“In the sui generis mind of theater artist Megan Cohen, silliness intermingles with oh-no-she-didn’t moxie; searing smarts blend seamlessly with surreal reverie and a bottomless capacity for feeling.” –San Francisco Chronicle
Megan Cohen has had more than 100 productions, workshops, and readings of her plays with artistic partners including Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, Southbank Centre in London, SF Olympians Festival, American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia.
As an opera librettist, she has worked with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and with Opera Theater Unlimited in San Francisco, and is currently under commission to write the feminist rodeo opera Turn and Burn for Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco “Song of Houston” initiative, with music by composer Nell Shaw Cohen and set for a world premiere in 2023.
As a performance artist she is a founding alumni of the San Francisco Neo-Futurists ensemble and created the solo Homeric epic Take Me Home: A One-Woman Odyssey for runs in San Francisco, CA and in Edinburgh, Scotland; she also appeared as an actor with companies including San Francisco Mime Troupe, No Nude Men, and American Conservatory Theater before turning her professional emphasis to writing.
Called “a ruthless innovator” (SF Weekly), “a local luminary” (SF Chronicle), and “one insightful and confident woman with a devilish sense of humor” (Huffington Post), she was the inaugural playwright for Cutting Ball Theater’s annual Commissioning Initiative with 2019’s “FREE FOR ALL: A NEW MISS JULIE FOR A NEW WORLD,” a radical response to Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in a ski resort on a snow-covered Nob Hill in a climate-ravaged San Francisco. She is currently a resident playwright at Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco.
In addition to writing, Megan uses her 20 years of professional experience to support other writers via How To Write Something.
Recent and Current Work
In January 2022 I completed a 24-hour writing marathon.
From Noon Jan 11th til Noon Jan 12, I hosted a community writing event on Zoom where others joined me for stints of varying length over the course of the day and night as I wrote for 24 hours straight.
While I worked through my projects, writers dropped in from near and far to share focus, inspiration, and motivation; they wrote screenplays, journal entries, articles, pitches, grants, song lyrics, plays, letters, tv spec scripts, outlines, case notes, morning pages, plans, memoirs, 2nd drafts; and that’s just the stuff I know about.
At one point I looked up from my keyboard to find a surprise drop-in to the Zoom room: AN ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL CLASS!
In the middle of my night, a friend from London arrived in the middle of her morning and we wrote together, her on her musical and me on my solo show, until almost the first light of my California dawn.
I wrote and edited dozens of fresh pages including a pivotal scene for Bucko And Buddy Are Just In Time (my theatrical time-travel climate-change buddy-comedy), a full short story, a series of poems, a new essay, a new opening for You Are A Miracle (my solo show about physics and the human experience of presence on a molecular level, which I plan to workshop as a socially distanced outdoor performance in later 2022), as well as part of a novel, most of a blog post, and an entire children’s book.
I also raised donations that support my work offering 1-on-1 writing mentorship directly to houseless writers, elder writers with untold stories, writers from underrepresented groups who also experience extreme financial need, and other under-resourced members of our community.
Everyone who joined me during the project (folx who donated to that work, wrote with me in sprints, popped into the Zoom just to witness or to cheer me on, or sent notes wishing me well) helped make this a meaningful, impactful, and unforgettable 24 hours.
It was so much fun!!! I should never do it again.
During early quarantine, Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco asked me to write a short story that they could put up for online streaming, for free, so that anyone anywhere could listen.
I dove in and built this half-hour story about a world where everything around you has both an inner life and a price tag.
They went and got the remarkably witty and sensitive Maria Marquis (an award-winning actor and audiobook narrator) to read it to us? What a lovely gift.
I hope you’ll choose to share this work with me and listen to SUZANNE AND ALL OF THE THINGS.
Right now I am working on a one-person play about the physics of your actual human body. It is called “You Are A Miracle.” As we emerge from the isolation and grief of this pandemic, I crave the undiluted presence of direct address and I want to feel awe with people. Building this play is my way to create that space. I will be workshopping it later in 2022.
