“HOME/SICK” – a play by CWW Instructor Stephen Aubrey & the Assembly debuts in Los Angeles tonight!

Cambridge Writers’ Workshop instructor & playwright, Stephen Aubrey, has written and produced a play with The Assembly Theatre called “HOME/SICK.”  “HOME/SICK will debut tonight in Los Angeles, and will run from June 9 – July 3, 2016 at the Odyssey Theatre.  In the New York Times, Catherine Rampell has praised “HOME/SICK,” a play about the Weather Underground, for its “cutting-edge young theater collective… By the end we have witnessed a sort of sociological big bang, when this tight, angry ball of political energy suddenly bursts and disbands irreparably.”

“HOME/SICK” is the story of a handful of political activists and leaders from the 1960s student movement who seized control of Students for a Democratic Society in protest to the Vietnam War and the government’s repression of those seeking equality domestically. In doing so, these activists reshaped the society in the name of overthrowing the United States government. Believing violence to be the only means to transform American politics and society, these passionate idealists accelerated a movement to a revolutionary fervor, but left a country behind.  Tickets for the play are available now at the Odyessey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Praise for “HOME/SICK”:

“An intelligent and dynamic package…The ensemble’s connection with one another is the truest homage they could offer to the memory of the collective they have clearly, though reservedly, come to admire.”  – Jason Fitzgerald, Backstage

“Impressively researched and clear-eyed, home/sick shows us the Underground’s internal contradictions, and we see Bolshevik passion lapsing into self-delusion and then flaring up again, until we are unsure what to admire and what to deplore.”  – Helen Shaw, Time Out New York

“This is a group of brilliant artists who will, without question, make their mark in the world of theater for a long time to come.”  – Hillary Bettis, OffOffOnline

 

Writing Yourself Naked, Collaborations, Straight Outta Character and more: Unveiling our 2016 Retreat Schedules!

Write Yourself Naked with Jade Sylvan, find out What’s at Stake with Diana Norma Szokolyai, and take Energizing Yoga with Elissa Lewis in Newport.

In Barcelona & the South of France, experience Brevity with David Shields, go Straight Outta Character with Bret Anthony Johnston, create Emotion & Suspense in Theatre with Rita Banerjee, and delve into the Troubadours in the South of France with Diana Norma Szokolyai.

Finally, discuss Historical Fiction with Alexander Chee, piece together Collage with David Shields, immerse yourself in the Evocative Poetry of Flamenco with Diana Norma Szokolyai, and explore Revision & Publication techniques with Rita Banerjee in Granada.

Below you’ll find our Spring and Summer Retreat Schedules along with course descriptions and faculty bios.

If you would like to join us on any of our retreats,  please apply online at cww.submittable.com by April 15, 2016, and include a $5 application screening fee, along with a writing sample of either five pages of poetry or ten pages of prose. (Due to limited seats, early applications are encouraged, but check for rolling admission after deadline, depending on availability).

applyDeadline: April 15, 2016

Spring in Newport, Rhode Island (April 22-24, 2016)

newport-2016-schedule

Class Descriptions:

Writing Yourself Naked (with Jade Sylvan)
From nonfiction memoirs to poetry, from sci-fi to fantasy, it can be hard to wade through all of our associations, defenses, and unconscious belief systems to find what we really want to say.  Through a series of writing and personal reflection exercises, we will begin to slough off the layers of social, environmental, and biological noise to excavate the core of our authentic voice.

What’s at Stake? (with Diana Norma Szokolyai)
Any good piece of writing makes clear to the writer what is at stake.  But how do we, as authors, clarify what is at stake?  In this craft of writing seminar, we will examine the central driving force of our narratives.  Taking examples from literature and applying them to our own writing, we will explore what is at stake in terms of several paradigms: the personal, professional, social, and ideological.

Your Voice: Performing Your Words (with Diana Norma Szokolyai)
In this workshop, we will examine the elements of voice related to performing our work.  Whether you are a performance poet or doing a reading at a local library from a short story, novel, or nonfiction work, it is useful to think about how you can craft the delivery of your performance and leave the audience wanting more.  We will analyze the performances of several established writers and performers as well as experiment with recording and performing our own work.

