An Interview with Cusi Cram
Written by Victoria Myers
August 4th, 2014
Did you read A Little Princess growing up? Because Cusi Cram might just be a modern-day, grown-up version of Sara Crewe. Cusi is not only an accomplished playwright (A Lifetime Burning and Lucy and the Conquest are the two we recommend starting with), but has completed the trifecta of dramatic writing mediums. She’s a strong supporter of women in the arts, serving on the Boards of The Leah Ryan Fund for Emerging Women Writers and The Lilly Awards, and through her constant generosity towards other writers on a daily basis. She has a fascinating life (we won’t spoil it for you) and a fascinating point of view (again: no spoilers). And yes, she posses a certain combination of intelligence, integrity, and joy that evokes a legacy of those literary heroines, like Sara Crewe, who made one want to go out and explore the world. Although, Cusi’s greatest similarity with those characters might be the way that she is so completely herself.
You’re a playwright, TV writer, and recently wrote and directed a short film, Wild & Precious. We love that. Could you tell us a little about what the experience of writing and directing a film was like?
It was a blast. It was really one of the most exciting things that I’ve done. There’s this adage that you make a film three times: you write it, you shoot it, and then you edit it– and each time it’s different. Filming feels very familiar from the theatre world—it’s like rehearsal, but with cameras and equipment, and going with your instinct in terms of how to get people to do what you need. For me, what was really a revelation was the editing. You get to really refine the story and figure out what it means. It was a really great experience and, because in my career I’ve done a lot of different things, it felt like using lots of skills that I had in my arsenal. It was one of the more satisfying artistic experiences that I’ve had.
The film takes place at a family funeral and the two main characters are a grandmother and granddaughter. In some of your other work the idea of being a daughter is very present, and something we’re interested in since it’s something we all share.
I think, for me, being a daughter was such a primary relationship. I was raised mostly by my mother and I have a sister. And I think about it more now, too, since my mother passed away. It’s interesting to be someone’s daughter who doesn’t have a mother anymore, you know? And what that means.
There’s a lot of interesting things happening in TV and film, both in terms of what stories they’re telling and how they’re telling them. Theatricality is a word we hear thrown around a lot. Did directing a film affect your view on theatricality?
I think there’s a common denominator to all dramatic writing, right? There has to be conflict, people have to be at odds with each other. So there’s this fundamental thing. I think what’s really difficult to convey on stage, that’s kind of un-theatricality, is a certain kind of interiority; a sort of quiet interiorness that you can capture on film because you can go in close. Those [moments] are tricky on stage—how do you do that? It makes me think about how you capture those interior moments in a theatrical way. And I think you can. I very much like silence on stage and what people do when they’re alone. And I think, certainly, TV does affect theatre. I think television, particularly right now, is having a bit of a renaissance. People are really enjoying storytelling that way. And I think it does challenge us to think about how we tell stories on stage. But, for me, they kind of live in a different place. It’s just a very different feeling when I sit down to write a play then when I sit down to write a screenplay or teleplay. For me there’s something incredibly open about a play.
There’s a documentary where Cate Blanchett says, “theatre is not literature.” She was talking about how famous plays are taught like literature—there’s one interpretation and it’s static. But it seems like an interesting premise in terms of new play development as well.
It’s such an interesting question to ask a playwright because one thinks about, when you’re dead, will someone reinterpret your play in some crazy way? Do a Kabuki version of it or an everybody-in-corsets version, should you be so lucky to be reinterpreted. But even plays that I’ve developed a lot, a lot, a lot and then get produced, the question is, how do you keep on making it new for yourself? And the question one always asks with a new play is, why are we doing this now? What is important about this story now? So, I think, if you’re doing a revival, that question should be there too. It’s like, “We’re doing The Cherry Orchard now because…?” What are the reasons that make it completely relevant to do? And I think the big problem of theatre in the time we live in is relevance. What is relevant about it? What is exciting about it? What’s vital? There’s lots of things that go into that question. But I think that’s a good question to ask with any play you do.
