Monday, October 31, 2016

Inside Look into Quotidian Theatre Company Production of The Night Alive

-          By Catherine Gregoire

 The Night Alive runs through November 20, 2016. Members of The Writer's Center get a 50% discount. Get tickets here.

Jack Sbarbori is the founder of the Quotidian Theatre Company and a long-time friend of The Writer’s Center. It was a delight to sit down with him and to chat about Quotidian’s new rendition of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson. Sbarbori is a passionate fan of McPherson, so much so that he’s directed nine of his plays over the years. 

It isn't surprising, then, that he decided to take on The Night Alive, which is McPhereson’s newest work, a tantalizingly dark drama about love and revenge. In the dialogue below, Sbarbori’s passion for directing and appreciation for McPherson’s skill, are palpable.

TWC: What is it about Conor McPherson's work that attracts you?

JS: He writes plays that are so honest and real about the human condition. For the most part, he talks about how flawed human nature is and how we need to stop and consider things. There’s such a reality to his work. I was first attracted to theater by playwright Horton Foote, who although has an entirely different way of writing, also gets down to the real parts of the human condition. The funny thing is their styles are entirely different, so much so that when we did our first play by [McPherson] my wife and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be tough on the audience.” I’m not saying I recommend to people interested in directing or starring in shows stick to one playwright…but I can’t help myself (chuckles).

TWC: What would you say this particular production captures both in accordance with McPherson’s style and beyond it?

JS: The reason I’m so anxious to present it is that it’s a unique play by McPherson in that it’s, and this is odd to say, it’s not as easy for the patrons to have a full understanding of as most of his work. There’s such a reward when you’re listening to it and you’re trying to understand what exactly is happening. It’s an unusual play because, though McPherson calls himself an atheist, in so many of his plays and especially in this one, it’s clear that there is a surge of “What is God about? Is there an afterlife? If there is, what happens?” It’s such a reward to watch what he’s doing with that. 

Years ago, Horton Foote used to say that the plays he loved the most were the ones that in intermission he could just walk among the patrons and listen to them discuss and argue and find different spins on what exactly is happening and why they happen. That’s another way Conor McPherson’s work is so much like Horton’s. I doubt that, especially in The Night Alive, the people would have the exact same understanding or feeling of what they saw, why they saw it, and what it means. With all the [McPherson’s] plays I can’t say, “this is his best one,” but this one is special. I’ve been building the set for two months now because I wanted to get it just right, and I’m very fortunate to have actors that are just perfect for the roles.

TWC: Has your approach to this production differed from past productions?

JS: Well, I had the time because I usually direct a little more and this year I didn’t. I had the opportunity to work on this particular play for probably a year and a half. Of course the beginning parts were not that adventurous, but I feel fortunate that that’s what I want to do. Luckily my wife agrees (chuckles). I feel very blessed to do something I’m passionate about.

TWC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?

JS: That they enjoyed it, and that with this particular play they don’t have to have a complete set of understandings as I did, but that they understood what he was doing. He was exploring things to try to find out what’s happening. Marvin Gaye had a song called “What’s Going On,” which is still popular in the Oldies category. It’s basically “what’s going on?” and it’s repeated a lot in the music and the actors happen to say that just randomly throughout the play too. They don’t quite understand it, the audience doesn’t quite understand it, and it’s sort of a search of “what’s going on.” I had to get the rights to do that song in the play, but it’s hard to do the play without it.

You know . . . it’s so nice that we found this place [The Writer's Center] back in 1989. We just appreciate the opportunity to do what we love.

The Writer’s Center has the honor of hosting Jack’s The Night Alive from October 21 through November 20, 2016. Whether you’re a Quotidian regular or you’re new to theater, you won’t want to miss it!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Public Speaking for Writers: Try These Tips!

Alicia Oltuski, a public speaking coach and author of Precious Objects, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, shares these tips on improving one’s public speaking skills. Her workshop, “Public Speaking for Writers,” begins on November 1.

Whether you’re addressing a class, pitching investors, or engaging an auditorium full of listeners, here are three tools that will help:

1. LOOK ALIVE: Ask yourself: Would my audience be getting a different experience if they were viewing a recorded version of my talk as opposed to seeing it live? The answer should be yes. Whenever possible, connect with your audience in specific ways that make your presentation feel like a live event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is not to say your class, lecture, or pitch should not translate dynamically on a recording as well (more on that later), but anyone watching the recorded version should feel as though they’ve missed out a bit.