Energizing Yoga (with Elissa Lewis)
Expect a breath-centered vinyasa class designed to bring clarity and lift your spirits.  A morning yoga practice is a lovely way to begin your day!  We will end on a relaxed note; with some combination of meditation and writing in your journal.

Restorative Yoga (with Elissa Lewis)
Gentle yoga to alleviate stress in the body.  Expect foundational and restorative poses as well as breathing exercises.  Class will end with some combination of meditation and journaling.

Summer in Barcelona & South of France (July 18-26, 2016)

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Class Descriptions:

Brevity (with David Shields)
Lecture. Exegesis. In-class writing/critique.
A sustained argument for the excitement and urgency of literary brevity in a hyper-digital, post-religious age; a rally for compression, concision, and velocity; and a meditation on the brevity of human existence. We are mortal beings. There is no god. We live in a digital culture. Art is related to the body and to the culture. Art should reflect these things. Brevity rules.

Collage (with David Shields)
Lecture. Exegesis. In-class writing/critique.
The novel is dead; long live the anti-novel, built from scraps./I’m not interested in collage as the refuge of the compositionally disabled. I’m interested in collage as an evolution beyond narrative./A great painting comes together, just barely./It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need if not humor then at least some admission of their own absurdity-expressed in genuine awkwardness or in an authentic disorder./These fragments I have shored against my ruins./Collage is the primary art form of the twenty-first century.

Collaboration (with David Shields)
Lecture. Exegesis. In-class writing/critique.
A class on kinds of collaboration: collaboration with yourself, with your own material, with other texts, with other people, and the world in general. I’ll talk for a while about the kinds of collaboration I’ve done and ask people in the class to bring in an idea for how they might collaborate on their next project.

Straight Outta Character (with Bret Anthony Johnston)
This course will be a hands-on and practical exploration of how writers create characters in narrative.  Using classic and contemporary examples of dynamic characters and a good many craft-based writing exercises, we will develop strategies and techniques to create nuanced characters in our own work.  We will consider how other elements of successful narratives are formed and informed by choices of character.  If character is fate, and of course it is, then character is also plot, setting, and point-of-view.  Our goal is to find the means to surrender to our characters, to find the courage to let them quicken to life in our and our readers’ imagination, and to find the faith to follow—rather than lead—them through the stories that they’re using us to tell.

Spatial Poetics: (with Diana Norma Szokolyai)
In this craft of writing seminar, we will examine how theories in spatial poetics apply to the structure of our writing.  Using literary theory, elements of visual design, sociological paradigms, and our imaginations, we will explore the concept of spatial form in our narratives as it relates to concrete and abstract places and spaces.

Troubadours in the South of France: (with Diana Norma Szokolyai)
The south of France was once a land rich with the culture of the troubadours, and these poets spoke in the local vernacular, Occitan.  “Troubadour” comes from the Occitan, trobar, meaning “to invent, to compose, or to find.” In this class, we will learn about the rich traditions of the troubadours and their influence on French poetry.

Science: Fiction – How to Build Literary Worlds  (with Rita Banerjee)
In this class, we will explore how the fabric and rules of literary worlds in realist and speculative fiction are created.  By examining the parameters of social and behavioral codes, human interactions and psychology, and the materiality of worlds, we’ll explore that volatile space where truth and lie meet, where conflicts crystallize, and where storytelling disturbs and delights.

Emotion & Suspense in Theatre, Poetry and (Non)fiction: (with Rita Banerjee)
Plato argues that human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.  And before staging Kalidasa’s The Recognition of Śākuntalā, the director challenges his actress-lover: “As though in a painting, the entire audience has had their emotion colored through your melody.  So now—what shall we perform to sustain the mood?”  In this class, we will explore how creating vivid emotional worlds between characters and within storylines can build suspense, sustain drama, and lure the reader deeper in.

