In this Q&A with Wesconnect, playwright, librettist/lyricist and interdisciplinary artist Stephanie Fleischmann ’84 discusses how winning the Howard Foundation Fellowship will buy her time to explore her idiosyncratic world.
WESCONNECT: Congratulations on winning the Howard Foundation Fellowship. How do you see this fellowship shaping your current project, Sound House – and what other plans do you have for it?
STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN: From a musical about coatcheck girls to a play about 3 generations of motorcycle women, to Red Fly Blue Bottle, a multimedia music-theater work about a secret war, my writings for theater serve as blueprints for intricate three-dimensional sonic and visual worlds. My work mines: a theater of images, the spectacle in a story; the emotional resonance and narrative space implicit in sound. For me, it is the combustion—or alchemy—of language, image, soundscape, and technology that becomes a medium for telling stories.
Sound House is a play inspired by Daphne Oram, a British electronic music composer and cofounder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who, in the late 50s, invented her own system for generating sound via “drawing” squiggles and dots onto a series of tapes and running them through what she called the Oramics machine, predating the synthesizer by a decade. Sound House concerns a fictional character also named Daphne, who suffers from Misophonia—a neurological disorder triggered by certain random ambient everyday sounds. Daphne’s obsession with an iconoclast ahead of her time, caught in the unrelenting pursuit of the missing link between the physical and the virtual, the intersection between science and art, ultimately helps her to overcome her own obstacles and, via a series of sonic misadventures, to come to the aid of an unlikely stranger.
Hard to categorize and straddling numerous disciplines, my work doesn’t often follow conventional paths of development. I’m hugely inspired by Oram’s music, her soundscapes. I frequently collaborate with composer Christina Campanella, who mines sonic territories not so very far from Oram’s. I hope to throw the play, once written, in Christina’s direction and see what happens. But what the play is will determine how it will be developed, what it needs to be fully explored on its feet. More than likely I will do much of this via Latitude 14, the collective I co-founded several years ago. But as of now, the territory for the trajectory of the play’s future development is wide open.
In terms of how the fellowship will help shape Sound House, earning a living as a playwright means writing opera libretti, working as a dramaturg, providing text for devised works, and serving as a collaborator on screenplays—all worthy projects, and working on them I can’t help but learn more about craft, about process—but none of them my own…. Not only is a grant like the Howard Foundation fellowship invaluable in terms of buying me time to dwell in my own idiosyncratic world, but the grant comes with this tremendous sense of freedom. In terms of having the time to write deeply, to immerse myself wholly in this project. And in terms of the unequivocal support the foundation provides—without the pressure of production. At least for now, I can, simply, dream, and let that dreaming fuel my writing; I don’t need to worry whether or not the play is wildly impossible to stage, or what a producer may think or want. It is this sort of freedom that is critical to engendering an environment that allows me to take risks, to experiment, to conjure new worlds…
WC: How does working as a professor in theater [at Skidmore] affect your work as a playwright?
SF: I teach one course a semester… That allows for flexibility and largely leaves me with the time necessary for me to do my own work. If I need to be in rehearsal in cities as far-flung as London and Chicago, not to mention New York, off I go… The department is super supportive of this, as long as I spend the requisite number of hours with my students.
But teaching keeps me connected to why I became a playwright in the first place. Seeing that excitement when the synapses start triggering, giving students the tools with which they can begin to make their own discoveries… And I probably read more plays than I might if I didn’t teach. Which is, in turn, good for my own work. I am always asking questions: What makes this work exciting? What makes this particular voice what it is—idiosyncratic and alive? How is this playwright not just telling her story, but pushing boundaries in terms of form? How does the playwright’s craft shape this architectonic object we call a play? What is this thing we do called theater? What bearing does it have on our everyday lives? How can it help us to see ourselves in a new light? These sorts of questions inform my own work as much as they do my students’.
WC: Do you think your time as an undergrad influenced your trajectory in playwriting? Any favorite memories of Wes?
SF: Most definitely. A playwriting class with the indomitable Tony Connor got me going. Captain Partridge—the student run theater organization (is it still there?)—kept me going, by giving me the space and resources with which to explore new work. I did a lot of set design at Wesleyan, which fueled my penchant for spectacle and visual image and understanding of theatrical space. But perhaps more importantly, my time as an undergrad was fed by creative writing (fiction) classes with masters like Kit Reed and Franklin Reeve, and photography classes, brilliant poetry seminars, and all sorts of music. These are just some of the experiences that made me the writer I am today: A playwright who has always worked with music and is fast becoming an opera librettist—last year American Lyric Theater commissioned me to write the libretto for THE LONG WALK, based on the memoir by Brian Castner, with music by Jeremy Howard Beck; I was recently commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago to write a libretto for THE PROPERTY, a Klezmer opera, with music by Wlad Marhulets. Both pieces premiere in 2015.
So many favorite memories, but working with Mark Sussman ’85, Shawn Cuddy ’86, Phil Stockton ’87 and Marybeth Kilkelly ’85 on Tatters in the basement of Alpha Delt, an amazing semester-long exploration of Beckett—a site-specific compilation of Beckett’s short plays woven together amidst excerpts of his prose, that went up the same weekend as my first playlet at Captain Partridge, featuring the inimitable Frank Wood—that moment of convergence is still a highlight of my theatermaking life…
Image: by Jessica Fleischmann
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