En Garde Arts Presents Uncommon Voices

S1 E10 | FULL EPISODE

Em Weinstein & Danny Pudi

Hear conversations with writer and director Em Weinstein on their new work “SOLIDERGIRLS” about queer women in the Army during WWII, and writer and actor Danny Pudi on his first ever play, “Running,” that centers on identity. We dive into the impetus behind writing these works, presented at En Garde Arts’ Uncommon Voices, and how the story develops from personal and familial experiences.

AIRED: August 12, 2020 | 0:26:36
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TRANSCRIPT

Part of why I am really passionate

about telling queer histories

is because these conversations have been happening

since the beginning of time

and I want to place old stories in new contexts

so that people understand

that that these aren't a blip on the radar,

these conversations around gender

and identity and sexuality,

that they have always been in the discourse.

They just not have not been on the surface of it.

So that's really important to me as an artist and as a mission.

[ Up-tempo music plays ]

Part of why I am really passionate

I'm Em Weinstein, and I'm the playwright and director

of a new play called "Soldier Girls,"

which I like to say is a lesbian musical sex comedy.

Woman: She's the redhead with the...

Big glasses? ...big boobs. Yeah. Um...

Anyway...

I've been directing and writing plays

since I was 10 years old.

My mom is an experimental theater artist/teacher.

And started directing after I had brain surgery, actually,

when I was 10 years old,

I was in a wheelchair for a few months,

recovering from having a brain tumor.

And I started writing plays

and have sort of been creating theater ever since.

I went to Smith College,

where I got to direct on a really large scale very young,

and then started directing professionally

right after college.

And I finally ended up doing my MFA at Yale School of Drama.

I graduated last year with a degree in directing.

And while I was there, I started making films,

and I started writing

and I started getting really interested in original musicals

and how we can take the American musical,

which is, frankly, one of the greatest things

this country has ever come up with, in my opinion,

and bring it into the 21st century

to be something that's really fun and sexy

and queer and young.

So that's sort of where "Soldier Girls" came out of.

[ Mid-tempo music playing ]

♪ Touch her thighs and kiss her neck ♪

♪ And be sure to double-check ♪

♪ She's not an actress or a Gemini ♪

♪ An alcoholic private eye ♪

♪ On recon for the Germans ♪

♪ Or an heiress dressed in ermine ♪

♪ Or a lying sack of vermin ♪

♪ Like my ex, Augusta Herrmann ♪

♪ Yes, I'll make sure to determine ♪

♪ Baby, I could write a sermon ♪

What if I don't like it?

Then make it stop.

What if you don't like it?

I like it. [ Laughter ]

But what if you don't?

It's an experiment.

I failed chemistry in the 10th grade.

I was good at chemistry.

Will I need gloves?

Weinstein: Women's Army Corps,

which was founded in World War II

for the purpose of women getting involved in the war effort,

ended up being a pivotal moment for queer liberation

and for women's liberation

and in lesbian history just generally.

Gentlemen of the Senate, manhood is under attack.

What has become of us men

when we have to call on our women to protect us?

Gentlemen of the Senate,

my name is Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby.

I'm a wife. I'm a mother.

I'm a mother and a wife.

I'm a colonel in the United States Army --

the only female colonel, in fact.

"Colonel" is spelled C-O-L-O-N-E-L.

It doesn't have an "R" in it. I'm aware of that.

Is it advisable,

long before the supply of manpower is running short,

to put a lot of young, vigorous girls

into a vaguely defined noncombatant branch of the Army?

Wouldn't it be wiser to encourage them to marry,

produce children?

Why not put these girls to use?

Many even have college degrees.

Some even speak a foreign language.

Why not, I say! What of the masculine environment of the Army?

Do we not fear that the disease of tomboyishness

will spread amongst them?

It is well known that enlisted men despise office work.

They long to march into battle, to drive tanks,

fly airplanes, to drop bombs,

built trenches, shoot machine guns,

pull out the throbbing viscera of the enemy

with their virile young fingers.

How many of our boys could be free from the drudgery

of paperwork and transcription

if we put girls into our war offices

to operate our radios and answer our telephones?

Women aren't made for war.

