The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright Elizabeth Archer on Her Play: ‘Old Gray Devil’

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with a local female playwright in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Series, I will interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art.

In this special edition, I am overjoyed to feature the ten female playwrights of Source Festival 2014.  Led by the Artistic Direction of Jenny McConnell Frederick, Source Festival 2014 is a three-week performing arts project of CulturalDC that cultivates new work in a nurturing environment and spotlights the witty, incisive, and thought-provoking writing from today’s emerging American playwrights. Building the path for the next generation of outstanding performing artists, The Source Theatre Festival (June 7-29, 2014) presents three themed full-length plays (Mortality, Revenge, Quests), three experimental Artistic Blind Dates of created original work, and three short programs with six 10-Minute theme related plays to enjoy.

  Elizabeth Archer

Playwright Elizabeth Archer.
Playwright Elizabeth Archer.

 Selected from more than 500 nationwide submissions, Elizabeth Archer’s play Old Gray Devil is one of the six ten-minute plays featured under the Quests theme in this year’s Source Festival 2014.

Elizabeth Archer is currently working towards an MFA in Writing for the Stage and Screen at Northwestern University, and works as a writer at Jellyvision in Chicago.


Sydney-Chanele:  Why do you write, and more specifically why do you write plays?

Elizabeth: I know this sounds kind of precious, but I write plays because I think that the theatre is the closest thing to magic that we have in the real world. I think there’s some sort of sorcery involved in conjuring moments where unbelievably beautiful or terrifying things happen, where people do the impossible, where the world is at her best or worst.

I’m also a rather selfish writer…I like to write things that I want to see happen on stage. So there’s that, too. Make it snow! Make a ghost appear!  Make people kiss each other! That’s a lot of power right there.

What is your writing process? How disciplined are you about writing every day?

My writing routine involves an inordinate amount of walking and running.  Whenever I’m stuck I get cagey and restless, so I’ll take the El downtown (Chicago) and then walk or run the six miles home trying to brainstorm solutions, figure out a character or a story, or break open a new structure.  When (and if) I finally sort things out, I generally write in my bed.

I’m currently working towards an MFA in Writing for the Stage and Screen at Northwestern University, so I write pretty much every day and I’m such a fan of that. Last quarter alone I wrote a full-length play, a dramatic pilot, and five 10-minute plays. It was glorious and exhausting and really satisfying. I worry that my discipline will fall to the wayside once I graduate…I’m going to need to hire someone to make deadlines for me to write to once I’m out of school.

Do you consider yourself a professional playwright?

I consider myself more of an ‘intern’ playwright, rather than a professional, right now. I feel so new, and I’m really still finding my voice and trying to pay my dues. I’m trying to work up to a professional level as fast as I can, though.

Source Festival Play

Mark Ludwick & Stacey Whittle in 'Old Gray Devil.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Mark Ludwick & Stacey Whittle in ‘Old Gray Devil.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

What can you tell me about your play, Old Gray Devil?

Well, I’m going to be a bit coy here. Old Gray Devil is set in 1916, and revolves around a group of circus artists burying one of their coworkers. And that’s all I’m going to say, only because I’m big on mysteries and surprises and discovery. It’s based on a real event, but most of the characters are invented.

What has been your biggest challenge with this script? How did you come up with the idea for it?

The biggest challenge with this script was finding the voices for characters living in a world almost 100 years removed from the present day. The idea for this play came from a horrific photo from 1916 I stumbled upon online. I love poking around the internet for weird, macabre things, so when I found this photo I was just immediately taken with it and knew I had to bring it to life.

How long did it take you to write this play, and how many drafts went into the version we will see on stage?

Once I found the photo and did my research about the event, I wrote this play over the course of two days. I hunkered down on my couch in my pajamas and just wrote, listening to lots of old music (Billy Murray, Ada Jones, etc.) as I worked. Then I forced my roommates to do a few readings of it as we sat on the floor of our kitchen, and I revised based on what I heard.  I’ve made some tweaks here and there since then, and this current version is the fourth draft. My writing voice and style have evolved tremendously since I wrote this play, so it’ll also be interesting to re-visit this relatively early piece…like looking at an old photo, I’d imagine.

