Amy Oestreicher on Legacy and Memory

Amy Oestreicher discusses her new play WE RE-MEMBER, part of HERSTORY 3: JOURNEY WOMEN, a festival of new work by emerging female writers. Interview by Natalie Osborne.

Q: How long have you been with 365 Women a Year?

A: I have been with 365 for one year – It’s my first time being involved with such an amazing group of women, and it’s been so wonderful to be a part of this community and see these stories come to light!

Q: Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind We Re-Member?

It definitely started with my Grandma, who was an amazing seamstress. I knew that as a child, because of the beautiful coats and garments she’d make us for temple. Later I learned that she was also a holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, which explained her accent. Even later I learned she had survived the death camps of Auschwitz through her sewing, which put her fabrics and garments in a different light. When my grandma passed, I wanted to know more about her story and remember her.

These two sisters in We Re-Member are conflicted, asking the question: how do we wear our past?

Jessie and Sam are sisters who discover boxes left by their grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the Lower East Side after the war, and with her husband, started one of the most successful sewing corporations in the Garment District. Sam, the older sister striving for uniqueness, and Jessie, the younger sibling longing for memory, are drawn towards piecing the fabric together in conflicting ways that threaten to tear them apart.

My grandparents, HANNAH and IRVING STOCHEL, after arriving on the Lower East Side by ship after the holocaust, founded the MYRA Corporation, one of the most successful sewing corporations on the Lower East Side. I’m doing a TEDx talk on their story in April!!!

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced while writing this play?

A: I knew I wanted to honor my grandma but I wasn’t sure how to do that. Little did I know that these sisters’ disagreement of whether to preserve the fabrics as they are, or deconstruct them in order to reassemble them differently, a conflict of philosophies, was really a battle I was going through myself – What will allow their grandparents’ memories to flourish? Is a legacy more valuable once it’s broken apart and repurposed, or kept as is? How do we re-member the pieces of our lives and honor those who came before us? So I battled with how to get all this down to 10 minutes!!!

Q:  In the title of the piece, you describe We Re-Member as a “10-page Forget-Me-Not Play,” can you tell us more about that?

A: The play is about the struggle to preserve, to not forget. I think the lesson is that there is no wrong way to remember, as long as it is in our hearts.

Q: You’re also a performer and a visual artist, how does your work in other media influence your writing and vise-versa?

A: Extremely visually! Especially because I discovered art as a way of healing and expressing what I couldn’t capture through words – I’m actually working on a new piece which incorporates live painting on Stage – eventually, I want to expand on this play, and have the two sisters, who first fight over the best way to put their grandmothers memory together, in order for it to live on, in an actual quilt or tapestry.

I always consider myself foremost a performer, because that’s what I grew up living and loving – musical theatre! As a playwright, it definitely has helped give me perspective on conveying emotions, conflicts and dynamics onstage. I still perform Gutless and Grateful, my one woman musical, all over the country, and writing that was really my first experience performing my own work!

Q: In the play the Grandmother is an immigrant, and a Holocaust survivor. Why do you think stories like this are important based on what’s happening in our country right now?

A: Because we have to remember, in all of this political tumult and conflict, that these stories we hear about in the news, of families being torn apart, these are really people, sons, daughters, wives that experience heartbreak and loss like every one of us. The breaking apart of families, the loss of loved ones, is something that we can’t continue to happen unnaturally.

My grandparents, came here and started a successful sewing corporation as immigrants. They contributed to society passionately, wholeheartedly, and were an inspiration to all they knew. I think it’s important to honor this, with the debates on Immigration in our country right now.

Q: What would you like the audience to walk away with after watching your play?

A: I want them to think about a relative, or someone, something they’ve lost in their own life, and make a decision that’s best for them – because there’s no right way to connect and honor a legacy. There’s not one way to pass on a story. It’s however we feel that we can bring their stories to light. There are many ways to sew, to re-stitch and re-member.

Q: Are there any thoughts or pieces of advice you’d like to give to your fellow writers or the theatre community at large?

A: Find what your passionate about and just start writing – from anywhere – later but figure out what speaks to you right now. Don’t think about what you should be writing. Honesty is what makes art. Or at least it’s the building blocks!

