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Dame of the Day: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

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Today’s Dame of the Day is Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (March 23, 1953-). As a student, Mazumdar-Shaw wanted to study medicine but did not receive a scholarship and could not afford the course. Instead, her father suggested she travel to Australia and study fermentation science. When she returned to India, she tried to find a job as a brewmaster but was told it was “a man’s job.” While working in Ireland, she met up with a biochem executive looking for a person with knowledge of enzymes to run the company’s India branch. Today, her company Biocon Biochemicals not only contributes innovative advances in biotech but also provides free and low-cost medical care to rural communities across India.

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Schoolin’ Life: Crystal Skillman

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we catch up with playwright and screenwriter Crystal Skillman.

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What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

You know, as an artist I just thought I’d create the work and it would get done. But I also didn’t really know if I was a good artist. I thought I did, but in the 20s, you just have no confidence, you know? I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out how to make dinner on your own (I ate beans and rice for a loonnnngg time). So I’m not sure what kind of expectations I could form. I had a lot of surprises – I had no idea that the business side of being an artist would be that difficult. I’m a playwright (though I first studied photography at Parsons School of Design). It was hard to factor in just how much networking plays in all the decisions made in getting a “greenlight”. As well, the amount of sheer momentum it takes for anything to “lift” or “live on”. That said, if I met the 20-something me right after I came out of a time machine and was like – “Man, years from now you’ll get three great NY Times reviews – and have an awesome fan base – there’s an audience that wants to see your work and who think you’re a great writer!” I would have looked that time traveler me (and I assume I’d have a fabulous helmet) and have thought I was nuts.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I’m an only child raised by a kooky set of parents from upstate NY who filled me with relentless humor and confidence. Which I needed … as I was a “geek” from when I was really young, I was pretty much made fun of until I went to college. So I learned very quickly at a young age that it was up to me to change society, and that much of society wasn’t geared to “do the right thing”. A good example is that I was made fun of on the bus in middle school. I returned home and said we have to find a solution – that wasn’t right and I wasn’t going back to school on those conditions. My mom, bless her heart, drove me to school each day. As I got older, I tried to demonstrate more as a leader by standing up for what I thought was right. Society is constructed around the idea that money is the most important thing – as artists we need money, but understand that isn’t true. I also knew that I had to stick to my guns of pursuing what I was passionate about, in order to actually make money from what I want to do. Most of society doesn’t understand that concept I’ve found! The harder part has been finding ways to make peace with reality (society). When to fight and when to be like – okay you want me to fill out this dumb form? I’ll just do that and move on. I finally have all the right forms of ID. That’s the best I can do for society…

What was your first job like?

OMG! Oh lord. This is the Way Back Machine here… I do believe it was the Just a A Buck store in the Poughkeepsie Gallery mall. I was terrible at math, so that was a job I could actually do.

What was your first apartment like?

It was a dream and the first with the love of my life, Fred Van Lente. It was in South Park Slope and had a red living room, a 50s looking kitchen, and I wrote in a little back room. We had a non-working brick fireplace. We got to fill it with crazy little things that made us happy and we had two kitties. Then a few years later, it became roach infested and a DJ moved below us who loved crystal meth so it later became Operation: Flee. Dreams only last for a moment; then you move on to the next dream!

Did you experience any big life changes?

The same as anyone else – the discovery of love, dreams coming true and being smashed and rebuilt, watching your parents grow older … learning that you can actually dress yourself to look good.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I have lots of creative friendships, as I’m always working with different teams on plays. I put my energy into those artistic friendships. I got a little traumatized by so many friends wanting “hang out” time or asking me to help them move all the time. I’m not great at hanging out. I like goals and fun! Also I like being there for important moments in people’s lives, but I’m not the friend-mover material. And I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings that I might not be into the same things they were. Now I feel like I’m friends with other driven, fun folk and we can return to some of those more deeper friendships. I’m kinda excited about that lately.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I actually got the chance to write about this! In the upcoming book with incredible comic book creators and writers. It’s called The Secret Loves of Geek Girls

How did your relationships with your family change?

