with, or be a part of, I’m happy to do.”
– Erik LaRay Harvey from Sung Rno’s Happy

“I became involved with this about six months ago. We did a really rough reading of the script, As Soon as Impossible. We were just downstairs in the lobby. I was so interested in the part, and I thought the play was great. Then to do this—this was sort of the next thing. I don’t think I even realized how big of a deal this was. I sort of can’t wait to hear the excerpts of everything. It was so wonderful to see all these playwrights because there aren’t so many venues for them to display their new work. And then to have these really great directors and great actors take their time to do this is wonderful because it lets them hear their work and maybe visualize that next step. I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. I hope it continues. To be able to share your work with other playwrights and actors and directors, that sense of collaboration comes even before you actually produce the play.”
–Tala Ashe from Betty Shamieh’s As Soon as Impossible

“I’m doing Animals Out of Paper with Rajiv Joseph, and it’s great to be able to play an Indian character. I’m glad that the festival is opening itself up to different ethnicities and really trying to stretch its boundaries. To be able to play a character so close to an Indian hip-hopper, that doesn’t really happen, ever.”
–Utkarsh Ambudkar from Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper

“I think it’s very important that they have this festival—to have people know who the new playwrights are, and the quality of their work. The only thing is, there are only 5 minutes of the pieces presented, and I wish it was a little bit more so the people could really see the meat of the show. I don’t know how much you can get in five minutes, but I really think it’s a great, great idea. I’m doing Wash Your Rabbit by Cheryl West, and I’ve always wanted to do one of her pieces. It’s just really a joy. I only became involved two days ago, we just had a reading of it yesterday, and here we are today. The best is yet to come.”
–Ann Duquesnay from Cheryl L. West’s Wash Your Rabbit


After documenting a week replete with new works and fresh talent, I’ll leave you with a quote from playwright, Anthony Neilson. In an article written for The Guardian, Neilson examines the precarious state that theater faces with the dawn of so many other recreational outlets and a dwindling number of ticket sales (for straight plays at least). He seeks to give some advice to young playwrights, and this is what he concludes:

“The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I've heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment. There is nothing more magical and nothing - nothing - less boring.”

Congratulations, J, Sandra, Zakiyyah, Betty, Sung, Tracey, Rajiv and Cheryl. After having attended each and every one of your readings, I feel confident in saying that, with you, the state of the stage is looking up … our theater is in good hands.


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

Sitting in a single file line, eight African American women barreled through a nearly three hour reading. Never having rehearsed the second act, their degree of interaction was remarkable as they responded to one another’s split second changes in intonation or body language without ever skipping a beat. Directed by Jo Bonney, Cheryl L. West wove a story about a pastor’s wife who decides to form a recreational volleyball team with the ladies from the church. The range of emotions and complexity of their relationships is anything but quaint. By the end of our journey together, I really felt like I knew a great deal about these eight characters. It wasn’t that I was being introduced to them for the first time, but rather, I cared about what happened to them. And that’s the mark of successful writing.

In an age of divas and baby ingénues, Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer and West’s Wash Your Rabbit are a testament to the power of an ensemble. Both show how strength in a story can come from a range of characters all sharing one story.

“I was trying to do a thing like the La Ronde,” says Wilson. The 1898 play (actually entitled Der Reigen) by Arthur Schnitzler explores the transmission of venereal disease in relation to cultural mores of the day. It is often recognized, however, for its telephone-like structure. “It’s a set of scenes where it starts with a prostitute and a sailor, and the next scene is the sailor and someone else, and so on.” Eventually the play comes full circle, ending with the prostitute and a different suitor.

In Wilson’s script, buzzers in a New York apartment building are broken, allowing an African American male to enter the complex through a propped open door. His ready-made access results in the rape and murder of a woman on the 11th floor, and since the horrifying incident, the characters are left scrambling for solutions and solace. The play closes with starting character, Susie (Lisa Joyce) talking in the apartment vestibule with fellow-tenant, Laura (Carolyn Baeumler) about whether or not they’re going to let an unidentified black man into the building.

