There’s a new theatre festival in town. Broadway Bound Theatre Festival BBTF) is making its inaugural debut, featuring works by playwrights from around the country.
Starting July 30th and running through August 20th, BBTF is giving audiences a New York theatre experience at an affordable price, while providing playwrights with the tools they need to get their shows off the ground. I got the chance to interview four playwrights whose plays are in this festival: Riley Thomas, author of Convicted, Sherod D. Lee, author of 2 Years of Eternal Joy, Juan Ramirez Jr., author of The American Dream and Lina Sarrello, author of Out There
As writers do you feel it is essential to tell stories that are diverse and inclusive? It is necessary to spell it out in your character breakdowns that specific roles will be played by an actor of color or an actor with a disability? Or do you leave it to chance with your directors to just hire whomever?
Lina Sarrello - As a writer I always include diversity in my character breakdowns. As a Latina, and a woman, I find it essential to create characters of substance for women and actors of color, since there are so few out there. As a minority writer, if I'm not going to break down the stereotypes and give a voice to others like me, then who will?
Sherod Smallman - As a writer, the stories I tell will naturally be reflective of who I am and how I view the world. I do want to tell stories that reflect my culture. I don't think of it as me telling a "diverse" story. I think about it probably in the same way most artists think of it, which is having a compelling need to share this story. If I write a character I usually make it ethnically specific. But sometimes if it's a universal role then I base it solely on the merit of the acting and whether they fit the role.
Riley Thomas - It is essential to tell stories that are diverse and inclusive. When we offer a broader representation of the cross-section of humanity we consciously as well as subliminally demonstrate equality. That moves society forward with an Us mentality instead of Them.
When it comes to how I handle casting people of color, I’m of two minds. Which avenue I follow depends on the show. I think it’s critical to write shows where the character’s race is necessitated by the plot - representation in such an explicit manner is important, and forcing all subsequent productions of the play to have that character played by that specific person of color offers an ongoing diverse opportunity. However, I believe that one of the best ways to celebrate diversity (and challenge stereotypes) is when a person of color is not necessitated in the role, and it is cast that way anyway. I’m interested in challenging the “default to white” mentality. That’s how it played out in Convicted - we saw such a wonderful array of actors and wound up with a good blend. We even cast a woman where a man was expected. In fact, Convicted winds up passing both the Bechdel and the Marron test in the first two lines.
When it comes to disabilities, I will actively seek out actors with those disabilities. Not only for the importance of representation but selfishly because they’ll bring a level of honesty and understanding to the role that another actor - or even me as the writer - may not have access to. There will always be an acquiescence of power to a director when you hand over the reigns, but so far I’ve always directed the world premiere of every piece I’ve written. Not because I’m a megalomaniac - not JUST because I’m a megalomaniac - but because that’s a great way to lay out expectations for subsequent productions.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - Every story has been told in some way so what writers have to find now are new perspectives. The specifics of your character, whether it is race or a trait, will guide how they take action in the story. It all starts at the page and depends what you want to see. I cast my shows based on ensemble chemistry first. I feel it a necessity to leave room for the actors to insert their own perspective, no matter what that might be. For the characters that I have written with a specific perspective, I cast accordingly. Yet, I do not remain blind if an actor's talent causes me to make changes. It is essential I think for artists and audiences to understand that the work on the page will be different on the stage. For the most part, that's a good thing. Typically, I enjoy when my actors can connect to the character immediately on a personal level.
What makes your play unique? What sort of message do you hope to leave the audience with?
Lina Sarrello - My play, Out There/Allá Fuera, is unique because it was inspired by a historical moment that has received nearly no coverage. The Brothers to the Rescue incident, when four Cuban-American pilots trying to rescue rafters off the coast of Florida were shot down by the Cuban government. This story, interconnected with two other stories about the Cuban struggles over the past 60 years will hopefully help audiences see that we are all connected in our human need to risk our lives for something more.
Sherod Smallman - A few things makes 2 Years of Eternal Joy very different. One thing is that it’s not just a story about two young people in love but it’s a love story that involves the whole family. It is about love being lost, gain, taken advantage of, neglected, destroyed, begged for, etc . . . This is what makes the play beautiful and compelling. Another thing is that not only is it a story about a young couple dealing with cancer, but the cancer reveals emotional cancers that have existed within the family for years. The physical ailment reveals the emotional and somewhat spiritual ailments. But it’s still filled with laughter as well as tears. It’s just a beautiful story that, even when I read it, jumps off the pages.
Riley Thomas - What makes Convicted unique is the fact that it’s a fast-paced, action-packed piece of theatre that wouldn’t feel out of place as a movie. It’s agile and engaging like a Law & Order episode; it draws you in with a bit of mystery, a bit of thriller, and just a tiny bit of who-done-it. It’s LGBTQ themed, but it doesn’t retread tired gay stereotypes audiences are used to seeing. It offers gay characters that are fleshed out, passionate, functional, flawed… embroiled in something more than a love story.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - I have recently read an article about how Latinx playwrights typically only write about a few things. I think the list is identity, immigration, and spirituality. In defense, the article wasn't against the themes but simply thought that we should write about other things. When I decided to write an immigration play myself, I worked exhaustively to keep away from cliches. Both characters feel differently about the country and after much conflict, they switch perspectives. The play is structured to neither praise or criticize any philosophy or policy. It is a window into the lives of two strong people who are among the systems that exist. Telling the story in this way gives room for any audience to get into it but more importantly, to make an opinion. The message of the play is that no matter if you're an optimist or pessimist, how you perceive your reality may make or break you.
