I met up with Crystal at her art-filled home in Boerum Hill.  After meeting her lovely husband Fred (comic book artist Fred Van Lente), and a quick canoodle with her cat, Newt, we headed to Café Luluc close by, and had a captivating conversation about living and creating as artists.  No rookie to the New York theatre scene, she has been making work for years that spans a variety of genres and topics, from comic books, to reality TV shows, to activism.  

THE DIONYSIAN

Can you tell me about your background?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

My parents were a little kooky.  Maybe that’s why I always write very musical characters!  My dad was a race-car driver, and he eventually translated that into running his own trucking business and fixing cars.  My mom is a very creative spirit.  She never did anything formally, but was just very spirited and fun.  I was an only child and that meant a lot, because if I had any interests, I could take classes in them.  I was a bad actor so I was always in the background, but I was in theatre since I was five, and then I fell in love with photography in high school.

THE DIONYSIAN

How do you feel like your background in photography has influenced your work? 

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I realized in my photography that I was doing all these Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin-esque techniques, and I was creating worlds in my work.  When I moved into writing, I did well in the short play form, but I struggled with full-lengths.  I didn’t really understand structure yet. You want to get away from the graph but, my god, there’s a graph for a reason.  You can fuck with a graph and you can do all kinds of new things, but it’s imperative that it exists.  I realized that all my full-lengths were being chosen for production by visual artists. I’d ask a theatre why they chose my play and found out these companies that were picking them because of the lighting designer because I’d have “someone coming alive from a photograph.” Those minds were excited.

I realized I was writing from a place where the fantastical is the main layer, and reality came second.  I think working with Daniel (Talbott) is when I first realized everything should be based in reality, and then we can go to fantasy.  Though I’ve been writing for a long time, there was a big shift in my work and I’d say that’s when I fully began to understand what I’ve been doing, and even more recently have felt very confident in it.

THE DIONYSIAN

Do you remember which play it was that brought that shift on for you? 

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

It’s funny because I didn’t work it out in that play, but it was this play 4 Edges that I wrote.  It was about a photographer that goes over to a fictional foreign country, captures a wood-cutter carrying a ritualistic act in the forest, and then gets involved with this family.  It’s a startling play and has some of my best writing but lived in the ether a little bit where things were left un-answered in a way that wasn’t evocative or took me to the next level.  It just all got too cryptic.  That was when I realized my problem with structure.  It all goes back to structure. Content is great, but when you’re actually talking to producers, the bones of structure are what they can understand and see.  I would always think “but it’s there! The seeds are so great!” before I realized in my early work that the seeds didn’t push forward the action properly.

It helped that a lot of my plays were commissioned.  People kept trusting my work, and then I realized I was finding and defining the structure through the developmental process.  I was using the workshops to make the given circumstances clear and crystallized and I was going off the actors in a lot of ways.  I started thinking about how I could take on this process alone without the workshops.  Then I decided I would create my own company in my mind, and commission myself.

I’m still a fan of writing it all, and then cutting, cutting, cutting. Pulp Verité is only a year old but there was a lot more to the script. The exciting thing is that any of these drafts were all valid, but I realized there were a lot of Brechtian-like effects that were making the audience go in and out.  I think how an audience rides the structure informs a lot of my choices. I think it’s very important to know what kind of effect you want to have on the audience. 

THE DIONYSIAN

Your work is so diverse. 

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I love it being that way, but it is a challenge because with any product, people want to know what it is. I think that now that I have a body of work, I don’t have to worry about that so much. 

My malleability helps as a book writer in musical theatre, because people are excited that I can change and do that. Musical theatre people will be like, “Holy shit!  She can write something flying!  Or she can see where this new song is a scene and highlight that song, but in a creative way that moves the story forward in unexpected ways. She has this imagination!” To me that is the theatre.  To me it’s the one unifying thing.  It’s about the art of imagination, hope and creativity, and that sometimes you have to destroy to build again.  I think that’s true for anything I write.  But that’s the unifying theme: the true death of the soul, is the death of the imagination.  So how can these stories help us to re-imagine what we’re going through as we travel through these different stories. 

THE DIONYSIAN

Yes, I’ve noticed all your characters seem to have this unifying sense of searching and fighting for something, but with a very heartfelt and vulnerable sensibility underneath.

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I don’t think I’ve ever met a villain, even if we are living in villainous times.  Everyone is a person, and I’ve never met someone who wasn’t somewhat poetic.  There’s a poetry to the way everyone lives, moves, talks and thinks, and I love being aware of that and trying to come up with an idea around that that speaks to today.

How I choose to write a play mimics the structure of the world.  In Geek! there’s a frenetic, anime-like quality, and the hero story suddenly becomes real to these young girls in their cosplaying. Rain and Zoe is a real journey play. In that play two Seattle teenagers go on a cross-country motorcycle journey to join an environmental activists’ oil protest on the east coast, and as they do they run into the truer challenges involved in growing up. The adventure has to be big to earn its climax. They go to a million places throughout as they travel from Seattle to Philly. I think originally there were about 30-40 different settings.