Summer in Granada (July 28-August 5, 2016)

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Class Descriptions:

Brevity (with David Shields)
Lecture. Exegesis. In-class writing/critique.
A sustained argument for the excitement and urgency of literary brevity in a hyper-digital, post-religious age; a rally for compression, concision, and velocity; and a meditation on the brevity of human existence. We are mortal beings. There is no god. We live in a digital culture. Art is related to the body and to the culture. Art should reflect these things. Brevity rules.

Collage (with David Shields)
Lecture. Exegesis. In-class writing/critique.
The novel is dead; long live the anti-novel, built from scraps./I’m not interested in collage as the refuge of the compositionally disabled. I’m interested in collage as an evolution beyond narrative./A great painting comes together, just barely./It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need if not humor then at least some admission of their own absurdity-expressed in genuine awkwardness or in an authentic disorder./These fragments I have shored against my ruins./Collage is the primary art form of the twenty-first century.

Historical Fiction (with Alexander Chee)
War and Peace holds a strange place in literary history, participating in the crowning of realism as a substantial and serious literary mode in America, even as the novel also contributed to the argument that historical fiction could be by nature dangerous, illegitimate, and inaccurate. This is the reason historical fiction is sometimes reviewed by historians, who may evaluate the novel for how much it has gotten right, instead of for its literary merit—as if the only thing for a historical novel to do is to authentically replicate the past. In this class, we will explore what historical fiction is and how to write it.

The Evocative Poetry of Flamenco (with Diana Norma Szokolyai)
In this class, we will explore the fantastically concise and heel-to-floor transmission of passion through the lyrics of flamenco music. Packed with intense rhythms, rhymes, and imagery to match the intensity of the music, flamenco songs are a form ofpoetry developed by Romani people to express the deepest human experiences of love, death, and oppression. We will examine symbols and structures in the poetry of flamenco, learning the distinctions between siguiriya, tango, playera, soleá, and carcelera. Complementary to the class, we will visit an authentic flamenco performance and get a tour of the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte, where Romani people have traditionally lived in cave dwellings and practiced the art of flamenco.

Poetry & What’s at Stake (with Rita Banerjee)
“What’s at stake” reveals how and why a poem is being told. What’s at Stake builds urgency, conflict, and pivotal turns within a lyrical or narrative poem, and drives engagement. It reveals what’s on the line for the speaker and the reader in terms of personal, emotional, psychological, physical, social, and political investments. In this class will read work by poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, Jamaal May, and Ocean Vuong, and will explore how writers and readers become more invested in a poem, its performance, and its narrative by raising the stakes.

Revision & Publication (with Rita Banerjee)
In this class, we will explore techniques for revisions, effective methods for submitting work, resources for publication, and of course, post-publication escapades.

Featured Faculty:

jadesylvanJade Sylvan (they/them/their), called a “risqué queer icon” by The Boston Globe, is an award-winning author, poet, screenwriter, producer, and performing artist heavily rooted in the literary and performance community of Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. Jade’s most recent book, Kissing Oscar Wilde (Write Bloody, 2013), a novelized memoir about the author’s experience as a touring poet in Paris (sponsored by a travel grant from The Foundation of Contemporary Arts), was a finalist for the New England Book Award and the Bisexual Book Award.  Other work has appeared in The Washington PostBuzzfeedThe Toast, Mudfish, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and many other publications.  Jade has toured extensively, performing their work to audiences across the United States, Canada, and Europe.  They are currently overseeing the production of their first full-length stage play, Spider Cult the Musical, opening June 24th, 2016 at Oberon Theater in Harvard Square.

DAvidShields-AuthorPhoto1-727x1000David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New YorkTimes bestseller), and Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Forthcoming from Knopf in February 2017 is Other People: Takes & Mistakes. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale ReviewVillage VoiceSalonSlateMcSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

baj-bio-pic-2Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Remember Me Like This, and author of  the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. His work appears in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere.  His awards include the Pushcart Prize, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, the Stephen Turner Award, the Cohen Prize, a James Michener Fellowship, the Kay Cattarulla Prize for short fiction, and many more. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, The Best American Sports Writing, and on NPR’s All Things Considered.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and a 5 Under 35 honor from the National Book Foundation. He wrote the documentary film Waiting for Lightning, which was released in theaters around the world by Samuel Goldwyn Films. He teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars and at Harvard University, where he is the Director of Creative Writing.


