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Female Writers for the Screen and Stage: Spotlight on Robin Bradford

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photo credit Patrick Shourds

photo credit Patrick Shourds

In February there was a bit of controversy on Twitter surrounding “The Summit” at Arena Stage and the comments and generalizations that had been made about women playwrights and their work. It was this that inspired me to start interviewing female writers for the screen and stage.

Robin Bradford is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter based in San Francisco. Like many others in this business she has worn many other hats over the years, including directing and producing. She was even the CEO of a successful Bay Area staffing company for twenty-five years before transitioning into independent film production.  I met Robin when I was cast in a reading of her new play “Low Hanging Fruit”. In the talk-back afterwards, one of my fellow performers noted that it was so wonderful to be playing such a fantastic, three dimensional character that wasn’t just a “mother” or a “girlfriend”. The audience agreed.

More about “Low Hanging Fruit”…

I have several projects in the works at the moment but the one I’m most excited about is called “Low Hanging Fruit.” The play is premiering in Los Angeles in September, 2014, directed by the tremendously talented Lee Sankowich.  It’s about four homeless women, all veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan, who live on the mean streets of Skid Row in LA.  The women cluster together in a small encampment they’ve nicknamed The Taj Mahal. They trust each other because of their shared experiences in combat, and to protect themselves, they have strict rules for life on the street.  When one of the women breaks one of these rules, all their lives change.  I’m very hopeful that this piece gets legs to take its message to a wide audience, and under Lee’s direction, I have faith that it will.  Reading about the challenges our female veterans face inspired me to tell a story I hope will lead to greater understanding and support.

How she became interested in writing for the stage…

My ah-ha moment came while sitting in the audience in a New York theatre watching Yazmina Reza’s spectacular play ART.  Although the three characters are men, I identified with the play’s theme of what friendship really means and of course, the brilliant manner in which Reza delivered that message. It was hilarious, it was poignant, it rang true.  Writing about friendship with humor and insight seemed so attainable. “I could do that!” When I got home to San Francisco, I immediately began working on a play called “Skin Deep,” about an immigrant woman who owns a day spa.  The action centers on her belief that she’s created a skin cream that’s the true fountain of youth, but she only gives it to her favorite clients, so everyone’s always trying to ingratiate themselves.  It took me over a year to write it and I thought it was a work of genius. It is probably one of the worst plays ever written.

On whether or not she considers her work or characters to be feminist

Kinda sorta.  What I attempt with all my characters is to make them multi-dimensional.  I’m not a fan of stick figures, foils or characters constructed with cliches and assumptions about what people do and how they act. It doesn’t matter to me if the character is male or female.  They just need a valid reason to be in the work and they need to be well drawn. I want to serve my characters and feel responsible to do them justice.

Is one of her characters in her work always based on herself?  

Life can be banal and that’s one reason fiction can be so compelling. To tell a story, to bring an audience to a place they haven’t been or find out something they don’t know, we often need to exaggerate the truth. Sadly, I’m not interesting enough to be a character in one of my plays, but happily, I have a rich inner life and a ridiculously active imagination.

Inspiration to write…

What inspires me to write is the simple fact that I’m unhappy when I don’t write. Now that I’ve finally discovered my voice, I find almost nothing more rewarding than working on a play.  It’s like a giant puzzle.  You have hundreds or thousands of tiny pieces that you attempt to fit together to tell a story.  You have huge obstacles, beginning with the physical world of a stage.  I find writing screenplays to be a much easier exercise.  There are no limits.  The screen gives you the opportunity to jump from one time zone to another, or one reality to another, and different points of view can be expressed with an eye twitch or a smile — the confines of a stage limits that, but with those challenges, when a solution comes, it’s extremely satisfying.

The most rewarding aspect of being a playwright?

The thrill of working hard on something and then standing back as it evolves with the input of other creative minds.  Working with a director one believes in is magical, because that person has a different point of view that can add depth to the work and bring out new meanings.  And the coup de grace is when talented actors interpret the words with more emotion and truth than the writer dares hope for.  And audiences getting it.  That’s the payoff for the solitary and often lonely work that goes into playwriting.

Women have voices that need to be heard.

It’s fascinating to me that women make up the vast majority of audience members in theaters across the country, yet only 12% of plays produced are written by women.  Are men better writers?  I don’t understand this illogical situation that has persisted since the beginning of theatre.  Women have voices that need to be heard.  I support putting women’s work on stage — where it belongs!  In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to admit I stole that tag line from 3Girls Theatre Company, where I am a resident playwright.  Its mission is exactly that — to put women’s work on stage where it belongs. The benefits of belonging to a theatre company are many, but the most important one for me is having a forum for being encouraged and encouraging the work of others.

On her working space…

I live in a barn.  I have a big, heavy glass desk with steel legs that sits in a huge open room with 30 foot ceilings constructed from old growth redwood.  It’s a friendly and safe space. But it can get very cold in the winter.

When she gets writer’s block…

I assassinate a character.  I make a female into a male.  I take an old lady and make her nine years old.  I walk my dog on the beach.  I read.  I have friends to dinner and cook something amazing. I put the scenes in a different order.  I kill my darlings.  I stop working on it for awhile and shift to another project.

Writing a first draft...

I usually have a very distinct idea of the story I’d like to tell.  I write a log line.  I might write a paragraph about the story.  Then I just have at it and start writing.  As I go, I develop fairly detailed backgrounds/biographies of my fictional characters:  what do they like, what is a secret no one knows about them, where did they grow up, did they have a happy childhood, what makes them laugh or cry, what is most important to them, and so on.  My writing teacher, Will Dunne (with whom I’ve been studying for over 10 years), is an amazingly insightful playwright who has developed hundreds of questions one can ask about each character to get to know them intimately.  Then as the writer, you understand why someone says something or reacts in a certain way.  You’re not scratching around attempting to fit strangers into a plot-driven story.  You can develop your characters from a place of knowing.

Advice to beginning writers…

Actors in long-running plays have the challenge of performing the same piece night after night, in front of audiences seeing it for the first time.  The actors must react to one another, they must do the work for the “first time” no matter how many times they’ve said the lines.  The playwright’s challenge is similar.  Writing a play takes the dedication to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, sometimes into (what feels like) infinity. In rewriting, you have to develop the discipline to see the words on the page as if seeing them for the first time.  You must bring freshness and be willing to put the story first.  Sometimes this means deleting your favorite scenes or characters.  You must keep your vision sacred — and yet be willing to do away with anything that doesn’t serve the story. It’s a very strange skill set and I suppose it could help if you have multiple personalities.

CAREFUL YOU DON’T FALL (a short film by Robin Bradford)

For more about Robin, please see her full bio on the 3Girls Theatre Company website and follow her on Twitter at @robinfilms.

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About Marilyn Anne Michaels

Actress/Waitress/Writer/Comedienne - Marilyn Anne Michaels is a member of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. She trained at the Second City Chicago Conservatory Training Center and did tons of theatre before moving to Los Angeles in 2006. Marilyn co-created and starred in the award winning web series The Best Friend. Marilyn does not like writing bios.