Focus on a Playwright: Cusi Cram


Cusi Cram‘s plays include: Dusty and the Big Bad World (Denver Theater Center), Lucy and the Conquest (Williamstown Theater Festival and O’Neill Playwrights Conference), All the Bad Things (LAByrinth Theater Company at the Public Theater), Fuente (Barrington Stage, and O’Neill Playwrights Conference), and The End of It All (South Coast Repertory), Landlocked (Miranda Theater) and A Lifetime Burning, which is part of Primary Stages 2009/2010 season. She has received commissions from The Atlantic Theater Company, South Coast Repertory, New Georges and The Echo Theater Company. Her work has also been produced and developed by: Manhattan Class Company, The New Group, New York Theatre Workshop, The Actors Theater of Louisville, The Public Theater, PS122 and the Dag Hammarskjold Theater at the United Nations. She is the recipient of the 2004 Herrick Theater Foundation New Play Prize for her play Fuente and fellowships from Julliard and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. Cusi has also received three Emmy award nominations and a Humanitas Award nomination for her writing on the animated children’s program Arthur. Dusty and the Big Bad World was recently optioned by Points West Films, She is a member of LAByrinth Theater Company, the MCC Playwrights Coalition, and The Dorothy Streslin New American Writers Group at Primary Stages and sits on New Georges’ Kitchen Cabinet and the board of Leah’s FEWW (Fund for Emerging Women Writers).

Check out Cusi’s plays available from Samuel French:

Lucy and the Conquest
Dusty and the Big Bad World
A Lifetime Burning

Q. In both Fuente and Lucy and the Conquest you employ aspects of magical realism. In Lucy and the Conquest, Lucy runs away from her Hollywood life as a starlet and back to native Bolivia, where she encounters an Ancient Incan in her bedroom from whom she learns more about her history. In Fuente, women with mysterious powers and men stranded by life dominate a desert landscape, in which such marvels as levitation and spells are intricately woven into the everyday monotony of getting by. What about these stories invited you to explore the supernatural as such an integral element in your writing them?

A. Several different strands in my life have pulled me to explore magical realism into my work. Above all, I love surprises on stage. As an audience member, I long for unexpected events or stage pictures that make you rise from your seat in awe. The moments I crave to both create and witness are dreamlike but also rooted in something emotional. I remember being profoundly moved by a production of Theatre du Complicite’s, Street of Crocodiles, which begins with a man walking completely upright down a wall—the action and image were both familiar and unfamiliar at once: that kind of juxtaposition is endlessly intriguing to me.

Beyond that, I am half Bolivian and have spent a lot of time there with my family and traveling throughout Latin America. So, my family’s stories and the rich and complicated history of the world south of the border are always whirring around my brain when I sit down to write. I also grew up reading a lot of Latin American fiction, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa are some of my favorite authors. I feel like those writers got into my head at an early age and nested there, they forever changed the way I looked at the world. Also, if you spend any kind of significant time in Latin America, you come to realize that magical realism is more a form of realism than anything else. Daily life has a magical quality to it and many people look and experience their lives in a very non-linear way.

Q: In Dusty and the Big Bad World, a children’s TV show gets shut down by the Secretary of Education due to the attempt to air an episode focusing on a family with gay parents. When did you first know that you wanted to write this play? How did your own experience of writing for children’s television influence your process? What do you hope audiences take away from the experience?

A. When I am not writing plays or teaching, I write for children’s television. Most of the shows I work on are animated and produced by WGBH in Boston and air on PBS affiliates across the country. My husband is a writer/producer on several shows including, Arthur and he and others are kind enough to support American theater by hiring me. In 2004, a spin off of Arthur called Postcards from Buster began airing. The show had an interesting format, combining both animation and live action, whereby Buster an animated bunny goes on an extended road trip and interacts with real kids from around the country. However, things got sticky for Buster and the show in Vermont with an episode called “Sugartime!” The family that the producers had found for Buster to visit was a gay family. In the actual episode, it is presented as a fact, very little is explored except that the young girl Buster is hanging out with has two Moms. However, what ensued in early 2005 was a scandal that became known as “Bustergate.” Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, wrote a letter to Pat Michell, head of PBS, summing up her displeasure: “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.” The same day PBS removed “Sugartime!” from its lineup.