“I just think because of this presidential election that’s going on, everyone’s sort of saying they’re talking about race, but no one’s really talking about race,” says Wilson. “I wanted to do a play where no one’s really talking about race, but it’s underlying everything in some ways.”

West—whose work Jar in the Floor, Birdie Blue, and Before It Hits Home has been featured at Second Stage prior to this commission—also dealt with issues of race, but her story was first and foremost a story about women. From a struggle between a mom and her 17-year-old daughter who’s been forced to grow up too fast, to a wife who runs from her abusive marriage into the arms of another woman, West’s script is heaped with herstories. “Keeping it real honoring whatever the hell we feel!” is the team’s chant.

Looking towards the future, Wilson hopes to continue fleshing out ideas before staging a full production of Buzzer. “I want it to be more … more like La Ronde, more of those connected scenes,” says Wilson. “I’m looking to make it a little bit more subtle. Right now it’s a little preachy.”

“Yeah, but when work comes out like this—especially work that has a political bent—it’s okay to be preachy when you’re developing it,” interjects Director, Robert O’Hara. “That way, you know you’ve gotten it out of your system.”

On my way out for the evening, I caught up with Jade King Carroll and Jerry Ruiz, directors of 10 Things To Do Before I Die and Happy, respectively, and each commented upon the intricacy and depth of the work presented that day. Carroll said she was even tearing up by the end of West’s reading.

“You don’t actually realize it until there are people sitting in front of you and you see what they listen to,” says O’Hara. “That’s when, I think, you hear the play. And it’s kind of exciting.”


Buzzer is written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Robert O’Hara. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Carolyn Baeumler (Laura), Lisa Joyce (Susie), Katharine Powell (Marjorie), James Miles (Jackson), David Wilson Barnes (Don), and Brian Hutchison (Todd). Stage directions were read by Crystal Noelle.

Wash Your Rabbit is written by Cheryl L. West and directed by Jo Bonney. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Ann Duquesnay (Johnnie Ray), Caroline Clay (Ida), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Pinky (Mother Bennet)), Lynda Gravatt (Georgia), Portia (Coco), Brienin Bryant (Camy), Saidah Ekulona (Big Roz), Sharon Washington (Pearl). Stage directions were read by Crystal Noelle

In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor), Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor), and Roy Arias Studios (300 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor).NEXT UP: Friday’s final presentation

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Who is Laura Hedli?

This June, Second Stage launched it’s first ever Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival, courtesy of the Time Warner Commissioning Program. For this festival we wanted to ensure we documented every moment, so we enlisted Laura Hedli to capture each day.

Laura Hedli is currently the Theater Editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator, where she is responsible for generating all theater content, maintaining a staff of writers and both writing and editing. She grew up in Clinton, NJ and has trained as a dancer since she was six. Having worked in journalism since High School, Hedli moved from doing page layouts to one-on-one interviews with celebrities. Hedli, says some of her interview highlights include subjects such as Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls, Duncan Sheik of Spring Awakening, and Oliver Sacks, neuroscientist and author of Awakenings. The latter of these marks an interesting fact about Hedli: aside from writing about theatre, she is heavily involved in neuroscience. Currently working to finish Bachelor degree from Barnard College in Neuroscience and Behavior, Hedli, has studied alongside notable professors, such as Dr. Anna Krieger at the NYU School of Medicine, studying the correlation between Sleep Apnea and Strokes. When Hedli graduate she aspires to write theatre criticism for The New York Times and also hopes to create a musical one day.

The unique combination of her scientific and artistic sensibilities has given her a meticulous and engaging point of view that makes her the perfect writer to capture the multiplicity of voices at the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

The Who’s already got a lock on the pinball wizard, and the much anticipated Billy Elliott opens on Broadway this fall. But playwright, Rajiv Joseph, introduces us to a new kind of child prodigy … and this one folds.

