Part II of an interview with playwright Catherine Filloux on her characters, her unique use of outreach and audience engagement, recent Voting Rights Legislation and more details on SELMA ’65!


Participants of Catherine Filloux’s October 16, 2013 workshop livestreamed from The Freedom Foundation in Selma and from University of South Carolina-Lancaster to actress Marietta Hedges and Catherine Filloux at CultureHub in New York City.

When you write your plays, do you see the stage? Or do you see the characters?

I always think about what I see onstage.  I imagine the action as I write it.  When I write I start onstage envisioning the actors and actresses.  In terms of the characters, I channel them through me.  I see them–so they are in me. I am drawn to them in a very emotional way and they speak to me. So it’s a combination of them being inside of me, seeing them, and hearing them.

How do you feel about the characters?

I always have to somehow love them and/or invest deeply in their actions and circumstances. I wrote a play about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dictator: I saw some footage of him that I tracked down through an amazing journalist (Nate Thayer) who was very generous to show it all to me, and in that footage Pol Pot seemed to appear kind, grandfatherly and soft spoken. Pol Pot was responsible for the death of in the area of 2 million Cambodians.  I saw in the footage that Nate Thayer provided me with that Pol Pot (originally named Saloth Sar) thought of himself as a teacher, and that he felt he had the power to convince others. I chose for a majority of his actions in the play the acts of teaching and persuading. In SELMA ‘65, Tommy Rowe, the FBI informant, watches a KKK clan member shoot Viola Liuzzo in the head. She died instantly. He saw this happen right in front of him and he was complicit in a lot of horrible and violent acts, yet he was a deeply vulnerable man, so I try to feel all those extremes of the character and look for the ambivalence.


Actress Marietta Hedges performing a scene from SELMA ’65 at CultureHub for workshop participants in Selma and Lancaster, South Carolina.

We know outreach is very important to your work. How are you working that into SELMA ’65 and why do work with outreach as much as you do?

Perhaps more than 80% of the people in the U.S. don’t go to the theater. I believe that theatre is about the audience. We’re not doing this in a closed cosmos. So if there’s a missing 80%, they are not informing the field of theatre. They are not at the table and therefore theatre is missing and needing that 80%. So how can we bring them to the theatre?

I did a project (a sampling viewable here) where I brought a reading of one of my plays to 8 different venues. So I brought the play to the people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to go to the theatre; that’s a model that could be tried. In a way I think it’s a realistic model because at least in this case you can’t say: “they never came” or “they couldn’t come.”

We did a small segment of SELMA ‘65 at CultureHub with a group of youth from University Settlement and through telepresence:The Freedom Foundation in Selma Alabama and a group of students at University of South Carolina-Lancaster.


Participants of Filloux’s workshop in Selma and Lancaster.

It was also a workshop where each participant wrote a short piece and performed it. I think that’s an example of vibrant voices and audience members who are all being engaged in the play and hopefully will not only come see it but will also create a surrounding dialogue about the play, voting rights, civil rights and history. What’s so exciting is when you can bring a variety of people together at a performance. Of course there’s the tried and true mantra of “every night is different in the theatre.” The chemistry that an audience creates at a performance is each time different and embodies a once in a lifetime community experience.


University Settlement student performing a monologue he wrote for Filloux’s workshop at CultureHub in New York City.

How did you connect with University Settlement, the Freedom Foundation and University of South Carolina-Lancaster?

Anna Hayman, Managing Director of CultureHub put me in touch with Alison Fleminger at University Settlement and Alison works with the Freedom Foundation. I am working with a wonderful non-profit organization Settlement Housing Fund and a woman there introduced me to Reverend Richard D. Leonard, who walked the entire Selma March.


Rev. Richard D. Leanard, talking of his experiences of the Selma March.

Leonard came to the CultureHub workshop and shared his experiences, followed by a talkback.

As you’re working on the play and outreach involving civil rights, what is the discourse like regarding some of the latest civil rights legislation?

Recent Supreme Court decisions included a great victory with gay marriage as well as the gutting of the voting rights act. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, quoted Gary May’s definitive book on the Voting Rights Act entitled Bending Towards Justice.

Gary May also wrote the definitive book The Informant, about Tommy Rowe, who is a character in SELMA ’65. May is an indefatigable spokesperson regarding the formidable cost surrounding the recent Supreme Court decision.  The struggle for voting rights has been bloody and long and the people in Selma have told me that very little has changed there. The Freedom Foundation is an organization that speaks to the kind of commitment that people like Viola Liuzzo made when they decided to leave their lives behind and go to Selma to march.

We’re looking at the cost of what people gave up, coming from all over the country, to show up in Selma, versus the cavalier Supreme Court decision citing Obama’s presidency as a reason for no longer needing the Voting Rights Act.  The Supreme Court’s reversal of the act reinstated Voter ID laws, which make it harder for minorities and certain groups of people to vote. It’s insidious in terms of the rumor that Fox News started that there were 900 “dead voters” in South Carolina.

Final hopes for SELMA ’65?

For me the best thing about being a playwright are the collaborations. I’ll never forget on the opening night of my most recent play LUZ at La MaMa (we didn’t have any previews,) when I realized I had to cut a scene. I had to cut the scene between the matinee and the evening performance of the second day of the run. Mary Fulham held my hand, as she often has. The actors were totally cool, even though it’s a big show in terms of costume changes. In fact, the male lead, Steven Rishard, thought it was great because he then didn’t have to take his curtain call in his pajamas. Wait, what was I thinking?  Honestly. That was a bad idea on my part in the first place. That’s what’s so fun and exciting. It could be a train wreck [when you make a last minute adjustment] but somehow it worked out and [the play] was better without the scene. It is a high-stakes gamble. So I hope it works out for SELMA ’65 and no one has to come out in their pajamas.

When the audience leaves the theatre, what would you think they can do about some of the ongoing problems faced in Selma ’65 that we’re still facing in America today?

Please ask the audience, they will know. We are doing a Voting Rights project at Still Waters in a Storm in conjunction with the play, as well as other community outreach. Stay tuned.

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