So I really am trying to make good on the New Year’s resolutions I made back in January (remember those?), and life has its way of creeping in to disrupt even the purest of intentions. HOWEVER, I am proud to tell you that I do have a new interview for the month of March (two months in a row — woo-hoo!), even if I did wait until the last minute. 😉
I first met Cindy Dlugolecki in the graduate Creative Writing program at Wilkes University. A fellow playwright, Cindy is a constant encouragement to me, whether she’s complimenting my work, sharing her own journey, or commenting on this very blog. In her own words, she “discovered a passion for writing as a sophomore in a high school journalism class.” She went on to win an essay contest, took writing classes in college, and became editor-in-chief of the weekly college newspaper her junior year. Cindy’s also one of those lucky rare birds whose first job out of college was a writing job; she was paid $35 a week to write commercials for a radio station. “One day I decided to spice up the commercials with dialogue,” Dlugolecki tells me. “The clients loved the results and I discovered I had a flair for conversation.” And little did she know that THAT was only the beginning. Fifteen years later she would be writing award-winning skits for her women’s club before launching herself into full-on playwriting. I’m very excited about Cindy’s work and the attention she’s getting in her hometown, her home state, and beyond. So here’s an inside look at this up-and-coming new playwright!
dramachicky: What is the first play you ever wrote? What inspired it?
Cindy Dlugolecki: In 1992, I saw a traveling production of Into the Woods in State College. On the way home I began contemplating a biblical play called Into the Desert. Sondheim’s fairy tale characters all met in the woods; God’s people could all meet in the desert. I was thinking of male biblical characters: Jesus, of course, John the Baptist, and Moses. However, a friend challenged me to think about biblical women in the desert. Thus, Into the Desert is the story of devil Regis DeVille tempting Eve, Mary (mother of Jesus), and the adulteress-who-was-almost-stoned to marry him as Regis makes the women deaf and blind to the ministrations of Jesus. As the women wander the desert, they end up at the yard sale of Noah’s wife, whom I’ve named Joan of “Ark.” There’s a lot of humor but also a very dark back story for the adulteress. For the first production, I sought permission to incorporate popular songs, including Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Because I discovered that the permission process is long and could be a roadblock in future productions, three years later I found a composer for my lyrics to carry the plot along. (Yes, I also discovered I was a lyricist!) Together, we have written 24 songs for Into the Desert. Recently I pulled out the script to edit and revise and incorporate what I’ve learned in my Wilkes classes. It’s my hope to get this musical back in circulation and get it produced again.
dc: What are some of the things that inspire you as a playwright?
CD: I keep a running list of possible plays, inspired by life itself. Here Comes the Bride’s Mother was inspired by the three years I worked in our church office editing the parish newsletter. Ghosts of Mechanicsburg was inspired while I worked for the Mechanicsburg Museum Association…many museum visitors would share their ghost stories with me, inspiring me to combine fact with fiction to pen a play that has entertained countless people over a dozen years…One play on my running list that I look forward to writing is inspired by my mother and her English pen pal of seventy years. I have a huge box of yellowed letters with British postmarks spanning the Great Depression to 2011, when my mother passed away. I think my play would be similar to Love Letters [by A.R. Gurney] and would document the highs and lows of everyday married/divorced intertwined with period music, historical and political references, and news reels of Queen Elizabeth, as my mother and her pen pal were the Queen’s contemporaries. [A] British playwriting workshop I’m attending in October…[is] in a little village an hour away from the home of my mother’s pen pal. I think October would be the ideal time to begin my research and writing.
dc: Is there an overall driving force behind your work or particular themes you like to explore?
CD: As you may discern from some of my play titles, I enjoy local history. Mechanicsburg has a rich and colorful past, including being the site of the first all-female college in Pennsylvania in 1856. I’ve always wanted to research Irving College (named for Washington Irving); thus one of my main characters for [work in progress] When Angels Come will be an Irving College maiden so I can indulge myself.
However, what most draws me are writing stories about women struggling to find themselves in a harsh world. Into the Desert has four women wandering about the wilderness in a dream. My master’s thesis play– Snap! — was about women in prison. Violet Oakley of Violet Oakley Unveiled found success in a man’s world, but she had to sacrifice love. Her mentor, famed illustrator Howard Pyle, advised the women in his art classes not to marry if they were serious about their art. “When a woman marries, that’s the end of her,” he declared. How I resonate with Pyle’s words! Years ago, I read Rewrites, a book by Neil Simon documenting the highs and lows of being a playwright. He wrote of summering in England, where he would write in an upstairs loft as his wife dutifully brought him lunch on a tray every day at noon and entertained the children so he could concentrate. I read that chapter and thought, “I wonder how many plays I could write if my husband brought me lunch, entertained our four daughters, and did all the other chores I do in a day!”
