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A Play Takes Flight – The Making Of “Caitlin And The Swan”

by Karen Tortora-Lee on April 15, 2009

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caitlinIt was shocking, that first time in high school English class when my very Catholic, very quick-to-giggle sophomore class was taken through a reading of William Butler Yeats’ Leda and the Swan: A sudden blow: the great wings beating still // Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed // By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, // He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

Greek myth or not, there was something very evocative and real about it all, the idea of Leda being seduced by Zeus in feathered drag … it was a little naughty … a little worldly.  A little grown-up. I don’t think we ever understood why it was necessary for the all-powerful King of the Gods to take on the form of a bird in order to convince a woman to sleep with him, but regardless it left an impression on me, and apparently I wasn’t the only one; the myth obviously left an impression on Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry as well for when her writing teacher at the Yale School of Drama assigned her students to write a swan-themed play, Dorothy penned Caitlin and The Swan. The play that started its journey there now continues its voyage as it take wing at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st and A) starting April 16th.

I got a chance to sit down with Dorothy, as well as with Director Joshua Conkel, to chat about how this production got started; what they both enjoy about collaborating on this girl-meets-bird story; and the skills needed to produce large-themed theatre in small spaces.

It all began on a Youngblood writing retreat in the Poconos, of all places, where Josh and Dorothy first met. Josh, who is also the co-artistic director of THE MANAGEMENT, asked Dorothy to submit her play to the group and everyone agreed that it was exactly they were looking to do …

Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry

Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry

KTL:  So you just submitted Caitlin and the Swan? There was no reading first, no workshopping of the piece?
DOROTHY: Well the time up in the Poconos was a bit of a workshop, so that by the time it was presented to THE MANAGEMENT it was already a polished reading.

KTL:  And Josh, you just picked up the play as is … does that happen very often?
JOSH: Vary rarely … almost never, I think it never happens. Usually you’ll start with “Here’s a staged reading” of a piece, but this was the right play at the right time.
DOROTHY: Usually you get some readings and people stall out, there’s a lot of rejection. But the group here was great …
JOSH: … Our audience has become like a community. They’ll go out for drinks with us, hang out with us …
DOROTHY: We did a fundraiser and everyone who was there really wanted to be there. It was so impressive to see people come out on a Wednesday night to raise money for this show …

KTL: So why the name “Caitlin”? Personally, to me it’s one of those names-of-the-moment, like every 4th grade class had 12 Caitlins and they were being called Caitlin R and Caitlin B for distinction … Is that why you chose Caitlin? Because it’s evocative of an every-girl?
DOROTHY: I think I chose Caitlin because it seemed so specifically of a moment — the character is in her late 20s, and I do think there was a wave of people naming their kids Caitlin from like 1978-1985. I certainly always had a bunch of them in my classroom, too. For me, Caitlin is very much a product of her time — she was born after the wave of ’70s feminists; she took women’s studies classes in college; and yet she ends up in a very gender-traditional relationship, without ever really actively choosing it. I think she is a kind of everywoman of my generation and I wanted her name to invoke that.
There are questions I’m grappling with: what does it mean to be a woman of this generation and of this time period? … We saw this over the summer with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin .. we can do what we want but these old expectations still linger
In the beginning of the play there are these three women who’ve been friends for a while. And now they’re exploring the concept of “Here’s who we thought we’d be … here’s who we are … What was the promise versus who are we now? Through everything else, mythical and magical, what is this legacy?
JOSH: As a director and a queer person I found it interesting that Caitlin and the Swan is a about gender; what men and women are supposed to be as opposed to what their biology forces them to be and what happens when it comes to a head.
DOROTHY: It’s funny that it got the big response it did from gay men. It is about gender and sexuality but there are also these subconscious layers … and I realized “Of course that’s what I’m writing about!

