Downey playwright with talent for dialogue scores big win at theater festival

By Maritza Velazquez

Those who work with Downey playwright Rhea MacCallum all say the same thing about her.

Her plays feel so natural, it’s like there’s no script.

MacCallum’s talent  for drawing in an audience paid off this month.

Her play “Independence Day” won the Audience Choice Award for drama at the recent Life and Death Matters Film and Theatre Festival in Colorado, meaning it was the top choice of festival goers.

MacCallum’s colleagues weren’t surprised at the result.

“It was real and relatable,” said Vonalda Utterback , who directed “Independence Day” and organized the live theater portion of the festival.

“People watching ‘Independence Day,’ it really struck a chord and drew them in. It made them forget themselves and just totally be immersed in the play for 15 minutes. We even had people crying backstage that were watching it. It meant something to people.”

“Independence Day” is about a mother with a terminal illness who shares secrets with her daughter.

With nothing to lose, the mother, Alice, lets loose with her feelings about envying her child. In an excerpt, Alice goes on to talk about how her husband will probably remarry. The daughter is nearly dumbstruck, often replying with one-word answers.

“She found the humor that both of these women had, along with the poignancy and depth of the sadness. The audience was able to take that journey with her and with the actors,” Utterback said.

The Life and Death Matters festival was an inaugural effort that tried to explore serious, life-threatening issues in a way that inspired thought and brought hope to viewers.

MacCallum’s 15-minute offering was voted the favorite out of nine plays.

Death and the sharing of secrets are themes in much of MacCallum’s work.

The 39-year-old got her start in high school when she won an award for her play “Hot Seat” about a group of teenagers who confront their friend who has a drinking problem. It played in the Downey Theater and eventually propelled her to continue writing, she said.

She graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She later graduated from the Actor’s Studio Drama School.

She didn’t turn writing into a career until around 2001.

MacCallum’s ideas for her scripts come from many different places, she said.

“I think every play has its own birthing process, how it’s conceived,” she said, adding that if she gets stuck, she engages in writing exercises or switches between projects.

She prefers writing for a live audience.

“There’s a different kind of open creativity to live theater as well as a different kind of interaction. Because the audience is participant, you get that immediate feedback and participation.  I love films, but when a film’s done, it’s done and put to bed, whereas theater has a different kind of life to it. I’ve definitely been writing plays pretty consistently for the last 10 years,” McCallum said.

Actor A’ndrea Blake produced and acted in “Baby Secrets,” a play MacCallum wrote about a group of friends who all have been hiding something. As the secrets are revealed, relationships become strained.

Blake also praised MacCallum’s talent for dialogue.

“I can’t stand it when I can hear the script when actors are talking,” said Blake, who is co-artistic director of the Cheeky Monkey Theatre company. “Rhea’s writing is natural and totally believable.”

Several of Rhea’s plays have won awards, including The 7th Disorder, which took the cake in the TADA! Youth Theater’s 15th annual One-Act Playwriting Contest, Room Service, a semi-finalist in the 2008 Trustus Playwrights’ Festival and Yesterday Once More, a finalist for the 2004 Heideman Award.

She has several play productions coming up, including her first international production, which will take place in Korea.

“I think ultimately my goal is to no matter where the work goes, to continue to pursue it. To stay with it and keep being inspired,” she said.

Excerpt from Independence Day

Context: A mom and her adult daughter share laughter and tears as they navigate the difficult road of terminal illness.

ALICE

What in life is fair?  I’m dying, that’s not fair.

ELIZABETH

Mom –

ALICE

These are my last fireworks and I wanted to share them with you.  If I can’t play favorites now, then when can I.

     (Pause.)

I have a confession.

ELIZABETH

Do tell.

ALICE

I’ve always been a little jealous of you.

ELIZABETH

Yeah, right.

ALICE

I have.  Of your fierce independence.  Even as a child you just did what you wanted, set your own goals, had a real fire burning in you.  So unafraid.

ELIZABETH

I didn’t think you even liked me.

ALICE

Well, being independent also kinda made you a pain in the ass, opinionated girl that you were.

ELIZABETH

You taught me to have a mind of my own.

ALICE

And you did!  We fought big, didn’t we?

     (Elizabeth agrees.)

Thing is: you always found a way to do what you wanted.  And that’s to be admired.

ELIZABETH

In an adult.

ALICE

Even in a young girl.  Independence.  You weren’t one to let your fear show.  Not even to me.  You fell out of the neighbor’s tree, blood running down your leg.  Did you cry or come home?  Nope.  You brushed yourself off and got back to climbing.  In high school when you got a flat tire after a day at the beach with your friends, did you call AAA?  Or your Dad?  No, you got out and started changing the tire.

ELIZABETH

Yes, but a half a dozen guys stopped to help us.

ALICE

Point is, you didn’t panic, you handled the situation and that’s what I respect most about you.  The older you get the harder it is to learn. Your father won’t know what to do with himself.  He’ll probably remarry.

ELIZABETH

Mom!

ALICE

He doesn’t know how to be alone.  Or take care of himself.

ELIZABETH

But remarry?

ALICE

I’m just forewarning you.

     (Pause.)

Promise me something.

ELIZABETH

What?

ALICE

If you ever have a little one, you’ll bring her one day to watch the fireworks.

ELIZABETH

Sure.

ALICE

And tell her about me.

 

 


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