Girls love telephones, gentlemen.

Gentlemen, everybody knows that. Everybody knows that.

I'm a huge nerd for 1930s and 1940s musicals.

I always have been.

I sort of was raised on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I should say the '50s, too.

I love Gene Kelly and Gershwin and Cole Porter.

And I think that, you know, for so long

we have described those musicals in relation to queer history

in terms of gay men especially.

I mean, they've sort of gotten to own the whole genre

in terms of queer musical.

But for me, as an assigned- female-at-birth queer person,

these musicals meant a lot.

And in some way, I always saw gender

as being played with in these musicals.

And so I always have wanted to add to that canon,

even though it's, you know, decades and decades later.

And when I started working on a show

that took place in the 1940s, I was like, "Oh, my God.

It needs to involve that music."

I started working with Emily Johnson-Erday,

who's the composer on "Soldier Girls,"

and she has a super-unique background.

She's done folk and bluegrass music and jazz.

And so what you'll hear in this musical

is a whole bunch of different music samples

from across many genres.

There's an Ani DiFranco-inspired number.

There's a riot grrrl-inspired number.

♪ Lost in the limbo [ Mid-tempo rock music playing ]

♪ In the first flesh of you ♪

♪ But an echo remains

♪ Of trust untold

♪ Yeah

Part of why I am really passionate

♪ God's in His heaven

♪ And I'm in my hell

♪ I shall only hope

♪ That you are well

[ Groans ] [ Laughter ]

[ Cheers and applause ]

Something that I found really, really satisfying

was the chance to take someone's journals

and put them to music.

The two lesbian breakup songs toward the middle of the show

are both directly from Marvyl's diary

after Esther and Marvyl's breakup.

And there is something so sacred about taking a text

that someone never intended to share --

it's in her private journal,

and it's her, like, most terrible moments --

and just taking that intimate, vulnerable piece of text

and giving it everything that I possibly can.

♪ Smile, boys

♪ That's the style

♪ What's the use of worrying?

♪ It never was worthwhile

♪ So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag ♪

♪ And smile, smile, smile

Part of why I am really passionate

My dramaturge, Rebecca, and I

found this amazing archive housed at USC

called the ONE Archive,

which is this incredible treasure trove of queer history.

And through that archive and a trip to L.A.,

we discovered the incredible letters of female soldiers

during World War II, these very erotic love letters

between a number of soldiers in the Women's Army Corps.

And from those letters, a story emerged

of this beautiful, sexy, and sort of forbidden love story

between these two female soldiers.

Rebecca and I and two actors

went to Adelphi University with New York Theatre Workshop

and spent five days just, like, playing with things.

We laid out all of the letters,

and we had a table full of books.

And by the end of that five days,

I realized a few things --

one, that I wanted it to be a musical,

two, that I wanted it to just be two people,

and three, that I wanted it to really traverse genres.

Eleanor Roosevelt and others fought

for the Women's Army Corps to exist.

And unlike the male army, homosexuality wasn't something

that was talked about from the start.

So whereas in the Army proper,

there were all these ways that homosexual men

were screened out and persecuted,

they were so oblivious to the idea

that women could desire each other

that for a very long time, there was no screening process.

By the time women started to meet and fall in love

and the Army started to wake up to the fact that they had

what they called a "lesbian menace" at their hands,

they had to strike out.

And they ended up doing so by targeting especially butch women

and by using pretty harmful tactics

to dishonorably discharge those soldiers.

In my entrance interview, they ask if I'm a homosexual.

I've never heard that word before -- not out loud.

Anyway, there's a tingling sensation

on the third syllable -- sex...ual.

I say no.

I'm not lying.

I've never done anything that would categorize me as...

But of course, there were those times long ago at night,

laying on top of my pillow,

rubbing back and forth, thinking about...

But I haven't done that in a while,

and there's no way she could know, this serious officer

who asks me, so matter-of-fact, about...that.

It's really fascinating, because for a moment,

these communities were fostered in the barracks

of the Women's Army Corps

that then led to movements after the war.

So it led to bars being created in these communities,

sort of sprouting up and finding each other again,

because for the first time,

queer women could find each other in these single-sex spaces

and organize and plan

and fall in love and meet each other.

