Welcome to the new in-depth interview series The Playwright’s Playground Series, highlighting local female playwrights in the D.C. Theatre community. Female theatre artists make up over fifty percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this series I will interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in this area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations, and struggles to write and produce their art.
The Playwright’s Playground Series debuts with Jacqueline E. Lawton.
If you are not familiar with the name Jacqueline E. Lawton or her work – get ready! She is a force to be reckoned with and one of the area’s most active playwrights.
In a revealing, deeply personal, and enlightening three-part conversation, Jacqueline talks to me about her process of play writing, the state of theater today, and gives readers a glimpse into her latest production The Hampton Years.
A play commissioned and developed by Theater J, The Hampton Years chronicles the triumphs and struggles of emerging African-American student artists, John Biggers and Samella Lewis in a segregated society set at Virginia’s Hampton University during the 40’s, and examines the impact of World War II on a Jewish immigrant and his wife finding shelter in the US.
Under the mentorship of Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian Jewish refugee painter and educator, the artists’ development is explored, as is his role and controversial influence in shaping their lives and careers. Theater J presents the World Premiere of The Hampton Years, May 29 -June 30, 2013.
Jacqueline E. Lawton is a critically acclaimed D.C. playwright, dramaturg, and theatre teaching artist. She is recognized as one of the top 30 African American playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute, and in 2012, Lawton was named an inaugural group member of Arena Stage’s Playwright’s Arena. (The Playwrights’ Arena is the newest new play initiative developed by the American Voices New Play Institute centered on a small collaborative group of local playwrights dedicated to the support and development of each other’s work).
Earning an acclaimed reputation for writing complex, multilayered, historical material that is urgent and playable, Lawton’s plays include: Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Love Brothers Serenade; Mad Breed; and Our Man Beverly Snow.
Jacqueline E. Lawton is a 2012 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Young Leaders of Color award recipient and a National New Play Network (NNPN) Playwright Alumna. She has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center, was a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference and the Playwright’s Center PlayLabs, and she was recognized as a SheWrites Festival finalist.
Next: In addition to The Hampton Years’ production at Theater J, Lawton will moderate a panel discussion of Gender Parity in American Theatre as a part of The Hub Theatre’s 2013 Hub Play Fest – a new play Staged Reading Festival on June 1, 2013 at 3:00 P.M.
Sydney-Chanele: How long have you been writing professionally, and how long have you considered yourself a writer, a playwright?
Jacqueline: I’ve been writing professionally since 2003 when I received my MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. I’ve considered myself a writer since I was about eight years old, when I started writing plays, poems and short stories to entertain my sister and to escape a sense of loneliness.
Let’s discuss why you write and what inspires you. Why do you write a play? Is it more an emotional reaction, an intellectual process, or creative experimentation?
My writing stems from a combination of all of three. I write in response to what’s going on in the world around me, emotionally and intellectually. I’m very curious about the world. I ask a lot of questions. When questioning the world around me, I often feel moved by the beauty, majesty, promise, love and potential for such goodness. At times, however, I feel quite lost to the violence, poverty, and lack of human dignity faced by so many. So, I write to all of it, to make sense of it. With a play, I am able to lay out all sides of the story, hear all of the voices, and portray a myriad of responses to the varied situations’ people face in life. In doing so, I am able to bring a kind of order to the world and make it livable again. Creatively, I try to write realism time and time again, but my brain doesn’t work that way … something magical always happens.
Have you ever written a play out of anger?
I’ve written plays out of longing, sadness, frustration, hope, and confusion, but never out of anger. In fact, I make it a point not to create in that space. When I’m writing, I need to be open, really vulnerable, and anger causes me to build up walls. Fortunately, I don’t get angry that often.
How do you go about creating a play? Do you actively search for ideas, do you research interesting topics, or is playwriting pure inspiration?