Meanwhile, as an opera librettist, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been commissioned to write the libretto for a new chamber opera through Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco “Song of Houston” initiative!
For our HGOco commission that’s set to premiere in Feb 2023, my collaborator the brilliant composer Nell Shaw Cohen and I are creating a feminist rodeo opera. (Yup, I said a Feminist. Rodeo. Opera.) A feminist rodeo opera. A. Feminist. Rodeo. Opera. With the visionary musician Nell Shaw Cohen.
For research, we traveled to Texas and spent a week immersed in the culture and activity of the massive Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show. While there, we were able to interview some amazing contemporary female athletes who compete at the world champion level. Now, I’m taking the inspiration of their hard work and tenacious achievement to create a fictional story about the women of contemporary rodeo.
Yeah, okay, I’m pretty excited.
In a field where stories and music have historically been (and currently remain) primarily created by male artists, our collaboration with stage director Leslie Swackhamer makes us a female-led team. I’m honored to be making this work alongside her and my favorite composer, Nell Shaw Cohen, who also happens to be my sister. We may be the first sister-sister composer-librettist team to work in opera? A very unique joy to collaborate with an artist who I’ve obviously known for decades as a human but have never danced with on professional ground before.
Not-Too-Distant Past Work
My most recent world premiere was “FREE FOR ALL: A NEW MISS JULIE FOR A NEW WORLD” in San Francisco Sept 19-Oct 20, commissioned as the opening show in Cutting Ball Theater‘s 2019 season.
The critical response was wonderful! Here are some quotes from the reviews:
Maybe my favorite description so far comes from KQED’s Nicole Gluckstern:
“Sometimes attending a play is like attending a party. The energy crackles, the assembled audience is alert and engaged, and everyone onstage looks like they’re just having so much damn fun.” —KQED.
As the inaugural playwright for Cutting Ball Theater’s new annual commissioning program, I collaborated with Artistic Director Ariel Craft on a two-year new play development process to radically reimagine August Strindberg’s problematic classic Miss Julie, writing bespoke roles for actors Stacy Ross and Phil Wong. Thank you to all who joined us to be part of the run of the piece as it met the world in San Francisco, CA Sept 19-Oct 20 (tix and info).
With the joint support of Theatre Bay Area’s CA$H Grant and Playwrights Foundation, I continue revisions on my work-in-progress Truest. It’s about two sisters on a feminist revenge spree in the aftermath of assault and asks questions about what kinds of intersectional justice might be truly necessary for healing on a personal and cultural level. Aesthetically, it is inspired by imagining if Thelma and Louise met Sam Shepard after 4 shots of espresso and 3 shots of rum, so of course it is a comedy.
Grateful to all the artistic partners who have danced with the play along the way! Truest started with a fun first reading as part of the Custom Made Theatre’s “Undiscovered Works” series in San Francisco. Then, it headed to Berkeley Rep for a developmental residency at The Ground Floor. Bouncing off that springboard, director Jessica Holt led a new draft through a vibrant workshop production with the New York Acting Company at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC. (Jessica’s website has more info on that beautifully staged workshop.) A table read with a new set of actors in the Bay Area brought forth another draft, one with more wit and a different kind of flinty humor between the two women who lead the story.
With each draft I’ve dug even deeper into the subtext of how these two women treat each other within their complex web of sisterhood, solidarity, rage, and hope as they navigate their rough, unpaved road to recovery after trauma. Our most recent reading was in 2019 (a few months before the pandemic shutdowns started) at Stanford University and in San Francisco as part of the Playwrights Foundation “Rough Readings” series.
An eye-opening highlight of my playwrighting practice was spending a week in complete silence at stunning Green Gulch Farm Zen Center for the STILLWRIGHT playmaking retreat led by Erik Ehn.