That’s right, origami is at the crux of Joseph’s latest work, Animals Out of Paper. All three characters are intricately connected to this ancient Japanese art form—Andy (Jeremy Shamos) is the treasurer for American Origami, Ilana (Kellie Overbey) is a world famous origamist, and Suresh (Utkarsh Ambudkar) is her 17-year-old protégé. As the play progresses, a complex love triangle forms and inspiration is lost and found.

“I had always wanted to do a play about a prodigy—a kid who has some kind of skills in some sort of field,” says Joseph. He had always been drawn to the classic chess story, but ultimately opted for something much more original.

“One day I was sitting next to a woman on a greyhound bus, and she was folding origami next to me. She was telling me that she teaches kids origami, and she mentioned that sometimes certain ones have a real affinity for it. Some kids can see folds before they happen, you know, just look at a piece of paper and know how to fold it,” says Joseph.

After this exchange, Joseph began to formulate is first move. He came to Second Stage Theatre’s (2ST) artistic department with four different proposals for this commission —this being one of them—and they gave the go on origami. Flash forward two years later, and rehearsals for Animals Out of Paper begin in a week. Not only has his work been commissioned, but in February, Joseph met with Associate Artistic Director Christopher Burney who delivered the news that 2ST wanted his play to be part of the uptown series at the McGinn/Cazale Theater. Opening night is set for July 14th, and out of the 10 commissioned writers, Joseph is the first to enjoy a full production of his work.

“I do a lot of rewriting, and that’s led us to this point,” explains Joseph. “And it just so happened that this Time Warner event falls right before our rehearsal process. Because of that, we were able to bring in our cast and have our first sort of pseudo rehearsal today, which was the reading that you just saw.”

Joseph’s long-time artistic partner, director Giovanna Sardelli, jumped on board once the play had been chosen for Second Stage Uptown. “What was interesting was meeting with the designers—that’s when you start thinking about the world you’re going to set the play in,” says Sardelli.

Much of the action takes place in Ilana’s studio, and at the start of the play, a gigantic, origami bird lies overhead, held to the ceiling with fishing lines.

“The average wingspan of a hawk is four to five feet. And so it’s going to be about twice that,” explains Sardelli. “They’re working on it right now, so we’re getting pictures of it. And it’s cool to look at the photos that are inspiring it [the origami bird] because of the story it has to tell—it’s got to be dynamic.”

She tells me that designers are constructing the bird using a mix of origami and what they call, fo-origami. Joseph is quick to clarify that true origami is made from using only a single sheet of paper, so the bird is what you would call a composite piece.

The pair has certainly done their homework over the past year. They’ve attended origami conventions with nearly 800 participants, been in contact with Origami USA about finding artists eager to have their work showcased on stage, and even interviewed masters in their craft.

Robert Lang is a NASA physicist turned professional artist, who now serves as our nation’s foremost origamist. After being consulted by a medical group, he designed and folded a mesh heart used in bypass surgery, and it’s now featured as a central point of contention in Joseph’s play.

“I actually interviewed Robert Lang last year at the convention, and I talked to him about the development of that heart, of that sleeve—it’s a sleeve really that unwraps around the heart,” clarifies Joseph. “And I asked him, if he saw a play where a character designed that if he’d be upset. And he said, ‘no, I would just turn to the person next to me and say, I did that.’”

But don’t think this play is all medical jargon and avant-garde art, when in fact, its author has a knack for storytelling and a penchant for hip-hop beats. It’s safe to say that it’s the only play where you’ll hear someone rap about skim milk.

“I think what’s most important to me is Ilana’s character and her journey, what she goes through, why she does the things that she does, and where she is at the beginning versus where she is at the end,” says Joseph. “How has she been altered by these two men who have kind of forced their way into her life?”

During the rehearsal before the reading, Sardelli’s direction was minimal. “What was interesting about today was—if you do a reading that is just purely a reading, you usually give a lot of direction. You’ll say, you know, this scene - it needs to do this. You’re trying to skip the entire process, and get something like a performance out of people,” explains Sardelli. “But because this is our real cast, it would have been so disrespectful to them and to their process to kind of skip all the steps. So really, based on why we cast them and based on the strength of the play, we just kind of let them go.”

