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Behind Salon Doors

Kicking off the L.A. Writers' Workshop


Staff and playwrights in the Kirk Douglas Theatre rehearsal room.

“What’s it like to punch someone in the face?” playwright Ngozi Anyanwu asked mixed martial artist Ashlee Evans-Smith. They were sitting in the Kirk Douglas Theatre rehearsal room, where the 2019/20 L.A. Writers’ Workshop had just kicked off with its annual Salon. From a clinical psychologist and Jesuit priest to an anthropologist and African American art curator, nearly a dozen experts from around Los Angeles dropped in on the three-day event to help seven local playwrights gain insight into the subjects of the new works they’re developing with Center Theatre Group’s support.

On Friday, November 8, 2019, introductions and dinner welcomed the group to this artistic community. “The opening weekend gives everyone the sense of safety and excitement that promotes earlessness and creativity. Our goal is for everyone to feel valued and supported by the group,” said Associate Artistic Director/Literary Director Neel Keller. “To spend a weekend together sharing meals and ideas—along with having wild, varied, and interesting conversations—is a great way to start the year.” Each playwright is allotted about an hour to lead a Q&A session with one or two experts in the topic the playwright has chosen.

There was no inquiry the experts couldn’t answer—for instance, in response to Anyanwu’s initial question, Evans-Smith went on to explain that, for her, throwing a punch is methodical and tactical, rather than emotional.

L-R: Kenneth Lin and Adelina Anthony.

Playwright Dionna Michelle Daniel, who is working on two plays—a theatrical revision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a semi-autobiographical play about family secrets—said the most “mind-blowing” thing she learned at the Salon was that New York City’s iconic nightclub, the Cotton Club, was highly segregated. Daniel also said talking with experts “made the ideas and themes of my play much more personable—it’s a much better experience to speak with the experts than scouring Google for information.”

Adelina Anthony, who is working on a sci-fi play that incorporates Nahuatl codex imagery and mexihcatl tradition, was excited to discover that there are plans to make the Florentine Codex (which translates and transcribes Aztec history) accessible online. “Speaking to my own experts made me realize the terrain I want to explore in my play are vast areas of knowing and not-knowing,” she said. “This liminal space is always attractive to me as an artist, because it’s in the shades of gray that I find affirmation of our collective humanity.”

Hearing from other people’s experts was beneficial because it sparked other story/ character possibilities for me. I know I have so much to synthetize and process creatively over the coming months—and that’s a good feeling to have.

But what is also exciting about the weekend is that the playwrights gain additional knowledge about subjects they never anticipated exploring—a phenomenon that seems to happen every year, noted Keller. He said the playwrights often end up incorporating the ideas of the experts who were invited by other members of the cohort.

“I felt that some of the topics the other experts spoke on correlated so brilliantly to my own work—and even if they didn’t have anything to do with my own work, all of them were so captivating,” said Daniel, who even thinks the conversation between Evans-Smith and Anyanwu will find its way in her work. “Her stories about being a woman in the mixed martial arts world were awesome.”

Anthony felt the same. “Hearing from other people’s experts was beneficial because it sparked other story/character possibilities for me,” said Anthony. “I know I have so much to synthetize and process creatively over the coming months—and that’s a good feeling to have.”

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