What’s next for your show?
Lina Sarrello - I have submitted Out There for inclusion into Repertorio Español's New Voices Theater Festival in Spanish and I'm hoping it will continue to grow and develop for even more exposure.
Sherod Smallman - I would like to say I know. What I'd like to happen is that we get a backer and do a good run in NYC. If not I will do a run in Philly - the city where I was raised.
Riley Thomas - Something I hope! This is the world premiere, so I’m focusing on getting as many industry people there to see it who may be interested in joining my team.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - Another draft. As so it goes, after every production of my plays, I get back to rewriting. The play is taking a healthy cut here and there. In regard to further shows, it’s best to see when the production is over. You learn so much throughout the run and meet so many people. From there I determine what the next steps are, whether that be another festival setting or working with my producers, to finding another great venue. Being how this is the play's first walk in the light, there's much to discover and it's exciting. It's also cool that I'm acting and working on this project side by side with my fiancee. Cristy is my best support system and we'll make our rounds together to always find it a home.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Are your plays close to home?
Lina Sarrello - All of my plays are closely connected to my culture, background, and family struggles.
Sherod Smallman - I got my inspiration from numerous places. I had a friend, MJ Harris, that died from cancer at the age of 30. At first, I was going to avoid cancer as the disease because it was too close to home. But I'm glad I changed my mind. I also was going through a heartbreak. At the time I felt like, not only the person I broke up with, but women I have dated in the past didn't understand how I saw love. So I wrote this to show what I saw true love to be. But then it morphed into more than a romantic love story. It showed how I view almost every aspect of how I saw love. So this play is very close to home. Personal inspiration from numerous places. From loved ones that have passed and wanted to do some of the things I'm doing. From my mother, that's a writer that can no longer write due to illness. Just to name a few.
Riley Thomas - The emotional reality of everything I write is absolutely mine. Maybe not the circumstances, but I am familiar with the essence of each character’s struggle. So yes, I would classify everything I write as close to home. With the exception of Judith in Convicted, everyone I write is a part of me. In fact, part of why I wrote Convicted was to understand the character of Judith, a fundamentalist woman who does some empirically horrible things. I could easily make her into a one-dimensional mockery of a character, but that’s not interesting. Could I enter her head, understand her with love and try to find where she was human? It was a fascinating challenge. When Sabina Petra came in to audition, she brought such a beautiful humanity and truth to the character that it’s already inspired rewrites that have helped me reach my goal of keeping Judith from becoming a caricature.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - It's simple. Inspiration is a moment where with all of the current knowledge you have, an emotional and intellectual stimulation - being anything - comes across your path that makes you aware of a new perspective or need. So, I have known about human smugglers, immigration corruption and my mother's journey for years. When I challenged myself to write a two character play in one setting for one scene in a full length play, both ideas came together naturally. I had been unconsciously looking for it and so yes, it is always close to home. As I began writing, I kept asking myself, "What do I want to see?" What I am more engaged with is what happens after I get the idea. This play has changed so much since it's first words that I couldn't tell you what was different.
What has the process been like working with Broadway Bound Theatre Festival?
Lina Sarrello - The Broadway Bound Theater Festival has been very helpful and encouraging to the process of bringing my play to the stage, from offering workshops, to helping to promote, to giving me an extra performance that will be performed in Spanish.
Sherod Smallman - It’s been very humbling. The same night I got an email from the festival saying that I'm in was the same night my father was killed. When I told the director of the festival that i may not be able to be apart of the festival due to a family death they really reached out to me and expressed how much they loved the piece and that they really wanted me in the festival. I was taken aback because for this guy not to know me and for them to reach out to me in such a caring way showed me that they had faith in my work. I had to do my best to make it to the festival.
Riley Thomas - BBTF has been incredibly on top of their game. They are hands on and ready to jump in to help at a moment’s notice. Lenore, Abby, Rick - the people I’ve been dealing with primarily - are so qualified to be at the helm of this enterprise. They work for writers at all levels by providing materials and guidance that takes you through every little step in producing a new play, so if you’ve had no experience you will never feel like you’re lost or floundering. Even festival old-hats like me have learned and grown because of their leadership. It truly is a fantastic experience. I can’t believe it’s only their first year. This isn’t “just another festival," I have a feeling it’s going to wind up being one of the most respected and competitive opportunities in the city, and that’s entirely because of the team that’s running it. I couldn’t be more proud Convicted is a part of their inaugural season.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - Lenore, Rick and Abby are a great support system. I have not once felt out of the loop and knew that any question I had, they would answer immediately. This may sound obvious but let it be known that this support is not always found. It is always great to have a team believe in your work and give you honest feedback. They care about good storytelling and don't pretend for one second that it's an easy journey to get right. The motto is, "No one is going to love your play more than you" and although they say they could only try, I think they're pretty close to it.
For more info on BBTF and to see when each of these shows run please visit their website:https://www.broadwayboundfestival.com