You’re one of those rare people who actually grew up in Manhattan. Not only that, but you grew up around many theatrical people. How do you think that affected your desire to go into the arts?
Well, I think it was huge. My mother [Jeanne Campbell] was working a lot as an actress. She was a journalist for many years, but in her forties she started acting. She took me away to summerstock with her. She was doing plays downtown and the cast members were my babysitters on the weekend. And I remember this very old world friend of hers was just furious because he said, “You’re going to make her into a theatre person!” And he was right. To me it was just like, “Why would you ever want to do anything else?” The thing that I always try to remember when I get discouraged is my job is playing—like literally that’s what I get to do. I get to play in my head and imagine things and write them down, and then I get to be in a room with people and do it. So for me that’s always just been my idea of complete joy. It just felt like a magical world, and why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
When I was about six, my mother did a stint at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I got to be in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played one of the fairies. I played Moth. Hands down that’s still one of my favorite plays. I love the elements of magic and farce in it—mistaken identity and those scenes—the way people come running in and out after each other. I loved that world and being in it. So I think it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, probably. It’s stayed with me. That and Our Town are plays that if they’re doing them at a high school, I’ll go, you know? I mean anywhere. Where is it? I’m there. There’s always something magic in those two plays, even if they’re really bad [productions].
(iv.) Physical Presence
We’re very interested in the intersection of personal development and artistic development, especially as it concerns being a woman in the world. You started modeling at thirteen for the adult division of Wilhelmina. Do you think the experience of looking like and being labeled an adult before you were one had an affect on your artistic development?
It definitely was weird. I think it would have been weird had I had a normal teenhood because I was thirteen, 5’7”, and I looked like I was sixteen or seventeen or eighteen. I was just one of those thirteen-year-olds. So I think it would have been weird anyway. I think what was strange, for me, was that I wasn’t particularly advanced. The whole world of makeup and hair, I wasn’t in that sphere yet naturally. I think those things happen to girls at different times, their interest in all of that. I was pretty sheltered and just kind of a dreamy, nerdy kid. So I think it kind of catapulted me into a world that I didn’t necessarily understand or have an innate interest in. I sort of had to teach myself to be interested in those things. In some ways, I think that all of those feminine qualities—makeup and hair and fashion and all of those things—it doesn’t feel completely part of myself. I feel like I’m putting it on, in a way. I feel like my natural state is not that. Maybe all of us are like that, but I think it was so exaggerated in my case. To me, what’s an interesting question is, at what age do we think we need to start doing things to enhance the way we look? And at what age do we become more aware and unsatisfied with the way we look? Being a young model there was so much attention paid to that, and to things that were wrong with the way I looked. And at the time—and I think times have changed a lot—[the look] was very blonde and blue eyed, so I was considered very, very ethnic looking—my dad was from Bolivia and he worked at the United Nations. So, suddenly, I became conscious of that. It was a lot of things that I became conscious of in myself that I don’t think I would have for a while. It’s not that I never would have, since I think, inevitably, you start to understand your worth in those ways—what your physical self means in the world. But for me it was very overwhelming. I think it muddled things a little bit because how I saw myself was so far away from how I looked in pictures.
There’s that old art criticism phrase: men watch women and women watch themselves being looked at. That seems interesting in relation to that portion of your childhood and the idea of autonomy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt like your physical presence in the world is about creating what you want to be in the world. How you want to appear. How you want to present yourself. Whatever that is on any given day—whether that’s a sweatpants day or an I’m-going-to-get-my-hair-blown-out-and-wear-earrings day. And I think that takes awhile because it’s almost like a process. I think there is this process that young girls go through, which is you gain information from how you’re perceived, and then you reject it or you embrace it. And then it’s more about, “Well, this is how people see me, but this is how I want to be seen.” And that’s sort of a step towards maturity. And I think it takes a long time.
Do you think it had any effect on writing? Because when you’re writing, you’re creating the world, you’re creating the characters.