Thursday marked the beginning of a three-week collaboration between the actors and artists before Animals Out of Paper takes center stage at the McGinn/Cazale. Sardelli looks forward to working further with their cast and design team, while Joseph hopes to keep editing the script.

“There’s an analytical side of origami, a sort of brain mathematical side, and a very artistic side. Those two things are in constant kind of ebb and flow with each other,” says Joseph, demonstrating all he knows about the art form. “The more I learned about it, the more the crystallization of the play could take off.”

For a writer with a dedication to really getting to know his characters and their craft, it shows in his work. So move over Tommy—there’s a new prodigy on the block.


Animals Out of Paper is written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Giovanna Sardelli. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Jeremy Shamos (Andy), Kellie Overbey (Ilana), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Suresh). Stage directions were read by Bhavesh Patel.

In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor), Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor), and Roy Arias Studios (300 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor).

NEXT UP: the continuation of day 4, including Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer and Cheryl L. West’s Wash Your Rabbit, and also Friday’s final presentation

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

You know those T-shirts that capitalize on the popular saying “eat, sleep, and breathe …” by finishing the phrase out with SOCCER! or DANCE! or “insert random sport name here!”? I propose we get shirts specifically designed for the New Works Festival … first names on front pockets, bowling team style and everything. No, seriously … nothing says “together” like matching T-shirts.

It’s 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and I’ve just started transcribing. Ahead of me is a brief nap, a 1000+ word article, half a bagel, two readings, three interviews, a small cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (one scoop half baked, one scoop cake batter), another reading, two more interviews, pizza, and one green room wrap-up session. Notice my day literally consists of eating, sleeping, (while it goes without mention, the all important) breathing, and theater.

Unfortunately, professional silk-screened T-shirts haven’t yet been factored into the budget, but in the blogosphere, my friends, talk is cheap and the play’s the thing.

In today’s marathon of readings, sisters come face to face with a past they never knew in Zakiyyah Alexander’s, 10 Things To Do Before I Die, miscommunication surrounding an innocent surprise party strains a friendship in Betty Shamieh’s, As Soon as Impossible, and neurotransmitters make their New York City debut in Sung Rno’s, Happy.

“All of my work has some flavor of science, whether it’s really overt or not,” says Rno, who earned a B.A. in Physics from Harvard University. Happy is a play that holds a stethoscope to the heart of depression, but underlying comedic elements maintain the pulse at its emotional core. When Leo (Joel de la Fuente), a pharmaceutical sales rep, comes down with a rather extreme case of ennui, we see how different characters cope with depression and anxiety. “My day job has been doing pharmaceutical advertising or healthcare advertising.” The idea for this play has been “something that I’ve been kicking around,” he says.

Instead, Shamieh found inspiration for As Soon as Impossible during a press performance of one of her earlier works, The Black Eyed. “The Black Eyed is a very body play. It’s kind of an X-rated play in some ways linguistically, though, nothing sexual happens onstage,” she explains. “There was a little old man on a walker who came and laughed at every single joke, and that gave me kind of the idea for my character, Arthur—somebody who could be a different generation and different background, could have your exact sense of humor.”

The play takes place at a camp site in California where long time friends, Arthur (Richard Masur) and Ramsey (Jamie Farr) have been vacationing for over 15 summers. Ramsey’s granddaughter, Layla (Tala Ashe), complicates matters with her teenage antics, and when festering assumptions and ethnic tensions come to a head, a colossal misunderstanding ensues.

“My works tend to be what I call tragicomedies, but I tried to keep it very light with this play, even though being an Arab American, the community is dealing with very serious issues at this point,” says Shamieh, herself a first generation Palestinian-American. “I kind of wanted to highlight the American-ness of the Arab American identity with this play.”

While Shamieh and Rno deal with some very loaded subject matter, both try to elicit laughter from the audience. “Happy is a really serious comedy, and it’s really smart, too,” says director, Jerry Ruiz. “A lot of the comedy you see now, especially in mainstream cinema, has gotten so dumbed down in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Knocked Up. You know, there’s kind of this very broad, humorous aesthetic. Here, some of these characters almost feel like a Woody Allen movies in some way.”

