Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, the new play from Allison and Margaret Engel, opens October 9, 2015 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
Allison Engel (playwright) has been a reporter for the Des Moines Tribune, San Jose Mercury and Pacific News Service, and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. She and her twin Margaret wrote the play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. She also has been a speechwriter and aide for former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and lieutenant governor Sally Pederson. In Iowa, she was active in the Des Moines Playhouse, serving as president and head of play selection. She recently spent five years as director of communications at the University of Southern California before becoming the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the university. She received an MA in screenwriting from USC in 2009. She is married to Scott Kirkpatrick, and they have two children, Miles and Nora. Follow her on Facebook: Allison Engel
Margaret Engel directs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation and was the managing editor of the Newseum. She was a reporter for the Washington Post, Des Moines Register and Lorain Journal and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard. She and Allison wrote Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them, and helped turn the book into a show for Food Network, where it ran for seven years. She serves on the board of theatreWashington/Helen Hayes Awards, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards board. She and her husband, Bruce Adams, wrote three editions of a travel guide to America’s baseball parks, with the help of their children, Emily and Hugh. Follow her on Facebook: Margaret Engel
They responses to our questions collaboratively.
Why are you a playwrights?
Live theater has few limits; you can invent characters, timelines and settings, and with a few words, the audience is in that world. Playwrights also have much more sway than screenwriters, whose visions often have to be filtered through directors, studios and marketing departments.
What type of theatre most excites you?
Plays and musicals that keep you guessing or that present a serious theme in an unexpected way. Example: Allison recently saw Hairspray again. When she saw it on Broadway years ago, she remembered the costumes and music. A recent production in Los Angeles made her concentrate more on the civil rights message, and get a deeper appreciation for what a brilliant musical it is.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT’S END
October 9 – November 8, 2015
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Details and Tickets
What starts a play moving in your imaginations?
We’re never going to run out of ideas. We read newspapers and magazines and connections and uncovered angles just jump out at us. Sometimes things are extremely literal, such as the children’s musical we’re working on, When the Cat Circus Met the Flea Circus. The idea came after one of us went to a flea circus in NYC and then saw a very bad cat circus in Los Angeles.
Describe your writing day.
We’ve been journalists for many years, so we can write anywhere. We do best early in the morning, but we’ve been writing on deadline for decades, so we rarely have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. You write – and then rewrite and rewrite. Another advantage of starting out in busy and noisy newsrooms is that we can concentrate no matter what else is going on around us.
How did you choose this play to debut at the Festival?
We both have had wonderful experiences at Arena Stage, and are grateful to Molly Smith for her encouragement for both plays we have had produced there. Erma Bombeck was the epitome of a woman’s voice being heard across America. As popular as she was, we don’t think she has received the acclaim that is due her. She was the most widely read columnist in the history of the country, as well the author of more than a dozen best-selling books. Yet she never won the Pulitzer Prize and is rarely mentioned in journalism schools. Most likely, her subject matter – families and children – was not considered as important as the thoughts of political pundits. Yet she chronicled a very important transformation in the lives of ordinary women in this country. Our play highlights her voice and so was a natural choice for the Festival.
Which female playwrights have influenced your writing and how?
Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room), Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles), Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), Beth Henley (The Jeffersonian), Marsha Norman (night, Mother). An obvious observation, but all of them write about women’s relationships.
What’s missing from theatre today?
More one-woman shows, more experiential theater where plays are combined with 3-D and full dome projections.
What are you working on now?
We have been working on and off for the past few years on a play about Damon Runyon, at the request of his literary estate. His life was even more colorful than the characters he wrote about. Our problem thus far has been that he truly lived seven lifetimes in one. He could be his own mini-series.
Answer this: “If I weren’t a playwright, I would be … ”
Writing books, screenplays, magazine articles – all of which we have done and continue to do.