As I got older, my parents who were awesome to me but not so nice to each other, finally found happiness again, bizarrely after my dad had a brain aneurysm. I think in that case, tragedy brought them together. They grew closer as a unit and lovey dovey.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I think this is a dangerous question. I think the goal of life is to not have this question in your head. One must keep focused on that work at hand and not think so much about others perception of you – then you do things for the wrong reasons.  

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I’m still a happy, bizarre, funny, blubbering mess! Depends on the day and who I meet. I used to wish I was a robot. I hated having emotions. But as I grow older I’m able to ask WHY am I feeling this way and break it down. I know I’m really sensitive and that truly no one MEANS to hurt you. I try to take this into account when I feel hurt and just look at what I can do.

How did you change intellectually?

I don’t make as many assumptions. I’m more open and try to listen more. That makes my work better and as well makes me able to understand so much more … Listening is hard work!

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I feel pretty true to who I am actually. I hope I’m a little less defensive. I also realized that I was pretty in my 20s, and I now feel confident now about my looks.  I also used to feel that I could never be athletic and now I run.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I learned that forgiveness is the hardest thing for people. And I’m happy that I’m a really big forgiver. I’m a mistake maker myself and I get it. People need kindness and to be heard. That is the greatest gift you can give. Good plays, theater, and art does that when the audience can see themselves in the work. But maybe really getting that everyone needs to be forgiven?

What was the most embarrassing moment?

SO MANY! I’ll pick the most amusing. In the 90s, I had to go for a job interview to be that pesky girl that would knock on your door and get you to support the environment. This was one summer when I was back from college. I got off in downtown Poughkeepsie, and while walking trying to find the address, looking up at the building numbers, I realized I was sinking. I had stepped into wet cement. The workers were all laughing at me. I had to come back onto the sidewalk and get hosed off. I went to the interview with DRIPPING WET SHOES. There was a PUDDLE behind me as I walked. I wondered if I should say anything. I thought, “Fuck it. I’m not saying anything.” They didn’t say anything either! I got the job.  When I realized that the job would drop you off in isolated neighborhoods by yourself for hours at a time and I almost got bitten by a dog, I decided that was not the job for me. I’m also still, happily so, a bit of a hypochondriac.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

A theater that had commissioned me seemed to be moving me along to production. Or at least in my naïve eyes. But, the point is, I felt lied to. Like really betrayed. Much time and work had gone into rewrites, etc. When I realized they weren’t going to do the play I saw two roads open up: one where I was going to keep going and find a way to enjoy life at the same time (or try) and one was pretty dark – like real anger in my heart. Bitterness. And those dark thoughts of – well what if I wasn’t here? What if I end it and let go of this journey? A few years later, a friend of mine passed away. He was young. As we laid him in the ground, I promised him I’d never think those dark thoughts again. The gift of life was so clear to me. That experience and other ones like it have done for me is reaffirm that I know that I can make it. We all can. Keep running at your own pace. Basically I learned that you might not have the answer or solution right then and there, but it will come. Have faith in yourself and your work and others will too. People talk about big breaks and such, but I think of it in terms of things in this world that you can and can’t control. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. SHOW them who you are.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My husband! Fred Van Lente. He’s my favorite writer in the whole world. And during our writing times while I’m writing away downstairs, he’s writing away upstairs!

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

For my generation, it was 9/11, particularly as a New Yorker. It changed me, not only because I was here and it affected people I knew, but because I had never seen a tragedy used for evil as the way Bush used this incident. I had never seen to that extent, in our country, that level of manipulation, and the despair at how the country went with it. Until then people operating on a mass level from fear I had read about, but not felt I was in the middle of. I saw that was literally the greatest thing to be afraid of – that kind of mob mentality.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I think this question is dangerous too, but a really interesting one. I think no one should truly regret, as the one thing they might have changed – you can’t know if it would help due to the variables around it. I wish I was a little less snotty about work that I thought was shitty (like movies, art) when I was younger. I wish I understood that takes just as much time to make those things and fail as it does to succeed. I know how hard it is to be an artist now, so I have that respect. But then again, I think the 20s is all about having the right to be snotty. I think you deserve to be a fuck up in your 20s.