Yes. I mean there’s an autonomy. I was definitely drawn towards being a writer because it was my world, as opposed to me and how I looked. But I think that’s kind of out the window in the world we live in, because we have to be what we write and represent what we write. I think the time we live in kind of forces you to be the brand. And I find that just exhausting. It’s hard enough thinking up stories and then you have to make up the story of the person who told the story. And then tweet about it.
As a teenager, you were working professionally as an actress on One Life to Live, and then stopped and went to Brown [University], which could be a big choice in that circumstance.
I really love performing, but there was some side of me that was not satisfied. I feel like I sort of had the opposite experience that a lot of people had whose parents want you to become a lawyer. I think for my mother [acting] was a real higher calling. She’d had a really successful career that made her unhappy. So anytime I was struggling and was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I should do this blah, blah, blah,” she would help me out, help me pay my rent, and really wanted me to do this. When I was acting she was like, “Maybe you shouldn’t go to college, maybe you should go to drama school.” So it was like opposite world, in a way. Which also, I think, gave me a healthy resistance to just going into the family business. I was always sort of questioning it: is this valuable, how can I make it more valuable, what does it satisfy, and what doesn’t it? I’m definitely somebody who was a good candidate for a liberal arts education. I just had a lot of passions and interests and things I wanted to know. So I wasn’t ready to just commit to this life of being an actress. I’m so glad I did, and that I didn’t take my mother’s advice, and went to college.
When was the moment when you were first like, “Ok I’m a playwright?”
I wrote my first play and I worked on it for about two years. I put it in an envelope and I sent it to South Coast Rep. They had a festival called The Hispanics Playwrights Project (it doesn’t exist anymore), and it got into the festival. And so, that play got this incredibly fancy workshop. And [prior to that] I’d had like a one-act done in a storefront theatre. I was really, really not a playwright in that sense of the word. In the play there was this character who collects beach garbage and makes collages from it. And I went into the theatre, and the crew from this theatre had gone and collected all of this beach garbage and made these beautiful collages. And I was like, “You’ve got to be joking? Like they went to the beach…” I don’t know if I was like, “I’m a playwright,” but I was like “I have to be a playwright. This is so cool.” Like something you have in your head, and then people like go and do it, and it happens. So that was the moment. That year I applied to Juilliard with this play and that sort of was the launch.
You’ve also been married a long time. How do you think that affected your creative life?
My husband [Peter K. Hirsch] is also a writer and he’s always been incredibly, incredibly encouraging of my work. And we both have had times where one of us will have a writing job of some kind so the other can peruse a passion project. He’s been really generous about that. He loves theatre and is also an actor, too. He’s my first reader. I give him everything to read. He’s been in my plays and he’s in my movie. He’s a real compatriot. He’s just been a real advocate. And encouraging. You know, he gets it.
When was the first moment you felt like a grownup?
I’m still waiting to feel like a grownup. Hmm. Let me try to think of a grown up moment. One grown up moment was when I saw my name on tickets—like computers generated tickets—and the play was Landlocked by Cusi Cram. People were ripping tickets and I saw my name on a ticket getting ripped in half. That felt grown up. I feel like having a couple of plays published made me feel grown up. And I think being married—having a wedding, planning it, organizing it, and doing it—it felt grown up. But a lot of the time I don’t feel like a grown up. I’m working on it.
Would you mind if we reached out to your cats for a comment about you?
To: The Interval
From: Froggy and Vinny
Re: Quote on Ms. Cram
Ms. Cram is very good at napping and staring into space. She has an annoying habit of sitting in front of screens and tapping her fingers and talking to herself – she call this “playwriting.” All that tapping sometimes interferes with our beauty sleep but, Ms. Cram reminds us when we swish our tails against her screen or try to curl up like a donut on her lap when she’s tapping away, that “playwriting” keeps us in Fancy Feast. And we both very much enjoy any stinky foodstuff that comes in a can, so we do our best not to bother her too much when the “playwriting” is going on, but it isn’t easy.