You can see We Re-Member during the HERSTORY Festival, March 9th and 10th at the Institute Library in New Haven. You can reserve your tickets ahead of time here. Tickets will also be available at the door for a $10 suggested donation. If you would like to support HERSTORY by making a small donation, click here or visit our Cafepress Store.

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Lylanne Musselman on Frida Khalo, Painting, and Identity

Lylanne Musselman discusses her new play Frida Khalo: Heartbreaker, part of the HERSTORY 3: JOURNEY WOMEN. Interview by Natalie Osborne.

Q: Can you tell us more about your experience writing for 365 Women a Year? 

A: I’ve been on-board from the beginning. Jess Eisenberg is doing a great thing where women are concerned with this project to get women, well-known and obscure, on stage. I’ve met a few of the other playwrights from the project, and I was even Festival Director for the 365 Women a Year Festival in Detroit in 2016. I can’t say enough good things about 365 Women a Year!

Q: What drew you to Frida Khalo?

A: Well, I’m a visual artist too and I’ve always loved Khalo’s work – she’s so colorful! I especially love her “Self-portrait with Cropped Hair.” I was so happy to write a play featuring her for the 365 Women a Year project…I was afraid someone else would request her before I did!

Q:  What was a major challenge you had to overcome while writing this play?

A: I really didn’t want Frida to come off as shallow. I also wanted to give the play humor, but not make fun of the situation at hand. I feel that I still gave Frida respect, and I feel that there are some humorous moments without being “mean.” I also didn’t want it to be a takeoff of the movie about her life either…so I wanted to focus on other aspects than were highlighted there.

Q: Your play focuses on a side of Frida Khalo most people are unaware of, what lead you down this path?

A: As a lesbian, that didn’t come out until later in life, I was fascinated when I found out that Khalo had dalliances with women, even though she was always “with” Diego. I felt that writing this play would allow others to see that she had that side to her as well.

Q:  People seem almost as fascinated by Frida Khalo’s personal life as they are by her artwork, if not more so, why do you think that is?

A: As I said, her art is “colorful” and I think we could say her life was pretty “colorful” as well. She certainly lived her life, had a forceful personality, gave Diego as good as he sent, she was politically active at a time women weren’t known to be, and then she had such pain from the bus accident…so I think there’s a lot there for all types of people to be fascinated by!

Q:  During her life, Frida Khalo’s work was overshadowed by her husband Diego, do you see this as a problem women creators still face today?

A: Yes, she certainly was overshadowed by Diego, wasn’t she! Yes, I feel that many women still take a backseat to their partners/husbands today. And, unfortunately, being creative isn’t always seen as an integral part of our society…so if you’re a woman, and you’re creative, you’ve got two hills to climb already, then if you have a man who is not supportive…or is also in the arts, as Diego was, there’s another obstacle! I do hope that with the women’s movement picking back up again, that this will all even out for all of us.

Q:  What are you hoping audience members will be left with after seeing your play?

A: I hope it makes them think that people are attracted to who they’re attracted to…we shouldn’t be so quick to judge and put people in a box. By the same token, I feel that the play shows that if you love someone…they do have a hold over you…for better…or worse.

Q:  What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on more plays for 365 Women a Year! The immediate play I’m working on is a play about another woman artist, Francoise Gilot.  I find her fascinating because she’s in her 90s now, and she still paints! In addition, she had an affair with  Picasso for 10 years and is the mother of two of his children. She also was married to Jonas Salk until he died in 1995…so I feel like she’s got a lot of interesting twists that I can write a play about! I’m also going to write a play about the poet Ruth Stone after I finish this one. Additionally, I’m always writing poems and painting!

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

A: I have a full-length collection of poetry coming out this spring, It’s Not Love, Unfortunately, which will be published by Chatter House Press. I’d also like to express my appreciation for being a part of HERSTORY 3! I’m so honored, and especially happy that it is with my Frida Kahlo play. Thank you!

You can see Frida Khalo: Heartbreaker, March 9th and 10th at the Institute Library in New Haven. You can reserve your tickets ahead of time here. Tickets will also be available at the door for a $10 suggested donation. If you would like to support HERSTORY by making a small donation, click here or visit our Cafepress Store.