While Alexander is much more naturalistic in her approach, she too finds beauty in the breakdown. In her play, 10 Things To Do Before I Die, Alexander says that she aims to “make the humor work, because I think pain is really funny. I find a lot of humor in tragedy.”

“True comedic moments are out of pain and realness, but not slapstick,” adds director, Jade King Carroll. 10 Things To Do Before I Die is a play about two estranged sisters, Lena (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Vida (Rosyln Ruff), who are brought back together after inheriting 12 boxes filled with their late father’s belongings. One’s a writer, the other’s a teacher—one’s fiercely independent, the other hates to be alone. Together they learn from each other, and begin to view their past from an adult perspective.

“I’m interested in sort of exploring family relationships—why we make the choices that we make as adults,” says Alexander. “We look at what’s gone on in our past once we get old enough to sort of verbalize and aren’t necessarily angry at our families for the choices that they made, but choose to look at them a little bit more constructively.”


Writers, directors, and actors are keenly aware of the passage of time, and because one reading overlaps another’s rehearsal, a second studio at the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) is put into rehearsal.

“On something like this where we really only had 2 hours for an hour and a half long play, I had to figure out what are those little peppery notes to give an actor—and really we’re talking like one or two notes per actor—that are going to help guide them very quickly to the place we need to have them,” says As Soon as Impossible's director, Hal Brooks. “I think the fact that this is a comedy really worked to our favor in that we didn’t have much time, and the actors were aware of the speed. Speed is always good for comedy.”

Ruiz attributes Happy’s comedic elements to the world that Rno created—he describes it as an “amplified reality.” “At a certain point you have to find that balance—how real is it and how theatrical is it going to be?” explains Rno. Over the course of their month-long collaboration, the script underwent three major revisions, and a dialogue was established between Rno, Ruiz and the actors so as to determine out the most effect approach to making each voice jump from page to stage. “I was surprised in this reading that there were some characters who actually only came to life just a few days ago,” says Rno, laughing.

And while Carroll had only been working with Alexander for a little over a week, she phoned the actors and actresses to discuss their roles before the big day. “During the rehearsal, I just gave them little parcels of information that I thought would be helpful, so it was very bare,” she says. “Really, just hearing the play, that was my intention. It’s more about the playwright on a day like today.”

At the close of the final reading, the green room is open, providing food for thought on the strengths and weaknesses of each of the readings. Sitting in a room full of artists who have unveiled over ten hours of new work, and watching them scarf down a half dozen John’s pizzas through peals of laughter and conversation, I realize—by the close of day 3—they’re well on their way to forming an amazing community in their own little corner of the theatrical world.

p.s. I’m still all for the matching shirts.


10 Things To Do Before I Die is written by Zakiyyah Alexander and directed by Jade King Carroll. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Roslyn Ruff (Vida), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Lena), Carlo Alban (Jose), Albert Jones (Jason), Reg E. Cathey (Andrew). Stage directions were read by Bhavesh Patel.

As Soon as Impossible is written by Betty Shamieh and directed by Hal Brooks. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Richard Masur (Arthur), Brian J. Smith (Drew), Jamie Farr (Ramsey), and Tala Ashe (Layla). Stage directions were read by Crystal Noelle.

Happy is written by Sung Rno and directed by Jerry Ruiz. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Joel de la Fuente (Leo Park), Sue Jean Kim (Hope Shin), Lorenzo Pisoni (Roman Silver), Patrick Kerr (Sam Serotonin/Verlaine), Christine Toy Johnson (Dr. Lee/Mrs. Park/Francis), Carla Harting (Ophelia/Laura/Dana Dopamine, Various), Ryan Shams (Ben/Jimmy/Various), Erik LaRay Harvey (Dr. Happy). Stage directions were read by Bhavesh Patel.

In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor), Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor), and Roy Arias Studios (300 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor).