Froggy & Vinny
What books inspired you?
There are two strains. I’d say it’s Latin American literature and Russian literature—the two of those are the biggest influences. I love Marquez; 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera were very seminal. And about how to use magic and story to open up a world. And I really just have this incredible fondness for Russian literature. For Tolstoy and Turgenev and Chekov short stories. And a lot of Latin American poetry, as well. I studied Spanish in college and traveled around South America, and I really love the literature of Latin America. But I’m an avid reader.
What are your top five favorite books?
- Anna Karenina
- The Cherry Orchard
- 100 Years of Solitude
- And contemporary writers: Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Miranda July, and Jonathan Franzen
You’ve spoken in the past about being inspired by visual images. Dancers talk about seeing music. Would you say you hear paintings?
Oh that’s really interesting. No, I don’t. But I definitely imbue character when I see a painting. I want to know what’s going on, what the story is, what just happened. One of my favorite painters is Velazquez, and there’s a painting in the Prado, Las Meninas, that, to me, seems like a play. There’s the artist, there’s the dwarfs, there’s a little Infanta, there’s all of this activity going on—it feels like a play. I love visual art. I’m not sure if I hear dialogue, but I hear stories in some way and I definitely feel like I imbue it with character.
On the site we have a list of resources that includes The Leah Ryan Fund for Emerging Women Writers. You’re on the board. Would you mind telling us a little about it?
Leah was my classmate at Juilliard and she was a wonderfully funny and dear person. She was diagnosed with Leukemia and then struggled and passed away. After she died, her family and friends wanted to do something to commemorate her and help women writers. The Fund gives $1000 to an emerging woman writer and we do a reading of their play in New York and we present it at the Lilly Awards to introduce them to the theatre community. The second part of what we want to do is, what she explicitly wanted, which was to give a writer who is suffering from a serious illness a cash grant. We’re going to do a fundraiser at Joe’s Pub this October that Leigh Silverman is directing. We’ll get some people together to read some of her work, raise some more money, and bring awareness to the new aspect of the fund. We give the award every year and I’ve loved all of the writers that we’ve given it to—I think they’re super talented, so just even to know who they are and to get to read [their work]. There’s a lot of good plays by women out there. It’s never a problem to find one.
For you, personally, why do you think it’s important to support other women?
I think about that Gloria Steinman quote, “Be the man you want to marry.” I feel like the corollary to that is: make the community you want to be a part of. The theatre community is one of my communities, so I feel a responsibility for it to reflect the world as it is. Particularly New York. And over 50% of people in New York are women. And sort of the corollary to that is to have different kinds of stories—writers of all different backgrounds and abilities and races. I want it to feel like the city that we live in. So that’s sort of one of my personal goals. Change what you can. And start at home. And this is the community that I’m a part of. I feel some sort of obligation. And I do feel like there’s this myth, and we are somehow told that women don’t help each other. I definitely want to disprove that myth and be an example of somebody who does help other women. Other women have helped me so I think it’s making a tradition of that.
This year all the Pulitzer Prize finalists and the winner were women. None of those shows were presented on Broadway. Do you have any theories about that?
Well, I think there are practical things, like that there just aren’t that many straight plays on Broadway. I think who goes to Broadway and the machine of Broadway and the big jukebox movie musical thing has kind of changed it. Broadway really has become—I don’t know what the statistics are—but it’s very touristy. I think, at least, that’s what producers are thinking when they’re putting together these plays. So I think there’s that. I’ve been reading recently about a lot of unconscious gender bias and I think there’s a lot of that still. I think some people really do have this bias like, “Oh women’s plays are not right for Broadway. They’re more personal tales.” I think there is still a lot of that. I’d say that gender bias is something that I think both men and women have. It’s a very interesting phenomena since it exists in all areas of entertainment. And I think the people who are producing and in charge have to examine themselves and be like, “Why am I not finding plays by women that could live on a Broadway stage?”