cheeAlexander Chee
was born in Rhode Island, and raised in South Korea, Guam and Maine. He is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Ledig House, the Hermitage and Civitella Ranieri. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and a Booksense 76 selection. In 2003, Out Magazine honored him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His essays and stories have appeared in Granta.com, Out, The Man I Might Become, Loss Within Loss, Men On Men 2000, His 3 and Boys Like Us. He has taught fiction and nonfiction writing at the New School University, Wesleyan University, Amherst College, and the Fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish.

diananormaDiana Norma Szokolyai is a writer/interdisciplinary artist/educator and Executive Artistic Director of Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she is author of the poetry collections Parallel Sparrows (honorable mention for Best Poetry Book in the 2014 Paris Book Festival) and Roses in the Snow (first runner-­up Best Poetry Book at the 2009 DIY Book Festival). She also records her poetry with musicians and has collaborated with several composers. Her poetry-music collaboration with Flux Without Pause led to their collaboration “Space Mothlight” hitting #16 on the Creative Commons Hot 100 list in 2015, and can be found in the curated WFMU Free Music Archive. Szokolyai’s work has been published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lyre Lyre, The Fiction Project, The Boston Globe, Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, as well as anthologized in The Highwaymen NYC #2Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History, Always Wondering and Teachers as Writers. Szokolyai earned her Ed.M. in Arts in Education from Harvard University and her M.A. in French Literature from the University of Connecticut, while she completed coursework at the Sorbonne and original research in Paris for two years. She is currently at work on three books and recording an album of poetry & music.

RitaBanerjeeRita Banerjee received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.  Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of BooksElectric Literature, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP WC&C Quarterly, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Poets for Living Waters, The Monarch Review, The Fiction Project, Quail Bell Magazine, Jaggery, Catamaran, The Crab Creek Review, The Dudley Review, Objet d’Art, Amethyst Arsenic, Vox Populi, Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, Chrysanthemum, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass in Portland, Oregon.  Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, was published by Finishing Line Press and received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book of 2011-2012 at the Los Angeles Book Festival, and her novella, A Night with Kali, is forthcoming from Spider Road Press in 2016.  Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, she is currently working on a novel and a book of lyric essays.

elissalewisElissa Lewis is the Yoga & Arts Coordinator of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. She began her journey with yoga in 2006, when she moved to France and made the practice part of her daily routine. She saw yoga as a lifestyle, not only a class, helping her to clear her mind and have more compassion for herself and others. In 2010 she moved to New York and completed her teacher training at Laughing Lotus, a creative, soulful yoga studio that teaches the student to ‘move like yourself.’ She’s taught private and group classes in Manhattan and Brooklyn ever since. Visit her website for informative yoga sequences and information.

CWW Newport faculty Jade Sylvan discusses their new play, Spider Cult: The Musical

spidercultSpider Cult: The Musical, written by Jade Sylvan, our Spring in Newport, RI Writing Retreat (April 22-24, 2015) fiction faculty member, will be playing at The Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA, on June 24 & June 26, 2016.  There will be two shows on the night of Friday, June 24, as well as a matinee and evening performance on Sunday, June 26.

Spider Cult is Boston’s first apocalyptic lesbian sci-fi horror burlesque musical. The musical follows Scout, an orphan stripper who over the course of the story is pursued by a “crazy” cult. To learn more about the musical and keep up to date with its production, visit: www.spidercultthemusical.com.

jadesylvanJade Sylvan (they/them/their), called a “risqué queer icon” by The Boston Globe, is an award-winning author, poet, screenwriter, producer, and performing artist heavily rooted in the literary and performance community of Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. Jade’s most recent book, Kissing Oscar Wilde (Write Bloody, 2013), a novelized memoir about the author’s experience as a touring poet in Paris (sponsored by a travel grant from The Foundation of Contemporary Arts), was a finalist for the New England Book Award and the Bisexual Book Award.  Other work has appeared in The Washington PostBuzzfeedThe Toast, Mudfish, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and many other publications.  Jade has toured extensively, performing their work to audiences across the United States, Canada, and Europe.  They are currently overseeing the production of their first full-length stage play, Spider Cult: The Musical, opening June 24th, 2016 at Oberon Theater in Harvard Square.

