Faculty Q&A: Paula Cizmar

As part of a Q&A series with our faculty, the USC School of Dramatic Arts asked faculty member Paula Cizmar about teaching, theatre as a driver of social change, and her new opera Firecrackers.

How long have you been teaching at SDA?

Paula Cizmar: I’ve been at SDA for over 20 years. I started as an adjunct, then became full-time in Fall 2015.

What are you teaching this semester?

This semester I’m teaching THTR 366 – Playwriting 2;THTR 501 – Poetry and Prose into Drama; THTR 506 – Advanced Creating Characters; and THTR 490X, Directed Research in Eco-Theatre.

Tell us a little about your professional career.

I’m a playwright and librettist who teaches—at least, that’s the short version. These days I also have become a producer, particularly for Sacrifice Zone, the multimedia environmental justice performance piece I created with Michael Bodie of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. And of course I continue to serve as a mentor and dramaturge, serve on community boards, and all the things that go with a life in the arts. I’ve always written, even when I was in grade school, and I originally expected to be a poet. But I’m a Virgo and have very practical blue-collar roots, so I realized fairly early on that poets make about a dollar a year—and that probably wasn’t going to be enough to live on. So in college, I started working as a journalist; I did an internship on the Detroit Free Press and got job offers on newspapers after I graduated. But something told me to head West instead—so I moved to San Francisco and became a freelance writer and editor while also doing temp work. My neighbors were actors and asked me to write them a play. I did. It got produced. And I haven’t stopped writing plays since. To me, writing for the theatre is kind of the logical and emotional extension of being a poet and a journalist. I’ve been produced off-Broadway three times, as well as produced also in regional theatres around the country, and tiny non-Equity spaces in L.A. It was quite difficult to get produced when I first started writing—because very few people recognized the existence of women writers. We simply weren’t taken seriously; a common so-called compliment was, “You’re a pretty good writer—for a woman.” Well, that’s the kind of thing that just makes me want to write even more, and even better. So I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of really prestigious awards and grants that kept the sting of those comments at bay. I’ve gotten an NEA grant, a Mellon Foundation On the Road grant, a Rockefeller International Residency at Bellagio, Italy, among others. I’ve also been fortunate to work on a number of collaborative projects—including Seven, which I wrote with six other women playwrights including Carol Mack and Anna Deavere Smith; that play has been translated into more than 20 languages and produced in over 30 countries. It has been an amazing ride, and I’m thrilled to report that I got a chance to see it in a number of those places–Turkey, Croatia, Serbia. My work is almost always a blend of social justice issues, particularly in the area of human rights and environmental justice; I just take a somewhat unconventional approach—I play around with heightened language, not-always-traditional structure, etc. Those impulses, and the fact that I studied piano from the first grade through twelfth grade, led me to writing for musical theatre and opera. It’s a joy to be able to unite my love of text with my love of music. Currently, I’m working with composer Guang Yang—and our next opera is a project in which we are delving into an ancient book of wisdom to shed light on contemporary political issues. Also, I got very good news recently: Michael Bodie and I have been awarded a grant from the MAP Fund; their mission is to support the work of artists who are imagining and co-creating a more equitable and vibrant society, so it is a thrill to be recognized by them.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?

I love seeing growth. I love when people get excited about something that has come up in class and they become the ones who start sharing that notion or revelation with others. I love being there when the lightning bolt strikes and I see a student suddenly have an Aha Moment, when an idea suddenly becomes clear to them or when their poetic voice starts to emerge.

What is your favorite advice to give to students?

Write the scene you can write when you can write it; life gets in the way, so don’t worry about it being perfect. Feel free to write badly, if that’s what it takes to get started. Sometimes I even challenge myself to write badly. (It’s never as awful as I expect.) We can and will fix a rough draft—but we can’t fix the blank page—and giving yourself permission to just write, to start, to get the words flowing, is sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself. It often frees the unconscious and leads you somewhere surprising.

A close second in the favorite advice department: There is no One Way to write. Anyone who tells you there is One Way is a charlatan. Cover your ears and move on. 

What are some examples you have seen of art being a driver of social change?

One of the most striking examples has been with Seven. I’ve seen people who have never acted before—in fact, who have never seen theatre before—take on roles in this play and change their perspective on women’s rights. Their families, who had also never been to a play before, got involved and transformation occurred. The Swedish government actually used the play as the centerpiece of a human rights campaign to end violence towards women in the Balkans; at NATO headquarters in Belgium, the play was used to raise awareness about sexual assault in the military—and the women’s roles were played by NATO officers from different countries. That’s just one play. With Sacrifice Zone, I’ve seen the excitement of community activists when they realize that a theatre project is backing up the work they do—which is often thankless. This makes them feel encouraged. Over the course of my writing career, I have offered many community workshops where the whole point is to guide people to tell their own stories, especially the stories from people whose voices don’t get heard. To help someone find their voice is liberating; it often leads to people taking action and/or becoming hungry to try to help others to get their stories told. 

You are the co-director of the Institute for Theatre & Social Change at SDA. What projects are you particularly excited about?

We’re launching the ITSC Creative Awards for students, in which we are encouraging undergrads and grad students to come up with their own projects that unite art with social change. That project is exciting to me because we at the Institute want to see the next generation jump in and start figuring out their own ways to do this work and to create unique theatre for the future.

Your new opera Firecrackers engages with cross-cultural traditions. What compelled you to write about this topic?

My composer-collaborator, Guang Yang, and I were commissioned to write a piece for the Let’s Celebrate Series at White Snake Opera in Boston. It’s an activist opera company, and the artistic director wanted to focus on making change, but with a different approach; she wanted the stories to be about making change in a joyous way, rather than always focusing on problems. We were tasked with writing something that honors a holiday that isn’t one of the usual ones—something that isn’t Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. Firecrackers is a natural reflection of the two of us: Guang was born in China; and I’m Italian American. One of the things that occurred to me is that in many of the cities I’ve lived in you will find Chinatown sitting right next to Little Italy. I saw this in San Francisco, New York, and even Los Angeles. If you look at old histories of L.A., or wander the streets of Chinatown, you’ll find remnants of L.A.’s Little Italy hidden there. Given that both districts are home to immigrant culture, we decided this was perfect for us to explore. Also, both cultures make heavy use of firecrackers during some of their feast days, so we had a built-in sound, an image to use as a starting point. In Chinatown, the Spring Festival (AKA the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year) features parades with firecrackers popping along the way. And Italian street festivals also make use of noise, fireworks, and firecrackers. These old ways, of course, are fading away. So Firecrackers takes on memory and loss, but also is a reminder of where our diverse cultures rub elbows.

Is there a piece of theatre, or a film or television show that has recently resonated with you?

I keep telling anyone who will hear me that Paula Vogel’s Indecent is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time. It happened before the pandemic, of course, but nothing has taken its place in my heart yet. Re: television—Severance. I’m afraid that it speaks way too directly to our times with its paranoia and authoritarianism, and I probably shouldn’t watch the second season but honestly, I can’t wait to see it. 

Any fun facts we should know about Paula Cizmar?

I absolutely love dogs—the goofier the better. My husband and I often narrate the stories of random dogs we encounter—we give them voices, names, storylines. It’s pretty ridiculous, but it keeps us amused. Second, as my students will tell you, I also love very very bleak crime dramas from Norway, Iceland, Denmark. The bleaker the better. Snow and angst are a plus. I am not sure what this says about me.