Several days ago, after I had seen the Spotlight Players’ production of “The Dastardly Ficus and other Comedic Tales of Woe & Misery,” I got to chat by phone with the playwright, Emily Schwartz. She was born and raised in Brownsburg, Indiana, but now lives in Chicago.
It was a pleasure chatting with her! I am therefore going to take a brief break from writing about the 2008 Indy Fringe Festival in order to share some highlights from our conversation. This is the last weekend for “The Dastardly Ficus” at Spotlight. (For more information or to make a reservation, please call 317-767-2774.)
“Ficus” is quite a quirky show about, among other things, two “adult” sisters, Jennifer and Geneva, who fight a lot. Schwartz told me that people often ask her if she based these characters on her own sisters. She only has a brother in real life, “but I think the two arguing characters are really based on two sides of myself.” In any case, sibling fights are universal.
People also ask her about the order in which she wrote the scenes (three in Act One and one in Act Two.) She told me she wrote them in the order that they appear in the play.
In fact, she wrote the first scene, “Entertaining Mr. Topps,” when she was a student at Indiana University. She and her roommate were frustrated by the lack of roles available to undergraduate women so, on one hot, moth-invested night in Bloomington, they dared each other to write a scene in an hour that would help fill the gap.
Both of their efforts were chosen for recognition in a student playwriting contest. After that, the Bloomington Playwrights Project commissioned Schwartz to expand her scene into a full-length play, which they then produced. It has since been produced at other theatres around the country, including a Rough Magic Productions here in Indianapolis in 2003 and InterAct Theatre Company in North Hollywood, California, in 2005.
A version of “Ficus” was also produced by the People’s Playhouse as part of the Indy Fringe Festival in 2006. Another of Schwartz’s plays, “Mr. Spacky, the Man Continuously Followed By Wolves” had been in the Indy Fringe the year before.
Schwartz and the two original “Ficus” sisters eventually formed their own theatre company in Chicago. It is called the “Strange Tree Group.”
Schwartz’ move to Chicago was quite sudden. The original Jennifer from “Ficus” unexpectedly had an opening in her apartment. She urged Schwartz to come to Chicago, where the theatre scene seemed to be more active than what was going on in the Indy area at the time.
Schwartz had been working at the Indianapolis Art Center. “They were very supportive of me,” Schwartz says. “When they heard about the opportunity, they told me to ‘go for it.'”
Schwartz moved up to Chicago within the week.
That was in 2003. Strange Tree produced “Ficus” in Chicago in 2004. It was very well-received. In fact, several performances sold out.
Strange Tree has been producing two new Schwartz plays per year since then.
Other friends from IU have joined the “strange, darkly comic group.”
“Carolyn Klein, a great director, is a friend from IU. She has directed our past two shows.
“I feel comfortable giving over control (of my script) to her…I appreciate getting other ideas from her (about how to make it work)” Schwartz said.
In other words, Strange Tree productions are a team effort. Schwartz laughed as she told me, “Maybe it’s our Indiana sensibility…I’m not sure what that means…but we all get along really well. We get in a rhythm, a groove.”
Schwartz said she likes the ability to take liberties with a new script. “It’s different doing things that have never been done before.”
She works as an administrative assistant for a graphic design group in downtown Chicago during the day. Like her bosses at the Indianapolis Art Center, her current day job bosses are very supportive of her theatre work.
I asked if she had ever acted or directed. Yes: her college degree is in acting. “But I enjoy playwriting…creating a world on stage, something that didn’t exist before…I can give my imagination free reign.
“I like thinking about what would be fun to do as an actor. When the actors are having fun, the audience has fun.”
Ideally, she said, everyone involved in a production has fun: actors, director, designers, crew, and audience. “Then everyone feels involved.”
She also likes thinking about “what would thrill me as an audience member. What would make me excited to see happen on stage?”
When people ask her to describe her writing style, she replies, “American Gothic.” People nod their heads and say, “Oh. Yeah!” (Me, too!)
She described the Strange Tree theatre space as out of the ordinary. “The Chopin Theatre is a great old theatre, with antique furniture, oriental rugs, and old chandeliers.
“You feel welcome at once. We are not there to put anyone off. You come down the steps, and you’re in the Strange Tree world,” even before the show begins. Characters from the show mingle with the audience in the waiting area. There is often other pre-show entertainment as well.
However, even as she enjoys more and more attention for her work in Chicago and nation-wide, Schwartz always remembers, and loves, her Indiana roots.
“It was great being back home this past weekend,” she said. She was in town to see the Spotlight production in Beech Grove, but got to go home to Brownsburg as well.
“Brownsburg was a lot more rural when I was growing up.” She told me about meeting friends at the local soda fountain and about the gorgeous sunlight that shown through the stained glass windows in her family’s farm house.
“I still love the old houses…I love driving around, antiquing…We drove out State Road 40 to visit friends in Terre Haute this weekend, and the hills, the mists, the farmlands, even the smells…There’s a little bit of magic in ordinary things here….It’s just a special feeling being in Indiana.”
Then she laughed, remembering, I think, that she was talking to a fellow Hoosier rather than some of the east- and west-coast people who have been interviewing her lately. “Well, if you’re from Indiana, you know. It’s awesome.”
Yup. I think so, too. And I love that we can call rising star playwright Emily Schwartz one of our own.
Schwartz gave me the following links to share in order to learn more about her work:
Schwartz also told me that the original cast is getting back together in the spring of 2009 to reprise “Dastardly Ficus.” I would LOVE to see that! Who’s up for a Chicago road trip with me?
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com