Bare Knuckle Theatre: Playwright Chad Beckim on the Writing of LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE

Playwright Chad Beckim has been writing Lights Rise on Grace since 2007. Here he talks about why. And also what kinds of stories interest him.

LROGBi Jean Ngo in Azuka’s production of Lights Rise on Grace

Azuka: What is your mission statement as an artist? What kind of work excites you?

Chad: Bare knuckle theater. Theater with teeth and claws and heart. Theater that challenges and breaks you down and builds you up and changes the way you thought about the world (even if it’s a tiny bit) before the houselights darkened. Some examples are Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection, Stephen Adley Guirgis Our Lady of 121st Street and Sarah Kane’s Blasted. I’d always written privately for myself, but experiencing those pieces were the collective sparks that inspired my first attempts at writing.

I think my ideal theater is multicultural and multi-palette-ed and reflects the people and places and cultures and the struggle where I cut my teeth in NYC …Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem in NYC, East New York and LIC and the South Bronx for the kids I taught. And structurally, my favorite theater kind of shatters the traditional boundaries and shape of the kinds of theater we generally mass experience in school.

An example: I remember taking a group of Dominican students to see In the Heights and watching them delight in the play – they absolutely f*cking marveled at it and on the train ride home talked of nothing else. I realized it was quite possibly the first time they’d ever seen themselves, their neighborhood, their culture, reflected on the stage. And I’d like to think my mission statement simultaneously reflects what I saw on those kids’ faces that day and strives to put folks you might not normally see in the theater on the stage.

Azuka: Why did you write this play? What larger themes or ideas were you hoping the audience would connect to?

Chad: When I first started writing I tried to drown in new work, hitting up the library at Lincoln Center and borrowing a bookbag’s worth plays at a time. On one of those visits I snagged a copy of Dael Orlandersmith’s wonderful Yellowman and I literally read it three times straight on a bus ride trying to figure out how it worked, the entire time thinking, “This is just freaking magical and terrifying.” That was the impetus for Grace, I think – taking a stab at that fusion/explosion of the love story alongside racial and social politics.

Grace really did begin as a more traditional love story, but quickly grew into something else (I know when Woolly Mammoth got their hands on it, they suggested that this was what appealed to them as well.) I kept trying to steer it back to the initial concept but the shape and structure and universe of the play kept shifting and morphing into something else, resulting in what you now have on your stage.

There’s a reason why folks still love Romeo and Juliet. That sense of impossible, illogical love still resonates, especially in the increasingly borderless world we (esp. younger generations) now inhabit. One of the starting points was, “What might that look like now?” This was a very rough starting point for this play (coupled with the inherent brutality of sex and sexuality) that spiraled into something bigger and all encompassing.

Azuka: Why did you ultimately decide to portray the characters in the play the way that you did?

Chad: Here’s the thing about writing (at least from my experience, I’m sure it differs for other people): As much as you’re writing them, they’re working you. You can’t force a play to take the shape you want it to. You can’t write if they’re not talking –for me, the characters talk and they tell you a story and that’s the story you work with. I don’t really work from an outline, and when I think back on the genesis of Grace, this is the way these characters spoke to me; this is their collective universe and their collective truths.

Azuka: Why is it important to you to write diverse characters? How you do feel about writing about these characters from an outsider perspective? What do you do to make sure you are respecting the lived experiences of people with different backgrounds than you without undermining what the play wants to be?

Chad: Because for my formative years in New York City, I was Grace/Large/Riece. I was the outsider, the “other.” My first two years I lived with a Dominican family in Washington Heights – 10 of us to a 3-bedroom apartment. I shared a room with 2 grown men and had a curfew and was treated as less an adult than a teenager, the only white face in an almost entirely Dominican-American neighborhood (my nickname was “blanquito” to the people on my block). It was an amazing and frightening and eye opening and altogether wonderful experience.

From there I moved to Spanish Harlem and lived with an African American family in East River Houses, a housing development off FDR Drive and First Avenue. My family basically told me what streets I would/wouldn’t be safe on, who to trust and who would take care of me, who to steer clear of. I built relationships and connections and a family that forever shaped me.

