Never keep a story waiting. That’s what they say. The story, in this case, is Olivia Gowan, an emerging playwright whose new piece, Cotton Alley, is enjoying its world premiere at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach. Gowan, a young, vibrant woman, has arrived on time at the friendly bistro for our face-time interview, but, San Marco being situated as it is, in the midst of an unrepentant and equally unpredictable spider’s web of railway traffic, I sit waiting at a train crossing about five blocks away. Although the modern miracle of texting makes it possible for me to offer my apologies and updates easily, it’s poor form, and I know it.
Fortunately for me, Gowan’s beginnings in Macon, Georgia, inform her sense of propriety, and upon my arrival, her warm welcome demonstrates the kind of cordial Southern grace so typical in her work. She’s contentedly ordered a frosty libation while waiting, and instantly looks for a way to make sure I feel comfortable — a job usually delegated to the interviewer, not the interviewee. As our meeting progresses, we’re able to establish a connected, conversational tone that belies the fabricated reasons for the chat. Although we’re breaking bread and spirits for a specific reason, it’s easy to be lulled into the idea that, in a different time, we might be sitting on the front porch, kvetching over a couple of mint juleps.
Forgiveness and redemption, which are woven tightly through the fields and shotgun shacks and spiritual scars of fictional Pinebrooke, Georgia, in Cotton Alley, pretty clearly plays a big role in Gowan’s life as well. “I write to heal,” she says. “I used this story to understand my own self worth and how to forgive, move forward, and not allow the past to keep reoccurring into the next generation.” Which makes perfect sense, of course, for this story that began with a sorry-I’m-late text from the wrong side of the tracks.
Breaking out of the reoccurring paradigm and bringing new and vital life to the stage has been the driving aim of Joe Schwarz, PBTS’ executive director, throughout his 35-year career in the theater. From his early days at his Common Stage Theatre in Woodstock, New York, to his tenure in Jax Beach, which began 14 years ago, new works by emerging playwrights, Schwarz’s dedication has championed new works by emerging playwrights. Now, formally personified locally in PBTS’ inaugural New Voices initiative, the drive and the dream have merged with reality.
“It’s why I do theater,” Schwarz says. “I have always sought out works by diverse men and, in particular, women, as they are so incredibly under-published and under-produced.” To those who follow the local theater scene, this should come as no surprise. In fact, it might be said that the current wave of locally produced new works by local playwrights started with the swell produced at the Beaches’ community theater. Recent years have seen PBTS productions of plays by some now-notable hometown writers, including Al Letson (creator of NPR’s Peabody award-winning State of the Re:Union), Ian Mairs (the force behind Swamp Radio), Barbara Colaciello, Jeff Grove, and Josh McTiernan (himself the director of Gowan’s Cotton Alley).
When speaking about New Voices, and the buzz the initiative is creating already, just weeks after its announcement, Schwarz is precise. “[Producing original works by new writers] is nothing new to Players by the Sea. I’m a little flummoxed with the perceived ‘newness.’ [We’ve] been doing this important work for decades, long before it was a box to check on a grant application or a blog/Facebook grandiloquence.”
Indeed, he says, developing a formal program for local playwrights has always been a part of the plan. “It’s what attracted me to Players by the Sea in the early nineties when I decided to move south and escape the brutal NY winters,” Schwarz notes, citing the success he had early on, creating a thriving environment for writers at Common Sense. “We would post an ad in the Dramatists Guild Newsletter requesting original scripts by women, and would receive over 100 properties to read. No Internet in those days! The mailbox would overflow! We’d spend three to four months vetting and considering works for readings and production, and present 4-5 readings and two full productions [in a single season].”
Perhaps this is why, as he strongly notes that production of Cotton Alley is not a part of the New Voices story arc, he is no less passionate about the work Gowan has created in Cotton Alley. “I have enormous respect for [Gowan] as an artist, and have enjoyed watching her grow. She is en extremely passionate and focused woman who sets goals and sees them through.”
“Joe has been very open and positive from the beginning about supporting my work. He understands that community theatre is about supporting the local artist,” replies Gowan about her relationship with Schwarz through the Cotton Alley genesis. Indeed, such a positive working relationship between playwright and producer is critical when bringing new work to the stage, and theater, being perhaps the most collaborative of the fine arts, works best when everyone is on the same page, metaphorically speaking.
When I ask Gowan about the process of mounting the show, she perks up, her cheeks warming in tone. “Watching my words come to life is the reason I wrote in the first place,” she says with a teeth-bearing smile. “It is that moment in life that an artist waits for, that awe and that completeness of everything to make sense from the heart, to the mind, to manifestation.” But isn’t it tough, I ask her, as she was a real presence in rehearsals throughout the production process, to sit there, watching actors stumble over your carefully-chosen vocabulary, the play’s director painting his interpretation of your narrative, his sense of character motivation to the people you created? Are you more of a “helicopter mom” when it comes to your work, or are you, like, “Fly! Be free!”