Baba’s Ghost : A Review of Alex Mahgoub’s Baba – A New York Fringe Festival Play


In this one-person show, Baba, performer and writer Alex Mahgoub takes the audience through the story of his father’s murder when Mahgoub was only ten years old. Through piecing together the splinters of this violent event, he recognizes how his perceptions of masculinity, power, and his own identity were shaped in response. In his artist statement, Mahgoub writes that he was “haunted” by this story before he wrote it, that he still finds himself sobbing on stage with genuine emotion even after performing the well-received show so many times at various theatres and festivals. Baba was voted favorite solo show and favorite performance of the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington DC by DC Metro in July 2015, and all of his performances in the New York Fringe Festival from August 15-29th were entirely sold-out. The dramatic delivery of Mahgoub’s loss of his Baba changes his life and perception of the human experience from an early age, and births the ghost which Mahgoub must still learn from throughout his teen and adult years. Watching Mahgoub’s performance does not, however, feel like an exorcism but rather like witnessing someone learning to live with that ghost.

Mahgoub’s Baba (Arabic for father), takes the role of his primary teacher. From early childhood, Baba is larger than life–a superhero. He’s the Egyptian James Dean on a motorcycle, the immigrant who came here with nothing and built himself an empire, redolent of the Cool Water cologne scent of masculinity. He’s the leather jacket and gold medallion pinnacle of manliness, and teaches his son the reality  of money, hard work, and success. Because his father died in an act of bravado that perhaps could have been avoided, he sees his father undone by the same pride that made him appear so invincible. Mahgoub begins to question the authenticity of his father’s machismo and begins to define himself against it. He was going to be the nice guy. At the same time, both the pressure and inspiration of his father’s expectations for his son, what is is to be a man, linger.

This specter of masculine power hits home the complicated father-son dynamics that many children experience: striving to live up to a father’s expectations, viewing his father’s word as the ‘last word,’ and wondering how a ‘traditional man’ would act. That image of unquestionable masculine authority is eventually shattered when a child learns that the father figure is fallible. And still, Baba’s ghost follows his son throughout his decision-making and  the winding path of his career. Mahgoub wonders what his Baba would think of the man he’s become, and at the same time ruminates on the loss of ever knowing. It is a loss conjured in such a way that the audience feels and can connect with, knowing it’s a loss we will one day go through, if we haven’t already.

The play weaves between the stated and understated, casting the most difficult topics to the realm of memory and flashback while the easier, more quotidian details of life are expressed primarily through expository monologue, suggesting that while there is an acute awareness and acceptance of the darkest parts of his reality, he is still processing the trauma at the root of his being. Rather than addressing his concerns about what his macho father would think of his sexuality through exposition, he takes the audience through a vivid flashback to winning a sterling silver necklace for being the top saleschild in his school’s fundraiser, and coming home wearing it with pride. His father demands that he takes it off because, “Necklaces are for faggots,” and Mahgoub casts the necklace in a river, desperate to be rid of the epithet. This memory arises later in his twenties, after his first kiss with a charming man he meets at a party, and while he does not ask himself what his father would think of his bisexuality, the audience feels his concern. In this way, the harshest aspects of his life are not intellectualized–they are presented in raw fragments of memory, resurfacing as he’s triggered in the present. The performance is in many ways a trauma narrative, fluctuating between accepting and looking away from overwhelming events and experiences through text and subtext, exposition and flashback, the bare nerves of suffering and the cloak of humor.

The balance between levity and darkness is particularly striking: alternating between the starker memories of loss and fear, and then cartoonish caricatures of his sister, mother, father, and other people in his life. And while the audience did not always laugh when the script perhaps expected us to, we had the authentic experience of watching a person reconcile tragedy through humor when he is the only one who can laugh, even through the observer’s thoughtful silence, because to go on, he must laugh. And not coincidentally, the jokes that made the audience laugh loudly preceded the most scarring recollections. But this is how we live with ghosts– the ghosts of expectation, of loss, and of a past that can only be evoked through art. By the end of the show, the audience feels that Mahgoub has struck an ever-shifting reconciliation between his father and the overbearing question of what it is for him, Alex Mahgoub, to be a man. “My father lived his life with his chest out, ready for the fight. I live my life with my heart open, ready to be the nice guy.”

