When I saw that Crystal Skillman had a show in the 2nd Annual Women in Theatre Festival, I called and was over the moon that she answered! You see Crystal is working on two separate shows with award-winning composer Bobby Cronin, Mary & Max and The Cover (written for Glee's Ali Stroker), and anyone who reads "Call Me Adam," knows my love for Bobby! But more than her connection to Bobby, I was quite taken by the subject of Crystal's play The Test which is the show in Project Y Theatre Company's evening of plays entitled Great Again.
In The Test, an English teacher in a struggling high school readies her junior students for the most important test of their lives. But when a symbol of hate appears in her classroom, she and two students on either side of the recent election find their lives forever changed.
The Test will play at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, off 10th Avenue) from June 1-24. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to be a playwright? While I was in a lot of plays (acting in various groups growing up - where I was always in the back row - clearly acting wasn’t my thing…!), I loved the visual arts, and found I had a talent for photography. So I went to the Hartford Art School, then Parsons School of Design. But I took an elective playwriting class (with playwright Edward Allan Baker) and man I was hooked.
2. What made you want to write The Test? After the election, we all woke up in a new, scary world. And perhaps the scariest realization is the hate, this backwards thinking we’re seeing is more rampant and normal than we could have ever imagined. It was always around us. But now it has a voice and platform. The first thing I noticed was how all the teachers I knew (full time or as Teaching Artists) flooded my Facebook feed, or when I walked into the classroom, with the same question: Why Teach? A man who is unqualified to hold office is now President.
Why work hard? Why learn? That is the point of school to prepare you for a world that is worth being a part of. What has meaning in this new world? What has value? The day after I went into teach playwriting at a high school as guest artist. There were students there on either side of the election. Two sweet boys tried to convince me that I was lucky Trump was president. I was being protected as a woman as Hillary had "killed" people. I saw this teenage energy swirling around, struggling to understand, and processing information in such a different way. Two days later a swastika was drawn in the "Beasties Boy" park by me in Boreum Hill. We rallied, we protested, it was painted over, but can something like that ever be taken away?
3. Your play, The Test is just one of two plays in Project Y Theatre Company's double bill of new plays, GREAT AGAIN, that they commissioned written as a response to the November 2016 election and presented as the centerpiece of the 2nd Annual Women in Theatre Festival dedicated to broadening opportunities for women playwrights. What went through your head when you found out The Test was going to be part of run? Chiori Miyagawa and I got that lucky call last summer. The call was about the commission. Which was cool enough, but when I realized Project Y was also going to produce the plays, I thought that was special. Scary too! I mean…that’s a fast timeline! This time around, I wrote this play a lot in my head. When I sat down to write, the words flowed. I really love this play, and the struggle "Ada" has in this play. Chiori was an integral part of reminding us to wait and see what would happen (we had entertained writing them pre-election), and to write these plays from where we are at. This place of truth. She and I became close friends through the process. I’m so happy with how imaginative the plays are. To write a play knowing it will be produced creates the best work. That is the truth. Many creators wished that theatre worked more from this system, as opposed to picking plays for slots.
4. As a female playwright, why do you feel it's important to have a theatre festival dedicated to woman writers? There are so, so many great playwrights now - and so, so many are women. These festivals are important as I find theatre systems geared to season planning are overlooking many writers who are responding to the moment, or simply the overspill from this amount of writers. Project Y saw a need, and also was interested in politics, and created a space for this kind of work. In general, the DIY culture provides us much of the meaningful theatrical experiences in this city. Sometimes they are just here briefly, sometimes they transfer, but I hope they can become more than just a product. In this new world more than ever I believe we’re looking for experiences, not just something to sell or buy. I’ve said this in a few interviews - I believe it’s this frenzy for consumerism that got us Trump.
5. In The Test, an English teacher in a struggling high school readies her junior students for the most important test of their lives. What has been the most important test of your life so far? I think being a female writer, having a love of theatre, and trying to be sure your plays see the light of day in this world, tests you every day. It is an on-going test. I get through it more now by writing in other mediums: TV, comics. For tests I can see the outcome of, I’ve been doing a half marathon in the spring and fall. It is great to cross the finish line, it fills you with hope.
6. What is something you struggled with in high school that now you look back on and are like, "Why was that such a struggle for me?" Actually I think the things I’ve always been good at I got even better at, and those things that I wasn’t so good at stayed the same…I would say I’m better about identifying a bully, and feeling confident in how I deal with those that are trying to be manipulative, even if they aren’t being that way. I’m a really trusting person, but I’ve learned to be careful with my trust. It’s a gift. It should be earned.