While there I began and finished a full first draft of a new script with the working title Bees And Bats.
The play is an exploration of how humans fit (or fail to fit) into the natural order and what it means to love somebody who is destined to go extinct. (I am rewriting it because I still have a lot of questions.)
Looking farther back…
In the simple face-to-face era of 2018 I had the honor of leading the team as Head Writer for the year-long immersive series The Music/Scene and Mixtape at PianoFight! This production which brought together dozens of local musicians and theatermakers to create unique performance formats for each of three editions. I loved experimenting with new ways that we can inspire each other. Along with Producing Artistic Director Sara Judge and Co-Producer Rob Ready, I remain hugely grateful to the playwrights Kelly Anneken, Gabriel Leif Bellman, Kristi Lin Billuni, John LaMar Elison, Jeanie Ngo, Katharine Otis, Thomas Paras, Adrienne Price, Marissa Skudlarek, and Jasmine Woods who joined me to contribute their words and visions to the show’s scripts in both virtual and actual writer’s rooms.
In 2017, I developed and premiered Thirst Trap, my new solo show, in San Francisco. Part story and part stunt, it was 45 minutes of wild work about endurance, resource management, and fate. It was a treat and a gift to return to my performance art roots for an audience in my hometown and to balance my myriad artistic collaborations with this solo project where I bore embodied responsibility for all the choices onstage, collaborating only with an audience of witnesses.
In 2016, I recruited and led a team of 24 top-notch Bay Area theatermakers to create the serialized theater format Better Than Television, a television-inspired live show complete with fake commercials, real theme songs, and other surprises including Trigger Warning, a cathartic examination of gun violence in America. Also in 2016, I performed new solo work as a featured artist with Hatch Performance Collective, a group that devises site-specific events in non-traditional spaces around the Bay Area.
In 2015, I had scripts seen on three continents, and enjoyed a wonderful World Premiere run of my feminist vaudeville play The Horse’s Ass and Friends, directed by Ellery Schaar at Repurposed Theatre in San Francisco, CA.
In 2014, I launched my solo performance Take Me Home: a One-Woman Odyssey, based on Homer’s epic adventure poem, with runs in SF and in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was honored with the “Keep An Eye On” Emerging Artist Award from Theater Bay Area, my ensemble (Neo-Futurists) was named “Best Theater” (SF Weekly Readers’ Poll) and “Best of the Bay” (SF Bay Guardian), and my monthly event (Saturday Write Fever) was named “Best of the Bay (Humor/Improv)” by San Francisco Magazine. Personally, I was called “one very insightful and confident woman with a devilish sense of humor” by Huffington Post.
In 2012, well, you can read all about that year in my Production History, but let’s sum it up as a year of active experimentation in front of audiences all over the bay area as I made first contact with communities like the San Francisco Olympians Festival and SF Theatre Pub and with members and leaders of those communities (most notably Stuart Bousel) who continue to inspire me and to foster growth and opportunities. So, that’s pretty neat.
In 2011, The SF Bay Guardian’s “Year in Theater” awarded one of my shows “Most Memorable Food Fight.”
The road stretches out behind me. May it continue to also stretch out ahead.
Decades into my theatre career, I suddenly discovered writing for opera. Working as a librettist has become a highlight and emerging focal point of my practice, thanks to these first opportunities in the field.
It was a joy to collaborate with the wonderful emerging composer Nathan Fletcher on “A Bridge for Three.” We created that 20-minute work as a commission for Washington National Opera, brought to life in Jan ’18 through the “American Opera Initiative” program at the Kennedy Center!
I had the wonderful good fortune to work under the mentorship of Pulitzer-winning librettist Mark Campbell on that project, and hope to put those lessons to good use on my upcoming libretto for HGOco.
In 2017, right at the start of my opera journey, I was awarded “Best Librettist” by Opera Theater Unlimited for my original drama Full Moon Bender, created in their 48-hour opera festival.