KTL: That, and being an Animal LOVER as opposed to being a run-of-the-mill-PETA type Animal Lover …
DOROTHY: Yeah, I think the journey between animal loving and animal LOVING is what I’m trying to get at over the course of the whole play (so I don’t want to say too much up front). I will say that it’s less a play about animals and more a play about what’s taboo and forbidden and (as Josh put it) queer. I’m exploring what people want, what turns them on, and how rarely people actually pursue their desires. And the not always pretty consequences of what happens when they do. There’s a fierceness and a power to animals — they go after what they want ruthlessly — which I think people (and, in particular, women) have a lot of difficulty with. I wrote the play to poke holes in the Sex and the City model that women are always funny, they’re always having brunch. Nothing is safe.
JOSH: Of course it does one of these shame spirals (laughs) …
DOROTHY: I think there’s something really funny about watching people make mistakes …

KTL: Well you get the lesson and they get the consequences of the mistakes!
DOROTHY: There’s a sense that we live in NY so we’re fine with it all … and this play comes along and says “Really, well then what about this?
JOSH: I think it takes different things and exposes tolerance levels. It’s a very queer play about straight marriage.

KTL:   The press release says this play explores the twisted links between pain and love. Ahhh … is there any other kind? But what drove you to explore a twisted side rather than a hearts and flowers side of this? I don’t have much to go on here yet but I get the feeling this isn’t a comedy. So what came first, the mood or the story line? As in … “I want to explore a girl’s dark secret … hmmmm” … or “I want to explore bestiality, would that be funny, strange, sad, tragic, twisted, gory, uncomfortable (physically – to her), uncomfortable (mentally – to her … to the audience … to her friends)”?
DOROTHY: Oh, I totally set out to write a comedy. It’s just a comedy about the intersection of pain and love. I think the myth came first. For me, the central dilemma of Leda and the Swan is “Did she want it?” There are so many depictions of this woman and this swan-god in art and in literature, and they all depict it differently – some paint it as pure violence, some as a tender relationship, some somewhere in the middle. I started with this question of Leda’s consent – did she ask for it? did she enjoy it? And the play – it’s darkness and it’s comedy – is my answer.

KTL:   Josh, this seems to be a pretty heavy topic that needs to be handled gently. Moreover, it’s a play written by a woman, about a woman … there’s a fine line between being a strong voice for the writer and a misogynist. How did you balance those two things?
JOSH: The play deals with frank subject matter like sexuality and gender roles, but is so flirty and fun in most of its story telling that I actually worry very little about its alienating anybody. The play takes a dark turn at the end, which I won’t give away here, but I hope it will catch people off guard after the rest of the play, which is so much fun. I expect to hear a lot of giggling. My experience is that everybody likes to talk about sex, but nobody wants to be the one to bring it up.
I did worry that my direction could seem misogynistic from time to time, because of course I have no earthly idea what it’s like being a woman. I have a leg up on other men though… the play, in addition to being about women, is a play about queerness, which I have twenty-eight years of experience with. I tried to approach the “otherness” of each character in terms of how they’re handling their problems with relationships and their societal roles, be they gender or otherwise. I found that was the best way to connect to them for me.

KTL:   By choosing this topic what do you hope the audience walks away with?
DOROTHY: I hope the audience has fun, I hope the audience gets scared, I hope the audience gets turned on, I hope the audience gets grossed out, and I kind of hope all these things happen at the same time.

Director Josh Conkel

Director Josh Conkel

KTL:  What are some things you watched out for, as a director, so that this play didn’t take an unintended turn? How do you get the audience on your side?
JOSH: The world of the play is somewhat heightened, but the trick is figuring out how heightened. If you go too far over the top, the audience isn’t along for the journey. If you don’t go far enough the play never comes to life. I find its best to create the form of the play first-the overall shape and tempo and style- because if you do it correctly, everything else has a way of falling into place. In terms of directing actors in heightened work, its a matter of convincing them to come to the world of the play and not pulling the world of the play to themselves. After all, you wouldn’t use the method to perform Moliere.

KTL:  What are your other plays like? Is there a theme you find yourself coming back to over and over?
DOROTHY: Hmmm, well, this is my only play about swans. So, that’s new! There are things about Caitlin and the Swan which are different from my other plays — it’s definitely got the frankest discussion of sexuality that I’ve written yet. However, even though the form and the subject matter is different, its attitude is in line with my other writing. I’m interested in poking holes in assumptions and tackling uncomfortable topics – through character, content, and theatricality. And I really mean uncomfortable topics, uncomfortable for people anywhere in the country of any persuasion. I wouldn’t define my work as “political theater” by any stretch but I do think there’s a politics of contrariness that I bring to my plays. My plays always come out of situations where I want to argue both sides of the coin. If there’s a question I can’t satisfactorily answer, probably I should write about it.