It seems like we’re in a moment where there’s all of this conversation about female characters, and strong female characters, and is a female character this or that. They don’t have those conversations about male characters. But do you think that affects you as a writer?
You know, yeah, I think it does. I mean part of the reason that I wanted to write was that I wanted to create characters that I didn’t see people writing. There’s something about those strong characters… sometimes I find that word tricky because it’s like, “What? They’re just noble?” And you want a flawed, complicated, messy character at the helm of your project. I’m always trying, when I write women, to make them unexpected. And make them not like somebody we’ve seen. I’m on a list of women television writers and someone asked, “What’s everyone’s pet peeve on TV shows?” A big pet peeve of a lot of the women was, “she’s tough but beautiful,” “wounded but gorgeous.” If you think about a show like Breaking Bad, that wasn’t in the description of Bryan Cranston’s character, you know what I mean? But, I mean, yeah, I definitely feel an obligation, and it doesn’t mean we can’t make our characters unimpeachable. To me, it’s unexpected and kinds of women we haven’t seen—for me, that also means women who aren’t white and don’t fit into some type of stereotype. I think that’s an area that I still think is really failing in television and film and theatre. I guess it’s changing a little bit. The long way around is I do feel a responsibility, yeah.
This is a tricky subject. But there’s been a lot of talk about girls and their confidence, self-esteem, and how we talk to them. You also teach playwriting. Do you find there’s a difference between the way the female students in your classes present themselves/their work and the way the male students do?
I have 70-80% female students. If I’m going to make a generalization, I think women tend to apologize for their work a little bit more than the men. I think in a workshop setting everyone is so vulnerable, but sometimes women tend to preface their work a lot more than the men. With the men there’s less explaining away or diminishing it before you start. Which is something I want to work on this year with all of my students—just presenting it as opposed to diminishing it or explaining. And that is something I felt in my own experience as a student. Some of the men I was in school with just really thought everything they wrote was fantastic when they came in [to class]. Afterwards maybe less so. But their initial impulse was that. And I’m not sure I’ve ever had that impulse. I’ve gained confidence. Sometimes after I hear something I’m like, “Oh, I think that might work,” or, “It wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be.” And this is something I talk about with my husband—I think there’s a certain kind of confidence in men about the stories they want to tell, and they feel entitled to tell them in a stronger way than women do.
Do you think confidence is rewarded differently in the theatre community in men than in women?
I don’t know. I feel like I know a lot of very confident theatre artists who are successful. But I think there’s something—and we were discussing this at the Lilly’s [Awards]—when you have success, sort of not diminishing your success and feeling not deserving of it. I think perhaps that is a more female characteristic. I don’t know. I think there is some sort of gender bias about women feeling good about their success and being open about it. I mean definitely in my generation. But it’s interesting. One of the interesting things about being on the Board of the Lilly’s is being around a bunch of women who have had a lot of success and sort of feel cool with it, and feel like they deserve it. But we talk about that, and what confidence really means for a woman in this age in any profession is an interesting question.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
There are so many things. If you’re a writer, supporting other women writers is a big thing—it’s going to see their work, telling people about it. I think what happens in communities that are excluded in a way, or pushed to the side, is people think, “There’s such a small piece of the pie, so I don’t want to share the piece if I can get a piece,” do you know what I mean? So it’s sort of thinking about that. Like maybe there’s enough pie. Like if we all start talking about how delicious the pie is. So I think it’s about supporting each other in whatever your special thing is. If you’re really good at reading plays and giving feedback, is that what you do for your friends who are playwrights? Do you get a group of people together to go see a play on Broadway that’s written by a woman? Do you support the theatres that have gender parity? We’ve been talking about that. Like what do you do if there’s a theatre that has an all male season and maybe they have a hit—do you not go see that play? Or do you get a subscription to Playwrights Horizons that has had parity for the last four or five years and been incredibly successful in it? What do you do to get behind what you believe?
You can follow Cusi on Twitter: @cusicram and Instagram: @cusicram.