Wednesday, April 10, 2013


A Report on a Near-Riot in Staten Island!

 "On the Way to Shangri-La"  was a short play I wrote a few years ago for the annual contest “Scenes from the Staten Island Ferry.”  It’s about an elderly Irish mother reliving her original entry into America as she and her daughter pass the Statue of Liberty on the Ferry.  It was selected, and had six successful performances, and audience response was that it is a deeply moving play.
The next year, with the generous support of a JPMorgan Chase grant, the play was again performed, mid-Island, at the Richmondtown Library.  This time it was intended to illustrate the immigrant experience, past and present.  The program was introduced by Susan Fenley, artistic director of Sundog Theatre, who explained how it was chosen for her production, and set designer, Steve Fehr brought a bench from that original show that added to the illusion that the play was taking place on the Ferry.
It starred the same two actresses who originated the roles: Diane Fisher Flores as Moira and Angela Milton as her daughter, Ada (see photo).  After the performance, the actresses and myself engaged the audience in a discussion of their own families voyages to America.  There were a number of Italian Americans who told how their parents came speaking no English and faced hostility, disappointment and hardship in their early years in the U.S.  There was a Jewish woman whose family came to escape pogroms in Russia but found life in America full of humiliation and prejudice.  Others had ancestors who were from Germany, the Ukraine, and Sweden, but they said their people emigrated so long ago their stories were never handed down.
I had assumed that sharing their own past stories would give everyone insight and
empathy towards the present day Hispanic immigrants we see living among us, all of them optimistically pursuing the American dream.  However, a surprising well of resentment towards these modern immigrants emerged from many people in the audience.  The discussion became extremely political with foreign-speaking immigrants "them" being labeled "illegals" who are "exploiting America."  This led to a very heated discussion that went on way past the designated hour, with anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant speakers yelling at each other nose to nose.
I tried to staunch the flood of vituperation by explaining this dialogue was a repetition of what their ancestors faced in the New World, but they'd have none of it.  Their families were different, they were decent hardworking people, there were no welfare handouts to them, their entry into Ellis Island on board ships was not the same as sneaking across borders.  
Some reasonable folk hit back with the information it was called RELIEF back then, and the derogatory term for Italians, WOP, stood for Without Official Papers, but they were shouted down.  If I had been able to record and transcribe the entire program it would have been a perfect Off Broadway play, just as written.
Once I accepted that, in spite of the heat in the room, there would not be an exchange of blows, it actually became quite exhilarating.  Then to top it all, at the height of the storm, an adorable two year old Hispanic boy ran in.  He was looking for his American mother, my friend Carolyn Clark, who had remained silent throughout.  There was a sudden lull, and the shouting died down, as some people asked,
“Who is this child?”  “What is he doing here?” 
“He is my son, Kyle,” said Carolyn.  “We adopted him from Guatemala.”
A particularly vehement anti-immigrant woman was dumbstruck, glaring at the smiling child as he climbed into his mother’s lap, then asking incredulously,
"Did he come here legally?"  
The irony was not lost on everybody.  Some even gasped.
“Of course,” said Carolyn, holding him close. 
The arguments resumed, but somehow the rage had dissipated, and I like to believe that the hatred of a whole race had been diminished by the appearance of an innocent smiling child.
I’m not sure if this was quite what JPMorgan Chase intended, but it was an enlightening experience for me and, I am happy to relate, in the end everybody parted as friends in spite of their differences.  
A few months later, the play was invited to perform at the illustrious St. George Theatre as part of the annual Art by The Ferry Festival; the next year it won a place in the annual 15 Minute Play Festival at the American Globe Theatre near Times Square, and I’ve been asked to bring the show to DOROT, a Jewish senior organization in Manhattan, next Fall.  I’ll keep you informed of how that goes.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Presented to The Dramatist Guild Women's Committee in 2009.
Let’s not kid ourselves.  Plays by women slip into the round file more easily than those with male authorship.  A female name suggests “soft” writing, personal diaries about everyday life, not dramas on male bonding, bitchy women and conquering the world.  So, is it true that women only write “soft” plays?  Was Lillian Hellmann a soft writer – hardly – but then a broad who boldly spelt out “GUILT” on her license plate (google HUAC) was no shrinking violet.  So now a study has come out that proves decisively that in the heavily funded Regional Theater world women’s plays are turned down more than men’s (that’s news!) but – get this – the culprits for sending us into the round file are OTHER WOMEN! 
Hey. That clears the air, right?  Men want our plays but the silly bitches in the reading department are scared to push a play by a woman author because they might look bad when the Male authorities laugh at it.  Do you really buy this?  I agree that women’s plays are judged on a different scale but I refuse to point the finger at other women.  Who are these sissy readers who are too soft to take a stand?  I know very few “soft” women.  In fact most of the creative women I know are full of Ideas, Spunk and Opinions.  Ladies, stand back because I am going to loudly proclaim my own personal belief that MEN reject women’s plays because they consider us too SOFT in our view of the REAL WORLD.