THE DIONYSIAN

That play does such an amazing job of transcending time and space. 

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I think that the key was learning how the ensemble could function.  One day I woke up and thought “Oh, it’s my play, but it’s like The Fantasticks.  If I have these two main characters but also these two people (the ensemble), I have everything. The ensemble can become the set.  Then a hat can become a tree, and then this can become whatever.” That way we don’t get obsessed with going here, there everywhere and not knowing how to follow, because we are part of the players’ theatre.  We are invited in.

The first drafts lived in a place where I knew it was awesome, but I kept questioning what it meant as a play.  As I got more emboldened by my research with environmental activists, the culture began to speak back to the play, and vice-versa.  That happens often, because I’m constantly trying to predict what is shaping our world, what we’re interested in, and what the fight is. 

THE DIONYSIAN

Do you feel like the workshopping process is crucial to your work?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

Julie Crosby (former Producing Artistic Director at The Women’s Project Theatre) said, “I love when the artist drives their own process,” and that really resonated with me.  I realized that if I could figure out what works for me and what doesn’t, I can get a lot stronger.  I’m not afraid of failing or admitting that something doesn’t work.  You have to work for a long time to feel competent in your work.  I like to create an atmosphere of honesty, so people can come to me and tell me if it isn’t working, and I can try and fix that if I agree.

THE DIONYSIAN

Do you find you’ll have actors cast in your plays who completely dispel the myth of type? 

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

Absolutely. Sometimes with my first commissions for plays I was writing for specific actors, so I’d ask them how they were usually type-cast, and what they would like to do. 

I think another artistic mission, and a mission of my life, is not allowing people to be put in a box.  Branding is very interesting. I understand that branding is important, but it also got us Trump.

THE DIONYSIAN

I’ve always thought you write such strong-willed female characters with a lot to say.  Do you feel like your voice comes a lot through these characters?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I have these very strong female characters, and I do really identify with the women’s movement in theater. We’ve come so far with that conversation. Back in the day, the conversation wasn’t necessarily about that, and people would be drawn towards the action in the story of the world rather than thinking about the strong-willed women. I don’t talk about being a woman all the time.  I put it in the action. What I find so refreshing about my punk rock play, Another Kind of Love, is that these punk rock gods are all women and, sure, that’s tough in the industry, but they’re not talking about that in the moment; it’s not what’s relevant to the scene.  When I write diverse characters, it’s very organic.  It’s about the conversations they’re having based on the will and ambition of what they’re going for and what is going in the play.  There’s such richness to just being, and discovering who people are without those labels, or at least breaking down those labels.

THE DIONYSIAN

Do you feel that now, specifically, is a crucial time for artists to move forward and keep making?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

Oh yeah. A big mentor of mine was the writer and activist John Belluso.  He always said “as artists we are the truth tellers.”  The news has been failing us a long time and we aren’t taught to be gracious any more.  The real truth and honesty in human feeling within the world is what’s going on in the art we create. It’s something people can, experience and go through. Theater is escaping because it’s fiction and we can dream. I’m kind of that dreamer who really in the real power of the imagination.  It’s vital to believe dreams are possible. 

THE DIONYSIAN

A friend of mine called artists sort of a “moralistic watch-dog.”

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

That’s great.  It really is.  The more we create, destructive thoughts, the anger, any feelings we have to use, our minds are elevated and we can see things in a different way. We can transcend, we can evolve, we can become better. As artists we have to understand, grow and adapt every day.

I’m here for people I hope and I have a lot of hope in younger generations, and what they’re doing.  That’s what some people have been drawn to about Rain and Zoe.  People have loved it because millennials aren’t usually well-represented. I’ve seen entitlement in younger generations of course, but I’ve also seen much more anxiety and wanting to do right.  We’ve all seen them at the protests obviously.  They’re stepping up and it’s really a joy to see.

THE DIONYSIAN

Next, you have a commission for Project Y’s WiT Festival (Women in Theatre) at the A.R.T. (Alliance of Residence Theatres, NYC) in June, and  it'll be the first time you're off-Broadway!  Can you tell us a little bit more about that project?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

