I meet Chelsea’s words before I ever had the priviledge of meeting her in person. I was stage managing a massive show with Collaboraction a few years back and one of the sketches performed was written by Chelsea. I’d seen her name a few times throughout the theater circle I was in. Whenever I read her words or saw her plays, I loved them. She simply has a way with words. I love the way that she tells a story. Her voice and theatrical vision is very unique and special. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Chelsea outside the theater too. Whenever she makes trips to New York, she makes it a point to reach out and we share a meal, a conversation or a good laugh. Sometimes it happens all at once. You SHOULD know Chelsea and if you do not….
Everyone meet CHELSEA MARCANTEL!
SLY: What kind of artist are you?
CM: I’m a playwright, and I teach playwrighting. I’m also a theatrical director.
SLY: How have you learned what you know?
CM: I started writing stories and poems almost as soon as I knew how to read, so the first way I learned to write was by reading voraciously. In college at LSU I double majored in Theatre Performance and English Creative Writing. I learned fundamentals in college that I’m grateful for, and I learned a lot about writing for the theatre from acting, which I did from about age eight into my twenties. But most of what I know has been sussed out through trial and error – that’s why I love the new play development process so much. The more I work with smart people on focused collaboration, the more I grow as an artist. I look at plays I wrote even a few years ago and I’m astounded by the gaps that I can see in them. I’m constantly revising older plays because I learn so much every time I workshop a new one.
SLY: Why do you think art is important?
CM: There are several reasons I think all art is important, but I’m a theatre artist so I’ll speak to that specifically. I recently read a quote from Bill English of San Francisco’s SF Playhouse, which sums up my thoughts in a beautiful nutshell: “Theatre is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves.” I can’t imagine a more important mission than that one. Theatre prepares us for life because good theatre is a penetration into life, not an escape from it. I recently saw a documentary where a scientist revealed that nightmares are our brain’s way of preparing us for scary situations, and that modern humans have versions of the same nightmares our ancient ancestors did. I think that theatre functions in this way as well, to prepare us for situations currently outside of our experience, and that’s why we still tell stories with the same basic themes our ancestors did.
SLY: What and who inspires you?
CM: I’m inspired by people who make their own art and don’t worry about selling it. That’s not to say that I don’t give credit to people who are commercially successful, I do, if the success is a byproduct of that art hitting a genuine nerve with the public. I’m also incredibly inspired by women writers and directors. Anne Bogart, Anna Deavere Smith, Mindy Kaling, and Tina Fey are fascinating to me.
SLY: What are you currently working on?
CM: I have four current projects that cover the spectrum from idea-germ to nearly complete. On one end, I have a play opening in Chicago at the beginning of May in Chicago. It’s called DEVOUR, it’s about a socialite serial killer, and this will be the premiere of that play. I’ll be in Chicago for previews and opening, and based on the performance and audience/actor response, I might do one more draft of that script. Then that play will be pretty set for now.
CM: I have another show I’m working on that will hopefully see a public reading at the end of August, also in Chicago. It’s called YOUNG FRONTIER, it’s in about its fifth draft, and it centers around the privatized space race and the human need for exploration.
CM: I also have a reading coming up on May 11th in New York, of a play called EVEN LONGER AND FARTHER AWAY; that’s a second draft, and I can’t wait to hear it out loud. This play is about two sisters: one is dying, and one will live forever.
CM: Once all three of those plays are in a good place, I’ll start outlining my newest idea, which is just kind of a nebulous cloud of themes and characters that took root during a road trip last weekend.
SLY: What has been the highlight of your artistic career?
CM: I hope I haven’t reached it yet, honestly. I’ve won a few awards, which were great. I was accepted to the Dramatists Guild Chicago Intensive in 2011, which was a real turning point because I quit my 9-5 day job to be there. Being asked to teach a Playwrighting class at Virginia Intermont College in the fall of this year was a fantastic opportunity. Meeting the people I consider some of my dearest friends, and of course working on the production where I met my husband Miles (and Sheena!), have been phenomenal experiences. But I don’t think there’s any one event I can point to as the highlight. I hope I’m still working toward it.
SLY: What, if any, artistic mistakes have you made?
CM: There have been times I haven’t stood up for my own art, and I regret them. As a writer, you’re often in an interesting position where you want people to like your work, and you’re so grateful that they’re producing it, that you can find yourself getting walked over. In theatre, a playwright is the only position where it’s easier for a theatre to use a dead one than a live one. So you’re conscious of how fortunate you are to get a production, and you want to collaborate, sincerely, but there are limits that must be imposed. I learned at some point that there would be no one to protect my work if I didn’t impose those limits myself. I had to really coach myself that the things about my work I won’t negotiate are ultimately going to make the play better for the audience, and so they’re sacred. I used to think that the mark of a good collaborator was ultimate flexibility, which resulted in several really awful plays that had my name on them. Now I know you must have sacred things.
SLY: What do you do when you have writer’s block?
CM: I read. Research can be very seductive, and it’s easy to use it as a tool for procrastination, but I try to be responsible about it. I read or watch a documentary or a movie about what I’m writing, and to make sure it’s not wasted time, I’ll take copious notes by hand on a clipboard while doing so. I also have a handful of great playwright and artist friends that I can sit down with and talk through ideas. Often times just trying to explain what I’m stuck on to someone else will clarify it in my own mind.
SLY: What is your favorite quote?
CM: Oh, geeze, this changes daily. I have a notebook full of quotes that I constantly add to. In addition to the one I quoted above, I am moved and encouraged by this one from Mother Theresa every time I read it.
“What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; give the world the best you’ve got anyway.”
SLY: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
CM: I want to write a couple of plays that are real and sincere, that make people think but don’t tell them how to think, and that feature compelling characters that navigate each other in interesting ways. If I can manage to write a couple of those and people are still interested in performing them when I’m no longer around, I think that’s pretty much the best of all possible endings for me.
SLY: Where can we find you?
Chelsea, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. I am so excited about all of your upcoming projects, especially the ones in New York because that means I get to attend! I really enjoyed your thoughtfulness and answers to the questions and I look forward to seeing you soon!
Wondering what other creative artists I like? Check out some of my resources. Artistic Resources and Intriguing Resources. Please note these pages are constantly being updated with all the fabulous things I discover and happen upon.