An Interview with Playwright Celia Raker
Over Boston’s long winter, I shared Shabbat dinner with a friend-of-a-friend who, unbeknownst to me, is a talented poet and playwright. In addition to winning a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship this spring, Cecelia Raker’s play dry bones rising made its first full-length, professional debut in May at the Venus Theatre in Laurel, MD.
I asked Cecelia to tell us about dry bones rising, and about her experience as a woman breaking into the playwriting field.
Etta King: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story with us! Can you start by telling us what your play, dry bones rising, is about? Interpret that question in whatever way you like.
Cecelia Raker: Thank you! The play is about . . . ninety-some pages? I'm terrible at answering that question. No but really, it's about two small children who survive a massive apocalyptic disaster. They have to figure out how to get along with each other despite their vastly different backgrounds, and in their terror that They with a capital "T" are coming to get them, the kids build this Mud Man and bring it to life to protect them. Even more chaos and hilarity and tragedy ensues. It's about resilience, about how to move forward when your world is shattered, about how to animate dust.
EK: Can you talk a bit about the characters in the play? You only wrote three, "Him," "Her," and "Mudman," all of whom were played by women in the most recent production.
CR: I wrote the piece with one female, one male, and one androgynous actor in mind, but it's been amazing to discover the nuances available in different casting choices throughout various developmental readings and this production. The gender divide between the children is important as part of the power struggle in the play, as they figure out who's in charge. SHE comes from a secular Jewish background, and she's very rooted in modern feminist ideas and secular education. HE comes from a more traditionally orthodox background, and it's hard for Him to adjust to Her concept of the world—but they can connect through playing pretend together. The Mud Man was fascinating to write, since it has no voice outside its movements for most of the play. I was interested in what it would be like to give a literal body and voice to the earth, the land that's so often personified in holy texts as a groaning woman during wars or exiles. In the 19th Century legend of the golem of Prague, and in the Yiddish theater adaptation of that legend by H. Leivick, the golem is always male and carries a sort of dangerous sexuality. I was intrigued by the more female characterization of the Land in other Jewish literature, and wondered what the Land would say if it could, how it would try to fix a disastrous situation or describe its constant, slow, patient process of regeneration.
EK: I can see Judaism present in this piece in so many different ways. How did Judaism, or your experience as a Jew, shape or inform dry bones rising?
CR: This piece really grew out of curiosity about the abrupt emotional shift between the week when we celebrate both Tisha b'Av (a Jewish day of fasting and mourning) and Tu b'Av (a Jewish day of joy and love). How the heck are you supposed to go in just six days from full out mourning and fasting and woe to summery, sexy dancing and celebration of love? Is there something about the cracking open of your heart in mourning that makes you more prepared to connect?
Growing up as a child of intermarriage steeped in a variety of models of religious storytelling, I think I learned to think from a somewhat midrashic (interpretive or folkloric) perspective of text, where everything is related to everything and it's all part of this one huge story and no word is extraneous. Every word resonates with a million intertexts, so then of course from that seed of curiosity I found myself suddenly bringing in Yiddish literature, Talmud, things from Christianity and Islamic tradition, modern Israeli politics, environmentalism, basically everything and the kitchen sink.
The more I turn a story over and over, as per Pirkei Avot (lit. “Ethics of our Fathers,” a collection of writings from the Mishnah), the more I discover all the things that are in it. My challenge is always to narrow a story down into a real narrative and make the work accessible to someone outside the tangly web of connections in my own brain. Someday I want to write a play that's just about one thing. That would be great.
EK: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on a full-length play that gets all the way to a professional production? What was the most surprising part?
CR: It's a new thing for me to collaborate simply as a writer. I've done a lot of work in devised theater, where everyone's collaborating on equal footing and there are fewer defined roles, so it's been fascinating to navigate boundaries where my work ends and the director's or the cast's begins. It's hard to let go of the text and let it breathe in other people's hands—that's the biggest challenge and the most beautiful part at the same time. While there are certainly aspects of the script I'll adjust based on seeing how they might be interpreted far differently than I'd intended, seeing that new interpretation has also helped me learn more about the characters and story than I ever could have discovered alone with my brain and my computer. I was delightfully surprised by the ingenuity and inventiveness of the team at Venus Theatre—it takes a special sort of genius creativity to tackle stage directions like "SHE takes the glob of mud. Before their eyes, it turns into a huge cupcake."