Last summer I was fortunate to get a call from director Michole Biancosino, Artistic Director of Project Y, and playwright Lia Romeo, their Literary Manager. They were creating the Women in Theater festival and loved Pulp Vérité - would I be interested in doing a reading as part of the festival?  We did a great reading there directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt which was hugely important to its development.  I thought the whole festival was terrific. In the fall I was lucky to get a call again from Michole. This time she wanted to commission myself, and playwright Chiori Miyagawa to write new plays that would be run for three weeks on the same night. We began to have conversations about what that would look like. The conversations began pre-election. While we were fearful, we never imagined the outcome, as most of our friends. We had a call already scheduled the day after the election, knowing it would affect what kind of play we wanted to create. There, we decided both plays should be conversation pieces and speak to these events in their own way. A play began to emerge for me as I teach playwriting in several boroughs and have heard different responses to the election.  The play is called The Test and as I’ve been describing it: “An English teacher in a struggling high school readies her junior students for the most important test of their lives. But when a symbol of hate appears in her classroom, she and two students on either side of the recent election, find their lives forever changed.” As the play unfolds we realize the two students never have a direct scene with each other until the end which results in a startling conclusion. That this new play I’m writing (in my mind short full length - will be 45 min to an hour), will be on the same night as Chiori Miyagawa’s fantastic new play called In the Line… and in the new A.R.T/NY space … I can’t wait! This, Rain and Zoe and Pulp, and the work I’m doing on musicals, such as Mary and Max (with composer Bobby Cronin), really keeps my theatrical heart pumping as I’m also now starting to develop more work for TV and film. 

THE DIONYSIAN

Who are your favorite writers? 

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I love all writers, but I especially love playwrights. Caryl Churchill is my number one and I wouldn’t be writing at all without her.  Qui Nguyen (obviously), Lynn Nottage, Simon Stephens, Andrea Stolowitz, Rob Askins, Lucy Thurber, Ren D Santi. Diane Son’s Stop Kiss is one of my favorites. You Got Older by Claire Barron rocks my world. Lisa D’Amour. Lauren Yee. My hubby Fred Van Lente is a genius and we write together often (King Kirby). All the Lark playwrights. The writers you are now featuring – Gina Femia studied with me at Samuel French; Jenny Lane and I got to know each other in the Groundbreakers playwrights group, Adam Rapp’s brilliance is always an inspiration and Daniel Talbott I love as both director and playwright.

There are a lot of great new young writers.  There’s something called Middle Voice (an apprentice company of actors, directors, designers and playwrights) at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre (NYC) that has a lot of cool stuff going on. It’s so explosive right now with the amount of good fiction that’s powerful and speaks to today.

THE DIONYSIAN

In Pulp Verité, you use the verité cinematic style invented by Jean Rouch to tell the story of a collective of 20-something film-makers finding a way to save the last member of their group from war-torn Syria.  What drew you to telling the story through this verité lens?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

I think that there is a lot of power in documentary film-making that allows us to ask how the information is coming out and how it is shocking us.  I thought using verité was very crucial to that.

You can relate this verité style to all the terrible shootings that have been happening, and someone being taped in their last moments alive.  This all lives in the same impulse: to live on film and record, and have some kind of conspicuous conversation that isn’t just using a camera to be a camera, but to use it more like an eye. I thought that this made sense for what the collective in the play were doing, and I was pretty aware that an audience would understand this kind of film-making very well because of reality TV. 

There was a film I was inspired by called Under the Sun, directed by a Russian director, Vitaly Mansky, that I watched recently and was inspired by. It’s set in North Korea and follows a family in the Pyongyang.  There was obviously strict security, but at some point in the process the film-makers realized everything was made up.  There was an illusion that workers were happy and smiling and that life was good. The North Korean Ministry of Culture were directing reality, which of course the film-makers wanted to edit it out. They began to switch out and hide memory cards, putting in fake ones and putting their own lives in danger.  On the fake ones, they’d record what the Ministry wanted the world to see, and the real ones captured the reality. They were meticulous about this. It also has a child protagonist, which is powerful, because you can see him learning and being confused about the world around him. These kinds of secret film-making techniques are being done all the time.

There’s something very particular about things like what happened in Darfur; watching a country implode on itself over a course of years.  What happens when the civilians get caught? And politically that’s what’s happening here of course.  It’s a very different kind of war brewing, but we feel like we’re being held hostage by a situation.

As much as I talk about imagination and fiction we need to talk about what comes out of the fiction world and, how does that create action? That’s why I think the protests are so exciting, because we can use imagination, art, creativity and then actually go out and use it.  Watching all these things on Netflix and then going to sleep might enrich you personally, but I’m not sure how it helps.

THE DIONYSIAN

What is your hope for the future of theatre in NYC?

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN

Obviously diversity is number one.  The names above are the tip of the iceberg. I think all the writers are there and they are finding ways to grow and be creative, and I would love to just keep seeing more. I want theaters to have more access to learning how they can get to know writers who are doing new and interesting things.  Sometimes I feel like it gets a little systematic. I almost wish that all theaters would match playwrights out there that have mastered their craft to young and emerging playwrights. And that their staff could get out and see more and more emerging playwrights at work. I can’t help but see amazing writers all the time, and I want them to have more exposure, because you just don’t learn as a playwright until you’re produced.  Publication is also a very big part of getting your work circulating out there.  For example, with Wild (a play of mine that had productions in Chicago and New York in the past few years and is finally in print from Chicago Dramaworks), it’s important that people finally go and get the play in print, even though they’ve been doing pieces from it for quite some time.