Monday, April 2, 2012

A Girl Wrote It: Laura Maria Censabella, Playwright

Laura Maria Censabella’s plays have been produced or workshopped by The Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays, The Women's Project & Productions, The Working Theatre, Interact Theatre in L.A., the American Living Room Series at The Ohio, the AthenaWorks Marathon, the Belmont Italian American Playhouse (which commissioned her play Some Girls), the Pacific Resident Theatre, The Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, and Ensemble Studio Theatre, where she is a member and runs the professional Playwrights Unit.  Her one act play Interviewing Miss Davis was produced in 2010 in Ensemble Studio Theatre’s One Act Marathon of Plays.  She is currently working on an EST/Sloan Foundation Commission to write a new science-based, full-length play.  Her children’s musical O’Sullivan Stew, written with composer Frank Cuthbert, was produced in 2010 by Greene Arts Foundation and an abridged version toured the NYC public libraries under the auspices of Urban Stages.  Her new children’s musical commission from Urban Stages The Last Pine Tree on Eagle Mountain, (also written with Frank Cuthbert) will begin touring the NYC libraries in April.

Ms. Censabella has been awarded three grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts: two in playwriting for Abandoned in Queens and Three Italian Women (a/k/a Carla Cooks The War), and The Geri Ashur Award in Screenwriting for her original screenplay Truly MaryTruly Mary was subsequently developed at The New Harmony Project with director Angelo Pizzo and producer Michael London.  She has also been a two-time participant in the O'Neill Playwrights Conference for Abandoned in Queens and Jazz Wives Jazz Lives and has received writing fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The New Harmony Project and the O’Neill.  Her short play Posing was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and The Actual Footage won the Tennessee Chapbook Prize for Drama.  Both plays are published in Poems & Plays (Numbers Five and Seven), as is her play Stones Fall, Birds Fly (Number Sixteen).  Her play Interviewing Miss Davis will be published in the St. Petersburg Review this spring.

Ms. Censabella's teaching experience includes the New School for Drama (current), Sarah Lawrence College, the Actors Studio Drama School, Columbia University's School of the Arts, Columbia College's Undergraduate Writing Program, City University's MFA Writing Program, The Sewanee Writers' Conference, and Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia.

She has written the short film adaptation Physics for HBO's Women: Breaking the Rules series, and for two years she wrote for daytime serial television, winning two Emmy Awards.  Her half-hour independent film Last Call (directed by Robert Bailey and starring Jude Ciccolella and Dana Dewes) was an official selection in festivals throughout the world, including the Avignon Film Festival, the Other Venice Film Festival, the Hermosa Shorts Film Festival, the Sedona International Film Festival, the Queens International Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives’ New Works Series, Long Island International Film Expo, Cinema City International Film Festival, and the Breckenridge Film Festival where it won the Best Short Drama Award.  It is released by Cinequest on a compilation DVD entitled Second Sight: Cinequest Favorite Short Films, Volume II and is available on Netflix (search: Second Sight, Vol. 2) or for download on Jaman.

She is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild of America, East, and the League of Professional Theatre Women.  She received a degree in Philosophy from Yale University.

  • You are Wide Eyed’s resident playwright this season. How did that come about? Can you tell us a little about it?
I saw Tim Butterfield’s production of This Is My Gun by Dan Bernitt at the New Voices Festival at the New School for Drama and highly admired it.  I felt that he had penetrated the essence of the play, and gotten moving, specific performances from the actors.  He then told me about Wide Eyed Productions and asked if I had any one acts to submit for their upcoming festival.  The Wide Eyed company responded to the pieces I submitted and selected two for A Girl Wrote It.  Tim then spoke to me about the mentorship program for early career playwrights that Wide Eyed runs and asked if I would act as Playwright in Residence for the company to provide another perspective for those playwrights.
  • Our upcoming production of A Girl Wrote It features two of your pieces: Posing and Stones Fall, Birds Fly.  What inspired you to write each of these pieces?
Posing came out of a dream I had where I heard the 19-year-old girl—who is the protagonist of the piece—speaking to me.  She is reminiscent of many of the girls I knew growing up in Queens.  Girls with incredible heart who have big dreams but lack the guidance and support to make those dreams a reality.  Also, girls who have fallen into really bad patterns with men as a way of getting the love and support they so crave.  Tim has told me she reminds him of many of the girls he knew in Arizona, and others have told me that she reminds them of the people they knew where they grew up, so I believe she is an American archetype.