2.  ENTERTAIN YOURSELF: You may not always be in a position to select the topic you’d most like address, or your audience, but if you make sure that at least one element of your talk (presentation style, a favorite anecdote, etc.) is pleasing and exciting to you as a speaker, there’s a decent chance this will heighten your enthusiasm and relatability and make you more interesting to listen to. Remember, the first person you need to engage is yourself.

3.  SURPRISE: Even in situations where the content of your talk is relatively set (maybe you have an agenda to stick to, a PowerPoint presentation you need to play nice with…) slipping something in that your audience doesn’t see coming will signal to them that they need—and want—to pay attention at all times.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fantastic Tips & Takeaways from "Tell your Story, Then Write it" Panel

-By Pat Mcnees

We had a great turnout for our panel discussion, Tell Your Story, Then Write It, on October 1. Organizers Ellouise Schoettler and Solveig Eggerz were joined by panelists Dario DiBattista, Jessica Robinson, Len Kruger, and Pat McNees. We’re posting this blog to have the good information from the program available online. Thanks to Pat McNees for compiling these notes, and to all the participants for their contribution.
Panel organizer Ellouise Schoettler, a nationally known storyteller, currently performs two one-woman shows she created about women in the military who served in France during WWI. She has a sign hanging in her office: "Tell your story before someone else does it and gets it wrong."
Panel organizer Solveig Eggerz's process for developing true stories is to tell the story first, then write it--or tell, then develop it, then write it.  Important factors in good storytelling are voice, gesture, and facial expression, which she demonstrated. Solveig uses storytelling as a pre-writing activity in her memoir and personal stories workshops
Len Kruger noted that good storytellers avoid self-aggrandisement and pompous language; likeability is important.  He also observed that nobody wants to hear about a happy wedding.  They want to hear a good story about how a wedding went wrong. 
Many workshop participants value "writing prompts" as a vehicle for summoning memories to create a particular story.
Professional oral storytellers don't memorize their stories, says Ellouise. You want to remember "beats" and actions. She quoted Donald Davis as telling people to think of stories as crossing a creek -- you need to get six stones across the creek. You need to know what's supposed to happen -- what series of actions occur. You don't need to remember all the words. Davis offers workshops and has published two books. For more info go
Panelist Jessica Robinson is founder of Better Said Than Done,  a venue for true-story-telling evenings and good storytelling workshops in Fairfax Virginia. Robinson is also author of a novel, Caged, which was recently published. : She said she finds stories through themes and soul-searching, and being on the lookout for stories. For example, if an important occasion goes wrong, think about how you can turn that into a story.

Dario DiBattista noted that It is okay to use bad language, and storytellers can start a sentence with "and." He also noted the  ways storytellers can use their voices to alter meanings in storytelling, using  “Mary had a little lamb,” to illustrate: MARY had a little lamb, or Mary HAD a little lamb.

Pat McNees uses writing prompts but also encourages her memoir writing students to try to find the names of the people and the stories behind old family photos. These can be particularly helpful if you are trying to collect stories from people who may be shy or inarticulate – whom she interviews at length to get the material to turn into the stories within the story of a memoir. When she is collecting stories from experts, she does NOT (as journalists do) deeply research the subject before an interview; she asks dumb questions (What is an X?) because she wants experts to explain their field in their own language, not assuming that their audience understands the jargon of their field.  

The panelists mentioned several other resources:
 Telling Your Own Stories by Donald Davis (memory prompts and more)
 Writing as a Second Language by Donald Davis. From experience to story to prose. When we talk about language arts in our school, we focus on reading and writing instead of nourishing the whole oral and kinesthetic package that is our spoken language. Davis argues that we must step back into our familiar “first” language―the spoken word―as our creative medium and learn to “translate” into that new foreign language called writing. He argues that talking and writing need not be mutually exclusive in language de
Kevin Allison's Risk is a podcast of true stories told aloud.
Before people try out for that storytelling venue it is helpful to hear the storytelling training seminar available through his website:

Panelists recommended Neil Hilburn, who tells stories about mental illness, lightening heavy themes with his self-deprecating sense of humor and willingness to not take himself too seriously. He emphasizes the importance of having a range of emotions. One of his stories, OCD, went viral. You can hear it on YouTube:
Panelists recommended the following books:
 From Plot to Narrative by Elizabeth Ellis (step-by-step process for creating and enhancing stories)
 Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis. A difficult story can powerfully alter not only he who tells it but also they who hear it.