But humor is in ALL my plays, even in the very serious ones. I love to hear people laugh in the theatre.
dc: What would you say is the function of theatre (and other arts) in our world today? Or maybe, what should that function be?
CD: I believe theatre should entertain, enlighten, and (possibly) educate. I love going into a theatre and being in another world for two hours; there’s a communal bond with others around me that’s special. Theatre can be an entertaining escape; but, for me learning something in the process about human truth or history is a bonus. I just saw a local production of Extremities, a play about rape. Was it fun? No. It was extremely hard to watch. But I found it fascinating that the playwright could put me in the head of both a rapist and his victim . . . and feel sorry for the rapist!
As many of my plays are historical in nature, I try to make that history palatable with colorful characters and humor when appropriate. I’m a former English teacher and am a strong believer that learning through the arts not only makes learning fun but helps in the recall. For example, I wrote a song about the parts of speech and their functions and correlated each act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with a popular song so the students could better understand the action and characters. When former students would pass by my door and hear “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” they immediately thought of the ghost of Julius Caesar getting revenge.
dc: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
CD: If the play’s historical, I do a lot of research. I love research and make a lot of notes. Eventually, a story is revealed. But that first blank page is a killer. Once I get started I’m okay. But putting down the first words of any play has always challenged me.
Violet Oakley Unveiled was particularly challenging because Violet was a real person. And because she passed away in 1964, there are still people in the Harrisburg area who remember her and could call me out on mistakes. I had to be true to the person she was, and I was petrified to start writing. To get into her vocal rhythms, I actually began typing the transcripts of a lecture she gave in Harrisburg before writing any of my own words. And when I still put off penning the play, I invoked her to talk to me . . . and she did . . . at 3 A.M. one morning! And it wasn’t the last time.
dc: What of your playwriting pieces speaks to you most personally and why?
CD: Not that I haven’t had fun writing all my plays, but Into the Desert and Violet Oakley Unveiled are my favorite “children.” The first, because it helped me work through issues I have with church, the Bible, and where God is when bad things happen. The latter, because Violet became a role model for me. A woman who made her artistic life happen by the unorthodox decisions she made rather than being swept away by society’s expectations. She truly has changed my life.
dc: How do you think our personal views on life – whether spiritual, political, or whatever – should (or should not) affect our playwriting?
CD: Sometimes, writing is my therapy for something I’m working through. When this happens, for better or for worse, I’m very transparent in my writing. In my very first play, people discovered I was a Democrat and they knew my religious beliefs. In fact, the day of opening night I thought to myself, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?” However, in the program I encouraged people to think about where they stand on various issues and allow the play to be a vehicle for discussion. I was thrilled when a friend told me she and her boyfriend had a three-hour conversation about their beliefs after seeing Into the Desert. In a Christmas play I wrote, Angels Inc., one of my angels appeared to be gay. I know that angels are androgynous but there was a point to my angel character appearing gay; I was taking a chance in central Pennsylvania. Sure enough one person (and there were probably others) in the audience let me know she was upset, and I can live with that. Of course, I also have plays that are pure fun with no underlying “agenda” or message.
dc: 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?
CD: The statistic greatly disturbs me. Is it because perhaps men sit at the helms at most theatres? I don’t know. At one point in my writing career, I submitted my work to contests using my first and middle initials, instead of my first name and middle initial. Then one day, I thought, “Screw this. I’m proud of my work and claiming it.” Brava to those theatres out there that actively solicit and support work by women! This past summer I was part of a production that incorporated four original ten-minute plays, dance, and music–all inspired by Shakespearean sonnets. Three of those four plays were written by women . . . a fact I applauded at the talkbacks as I cited the 20% statistic. With that said, a female director orchestrated the event.
dc: What is the greatest challenge female playwrights must overcome? What advice do you have for us dramachicks?
CD: I advise every dramachick to have a mentor, someone with whom to discuss ideas. Someone who will give frank feedback on your writing and not tell you what you want to hear. I also enjoy the company of other playwrights. I am a founding member of PAPA, the Playwrights Alliance of PA, here in the Harrisburg area. We meet monthly so members can bring new work to be read aloud. It helps hearing what you’ve written. We take great pleasure in others’ successes as we await our own.