♪ I like the Army

♪ 'Cause it's full of pretty girls ♪

♪ And my mother isn't here, and I'm not in West Virginia ♪

♪ And the world is larger than it's ever been before ♪

♪ Now with pants instead of pantyhose ♪

♪ I'll fix a million radios ♪

♪ From Tokyo to Amsterdam, Paula Jean to Marianne ♪

♪ Now in neckties 'stead of pearls ♪

♪ Some in pigtails, some in curls ♪

♪ Oh, yes, I like the Army ♪

♪ 'Cause it's full of pretty ♪

♪ Full of pretty girls ♪ I like the Army

♪ 'Cause it's clear and it's determined ♪

♪ And my father isn't here ♪

♪ and I'm not in Flatbush, Brooklyn ♪

♪ And the world is larger than it's ever been before ♪

Weinstein: You know, when I started working on the piece,

I struggled with this question of relevance.

World War II is a very well-worn subject matter

onstage and on-screen.

And so I was really wondering, you know, why add to that canon?

And I realized, you know, so much about the Army

and who makes up the Army today

and who made up the Army back then

is not in our public discourse.

But so much has changed

and so little has changed in our military.

And I wanted to dive deep into understanding

how women first were welcomed into the Army

and then what the history of their participation

in the U.S. military has been till now,

because it's a story that bears telling

and that needs to be told and retold.

Part of why I am really passionate

So, growing up, I didn't see a lot of representations

of myself on television.

I grew up mixed race.

I grew up speaking Polish, but as a person of color.

So I don't think I ever really fit into a group.

So it's hard for me to really find characters or stories

that I personally was like, "Oh, that's totally like me."

[ Mid-tempo music plays ]

Part of why I am really passionate

My name is Danny Pudi, and I'm an actor and writer.

I grew up in Chicago, and I went to college

at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

And I didn't really know what I wanted to do.

Then I started doing theater --

I did some musical theater at Marquette -- and comedy.

And I guess I got the bug.

I realized that's what I wanted to do.

And after that, I went to Second City in Chicago.

And really at Second City is where I started to learn comedy

in terms of performance and writing and the craft of it.

And after that I was like, "Okay. I'm in this."

And then I moved to L.A. and gave it a shot.

The first TV show I ever got cast on was "The West Wing."

I had one line -- "Guest list for the Cleveland event."

You probably didn't see me 'cause I was, like, moving off.

So it was actually more like,

"Guest list for the Cleveland event."

That was me.

"Gilmore Girls" was, I think, my first real role in television.

I played a student named Raj at Yale University,

which was super exciting for my family

'cause they told everybody I was a student

at an Ivy League institution.

That was really fun for my family to say --

"My son's at Yale."

It really gave me a sense of what it's like

to be on a set every day.

Shortly thereafter, I landed "Community,"

which was life-changing.

As soon as I read the script, I was trembling

because it was a show that I connected to in many ways.

The character of Abed itself -- I had never read somebody

who was painted in such a beautiful, humane way and funny.

And it was also one of those experiences where I was like,

"I want to be in the show, but I also -- I will watch the show."

I would like -- It felt like it was written for me.

My agents wrote, "This is the role that was meant for you,"

and they have only said that once.

Since then, they've never said that again.

[ Laughs ]

Life is really good.

I am married. I have two beautiful kids.

They're 7 years old.

We live in California.

And it's this wonderful transition phase, right?

I've been working in TV for a while.

I'm working on a new television show

called "Mythic West: Raven's Banquet."

It's the story about a group of developers

behind this massive role-playing game.

Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day are the producers.

Megan Ganz is the show runner/writer.

The name of my new piece is "Running."

It's a personal story.

I've never done anything like this.

And I've sort of been going through this kind of transition

of dealing with my father's loss

and also kind of getting in touch more with my own identity.

And so that's what this piece is really kind of exploring.

Danny, is this sort of heralded Indian American actor

who broke a lot of barriers for Indian American actors

when he was on "Community."

