I met with playwright Don Cummings to discuss the world premiere of Don’s play, The Water Tribe, a joint production of VS. Theatre Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at VS. Theatre.

Don was born in Bronxville and grew up in Suffern, both in New York. He attended Tufts University and spent a semester studying in Paris. After college Don attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York City for two years to study acting with Sanford Meisner. In 2019, he published Bent But Not Broken, the first memoir about Peyronie’s disease, a disfiguring but potentially treatable penile condition that afflicts 5% of the male population. I reviewed it for the New York Journal of Books

Don and his husband Adam Waring, a TV writer and entertainment exec, are “annoying Francophiles.” With their poodle/bichon Maude, they live “on the edge of Hollywood, just south of the border; we can see Hollywood from our window.”

When we sat down at a restaurant in the Loz Feliz section of Los Angeles, Don told me his impetus for writing The Water Tribe. As you can imagine, water and tribes figure prominently. Each is significant for Don as the conjurer of this tale. A big part of the motivation began on a trip with Adam:

“When we were in Africa, I was really moved by the pain of this woman in this Masai tribe. She really kept staring at me and it was more than just interest. I decided, I don't know if it’s true, but I decided that she wanted out of there and it was really upsetting me.

I don't know if I'm an atheist. I'm against a lot of organized groups in general, and because of this I wanted to write a play that was almost like a George Bernard Shaw play, to prove that tribes are terrible, and how everything about them is oppressive and horrible.

I did a Google search and discovered there are endless articles showing that if people are not in tribes, they will die.”

What is the significance of water in the play?

“The water actually came from the Flint Michigan thing. Did you know that Flint Michigan is the tip of the iceberg?

There are hundreds and hundreds of municipalities in the United States that do not have safe, chemical-free drinking water, Newark, tons of places in western Pennsylvania, everywhere.

In Africa women walk five kilometers each way to get water and the roads are unsafe. Young girls and women get raped on these trips all the time.”

What were the easiest aspect and the most difficult challenge of writing The Water Tribe?

“The easiest thing was knowing who the characters were. That came to me effortlessly. I knew the number of characters. I knew I wanted a young couple and there needed to be some foils, and that all came to me, and it was pretty easy.

The hardest part about writing this play, and it’s the hardest part I have with every play, is not knowing when it’s done. I don’t mind editing and killing my darlings, that’s fine, but it was not knowing which things to kill. And there was some stuff in this play, about four or five items that were going on, that I had to cut. And I would say the hardest part wasn’t removing them, the hardest part was gaining awareness that they needed to be removed. And without the help of others, I would not had the awareness.”

How were you able to create Claudia, who is such a believable and authentic female character? 

“I have a lot of strong, amazing women whom I grew up with, who inspire me. Part of the reason I became a playwright was because I was an actor. And part of being an actor is that you're constantly putting yourself in the shoes of others, so it wasn’t that hard for me to create Claudia's character.

I’ve always had a ton of female friends, so I feel that I understand them. The truth is the lead character’s emotional life is based on my emotional life. Of course it has changed and it's fiction, but the fear of abandonment and not being connected to others is something I feel. So it’s universal, and if it’s a man or a woman, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Do you have hopes and dreams for The Water Tribe after its run at VS. Theatre?

“After the premier, I’d love to see the play at the Taper or Geffen or South Coast Rep. I’d love for it to have a regional theater life with other companies performing it.”

What would you like the audience to take away after watching this play? (I got a little teary when I got his answer)

This is so general, but that’s okay; I hope that people will listen to each other, in general listen to other people, with a more compassionate understanding that everyone struggles. That’s what I want. That’s it.”

What play would you choose if the world were to suddenly spin off its axis and you were only be able to see one work for the rest of your life?

“I would want to see ‘The Three Sisters’ over and over again. I want it to constantly change, and I want it to not only change in casting, but I want it to constantly change in style, because for me it’s kind of a perfect play. It’s probably the play that I’ve read the most.

That play, ‘Burn This,’ and ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ are probably the three plays I've read the most. But if I was in some kind of purgatory and I could just see one of them over and over again, I think ‘The Three Sisters’ has the biggest world and the most room for variation.”

In your opinion, are playwrights ever satisfied with their plays?

“I’m going to go in the opposite direction. I think most playwrights always find something they think they could do better, something could be better. But I am not that person because I like to move on to the next thing. And actually the truth is I’m usually more satisfied. I feel that my job is to make sure that the stuff on the page is correct for me. I haven't been in a situation where I felt like my plays needed to be drastically changed, because I do work on them for a long time before they’re up on their feet. Some painters have the attitude of 'oh, I want to go back and retouch a little thing,' or there are novelists who, even when their novel is published, not only do they want to change it, but they actually sit around and do change it. They take their published manuscript and start tinkering with it. To me, that’s nuts; I like to move on, so I’m actually usually pretty satisfied.”

Whom would you like to thank for this production opportunity? 

“I want to thank Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, especially for the development process. Without the playwrights’ unit, this play would not be as good as it is, so they are really number one I'd want to thank.

I also have to thank Johnny Clark for the space over at VS. Theatre Company. He’s been a big supporter of my work and we were always talking about the day when we could do something together, and this was it. So I’m glad that in an industry where people can just say things and not mean them, he’s of his word. At VS. Theatre Company there is a lot of risk-taking, and lots of wonderful new work happens. It’s a great place and I’m really grateful to be a part of it!

And I have to thank Crystal Jackson and Lizzy Ross, my co-producers, who were organizing everything (and still do). A big thanks has to also go to Tricia Small who is a tireless, super creative director who has this incredible ability to not only work well with actors, but is excited by all the design and the physical elements of a play. A lot of directors are good at one or the other. She really does it all. She’s willing to roll up her sleeves and push her resources and her list of people who can help, and she did all that. I am super, super grateful!

And lastly my cast, Hannah Prichard, Christopher Reiling, Jayne Taini, Jon Gentry, and Alexandra Daniels. I’m grateful that they’re part of my play, but I’m also really grateful that they formed a family and are having a good time.”

The Water Tribe opens tomorrow, Friday the 17th, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, through February 9, 2020. The VS. Theatre is located at 5453 West Pico Blvd. in LA.

If you’re in the L.A. area, you shouldn’t miss it. Tickets are available at ESTLosAngeles.org.