The first time I met Playwright, Heather Jeanne Violanti, she was performing at a Heights Players production in Brooklyn. Sometimes, we forget that playwrights are actors, actors are directors, and generally theatre folks have many related skills. For this young lady, not one, but two of her plays are being presented at the Theater For The New City Dream Up Festival now playing until September 16th. LocalTheatreNY.com had a chance to catch up with heather for more on these two short plays playing side by side.
Q: I had no idea you were a writer, much less a playwright. What a pleasant surprise.
When did all that begin?
Heather Jeanne Violanti: I’ve written plays since grade school. I became more seriously interested in writing plays when minoring in drama in college. I began to read all kinds of plays in all different styles, and I was struck by how powerful plays could be. They could capture a time and place, they could examine a controversial issue and present both sides, they could lead an audience to empathize with the characters on stage.
I've written two full length musicals, two full length plays, and over a dozen short plays. I began both of my Dream Up pieces while studying at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. "Wild Orchids," a feminist take on the noir genre, actually began as a short film for the screenwriting unit. It tells the story of a Myrtle, a Hollywood secretary/frustrated screenwriter in 1944, who encounters the novelist William Faulkner as he struggles to adapt to screenwriting while working on "The Big Sleep." It's completely fictional, but it is loosely inspired by reality. Faulkner had a tough time adjusting to writing to the movies. He did work on "The Big Sleep." And women like Myrtle had a tough time breaking into the then male-dominated screenwriting world.
"Rosary Hill" is a short play that I began as part of the playwriting unit at Central. It's now in the process of becoming a full-length, but the play presented at Dream Up will be a 10 minute play. It's a play that explores the nature of reality -- are people who they say they are? If you say something, is it true? How do we define reality -- by what we say is real, what other people say is real, or something else? It's about two nuns, whose very existence is put in danger because people are saying they never had the official Church "paperwork," if you will. It's a fictional story, inspired by some past new items I have read.
Q: Why two short plays? How do they work together as an evening’s presentation?
Heather Jeanne Violanti: Two short plays are less time consuming and less expensive to produce, and I am self-funding this production. And right now, I have more experience with short works. The two plays are linked by having strong central female characters who must re-calibrate their ways of seeing the world, and reacting to the world's perception of them, to survive and flourish.
Q: It sounds like you really enjoy the process, yes?
Heather Jeanne Violanti: I enjoy the chance to use my imagination and help build new worlds on stage. I enjoy the collaborative process in getting the play on stage -- working with a director, stage manager, and actors to make the work come to life.
Q: How do you begin the process of taking a 10 minute play like Rosary Hill and expanding it to a full length? Where are you finding the room to expand and why are you seeing this particular work as expandable...from a playwright's perspective?
Heather Jeanne Violanti: I am working on "Rosary Hill" in the Writer's Lab at the Greenhouse Ensemble, an emerging theatre company dedicated to creating a positive, judgment free environment. I am expanding it because I think the story can grow beyond 10 pages, and there are more characters in this world to explore. I am finding room to expand by charting the development of Mother Lazarus and Sister Mary Michael's relationship and their changing power dynamic. Seeing the ten minute version will help me understand how an audience responds to these characters and if they are intrigued by their story.
Q: How does the festival process help you as a playwright to develop your material in terms of the fast paced production process? Do you see any of these two plays becoming something else in terms of development.
Heather Jeanne Violanti: Dream Up is a great opportunity to workshop your play on its feet -- to see it onstage in front of an audience, to see how it works in a theatre.
I might try to see "Wild Orchids" as a film, and I would like to continue developing "Rosary Hill" into a full length comedy/drama.
Wild Orchids and Rosary Hill are playing at the 9th Annual Dream Up Festival until September 16th.
Cast includes Michael Gnat* and Autumn Mirassou, Valerie O’Hara, and Joe Raik
*Michael Gnat appears courtesy of Actors' Equity Association
Wild Orchids/Rosary Hill is an Equity-approved showcase.
For more information, dates, and to purchase tickets, please visit: www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW1826-wildorchids.html