Playmaking: An Interview with Crystal Skillman
By Suzanne Dottino
Go deeper! Stay in the present! Everything is possible! These are just a few of the Crystal Skillman-isms that go through my mind these days when I write plays.
I met Crystal Skillman at the Samuel French Institute where she teaches playwriting. As a teacher Crystal is a force of nature, a warrior and utterly unafraid to go through the trenches with you. In this interview (via email) Crystal discusses her process, her past and her passions.
What play was a turning point for you artistically and/or in your career? I realize these two can be separate…
Totally! You know I don’t think there is one turning point – there are turning points – new roads that lead to new opportunities. The roads are created, which is something I think we forget, by putting out great work that speaks to who you are. I feel like when I was doing that, finally these “breaks” began to happen. I concentrate on the artistic breakthroughs and being specific as to what plays I write. The highlights that stick out for me now are my play Birthday a two hander in which I was really mastering a new approach to my work in a more “grounded way” with the wonderful director Daniel Talbott; Vigil with director John Hurley who believed in that play and created a stunning production which allowed me to take further rewriting in the room; CUT being produced by the Management and performed at Under St. Marks Theater was huge for me. I really mastered the kind of unique storytelling I was looking to do in the theater (I worked with director Meg Sturiano and playwright Josh Conkel who were so supportive the whole process); writing Wild, which debuted in a great production with director Evan Caccioppoli in Chicago, allowed me to dive so deeply into love and relationships and use a lot my personal philosophy of love. Now Geek is totally teaching me again – so many new lessons. It all began when my favorite playwrights in the whole galaxy Qui Ngyyen asked me to write a new play for Vampire Cowboys, one of my favorite companies in um … the universe!
[Geek got a great write up in the New York Times]
It was done by a beloved indie theater company Vampire Cowboys who also commissioned the play. What has been the process in bringing Geek to the stage?
It’s been incredible. Geek is all me; my heart and soul, but if you want to look deeper, it’s actually inspired by Dante’s Inferno. My whole life has been the philosophy of heaven and hell being other people. I write these kinds of roles because the underdog is a role I know well. I never formally studied playwriting; I’ve come to theater as an outsider. Its been a hard, insane, most unpredictable world. My emerging playwright life has been about that in many ways and made my work stronger. I was always an out of place kid. Growing I was that “nerd” or “Geek” that sat next to you. To create this hero’s journey has been incredible. Qui told me to write THE IMPOSSIBLE. Director Robert Ross Parker said what you want to make happen we will MAKE HAPPEN. It was liberating. I got to let my mind run wild. And yet it was the most challenging story in many ways to make it work. In many ways it operates like a musical; heightened moments of fantasy that must COME OUT of each scene. A real challenge! The whole team was behind me every step of the way, from designers to producers to our incredible actors!
How did teaching playwriting at The Samuel French Institute come about?
Birthday and Nobody were the first of my plays published together in a wonderful edition and they did well. Both plays went on from New York City productions to then be produced in London and Chicago, really kicking off my work in both those wonderful cities. When Cut premiered with The Management and performed at Under St. Marks Theater, Sam French also published that play helping it now find a life in so many more places. I’m so grateful to them for allowing my work to really be shared around the world and working with editor Amy Marsh has been a dream. When the wonderful Billie Davis started up classes and workshops, first forming the Samuel French Institute last summer, it excited me so much to teach a class inspired by how I work (rewriting often in the room) and use it to help with the problems emerging writers face today.
Tackling these demons is probably a lifelong process but I see how it can lessen in time and from experience. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve come to actually enjoy the messy process of re-writing?
I used to always like rewriting but I wasn’t very effective at it until about six years ago. I had a lot of one-acts produced and lots of interest in full length work but I was consistently the “almost” girl. It was always like – oh we “almost” produced your break out play! Rather than looking at the “why” in this pattern, I was falling into a bit of despair. Director Daniel Talbott asked me to write The Telling Trilogy for him to direct with Rising Phoenix Rep. Through that process, and with his patience, I realized that if I embraced more of an actors approach to grounding the given circumstances in a scene all of a sudden not only was my voice and imagination heard, but it was clear what my play was saying. It was very liberating.
Who did you study playwriting with and where?
Actually other than a workshop here or there, I studied photography at both the Hartford Art School and Parsons school of design. I consider my theater mentors to be those I work with in production as I learn so much from working on a play. During that process I actually choose several playwrights who I read again or for the first time that inspire me and help give me courage to write that particular play. Caryl Churchill as she’s written so much always remains on that list for sure! And sometimes it’s someone very close to me such as Chris Shinn’s plays, Qui’s plays, Jordan Harrison, Lisa D’Amour … but we could be here all day if we named names. Lordy there are amazing playwrights doing great work right now!
Art School … How much does your background in photography and art play a role in your writing?