Because we live in the technologically advanced future, you can watch a video of that 15-minute short right now. Here’s the piece featuring beautiful work from collaborators Brian Ciach (Composer & Pianist), Kathleen Normington (Director), and sopranos Autumn Allee and Emily Schmeichel-Frank.
What My Work Is Like
A E S T H E T I C.
Some formative artistic inspirations include… experimental ensemble Forced Entertainment (for the imagination), playwright Tom Stoppard (for the scope), artistic director Charles Ludlam (for the style), performer-writer Saul Williams (for the depth), composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim (for the precision), playwright José Rivera (for the invention), playwright Caryl Churchill (for the resonance)… and actor Madeline Kahn. All the roles in all my plays are written for Madeline Kahn.
My direct mentors and teachers have included Carl Weber, Ehren Fordyce, Cherrie Moraga, Craig Slaight, Norman Kline, James Kass, and Mark Campbell. A high school dropout, I earned a B.A. with Honors from Stanford University (’05). I’ve eschewed the M.F.A. route in favor of learning directly from audiences, and from fellow artists young and old, with voices both known and new.
My plays have been performed across the U.S. and in the U.K., in venues ranging from Midtown Manhattan to small-town Montana. Despite the fact that only 26% of produced plays are written by women, I had over 100 scripts onstage before the age of 35.
Critics and theatermakers have described me as “upsetting,” “refreshing,” “an Absurdist,” “a natural Brechtian,” “a ruthless innovator,” “a highly engaging raconteur,” “relentless,” “hilarious,” “a sociopath,” “a genius,” “urgent,” “pointless,” “often humorous,” “smarter than I remembered,” “cute with a chewy gunpowder center,” “poignant and very, very funny,” and “really… something.” Watching my pieces onstage, they’ve claimed to witness “the death of God,” “the death of fun,” and “fun.”
Audience members have laughed, wept, gasped, stormed out, thrown actual cash at the actors, sat quietly, jumped onstage to dance, and said some very nice things including “I needed that,” “Don’t tell my girlfriend, but I liked your play better than hers,” “I would die to have written that,” and “I am coming back again tomorrow.”
If you’ve seen my work, and would like to tell me what it was like for you, please do! Audiences are my heroes.
Game Writing and Narrative Design
When the opportunity arises, I have a lot of fun writing games and interactive narratives, especially for mobile and social platforms like iPad and Facebook. My favorite projects are close collaborations where I work with a team to create an immersive and compelling fusion of narrative design and platform mechanics.
I have ghostwritten chatbot dialogue chock full of character personality, built interactive text and photo adventures for the launch of the mobile storytelling app Sequel, and wrote quests and stories for the mobile game Westbound!, a pioneer-themed cowboy adventure with over 100,000 5-star user reviews, and worked on the content team for Thred, a visual mobile platform created by Will Wright (designer of The Sims).
Dramaturg & Writing Coach
I’ve worked in dramaturgy at super-established places like Tony-winning American Conservatory Theater and OBIE-winning The Builders’ Association, with a specialty in new play development. Past projects include dramaturging the world premiere of Bone To Pick & Diadem by Eugenie Chan for Cutting Ball Theater (where I was formerly the Literary Manager), and the world premiere of Failure 2 Communicate by Valerie Fachman for Performers Under Stress.
I am mostly retired from production dramaturgy, but I do private consultations (via Zoom or via written feedback) to support the development of new scripts and offer custom writing coaching for authors at all levels.
I love working 1-on-1 with writers who seek growth. That can look like targeted support with personalized exercises that expand skill and technique, gentle but firm weekly check-ins for accountability, and/or an attentive outside eye giving line-by-line comments.
If you’re seeking coaching or dramaturgical support, get writing support from Megan Cohen at How To Write Something.
Science Facts About Me
Dislikes: Jerks, bullies, the fact that over 20% of American children live in poverty.
Likes: Nachos, not being dead.
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