For the last two weeks of June, I got to participate in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Ground Floor Summer Lab. What's great about Ground Floor is that they offer playwrights freedom to work on and explore their plays as needed; they do not require any kind of presentation. Some writers end up sitting in a room and typing away. Others hold public readings of their work, like I did for my play Calafia: A Reimagining. I haven't been able to finish a first full draft of the play yet, but I learned so much from discussions with my director, dramaturg, and actors -- as well as from audience feedback after our reading. I'm excited to see what directions Calafia will take as a result of the exploring, churning, and learning that happened during Ground Floor!
Recently, I've been considering how I can access more of my right brain while writing. This might sound redundant to some, since writing can be a creative act, and thus would tap into right-brain energy. However, I often feel that writing can become a very left-brain act for me, as I focus a lot on linearity, logic, and building a concrete structure. These aren't things to avoid, necessarily, but I do feel they can sometimes limit where I take my thoughts creatively. As I begin writing the script for Calafia, which occurs in a realm of fantasy, I want to allow my right brain to do some more conjuring without letting my left brain get in the way.
One way I thought of doing this was through movement. So, this week, I met with director/choreographer/teacher Michael Mohammed (director of the recent Town Hall Theatre production of The Song of the Nightingale), who gave me some ideas about how to connect movement of my body to the work I have to do as a playwright. Michael guided me through a handful of movement and gesture exercises. One of the most insightful was imagining the space I was in as a gravity room, where center stage has normal earth gravity, stage right has 200% gravity, and stage left has 0%. Walking back and forth, I was invited to explore the heaviness or lightness of my body. Then we layered on another gradient: emotion. What if stage right was anger at 200% gravity and stage left was joy at 0%? And what if you swapped the emotions? What if we tried fear or sadness?
For me, this opened up a new way of fleshing out my characters. I have already taken the exercise home and worked on it with some of the roles in Calafia. I'm discovering through posture and gesture what priorities or desires might exist for my characters. For the titular role of Calafia, for example, I learned that she would much prefer to stand in the middle with chest and head held high. And if circumstances cause her to head toward either the 200% or the 0% directions with her body, she begins to feel out of place or exposed. Her priority is to retain the status quo, but it might also be a cover-up for deeper emotions that she does not wish to express for fear that it will make her look weak or out of control. I don't think I would have learned this about her this quickly in another way, and this leaves me feeling very excited to continue bringing movement into my playwriting process.
In December 2013, I learned that the State of California was probably named after a mythical Island of California which appears in 15th and 16th century Spanish lore. In the most popular story by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, the island is occupied by an Amazon-like race of dark-skinned, warrior women whose queen is Calafia. I found myself fascinated by this fictional woman - the leader of her female-only tribe. I was fascinated that someone who was both a woman and a woman of color was presented in such a mighty, awe-inspiring, and typically masculine way.
Unfortunately, the story of Calafia doesn't end the way I would like. She converts to Christianity in the end and marries a man, ultimately showing that the ways of the Lord can subdue even the most brutish of savages. No. Thank. You.
Fortunately, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo himself gives me a way around. The backdrop of Calafia's story is the battle for Constantinople between the Byzantines and the Ottomans in the 1400's. History tells us that the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines in 1453 and took back this important city. However, in Montalvo's story, it is the Byzantines who are victorious. Read: it is the Christians who defeat the Muslims in his version.
I figure, if Montalvo thought it fit to change history in order to suit his storytelling desires, then I don't particularly feel the need to stay absolutely true to his story. Read: In my adaptation of Calafia, she will not be submitting to a man or converting to Christianity. I actually don't yet know what Calafia will be doing in my adaptation. But one thing I do know: I want the show to feature a "wall of women" as its primary musical source.
So what does that mean? A month ago, I had only vague notions. But in May 2016, I invited eight incredible female actors to join me for what I called a "voice and sound exploration workshop." Thanks to support from the Playwrights Foundation, I was able to get time and space to conduct the workshop. Since this will be a story about a race of isolated women who never actually existed, I was intrigued by how to find sounds that were simultaneously primal and other-worldly.
We often typify women's voices as higher-pitched, softer and sweeter. But women's voices are so much more dynamic than we give them credit for. Sure they can soothe, squeal and scream, but they can also shriek, groan, grunt, moan, command and overpower. And let me tell you, these actors did not hold back in exploring all of these sounds unabashedly and freely. I found myself utterly speechless at moments as I beheld what the eight of them could bring out from within them. I am utterly thankful to these colleagues for being willing to experiment, be vulnerable and weird, and to let me listen to them for three hours.
I'm not entirely sure what this all means for the next steps of Calafia. I only know that I've now taken a huge creative step forward by having this sound workshop. Calafia is officially my next musical theatre project.