Wednesday, March 13, 2013

5 Questions with Dominique Cieri

The 16th reading our FORUM "Soundings" series is COUNT DOWN by Dominique Cieri. This reading will begin at 7pm on March 16, 2013, and will be held at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Dreyfuss Theatre, 285 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ. Click here for directions. Click here for a printable map of the campus (the Dreyfuss Theatre is located in Building 9). 

Carmela is a theatre arts educator working on a program at a residential group center for incarcerated young girls in a run-down town in Northeast New Jersey. The girls are tough and volatile as they are vulnerable and sensitive. Years of abuse and neglect have left them with layers of defenses, and their abuse has followed them to the group center. Unaware of what is happening in the place where she is teaching, Carmela tries to get the girls to cohere into a performing troupe, and when the truth is revealed, the resistant girls come through and show us all the true healing power of art and love.

Dominique Cieri is a playwright, teaching artist, and member of the Dramatists Guild. She is the recipient of the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts Individual Playwriting Fellowship 2003, and 2009.  A graduate of Rose Bruford College in Kent, England, and the recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Medal of Excellence for Scholarship and Creative Activities, Ms. Cieri holds an MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College, Vermont. Ms. Cieri’s plays: Pitz & Joe, For Dear Life, Last Kiss, Count Down, Safe, and The Baby Killer Play, under development at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Her plays have been produced and developed in New Jersey, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  Pitz & Joe is currently under contract with Warner Brothers with Josh Brolin. Her Essays on Arts and Education have been published in the New York Times, and Teaching Artist Journal. Dominique received the New Jersey Theatre Alliance Applause Award, 2010, for her artistry and dedication.  Current projects include the implementation of her work for addressing bullying through the art of playwriting; a year-long commitment to the development of new work from grant monies received by Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey through the New Jersey Arts Council for the program ‘Women’s Playwrights Project.'

1. What inspired you to writer COUNT DOWN?

The play came out of a moment of teaching in a 40-day multidisciplinary arts residency with abused and neglected girls (1999-2000). On what was supposed to be my fifth and final day of working with the girls to create a text that would be choreographed I had no text. Every day was a struggle just to get the girls to cooperate with each other. Having been warned not to delve into the girls’ lives, (no personal creative writing exercises - no memories) I deviated from the “lesson plan.” In a moment of utter chaos on the fifth day I played Vision, The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen, a 10th century nun. I had no idea how the girls would react to the music (“vaulting melodies” in Latin, inspired by Bingen’s visions). The reaction was immediate. Absolute quiet. I then made the leap and asked the girls to create time lines of their lives. A peace came over the room. It was the first turning point in a very long residency. I ended up staying for the 40 days. I started writing Count Down in 2003 and struggled with the play until I had a complete draft in 2005 and then a final draft in 2006. It was as if the girls wouldn’t leave me.

2. The main character, Carmela, is a theatre arts educator. How much (if any) is based on your own experience as a theatre arts educator?

Some of the characters are composites of boys and girls I’ve taught over the years. For instance, Miriam is based on a girl who never said more than a couple of words, so I had to find a way to put words into her mouth by giving her psychological and physical problems I had experienced with other students. The play’s structure is grounded in the length of the residency and theatre games that I have used over the years to reveal character and change over time.

3. You are currently working on addressing bullying through the art of playwriting. Where did you get the idea for this project and what can you tell us about it?

I was fortunate enough to work with boys in lock up for fifteen years with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. So, many of the games and writing exercises to foster cooperative group work came out of those fifteen years. With the explosion of extreme bullying, starting in elementary schools and peaking in middle schools, many schools wanted to address bullying creatively. When you have a fifth grade boy write- 

      “Sad like somebody punched a hole in my chest. That is what is always on my mind. It never stops. Everyone except two friends make me not want to be alive on the bus. I sometimes want to die the next morning.”

-the most powerful way in which to confront that sort of extreme bullying is through writing, performing, and honest open discussion. The lasting impact of witnessing the pain incurred by bullying in a play, hearing the words and seeing the actions deeply impacts all involved.

4. You are a 2012 New Jersey Emerging Women Playwright. How has this process helped your writing?

Writing The Baby Killer Play was as terrifying, if not more so, than working with the girls. New Jersey  Emerging Women Playwrights was a life-changing experience for me in terms of my writing process. To have a year-long commitment to the birth and development of a play is a gift, but to have an artistic director as dedicated as John Pietrowski is to the development of new plays and a group of actors as committed from beginning to end transforms the writing process. So many times I wanted to bail and John quietly refused to let me back off of the play. His encouragement, insight, very close reading of every new page, and dedication along with the talented group of actors made the writing process one of the most meaningful for me. This is a program that needs to be heavily funded!  

5. What do you like to do when you just want to "chill?"

igging in the earth, planting, seeing things grow and extreme walking. A cup of tea.

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