And as a 10 year veteran Teaching Artist in the NYC public school system, the place where I felt most at home, where I felt like I was changing lives and emboldening confidence and making the biggest impact (big ups to The Leadership Program in NYC) has consistently been in those schools working with kids who don’t look like I do or come from backgrounds that I did.

This is why I write what I write – and it’s also why some might suggest I’m encroaching on territory where I shouldn’t (particularly when considering I grew up in Maine, the whitest state in the union). But I’m (hopefully) writing something that strives to connect us all on a human level, and I think the last thing the world needs is another straight white guy writing more straight white guy plays. I’m fascinated by the interplay (collision?) between race and culture and class and gender and sexuality, by the way our world looks now and will look in years to come, and in trying to provide voices for the characters I haven’t seen represented on stage, however successful (or not!) those attempts might be.

And I think as long as you’re honest and human and respectful and are operating from a place of truth and humanity and fundamental decency, those stories are safe to tell, to try to tell. If it’s not always a challenge and a struggle and a truly worthwhile pursuit, what’s the point?


Chad Beckim is a New York City based playwright whose writing credits include …a matter of choice, `nami (which received its West Coast premiere at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles in October, 2007), Lights Rise on Grace (Winner, Outstanding Play, 2007 NY Int’l. Fringe Festival; Finalist for the 2007 Princess Grace Award; Finalist for Ojai Playwrights’ Conference), The Main(e) Play (Semi-Finalist, The O’Neill Festival), That Men Do (Member of The Lark’s 2009 “Playwright’s Week” and Naked Angels “Out Loud” Series), Mercy and most recently the critically and audience acclaimed After. He has also authored a number of shorts and one-acts, including The Fluffer and Marvel Super Hero Squad (both produced at Ars Nova), Tha Bess Shit, Alexander Pays a Visit, Blac(c)ident, and Last First Kiss, which was adapted into a Columbia Grad film and produced in July, 2008. Mr. Beckhim holds an MFA in Playwrighting from Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College’s Program, and in July of 2007 was named one of “50 Playwrights to Watch” by the Dramatists Guild. His work has been published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Smith & Krauss, and in the Plays and Playwrights 2007 collection by NYTE. He is a proud member of Ars Nova’s acclaimed “Play Group,” and is currently finishing an original pilot script entitled “The Fam.” Mr. Beckim is a co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions.

5 Questions Inspired by Tigers Be Still with Anna Zaida Szapiro

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. Here’s how Anna Zaida Szapiro, who plays Sherry, responded. 
 
1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again? 
My gut says A League of Their Own. It isn’t perfect (All-The-Way May? definitely did not understand that as a small child), but it’s a standby for sure. Don’t drop the ball, Dottie, don’t do it!
 
2) Which TOP GUN character do you most identify with and why? 
Maverick. Just kidding. 
 
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3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up? 
Blast Robyn. And Roberta Flack. And Jewel. What?
 
4) Describe your first job.
Oh man. I definitely spent a summer chauffeuring this amazing 9-year-old whose speech impediment made him speak with a British accent. Adorable. We played a lot of Stratego and Super Mario Kart. First payroll job? Office clerk in a gynecologist’s office. Let’s just say I never went back to that doctor again. Ever. 
 
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
I consider house cats wild animals, so yes. It went horribly.

Anna is a Philadelphia-based actor and devised theatre artist. Since moving to Philly in 2011, she has collaborated as a performer/creator in original works by companies including No Face Performance Group (From the Swamp to the Stars, PIFA), Hybridge Arts Collective (The Travelers), and Fur Collective (Scout, Philly Fringe). Other recent credits include The Renegade Company, New Paradise Laboratories, and The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. Anna holds a BA in Art History from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and is a graduate of Headlong Performance Institute. Up next: Mixed Connections and Other Curiosities at Simpatico Theatre Project.

