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San Diegan and Air Force veteran Shairi Engle’s full-length play recently won a national playwriting award, and her new short play debuts at this weekend’s WOW Festival.
When Shairi Engle left the Air Force in 2005, where she’d served as an air traffic controller, she boxed everything she owned and didn’t look back. It was only in writing about her experiences, both in the military and with personal trauma, that she allowed herself to figuratively unpack.
Engle is the 2019 recipient of the Arts in the Armed Forces Bridge Award for playwriting. Presented by AITAF spokesperson Adam Driver and described by judge Tony Kushner as “Tough, disturbing, enraging, consistently surprising, smart, very funny and ultimately moving and revelatory,” her winning full-length stage play, “Tampons, Dead Dogs and Other Disposable Things,” is slated to be staged at the La Jolla Playhouse’s 400-seat Forum Theater on Oct. 25 in a free reading.
“It’s a wilderness story,” Engle said. “Tampons, Dead Dogs and Other Disposable Things” is about a woman who takes to the mountains of Alaska, balancing therapy, nature and yes, packing out.
Solidly in the modern era of military literature and also on the heels of the voices and stories gained from the #MeToo movement, it’s tempting to ascribe Engle’s success as specific to this particular time in history. But the characters she writes and the vulnerability with which she approaches trauma are bigger than a moment. “Tampons, Dead Dogs and Other Disposable Things” shows us Engle’s interpretation of what it means to survive.
It’s a raw, powerful study of handling the aftermath of trauma, but it’s also charmingly funny:
JEN: You didn’t bring any toilet paper?
JOE: I stand up to pee.
JEN: So, you don’t shit.
JOE: Not every day!
JEN: For 3 days.
JOE: Well yeah, I mean, no. I mean to say, yeah, I can go three days without shitting.
JEN: We’re on day 6 of a 3-day backpacking trip.
JOE: Sometimes I go longer than 3 days.
A staged reading — meaning a venue doesn’t build an elaborate set, the characters generally are not costumed and stage directions are read out loud — is perfect for her play.
“The play is marvelously stageworthy, but it’s also literature, written to be read — that understanding of playwriting is rarer than it should be, and encountering a playwright who gets it is an occasion to rejoice,” said Kushner.
In addition to Engle’s full-length play, she’s debuting a short play as part of this weekend’s Without Walls (WOW) Festival, the La Jolla Playhouse’s site-specific, stage-free festival of performances. “Littering/Lettering” is a 10-minute play that’s part of the Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s project “Written in Stone,” held at Stone Brewing in Liberty Station Thursday through Sunday.
Backyard Renaissance, the La Jolla Playhouse’s current theater in residence, is a four-year-old program championing “gutsy,” inventive and intensive work. The WOW Festival, held by the playhouse every other year, is well-matched for Backyard Renaissance’s outside-the-box thinking.
“The 10-minute play fest is a very popular part of WOW Festival,” said Jessica John Gercke, Backyard Renaissance’s executive director. Gercke pointed out that each viewing has a maximum of just eight spots and tickets are already moving quickly.
The La Jolla Playhouse reached out to writers to pair with the company. Engle is the only San Diego writer in the nationwide collection of five acclaimed playwrights. In addition, Gercke pointed out that the majority of the acting roles — all but two — are for women.
“There’s a lot changing in theater today,” said Gercke. “We want stories that are more inclusive. When we say diversity, we really mean inclusivity.” While this change shapes the types of stories that are told and the types of voices that tell them, it also has a hand in the way — and the where — the stories are told.
While neither the playhouse nor the company provided the writers with strict guidance (just: 10 minutes, site-specific and “write what you want,” said Engle), each playwright included a prominent use of place and audience implication.
Engle’s play, “Littering/Lettering,” involves a post-break-up couple sitting together at the same brewery tables shared by the tiny audience. The women hide baggies of old letters — more of Engle’s thematic unpacking! — behind unsuspecting viewers and acknowledge the “Point Loma Pause” as airplanes take off above them, while dosing out their backstory in snippets of letters and memories.
Another short play, the bafflingly meta “A Play About Eye Contact Over Three Decades” is the most implicating and technically inventive of the crop. Actors stare at audience members, asking them questions, adjusting to their answers without missing a beat. (For the uncomfortable, it’s over quickly!)
In each of the five plays, audiences are positioned so that actors have to work around or acknowledge the viewers. It’s a shattering of the fourth wall, a device of both stage and screen, and a fundamental reality of the Without Walls festival. Viewers are somewhere between involved, invested and in the way. This is dizzying and challenging, which is par for the course with WOW Festival’s stage-free productions.
Writing a short play is actually “so much writing,” said Engle, though it’s clear that this work ethic also applies to her full-length work and even her own personal story. “It’s this iceberg thing. These characters, I know them so well. I did a lot of writing to try to find this moment in time.”