No, I’m not actively searching for ideas, but I am always open for the call to write. Inspiration is everywhere. So far (Thank you Muses!), I have never been at a loss for what to write. At present, and this is no complaint, I have been called to write more plays than I’ll ever have time to complete. However, if I’m writing a commission, I do need to research to find the point of entry into the world of the play. For instance, with The Hampton Years, I knew that I wanted to write about the Black and Jewish relationship, but needed to find the particular story or people who resonated with me. When I learned about Austrian Jewish art professor Viktor Lowenfeld and his work with African American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis, I knew instantly that this was a powerful and important story for both the Black and Jewish communities, and that it had to be told. I’m drawn to write about artists, dancers, poets, orators and theatre artists.
In Deep Belly Beautiful, Anna Lee is a wood and metal sculptress and her estranged husband, Luke, is a painter.
In The Devil’s Sweet Water, Lina teaches belly dancing and Kamara takes her class.
In Mad Breed, Adah is an actress and writer and of course, the Booths are an English American theater family.
In Anna K., I’ve fashioned Anna Karenina after Josephine Baker, so she is a performer, and Levin is modeled after Man Ray, so she is a photographer. Both are African American characters.
In Love Brothers Serenade, Ricardo and Reynaldo are hip hop artists and Verdad sings Yoruba incantations.
In Our Man Beverly Show, Beverly is a culinary artist, Frank is known as a great orator and Arthur writes poetry.
Are there certain themes, characters, and human qualities that you try to address in your plays? Why are those themes important and inspirational for you?
I’m inspired to write about history, paintings, music, heartbreak, hope, memory, negligence, and injustice, as it relates socially, politically, and historically to whom I am as an African American woman.
I write in response to big questions I have about the world. I write to understand human intentions and to make sense of what’s happening to and around me. Why do we do what we do? Why do we love, hurt, help and destroy others? I oftentimes write about people on the fringes of society, who are trying to negotiate their space in the world. I also write about moments in history that are often neglected to give voice to those people who were striving to do great things and change the world.
The Hampton Years received a staged reading in theater J’s inaugural Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Festival in early 2012, and Shirley Serotsky is directing the World Premiere Theater J production.
How did this collaboration with Theater J come together, and tell me about the play’s development from conception to what you are doing now in preparation of the Premiere?
What rewrites – if any – have you done since Theater J made it a part of their 2012-2013 season?
When do you start rehearsals for the world premiere production at Theater J that opens in May?
In May of 2011, Shirley Serotsky, Theater J’s Director of Literary and Public Programs, contacted me about submitting a proposal for their first ever Locally Grown: Community Supported Art From Our Own Garden festival. I submitted The Hampton Years, which was originally conceived in November of 2010 after a conversation with Shirley about Theater J’s interest in exploring the Black and Jewish relationship.
When I was looking for research/inspiration, I stumbled across the Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow exhibit. It was here that I that learned about art professor Viktor Lowenfeld and his student John Biggers and became intrigued about what life was like for Blacks and Jewish people in the Segregated South. I knew it was a perfect match for Theater J’s mission, and they commissioned it as part of the festival.
The first public reading was in January over MLK weekend January 2012. Ari Roth (Theater J Artistic Director) and Shirley Serotsky (also Theater J Associate Artistic Director and director of The Hampton Years) both loved the play and saw enormous potential in it for their season.
A few days after the reading, I was invited to speak with the Theater J council members. They were so lovely, supportive and encouraging. Then we had a script meeting and I did rewrites before they presenting it to their reading committee for consideration. We met again in June to discuss further rewrites and present the next draft at The Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival. Between that, we had auditions and I wrote two new scenes, created to new characters for the play.
We met again after that reading and had a Tea at Two reading in October. We met in December, because I was writing a new play, OUR MAN BEVERLY SNOW, and two ten minute plays, a podcast play for National New Play Network’s National Showcase and Round House Theatre’s Heyday Players.
It was helpful to shift my focus and work on other plays, because I returned to rewrites in January completely invigorated. I heard drafts of the script in February when Theatre Ariel presented the two readings one as part of their Salon Reading Series and the other in conjunction with the Nation Museum of American Jewish History’s Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow’s exhibit.
I also did rewrites ahead of the rehearsal and reading at the Phillips Collection in early April, and then another set of rewrites ahead of our First Rehearsal on April 29, 2013.
When do you know a play is finished and it’s time to walk and move onto your next project? How do you feel when you have finished a play?
