“Ugly Little Sister” From Page to Stage

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Lee Strasburg Theatre May 7, 2016. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

I started my recent phone conversation with Charlotte Miller parsing her Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (LSTFI) commission project Ugly Little Sister. While we discussed this historic-mythic romp in some detail, we spent as much time discussing the process of a playwright finding her people, of assembling the supportive artistic clan, working her way through development programs and finding her anger.

Miller has been encouraged one-on-one, commission by commission, step by step, supported by her Rattlestick Playwrights Theater family, Rising Phoenix Rep’s Cino Nights, the self-imploding playwright initiative 13P, Philadelphia’s PlayPenn play development conference, and now the Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission that funded Ugly Little Sister.

image 1The programs are great, yet mentors and family are essential. Miller met mentor playwright Lucy Thurber in a playwriting course at Primary Stages about a decade ago. When Miller first encountered Thurber, she said, “I didn’t know her work, I didn’t really know anything about anything, I was 25. I signed up for a six-week playwriting course that met once a week and we really hit it off.” Miller went on to assist on Thurber’s Monstrosity and Killers and Other Family that later became part of the Hill Town Plays at Rattlestick in 2013. The Thurber connection that led her there then led to Daniel Talbott, the Ugly Little Sister director. “That’s how I met him and the whole Rattlestick family; that’s how I really met my people that I work with and hang out with and eat food with.”

It’s these collisions and meetings, through introduction and happenstance, finding people in this harsh artistic world, that marks her evolution as she tells it. Finding your people who help you find your writing voice and the enthusiasm to keep at it.

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The Play Development Rodeo and the Odets Commission

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Mentors and family are essential.[/pullquote]Miller has been in the play development rodeo for a while, and contrasted some of the different programs and their emphases. At PlayPenn in 2010 she got two weeks in Philadelphia in a cohort of six playwrights, including Samuel D.Hunter (then working on The Whale) and Kara Lee Corthron (then working on Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night), with Jackson Gay as her director. She loved the process: “With the development process it’s all about the play, the play is the thing, and the actors aren’t memorizing lines, they’re gonna make choices and work hard, obviously, but it’s not the same kind of pressure on the actors. So that process feels like it’s all about the playwright and maybe in a secondary way about the place where it’s being developed and the director helping them.”

Rising Phoenix Rep’s Cino Nights are productions created with limited resources and a tight timeline. “Actors have taken their week off of auditioning and working to do your play and they have to memorize the lines before Sunday,” Miller explains, calling it a rock ‘n’ roll and seat-of-your-pants production. The series has yielded quite a list of plays that have gone on to Off-Broadway and regional productions, including Radiance by Cusi Cram (at Labyrinth Theatre Company in 2012), Row After Row by Jessica Dickey (at the Women’s Project in 2014), and Clown Bar by Adam Szymkowicz (at Pipeline Theatre Company in 2013 and 2014, plus subsequent runs nationwide). “It’s like a production, you can invite industry folks or your family, but it’s a really joyous other thing. It’s not development, but it’s not a six-week run.”

image 2Ugly Little Sister resulted from the Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission rough-and-tumble play-creation and development experience: a service to a class of students and something else that might inform other work for Miller.

Aaron Schroeder, creative consultant for LSTFI, conceived the Odets commission in 2012 to fill a perceived gap in the Strasberg actor training: to participate in new play development. Under this program, two people receive commissions each year to write plays working with Strasberg students. They are expected to move fast. Miller received her commission notice in November 2015 and turned in a first draft at the end of January 2016 after meeting with students in Strasberg’s practicum class at New York University. “I made sure to meet with everyone and make sure I was writing it for them; everything was tailored to them.”

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Ugly Little Sister in rehearsal. Photo: Daniel Talbott.

Miller and Talbott learned the required play combat skills in early 2015. He directed her new play Thieves that she rewrote in eight days when an actor had to withdraw late in the game. In this “tri” production (between Weathervane, Rising Phoenix and Rattlestick), the on-the-fly in-the-room rewrites and quick flexible staging the duo perfected was useful in the Odets collaboration. For Miller, Ugly Little Sister is a good new play that emerged from a process that bypassed development hell. “This was a process from pen to page in like three months. To be produced is a good thing. Plays are meant to be seen.”