It’s a total lie.  And I set out to prove it to myself back in the 1970’s when I ran an Off-Off-Broadway style theatre in Hollywood, California.  I had cut my teeth OOB in the 1960’s writing, directing and acting in original plays that challenged the Theater Establishment of the time.  When I was lured out to Hollywood to run the Next Stage Theatre on La Brea Avenue I brought my perceptions of OOB with me. 
We would have weekly readings of one act plays by anyone who chose to bring them in, the ones voted as the best would be produced and all the readings would be totally BLIND.  The author was never revealed until after the critique and it was interesting to see how often a play was assumed to be by male or female depending on its tone.  I especially recall one quite eloquent play about men in love where all assumed it had to be written by a male.  When the female author stood up one of the men in the audience asked her in shocked tones,
Where did you learn about male sexuality?  What man helped you write this?” 
And she responded,
“Every man I ever loved! 
The play eventually moved to New York and ran Off Broadway for seven months.
History Lesson:  Edna St. Vincent Millay was 19 when she submitted her long poem “Renascence” to the National Poetry Contest for “The Lyric Year” magazine under the name E. St. Vincent Millay and WON hands down!  However, when she turned up at the magazine office, the Editor hastily rethought his decision and took First Prize away from her.  The other poets were angry at this decision saying that “Renascence” was the best poem in the volume, and the new winner stated in his acceptance speech that “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." and the second prize winner even offered her his $250 prize money in protest. 
So what happens when men or woman readers see a woman’s name on a manuscript?  I know what happens -  they DISBELIEVE!  If it’s by a woman it can’t be as bold and unique and imaginative and clever as it appears because women aren’t bold, unique, imaginative, etc.  Women are soft and into relationships and family and nurturing.  HA!  I adore women like that and wish I knew more of them.  The women I know are smart and shrewd and see through bullshit much quicker than men do.  A woman’s brain HAS NO GENDER, nor does a man’s.  Which is why men are able to write fabulous female characters and women are just as able to write great male roles. 
When I started writing plays my instincts told me to use a male name but my (male) agent at the time dissuaded me.  He insisted there was no bias against plays by female authors...
“Look at Lillian Hellman for God’s sake.” 
Yup, her again. 
Since I dislike having to lie, and I naively believed him, I boldly put my full, clearly-female name, Morna Murphy, on all manuscripts I sent out.  After years of no response I was a little taken aback when a rather sharp satire on race relations came back with a terse note addressed to
My dear Miss Murphy…
And scolding the little Irish lady for not understanding the reality of RACE in America.  This play had been done Off Off Broadway and received raves from the critics who “got it” but this guy wanted to spank me.  He read it and DISBELIEVED!
            Why must we keep having to fight the same old battles decade after decade?  All we ask is PARITY.  No special privileges.  No condescending patronage.  No NURTURING for God’s sake.  Put the play on and let us take our lumps.  We’re tough broads.  Rejection is an old friend.  In classical music there were hardly any women in heavily funded orchestras until they started auditioning ALL musicians behind a screen.  BLIND AUDITIONS! Women knew enough not to wear high heels that clicked and now orchestras are brimming with terrific women musicians - and they’re not all harpists. 
            So, about three years ago I decided to go gender neutral and submitted under M. Murphy Martell.  Well, in no time at all the phone was ringing and my husband was being informed that his play had won over 119 others and was head and shoulders over them all. 
“You must mean my wife’s play”
He said, and there was a long silence.
When I flew across the country to see the truly fabulous production of this play I was treated royally but one confidence from the producer disturbed me a bit. 
We were surprised to discover you were a woman author because we had another woman a few years back and she was intolerable.  Sat through every rehearsal and wouldn’t change a word and when the show finally went on she stormed out complaining and threatening to sue us.” 
What a silly bitch!  Hey, hearing this anyone would hesitate to produce another female writer, right?  After all, male playwrights always behave with cooperation and dignity and have respect for their co-workers and producers.  Ho, ho, ho!  Or is there a double standard I’m losing sight of here?
Since then, as this non-gender person, I have had other plays win contests, and have often been produced, but I perceive a strain enters the relationship when I first come clean.  Maybe it’s me, but the familiar camaraderie I have known and loved all my creative life seems somehow half-hearted.  In every case, the assumption was that I was male and perhaps my happy revelation seems a sort of betrayal. 
Are they afraid I’m a militant feminist? (I am a feminist but a very friendly one); that I will sit in on rehearsals and trip them up on every slight change of tone? (I stay away from rehearsals and confer with the director by phone); that when I see my play performed I will leap up and publicly denounce the whole lot of them? (never in a million years, actors are fragile creatures who always long to please the author);  will I sue the producer(s) for destroying my work? (nah, it’s happened, but I take my lumps and move on).
So how about having all play submissions blind?  Totally Blind.  So the Theatre Managers, Artistic Directors, Dramaturgs and Readers don’t know and don’t care about the Sex, Race, Age, Production Credits or University Degrees that a submitting playwright has.  All they’ll know is the PLAY, the WRITING, the ORIGINALITY, the STAGE WORTHINESS.   Let their enthusiasm for a play dictate and if the author turns out to be an 18-year old girl from the slums writing her first play tell them that was Shelagh Delaney whose “A Taste of Honey” was a Broadway hit, and welcome her with open arms.  Hey, this way they just might discover the next LILLIAN HELLMAN!