The Narrative Nonfiction section of Pat MeNees’ website, Writers and Editors, has a partial list of venues for stories told aloud to a live audience:
and another on digital and radio storytelling:

Dario DiBattista leads writing workshops with The Veterans Writing Project. He is editor of a just published anthology Retire the Colors: Veterans & Civilians on Iraq & Afghanistan.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Local Playwrights Team up with The Phillips Collection to Explore Black History

By Tyler West

Jacob Lawrence: Panel 1

Courtesy of The Phillips Collection

It’s not often that a fine arts museum commissions plays to complement its collection, but that’s just what The Phillips Collection has in mind for its fall exhibition, People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s "Migration Series." This special showing will display 60 scenes of early 20th-century African American migration painted by Jacob Lawrence, a prominent African American folk artist. In a special twist, however, the museum has commissioned five well-known D.C. playwrights to craft ten-minute, one-act readings that correspond to the five themes found in the series: beauty and struggle, transitions and transformations, family ties and community building, separation and dislocation, and tension and conflict. According to Curator Elsa Smithgall, the role of the spoken word is crucial in this exhibition because it “makes the artwork come alive in a way that activates and animates what one sees visually.”

The acts will be written by: Jacqueline E. Lawton, who was named one of 30 of America’s leading Black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute ; Norman Allen, writer of In The Garden and recipient of the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play; Tearrance Chisholm, whose plays include Bhavi the Avenger (Convergence Theatre), and In Sweet Remembrance (Endstation Theatre Company); Annalisa Dias, Co-Founder of the D.C. Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice; and Laura Shamas, writer of  Picnic at Hanging Rock, Portrait of a Nude, and Amelia Lives. The five plays will be read by actors Nora Achrati, Jeff Allin, Desmond Bing, James Johnson, Natalie Graves Tucker, and Craig Wallace.  

It is important to remember that this exhibition will not only be a novel experience for viewers and listeners, but also for the playwrights themselves. Laura Shamas calls her work at The Phillips Collection “a dream come true,” explaining that collaborating with other playwrights and museum professionals is a tremendous artistic growing experience. Likewise, Annalisa Dias says that she finds writing for People on the Move to be both challenging and rewarding. She says that she’s had to give intense consideration to the message underlying Lawrence’s paintings: “the largely unseen migration of bodies currently going on in our country: a coerced migration of black and brown bodies into prison cells.”

With such a range contributors and a mix of artistic media, one may question whether the exhibition can ultimately convey a singular, thematic message. Smithgall provides an answer: “The playwrights we worked with responded to Jacob Lawrence’s "Migration Series" in thoughtful, meaningful ways, each one bringing their own perspective to bear on a theme that touches each and every one of us.” All signs point to an enlightening, engaging celebration of Lawrence’s work en mélange.

The exhibition will run from October 8, 2016, until January 8, 2017, and the special one-act readings will take place on November 3, 2016, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for museum members, and can be purchased on The Phillips Collection website.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Dynamic Panel to Explore Race & Poetry at Library of Congress

-By Tyler West

Racial tensions have long been vocalized through poetryfrom Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s raw recanting of the brutality of slavery in Sympathy, to the anonymous Japanese-American poet’s penning of That Damned Fence at the Poston Japanese Internment Camppoetic verse has long given the victims of racial divisions a voice. At a time when racial tensions are again demanding societal introspection, it seems fitting to re-visit the power of poetry to express, interpret and even heal racial divides. With this in mind, we are excited to spread the word that the Library of Congress will explore this very issue during its upcoming panel discussion, “Poetry, Publishing and Race.”

Moderated by Rob Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, the panel discussion will feature five prominent poets: Cathy Hong, a poetry professor at Sarah Lawrence College and Poetry Editor for The New Republic; Don Share, Poetry Editor for The Poetry Foundation; Evie Shockley, a professor of English at Rutgers University and a frequent writer of race and feminist poetry; and Carmen Giménez Smith, Publisher of Noemi Press and Editor-in-chief of Puerto del Soland who writes frequently on Latina identity. If their previous works are any indication, this cadre of accomplished poets will offer a substantive, engaging conversation for listeners. For example, Shockley’s 2012 poetry collection, The New Black, explores the meaning of being Black in today’s America, and Smith’s 2013 Milk and Filth collection is plenteous in allusions to racial and cultural struggles.

