Award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and avid horse- woman Darrah Cloud is as down-to-earth as she is talented. After meeting her in 2013 when she debuted her latest play, “Our Suburb,” at Theater J in Washington, DC, we sat down for a Q&A.
Scroll down to read more. Click here to listen to our podcast interview.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your current play, “Our Suburb,” an homage to the classic American play, “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder. What inspired you to write it.
Darrah Cloud: I grew up in Skokie, Illinois, and I got out of there as fast as I could, thinking that it was the most boring place in the universe. When I eventually went back, I began to realize that behind those sensibly boring doors, some incredible conversations were taking place. Most importantly, a 1970s event took place here, when a group of neo-Nazis from the Southside of Chicago tried to march through town. I wanted to pay homage to my neighbors and to the struggles going on behind those doors. I had seen “Our Town” around that time and thought, “Here’s a wacky idea … how about a play called “Our Suburb.” I got thinking, what did a suburb mean 30 years ago—what does it mean now? The idea took off from there.
Be Inkandescent: “Our Suburb” is directed by Judith Ivey, a four-time Tony Award-nominee (most recently in 2013 for “The Heiress)”, and a two-time winner for her performances in “Steaming” and “Hurlyburly.” How did you meet her and decide to collaborate on this show?
Darrah Cloud: Ari Roth, who is the artistic director at Theater J in DC put us together. He thought Judith and I would get along.
The funny part about it is the two of us look somewhat alike. We’re the same height, we have the same haircut, we both have Midwestern accents, and I guess something of the same mannerisms. When we started working on the play, people were constantly mistaking us for each other. It was pretty great; we were able to finish each other’s sentences. It has been a really great collaboration.
Be Inkandescent: Recently you launched a children’s play entitled, “What’s Buggin’ Greg,” about a boy who wakes up on his 13th birthday to discover that he’s been turned into a cockroach. It was the winner of the Macy’s New Play Prize, and was produced by Cincinnati Playhouse in 2012. On tour now is your play, Joan The Girl Of Arc, which is similar to themes in some of your other plays in that it is about a strong woman.
Darrah Cloud: Like “Greg,” which is about your life changing enormously in ways you can’t change back—about becoming an adolescent, and a little bit about disability and accepting who you really are—“Joan” was aimed at teen girls.
Remember, the historic Joan of Arc—who was born to a peasant family in the northeast of France and who said she received visions from God instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War—was only 14 when she said she started hearing voices, 17 when she went to war, and 19 when she was burned at the stake for heresy. What a fascinating kid! I really wanted to take a look at her as a real teenager who hears voices and then has to follow what she believes.
Be Inkandescent: The intensity of that topic, and all the subject matter you write about, is breathtaking and what sets your work apart. Talk about the play you wrote about Estee Lauder and Mary Kay—two strong women who were entrepreneurs before a lot of women embraced that role.
Darrah Cloud: I became strongly interested in what it took for a woman early on to be an entrepreneur, and began researching Estee Lauder and Mary Kay. I didn’t want to do a bio-pic play, I wanted to really talk about the larger idea of who we are as women, especially when we are in business. I was also intrigued with the topic of how you reinvent yourself.
“Makeover!” is the result. It’s a musical that reflects a changing vision of women in our times. The main character is a mix of these two women—someone transforms herself into a French woman to start a cosmetics company and advertise it to the rest of the world while providing jobs to other women during her journey.
Be Inkandescent: That brings me back to my questions of, “What truly makes someone amazing?” How do you define it? And what drew you to Estee Lauder and Mary Kay?
Darrah Cloud: I think what is interesting about these two women is how faithful they were to their own feelings and beliefs—while at the same time having to create personalities that would get the job done in the real world, that would influence people.
I remember someone in Hollywood once saying to me before I went in to pitch an idea to a producer, “You had better dress really well and look really prosperous” because they wouldn’t want to see “some kid with a ragged hem. They want to see someone who looks successful already.” I remember thinking, “But I’m not successful, I’m here to get a job!” The lesson was, you have to look successful to get successful. That has always stuck in my mind and been a bizarre paradox that I needed to examine. The same was true for Mary Kay and Estee Lauder, who had to change who they were in order to get the trust of people with money who would invest in them and allow them to further their ideas.
Be Inkandescent: Those were all valuable lessons learned for all of us—to stay true to yourself and also to be able to put on the façade to a certain extent.
Darrah Cloud: I agree. When Mary Kay started out, she had children and she didn’t want to be at work when they were home, so a huge part of her company was about locating other women who needed to work and wanted to be home when their kids were. So the business model actually grew out of that idea. That was being true to herself and what she valued in life, which was time with her kids and being a mother, while at the same time, being a sharp businesswomen.
Be Inkandescent: You do the same—balancing your career with motherhood.
Darrah Cloud: I do, sometime it’s imbalanced, but I do (laughs). I have three kids, and all are in college at the same time. I have a junior in college and two freshmen in college.