And keep writing. It is so easy to get discouraged after numerous rejections and negative comments. It’s like someone saying your baby is ugly. I remember one particular January deadline I wanted to meet, and my college-aged daughter was insulted I didn’t spend more time with her over Christmas break. She let me know how hurt she was the day she left to go back to school, and I was devastated. I cried after she left and vowed that if writing was going to upset my family this much, I was going to stop. An hour later the phone rang. It was the theatre chair of a local college who had just read Into the Desert, and he wanted to talk to me. His parting words at the end of our conversation: “Whatever you do, don’t give up writing.”
I’d also advise dramachicks to apply for grants as a means to produce their own work. I’ve had to become my own producer to get Violet Oakley’s story out to the public. The added benefit is choosing the director and actor(s) you want and not be bound by someone else’s opinion or choice. When I’m intimidated by the next project that comes my way or an opening night, I take courage in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
dc: Who are a few of your favorite female playwrights?
CD: All the talented women in PAPA who get their work out there and win contests. Before I became a graduate student at Wilkes University, I had never read any plays by women. I became a fan of Caryl Churchill very fast after reading Mad Forest. I learned a lot from the structure and the story. I want to read more of her work.
I’ve seen Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and was overwhelmed with its brutal honesty. Most recently, I saw Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar on Broadway. This play is a must-see for anyone in a writing group. And if you want to take someone who’s not in a writing group, that person may enjoy the nudity and sex.
Among my favorite female playwrights are local women. A friend, a female professor at Messiah College, wrote a play entitled Between Two Chairs. It’s a drama about her young son becoming aware of his memory and her elderly father losing his. Incredibly poignant. Karen Gray is a Harrisburg playwright who writes and performs her own one-woman shows. They are hysterically irreverent but so delightfully original. I’m also a big fan of Lori Myers, an alum of Wilkes, and of you [dramachicky] and your Drowning Ophelia. I still see that bathtub!
dc: Thanks for the shout-out, Cindy. 😉 What is one play (written by anyone) you think every person should read or see at least once?
CD: The Laramie Project. I’ve had the privilege of seeing it in NYC and locally in community theatre. Wow. What a powerful and true story that appealed to the writer in me who likes to write from actual events. But the play is also masterful as a vehicle for actors to morph into lots of different characters.
(*Important side note: There is a production of The Laramie Project running tonight and tomorrow night – March 30 & 31 – 8 p.m. at Misericordia University*)
dc: As a graduate of the Creative Writing program at Wilkes, what do you think is the value of having an M.A. or M.F.A. in the creative writing field?
CD: Before the Wilkes Creative Writing program, whatever I learned about playwriting was from reading books, seeing plays, taking an occasional workshop, and working by trial and error. The value of the Wilkes M.A. program was learning how to use the tools that fashion good and great plays through practice, practice, practice. The reading list introduced me to both familiar and unfamiliar playwrights and made me realize how poorly read I am in theatrical works. I was inspired by the accomplishments of a most-congenial and brilliant faculty and talented students. It was truly a remarkable 18 months. I am using what I learned to edit and revise my previous work and to shape my future writing.
I think we all know by now that it’s terribly important for us to be supporting the female playwrights who ARE getting their work produced professionally; but it’s just as important to be supporting (and encouraging!) the female playwrights who are on the cusp of professional work. Cindy is a talented playwright with quite the local repertoire; let’s hope her excellent work gets acknowledgment on a grander scale as it so deserves!
About Cindy Dlugolecki…
Education: B.S. in Secondary Education, English, from Shippensburg University; M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University
Career: Former educator; Former Arts in Education consultant; Currently freelance writer and public speaker
Staged Productions: I’ve had no “professional” productions; but I have had seven full-length plays and two ten-minute plays produced in five different community theatres in central Pennsylvania (and Pennsylvania’s state capitol) since 1996.
Selected Works: Into the Desert; Ghosts of Mechanicsburg, A Grouch, a Ghost, and a Goose for Christmas; Spirit of 17055; Angles, Inc.; Violet Oakley Unveiled; Royal Tea; Here Comes the Bride’s Mother; All Hands on Deck; Snap!
Current or Upcoming Projects: I was just commissioned to write a one-act play to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Confederate occupation of Mechanicsburg in 1863. Our town holds the singular distinction of being the northernmost town occupied by the rebels during the Civil War. What is very significant, in my mind, is that the soldiers left Mechanicsburg after three days to march south to Gettysburg. I’m immersed in research at the moment. Working title for the piece is When Angels Come.
I’ve been invited to be a playwright-in-residence at the Hamner Theatre in Afton, Virginia, to workshop my graduate thesis, Snap! The date is yet to be determined.