By France-Luce Benson
Laura Maria Censabella’s achievements are too many to even begin to name here. But if you are not familiar with her work, look her up. Now. And be sure to join us this Saturday for our final Saturday Matinee of the year, followed by Fountain Theatre’s Holiday Party. Censabella will be our featured guest as we present her play Interviewing Miss Davis, based on her actual interview with Bette Davis many years ago.
What was it really like meeting Bette Davis? What do you remember from that day?
I remember it was boiling hot and I was sweating, and my curly hair had morphed into a ball of straw, so I was incredibly self-conscious. Also, I was intimidated by Miss Davis’s poised and beautiful assistant. When Miss Davis came in—and she did make an entrance–I was shocked by how diminished she was physically. She had to kind of throw her hip as she walked, and her shriveled face made her look like a sharp-eyed bird—but I immediately realized that none of her spirit was diminished. I had been told not to tell her I was a writer since her daughter was coming out with a tell-all book but at a certain point I couldn’t help it. I kept asking her what my hours might be and she wouldn’t tell me because I think basically they were meant to be 24/7. At that time I would get up at 5:30 a.m. to write before office temp jobs. That hour and a half–or two hours–a day I had to write was sacred and all I wanted to know was would I be able to still have that. And yet…I was so broke. I’d had a few short stories published in tiny literary magazines. I felt so small, and so scared that I would never be able to make my dreams happen. I think Miss Davis could smell that.
How do you imagine your life turning out if you did take that job?
I don’t think I would have lasted a day.
As someone who’s been teaching and facilitating writing groups for many years, what is the most important piece of advice you have for young writers?
There are an infinite number of ways to be a very good or great writer. There are only a finite number of ways of being bad and you can learn what those things are and avoid them.
Do you believe the industry has changed for women since you first started writing professionally? How so? In what ways is the industry still behind in gender equality? What needs to happen?
When I was in my 20’s I was selected for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. At that time I was one of only three women playwrights out of sixteen total playwrights. The next year I was one of five women playwrights. The last time I was selected for the O’Neill the majority of playwrights were women; however, most of us could not get our work produced. Since then we can be thankful for the 2008 Town Hall called by Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman and Sarah Schulman out of which The Count was eventually born to document the number of women+ and BIPOC plays produced. There is also the Kilroys List. Because of these big initiatives and many smaller ones we’ve seen an uptick in the statistics of women being produced although at this rate it will take another hundred years to achieve parity, most especially for older women writers who may have been ignored when they were young and now face discrimination due to age which is why the action and advocacy group Honor Roll! was born.
What have you been working on? Anything coming up you’re excited about?
A play based on my severely disabled aunt. About the day late in life that she decided to stop being infantilized by her family and assert her own will and the price she paid for that–and the joy she experienced as well. I’m also beginning to workshop my play Beyond Words, which is essentially a 30-year love story between a scientist who studies animal cognition (Dr. Irene Pepperberg) and her extraordinary research subject, the African Grey parrot Alex. Together they opened a window into the animal mind. The parrot is embodied by a human actor on stage.
What’s been keeping you sane?
I’ve had some very big personal challenges this year. But knowing that we all are suffering in some way, that we’re united by this pandemic, that we’ve all lost dreams, livelihoods, family, loved ones to Covid, unites us as a world community and can, if we let it, increase our compassion for one another.
What gives you hope?
That Biden and Harris were elected. Our very democracy has been at stake. The lust for power has outweighed the very values this democracy stands for. We’ve got to slowly rebuild faith in democratic institutions. We have a very steep climb but at least we’re moving in the right direction.
Interviewing Miss Davis, Saturday, December 19 @ 5pm PST