Keep an eye out for his upcoming book #SelfieGeneration. Find out more at http://www.babatheshow.com and http://www.alexmahgoub.com/

– Jessica Reidy & Viktor Pachas

Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Newport, RI Writing Retreat feat. in Coldfront Magazine

rhode-islandThe Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s retreat to Newport, RI has been featured in Coldfront Magazine. The website featured details of our retreat, along with information to help interested parties register for the event.

If you’re interested in the event, you can read more details about the retreat here. You can also register for the event here. You can also check out our Facebook event post for the event. Registration for the event has been extended to March 15th and now includes tuition and a few meals.

Register Now for CWW Summer in Paris Writing Retreat (July 22-30, 2015)

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The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Summer in Paris Writing Retreat will take place July 22-30, 2015 in France. The retreat offers participating writers of all genres and levels to work alongside award-winning authors and editors. Participating writers will hone their craft and expand their writing skills, while working on new or existing projects.  There will also be time to explore the city of Paris in all of its historical, literary, and romantic charm. Situated in heart of Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood, amongst the fresh and popular open air markets and charming boutiques, the hotel where we will stay is full of charm and our Moroccan themed classroom will offer a wonderful oasis to practice the writing life.  Faculty includes internationally renowned author and writing coach Kathleen Spivack (fiction, poetry, nonfiction), David Shields (nonfiction, book-length essay), Diana Norma Szokoloyai (poetry, nonfiction), Rita Banerjee (poetry, fiction), Jessica Reidy (fiction, poetry), and Elissa Lewis (yoga, meditation).  If you’d like to join us in Paris, please apply online at cww.submittable.com by May 5, 2015.

CWW Interview with Stephen Aubrey, Newport, Rhode Island Instructor & Playwright

stephen AubreyThe Cambridge Writers’ Workshop is proud to introduce Stephen Aubrey, who will be teaching classes on theatre, performance, screenwriting, and playwriting at our Writing and Yoga Retreat in Newport, Rhode Island (April 2-5, 2015).  The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Megan Tilley sat down to interview Stephen Aubrey.  Check out Megan’s interview with Stephen below, and be sure to apply for our Newport Retreat by February 20, 2015!

We-Cant-Reach-You-Hartford

MT: How did you get into playwriting?  What were some of the early plays or performances which inspired you to write?

SA: My life as a playwright owes more to serendipity than anything else. Growing up, theater had always interested me. I was obsessed with Spalding Gray and I hung out with a lot of the theater kids in high school, but my complete incompetence as an actor meant that I was usually an audience member rather than a performer (save for one disastrous turn as Francis Nurse in The Crucible in 11th grade). Playwriting (and writing in general) never exactly occurred to me as something I could do.

In college, I took a lot of philosophy and history courses, which exposed me to a wealth of interesting stories and ideas and very slowly, I became interested in writing short stories my senior year of college. About this time, I was approached by a director I knew from a fiction workshop I was taking. She was interested in developing a documentary play about a historical event and asked me if I knew of any good source material. After batting around a couple of ideas, I told her about the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. She was hooked on the idea immediately and we decided to round up a couple of actors and co-write the play.

I thought this was going to be a one-shot deal. I really thought of myself as an academic and was seriously considering getting a PhD in history after I graduated college. Slowly, however, writing got its claws in me. We brought our play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that summer where it was well-received and nominated for a prestigious award. When I came back from Scotland, I moved to New York and started thinking seriously about writing plays. The group of people who traveled to Scotland asked me to write another play to perform the next summer and we slowly coalesced into a theater company.

