What is your name and where are you from?
Cusi: My name is Cusi Cram and I’m from New York City
What project are you working on here at SPACE?
Cusi: I’m working on a play that I think is about the relationship between my mother and my father which is a little mysterious to me so I’m making it up.
Were they together when you were growing up?
Cusi: No, they weren’t. I didn’t really know them together. I had very separate relationships with both of them. So, It’s my imagining of them together in a quest to figure out maybe why I am the way I am.
I had a similar experience, my parent’s divorced, I was with them one at the time. Seeing them together, the times we have been all together, I’m not sure how they ever came together.
Cusi: Yeah they were close and then they had a big falling out. So [the play] is sort of an investigation of that and other things. Looking to see what that common ground is between them. And they both have pretty interesting lives so also the context around that.
Have you found a favorite spot to work here on the farm?
Cusi: I like writing in my notebook at the picnic table on the lake. I’ve done that two or three times. I like that. The main room in here [Kay Hall] is really good. There’s a good studious energy in there.
If you were reincarnated into a farm animal, which farm animal would you like to be?
Cusi: That is a really good question. I have a real love of donkeys. Probably a donkey. There’s just something where I can stare and look at donkeys for a really long time.
What is/are your occupation(s)?
Cusi: I’m a Playwright and I’m also a teacher for playwriting and screenwriting. I also write for Television. I’ve written for cable TV and have a long history writing for kids and kids Television. Mostly animated stuff. I’m also an aspiring filmmaker. I made a film about a year and a half ago and I really loved it. So I’d like to do that again.
How did you start working for Children’s TV?
Cusi: My husband, we were not married at the time, got a gig doing it and he needed some writers so he hired me. He really likes to work with playwrights because he feels they’re not hacky and come at it from a fun perspective. So I got him to hire a lot of other playwrights too.
Arthur in particular is a favorite of mine.
Cusi: Arthur’s great.
Who’s choice was it to go with the Aardvarks?
Cusi: It comes from a children’s book series where Arthur is an Aardvark. It gets a little crazy though because one character is a dog but then he has a dog. So it’s pretty random there isn’t much deep thought about it. They are only animals in how they look. They’re very kid. I think it’s a great kids show because it’s all about neurosis and fears. Which is motivated a lot by my husband. He like to explore them. Also because he get’s writers to explore things that they’re interested in and then see how that translates into the show. I think that’s why it’s lasted such a long time.
I look back on it and I think it’s one of the first times I saw myself represented in TV because the animals were brown and the theme song had a reggae beat. My mom side is Guyanese so I’m West Indian. It had a lot of pull for me.
Cusi: That’s so interesting. That’s good to know. There were no latino characters on the show so I wrote in his neighbors that way I think they’re llamas. There’s something that works about how they did the animals without it being too on-the-nose. I think it felt at first kind of random but I think actually makes perfect kid sense. Everybody does find someone they relate to in whatever way that is.
I found this blurb interesting because I’ve actually had interactions with Margaret Spellings who was the Secretary of Education at the time and unhappy about a spin-off series of Arthur that included two lesbian parents as characters? Postcards From Buster?
Yes, that was a documentary component that was animated and documentary about Buster from Arthur. He would go visit parts of the country and they would insert real people. So they went to Vermont and the kids they were visiting lived on a maple syrup farm and just so happened to have two moms. The episode was not actually about that but it became a huge huge scandal. The show was canceled and it was a really big deal. The Department of Education had given a huge grant to promote diversity. What does that mean? Diverse families, diverse kinds of families. When they pulled the grant they ended up having to cancel the show. I ended up writing a play based on that. Dusty and the Big Bad World. It’s asking questions like what is the job of TV? What should it do? What shouldn’t it do? Should the first time you start to talk about sexuality with kids come from television? All those questions. Which I think are interesting questions.
When did playwriting come into your life?
Cusi: I was a bit of a late starter because I started as a performer. I did some playwriting as an undergraduate at Brown. There was a very active new plays grad program Paula Volgel just started teaching there. So I acted also in a lot of new plays. It took me a while. I did other kinds of writing first. I was a fiction writer and I also wrote poetry. Don’t tell anyone here [Laughter]. You know I had also been a writer and a performer but they didn’t necessarily go hand in hand. It was kind of very gradual for me. I started writing things that I performed in that slowly morphed into writing plays I was also gonna perform in. Then I didn’t really want to perform. So I think it was about seven or eight years after I graduated that I started feeling like a Playwright and decided maybe I should go to grad school and investigate it. But it initially came from performing.
I read that, at the time, you were the youngest person to sign with Wilhelmina at age 13?
Cusi: Oh my gosh, you’ve done your research
Was that a product of performing?
Cusi: No, that was a strange by product. My mom was an actress. So I basically started going on commercial auditions to help pay for things and help out. From that I started doing some print work and that lead to modeling.
What was that like being the youngest person in that agency?
Cusi: You know, I really did not like modeling. It was strange, It was a different time. At that time it was very...I remember one person I went in to see told me “It’s a blonde, blue-eyed world.” and I thought “Oh, great” So there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. Very exotic and very other. Which has obviously changed a great deal. But I didn’t like that very much. It’s always interesting I think to do those kind of things because we always wonder what they’ll be like and fantasize about it. Then to do it and realize it’s really boring and a lot of work, or just so not for me. It took away all that for me. I mean there are worse things, definitely worse things. But it’s definitely not my thing. It made me very self-concieous.
Was the One Life to Live audition something your commercial agent sent you on?
Cusi: Yeah, that was also like another weird world but fun. Sort of my first experience being on set and I liked that aspect. It’s similar to theatre in some ways.
How was it day-to-day? From what I’ve gathered from the outside it’s a very fast paced environment?
Cusi: Certainly, It was a lot of memorization. Things do change very quickly and things are cut suddenly. It moves very fast. They shot an hour episode every day. So you’re doing a tremendous amount in a short amount of time. You get there at 7, you block, you block with cameras, then you start shooting after lunch until you do it. It moves at this pace that I’ve never, either being behind or in front of the camera...nothing moves as fast as that. It was a good experience for getting used to working on camera. That was valuable. Nothing is quite like that though, it’s it’s own thing. Soap Opera is on five times a week. Fans have a very different relationship to you.
Did you experience any crazy fandom?
Cusi: Yeah, I had some really crazy fans. Some really weird stalkers. We had to get a restraining order for somebody who would just show up at the studio. Nothing happened. Everyone was very protective of me because I was a teenager. Fans can be really really obsessive about things.
How did you start teaching?
Cusi: I started teaching because a theatre that had produced a play of mine, Primary Stages, has this theatre school and they asked me to teach a playwriting class. It was seven or eight years ago and it was really fun. I really like teaching playwriting and now do it a lot more. That’s a theatre school but some of my students have gone on to do really really well. It’s a great place if you want to study writing. They get a lot of working writers to come in and work with people. It came from there and I found it to be a nice compliment to my writing life. It forces me to be with people. It also helps you think about what you think about writing. To be a good teacher you have to bring what’s going on in your own journey to the class. I found it can be really helpful to share that in terms of your own process.
What’s next for you or any projects you’ve been working on?
Cusi: This summer, I have a play going up in New York at the end of July. A short-ish play, like twenty minutes, with some other plays called “The Helpers”. I had a residency where I was both writing and directing something so this summer I’m doing a workshop of that piece. I’ve been working on it, I call it my slow theatre piece, It’s coming along very slowly, like the slow food movement cause I’m directing it. That will be with LAByrinth Theatre Company where I’m a member. I am also developing a TV show with Laura Linney.