I’m starting a new series here. Once a month, I hope to interview someone about how they work, why they do what they do, how they manage life outside of work, and anything else I feel like I must know the answer to. My goal is to inspire and encourage readers (including myself) to take a few steps in doing something they think they’d like to do, but aren’t sure they can do it.
The title of the series is a nod to Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The scariest, most haunting story I’ve ever read. Most of the people I hope to interview here are those who have not only accomplished great and interesting things, but they play around with doubt, fear, and struggle. Somehow they use who they were (not just who they are or how they’ve changed), what they’ve experienced, what they’ve seen or heard in their lives today. I find their lives full of grace and I admire them for it.
One of the people I admire a great deal, and who happens to be one of my best friends, is Cara Gabriel. Cara will be performing I AM THE GENTRY in The Fringe Festival this month (links below), and I say do yourself a favor and come out to see her perform. Here’s a clip from the event description on Brown Paper Bag Tickets:
“I AM THE GENTRY is a witty, unabashedly honest solo performance that traces one woman’s life as she realizes her role in the gentrification of her Washington, DC neighborhood. The play hilariously and provocatively deconstructs notions of racial and socio-economic stereotypes and redefines the nature of community in a transitional neighborhood.
Expert raconteur, humorist and theatre professor Cara Gabriel moved to D.C. a decade ago and purchased a home in a ‘transitional’ neighborhood. I AM THE GENTRY chronicles Gabriel’s adventures and foibles in her new, unfamiliar surroundings: her beagle takes on a pair of pitbulls, she dances at a neighborhood shrine to Michael Jackson, and strolls her baby through an arrest-in-progress, all while poignantly examining her role in the process of neighborhood gentrification.”
I had the privilege of reading a few of Cara’s drafts over the years, and while there is no argument Ms Gabriel can write, when you see her perform it is like a light switch has been turned on. Her facial expressions alone speak volumes.
Today, I am asking Cara a few questions about her script, her writing process, revision, how to tell a story, and any advice she has to folks who are interested in writing.
CF: I’ve known about this project since I think 2010, when we first met. I know it’s gone through many revisions, you’ve added and subtracted a lot, etc. Can you talk about your revision process? What’s been difficult to put aside? Do you ever get frantic (as I do) when you think you have to walk away from the story? I don’t trust myself that I have the discipline to go back and finish it, but I know that a lot of times giving a story some space is the best thing I can do for it. Talk a little about your revision process.
Cara: The revision process for this piece has been exhausting. It usually is, I suppose, but the sheer length of the revision process has been the toughest part. And the revision process for this piece has been unique because I’ve had 4 different directors over the past 5 years, and each director has pushed me toward further revisions. Every time I’ve performed the play it’s gotten a little tighter, a little closer to what I intended to do in the first place. In some ways it begs the question whether any piece of writing is ever really “done.” The great thing about doing this piece as a work of theatre is that theatre is, by definition, collaborative. So in some ways the discipline part is less self-imposed and more imposed by one’s collaborators, or the need to have a new draft at rehearsal the next night. In theatre we are always showing our work to other people in the room, which makes for a sort of built-in accountability. And oh my YES has giving the stories some SPACE helped. In the past almost 10 years that I’ve been working on this, I’ve had a LOT of time to reflect, change my mind, and refine what I want to say and how. So I think the work has gotten better. But it also can be too much time. I’ve found myself getting sick of some of the stories. In rehearsal I’ll sometimes stop and ask, “Am I still talking? Is anyone else bored yet?” But for production purposes every time I tell the story it has to feel like the first time.
CF: When I first met you, you were working on GENTRY and planning on it being a book. Is this still a goal of yours? How is telling a story (via drama) different from writing a story? Do you find one helps the other?
Cara: Yes! It is still a major goal. In hindsight I wish I had just finished the book first, then moved toward the one-woman show. The show has definitely put the book on hold, which always feels a little sad to me. The show is obviously significantly shorter, but beyond that I’ve really tried to eliminate all of the bits that “tell” the audience something. I’m really trying to focus on keeping things active and “showing” the audience as much as I can. That’s a good exercise in writing, in general, I think. Having to write for a 60-75 minute time slot has also made me a ruthless editor. I can cut to what’s important really well now. But if you know any publishers interested in a book-length version, I have one…
CF: I remember reading drafts that bring the reader back to your days as a child and being very close to the work your mother did. Can you talk a bit about how her work and what that has to do with GENTRY?
Cara: My mom is the Chief Operating Officer of Saint Anne Institute in Albany, NY (http://stanneinstitute.com/). From the website:
St. Anne Institute is a private, not for profit, secular residential and community based preventive service agency committed to providing the highest level of care and rehabilitation services in the briefest time to children and families throughout New York State.
In other words, it is a school and residential community for teenage girls in need. There is also a pre-school program.
Because of the many cuts I’ve had to make for the show, my mom only appears once in this version. But in the book-length version she features quite prominently. She is a social worker and has been at St. Anne’s since before I was born. She and my dad were group home parents and that’s where I spent the first two years of my life. Without St. Anne’s and my mom’s experience there, I’m not sure I would have the depth of understanding of the human condition and of how race, class, and education can have such a profound impact on the course of a human life. My mother is basically an angel. A wild, wacky, angel with a killer laugh and great fashion sense.
