by Paul Hansen 13 June, 2020
There is a saying in the entertainment business that “The show must go on.” And some theater groups have found a way to do just that in the midst of the virus pandemic while still maintaining social distancing. The Catastrophe Committee, a new play by Lynn Rosen, will be presented this Saturday, June 13 at 7 PM PST on Zoom as part of UC Santa Barbara’s The SpotlightProject.The Project was developed by the university’s Department of Theater and Dance and will electronically present graduating BFA majors for Industry professionals in lieu of a traditional showcase.
Rosen is a playwright and TV writer whose credits include co-creation of the award-winning comedic web series Darwin. She currently has three pilots in development, is a Resident Playwright at New Dramatists, and is under commission with Red Bull Theatre and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The Catastrophe Committee is billed as “a darkly funny, and deeply human ‘selfie play’ shot on iWhatevers that embraces and acknowledges the limits of the technology available during social distancing, with characters in search of identity and belonging.”
Nancy Hower’s drama Standing On My Head will also be presented on June 13 at 6 PM PST prior to The Catastrophe Committee. Both plays are directed by Annie Torsiglieri, Director of UCSB’s BFA Acting Program. The plays can be seen on this link https://bit.ly/2Aj4ZaK. Viewing is free.
ScreenPicks’ Paul Hansen posed some questions to Rosen about her new drama.
Q. What was the impetus behind the creation of The Catastrophe Committee and what issues is the play exploring?
Lynn Rosen: The graduating acting students at UC Santa Barbara usually do a showcase for industry professionals when they graduate, but Covid robbed them of that opportunity this year. So my friend and collaborator, Annie Torsiglieri, Director of the BFA Actor Training Program at UCSB, commissioned me to write a play for her nine talented senior BFAs that they could record on phones.
The challenge was that no one could do scenes together, except for two students who were locked down in the same space. My goal for this was threefold: spotlight them individually; embrace and acknowledge the limits of amateur phone recordings; and spin a cohesive, entertaining, and compelling tale. Because let’s face it, the idea of watching nine unrelated monologues makes everyone feel very sleepy, especially me, and I didn’t want anyone falling asleep on these guys!
After getting to know the students over Zoom, I figured out the framework of this darkly comic piece, which is that they are writers hired by the government to come up with catastrophe scenarios that will help prepare the U.S. for any threats that may come our way. This is actually based on a true story. Still, the framework was merely a conduit for these characters to explore and reveal terrors, worries, joys, revelations in their own lives.
And as the play evolved, it also became a subtle reflection on the state of America - its beauty, flaws, wounds, and very large problems. I also built The Catastrophe Committee so that other schools and organizations can produce it and adapt it for their actors during, or even after, Covid-19.
Q. Do you think that presenting plays "virtually" in response to the virus epidemic opens new possibilities for writers in the creation of theatrical material?
Rosen: I do! I prefer that all of this wasn’t happening of course, but there are benefits to the virtual play. Working on this play/selfie/film hybrid made me flex unused writing muscles and forced me to think more cinematically. I especially enjoy the close-up option. Even on Zoom, the close-up can achieve an intimacy that’s not always possible in live theatre. This made me think about exploring stories I’d never considered telling before.
And I think virtual plays – which can appear on many platforms and have an eternal shelf life – offer writers exposure and the chance to produce and share their work independently. I often seek ways to present my work that subvert the industry gatekeepers so that my stories don’t wither as I wait for a “yes”. I like saying yes to myself if I can. Some friends and I co-created an award-winning comedic web series called Darwin, directed by Carrie Preston and Greg Ivan Smith, for just that reason. It was very empowering. I think virtual plays could do that for writers, too.
Q. Are there other writers that you particularly admire and have they influenced your work?
Rosen: I love Tina Howe’s work – It’s funny, heartbreaking, and singular. Years ago, she mentored my play Apple Cove, which was produced by WP Theatre, and she gave me permission to explore and rejoice in my own writing voice. Also, the ambition, imagination, and humanity of British theatre group, Complicité, inspires me to take more risks in my own work. And seeing the brilliant and hilarious Noises Off by Michael Frayn when I was young made me want to be a playwright. There are amazing TV writers, too. Not to be all “join the club,” but Phoebe Waller-Bridge is not too shabby.
Q. What advice would you give writers if they are trying to pursue careers as playwrights or screenwriters? What was your first break in the entertainment industry?
Rosen: Advice: Work hard, rewrite fearlessly, find your allies, know that rejections are normal, and when opportunities come your way - big or small - shove fear aside and say YES.
Big break: Hmm... define “big”. If we’re talking TV, then joining forces with Carrie Preston on a few gigs has been a gift. We recently sold a pilot to Warner Horizon. I’ve also been working with Milestone TV & Film on a couple of TV pilots, which has been beneficial in writing- and career-wise. I’m learning so much. In terms of theatre, being accepted into New Dramatists, a nationally recognized new-play laboratory, was a bit of a game-changer for my process and my exposure as a writer.
Q. Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about The Catastrophe Committee?
Rosen: We were all working under extremely stressful conditions. As I started writing, NYC was under attack by Covid-19 and 800 people were dying each day. It was terrifying and depressing. (And I’m on lockdown in a 680 sq. ft. apartment with my husband and two kids - also terrifying.) But this project was a creative lifeline for me and for the students too, I think. So the fact we got to do this together and that it came out so well (h/t to Christopher Gerson, our amazing editor, and Annie, who is an incredible director) is a testament to the beauty and power of theatre - even virtual theatre.
Q. Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?
Rosen: Sure thanks! In addition to the two TV pilots in development, I’m also creating more online content with my favorite collaborators in order to stay connected and creative while the world is on pause. I have an upcoming Zoom reading of my play The Claudias, commissioned by Red Bull Theater, which ecstatically exhumes the stories of historical women named Claudia, and whose tales were buried by the powerful men who dominated their lives and the world.
I have another upcoming reading of my musical Gurley!, commissioned by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, with music/lyrics by The Kilbanes, about the struggles, the kinship, and the battles between Betty Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown. And some fellow New Dramatists writers and I are developing a very exciting theatrical podcast project. Stay tuned!