An Interview with Audrey Cefaly on MAYTAG VIRGIN from the Gulfshore Playhouse

We interviewed Audrey Cefaly, playwright of Maytag Virgin. Read her interview below, and be sure to get your tickets to Maytag Virgin now before they sell out!

Audrey Cefaly

Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Maytag Virgin? Were there any specific influences?
The idea first came to me during Washington D.C.’s annual Intersections Festival back in 2012. The show’s curator, Gwydion Suilebhan, asked me to join a group of local playwrights to collectively answer a prompt for pieces “exploring a collision of people of different ages, races, cultures, classes, or sexual identities.” I chose to write a short solo piece about a Southern protestant woman and the tension that arises when a Catholic man moves in next door.

While the finished piece wasn’t exactly a firestarter in a city hungry for political theatre, it did feel authentically southern and 100% on brand for me. In the end, it was very well-received in its short form. I adapted it into a full-length a few years later for the inaugural Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. It is perhaps the most autobiographical of all of my plays.

What is your writing process like?
In my work, I start with the audience in mind. The pieces that I create (often “two-handers”) are structured specifically to effect a sort of communal release. I am also an outspoken proponent of stillness in story-telling; the silence in my plays is not incidental. On the contrary, it operates as another character in the narrative. It is my experience that a text stripped to its essence returns the gift of tension. Indeed, much of the story that would otherwise be inaudible reveals itself in these quiet moments. I love a cut almost as much as a great sentence. Almost.

Nothing in my writing is sacrosanct. I believe the best writers understand that the script doesn’t care about your feelings, it just wants to work. And that’s a very freeing idea. It means anything (no matter how good it is) can be demoted, truncated or cut entirely to make the piece work as a whole. There’s sort of this myth that we, as writers, are in control of our narratives, but the truth is each story is in the process of carving its own riverbed and it will “go like it goes” regardless of what you have in mind. For writers that work this way, there’s not a lot of room for preconception.

You identify yourself as a “Southern Playwright.” What is it about the south that continues to inspire your work?
The southern dialect has a musicality to it that pairs well with my love of lyricism; I traffic in Williams and Faulkner and Henley and McCullers. I love it all; it’s so rich and distilled. Alabama will always be a part of me. And these stories help me learn more about who I am. There is a sort of unapologetic simplicity to the southern way of life. That’s not to say that it isn’t without complication and it’s certainly very colorful, but the rules are simpler, I think. We’re in the Bible belt, after all; quandaries often involve one’s relationship with Jesus. Around the time of writing Maytag, I was watching a Stephen Fry documentary. He’d been doing some travelling across America and found himself at an Alabama parole board hearing (think of it!). It was fascinating to me how the parole officer kept invoking God as the path to rehabilitation. And that’s a scenario not uniquely endemic to the south, but an absolute principal for living: get God: get better. This theme permeates all of my southern pieces.

Besides being set in the south, are there common themes across your work? What is it about those themes that interest you?
Ever heard that old children’s song, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket (Dear Liza, Dear Liza)?” That’s my territory. I’ve always been interested in ache stories. I come from teachers and therapists and so I have a natural inclination to embrace those around me who are suffering; my writing is an outcrop of that tendency.There are a lot of people in the world like Jack and Lizzy who are adrift, unmoored, and looking around for something that feels like home. Maytag says yeah, and you know what, that’s kinda beautiful. It’s beautiful because we often find ourselves at the bottom—at our worst—at the very moment we are doing our damndest to love someone or to love someone through the hell of life. Those noble efforts, that drudgery…that’s what love is. And too often, in those “moments” we forget to love ourselves, we forget to ask for the love we need, we forget to breathe. We convince ourselves it will always be this way…that we are unlovable or that we have run out of chances. The rejection of this fallacy is really at the core of every single love story ever told. It is why we cry at movies and why we watch our favorite romances over and over again, pausing at those tender moments…the ones that speak to us. We are—all of us—longing to feel alive and loved…and to connect.

Does Maytag Virgin resonate with you differently given the times that we’re living in compared to when you wrote it originally?
These days, human touch is a fantasy. I used to characterize Maytag Virgin as a love story, and it is. But more specifically, it’s about being “seen.” Truly seen. And I think Jack does that for Lizzy. He’s the friend she so desperately needs. And though they live right next door to each other, they just can’t quite get to each other. So I think it’s that “so close and yet so far” vibe that’s really resonating with me right now.

Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will take away from Maytag Virgin?
One of the biggest themes in the play is guilt. We are witnessing a woman in the throes of grief and shame surrounding the untimely death of her husband and a man desperately trying to outrun the torment of ghosts from a not-so-distant tragedy of his own. But guilt is like dancing with the devil. It can take you under if you’re not careful. It can steal everything worth living for. It stands defiantly in the middle of the road, blocking all forward movement. The only way around…is through.