Since I came to playwriting somewhat late, most of the formative plays in my life haven’t been ones I studied in a classroom (though I love some plays I happened to study in school, mostly the Greeks and Shakespeare) but rather, ones I saw performed when I first moved to New York. I didn’t have very much money when I first came to the city. All those big sexy expensive shows were out of the question so I ended up exposing myself to the weird, scrappy stuff you can find downtown where the tickets cost the same as a beer at one of the ritzy joints. When I had been at the Fringe Festival doing my show, I had seen the TEAM’s Particularly in the Heartland which really blew me away (I think I’ve ended up seeing it 5 times in total in a bunch of different theaters over the years) and showed me how adventurous and alive and surprising theater could be. Nearly 10 years later, it’s still one of the most amazing pieces I’ve seen. So when I was trying to acquaint myself with what was happening in the theater world, I sought out more people like the TEAM. After seeing a few shows that interested me, I started lurking around theaters that I thought were curating interesting work–The Ontological-Hysteric [R.I.P.], The Ohio, PS122–and becoming aware of groups like Elevator Repair Service, 13P, and Pig Iron that were doing things I found really interesting. I think I learned a lot from these groups, but above all, my downtown education taught me to take risks and embrace the idiosyncrasies of my voice, things that are in abundance downtown and less so once you get above 14th street.

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MT: You’re the cofounder of The Assembly Theater Company in New York – what lead you to create the group, and how has it impacted your writing?

SA: The simplest explanation for why I created the group was that it was the easiest way to make theater in New York. Especially when you’re just starting out and have very limited resources, it really does take a village to make a play. Doing it alone is, well, lonely. It can be incredibly discouraging for the first few years as you try to break into the community and are dealing with expensive yet somehow filthy black boxes you can only half-fill with friends and loved ones you’ve coerced into buying a ticket. It helps to have comrades.

I was lucky enough to find a group of collaborators in college who have similar interests and aesthetic senses and whom I genuinely care about. We formed the company fresh out of college; there have been some personnel changes as we all learned what the life of a young theater artist entailed, but a core group has remained over the years which has been a wonderful resource to have as I tried to find my artistic identity.

As we’ve grown and developed as a company, we’ve worked towards a truly collaborative way of working together that has become fundamental to the way I think about my writing. After my first few plays, I became disenchanted with the way new plays were developed and also with the way that certain voices (namely straight white men like myself) were overrepresented. At the same time, I was being exposed to a lot of alternative ways of making work–chief among them devised theater–that seemed new and fresh. The Assembly’s four artistic directors are a director, a designer, an actor, and a writer (that’s me); the idea is that by working together as equal partners in series of development periods over the course of a year or two (rather than the typical new play process in which a playwright writes a script, a director decides to work on it and then hires a cast and crew who rehearses for a few weeks) we can create plays where every part of the production is realized in harmony. Even more recently, we’ve been working with group-writing where I write the script along with the actors so that as they get deeper into their characters and make interesting discoveries, we can integrate these into the script.

I’ve found that working this way has really opened up my writing. The plurality of voices and concerns you have to contend with when working in this way can be really overwhelming and intimidating, but it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes together. It can get messy and heated sometimes in the rehearsal room, but the kind of work I’m creating now–where I’m a main voice, but by no means the primary one–seems important to me. I think we live in a complicated world, one where we need to be aware of and sensitive to alternative perspectives, especially ones that we don’t normally encounter on stage.

OntologicalHysteric

MT: You’ve written plays that have been performed at venues from The Ontological-Hysteric in Manhattan to The Brick Theater in Brooklyn. What was the process like for putting on plays at these venues?

SA: When I first started, my company had to work very hard to find theaters to do our plays in. Being curated by a theater was ideal, but more often than not, we had to rent the theater (which is a huge financial burden). I was very lucky to be able perform in venues like The Brick or The Ontological-Hysteric; both of those came about by applying to programs or festivals like the Short-Form Series or the Video Game Festival. In those instances, the theater was given to me free of charge (though I was financially responsible for everything else). There were a few other fortuitous opportunities like the year-long residency The Assembly had at Horse Trade Theater Group, but for the most part, putting on a play at a venue in New York requires producing it yourself. At least at the beginning, that’s going to be the case. But these things tend to snowball. If you produce a play yourself, and you invite the right people to come see it (or the right people wander into the theater on their own, which is a rare, but beautiful thing), it’s possible that you will be accepted to a festival or residency somewhere down the road. Making a career from theater is largely about using each opportunity to springboard to the next. Once you start generating interest in your work, things get a little easier.