“I would say I am a ‘Fly! Be free!’ mom, but maybe you should ask my actors and my director that question,” she chuckles. “Treating it biblically, to my definition, would mean you’re okay with lots of interpretations and some word interchanges — as long as you know the truth of the story and its subtext and heartbeat — I was okay with that.”
There’s an ease to her when she speaks about it, and this fact may be more about seasoning than anything else. After graduating with her BFA in theatre from Valdosta State at age 21, Gowan moved to Los Angeles to pursue her goals as an actress and playwright. And although she says it was, at the time, more about getting out of Georgia than living the dream, there’s no denying that her time on the left coast was a tempering agent that allows her to achieve at her current level of success. And this is not Gowan’s first step into the pool of having her words come to life on stage.
“I did manage to have a three one-acts and two full length plays produced in LA, and took extended classes at UCLA even though I didn’t fully commit to being a writer,” she says. But ten years keeping afloat in LA-LA-Land take their toll, to be sure, and in her thirties, she decided that life was about more. Coming to Jacksonville, where her father and his wife lived, seemed like as good a place to regroup for a fresh approach as any. After getting a “regular job” here in the 904, she still considered a return to SoCal.
“I had the hope to transfer back out to LA with [her employer], but that never happened, and I have remained in Jacksonville,” she says. Eventually, an acting class at PBTS with improv guru and then-education director Colaciello introduced Gowan to the possibilities and opportunities for her to make a difference in the local theater arena, and she ended up cast in her first PBTS production. Her theater training and chops served her well, but what about the balance of writing versus acting? Which muse speaks more clearly?
“I believe writing is more natural, it taps into my spirituality more deeply than acting,” she opines. “When I am confused, questioning or exploring, writing seems to be more instinctual and second nature. But I enjoy both greatly, and one without the other doesn’t make sense to me. I will never stop acting and I will never stop writing.” Writing, it seems, called to her from her early days. As a little girl, “I wrote on my grandmother’s old typewriter in hopes to write novels — and the sequel to “Gone with the Wind,” which I did try to do. But I never thought about being a playwright until it was introduced in college.”
THE LAND OF COTTON
Mounting any full-length production is a daunting task, and can be even more challenging when dealing with a previously unproduced piece. Fortunately, Schwarz has the experience and the nose for what works and what doesn’t, as well as the love for emerging writers that spurs him to continue producing new works. The meeting of Gowan and Schwarz seems like a little piece of destiny for local theatergoers.
Although he was already familiar with her as an actor, Schwartz recalls seeing the first blossoms of Cotton Alley in a scene at the PBTS Fringe Festival in 2011. “Although Cotton Alley was unpolished at that time, and the story was not fully fleshed out, I really enjoyed Olivia’s writing style. I knew she was a writer.”
From this point, Schwarz took a more keen interest in helping shape the production for performance. While working with Schwarz, Gowan, dedicated to the project, dived in from her end, too. This meant, of course, endless writing and re-writing, as well as getting feedback from a playwright’s collective she formed called The Groundling Scribes. But a writer’s life is, in the end, a solitary one, and the writing process comes down to a few critical elements for her.
“I think about my characters for awhile. I observe life around me for those characters’ lives to start to exist from the mind to the page,” she says. “Sometimes I drive for hours with the music blasting, or walk on the beach for miles, escaping into my thoughts.” She also finds that a certain routine works wonders.
“I usually write in the mornings, and I can write up to 6-8 hours non stop. I begin the process by writing in a notebook with pen and then transfer it into a computer. And then after I finish some cohesive scenes I bring them to my writing group to hear them read out loud and to get feedback.”
Regardless of the process, the proof is, as they say, in the performance when it comes to staging a play. And the production of Cotton Alley does ample justice to showcasing Gowan’s words, her work, and her way with language. Cut from the cloth of a steep Southern gothic tradition, her tale of wounded and wayward life in a tiny Georgia farming town, the show could easily be picked up and comfortably produced in other markets. But the story started here, with Gowan’s inspiration, and shepherded by Schwarz’s swarthy experience. As written, the characters and intentions come off the page nicely, and creep into the subconscious the way a well-written piece should.
“Her writing is brilliant and informative,” echoes Schwarz. “It lacks any trace of ego. Olivia just tells the story with a careful economy or words. She makes brilliant choices with language. Her characters are rich and developed yet not overwrought. We leave Pinebrooke, Georgia, with questions. She doesn’t make up our minds for us. She tells her story and asks us to consider it and draw our own conclusions.”