5 Questions Inspired by Tigers Be Still with Trevor Fayle

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. Here’s how Trevor Fayle, who plays Zach (with a Z), responded. 

1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again?
I could watch The Empire Strikes back twice a day if given the chance.  Because I am Trevor Fayle, King of the Nerds.
2) Which TOP GUN character do you most identify with and why?
I can’t say I much Identify with any of them, but if I had to pick one I’d say Kenny Loggins, because I too have a fondness for zones of a dangerous nature.
3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up (or when you feel down)? 
 Me after a bad breakup is not a pretty sight.  I watch a lot of anime, blast linkin park like it’s 2005, and develop a healthy love for the acoustic guitar.
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4) Describe your first job.
My first job was teaching kids how to ski.  Pizza! French fry!
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
 For sure.  I grew up in the untamed wilderness of western Massachusetts.  I have a lot of stories about bears, deer, moose and geese.  Believe it or not the latter involves the most danger.

This will be Trevor’s second show with Azuka, and first one on the Azuka stage! He could not be happier to be here working on the production of Tigers Be Still! Previous credits most recently include Emma at the Lantern and Owners with Inversion Theatre Co.

5 Questions Inspired by Tigers Be Still with Felicia Leicht

We asked the cast and crew of Tigers Be Still to answer 5 questions inspired by the play. Here’s how Felicia Leicht, who plays Grace, responded. 
1) What is a movie that you could watch over and over again?
There are a bunch.  Ones that I have watched countless times? Jaws, Empire Strikes Back, Moonstruck, The Iron Giant, just to name a few.  But if we’re going with guilty pleasure 80s romantic movie, I’d have to say: Dirty Dancing.Image
2) Which TOP GUN character do you most identify with and why?
I’d have to say Carole (the Meg Ryan character).  She has nothing to do with the flying, and she loves Goose (who is by far my favorite character in the movie.)
3) How do you take care of yourself after a break up (or when you feel down)? 
Depends on the type of heartbreak.  In some cases, I haven’t wanted to eat a thing, and just want to watch fluffy, brain candy TV and movies to distract myself.  But that’s more of the exception.  My usual pick-me-up is the fluffy viewing material combined with eating all my favorite foods: spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate, etc.  And soup.  I always find soup comforting.
4) Describe your first job.
My first job was babysitting, and my first paid gig involved caring for a three year old and a one year old from 6:30pm until one in the morning, when I was only twelve years old.  I couldn’t believe it.  I knew myself to be fairly responsible for a twelve year old, but I still couldn’t fathom how parents could possibly entrust their two small children to someone so young, well into the middle of the night.
5) Have you ever been up close and personal with a wild animal? How did it go for you?
I can’t really say that I have.  I always enjoyed the zoo as a kid, but was not much hiking, camping, or generally venturing out into the wild.  The beach and the ocean have always been my preferred type of nature.  The closest experience I have is probably having a school of dolphins swim right past me, less than ten feet away, while I was swimming down the shore.  I just wish one of them had taken me for a ride.
Felicia is a recent graduate of Villanova University’s Graduate Theater program where she was an acting scholar and a recipient of the Brian G. Morgan Award. She has performed regionally with Philadelphia Artists Collective, Shakespeare in Clark Park, Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, Plays and Players, and the National Constitution Center among others, and has also co-created and performed original works for the Philadelphia Live Arts, Philly Fringe, and Berkshire Fringe Festivals. Next up, she will be appearing in Revolution Shakespeare’s Five Kings.

