One of the most valuable things I did in the last three years was attend Wilkes University to earn my M.A. and MFA in Creative Writing. And that’s not because I now have letters after my name; it’s because of what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown as a playwright as a result of my education. The credit for what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown goes to a lot of people. But there is one person who stands out as my mentor and guiding light through the process. She introduced me to a whole new world of theatre. She freed me from the traditional three-walled set, helped me get Ophelia into a bathtub, and breathed new life into the story I knew I needed to tell. That is why I am so happy to introduce you to a talented playwright, theatre artist, dramachick, mentor and friend: Juanita Rockwell.
dramachicky: What inspires you as a playwright?
Juanita Rockwell: The strange and beautiful things people say. Or might say. And writing a play is a great way to ask the big questions.
dc: Is there an overall driving force behind your work or particular themes you like to explore?
JR: Death and commas, to quote the fabulous Carolyn Kizer. Or: impermanence and the structures of language, to be more precise but less fabulous.
dc: What is the first play you ever wrote? What inspired it?
JR: I think my first was a short play for radio about voluntary evolution (my brother Teed wrote the music). I was excited by the idea that, on the radio, language creates pictures that can do anything. So these creature/characters could look like anything – and could transform before our ears…
dc: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
JR: Slow. A little obsessive. I was sending off something today that’s had two different productions and I still changed a dozen or more things before I could stand to send it off.
dc: You not only work as a theatre artist (playwright/director/actor/etc.), but you also share what you know about the arts as a teacher and mentor. Why is this important to you?
JR: As long as I keep the proportion in balance of how much teaching I do in relationship to how much time I devote to my own work, I find teaching profoundly inspiring. I have had some very smart and talented students, and they provide just the right kind of challenge so I don’t get settled in my own opinions.
dc: I know you work with your husband, Chas Marsh, on creative ventures. What is it like creating art with your spouse?
JR: For me, it’s a great education. His ear and eye are both amazing, and he inevitably comes up with very different things than I would on my own. I always feel like I want to work with him on every project that comes up, but I’ve found that it’s important to work on separate projects, as well. We always get input from each other, even when we’re not directly working together. Then we can bring something new back to our collaborations. One of the projects I’m most excited about is the album of songs we just started working on, but we’ve got several other things in the works in a variety of media. The toughest part about it is that neither of us likes to do the fundraising or producing, so sometimes our projects get pushed down the list by the projects that have support from elsewhere.
dc: What would you say is the function of theatre (and other arts) in our world today? Or maybe, what should that function be?
JR: The function of art is such a big question. It’s almost like asking about the function of being human. In terms of theatre, I think its importance has something to do with both presence and language: a sort of embodied poetry.
dc: What of your playwriting pieces speaks to you most personally and why?
JR: Is it cheating to say it’s usually the one I’m working on? Right now, I’m especially excited about A Little Patch of Ground (I finally found a title I like for the play with songs that used to be called What’s a Little Death and then was briefly called Dead for a Ducat). The play was originally written pretty hastily for a commission, and then I let it sit for a couple of years, even though I knew it needed a major reconceptualization. Recently, I had a long talk with the amazing dramaturg Mame Hunt and figured out where it needs to go. So I’m itching to get back to work on it later in the month.
dc: Your play Between Trains was (and correct me if I’m wrong) strongly influenced by your spiritual beliefs. Would you care to talk about that?
JR: Between Trains was an opportunity to explore parts of Buddhist theory of mind that I’d been working with, and was the first play that I admitted was influenced by my buddhist practice. But all playwriting – all artistic expression – is really just an expression of our worldview, whether we admit it or not.
dc: How do you think our personal views on life – whether spiritual, political, or whatever – should (or should not) affect our playwriting?
JR: I’ve always found it a little ridiculous when someone describes a playwright (or themselves) as “not political.” The translation of that is usually that they or their work supports the status quo, as opposed to supporting some other political point of view. So conservative politics is somehow thought of as less “political.” And we know that ain’t right.
The word political is, in some ways, similar to the word spiritual. The word “spirit” refers to the action of breathing, so however we may view that energy of life, that view is expressed in our work.
