Playwright Vidalia Unwin.
A Conversation With Two Derby City Playwrights
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The 2021 Louisville Fringe Festival arrives hot on the heels of the 2021 Derby City Playwrights Festival, which means a bounty of original and inventive stuff is suddenly available to Louisville audiences. It is not all strict theatre, but I welcomed the opportunity to speak with two of the DCP writers whose plays are featured in both.
Vidalia Unwin once told me that her writing was never autobiographical, so when we came together to discuss her newest play, Domesticate, my first question after she outlined the characters and premise was, needless to say, “Is this in any way autobiographical?”
Because, of course, it was. “I will confess that this one IS to some extent autobiographical,” she admits with a laugh. “Which also made it agonizing to write.”
The play is about an adult, Cecilia, with two imaginary friends, one a gruff-voiced “monster” named Mr. Crawl and the other a small Red Panda named Red. Although I have viewed the virtual reading this is not a review, so I won’t attempt to explain exactly how these characters function in the play, in part to avoid spoilers but also because there will certainly be some subjectivity in the interpretation. Yet Mr.Crawl and Red are very specific characters, each with their own journey.
Domesticate was developed under the auspices of Derby City Playwrights, an annual consortium of playwrights working together to provide feedback and support. When Unwin submitted her first draft she was not pleased, even though it was accepted into the development process. “I hated it. I was physically ill. I soon started to completely rebuild the play from the ground up.” By the time Domesticate came up for critical discussion, it was the second draft that was read by the larger group.
As to the autobiographical element, Unwin allows that she did indeed have imaginary friends – didn’t we all? And acknowledges that she still does. Mr. Crawl and Red are mercurial but integral to Cecilia’s sense of identity, which should tell you something about that admission.
Unwin tries to explain how she defines a work of art as being autobiographical. “Choices are autobiographical. Colors are autobiographical. Tone and texture are autobiographical.” An artist can always be discovered in their work.
When discussing the play, Unwin uses the phrase “magical realism”, and those same words come in when I talked with another DCP writer Clare Hagan about their play, The Masked Man. The writer’s description invites us to, “… enter the world of The Wanderer, a place of meandering late nights where the audience can follow the characters from scene to scene.” The titular figure is seen just after the discovery of a dead body by a character known as The Moth and they and The Wanderer begin to track the mysterious figure. When asked if the play is about the supernatural, Hagan responds warily: “I’d like to not answer that question except to say that there are things that happen for which we have no explanation.”
So there are limits to our understanding of the world around us that we seek to make sense of through myth, legend, and religion, but Hagan isn’t necessarily offering any answers, just the opportunity to question things. ”What is true? What is story? What is omen?”, they ask. “Something can be true even if we lack empirical evidence to confirm or deny its concrete, factual reality.”
The play is constructed for significant audience interaction, which pushes against the limitations of a virtual reading and makes Hagan glad that a live reading with an audience will be possible, although even then there will be restrictions. “The Masked Man is intended to be a site-specific production that has the audience moving through different stations, but I’m working to do what I can with sound and props and other things to engage the audience.”
Although Hagan is the sole author, the concept was influenced by devising techniques that they have been deeply involved with in the past, “More influenced by product and style rather than process,” clarifies Hagan. The non-traditional and collaborative nature of the piece is also reflected in the casting notes. “The characters are originally written as women. The full casting note in the script reads ‘Though the Moth, Wanderer, Artist, and Professor are scripted as female, I’d also be okay with the main characters being portrayed by (and as) enby, agender, or femme TGNC folks.’ It’s not a tight machine so a director and cast can bring a lot of their own ideas to it. That sense of collaboration is important.”
Three plays from the 2021 Derby City Playwrights Season are scheduled for in-person readings as a part of the 2021 Louisville Fringe Festival, all at Milewide Beer Company:
Clare Hagan’s The Masked Man
Wednesday, August 4, 8:30-10 pm
Vidalia Unwin’s Domesticate
Thursday, August 5, 7 – 9 pm
Matthew Jablow’s The Things A Play
Friday, August 6, 8:30 – 10:30 pm
The full 2021 Louisville Fringe Festival schedule can be found HERE.
All three are also available as a part of the 2021 Derby City Playwrights season on Youtube:
Available to watch now:
InQuest by Erin Fitzgerald
It Happened in Jefferson Square by Cris Eli Blak
Domesticate by Vidalia Unwin
The Things A Play by Matthew Jablow
Premiering Saturday, July 31:
The Punching Bags by David Clark – 2 pm
The Masked Man by Clare Hagan – 4:15 pm
Last Night at Mikell’s by Larry Muhammad – 6:15 pm
Family Tradition by Gray Shaw – 8 pm
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.