“Poetry, Publishing, and Race” will launch with each poet reading one piece that they have written that they believe best evokes the dynamic between race and society. Casper will then guide the conversation into a discussion of the mechanics of the pieces and their abilities to evoke complex racial relationships. According to Casper, the ultimate goal of the evening is to explore “how can poetry speak to race issues in ways that other art forms cannot.” For him, this event marks the culmination of an initiative that began as a magazine project with poets Shockley and Hong (both speaking at the event), but has now expanded into a public discourse. Admitting that he has “never hosted an event with such a personal starting point,” and Capser says he is looking forward to providing this timely discussion for the DC writing community.

“Poetry, Publishing and Race” will be held on
 October 18 at 4:00 p.m. in the Mumford Room on 
the sixth floor of the James Madison Building.

Address: 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, 

DC 20540

Monday, October 10, 2016

New Workshop Coming to TWC: Build Your Own Author Website

By Meg Eden Kuyatt

A question writers often ask is: “When do I need an author’s website?” The answer I tell my students is that no matter where they are currently in their writing careers, it’s important to have one.  
It sounds like a daunting task to make an author’s website—I procrastinated making mine, afraid of all the work that might be involved. But website creation doesn’t have to be terrifying—I was able to make my website in just one sitting. In fact, this single-session website work inspired me to lead the “Build Your Own Author Website” workshop at The Writer’s Center.

In the author’s website workshop, we’ll begin by looking at some examples of strong websites, and then brainstorm material that you can display on yours. We’ll talk about strategies for pointing people to your site, and also how to use social media to promote it. Most importantly, I’ll walk you through an easy and affordable website creator and then open up the rest of the time for you to begin exploring and building on your own. 

Meg's author website

What’s so important about having your author’s website, also known as an author platform, is that it can be used to present your work in exactly the way you want it to be known in the writing community. If you’re submitting to agents and editors, they will probably Google you—and you want to be in control of what they see. Your website is a starting point where anyone interested in your work will go. There, potential readers can find your social media links, your contact information, previous examples of your work (this can be links to previously published work or examples of your current work), and any other information you want them to find. Even if you don’t have a book out, there’s still a great amount of information you can put on a website—and beginning to encourage traffic to your site pre-book can increase your book’s popularity when it is released.  Finally, it’s also great to have a website if you attend open mikes and readings. If your listeners are interested in getting to know you and your work, you can easily point them to it. 

The efficient part of designing a website in a workshop space is that you’ll be able to ask questions and get help immediately. I feel very strongly that this time should be used for you to accomplish your website design goals. For example, you’ll be able to get feedback from your peers on what’s working well, on what can be improved, and on what can be made clearer. By the end of the session, you’ll feel comfortable with the interface, and you may even finish the basics of your website! Once your website is finished, you will be able to email your fellow students for post-workshop feedback. 

If you’re clueless about where to start with building a website or are not sure how to set aside the time to do it, I strongly encourage you to attend this workshop. I think you’ll find that making a website doesn’t have to be hard, and that it can actually be an enjoyable part of promoting your book! 

"The Build Your Own Author Website" workshop will take place on December 3, 2016 from 1:00-4:00 p.m. You may click here or call The Writer's Center to register. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Mark McCaig Wins Bethesda Literary Contest

 -By Tyler West

The Writer’s Center congratulates Maryland-based poet, Mark McCaig, on winning first place in the 2016 Bethesda Literary Festival Poetry Contest. His poem, Grouse, bridges the spectrum between life and death, animal and human, by describing an encounter with a dead, ruffled grouse during casual evening spent with his daughters (poem included below).

McCaig is an accomplished poet and educator who serves the Maryland literary community as a teacher at Fairhaven High School in Upper Marlboro, and also a writing professor at both the University of Maryland University College and Notre Dame University of Maryland. McCaig is also the author of the book, Like Water: The Extraordinary Approach to Education at Fairhaven School, in which he tells the story of how the rural Maryland high school where he teaches adopted an innovative, unconventional approach to education.


By Mark McCaig
Tracy's Landing, MD
First Place

The girls know the roadkill drill, hopping out behind flashing

hazards to follow, creeping up to this hushed brown heap.

Male ruffed grouse, I say—whiskered beak, velvet tail feathers

it once fanned, candy bar colorations circling its broken neck.

How they stare wide-eyed at the dangle when I grab its pinkish

feet, softly placing it in high milkweed. Late summer apology.

My daughters and their friends say for no apparent reason,

like teens repeat you know and like, chirping this phrase

with such frequency they now use it for no apparent

reason. I unbuckle Colleen, then I carry her asleep

across the dark driveway. That sound as she sucks her fore-

finger, like she does, dreaming she’s a ground bird savoring

sweet grubs, drumming her wing, then listening to forest

twilight. In my arms again she settles, a dead weight.