The Playwrights’ Arena a new play initiative developed by the American Voices New Play Institute. Centering on a small collaborative group of local playwrights dedicated to the support and development of each other’s work, the Playwrights’ Arena, facilitated by Director of Artistic Programming David Snider at Arena Stage, will meet throughout the year to investigate each other’s work and develop dramaturgical practice as playwrights while creating new work.
In Part 3 of our interviews with the six local playwrights who are members of Arena Stage’s The Playwrights’ Arena, meet Norman Allen.
Joel: What or who first inspired you to become a playwright? And why?
Norman: My parents did a great job of introducing me to the theatre. It started when I was seven. My mother sat us down in front of an old record player and played the original cast album of My Fair Lady, but she’d lift the needle between songs and tell us the story. The next day we drove into San Francisco for a matinee at the Curran Theatre. We were primed and ready, and we knew what was going on. It was magic. I’ve wanted to be a part of that magic ever since. That was the beginning, but my continuing inspiration comes mostly from the actors I work with. To see a character you’ve created on the page become something altogether new and wonderful in the hands of a great actor makes all the struggle worthwhile.
Now, tell me about your play being featured in Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena Showcase?
On the surface The House Halfway is about a bed & breakfast inn on a remote Caribbean Island where people go to commit suicide, which sounds like it’d be a major bummer. Through the course of the play, though, audiences discover that the play is about more than suicide, and the island is more than just remote. The whole thing has a bit of James Barrie about it. He’s best known as the author of Peter Pan, but all of his work has a mystical, otherworldly quality, and are largely comic. The House Halfway is in that tradition, but with some very modern elements.
What do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after experiencing your work?
The goal is always to send the audience out asking questions or, better yet, arguing. In this case, I hope audiences will walk away asking the really big questions, about the nature of life and death, about what comes next. There’s that old adage that you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics. There’s very little that’s political in this play but folks interested in the more eternal questions will have plenty to think about.
How has being a part of Playwrights’ Arena helped you as a playwright?
Working with this group of writers has been a fantastic gift. The structure of meeting every other week, of knowing that I’d be in a room of likeminded but very different artists helped keep me on track with my own work. Getting feedback from such accomplished writers is a wonderful thing in itself, and we also had the immense intelligence of dramaturg Jocelyn Clark to guide us. David Snider, who put the whole thing together, is also a great sounding board and cheerleader. On top of all that, we’ve collaborated with some of the finest actors working in the area. There’s no doubt that The House Halfway is a better play for the experience, and no doubt that I’m a better writer than I was a year ago.
What did you learn about your writing process?
It was interesting to recognize that the six of us have six very different creative processes, and it was fascinating to see those processes in action from week to week. The most inspiring moments came when my colleagues made enormous changes in their scripts, sometimes rethinking the whole thing from beginning to end. Being together so frequently, those kinds of monumental shifts were shared by all of us. We were in it together.
What else are you working on now?
As always, there are a few too many balls in the air. I recently received a fellowship grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. My application stated that I needed the support to do final revisions on a handful of ongoing projects that include an adaptation of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and a commissioned piece about a Navy scandal, circa 1919. I’ve also got a young adult novel near completion. So I don’t have any excuses now. It’s time to hunker down and get to work.
NORMAN ALLEN’s work has been commissioned and produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company (On the Eve of Friday Morning), the Kennedy Center (The Light of Excalibur), Olney Theatre Center (Coffee with Richelieu), the Washington Ballet (Journey Home), Word-Dance Theatre (Once Wild: Isadora in Russia), and the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague, where his contemporary Carmen (score by Wildhorn & Murphy) ran for three years, with subsequent productions in Seoul and Tokyo. An ongoing relationship with Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre has led to productions of Nijinsky’s Last Dance across Europe and, most recently, at Flashpoint in Washington, DC. While playwright-in-residence at Signature Theatre, Allen premiered Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Play), In the Garden (Charles MacArthur Award, Outstanding New Play), Fallen from Proust, and others. In addition to his work for the stage, Allen has written essays for WAMU-FM; for numerous blogs, including On Being and Howlround; and for national publications, including Smithsonian and The Washington Post.
Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 1: Jacqueline E. Lawton.
Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 2: Shawn Northrip.
‘The Playwright’s Playground Series’: Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 1 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.
‘The Playwright’s Playground Series’: Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 2 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.
‘The Playwright’s Playground Series’: Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 3 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s website