But what has been true throughout is that, even if we were given the space, my company has always been responsible for making the play happen. We have been responsible for finding a cast and design team, for doing the brunt of the fundraising, grant writing and marketing (or paying for our own press agent if we had the money). I’m also forgetting a thousand other small, obnoxious tasks that also fall to us. It’s a DIY world. Making theater requires initiative and a bit of humility; you may be the Writer, but you also have to be The One Who Takes a Vacation Day to Drive the U-Haul to The Storage Unit in New Jersey and Sit in Traffic for the Better Part of the Afternoon. Unless you’re at a theater with a lot of money and resources, that’s the reality of theater.  

MT: How would you compare your writing process for fiction versus screenwriting?

SA: In my mind, the difference is about a visual language versus a written language. In fiction, you can get so much deeper into a character’s mind. You can linger or digress in a way that screenwriting or playwriting cannot. Fiction necessarily requires narration which is something that doesn’t usually work on the screen. A voice-over is so often the sign of an insecure screenwriter, someone who isn’t thinking about a visual language. Because when you’re writing for the screen, you need to be thinking about the audience’s gaze. “Show, don’t tell” is one of those writing cliches I hate throwing around, but it’s an essential tip for screenwriting. Whether it’s through sharp dialogue or a clever structure, you need to find a way to dazzle the senses.

MT: What kinds of workshops are you planning to offer at our Newport, Rhode Island Retreat, and what would you say is the most important part of the workshop experience?

SA: I’m offering three workshops at Newport: one on world-building and the importance of defining space in playwriting and screenwriting; one on “impossible theater,” which is all about pushing yourself away from Realism and thinking in terms of visual and symbolic gestures; and a third on Aristotelian and anti-Aristotelian narrative structures and the opportunities that each affords a writer.

I think the most important part of the workshop experience is meeting other writers. Writing can be a lonely pursuit at times and community is very important. It’s helpful to know that there are other people also sitting at their desks staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time. Sharing your work with other writers also exposes you to a lot of different styles and perspectives; other writers can show you tricks and tactics and solutions that would never have occurred to you. Finding your co-travelers is an immensely important task and the workshop is a great place to do it.

MT: What advice do you have for budding playwrights and screenwriters?

SA: The most important piece of advice I can give is: Learn how to produce your own work. It’s very difficult to find people willing to take a chance on your writing, financially or artistically, if you’re untested. No one is going to believe in your work, in your words, more than you. You are your own best ambassador for your art, and you need to learn how to present it and talk about it. If you keep at it, people will begin to pay attention, but they need to see your work first. You can apply to contests and festivals (in fact, you should apply to contests and festivals), but it takes a lot of time and patience to work through the system. You could spend that time waiting for a response, or you can take the matter into your own hands and make the work you want to make.

Stephen Aubrey descends from hardy New England stock. He is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, dramaturg, lecturer, storyteller and recovering medievalist. His writing has appeared in Publishing Genius, Commonweal, The Brooklyn Review, Pomp & Circumstance, Forté and The Outlet. He is a co-founder and the resident dramaturg and playwright of The Assembly Theater Company. His plays have been produced at The New Ohio Theater, The Living Theater, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, The Flea Theater, The Collapsable Hole, Wesleyan University, The Tank, The Brick Theater, Symphony Space, the Abingdon Theater Complex, UNDER St Marks, The Philly Fringe and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where his original play, We Can’t Reach You, Hartford, was nominated for a 2006 Fringe First Award. He is also the editor of two ‘pataphysic books, Suspicious Anatomy and Suspicious Zoology, both published by the Hollow Earth Society. He has an MFA from Brooklyn College where he received the Himan Brown Prize and the Ross Feld Writing Award and a BA with Honors from the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. He is an instructor of English at Brooklyn College and holds the dubious distinction of having coined the word “playlistism” in 2003.