Grief, then — paradoxically — is the remedy. When we are reeling from tragic loss, the last thing on our minds is, “but at least I’m taking a good hard look at myself.”

Indeed, there is a certain sleight of hand in the revelatory nature of grief. It is perhaps the greatest form of self-love we are afforded as humans. It has the power to bring us face to face with ourselves. To question our own identity. And ultimately to love ourselves in some very important ways.

There’s a water motif that runs throughout the play. If the audience is open to look for those moments, I do think they will come away with a deeper understanding. Hopefully they will feel the uplift that I feel when I experience Jack and Lizzy. It’s an endearing relationship, and there’s certainly room for laughter and release. On a deeper level, I hope they will see themselves in the characters.

Read the full interview from the Gulfshore Playhouse here.

“The Free Wheelin’ Insurgents” by Psalmayene 24 Featured in “Indigenous Earth Voices”

Psalmayene 24

Proving that a theater can be groundbreaking even when its grounds are closed, Arena Stage is launching a virtual spring season that includes a film about Indigenous North Americans and their relationship to the land — entirely written, directed and acted by Native people.

“Indigenous Earth Voices” will premiere in May, the fourth in a series of pandemic-era films that Arena Cultural Director Molly Smith has produced since the start of the outbreak that shuttered theaters around the world. Following the template of the other docudramas, which included “May 22, 2020” and “The 51st State,” “Indigenous Earth Voices” features the verbatim words of Native American and First Nation subjects from the United States and Canada as fashioned into monologues by Indigenous playwrights and actors.

“It’s a ‘heart’ project for me,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I just realized that more than half my life I’ve spent with Indigenous people, whether being in Alaska or being married to a Yankton Sioux.” Before coming to Arena in 1998, Smith spent 18 years at the Juneau company she founded, Perseverance Theatre, and her wife, Suzanne Blue Star Boy, is an artistic adviser on the film.AD

The movie is a key ingredient in a wholly reimagined 2021 for Arena. In a plan announced last July, its in-person performance season was to have started up again last month, with the world premiere of Eduardo Machado’s “Celia and Fidel.” Now that play, which was forced to close last March, and four other productions will be presented later, and subscribers have been offered refunds or exchanges.

The digital roster replacing them will also include a free streaming series called “Arena Riffs”: three original filmed musicals, each 20 to 30 minutes and debuting in March and April. Actor-director Psalmayene 24 will unveil his “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents,” a “pandemic-era hip-hop musical,” to be joined by as yet untitled projects by the indie-folk duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson and composer Rona Siddiqui.

Shannon Dorsey during filming in Rock Creek Park.
Shannon Dorsey during filming of “The Free Wheelin Insurgents,” by Psalmayene 24 in Rock Creek Park. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“These are fully conceived and created for the virtual form,” Smith said, adding that the short versions may be developed into longer productions, possibly even for live stagings. “The artists in all three have said they have a hunger to continue to build on these projects, so we shall see.”

Psalmayene 24 was shooting “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents” in the District’s Rock Creek Park on Sunday, with four other actors: Louis Davis, Shannon Dorsey, Gary L. Perkins III and Justin Weaks.AD

“It’s the story of a cadre of hip-hop theater artists who are meeting to rehearse in Rock Creek Park,” said Psalmayene 24, who wrote three songs for the piece, with choreography by Tony Thomas and music direction by Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez.

“It explores issues like violent versus nonviolent protest, love and mental health,” he added. “And these artists are grappling with the inability to do what they love doing the most, which is live theater.”

Washington theaters have been increasingly active in creating content online, even if the monetary returns are meager. Arena has been particularly active in filmmaking. As Psalmayene 24 noted: “That’s one of the positive things that have come out of the pandemic. It’s forcing us to be creative. That’s what we need as artists: We need to be locked in a box to figure out how to break out.”

Arena will again offer digital classes with actors, playwrights and others, including such artists as Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Nehal Joshi and Machado. But perhaps the most noteworthy offering is “Indigenous Earth Voices,” by virtue of the unusual fact that a major American theater company is providing a breadth of opportunity to Native artists who struggle for national recognition.

Read the full article by Peter Marks for the Washington Post here.

Arizona Theatre Company Puts on ROMERO FEST Celebrating Elaine Romero

SHOW DATES: 3/1/21 – 3/31/2021

RomeroFest

In collaboration with The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre and Winding Road Theater Ensemble, ATC is producing RomeroFest, a month-long celebration of the diverse, thoughtful and impactful works of ATC Playwright-in-Residence Elaine Romero with digital performances by theatre companies across the U.S. and in Mexico in March.