I guess the important question to me, whether in terms of politics or spirituality, is whether we can avoid being doctrinaire. As long as the work remains an inquiry instead of an agenda, it’s all good.
dc: Who is one of your favorite female playwrights? (or maybe a couple) 😉
JR: My first favorites were probably Caryl Churchill, Adrienne Kennedy, and Irene Fornes. Then playwright Donna diNovelli, who is now primarily a librettist and lyricist, turned me on to other amazing playwrights when she worked as a dramaturg with me at Company One in Hartford: Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Phyllis Nagy, Rachel Sheinkin, Anna Deavere Smith, and all these other wonderful writers I met through places like Paula’s program at Brown University and BACA Downtown in the early nineties.
There are a lot of great writers who’ve started getting produced in the last decade or so – I’ll just say that a few whose work I’ve enjoyed in recent years include Ann Marie Healy, Lisa d’Amour, Sarah Ruhl, Sheila Callaghan, Jenny Schwartz… Many more, actually, but now it’s getting to the point where I feel like I’m leaving too many interesting writers out…
dc: What is one play (written by anyone) you think every person should read or see at least once?
JR: That’s such a hard one… Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, of course. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is terribly important (although her Skriker is my personal favorite). Suzan-Lori Park’s Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Ack. These “pick one” deals mess with my mind.
dc: Recent studies show that less than 20% of the theatre produced in our country includes plays written by women. What do you think is the main cause of this?
JR: I think the main cause is the skewed perspectives of the people making those decisions, as evidenced in both the Jonas/Bennett study in 1999 and Glassberg Sands’ paper in 2009. The interesting question to me is, how is that skew created? My entirely unscientific theory is that it’s basically habit. People (men and women) were raised to see the world through stories by and about white men, so that’s what we’re used to and what we expect. I’m always horrified to see young women gravitate immediately to images of female behavior they’ve absorbed from the media the minute they start acting, even though they behave in all sorts of varied and unpredictable ways when they’re not in rehearsal.
dc: What is the greatest challenge female playwrights must overcome? What advice do you have for us dramachicks?
JR: Of course the odds are against us, and we should absolutely speak out about that, support the 50/50 in 2020 movement, be activists. We can also support the work of our fellow female playwrights as well as the work of other under-represented artists, whether that lack of representation is due to who they are, what they’re saying, or how they’re saying it.
At the same time, the advice I’ve been giving myself, of late, is to cultivate a little more chutzpah. Some of us have plenty of aesthetic chutzpah and then it all falls apart when we need to lobby for our own work in some way. Some of us have that professional chutzpah but don’t write with the level of aesthetic, political and/or emotional courage that will lift our plays out of the deadly stasis of so much of the theatre that’s out there.
Then there’s the big question of structure. Playwrights who don’t write from the received Aristotelian narrative (many of whom are women), still get responses from newspaper critics who are stuck in the fifties that ask limited and limiting questions like: “What was that character’s motivation? Whose play is this? Where’s the spine of the story? Is it believable?”
Theatre is poetry: it’s about juxtaposition, altering perceptions, awareness, transformation, the paradox of truth and untruth in the same instant. So we just need to be brave about creating that kind of experience.
About Juanita Rockwell…
Education: MFA in Directing, University of Connecticut Storrs; BA in Semiotics and Theatre, Colorado College
Career: Short careers as ceramic artist, restaurant owner, jazz singer; Artistic Director of Company One Theater in Hartford CT, 1989-94; Founding Director of Towson University’s MFA in Theatre Program from 1994; Guest Artist Mentor at Wilkes University from 2004; Freelance director and playwright throughout.
First Professional Stage Production: “The World is Round,” an opera based on Gertrude Stein, 1993, Wadsworth Atheneum’s Avery (Aetna) Theater, Hartford, CT
Notable: Fulbright Scholar, Fulbright Ambassador, Mid-Atlantic/MD State Individual Artist Award in Playwriting; Member SSDC and Dramatists Guild.
Selected Works: Produced writing includes Between Trains, What’s a Little Death (plays w/songs); The World is Round, Waterwalk (operas); Cave in the Sky (puppets/multimedia); Lunar Pantoum (dance-theatre); Language Monkey, Quantum Soup, Across the Void, Packing/Pecking (short plays); Immortal: The Gilgamesh Variations (multi-playwright adaptation) and Playing Dead (co-translation w/Yury Urnov from Bros. Presnyakov).
Upcoming projects include Backwards From Winter, an opera for soprano, electric cello and video with composer Douglas Knehans