If you ever see Stefanie Zadravec walking around the neighborhood talking to herself, there’s no need to worry. The playwright is probably just trying out some part of the dialogue she’s working on.
“I’ll take a walk when I’m really stuck, and I then I won’t realize I’m doing it, but find myself starting to talk,” she explained. “I talk to myself when I walk, it’s how I write. Usually I put headphones in so it looks like I’m talking on the phone.”
Stefanie may be doing a lot of walking and talking these days. Since the fall, she’s been working on five different projects, many with overlapping deadlines and time commitments.
The first work you can see We Play for the Gods, running June 1-23 at the Cherry Lane Theater. The play, which features a four office worker women dealing with a trickster god, is presented by the Women’s Project Theater, where Stefanie is part of a two-year lab along with a team of other playwrights, directors, and producers.
“Instead of what doing what most sane people would do–an evening of 10-minute plays on a theme perhaps–we decided we didn’t want to do that,” she said. “So seven writers wrote one play, and four directors are going to direct it.”
Working with a team of writers in this way was a learning process for Stefanie, who wasn’t too surprised to find that different people write in different ways.
“I don’t worry about the big question of a play until I’m about 50 pages in and things start to emerge,” she explained. “It comes from characters and situations, and then I see what happens next. With the group it was a different process, there was a lot more questioning along the way. I’m really glad I did this, to realize what we’ve accomplished. I feel like you get in the trenches with people and you learn from it.”
And what she’s learned she’s applying to the other projects currently in the works. Through a New York State Council on the Arts grant at the Working Theater, she’s developing a play about the people and the towns that have been crippled by unemployment in upstate New York. It’s part of a spotlight on human rights at the theater, and when she was invited to submit a proposal, after doing some research she picked up on an idea from a profile on a town where there was an increase in thefts of necessities like food and toilet paper.
“My way in is always a smaller detail,” she said. “I do broad research and then I like to find personal stories.”
The same idea goes for a shorter project with Epic Theater, where four writers are working with human rights workers to help raise public awareness about the lives of international aid workers. She had read in the news about Rwanda’s dealings with NGOs, and based her idea, which was a general topic about trust, around that. She still has some research to do on her play, however, which she is setting in Sudan.
“When you’re running a household, you don’t pay much attention to the news,” she admitted.
As for the setting, Stefanie realized years ago that moving her plays out of New York City would not only open up opportunities for the plays to be shown in more places, but that it was opening up her creative options as well.
“I thought it was write what you know,” she said. “But then I learned to make something up.”
The Electric Baby, photo by Heather Mull
One of her other current projects, The Electric Baby, was a case where she made things up–but then by chance found herself in the city of the play’s setting. The play, which had its first run earlier this year and which will be produced by the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ next spring, was set in Pittsburgh by chance. She got advice from a friend about neighborhood details, and then when she was about two-thirds of the way into the play’s first draft, she was making a trip out there. Because on top of all the current work, she and husband Michael are the parents of 3-year-old twins Martin and Colin. Around this time, Colin had gotten sick and needed a lung specialist, and it turned out one of the best hospitals for it in the country was just a few blocks from where one of The Electric Baby’s character’s lived.
“There were a couple things I learned when I was there, like you don’t hail a cab, you call for one,” she said. “But it wasn’t any of the big parts. Because certain things are just true, no matter where you are.”
She has an opportunity to explore that idea on a larger scale for another project she’s working on for Full Stage USA, with support from New Dramatists, where she is currently part of the prestigious seven-year fellowship. Full Stage will take her to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014 or 2015, where productions are set on a grand scale, and the possibilities for experimentation are far beyond what Stefanie is used to.
“It’s both intimidating and exhilarating to think of writing a show that can be done on that scale,” she said. “You get used to thinking ‘no more than six characters,’ because the simpler the set, the more theaters around the country will be able to produce it. With this, though, you’re allowed to dream. You could write in rain, and they could probably do it.”
Despite all of this work, Stefanie, who started out in the theater world as an actress before committing to writing after acting opportunities began to ease up following September 11, 2001, says she is only just beginning to feel like a playwright.
“I got into New Dramatist, and it felt like getting into the Hall of Justice as a superhero,” she said. “But I’m still developing my voice as a writer.”
And she’s working on it largely right here in Ditmas Park. Whether she’s contemplating lines while she’s out for a walk, or sitting down to type at the Ditmas Workspace, this place has become both her office and her home.
“I love the balance of this neighborhood,” Stefanie said. “It’s nice out here. I always say that Ditmas Park reminds me of the people that I met when I first moved to New York 20 years ago–like, oh, here you all are, I found you again!”