Among the theatre companies presenting Romero’s work virtually, either live or by video, are ATC, The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre; Winding Road Theatre Ensemble; Foro Shakespeare; Artists Repertory Theatre; Seven Devils Playwrights Conference; Colorado College; The Justice Theater Project; The School of Theatre, Film and Television, University of Arizona; Teatro Milagro; InterAct Theatre Company; and Theatre Ariel. A full list of plays and when they will be available will be announced in mid-February.

The Festival opens March 1 at 5 p.m. with a digital “Scholar Kickoff” featuring a town hall-type panel discussion about Elaine’s work and its impact.

Opening event panelists include Dr. Anne Garcia-Romero, Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame; Dr. David Crespy, Professor of Playwriting, Acting, Dramatic Literature and Theatre History at the University of Missouri, Columbia; and Dr. Jimmy Noriega, Associate Professor in the Theatre and Dance Department at Wooster College. The panel will be moderated by Tanya Palmer, Associate Professor, Head, MFA in Dramaturgy at Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama & Contemporary Dance.

Learn more here.

‘The Half-Life of Marie Curie’ directed by Dawn Monique Williams Review: Fallout of an Affair

NASMM in Wall Street Journal 08.10.14 - the National ...
Arkansas’s TheatreSqaured offers a well-performed webcast of a play about the Nobel Laureate’s persecution by the French press for her relationship with a married man.
Rebecca Harris as Marie Curie and
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Hertha Ayrton

In spite of all the theater-related traveling I did in the years before the pandemic struck, there are still plenty of drama companies of consequence that I have yet to see. I’ve been hearing good things about Arkansas’s TheatreSquared for some time now, and it was long my plan to see a play there after paying a visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is just 30 miles away and which I also have yet to see. But life kept getting in the way, and the coming of Covid-19 finished the job: I haven’t seen a play in a theater, in or out of New York, since March. So when TheatreSquared announced that it  would be webcasting a production of Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” taped in an  empty theater, I immediately put it on my schedule. 

Ms. Gunderson’s work is rarely staged in New York, but she was the most frequently produced playwright in America (not counting Shakespeare) in 2017 and 2019, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does she specialize in feminist-angled plots whose protagonists are women, but she makes a special point of writing eminently practical plays that are carefully tailored to the specific needs of theater companies. Like all prolific artists, Ms. Gunderson’s work is uneven—she can be earnest to a fault when she has a political point to make— but at her best, she is a fine craftsman whose shows are always solidly made and on occasion inspired. 

“The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” a two-hander first performed off Broadway in 2019, falls somewhere  in between the extremes of over-earnestness and inspiration. It’s a bioplay that tells how Mme. Curie (Rebecca Harris)—the Polish-French physicist who discovered radium, coined the word “radioactive”  and won two Nobel Prizes, in 1903 and 1911—was persecuted by France’s press when it became known  that she was having a passionate affair with a married man. Hertha Ayrton (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), a British colleague and part-time suffragette, comes to France to look after her old friend as the action gets under way. Alas, much of the dialogue that ensues amounts to little more than undramatized  pulpit-pounding and ill-digested biographical data (“I’m sorry—you won another Nobel Prize?”) with a  few glaring anachronisms thrown in for good measure (I cannot imagine that a Brit with so well-bred  an accent would have used the word “bullshit” in casual conversation in 1911). Nevertheless, the situation portrayed by Ms. Gunderson has the advantage of being inherently dramatic, and “The Half-Life  of Marie Curie” is the kind of story that can easily take wing so long as the two actors are first-rate. 

Rebecca Harris as Marie Curie

This brings us to Ms. Harris and Ms. Mbele Mbong, both of whom (as theater people like to say) really know how to deliver the mail.  Not only does Ms. Harris bear a striking resemblance to Mme. Curie, but her binational accent is impeccable and her performance is both compelling and entirely believable. So fully does she embody her role that it hardly seems as if she’s acting at all. (Newsreel footage of Mme. Curie exists, and I’d be surprised if Ms. Harris hadn’t screened it while preparing for this show.) 

Ms. Mbele-Mbong is no less convincing, and the production, whose skeletal sets are by Ashleigh Burns and whose sound design is by Michael Prie to, is spare but exceedingly handsome. Dawn Monique Williams, the director, is the associate artistic  director of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Her work is new to me, but if this beautifully staged  show is representative, then I’ll definitely seek it out in the future. 

I also plan to keep an eye on TheatreSquared, which is clearly worthy of its fine reputation. I can’t wait  for the pandemic to subside so that I can resume seeking out first-class theater all over America—especially from outstanding drama companies like TheatreSquared. 

Review by Terry Teachout for the Wall Street Journal.