I don’t know that I’ve ever finished writing a play. I think a play needs to go through a few productions with different Theatre companies, directors and cast members in different cities before you can call it done. I think National New Play Network’s rolling world premieres are fantastic. A playwright is given three world premieres, three amazing opportunities to see their play grow. I love this idea.
Let’s shift gears a little . . . Are there any attributes in a production of your work which you would identify as a ‘Jacqueline Lawton-ish’?
Recently, I was asked what kind of theater excites me. In response, I wrote, “Theater that is magic. That provokes and pushes boundaries. That poses difficult questions. That reflects the human condition. That shows us how awful and beautiful we can be to one another . . . and that we have a choice in how we behave. That uses powerful and provocative language. That introduces us to interesting and compelling characters. That is intimate, funny, honest, scary, ugly, messy, poetic, and beautiful. Theater, that while ephemeral, remains with you forever.”
This is the kind of theater that I strive to create. My writing style lends itself towards magic realism and I’m quite drawn to love stories.
What is your working style, and what discipline do you apply to succeed with your writing and daily routine when writing a play?
First and foremost, I’m very protective of my writing time. No one else will be, even those who love you. Also, I’m focused and disciplined. I turn off the television and sit away from my phone. I keep a schedule and plan things out well in advance. I do the hardest or most time consuming thing first. Ultimately, I just work. I don’t talk about what I have to do or procrastinate about it. I just dig in and get it done.
What is your process? How do you think of your writing now, and how has your process changed since your first play?
My writing process hasn’t changed much since when I first began writing. I have certain rituals that I follow. I buy a new notebook. I do a lot of research. I learn about the art, music, food, and dance of the characters and world of the play. I create outlines. I write the scenes out by hand and then type them in. I dream about the plays. I’m a creature of habit, I suppose.
I sit in front of my laptop, stare at the blank page, and ask, “How has anyone ever written a play before?” I ask this, even though I’ve just finished writing a play. From there, I start with the characters. Their names are revealed to me, and I endeavor to learn as much as I can about their hopes, dreams, fears, secrets, and desires. I investigate their worlds and everyday lives. I watch films and documentaries. I read books, articles, and plays. I listen to music and look at art. I learn about their politics, social customs and food ways. Then I name the play, which in and of itself is quite a process! From there, I outline the structure of the play and start to write. I don’t always follow the outline, but it helps as a guidepost. While writing, I continue to research. Also, I keep a journal and pen with me, because a piece of dialogue, a monologue, or stage directions will come to me at any given moment.
What lessons have you learned in your less successful playwriting experiences?
The most important thing I’ve learned is that every opportunity is not the right opportunity and that I need to have patience.
Can you tell me about a time when you felt like you weren’t making progress with your writing? How did you work through it?
Really, you’ve just got to work and fail and work and grow, learn, challenge yourself and work and take good care of yourself. But I used to struggle over what wasn’t happening in my career quite a lot. It’s the expectation of how a great a thing will be that gets to you. The setting your heart on something that could be that gets to you. Of course, it’s also comparing yourself to others that will cause the greatest heartbreak and damage to yourself and your craft.
To be honest, I used to cry a lot and really punish myself. I had a major breakthrough a few years ago that shifted my perspective enormously. Also, Gregg Henry, Artistic Director of The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival [KCACTF] and curator of Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival (aka the most amazing and generous person in the world), has given me a great mantra: “Put your best foot forward and forget about it.” This has been so helpful.
Now, when I don’t get something I want, I dig in and work harder. Also, I only want to put good energy out into the universe. I celebrate and champion the achievement for whoever is awarded or given the opportunity. Also, I look at what I’ve accomplished since moving to D.C. in 2006 and feel good about where I am now. Seriously, I’ve had a reading, workshop, or production of every single play that I’ve ever written. That’s progress. With each opportunity, I’ve grown tremendously as a writer. That’s success.
On Wednesday, in Part 2 of my interview, Jacqueline E. Lawton discusses nurturing new works, art and the influence of politics, and the state of American theatre today.
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s website.
The Hampton Years plays May 29-June 30, 2013 at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased in person at the DCJCC, by calling the box office at (800) 494-TIXS (8497), or by purchasing them online.