How involved have you been with this production of Old Gray Devil at the Source Festival 2014?

I had a nice long chat with my dramaturg, Kate Coughlin, way back in April, and we sorted out some details and questions about the piece then. And then I had a Skype chat with the director, Mark Kamie, and the whole cast during one of their rehearsals. They serenaded me with the music for the show, and my eyes just welled up with tears. It was so cool and such a lovely thing for them to do for me. Other than that, I’ll be in town for the final performance, and I’m really excited to meet the cast and see what magic they’ve made!

Mark Ludwick in 'Old Gray Devil.' Photo by  C. Stanley Photography.
Mark Ludwick in ‘Old Gray Devil.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

What do you like most about this script and has it ever been performed on stage before?

My favorite part of the script is actually the music. I’m a musical theatre junkie, and am dying to write my own musical, so this was me dipping my toe into that pool by writing a song for the show (the melody is based on an old American tune). The play has never been performed on stage before.

A Deeper Look & Inspirations

What inspires you to write and who are your playwriting inspirations?

There are a lot of worlds and characters and ideas that I want to dive into, and the idea of getting to explore them in new plays inspires me to continue writing. My ‘playwriting inspiration’ list is pretty varied and includes but is not limited to Shakespeare, Young Jean Lee, Sarah Ruhl, Tom Stoppard, Suzan-Lori Parks, Federico Garcia Lorca – it’s a really long list, and I could go on for a while.

Each playwright is inspiring in a different way, but I think the thing that draws me to all of them is the unique poetry and rhythm of their words, the simultaneously epic and human scale of their writing, and the magical intelligence of their plays.

What is your all-time favorite play and who is your favorite living female playwright?

Oooh! This is a tough one. I’ve found that I’m pretty fickle with my ‘all-time favorite play’, and it changes pretty frequently. For the last little while, it’s been Noah Haidle’s Smokefall. Holy cow, that is one magical and beautiful and heartbreaking piece of theatre right there. My favorite living female playwright is Sarah Ruhl, and while it’s hard to pick a favorite work of hers, I’d say In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is really high up there.

How do you feel about the disproportionate number of female playwrights consistently being programmed by theatre companies?

This is one of those things that just always boggles my mind, because it’s simultaneously asinine and insidious. It makes no sense to me why gender would affect one’s inclusion and representation in a great many things, including theatre seasons. It’s a symptom of a larger illness, this inequality and marginalization of females within so many different fields.  And it seems to often be countered by the argument that people ‘just want good work, no matter who makes it.’ There’s such a need for new voices and stories and perspectives, and it seems a shame to limit what’s out there based on gender.

What has been your biggest struggle starting out and getting your work produced?

I’m still really starting out, so I’ve really just begun the process of sending out my work. Embarrassingly, I’m still not really 100% sure I know how to go about having my work developed…it’s a bit of a mystery right now.

Is there anything you like to share with DCMTA readers about yourself or your playwriting?

Right now, I’m working on fine-tuning two full-length plays I wrote this year and hoping to find somewhere to produce them. This summer I’ll also be putting the finishing touches on a third full-length play, finishing up a supernatural screenplay set in Ukraine, and editing Little Bolts of Lightning, a short documentary film I made about the Ukrainian Scouts I volunteer as a group leader for. And doing a lot of walking.


Old Gray Devil is performed as a part of the Source Festival’s – QUESTS: Six 10-Min Plays, which is playing on June 21, 2014 at 1:00 PM , June 21, 2014 at 8:00 PM, and June 25, 2014 at 6:00 PM at THE SOURCE THEATRE FESTIVAL 2014  (June 7 – June 29, 2014) at Source – 1835 14th Street. NW, in Washington, D.C.  For tickets, call OvationTix customer service toll-free: 866-811-4111, or purchase them online.

Source is located 2 blocks from the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station on the Yellow & Green Lines.

The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright A.K. Forbes on Her Play: ‘Collateral Damage and Other Cosmic Consequences.’

The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview With CJ Ehrlich on Her Play ‘Picnic on the Lake’

The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright Susan Goodell on Her Play: ‘After Unlocking the Universe.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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