Rumors abounded at WGBH that they would lose funding for all their shows as a kind of punishment for their liberal ways. My husband and I worried about our own livelihoods. We had somehow forgotten that public television is largely funded by the government; we were not immune from the front lines of the culture wars, not even in New York. Government funding was eventually pulled from the show. Postcards From Buster was initially not renewed. Eventually, a group of foundations rallied around the controversy and the show was given another season.

I was stunned, I had to write a play.

Q: In your latest play, A Lifetime Burning, a woman is called to task by her own sister for writing a false, and very lucrative, memoir. What drew you to craft a play around a writer with such a blurred sense of truth? How did that slippery reality influence your own writing of the piece?

A. The character of Emma in A Lifetime Burning was something of a departure for me, she is seemingly pretty despicable, and though I am very fond her, there is no doubt she is deeply misguided in her actions. She writes a memoir where she claims to be half Peruvian and from an under privileged background, though she is wholly Irish and has a trust fund. Why write about such a person?

Essentially, through the character of Emma, I wanted to explore how and why we concoct and tell stories. Emma has a line in the play after she has come clean about her misdeeds where she says: “I wanted to rewrite myself. I thought that was possible.” I suppose that impulse is one of the reasons I write: to redo the past, make myself better or worse and see what the consequences are. I am a little different after I write each play, in some ways, the play writes me. But I fortunately write fiction. We live in a time where “reality” is in many ways heralded as more valuable than make-believe. Certainly, in the world of book publishing, authors are egged on to write “true” stories as opposed to make believe ones. And then, the all too often outcome is a memoir that is revealed as “untrue” or “exaggerated”.

As I wrote the character of Emma, I found a surprising well of compassion for her. She desperately wants to believe her made up story is true. There is something in that story that is more palatable to her than her own reality. Yet, in order to have semblance of a real relationship with her sister Tess, she has to face her past and come clean.

Q. When and/or how did you know that you wanted to create plays?

A. I came to theater through acting and poetry. I was a professional actress as a teenager and pretty much grew up in and around theaters as my Mother was also an actress. I continued to act when I went to college and also began to study poetry fairly intensely. I will confess, I am at best, a mediocre poet. Fortunately, I am a better actress and got cast in a lot of new plays while I was an undergraduate at Brown. Paula Vogel had recently come to Providence and imbued the playwriting program there with tremendous energy and excitement. I got to see, and be in, a lot of plays that used language in interesting and unexpected ways. It finally occurred to me a few years after I graduated, that I might be able to siphon my love of poetry and language into a dramatic form. I began to write solo plays. I got sick of myself and eventually wrote plays for other people. This all took quite a long time, there were at least five years where I couldn’t quite decide what I was. I was acting professionally and traveling quite a bit and also figuring out how to be an artist in the world and pay my rent. Finally, I ended up at the playwriting program at Julliard and that’s where I focused more specifically on being a playwright and began to call myself one. That was ten years ago. I seem to still be at it.

Q. What inspires you to take on a new project?

A. It varies. Sometimes I get a very strong visual image. With Lucy and the Conquest, I saw a woman, dressed all in black standing in a bright light with suitcases. She had a big ’ole black eye. I kept on seeing that image and kept on asking myself, why does she have a big ’ole black eye? I had to answer that question. With Fuente, I heard this strange language in my head, people were talking in this unusual, almost verse-like way. It seemed like I better write it down. Other times, I’ll read something in the newspaper or in a book that sparks an idea, image or a big moral question. I find the questions that most often jumpstart a play are usually linked to something I am deeply afraid of. One of my teachers, Marsha Norman, encouraged us to write our worst fears. It is an extremely effective way to get to the drama in dramatic writing.


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