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From Process to Plot: The Marie Antoinette Factor

Miller combined mythic and pop-culture storytelling to meet the 12-member cast size required by the commission. and to stretch herself as a writer. “I want it to be a big sort of Greek tragedy feeling thing, monster, because I feel that holds a big cast better than trying to do something hyper modern,” she says.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Plays are meant to be seen.[/pullquote]In the play, siblings Chloe (Kenzie Caplan), Medusa (Caitlin Hammond), Rob (Chapman Hyatt), Coco (Alice Verderber), Marni (Erica Pappas) and Stella (Gloria Zingales) cavort and scheme in a household run by mother Kate (Scot Dalbery, in delicious male-to-female drag) and the silenced and ultimately screaming maid Honey (Katharine Nedder). Gods Athena (Samantha Furst) and Poseidon (Hudson Oznowicz) battle with each other and through the mortals, while two chorus members (Vienna Valerino, Alex Levy) watch the reality show and reveal their own story. The sisters seek divine intervention in their human schemes, and chaos ensues: Poseidon rapes the lot of them and Athena intervenes to make the sisters revenging immortal spirits. The size of the chorus was reduced from half a dozen to two in subsequent drafts, and real stories developed among the chorus “watchers” and the sisters and the gods. “It was a mushroom cloud that kept getting smaller,” Miller says.

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Ugly Little Sister cast. Image by Daniel Talbott.

The naming of the characters is suggestive, and the sisters’ attributes are mixed and coded, perhaps in response to the experience of David Adjmi’s play 3C, which was produced at Rattlestick and recently won a protracted court case involving the TV sitcom Three’s Company that partly inspired the work. (The court concluded that 3C was a permissible, “highly transformative parody.”) In Ugly Little Sister, Miller used names as a suggestion, with a focus on the social structure among the sisters rather than clothes, cellphones, behaviors or other Kardashian-like specifics.

The play’s frame of reality TV’s appeal, repulsion and outrageous class differences depicted is powerful and unapologetic. “If Marie Antoinette had this ability to televise her life, would that have happened?,” Miller asks. “It’s amazing to me because we’re in such desperate economic trouble. There’s an episode of the Kardashians where Kim was hungry and flew to New Orleans and ate three meals and flew back to Los Angeles. And there’s so much suffering in the world. I have a lot of fun watching those shows. I sit and become paralyzed by them just as much as anybody else. But I think it’s funny that [Kim] and Kanye got married at Versailles because she so reminds me of Marie Antoinette.”

Amidst the many moving parts in the production of Ugly Little Sister, from choreography to sound to props to bags of stage blood, Miller reflected that “this is me working with a different style that is outside of my comfort zone, and I did that to myself on purpose.” Most of her works draw in substance and in language from her Texas southern dialect where she felt grounded. This play, on the other hand, involves gods and heightened flowery crazy language and Valley-speak vocal fry. “I think it really stretched me as a writer, I think it’s great to write outside just one rhythm.”

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Miller’s Rising Anger

Miller family summers involved escaping the Texas heat for the high altitudes of Cripple Creek, CO, where there were no distractions except her sisters — and games. “You’re losing your mind three months out of the year at high altitude. That had a big influence on my writing. Broken sibling relationships are always really fascinating to me. And then, there’s a rising anger in my work that keeps getting louder every time I write.” When asked what is common across her plays, Miller underscores a sticky, imperfect connections.

People who are inextricably linked to each other, that can’t get away from each other, whether because they’re family or sisters or lovers or best friends. They can’t get away from each other but they can’t possibly spend another minute in each other’s company either. There’s a lot of sibling relationships that are very broken that are woven through my plays, again and again and again.

Miller is reluctant to use the word “feminism” to describe her work yet she writes of humans feeling trapped and seeking parity. “I get more and more mad about the way women get trapped because they’re helping other people,” she says. Ugly Little Sister‘s sisters lose their human lives but achieve powerful revenge: “In the audience’s imagination they’re roaming the earth and turning people to stone as they please,” Miler says. “I said to the actors: ‘You guys get to go fuck shit up. That’s great. Girls never get to go fuck shit up.’”

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Martha Steketee

Martha Wade Steketee has worked as a court researcher, policy analyst, editor, theater critic, and dramaturg. Past and present voting member of theater awards committees (Jeff in Chicago, Drama Desk in New York), and dramaturg who reviews scripts for theaters and festivals and collaborates with playwrights and authors on new works. Member of American Theatre Critics Association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and League of Professional Theatre Women. Steketee lives in New York City with an indulgent husband and too many books.