I first met Cassandra Rose when I was an intern at Chicago Dramatists. She smashed my finger in between a wall and the couch we were carrying. It hurt very badly. But she's made up for it by working hard enough in her own craft to be able to provide opportunities for others. Cold Basement Dramatics, of which she is currently Acting Artistic Director, produced my first staged reading of "Honor of the Son" and we try to keep up to date on the happenings of one another. I chatted with her about her history of playwriting and who she admires most.
Cassandra Rose writes plays, reads plays, dramaturgs plays, and sometimes even produces plays. Originally from Rockford, IL she's lived in Chicago for six years. She earned a BA in Playwriting from Columbia College Chicago. She has worked with such companies as Chicago Dramatists, Victory Gardens, Redtwist Theatre, Steep Theatre, and Jackalope Theatre in one way or another. She is a founding member and Acting Artistic Director of Cold Basement Dramatics, which is dedicated to plays about the things we hide from ourselves and others. Recently Cassandra was accepted into the Kenyon Playwrights Conference and she can't stop talking about it.
What was the first play you remember writing?
The first play I remember writing was for a talent show in first grade. It was called Jeremiah's Cafe. I played a waitress, and Jeremiah (the second grader I'd had a crush on for three years) was the cook and owner of restaurant that served up some really bad puns. Like, seriously, you guys. A patron asked for a hot dog and a large fry, so we got a wiener dog from the pet store next door and put him in a big bun, and we squished all the fries we had into a gigantic five-foot long monstrosity. I still remember my favorite back-and-forth.
Patron: Do you have anything with a lot of fiber in it?
Me (the waitress): Sorry, we're all out of cotton candy.
If present day you had to make revisions for that play what would they be?
Oh, god no. Anything but that. While I wholeheartedly believe in the power of a good rewrite, I think there should be a statute of limitations on those sorts of things. Ten years, maybe? Or the first professional production, whichever comes first. If you're not careful you'll never be able to leave the play alone. For example in 2010 I dramaturged a production of Equus as directed by the always delightful Cody Estle. This was soon after the Daniel Radcliffe production on Broadway and the Alec Baldwin production in the Hamptons. In case you were wondering, Alec played Dysart, not Alan. With all of this national attention thrown on the play, Peter Shaffer decided to do a little tweaking. So we're preparing for our little production and Cody brings me a published version of this new draft of Equus and asks me what I think of it. Shaffer had taken the beautiful final monologue about what it takes to make a person normal and he had chopped the lines down into little disjointed bits. I turned to Cody and said no, we're doing the original published version. That's what was true when this play was first written. It's still true now. And that was Equus reference number one in this interview.
Tell me about the conference you were accepted into?
I thought you'd never ask! This past January one of my mentors sent me information about a brand new program being hosted by Kenyon Summer Institute at Kenyon College. It's called the Kenyon Playwrights Conference, but I think of it more like a writer's retreat. Conferences tend to focus entirely on presenting new work in staged readings and workshops, but this one will have daily seminars, workshops, and writing exercises as well. Theatre professionals from The Atlantic Theatre Company, Hampstead Theatre, and Steppenwolf will be in attendance and teaching said workshops. There are two "tracks" that playwrights can be a part of: honing playwriting skills, or working on a play in progress. I was accepted into the play-in-progress track, which will be lead by Wendy MacLeod.
Despite this being the conference's first year it was a pretty competitive selection process. To my relief I not only got in but I also received financial aid, cutting the cost of the program in half. I'm not all the way there, though. If you'd like to help me out go to my indiegogo campaign at www.igg.me/at/dictionary-project. I'll even write you a play.
In your opinion, what about a play will make or break its chances of being produced?
