Q + A: Janine Salinas Schoenberg

Janine Salinas Schoenberg is an emerging writer with an empathetic voice that speaks for the under  represented.  In her writing, she gamely explores the oft-overlooked landscape of faces in America: women, immigrants, and minority populations. A playwright, filmmaker and mother-to-be, Janine has been nominated for the coveted Wendy Wasserstein Prize, was selected to join the elite crop of women in AFI’s Women Directors Workshop, and was recently a MacDowell Fellow. I had the opportunity to talk to Janine about her journey as a writer and to find out about her new play, The Anatomy of Gazellas, which has its Los Angeles Premiere tomorrow, April 27, 2013, through the Playwrights’ Arena.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write? Did you find that it was a difficult profession to enter into as a woman?

A: I first discovered writing at the age of ten. I had a very overactive imagination and my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. July, used to have us write for a full hour every day while we listened to classical music. Sometimes we had a prompt or theme, but often times we were just able to write freely about whatever was on our minds. I found such joy and inspiration in having that daily exercise. I loved telling stories. And even more than that, I loved creating characters. That same year I won my first essay contest and had the opportunity to share my work with a real audience. After that I was hooked! I knew that I had found my calling.

As in most industries, both theatre and film are male-dominated fields. And at times, it feels very difficult to be taken seriously as a female writer. I have come up against a lot of resistance in my career. And I have also been fortunate enough to meet individuals who really believed in my work and my voice. Those are the people I still keep close by, the ones I continue to work with, and I thank them every chance I get. I believe that it is important to always remember where you came from and who helped you get to where you are.

Q: Your mother is from Iran and your father is from Peru.  Was it difficult to choose the profession of artist having immigrant parents? How has your heritage and family influenced your writing?

A: It was incredibly difficult choosing to become an artist. My parents brought my sister and me to this country in order for us to have a better life. And to write not just as my hobby, but as my actual profession, felt like a huge slap in the face. They certainly had not sacrificed everything for me to starve! There was a great deal of tension between us for quite some time. But I continued to stand by what I believed was the right path for me. And once they saw that this was what I loved, and that this was who I was, they became my biggest supporters. They are incredibly proud of me and I love being able to share everything I do with them.

Since my father is Peruvian, my sister and I spent half of our childhoods living in Central and South America. Spanish was our first language and that is the culture that we most identify with. All of my life experiences have certainly influenced my writing, but in particular, immigrating into the U.S. My work tends to be centered around second and third generation Latinos living in urban environments. Their experiences are very different than that of their parents or grandparents. I love creating work that is representative of that cultural/language gap. I believe that those stories are reflective of the true melting pot that is modern America, especially present day Los Angeles.

Q: Your play, The Anatomy of the Gazellas, opens tomorrow at the Atwater Village Theatre. Tell us a little about the play and how this production came about. 

A: I first wrote The Anatomy of Gazellas when I was a member of the Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop in 2010. I had become very interested in the storefront church movement that seemed to be growing in urban centers like Los Angeles. I began to do my research and found that many of these churches don’t just serve as places of worship, but they have also become very important centers for their surrounding communities. Simultaneously, I also began researching transitional housing for women being released from prison. I wondered, where is a woman supposed to go once she has served her time? And what resources are actually available to help her transition back into society in a successful way? I became fascinated by the idea that both of these places, although extreme opposites, are actually providing its members with the same goal: Faith. Whether it’s regaining faith in God, themselves, or the idea that they are capable of a better life. Hope is contagious. And we all need a little bit of it to get through each day.

After I finished the first draft, I received a MacDowell Fellowship and further developed the script during my residency. I was then offered a reading through Playwrights’ Arena, and their Artistic Director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, approached me about producing the show. I had been a long time fan of the company’s work so naturally I jumped at the chance. I am so excited about opening tomorrow. I love my cast! And Jon is an incredible director. It is truly wonderful to work with other artists whom I greatly admire and respect.

Q: You and your husband have both chosen creative professions: He is a composer, you are a writer. Is it difficult to ‘leave work at the office’ when your office is your home? What are the challenges of a freelance lifestyle and not having the typical 9-5 office job?

A: When you choose any artistic field as your profession you are committing to a life filled with a great deal of uncertainty. You’re not sure when the next paycheck will be arriving or the next project will finally take off. This can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. That is why I always say that if you can see yourself doing anything else at all, and being truly happy, then you should not choose to become an artist. I feel blessed to have found my husband. Not just because he is an incredible partner, but because we truly understand each other’s process. It actually ends up being quite similar. But I’m not going to lie, it is very difficult sometimes to ‘leave work at the office,’ especially if you are feeling inspired. It is definitely common to find us simultaneously having late night working sessions at our house! Since both of us freelance, deadlines are a vital part of our process. Without them, nothing will ever get done. And even if we are under the gun, we still make sure to schedule in breaks, walks, or dinner together. Even if all we can manage is 30 minutes or an hour, it is always important to make each other feel like a priority no matter how busy you are.

Q: You’re expecting your first child in August. Congratulations! Has the advent of motherhood changed you or your work in any way?  Have you thought about how you’ll balance your creative life with motherhood?

A: Thank you! We are beyond excited. Being pregnant has inspired me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. I feel energized and full of life. Also, knowing that my life will change in every way once this little guy arrives, has motivated me to work even harder than ever before. I have been juggling my play as well as getting ready to direct my next short film, Jenny & Lalo, as part of the AFI Women’s Directing Workshop. This has really been a time of great artistic growth for me.

Both my husband and I are very family-oriented people and it is, therefore, always a priority to try and find a balance between our work and home life. That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy! Although we have no idea what to expect once we become parents, we definitely know that our new addition will require most of our time and energy. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. We both feel that no matter what, it is really important to continue having writing and composing schedules. Even if we have to alternate days and times. I think that is the only way to ensure that we still get some work done. I know that we will do our best to make time for our art, our son, and each other. I just don’t know how much sleep we’ll get in between!

Q: Do you have any advice for women who may want to follow in your footsteps?

A: Always believe in yourself and your vision. If you stand by it, you will find others who believe in it too. Art always ends up being about collaboration. And to be successful, it really does take a village.

Additional Photography by: Vanessa Maldonado