NEXT UP: Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson
Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph
Wash Your Rabbit by Cheryl L. West

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

With more kids taking IB courses and racking up the extracurriculars, The New York Times estimates that next year will be the most difficult for the college bound. With over 3.2 million graduating high school seniors—the largest in the nation’s history—competition will be steep. But maybe they haven’t met the class of 2025.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s newest work chronicles the trials and tribulations of a different sort of application process, one that occurs during the more formative years of development. Directed by David Schweizer, Mothers on Fire is a theatrical quest on getting your child into “the right” kindergarten.

What started as Loh’s own one woman show at the 24th St. Theatre in Los Angeles, has now morphed into a book and a revamped play complete with a six-member cast. Penning a full-length multi-character show is somewhat of a rediscovered art for Loh—she hasn’t written anything of the sort since her 20s.

“In LA, just keeping a cast together is really hard in terms of equity waver theater, where it’s like 70 seats and people getting paid 5 dollars. I started doing solo shows just because it’s a lot simpler to do,” says Loh. “But the year I went and looked at kindergartens for my daughter was so traumatic that I thought, ‘This is amazing. I have to write about this.’”

Loh, whose solo shows Aliens in America and Bad Sex with Bud Kemp have received full productions at Second Stage, spoke with Assistant Artistic Director, Chris Burney, about her newest work. As she discussed her solo show and the book deal, Burney was in full support of the kindergarten craze, trusting that it would make for an interesting theatrical piece. “He said to me, ‘Just make sure it has a ticking clock,’” Loh recalls.

Taking his direction, the menagerie of imaginary clocks keeps time and marks the pace in Mothers on Fire. At the start of the play, Sarah (Michi Barall), whose character is based on Loh, tells us there’s a big clock over her head that reads “Kindergarten, T-minus 1 year.” As the play progresses, time contracts and then expands, ticking off the months of the year with each passing Act.

Early on, we meet characters like Aimee (Welker White) and Paul (Martin Moran) whose young twins Seon and Ezekiel have been deemed gifted by professional child psychologists. They’re within the top 0.1 percentile for their age bracket—destined to be on the accelerated coloring track at some haughty-taughty kindercare.

“We used to write an advice column for the LA Times about placing people in schools, and this was totally based on one mom who said that her son was at the 0.5 percentile in terms of gifted, and he was four,” says Loh. “Even though their local elementary school was this award winning school … she had visited the kindergarten, and she felt sure her son would be bored. You can just picture a 40 something woman sitting on a tiny blue chair in a kindergarten, judging that kindergarten class on how exciting it is for her for her son.”

Later in Mothers on Fire we’re introduced to Celeste (Isabel Keating), a multi-millionaire, multi-tasking, micromanaging nut, who never had time for children of her own, but has no qualms pointing fingers and barking orders. Drs. Ruth, David Eggenschweiler (Colman Domingo) and Margaret Schanzenfeld, MD (Martin Moran) provide their professional assessments. And even Sarah’s partner, Mike (Nick Offerman)—whose character is based off Loh’s real life husband by the same name—tries to tackle the indebted task of finding a suitable kindergarten for their daughter. With so many voices and so many stories—Loh explores all facets of this issue.

“I really like plays like Noises Off, or Wit, or like any of the Pirandello-like breaking of the fourth wall, characters going in and out,” Loh explains. In Mothers on Fire, the result is much like taking a ride on the scrambler of parental hysteria.

“There are a lot of people making a lot of money out of parents’ fear, and that starts in the womb where you have to get the right baby monitor, and the right Mozart to play on the headphones, and the right food to eat,” says Loh. “So there’s no one who’s really invested in stopping parents from becoming hysterical because people are making so much money on it.”

And that’s why she hopes Mothers on Fire will get people talking. As Loh worked to get her daughter, Madeline, into kindergarten, she noticed the growing socioeconomic and racial divides.