Yes! My new play Drunk Art Love is set on the last night of art school before everyone’s final crit and they graduate. SO FUNNY and SO SAD and SO AWESOME. I’m having a great time working on it. I’m working with director Nick Leavens, who rocked directing your excerpt from your play PRANKS in our Sam French presentation! http://www.breaking-character.com/post/2013/01/25/Excerpt-From-PRANKS-by-Suzanne-Dottino-.aspxWhen she is not teaching she is consistently creating new and interesting work.
It was presented as part of the Quick and Dirties series with the Claque. All the playwrights in the series are my new heroes (Christina Gorman, Willie Orbison, JSilverman, Rob Askins and Frank Paiva.I love them. For my philosophy about visual art and theater: This past fall at the Brooklyn Museum of Art this past weekend I saw an exhibit about the birth of conceptual art – and it really hit me. Conceptual art was about the immediate, about the now. It’s because we take what’s primal, what is timeless and we bring it into the now. It’s why I love photography. It’s so instant. That’s the power of theatre. Theater SHOULD be a forum to reflect today and what’s timeless and timely. That is great art. Good or bad is subjective.
Have you noticed any changes in independent theater – in the audiences, in getting a play produced, in the level of risk taking both in the writing and in the production?
The risk has always been there. At the time I started being produced, my greatest revelation was oh! Wow! There are so many story-driven writers in indie-theater which is so interesting to me … how can we do a better job of getting these works to be picked up, or be of interest to theaters of all sizes? Because they are so timely and relevant today. I think audiences are really craving that. They certainly like the inventive! We shouldn’t be shy about giving that to them. But honestly all theaters of all sizes are listening to each other in a new way now. There is a lot of hope for where theater is and can go and how it can be even more relevant to new generations … oh lord I hope!
You are a conduit of hope – a mentor to many – as well as an extraordinarily thoughtful and generous person who is stunningly prolific. What keeps you going? Do you ever lose the joy of writing – if so, how do you get it back?
First off! This makes me cry. Thank you so much! I hope I am! I found it hard especially early on so I know what it’s like to need support. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if folks didn’t stand up for me. Please, if you believe in a writer, mention them, stand up for them! And many thanks to all that have for me. I luckily never lose the joy of writing. And if that situation, I examine the given circumstances I’ve gotten myself into 🙂 I’m also very, very lucky to be married to one of the greatest influences in my life and work – writer Fred Van Lente. He always reminds me of the joy of writing – and the joy of taking a break!
If there were three lessons you want your students to leave with what would they be?
- Believe in yourself. Believe in your work. Believe it has value. Know this when others do not – that is your responsibility as a writer. That’s your job. Take it seriously.
- Be Honest. Embrace your own given circumstances. Embrace that a scene isn’t working in the room. Know there is always a solution. You are never helpless. You might feel that way for the moment, but if you wake up the next morning and work on your scene again you might get closer.
- Ask every day why you write. Ask every day why you do theater. Ask every day what’s important to you. Ask every day what’s important to others. Put that in your new play.
Here’s a bonus one! (It’s really stolen from that old The Simpsons – the wonderful Dustin Hoffman episode where he shows up as a substitute teacher): “Losing Confidence? Just had a bad blow? Finish this sentence: You are (insert your name here) THAT is all you need to know.”
CRYSTAL SKILLMAN is the award winning author of CUT (The Management in Spring 2011; NY Times critic’s pick) VIGIL or THE GUIDED CRADLE (ITG/Brick; 2010 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Full-Length Script); and BIRTHDAY & NOBODY (Directed by Daniel Talbott for Rising Phoenix Rep in NYC; U.K Premiere with Kibbo Productions; Chicago at The Side Project). Her play WILD debuted in Chicago to great notice with Kid Brooklyn Productions, under the direction of Evan Caccioppoli. In NYC WILD was featured this spring Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel as part of MCC Theater Playwrights’ Coalition Playlabs, ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE was workshopped at IRT/Overturn Theatre, and CUT finished a run in Boston at Apollinaire Theatre. Crystal, one of Manhattan’s “Best Ofs” for OurTownNY magazine, was selected as one of nytheatre.com’s fifteen People of the Year for 2011, and is one of six writers chosen for Terra Nova 2012 Groundbreakers’ Group with her play 4 EDGES. She is a member of the MCC Theater Playwrights’ Coalition, Rising Phoenix, a Women’s Project Lab alumni. GEEK, her new play for Obie-Award Winning Vampire Cowboys under the direction of Robert Ross Parker. She is honored to be sharing her Indie work at indie theatre now (SEX & DEATH IN LONDON (Rising Phoenix Rep’s Cino Nights Collection), TELLING TRILOGY (From Plays & Playwrights 2008), BURNING BEAUTIFUL (SparkHampton Plays), PRIMAL PLAY (Nosedive Gala) and her collected short plays (including TOOTH). In addition to indie theater now, her plays are available from Samuel French, where she also teaches full length playwriting.