The company you send it to. Seriously. We are all looking for that specific story that fits our mission statement and group aesthetic. Read their mission statement. Read their past shows. Read what exactly their website, facebook page, and twitter is saying about them. For example Cold Basement Dramatics loves plays about the things we hide from ourselves and others. We're all about difficult stories told well. Everyday conversations that are still ahead of their time. That's still pretty broad- but what kind of shows does that say we'd probably not produce? Picasso At The Lapin Agile. Bus Stop. Anything by Neil Simon, unless we've got a really good reason. We love comedy, but we're looking for plays with some serious heft too. Similarly, a company's mission statement tells you what they're going to focus on in their production. We did Antigone but it was adapted for the 1960s. We were examining the culture war, and the generation gap, and how new media made everyone in the Oval Office worry about what the general public was seeing of their leaders. We weren't as interested in man's laws vs. the laws of gods, for instance. Finally, be aware of your play's shortcomings. I have a play that takes place in a two-story house, and the final scene is on the roof. It's going to take a particular kind of company to be able to see that gigantic set as something that will help them tell a great story and not something that's going to break their fragile bank account.
What advice would you give to people just coming into the theater world?
See a lot of plays. Usually people say "read a lot of plays," but no, see a lot of plays first. The books will still be there in a month; the productions will not be. Those plays you're reading are canon and you're not going to be writing canon plays because you didn't win your Tony award in 1954. Those guys (and sadly, yes, they are mostly guys) wrote for a theatrical world that doesn't exist anymore.
Here, let's go on another exciting tangent. When I started high school in Rockford, IL there was one community theatre, one "real college" theatre program, and one equity theatre. For a while there we had two equity theatres, but then New American Theater closed its doors in the middle of a production of Oliver! And since I felt none of those places were giving me a good enough selection of what theatre really was I'd read all of these play by Arthur Miller and William Inge: whatever I could find in the used book store off of the Rockford Public Library. I'd think to myself what am I missing? Why do other people like these plays so much? Am I supposed to be writing like this? So hard and distant and hiding behind good manners? That's what Rockford is like already, and Rockford is boring. But every January we got on a bus and traveled to Illinois High School Theatre Festival to spend a four day weekend seeing as many shows as we could stand in line and get tickets for. I loved it when the shows were good. I loved it when the shows were bad. Because it was new, and alive, and didn't smell like a library. That’s probably why I still love theatre festivals to this day.
That's not to say you should never read, ever. Just try to find a broader selection. Between my freshman and sophomore year of high school I went on a camping trip with my friend's family, and while the trip ended with a three-hour car drive during which my friend angrily refused to talk to me, it was punctuated by one of the most magical trips to a used bookstore. Here were plays that spanned a whole bookcase from ceiling to floor! Written by people whose names I didn't recognize! And there I found a thin little copy of Equus. It was three dollars and fifty cents. Since my friend wasn't talking to me in the car, I was able to sit down and read the entire play uninterrupted. And it blew my little mind. That was Equus reference number two.
Who is the coolest writer in the world?
Peter Shaffer. Yes! Equus hat trick. But seriously, I make a big deal about that play because of how important it's been for me along the way. After I read Equus I asked my parents if they'd ever heard of this amazing play. My father told me that New American Theater had produced Equus back in the 1980s, and it had been a huge controversy for the town. Well no duh, I thought. This was the same town that had people writing to the editor angry that the kids in Oliver! were being told by Fagin to shut up and drink their gin. They'd hyperventilate if they saw a naked man and woman onstage simulating sex. But here's the thing- the play still got produced, and people still saw it, and from what I heard it was very good.
Peter Shaffer taught me it was okay to make people feel angry or insecure as long as you tell a great story that people need to hear. While I had written a couple other plays since first grade, most were simple comedy sketches. After Shaffer, I wrote a new play. It was called Freudian Slip. It was about a guy named Jack that was in a car accident so severe that he was in a coma for six months. When he woke up, his id/subconscious had worked its way up to the surface of his mind in the shape of the brother that had died before Jack was born. Jack is trying to talk to his psychologist about how he's doing after the accident, and Leo kept interrupting and revealing what Jack was really thinking. Maybe somebody out there is saying, huh, that sounds oddly familiar. The play was produced twice at Auburn High School and once at Illinois High School Theatre Festival in 2006. Freudian Slip was one of only four plays that was selected for the opening ceremony of IHSTF that year. And during that opening ceremony, sitting there with 5,000 other adrenaline-fueled theatre kids watching my play unfold, that's when I knew I definitely wanted to be cool like Peter Shaffer. Maybe I'm not there yet. But at least I'm as cool as Cassandra Rose.
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