And I think people have always had this image of who he is,

and a lot of this show is about who he really is

and struggles he may have had,

one of them being that he didn't have much of a relationship

growing up with his Indian father

and actually is much closer to his Polish side of his family,

his mother's side of the family.

And it brought up a lot of questions, I think, for us

about how he gets cast

and the performative aspect of our identity

versus the really more complicated aspects

of our identity

that I think this piece explores really beautifully.

No one's really -- No one's seen the show.

No one's ever seen this,

so this is the first time we're doing this.

Part of why I am really passionate

For years, my mom made me take Polish dance lessons.

Finally last year, I said, "Enough."

[ Laughter ]

Every Saturday, while my friends were riding Huffy bikes

and eating Fun Dip, I was dancing the mazurek.

[ Singing in Polish ]

Part of why I am really passionate

My name wasn't meant for Polish dance.

Pronouncing my last name isn't easy.

Sometimes I get, "Is it 'Putty'?"

Sometimes I get, "Is it 'Poo-die'?"

I just wanted a normal name,

like the rest of my friends in class,

like Kroplewski, Lewandowski, Matejko,

Pazjura, Polonowski, Dzienisiewicz.

I guess my favorite question is, "Where are you from?"

That's a complicated question.

I'm from Chicago, but my parents are from two other places.

My mother was born in Poland. My father was born in India.

And I guess dealing with my identity

has always been a fun issue in my life.

And I think that's what this piece explores,

is trying to figure out who I am today.

This show deals with the themes of identity,

of belonging, of feeling alienated.

It also deals a lot with sort of philosophical questions

I think we ask as children that never go away,

even when we are adults.

And we see that really beautifully

through Danny's questions for his dad,

questions he had as a kid growing up,

and now Danny's kids' questions for him.

So it has this beautiful frame of how we go through life

thinking we need answers to questions

that in fact may be sort of unanswerable.

Our process has been really trying to figure out

the spine of the play and what is the thing

that's really kind of connecting all of this.

A lot of this has to do with me running.

I'm a big runner.

I've run marathons, half marathons.

I run all the time.

And using that as sort of the idea of why I'm running,

kind of exploring that idea

and tying that to my relationship with my father

and my son.

Where am I from?

Okay. I-I guess it depends on who's asking, right?

If they're wearing Chicago sports gear, I'm from Chicago.

If they are speaking Polish...

[ Speaking Polish ]

If they're South Asian, I'm from Andhra Pradesh.

And if it's a white nationalist, my answer is,

"A white woman's birth canal, just like you."

And then I run.

[ Laughter ]

I'm from a family of immigrants

that made tremendous sacrifices to get me here today.

Okay. So, when I was 11 years old, I went to Poland.

I was excited to see where I was from for the very first time.

I thought everything would make sense.

We boarded this bus in Warsaw

when I heard the word "Z powrotem."

"Z powrotem" means "to go back."

I turned my head, and I noticed this man.

And he was staring at me.

"Z powrotem," he said once again.

He was telling me to go back.

At the time, my impulse wasn't to run

but to correct him and say,

"Actually, I'm 49% Polish" -- 23andMe says so.

So technically, you can only send half of me back.

But I didn't speak.

I pretended to not understand him,

and I angled my body toward the nearest exit

and concentrated on looking safe.

My dad left my family when I was 2 years old,

and I grew up with my Polish mother in Chicago.

In middle school, I told my classmates

that I was the young maharaja

in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,"

and everyone believed me. [ Laughter ]

In 2007, I booked my first TV role, on "Gilmore Girls."

I played a student named Raj at Yale University

with one line -- "Computer crashed again!"

[ Laughter ]

Part of why I am really passionate

In 2008, I was frisked three times before a flight to Boston.

In 2009, I booked my first lead role,

on an NBC TV show called "Community."

Three out of four people congratulated me

for being on "Parks and Recreation." [ Laughter ]

In 2012, my wife gave birth to our half-Irish,

quarter-Polish, quarter-Indian twins.

No one believes I'm the father. [ Laughter ]

In 2018, I walked past a woman in a bar

who saw my face and yelled, "Terrorism."

In 2019, I checked into a hotel and said,

"Reservation for Danny Pudi."

The receptionist said, "I'm sorry.