From the Actress–New Plays with Maureen Torsney-Weir

By Maureen Torsney-Weir
So what’s it like to live in one of Jacqueline Goldfinger’s fabulous, complex, characters? In short – it’s like getting the best Christmas/birthday/pick your holiday present ever!!! I’ve been blessed to play Midge in Skin & Bone, Jackie’s second play in her southern Gothic trilogy that premiered at Azuka Theatre just 2 weeks ago!
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Drucie McDaniels (left) and Maureen Torsney-Weir in Skin and Bone
I work a lot on new plays. I love new plays and I’ve learned a lot about acting by working in new plays. When my children were young,  I couldn’t do more than one play a year but I could do play readings. I signed up with a bunch (well, four) of playwright groups in New York and Connecticut (where I lived at the time) to agree to perform in their reading series. What an education!!! The plays would come in the mail and I’d have a week (or less) to work on the character that I was playing for the reading. I learned to see what the playwright intended, and not to want to rewrite their play. I learned about structure, language, character development, and most of all, how the story was being told to the audience. Jackie is a master of all of the above. I especially love her use of language. There are so many wonderful interior rhythms. It’s a joy to work on this play.
There are lots of clues to Midge’s character and some are more obvious (like her family traditions) but some are delicious little treats hidden within the lines. For example – several times Midge mentions  phrases like: “you can have it next year” or “I’m gonna die here…” which lend an urgency to her wanting to keep her home and a desperation to her fights with Ronnie. The play is full of treats like that, but I don’t want to give it all away. You’ll have to come and see us!

Twins & Things: A Quick Interview with Skin & Bone Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger

Azuka is thrilled to be presenting Skin & Bone, the second installment in Jacqueline Goldfinger’s Southern Gothic Trilogy. As Azuka’s first-ever playwright-in-residence, Jackie developed Skin & Bone over two years with the company following Azuka’s premiere of the terrible girls, the first in the Southern Gothic Trilogy. Her play Slip/Shot received the Brown Martin Award and a Barrymore for Best New Play. As our playwright-in-residence, Jackie was obligated to answer some odd questions for us. Thanks Jackie!

Azuka: You grew up in Florida but now live in Philadelphia. Obviously these two places are very different, but what have you noticed that they have in common?

JG: Philadelphia actually has a very Southern vibe. It’s a cool city. It loves soul music and soul food. It’s not as crazy busy as NYC or other major northern cities, and not as uptight as New England. It feels like a Southern city in a northern geography.

Azuka:  Did your own relationship to your sisters influence your writing of Midge and Madge?

JG: I have two younger sisters. Midge and Madge aren’t based on my sisters but their relationship, the interdependence of sisters in an isolated place, definitely is. Not only were we geographically isolated, but our family was very politically and socially liberal in a very conservative part of the State, so there was this constant feeling of needing to have one another’s back.

Azuka: In earlier drafts, Midge and Madge were not written as twins. How did having your twins influence their characters? 

JG: During the development process I realized that the sisters needed a very special bond to keep the secret that they do – and with twins they are not only exceptionally close but they can emotionally, physically and spiritually mirror each other in interesting ways.

Azuka: Without giving anything away, the characters in this play are a bit extreme, but is there a certain character onstage that you relate to? Or pieces of yourself you see reflected in the characters?

JG: I wish I had Midge’s sass. I don’t. But it would be cool. I have definitely wanted to tell folks off and not done it where Midge has no problem saying whatever is on her mind. So that makes her an extremely fun character to write. Mostly, I write characters, not that I want to be, but that I understand. I don’t write hip-uptown-Abercrombie-and-Fitch characters who live in small boxes. I write characters who dare to live life, even when they don’t have much to live for, and you can see the legacy of their vast potholed journeys in how they move through the world.

Azuka: We’re so proud to have you as a playwright-in-residence here! What’s coming up for you?

JG: There’s going to be a reading of my new play for families, “Enter Bogart,” a 45-minute broad comedy, at White Pines Place on March 23 (http://www.whitepinesproductions.org/) and a reading of my brand new comedy for adults, “Trish Tinkler Gets Saved,” on April 7 at Theatre Exile (http://www.theatreexile.org).

Dutch Masters Playlist

1992 New York certainly had a sound track—play the following and find yourself wafted back to the Dinkins administration:

A Tribe Called Quest: “Can I Kick It” by

Special Ed: “I Got It Made”

Naughty by Nature: “Uptown Anthem”

Big Daddy Kane: “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo: “Road to the Riches”

Boogie Down Productions (BDP): “Remix for P”