CF:Whenever I see you perform GENTRY, or read drafts, I am hoping for a few of my favorite scenes. Do you have any favorite parts? Along the same lines, do you have any parts that, when you sat down to write, thought, “I don’t really think this will go anywhere,” and then surprised yourself with what happened on the page?
Cara:I do have a few favorite parts! I love the story about the pit bulls, and there’s a section about a woman from our neighborhood named Skinny Marie. I’ve also been working on the ending with my director, and I have a renewed love for the ending based on some of the oral storytelling work I’ve been doing with that.
Chapter endings always surprised me a bit. I will often write without a sense of where I want to go. Instead I focus on telling an interesting story, and somewhere in the middle I ask myself, ok but what does this story mean? Why this story (or chapter) here and now? That question is probably why my chapters all seem to have a sort of similar rhythm at the ending, and I’ve come to enjoy the consistency of that rhythm. Those same questions actually led to a re-ording of chapters for this most recent draft as well, which I didn’t expect and now like quite a lot.
CF:This story is Creative Nonfiction (a genre I happen to adore), and one thing I have a lot of respect for is your ability to write the story as it is happening. I am rarely able to do that. Plus, you wrote while your first child was an infant. Emotions are high then, don’t you think? I have a difficult time sitting with a story as it’s happening. I also think you are still living the story. Can you address how you write about something while it’s happening? Can you also talk a little bit about where you are now (where you live, what you do, etc.)
Cara:Aren’t we all just fighting a constant battle with Time? So when I have a moment (or, more typically, a deadline), I just take whatever story is at the tip of my mind and I WRITE. And because my memory is also so fuzzy, I seem to do better when a story is happening, or very fresh. I do very well when I have a sense of urgency, which probably speaks to my ability to write a story while it’s happening and my ability to write with infants. I have done some of my most productive writing when my kids were infants (geez maybe I should have another… No.). I think having kids honestly kicked me into gear and made me even more productive. It is so easy to waste time, but when you have kids you begin to realize how much free time you had before, so I started to really embrace whatever moments of quiet and freedom I had—no matter how short. I also thrive in times of heightened emotion, so even though I felt a little bonkers, having kids actually helped me as an artist.
CF: When I went to hear GENTRY a couple of years ago, one thing I was impressed with (besides those incredible shoes, and your performance) was the discussion the audience had after the show. It felt like a dialogue, rather than people standing up and belligerently saying, “This is MY story, and here’s where Cara is wrong….” One thing I get tired of lately is the lack of storytelling and instead, this venting tone prevails. Some people call it “clickbait.” But as a narrator, you are doing something different here. You allow people to walk alongside you, and you somehow say, “Look, I don’t know the answers. Here’s my story anyway.” Can you talk about how you did that?
Cara:First of all, thank you so much. That is a major goal of mine with this piece. I get very frustrated with people who think they know everything, or people who adopt a self-righteous or sanctimonious tone in their writing. I’m a college professor, and one of the reasons I became a professor is because one of my highest values is lifelong learning. I yearned to spend time in an environment that would promote intellectual inquiry, and an environment in which I could not just teach, but perhaps more importantly learn from and alongside my students. I’m thrilled that more questions than answers come across in my writing. Like you, I generally write to figure things out, not to tell people things I already know.
CF: You are a mother, a professor, a wife, and you write (not an exhaustive list). What advice would you give to women, specifically mothers, who want to write? What would you say to someone who says, “I really want to write but I don’t know where or how to start? Also, I’m exhausted because my newborn baby won’t sleep?” What about words is helpful for a mother?
Cara:First of all I would say, “Know that you are not alone.” Then I would say, “Know that this will not last forever. Someday you will sleep again.” Then I would say, “Forgive yourself for not being as productive as you want to be.” And then, “Banish all thoughts of ‘all of those other women’ who seem to be so much more productive than you.” Beyond that, I don’t know how much wisdom I have to impart. Breathe, be kind to yourself, love your children, own your choices, and live the life you want to live. If you want to write, you WILL write. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it will come. Trust the power of your own desire to be creative, trust the power of your own will. Finally, know that motherhood, especially the earliest years, can be an excruciatingly lonely thing. If you can’t find time to write, find time to read. It will help you feel less alone.
I don’t think we could end on a better piece of advice then that: find time to read; it will help you feel less alone. Always, always, find time to read. Thank you, Cara.
I AM THE GENTRY will appear at The Hyman Perlman Studio in Dance Place in Washington, DC as part of The Capital Fringe Festival 2015. Show dates and times are:
7/9 at 8:30pm
7/12 at 4:30pm
7/16 at 6:15pm
7/22 at 6:30pm
7/25 at 2:30pm
And here’s the link for tickets. Don’t forget that you also need a Capital Fringe button.
I AM THE GENTRY will also appear at United Solo in NYC on September 29, 2015. More info and tickets available here: