Jacqueline Lawton is the incredibly talented DC-based playwright whose play The Hampton Years premiered here at Theater J in 2013. Recently, she sat down with Tanya Barfield, the author of The Call, to talk about Tanya’s writing process.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: I’m curious, other than being a playwright, what other forms of writing have you done? Were you always drawn to the theater? If so, why? If not, what brought you here?
TANYA BARFIELD: I was drawn to the theater in elementary school but I didn’t dream I could be a part of it until my junior year of high school. In elementary school, the advanced English class, of which I was not a part, did a production of Macbeth. Perhaps, I was the only youngster in the audience that watched the show. I was riveted. It was storytelling and poetry like I had never heard. I went on to a very small high school with no theater department. With intensity only a teenager could muster, I lamented over the fact that we had no theater department. So I decided to put on the school’s first play. I chose the only play I had ever read, Macbeth. Indeed, I staged it and it was performed. Everyone that auditioned was cast, and Macduff was played by a girl because not enough boys tried out. I saw my first professional production of a play at the age of 17 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After that, I was hooked on theater. Looking back on it, I think the only reason I studied acting instead of playwriting was because I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a living playwright. In terms of other writing, I’ve recently made the foray into TV-writing.
JL: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
TB: I often write at insanely early hours in the morning when everyone in this time zone is asleep. Even farmers. But, now, I am expanding to longer stretches of time. After an early morning session, I often go on a “writing dates” in which a writer-friend and I will write in silence in the same space. This can occur in an apartment or coffee-shop.
JL: Describe for me all the sensations you had the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed…what was different about the characters you created?
TB: The first time I heard my work, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was tremendously happy and about to be sick. I’ve always been drawn to working with people that are interested in collaboration. To me, this is the most exciting aspect of theater. Of course, writing is a solitary activity and I’m not interested in “writing plays by committee.” But I do enjoy the exchange between playwright and director; the actor’s input and how they bring the script to life; the way in which the designers contribute to the storytelling; and finally the audience. I’ve seen shows, my own included, change drastically dependent on the audience reaction. Funnier moments can become funnier, sad moments sadder.
JL: What do you hope to convey in the plays that you create–what are they about? What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?
TB: I like to write plays that feel both intimate and wide in scope that can be viewed within a larger social context. The play’s lens should feel both macro and micro focus.
JL: What inspired you to write The Call?
TB: The play is about adoption which is of personal interest to me. But, I actually see the play as being more about lifelong friendships, marriage and midlife. On a macro-level, it’s about global interconnectivity and a call to courage.
JL: What was the most challenging part of writing The Call? Which character’s voice or situation was the most difficult to capture?
TB: Annie was the easiest to write and the hardest. Her voice was very clear to me from the beginning. But, she’s a complicated character because she voices the audience’s darkest fears and reservations. Without giving too much away, she’s an easy character to judge – but not that many people would “jump in” the way they expect Annie to.
JL: One of the most compelling lines of the plays comes from the most intriguing characters. Alemu says to Annie, “You want a child from Africa but you do not want Africa.” Can you talk to me about this?
TB: Like most parents, Annie and Peter want a baby more than anything that they can love and raise as their own. But, they don’t want a child with history. They want an empty slate. They don’t want to also adopt a continent in turmoil.
JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or thinking about after experiencing The Call, what would that be?
JL: What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
TB: I tend to be of the belief that you should write what you know as long as it doesn’t bore you. I’d say “write what you know – turn it into fiction – and then make yourself uncomfortable.” Writing a play should be enlivening but not easy. You should feel uncomfortable in the same way that one might feel uncomfortable when giving a confession. Your words should be both familiar and unfamiliar. People often assume that my work is more autobiographical than it actually is. I used to feel the need to clarify that I write plays not autobiography. Now I don’t bother correcting people. I just take it as a compliment.
JL: What next for you as a writer? Where can we follow your work?
TB: My most recent play, Bright Half Life, opened at the Women’s Project Theater here in New York. It’s making its way around the country. And I just joined the writing staff of The Americans on FX.
The Call is onstage at the Atlas Performing Arts Center now through May 31. Tickets are on sale here.
Tanya Barfield’s plays include: The Call (Playwrights Horizons & Primary Stages), Of Equal Measure (Center Theatre Group), Blue Door (Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory and additional theaters), Dent, The Quick, The Houdini Act and 121º West. She wrote the book for the Theatreworks/USA children’s musical: Civil War: The First Black Regiment. Tanya was a recipient of a 2013 Lilly Award and the1st Annual Lilly Award Commission. She has been commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, Center Theatre Group, South Coast Repertory, Primary Stages and Geva Theatre Center. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild Council.
Jacqueline E. Lawton was named one of the top 30 national leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute. She received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ’em Horns!), where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She participated in the Kennedy Center’s Playwrights’ Intensive (2002) and World Interplay (2003). Her plays include: Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: the African Roscius; Lions of Industry, Mothers of Invention; Love Brothers Serenade; Mad Breed; Noms de Guerre; and Our Man Beverly Snow.