Q&A with Dorothy Fortenberry by Dan Berkowitz

Seen a few plays recently. Didn’t like ‘em. Ugh. I feel like hitting somebody.

But instead, I’m going to do another Q&A – that always makes me feel better!

Dorothy Fortenberry’s plays have been produced and developed by Actors’ Theatre of Louisville (Humana Festival), Arena Stage, Center REPertory Company, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others, and she’s received commissions from Ensemble Studio Theatre and Yale Rep. She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for television, most recently The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. Ms Fortenberry is a winner of the 2011 Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights and holds an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama. Her new play, Species Native to California, is about to open at IAMA Theatre Company.

Dorothy Fortenberry

Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what Species Native to California is about?

Dorothy Fortenberry: Species Native to California is about sharing land and sharing lives, and the secrets we keep to make those relationships easier. It’s about what it means to truly belong to America.

Murielle Zuker (L) and Margaux Susi.
Photo: Dean Cechvala

DB: The play is said to be “inspired by Chekhov.” What do you mean by that? Is it an updating of a particular Chekhov play, such as Emily Mann’s A Seagull in the Hamptons? Or something else?

DF: It’s a loose adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. There are many similar themes and moments (families sharing an aging estate, fallow land that no longer produces fruit, a drowning, some inopportune champagne) but the characters do not all match up exactly to Chekhov’s – which is good because his play has more of them than mine.

DB: The publicity material says the play is “a deceptively gentle comedy.” Tell us what “deceptively gentle” means – and how your play differs in tone from the not-at-all-gentle comedy of another Chekhov-inspired comedy, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?

Melissa Stephens. Photo: Dean Cechvala

DF: This is a play that sneaks up on you. Nobody starts out in their underwear. It’s a play where people want to be nice to each other. All of the characters in the play believe that they are good people living lives they can be proud of. And yet – that doesn’t mean that there aren’t secrets or failures or cruelty. It can be nice to tell someone who lives with you and works for you that they are part of your family, but that doesn’t make it true. The comedy part is because there are portions of the play that are funny.

DB: How did you become involved with the IAMA Theatre Company, which is producing? The play was developed at other theatres before this – have you made many changes to the script for this latest production? How much input do you allow the director and actors to have on a brand-new play about to have its “world premiere”?

DF: The director Becca Wolff, who I went to grad school with, used to be the Artistic Director of IAMA. She shared the play with them and first brought it to their attention. It’s been a pretty open process in terms of changing the script. I’m always happy to listen to actors and discover new things with them about their characters. Also, especially when I’m writing across any kind of difference – basically writing people who aren’t straight white women – I try to be attentive to whether or not my characters ring true to the actors portraying them. I get as close as I can by listening and doing research, but if someone tells me “I don’t think I’d say it like that,” I listen. Especially if the line is in Spanish.

Tonatiuh Elizarraraz and Eileen Galindo. Photo: Dean Cechvala

DB: You write for television as well as for the stage. What are the major differences in writing for the two genres? Is it easier to write for one than the other? Do you have a preference for one over the other, and, if so, why?

DF: Right now, the biggest difference I notice is time. You have so much time in the theater to spend on a scene. You spend weeks talking about it and working on it and figuring out all the different things it can be. It feels like a real luxury. On the other hand, you have to figure everything out about your script yourself. One thing I appreciate about television is having a room full of people to bounce ideas off of. I love both of them equally – in my ideal world, I’d split my time exactly in half.

DB: What’s a fun thing about you that no one else knows? (And we guarantee not to tell…)

DF: I keep my grandmother’s set of brass knuckles on my desk.

DB: Uh oh, a writer with brass knuckles on her desk. I better like her show…

Species Native to California
Written by Dorothy Fortenberry
Directed by Eli Gonda

May 13 – June 11

IAMA Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Tickets: 323-380-8843 or www.iamatheatre.com


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