7. How do you feel the outcome of this election has changed you? The balance of activism every day and writing. That day after I woke up, and before I went to teach, I decided to put my energy into working out pretty early. A van passed me and two guys shouted out the window "Hillary lost, bitch." There was nothing to identify any of my political feelings other than I was a woman. Something in me clicked. My eyes were opened in a new way. I’d been so kind, and overlooked so many misogynisitc encounters. By doing that, I allowed this kind of energy to fester. In terms of putting it in the work, that morning, that sad, sad satisfaction of "gloating victory," comes up in a climatic moment in my play.
8. With so much hate in this world, how do you think your work helps fight the hate? All creative work does. Fiction or non-fiction. By creating art, you are presenting a story or experience you must sit and live in. In theatre it’s especially effective, as you are going through your own feelings and revelations in a story the reflects today. How do we keep that going when the lights come up? That’s the question. There is a very judgmental, give-it-to-me-now culture that I’m not sure how to change. Recently I saw the revival of Fiddler on the Roof. After the moving image of those forced to leave their homeland, which the director clearly chose to highlight the plight of refugees going on right now, and after thunderous applause, and practically singing along to the songs they knew, the lights went up and the whole audience in mezzanine (a lot tipsy actually from drinking during a three hour show) started arguing with each other, pushing to get out
of there, get to their cars, etc. The work, and the sense of creating a community, or kindness has to go hand in hand. All I know is if you lead by example things do change. A homeless woman, her pre-teen child
leaning on her lap, was crying on my street in Brooklyn the other day. People walked by, walked by, walked by until a couple stopped and sat with her. Then one by one everyone on the street did the same. Lead. Lead in writing, lead by action, lead by teaching, lead by sharing.
9. I can't do an interview with you without asking about working with the one and only Bobby Cronin. You are currently working on two different shows with him, Mary & Max and The Cover. First, what was it about Bobby that made you go, "Oh, I need to work with him. His music compositions and my book writing would just gel so perfectly."? Secondly, in The Cover there is a song called "Sleeping Sideways." What is something in your life that made you "sleep sideways"? Bobby and I have been good friends for ten years! I find his music so moving and electric. And I’ve always loved writing for musicals. Songs always creep into my plays. About four or so years ago, we began to work together as a writing team. It is such a joy. What we can create in the marriage between dialogue, lyric, and song I think is really special. We’re so excited to keep sharing our work. We’re also drawn to theatrical stories with heart, meat, and ones that are unique. The Cover is being written for the incredible Ali Stroker. It’s so fun and so meaningful to me. I love "Sleeping Sideways." It’s an extraordinary song, and really is "Abby," the character Ali plays. That song is the heart of her character. Before I met my hubby Fred it was a rough time. I have no doubt I was "Sleeping Sideways" every night!
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day? Patience. I try to do Yoga…but….I’m a runner at heart. Running has taught me patience. In the play, "Ada" is a runner as well. Her job is to have patience, but in her situation, as the school presses her to pick who she think did this act…time is running out. Maybe when patience breaks, it is a good thing. It makes us stand up….and as we
know, we’re going to need a great deal of that in the coming years…but in terms of my day to day I do wish I had the ability to be cool! A Zen-Master!
Award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman is the author of the plays Geek, Cut, and King Kirby (co-written with Fred Van Lente), all New York Times Critics Picks. Her new plays include: Rain and Zoe Save the World (2017 Blue Ink Award Finalist, 2017 O’Neill Semi-Finalist, 2016 New Harmony Project, 2016 Oregon Performance Lab), Pulp Vérité (2017 Judson’s Magic Time Series, 2016 BAPF Finalist, 2015 Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission), and Another Kind of Love, a punk rock play (Chopin Theater with InFusion Theatre Co., 2015, Chicago). She is the musical theater book writer of Mary and Max, and The Cover written for Glee’s Ali Stroker, both with award winning ASCAP Composer/Lyricist Bobby Cronin. Wild was just published by Chicago Dramaworks, following sold out runs in Chicago and New York (at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel). She is also the author of The Vigil or The Guided Cradle, winner of the 2010 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Full-Length Script. She is a proud member of EST, Women’s Project Lab and the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. Her work can be found at her publisher Samuel French, as well as Chicago Dramaworks. She just finished the original TV pilot for her series Paper Heroes, co-created and written with Fred Van Lente.