From Page to Stage

Meet Cockroach Theatre’s radical new resident playwright

Nothing is off-limits for award-winning local playwright Erica Griffin. She dabbles in conspiracy theories, feminism, greed, corruption, murder, incest, mental illness. It’s possible her plays will offend you. It’s also possible you’ll see the world differently—if you’re brave enough to stick around.

In May, Griffin signed on for a two-year residency with Cockroach Theatre, where she will produce her character-driven dark comedies and spearhead a training series for playwrights. She joins the decade-old company as it moves into a new home, the Arts Square Theatre (1025 S. First St.) in the Arts District.

Griffin, 36, is a stay-at-home mom and no stranger to the Las Vegas theater scene. In addition to a prolific playwriting portfolio, she’s performed in various shows locally, including Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding at the Rio and Caligula with Cockroach Theatre. Her play Spearminted was the 2012 Las Vegas Little Theatre New Work Competition’s winner, and her new play, Roles for Women, just premiered at the Vegas Fringe Festival.

Between chasing around her toddler and awaiting her next creative tidal wave, Griffin took some time to speak about her new residency.

What exactly will you do as Cockroach’s resident playwright?

A residency, in general, guarantees a certain number of full productions over a certain number of years. In professional theaters, residents usually receive a cash award, stipends to attend theater and health-insurance benefits [Griffin won’t receive any of those benefits, but she will receive a full production of one play.] Playwrights don’t have a union like actors equity. What I’ll be doing with my residency is simple: developing my craft, helping other writers develop their craft, and making some sweet, sweet theater.

Why does a playwriting residency matter?

I think it’s a vital investment. If the play does well, and it gets picked up by a publisher, then it’s good for everyone. The play has the potential of going all over the country, with the permanent inscription: originally produced at Cockroach Theatre, at the Arts Square Theatre in Las Vegas, directed by so-in-so, with the following cast. So the entire company becomes part of history.

How did you first get involved with theater?

My mom was an actress and writer; she took me to plays around Seattle and taught me how to use her old blue typewriter. I wrote my first play on it at age 11. It was an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin, and I staged it on my neighbor’s deck, using kids in the neighborhood. … I remember watching the show, totally blissed out, thinking, “I want to do this the rest of my life!” And so I did.

You’ve described your plays as radical acts. What does that mean to you?

It’s a radical act to challenge the status quo, to present a different point of view than the audience’s belief structures, [to] offend people—whether it’s the copious amounts of marijuana used by a grandma in Mulch or the questioning of the government and anti-privacy acts in Chipped. People have been walking out of my shows since 2001, but they never seem to ask for their money back. … Critics have called my work “screwball tragedy,” which I think has a nice ring to it.

When it comes to writing a play, what inspires you?

Ideas for plays come when an interesting character in my head intersects with an interesting theme I’ve been knocking around. … For instance I see a homeless person with a blanket on their head and I’m reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, and suddenly I come up with the dramatic question of Casa de Nada: What if someone were using homeless people to make them money and then exterminating them, Holocaust-style?

What brought you to Las Vegas as opposed to L.A. or New York?

I’d rather be a pioneer than a settler. I moved here after college precisely because there wasn’t much going on, and yet a huge potential for something big to happen. I’ve always believed in theater in Las Vegas, like the little engine that could. I’ve been lucky enough to see minor shifts in the way theater off the Strip has been viewed. I feel like I’ve witnessed a small cultural awakening, and I’ve been proud to be part of the effort.

Cockroach Theatre boldly infests the Arts District

They wandered the desert for 10 years, staging shows wherever they could find space, like in magic shops and yoga studios. Now Cockroach Theatre is putting down roots in the 18b Arts District. Their first home, The Arts Square Theater, will open this summer in Art Square (1025 S. First St., attached to Artifice).

Known for pushing the edge of convention and challenging the way audiences think, the nonprofit Cockroach Theater was formed in 2002 by a group of UNLV theater students. “Up until now, Cockroach Theater has done one-offs, now we are going to be able to present a whole package,” said the company’s new artistic director, Erik Amblad.

With a permanent home, Cockroach Theater will reach a broader audience as it presents a full season of neglected/forgotten works as well as new works by emerging playwrights. “Most exciting, is that fans of Cockroach will be rewarded with a season-long exploration of a theme—an exploration [that] will hopefully get more complicated show after show,” Amblad says.

The first season will be announced in early July and will start in September. The pre-season will begin in late July with the 2011 Sin City New Play Contest winner, Nurture by Johnna Adams. (The contest from Original Works Publishing was previously hosted by Onyx Theatre.)

Cockroach Theater also plans to offer training programs and provide an affordable space for variety acts, contemporary dancers and spoken-word performers from around the Valley. “The idea is that every step of the way, every day of the week,” Amblad says, “you’ll find something interesting at the Art Square Theatre.”

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