This salon is led by TCG’s Diversity & Inclusion Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton, and features interviews with and essays from theatre people working within the Theatre for Young Audiences. To participate in this or any other TCG Circle salon, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
MARTHA KING DE SILVA: I am a Washington, DC, playwright, who makes my primary living as a leadership coach in a Public Accounting Firm, writing whenever I can and with whomever is interested in working with me.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, culture, and gender? How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
MKD: I’m Caucasian, female, and middle-aged. (I add that demographic because I think age can be a contributing factor in why one’s plays get produced.) That said, I cannot honestly attribute the opportunities I’ve had (or not had) to simple demographics. To be successful as a playwright requires a combination of talent, luck, and skillful self-advocacy. That last trait is very often the most useful one to have in terms of actually getting a play onstage.
In my work as a coach and in my personal experience as a playwright, I think women have a hard time with self-advocacy. Many of us, myself included, grew up with the belief that if we worked hard and had talent, we would get noticed and appropriately rewarded. We are taught to be “nice” girls and self-advocacy does not always feel like nice behavior to us.
(In fairness I think some men struggle with self-advocacy as well.)
JL: What inspired you to work in the Theatre for Young Audiences field? What impact do you hope to have?
MKD: I came to writing plays for young audiences a bit by accident (or great luck!). I was whining to my writing mentor (Ernie Joselovitz, head of the Washington, DC, Playwrights Forum) about my lack of success as a playwright…and I define success as getting a play produced onstage – somewhere, ANYWHERE! He suggested to Janet Stanford (the Artistic Director of Imagination Stage) that she consider commissioning me to write a new play for them. (He also ponied up some dollars toward the commission.) My first children’s play, “Junebug and the Reverend,” adapted from the book of the same name, was produced in 2007.
I always hope that my plays have an element of fun in them and that they are entertaining for both children and their parents. I am moved when a child cries when one of the characters in my plays does something “bad.” And it tickles me to watch children applaud when the villain in one of my plays gets his/her comeuppance. I am happy when children who see my plays want to return to see more plays and delighted when they and their parents discuss themes and lessons learned.
JL: Do we need more organizations dedicated to fostering new plays for Theatre for Young Audience? What is gained by focusing our attention, talent, and resources to this community?
MKD: Yes, yes, yes. The more outlets that we have for children – be it the soccer field, girl scouts, or the theatre,- the more opportunities a child has to find him/herself and a community of like-minded children. Theatre is a great avenue for addressing important life issues.
JL: I’ve seen a number of TYA plays successfully address Bullying and Bad Behavior, Class and Economic Issues, Living with Disabilities, Diversity and Inclusion, Family Structures, Life Cycles (birth of a new sibling and death of a loved one) and Injustice and Violence. Why is it important that we introduce these topics to our young people?
MKD: Every parent wants his/her child to have a happy, uneventful childhood but bad things happen to kids, despite our best intentions. Putting plays with these themes on our stages can have powerful outcomes – creating enlightenment and empathy in those children who are among the lucky and reassurance for the unlucky children that they are not alone. How great could it be to draw strength from watching a character battling the same challenges as you and emerging victorious?
Unfortunately, many parents may not be eager to take their children to plays like these and theatres are then obliged to find more commercial ways to get families through their doors. The latest practice is adapting popular children’s titles for the stage…you put on “101 Dalmatians,” (Joan Cushing and I adapted this book into a musical which closed last month at Imagination Stage) and people are going to be interested, simply because of the title and what the Disney franchise did for Dodie Smith’s book.
When Imagination Stage produced “Junebug and the Reverend,” it was hard to fill seats and I remember (painfully) the theatre being forced to cancel a couple of performances. “Junebug and the Reverend” is a story about a young Black boy who has just moved with his mother and sister out of the projects to a new home. Junebug’s dad is in prison and he encounters plenty of bullies in his new school. Alice Mead’s wonderful book touches on so many relevant and important topics that are both painful and universal and I was excited to tackle those issues onstage and wish more children (and their parents) could have experienced it.
JL: What can TYA Theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
MKD: Keeping a theatre in business costs money. You have to keep the lights on and the heat running. You have to pay the full-time staff and the artists – actors, designers, and playwrights. Some of those expenses get recouped through ticket costs – that can range anywhere from $10 – $35 per ticket. If a family of four wanted to see a show, it could cost them, at a minimum, $40 to do so. That is a huge amount of money for a lower-income family.
Imagination Stage (which I consider to be my theatrical home) embarked on a great initiative in 2013 whereby it would raise enough money (estimated at about $150,000 for the first year) to purchase tickets and transportation for 3300 students in Title 1 schools in Montgomery County to see Psalymene 24’s hip-hop musical, “Cinderella: The Remix.” In 2014, under this same initiative, another 3,000 third graders got to see a free performance of “101 Dalmatians.” To me, this kind of targeted initiative is brilliant and gets at the heart of what TYA should be all about. I hope (and am certain) that other theatres are embarking on similar programs.
Martha King De Silva’s plays for adults and young audiences have been produced at a variety of venues including, Charter Theatre (Washington, DC); 2 Co’s Cabaret (Columbus, OH); the Industrial Arts Theatre (Denver, CO); the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival (New York, NY); Theatre at Lime Kiln in (Lexington, VA), the National Portrait Gallery, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, (Charlotte, NC) and most recently, Imagination Stage (Bethesda, Maryland).
In 2002, her one-woman play, “Stretch Marks” (Charter Theatre) was nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award (Helen Hayes) for Outstanding New Play. In 2010, “Heidi” a musical that she co-wrote with composer and lyricist, Joan Cushing, received a Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).
Ms. De Silva has received grants from the DC Humanities Commission and the DC Historical Society. Her monologues have appeared in the Best Women’s Stage Monologues of 1996 and the Best Men’s Stage Monologues of 1998.
She lives and works in Washington, DC.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com