“I live in LA, and there’s certainly a lot of Democrat, liberals who have this elaborate dance of trying to explain why they don’t want to send their kids with the rest of the poor,” she says. “The private schools have cropped up, and they start at $20,000 a year. They have a diversity day so they can see children of other colors. I mean, this is really out of control.”

Not only has Loh written a solo show, a book, and a multi-character play on this issue, she’s also an advocate for educational reform as a contributor to Atlantic Monthly and on KPCC (89.3 FM in Los Angeles), where she has her own weekly talk show called The Loh Life. Her current installment entitled, “Million Parent March”, is available on podcast at

“They often say if private schools were illegal, then public schools would all be great,” says Loh. “There are many good-hearted people who have their kids all in private schools. If those highly motivated, amazing parents are not in public school, then there’s not that positive change and they’re sort of left to languish.”

Loh ends her comical rollercoaster in Mothers on Fire with a touching bit about Sarah and her daughter, Hannah, going to see a Julie Andrews reading at UCLA. I asked her, after all the emotional stress in the story, why she chose to end with something that had nothing to do with kindergarten hysteria.

“You want to give some magic to your child, so I guess Julie Andrews is how I related to that,” says Loh. “And sometimes I can’t give them that magic, but they’re okay.”


Mothers on Fire is written by Sandra Tsing Loh and directed by David Schweizer. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Michi Barall (Sandra), Martin Moran (Paul/Dr. Margaret Schanzenfeld/Todd), Welker White (Aimee/Kaitlin), Nick Offerman (Mike), Isabel Keating (Celeste/Nancy), and Colman Domingo (Dr. David Eggenschweiler/Dr. Ruth). Stage directions were read by David Schweizer.

In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor) and Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor).

NEXT UP: 10 Things To Do Before I Die by Zakiyyah Alexander at 12 p.m. June 11.
As Soon As Impossible by Betty Shamieh at 3 p.m. June 11.
Happy by Sung Rno at 6 p.m. June 11.


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

“Nice to meet you,” Terrence Mann says, and plants a kiss on Adriane Lenox.
The time is just past 11 a.m., and being no more than an hour into its first rehearsal, Manifesto goes up before an expectant audience at noon. Behind closed doors and within Telsey Casting’s Studio 1, Kareem Fahmy’s direction is swift. He immediately jumps to his feet to provide movement for a written stage direction—imitating a kind of dance for Lenox, or providing a prop for Angel Desai. Periodically, he glances back at playwright, J. Holtham, to make sure he’s happy with the result. Holtham, meanwhile, is sitting in the rear of the room on a black folding chair. He’s silent except for a smile, perhaps a product of seeing his work take shape for the first time.

Holtham’s Manifesto is a play about an interracial couple, Roger (Reed Birney) and Louise (Adriane Lenox), who are forced to question themselves and their life together after finding a possibly anthrax-laced package in their mailbox.

“The play at first was way more about the event of the anthrax scare and just sort of throwing these characters into the situation. As it progressed it became a lot more about change and compromise.” said Fahmy. “During the very brief amount of time I had at the beginning of the rehearsals to talk to the actors, I said to focus on just that—‘how is your character dealing with compromise and change?’”

With only two hours of rehearsal time and a close to two hour production, the cast tries to wiz through as much material as possible. Given the time constraints, only select scenes get a test run.

“Of course, you know, you don’t get a chance to read it here, but it’s great,” says Fahmy in regards to Desai’s investigative scoop near the end of Act II.

Just before the weekend, Desai and her three fellow cast members had received copies of the script via e-mail after final casting announcements were made. Monday morning marked their first meeting, and their first reading.

“Sometimes you will just have a play where you read it once and then do it, but it’s usually over a 5 or 6 hour span. That extra hour really makes all the difference because then you can read the entire script the whole way through,” says Desai. “At the same time, we all know what we’re doing, and we’re all good at cold reads.”

“I knew, because we had such a limited amount of time, that I wanted to have a certain structure in place,” says Fahmy. “I went through it in detail with J. ahead of time, so that we were going to be on the same page with everything. Everything was very sort of mapped out.”

