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Creative writing professor's elite commission

May 13, 2004

Photo of Michelle Carter"It just fell from the sky," says SFSU creative writing Professor Michelle Carter. The recent recipient of a prestigious playwriting commission from the Mark Taper Forum, Carter still shakes her head over the $8,000 grant that came to her "out of the blue" via an e-mail a few months ago.

Luis Alfaro, director of new play development at the Forum -- a world-class venue for new American plays located in Los Angeles -- tells the story differently.

"We were just starting a collaboration with the Irvine Foundation that would allow us to focus on work about California by California writers. I had never seen a production of one of Michelle's plays but I had had the pleasure of reading one that was nominated for a PEN Award when I served on their playwriting review panel." The play, "Hillary and Soon-Yi Shop for Ties," eventually won that award, as did her next play, "Ted Kaczynski Killed People with Bombs."

Alfaro says he "fell in love" with the way Michelle renders a story in theatrical terms. "So when the time came to commission plays uniquely Californian, Michelle came immediately to mind …we just love this woman's work!"

Carter is currently immersed in research for the play which centers on California's sex industry. The as yet untitled work will split its focus between San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and the lives of two sex workers post 9/11. Her historical research has turned up a greenhouse of interesting personalities to cultivate as characters and a parallel or two to the contemporary American political scene.

"When the earthquake hit," says Carter, "the mayor of San Francisco, Eugene Schmitz, was about to be indicted for bribery and graft involving railroads, utilities, saloons and brothels." These charges were suddenly brushed aside by more urgent priorities after the quake and Carter maintains that Schmitz began to project a moralist, anti-vice agenda. "He ordered that liquor be poured into the streets and looters -- including presumed looters -- shot on sight."

The mayor also heightened the intensity of his crusade to segregate Japanese and Chinese children in "orientalist" schools. "This was not so unlike the political climate in the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001," Carter says. "Schmitz also exploited the tragedy to award the deals to rebuild San Francisco to personal friends and financial supporters."

As with all of Carter's plays to date, emphasis will be placed on the female experience. "The quake destroyed most of the San Francisco bordellos," Carter says, "and a lot of women lost their only source of income." The new play will also involve songs in the telling of the story. Carter wrote, composed and recorded the songs in "Ted Kaczynski Killed People with Bombs."

Carter's first draft is due to the commission in June, and she plans to complete at least one more draft in fall '04, while she is on sabbatical.

The Taper commission, Carter's third, puts her among the elite in contemporary American playwriting. Other writers selected for the honor include the Tony Award-winning David Henry Hwang, Naomi Izuka, Jon Robin Baitz, Lisa Loomer and the Latino performance group, Culture Clash. Over the years, plays developed at the Taper have gone on to win three Pulitzer Prizes, and even more Tony awards.

Carter stands out in a field of such elite writers, says Alfaro, because she "represents another kind of writing altogether."

SFSU Professor of Theatre Arts, Lawrence Eilenberg, who commissioned and produced "Hillary and Soon-Yi Shop for Ties" in 1999 when he was the artistic director at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, agrees. "Michelle Carter is one of the few contemporary American playwrights who is able to express the public and private with equal commitment."

Carter is the published author of two novels and more than 30 short stories. Both her produced plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing Co. and "Hillary and Soon-Yi Shop for Ties" has been anthologized in a number of publications including "Leading Women: Plays for Actresses" (Vintage/Random House, 2002).

There's a lesson in the Taper commission that all writing students should take note of, says Carter. "It all began with a script hitting a literary manager's desk. He didn't produce the play, but he remembered me. Keep your work out there. You never know what's going to happen."

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified July 27, 2004 by University Communications