EK: Now some questions about you. How did you become a playwright?
CR: I've always been a scribbler, a lover of words and putting them together in weird ways. My route to writing for theater was circuitous, though. My grandma took me to the opera every year for my birthday (the Santa Fe opera always has kids' nights for their final dress rehearsals, and one always fell on my birthday). I decided I wanted to be an opera singer, but though I loved singing, I never quite got my act together to practice as much as I ought to have, and as I grew more Jewishly observant in college, it became clear that performing and Shabbat would always be in tension. So I shifted to directing opera, where I found myself increasingly frustrated by the inane narratives underlying my favorite gorgeous music. That led me to take a few classes in playwriting and performance art, and I was hooked.
EK: Congratulations on being selected as a Finalist in Dramatic Writing for this year's Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowships. I couldn't help but notice that you are one of only two women (out of the nine finalists) chosen in the Dramatic Writing category. Can you talk a bit about what it is like to be a woman hustling to make your living through your art? How do you think your gender informs your experience? How does it come out in your work?
CR: Thank you! First off, let's be real, I don't make my living through my art. I wish I could. Our society does not place enough monetary value on art to make that realistic. I don't know almost any playwrights who make their living solely through their art—everyone is teaching as well as writing, or writing for TV to fund their wacky experimental theater, or more commonly working seventeen day jobs. I have an amazing part-time job as a learning specialist at a school where I love what I do and they don't bat an eyelash when I gallivant off for a few days of rehearsals. I also have an amazing husband who's working his ass off in grad school to be able to eventually support us financially so that someday, I might be able to write more full-time. I'm blessed.
I have a pretty competitive and confrontational streak, so the infuriating and absurd statistics around lack of gender parity in theater (for example, only around 24% of plays produced this year across the country were written by women) fuels my conviction that telling stories as a woman is vitally important. I think a lot about how to craft female characters in my plays, how to subvert stereotypes and give voice to strong, flawed, real women who are not flat superheroine tropes or manic pixie dream girls. It's chilling to notice that the early plays I wrote were full of male saviors and women who just needed to fall in love to self-actualize or whatever—and I consider myself a feminist! These narratives that teach girls to sit down and shut up are so deeply embedded in our societal psyche. We learn how to be in the world from the stories we hear and see. It's one of my goals to tell stories that can give models of healthy, egalitarian, vulnerable and real and strong womanhood.
EK: When you think about your work as a poet and a playwright, who have your role models been? These could be creative role models, or also people who have inspired, pushed, and supported you more broadly.
CR: Writers I admire, whose work has helped me find my own voice: Lisa D'Amour, Paula Vogel, Jose Rivera, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Suzan Lori Parks, gosh so many. I think, though, that I get very stuck when trying to model my career or my writing on that of another person.
I tend to do better with collaborators or mentors than direct models—it's incredible to be surrounded in my endeavors by generous, ridiculously intelligent people who are willing to share their ideas and support me. I've learned bucketsful of useful things about writing and about the business of how to be a professional playwright from Nina Louise Morrison, a fellow member of the Project:Project devising troupe. I've gotten amazing mentorship from Ryan McKittrick, the literary director of the A.R.T., and from Barbara Blumenthal Ehrlich, another playwright in the Boston area.
EK: My niece is 9 and has recently started writing and directing her own plays/movies which she records and edits on her tablet cam. What would you tell her to nurture or encourage her to follow her creative impulses?
CR: That's adorable! Just keep making. Make and make and make and throw some away that you don't like and keep the ones you do like and tell the stories YOU want to tell, not the ones you think other people will like or other people want to hear. When you land on a story that you love, it's ok to keep coming back to it and discovering new things. Learn everything you can about the standards of how to do things "right," and then throw all the rules out and do things your way.
What else did you want to tell us that I failed to ask you about?
CR: If you're in the DC/Baltimore area, come on out and see dry bones rising! It runs until June 14th at Venus Theatre in Laurel MD.