After an early quip between Roger and Louise about the state of their throw rugs, the audience settles into Holtham’s dialogue. The actors are at once animated in their portrayal and at ease with the script. And Holtham still has that goofy grin on this face, because unlike us, he knows what line is coming next.

After the reading, J. jetted out to the TCG National Conference in Denver, Colorado—but he was gracious enough to answer a few questions by email:

I see that you've written a lot of short plays (some 10-15 minutes, some 30-40 minutes) … was it challenging to write a full length play for this commission? What are the benefits and disadvantages of long form (as opposed to short form)?

I really like writing full lengths. Short plays are fun, but they're mainly set-up. With a full-length, you have a larger canvas to work with and a longer arc to tell your story. It's a challenge, particularly in this play, where the bulk of the play rests on ROGER and LOUISE. It's almost a two-hander, which is a play I've never written before. That was a big challenge.

In a video interview about this program you say that you write because you feel your stories need to be told, and they hold meaning for a diverse range of people. Why did you feel you needed to tell the story presented in MANIFESTO? What was it, specifically, that you wanted to convey?

This story for me is about the choices people make and the consequences of those choices. At some point, all of the characters have made a choice that may be personally gratifying, but it has consequences for others. One question that I often explore in my plays is "How do you balance your responsibility to yourself and your responsibility to others?" Marriage, a lifelong (hopefully) partnership between two people, is a great place to explore that. MANIFESTO, for me, is also a bit of a lament for old, dirty, messy, political New York. As the developers bury that history, I think we need to keep bringing it to light.

Plans for the future? What's on the horizon?

Mostly just working on new plays. I'm trying to start a community-based theatre group in my neighborhood (Inwood, in upper Manhattan).

How did you expect today to go? And did the reading exceed your expectations? Was this the first time you saw your play read (in a professional sense)? Do you ever get friends to read as you write?

I'd had a private reading of an earlier draft and that was very useful, but this reading was so much more. With a comedy, the audience is the key. Hearing the play in front of a nice, full room and hearing them laugh at the jokes and follow the plot was a great experience. Things that I wasn't sure would work did, and a few things that I thought would, didn't, which is why we have these readings. The play grew by leaps and bounds in just a couple of hours.

What major changes did MANIFESTO undergo during the writing process? I heard from Kareem that the anthrax scare had been much more at the forefront of the story when you began the play. Now, he said that the play is really concerned about the evolution of these characters – how they have changed and how they connect? What do you have to say in response to this claim?

I think that's a great observation. This play has gone through some pretty major changes in the last few weeks. Tone is so important to a comedy and the earlier drafts got a bit bogged down with the details of the anthrax and the reality of that and that wasn't the right tone. One of the bigger changes was adding the prologue and showing the audience the inciting incident, rather than referring to it. That freed up a lot of time and energy to keep the characters talking about what was actually going on between them.

Like I said on the phone, I really loved the dialogue – it really rang true for me. How did this dialogue come alive – was there a particular impetus that you always kept in the back of your mind? Or to put it another way, what do you think was the elephant in the room for Roger and Louise?

With this play, and these characters, there's so much that's gone unspoken and festered and that we're dredging into the light. The challenge is keeping the jokes coming, without undercutting the tension. Their marriage is in definite trouble, for a lot of reasons, and that has to feel real without verging too far into melodrama.

How was your writing shaped by your time as a member of Youngblood Playwrights Group?

Youngblood has the strongest influence on my writing and my work of any group or school I've belonged to. It's really where I matured as a writer and learned to trust my instincts. I also learned not to treat my work too preciously. Theatre is a messy, breathing, slightly chaotic thing. The most important thing is telling the story. Youngblood helped me learn to see the story first and keep it present.


Manifesto is written by J Holtham and directed by Kareem Fahmy. The Second Stage Theatre/Time Warner Commission cast included Reed Birney (Roger), Adriane Lenox (Louise), Terrence Mann (Rick Render), and Angel Desai (Olive). Stage directions were read by Steve French.

NEXT UP: Mothers on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh at 4 p.m. today, June 10.