KTL:   Do you find that you write to inspire, to win people over, to shock, or do you just write whatever comes to mind?
DOROTHY: I write out of strong desire, unanswerable questions, unpredictable characters, and lots of Earl Grey tea. I certainly hope that people are inspired, won over, shocked, mad, aroused, tickled, and disoriented from their axes, but I can’t really control how an audience is going to respond. All I can try to do is tell the truth in my peculiar way, and hope other people want to come along for the ride.
JOSH: I started writing plays because I was an actor and there was no parts for me; then I became a director in order to do my own plays!

KTL:   Dorothy, Josh is a writer as well as a director … so on the flip side: would you ever, or have you ever, tried your hand at directing?
DOROTHY: Yes, I did direct, way back in the day … when I was at Yale I directed a new work that was written and performed by a student, it was a one man show. Watching other people direct reminds me how totally consuming it is — I would dream about it, thinking of what needed to be done, staging I wanted to block. When I’m writing, on the other hand, I go through my most consuming period before all the others are brought in … but when you’re directing, you go through it as your staging it.
JOSH: For me, it’s linked, I write like a director, I explain how it should be staged right in the script (laughs).

KTL:  So, having directed then, Dorothy, do you ever have the urge to re-direct something Josh is doing with the play?
DOROTHY: I feel like our conversations consist of “We wanna get to there? How?” We tend to be pretty on point.
JOSH: The difficulty is getting actors to go where they need to go. We have great actors, but generally actors don’t see the scope of the work, by definition.
DOROTHY: I’m very happy to leave the question of “how” to Josh, as long as we’re in tune on the “what“.

KTL:   UNDER St. Mark’s is a small space … were there any artistic changes you made based on the intimacy of the space that you would have done differently in say, the Shubert Theatre? Some people say that Urinetown suffered once it moved onto Broadway because it had more of a Fringe Festival feel and wasn’t intended to get so big. Of course, it did, and it was successful. So if something like that happened to Caitlin, without giving away too much of the plot, what would you change to make it play better in a bigger space?
JOSH: I could go on and on about this. I would love to have floating, revolving, amazing sets like a Broadway show! That said, UNDER St. Mark’s is one of the most charming spaces in Manhattan (I don’t care what anybody says) and has become a second home to us. Its smallness and overall quirkiness has been a big part of us build an audience of young down town folks, a lot of whom never go to the theater except to see our plays. It has a sexy, subversive feeling that lends itself to our work.

THE MANAGEMENT - Creators of Black & Blue Theater

THE MANAGEMENT - Creators of Black & Blue Theater

KTL: Josh, you’re also the artistic director of The Management. The mission statement says:  The Management creates a haven for a community of artists and patrons to experience relevant, moving, unpretentious, aesthetically and financially accessible theater. We are known for our dark whimsy and critical exposés on American culture, while building rock-solid, visceral entertainment.
In November a slim majority of Californians voted to remove an existing right of gay and lesbian couples. Just this week both Iowa and Vermont decided to allow same sex marriage. The Pope recently said in a speech that condom usage increased the spread of HIV. Bristol Palin had a baby out of wedlock and then came out in favor of preventative sex education. To get to the point, there’s always a war in this country between what is true about sexuality and gender and marriage and what is supposed to be true about such things but isn’t. I think this play lives in these dilemmas and explores them in a really thoughtful and funny way, without too many black and white answers.
DOROTHY: I think because Josh is a playwright he comes in knowing, “you worked on this and it was hard“, that’s what makes him a great director of new work, he never tries to start rewriting your play. That’s what makes The Management so successful. Everyone wears 4 hats and wears them well.
JOSH:   Well, you have to. I’ve read a statistic that most small production companies last less than one year. We’ve been around 5 years. And I think it’s because we’re more careful careful and precious about other’s writing.

KTL:   So, do you think you’ll do more collaborations together?
DOROTHY: I hope so! That would be fabulous!
JOSH: Definitely!

KTL: I look forward to seeing what comes out of this partnership in the future!  Thanks, Dorothy and Josh, for taking time to sit with me and give me the whole story.  I can’t wait to see the play!

Caitlin and The Swan will be running at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st and A) April 16-May 2, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. Tickets ($18) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at

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