Stones Fall, Birds Fly is inspired by my uncle who grew up on the lower east side and once confessed to me that he believes he is the reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci!   For me that’s a metaphor for all of us.  We all long to soar in this world, but gravity is always pulling us back to earth.
  • Stones Fall, Birds Fly was performed as part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre Playwrights Unit March Madness Festival 2008. Do you have any thoughts yet on the previous mounting versus this incarnation of your piece?
That was a script-in-hand workshop.  I’m looking forward to seeing a full production with Curzon Dobell who is an actor who is new to me, but whose work excites me.  I’ve admired Sherri Eden Barber’s work as a director for a number of years now and can’t wait to collaborate with her as well.
  • When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? What made you want to start writing plays?
I was an undergrad at Yale in the Theater Studies department and wanted to be an actor.  However, when I compared myself with some of the talents in my class—David Hyde Pierce, Bronson Pinchot, Ellen McLaughlin, Kate Udall—I realized I didn’t have what it takes.  I was too self-conscious and the school didn’t give training in how to break out of that.  However, we were all required to take a Collaboration Course where we got to write and direct as well.  Suddenly, when I began writing, that self-consciousness fell away and there was no wall between the audience and me.   I felt utterly free to be who I am and express what I need to express without worrying what anyone else thinks.  I also had a range of experience that was different from my average classmate.  I grew up in a lower middle class immigrant environment, which was a new perspective for them.  In addition, I had taken time off from college and had lived in the Bowery at the tail end of the jazz loft scene, when Keith Haring was still chalk painting on the sidewalk and hard core punk rock was beginning.  I lived right down the street from the jazz club the Tin Palace and CBGB’s.  It was a wild time when the only store on Broadway was Canal Jeans, and it opened my eyes to so much in the world.  Not least, my mother and grandmother are war survivors—my grandmother worked with the partisans in Northern Italy during WWII—and they shared many of their stories.  Additionally, as I grew up I was nurtured by my Aunt Marie who was severely disabled and that gave me another perspective on the world.  My mother also suffered from PTSD from the war.  Perhaps all that is more than enough to create a writer out of anyone!  When I became a writer, I vowed that I wanted to give voice to the people I grew up with—people who have no voice.
  • In terms of your creative process, do you have a particular ritual when it comes to writing? If so, can you share it with us?
If I have the time, I love to write a story out as a prose piece first, either a personal essay or a short story.  This allows me to explore the back story and themes first.  Once the back story gets out of my system I can figure out what the present action is and use the themes that I discovered from the prose rendering as my guiding threads.

That’s the ideal situation and I’ve used it for a number of successful pieces.  It’s not always possible to do that though.  For a longer piece, I like to think about it for quite some time and collect notes in a notebook or computer file, whether ideas for scenes, bits of dialogue, research, and/or character detail.  A lot of what I collect ultimately doesn’t wind up in the piece.  At a certain point—and it can take quite a long time—I start to feel a story structure coming on.  This last part, unfortunately, can’t be rushed and lots of times I get impatient and decide to plunge into the story even though I can’t see its broad brushstrokes.  Most of that gets thrown out but those false starts help me see what the play is not, so I’d like to imagine they’re valuable.

Once I have something that I believe has a pulse—and it could be just the initial start of something—I bring it into the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Playwrights Unit, which is a group that I founded and that I continue to run.  I watch people’s body language to see where they are engaged and that can be just as helpful as any comments that are given.  I also collect the group’s criticisms, and particularly treasure their clarity questions, which tell me where I’ve communicated and where I haven’t.  Generally, the work to be done is all about going deeper, but sometimes it needs a complete restructuring.  If the piece already has a beginning, middle and end, I’ll usually call a director and arrange a private reading with actors and then sort through the Playwrights Units’ comments with the director.  If the piece is just a fragment, I’ll think about which comments seem most right to me and proceed from there.

It’s never a certain process—there’s always groping for the story and its real meaning.  There’s always apprehension about going into uncharted territory, and you have to renew your courage daily to continue to face what you fear most.
  • Who or what has been your biggest influence as a writer? What inspires you to get to the page?
My grandmother who lived through and fought against Fascism during World War II.  She was a great storyteller and had phenomenal adventures that she actually lived.  My father who loved theatre so much as a young teenager growing up in Greenwich Village that he would second act Broadway shows or use the money he saved from numerous jobs (he grew up without a father and was quite poor) to see as many plays as possible.  Although I didn’t see a lot of theatre as I grew up in Brooklyn and Queens (by then it had become too expensive), he and I did watch old movies together.  Although he only had a vocational high school degree, we used to sit together and discuss the story.  He was quite astute as to what wasn’t working.  He had the soul of an artist even if he could never get the training he needed.  He always supported the dreams of my brother and me.  There are so many talented, insightful people in this world who don’t get the chances they deserve.
  • Can you tell us about other projects you are working on right now? 
I’ve done many drafts of a new one act play called Dumb Bunnies about two scholarship coeds at Yale in the 1970s who decide to pose for the very first Women of the Ivy League issue of Playboy.  It’s a 35-minute study of what happens when intelligence and opportunism collide.  I just finished the third draft of a new one act play called Chicky about the night that Chick Corea comes to perform at the famous New Haven music club Toad’s Place and two young Yale lovers (in a multi-racial relationship) decide to rehabilitate a down and out, alcoholic jazz musical genius.  The play is all about getting him to the club to stage his comeback and the truths the young adults discover about themselves along the way.

I am in the middle of production for a 35-minute children’s musical called The Last Pine Tree on Eagle MountainIt was commissioned by Urban Stages’ Outreach and was written with composer/lyricist Frank Cuthbert.  It will tour the New York City public libraries beginning April 4th in honor of Earth Day!

Finally, I have an EST/Sloan Project full length commission to bring science and science-related topics to a wider audience.  My play focuses on the biochemistry of romantic love and currently focuses on an inner city teenager who wanders onto the Columbia University campus, and as a lark, decides to sign up for an experiment in the psychology department.  She winds up changing a professor’s life, and hopefully, he changes hers as well.  We’ll see.

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