There is no reservation under that name,

but we do have a Tammy Ludi."

"That's me," I tell her.

Part of why I am really passionate

And now I have a new alias.

[ Laughter ]

The hardest part is that it's just me.

I think I'm used to collaborating.

I love ensemble comedy.

I love being given a role

and then sent off to go dive into the world

and then come back and work with people to piece it together.

This is me kind of really figuring out

what is the story that I want to tell.

That's hard because I am in it, you know?

And I'm still trying to figure out the distance

and, like, what's the end line, what's the ending point.

Perhaps there is no ending.

I think that's what I'm trying to learn.

Critical distance is the ability to look at a personal event

that happened to you

and to be able to reframe it for a story

or to be able to glean from it a question

or what you learned or an idea.

We call this narratorial distance, too --

where there's someone telling the story

who has experienced it,

but right now their question of it may be different

from when they were going through it.

I was standing outside when I saw him pull up.

I was worried that I wouldn't recognize him.

It's been 20 years since I saw him.

He was wearing a red coat and driving a Toyota Corolla,

and he jaywalked across the street and came right up to me

and said, "Hey there, Dan."

His voice was softer than I imagined.

"Hey, Dad," I said right back.

He came in for a hug, and I smelled the cigarettes on him.

We stepped into the lobby of the hotel and ordered coffees.

And I watched him.

I watched him pour cream

and stir two packs of sugar into his cup.

This was his routine.

I like my coffee with zero sugar and a gentle splash of cream.

It can't be too creamy.

It needs to be the color of my own skin in summertime.

We sat across from each other.

And for a moment, no one spoke.

We were like these two chess players

stuck thinking about past moves.

Part of why I am really passionate

I told him I had woke up with a head cold.

His advice was one word -- "Benadryl."

[ Laughter ]

I asked questions -- "When is your birthday?"

"What did you like to do as a kid?"

"When did you come to America?"

"What was it like when you first got here?"

"What was it like when you said goodbye?"

"When you first got here, did you feel alone?"

"Why did you live in Lakeview?"

"And how do you say 'grandpa' in Telugu?"

After our session, we walked to the elevator,

and I studied his face.

He was youthful-looking -- nice skin and a full head of hair.

And I couldn't stop staring at his hands.

His fingers were delicate, long and thin.

And he was fidgeting, just like me.

Inside the elevator, we talked about the Bulls,

Jimmy Butler, and Derrick Rose.

He followed sports, and we were having this normal conversation,

like a normal father and son.

When we stepped outside, we hugged, and he walked off.

I watched him walk across the street,

and in my mind, I thought of this quote.

"The best time to plant a tree was yesterday.

The second best time is now."

But it was too late to say anything.

He was already getting in his car.

So I just said, "Bye, Dad."

Part of why I am really passionate

"Running" is about one person,

Danny's journey of finding his father,

who left the family when Danny was just a kid

and reconnecting with his father and in the process

asking questions about who he is as a father, as an actor,

as a person, and really very specifically

also about his cultural background.

I'm excited to say these words out loud.

I've never said all these stories out loud.

I've written some of them.

I've had portions of them that I've said out loud.

But I've never put this all together in one piece

in front of strangers.

So that is scary

but also, I feel like, gonna be very valuable for me

to just see how that lands on people and myself.

I think that I need that at this point in time.

Now I just want to tell the story.

I want to just release it, just, like, let it out.

And I think that's gonna be just good for me as a human being

to, like, get that off my chest.

I think I'm still in, like, A. I'm trying to get to B.

I'm aware I'm not trying to get to C yet.

I'm trying to figure out what is the best --

Are we closer to telling the story I want to tell?

And that's what I'm hoping -- after this, that I'll be closer

to telling the story that I ultimately want to tell.

The one thing I always like doing

is kind of going back to my roots.

I think that's the one place where I feel most at home,

where I could truly experiment, make a lot of mistakes,

which is really nice, and be with people,

'cause I think that theater is very unique

in that being in one room with people

in that one moment together,

kind of feeling what something is for the very first time,

it's pretty special and terrifying, which I enjoy.

[ Mid-tempo music plays ]

Part of why I am really passionate

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