Be Inkandescent: The balance, always a challenge! Let’s go back to the start of your career. You’ve said in other interviews that you initially thought of being a poet. What made you decide to become a playwright?
Darrah Cloud: I was in the Writer’s Wworkshop at the University of Iowa. I loved writing poetry and had fantastic teachers, and they certainly taught me the value of a single word and how much meaning could turn on one word, also how joyous it was to search for that word. But I couldn’t see myself necessarily doing just that for the rest of my life; it felt isolated to me. I just thought, “I’ll take a playwriting class and see what it’s like.” I realized that the poetry training was excellent for just blowing up a poem and creating a play out of it. Plus, you also got to work with other people (laughs).
Be Inkandescent: How did your career progress?
Darrah Cloud: I wrote “The House Across the Street” when I was in college and that play won the American College Theater Festival Award. We were invited to the Kennedy Center to perform it. From there, I sent the play to New York to ensemble studio theater and they picked up on it, called one day and said they would like to produce the play. So I graduated from Iowa, moved to New York, and that following January my play opened in New York. It was wonderful and a sign of “Yes, you’re doing the right thing.”
Be Inkandescent: What draws you to the topics you choose to write about?
Darrah Cloud: Well certainly anyone that I’ve written about, whether they were made up or not, has been someone with a big struggle. In “O Pioneers!” which Kim Sherman and I wrote together, the main character faces a vast land with nothing in it. Instead of being afraid of it, the character sees a future in it, and a chance to remain free.
That kind of mission can be associated with the two characters in “Our Suburb.” They were Holocaust survivors, and what they understand about freedom is completely different from the family in the play who lives across the street. These are themes that are always there throughout everything—the struggle for freedom.
Be Inkandescent: You have written a lot for television as a screenwriter and for film also, tell us what the difference is for writing something for Broadway as opposed to a movie.
Darrah Cloud: Film and television are actually very different, but playwriting is closer to television because usually you have just a few sets in a TV piece and a lot of dialogue in a TV piece. In film, the language really changes, it’s visual. You have to give up your poetry in words and make it image to image. It’s a huge change. The television work I’ve done has been pretty much just entertainment, a lot of holiday movies and some serious women-in-jeopardy stuff. What I like about the holiday movies is I didn’t have to kill anyone (laughs). Those movies show my feelings of liberation and women’s pride and freedom.
Be Inkandescent: Can you name a few that we have seen?
Darrah Cloud: My favorite is Undercover Christmas, starring Jamie Gertz. It’s about a woman being taken into the FBI’s Witness Protection Program, but the FBI agent wants to go home for Christmas, so she has to go home with him. She’s a stripper and he’s a very straitlaced guy from a nice Connecticut family. It was a lot of fun to write.
Be Inkandescent: You have had such an amazing career, and it’s far from over. What’s on your wish list?
Darrah Cloud: I would love to see my musical on Broadway. I’m doing everything now to try and make that happen.
Be Inkandescent: Given the chance, is there anything that you would do differently?
Darrah Cloud: I think I may be smarter about business. It has been very hard for me in my own mind to be taken seriously. I think I might have been braver. I would ask myself to be braver when seeking new opportunities. There was nothing stopping me, except me.
Be Inkandescent: What is your best advice for those who want to make it big in the theater field?
Darrah Cloud: I would say the theater world is people-oriented and about relationships, and that’s almost a direct quote from Mary Kay. Work is about relationships no matter how technological things advance. You have to be on top of your game with dealing with human beings, and you have to remember that everyone is human and all have their tragedies, flaws, and strengths. It’s really important to keep that in mind and that we are all in this together.
When I meet an aspiring playwright, I suggest that they find a place where they really want to live and become a local playwright. The reason is that I think things are changing in the industry; the economy is dictating that people look to playwrights within their own towns for the acting pool in addition to writing pool if they want to do new plays. I think it will produce great work, and theaters will take a chance on their own people. So playwrights should live in an area they really love, and dedicate themselves to building their work there.
Be Inkandescent: Which cities that are especially open to working with local playwrights?
Darrah Cloud: Well certainly Washington, DC, is opening up to it. Of course Theater J has been doing new plays for a long time, and new plays by women in particular (laughs). There is much more openness, and local playwrights are starting to get a foothold there. Also Boston and Chicago. Chicago has been pretty good to its local playwrights, Seattle is starting to look inward and so is San Francisco. I’m just hoping that continues, it kind of takes the local playwrights to push it. It also takes openness on the part of the regional theater directors, who are starting to realize how much money they can save by using good local talent in their backyard.
Be Inkandescent: We’ll be keeping an eye out for your plays, Darrah. Thank you so much for your time, for you are a tribute to Truly Amazing Women everywhere.
Darrah Cloud: Thank you so much for having me, it was a pleasure!
Click here to listen to our podcast interview on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
And check out our interviews with other Truly Amazing Women at www.TrulyAmazingWomen.com.