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Interview

Adam Greenfield and Tanya Barfield on The Call

AG: I’m always curious how writers first came to theater. You grew up in Portland, right? 

 TB: I was born in San Francisco, and grew up in Portland.

 What kind of theater were you first aware of as a kid?

 Actually, I didn’t come from a family that went to theater, or had a real relationship to theater. I remember I said offhandedly to my mother at one point, “Well you know I didn’t see plays as a kid. The first play I saw was when I was fifteen.” And she said, “That’s not true! You saw the San Francisco premiere of Hair when you were two years old and you cried all the way through it.  I had to leave at intermission.”  And I said, “Well, it is sort of a loud show.”

 And there’s all of that nudity, which can be traumatizing for a child!

 Exactly! She seemed to think this meant that I would never have a life in theater. But actually (and this is a testament to theater in schools) when I was a sophomore in high school, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sent professional actors into schools to do plays. They brought a production of Macbeth, and two actors performed the whole thing. I saw that and it changed my life.  Right there.  I left the auditorium a different person. 

 That was in tenth grade?

 That was in tenth grade.  And my school didn’t have an acting class, they didn’t put on plays or anything like that.  It was sort of a loosey-goosey school, and I said, “I want to put on a production of a play.”  And they said, “Well okay, if you want, but you have to do it yourself.”  And I was like, “Great.” And they said, “What play would you do, anyways?”  And the only play I had ever even heard of was Macbeth.  So they said, “We can’t get kids to come to class.  How are you going to get them to come to rehearsal?”  But they did come to rehearsal.  And we put on Macbeth

Jesus, you directed a production of Macbeth in 10th grade, having never worked on a play before?

It was a K-12 school.  We had a great Lady Macbeth, and our Macbeth was a very literate ten year old.  [Laughter]  We had to have a lot of girls play boys, but we actually pulled it off.  And I’m proud to this day about how we used the space; I had murderers climbing on the proscenium arch and stuff like that.  And it was a big hit.  The principal was pleased, and I remember Oregon Shakespeare Festival offered this program for high schoolers to come to Ashland for a week or so and learn about theater.  But it was $500 and of course, my family could never afford that.  So the principal applied on my behalf, and surprised me by paying out of his own pocket for me to go.  So that was another thing that changed my life.  But I still didn’t understand how a person became a writer.  I didn’t know anyone that knew a professional writer — let alone a playwright.  So I went to NYU undergrad for acting.  

And did you ultimately know you were going to pursue something else in theater, aside from acting?   I mean, we all start as actors — that’s how we learn the basic building blocks.   But was there some itch that made you look at it from the other side of the table?

I think if I had known you could become a playwright, I probably would have gone in that direction more quickly.  I just didn’t know it was possible. 

When did it seem possible?  When did you sit down and start writing a play?

At NYU, there’s a graduate playwriting program which I learned about. But I was enrolled in the Experimental Theater Wing studio.  The program was truly exceptional but I didn’t like my movement class because it was lots of rolling around on the floor and doing contact improv.  So I said to them, “I don’t want to take movement anymore.”  And they thought I was just being very contrary and said, “So what are you going to do instead?”  And I said, “I’ll write a play.”  So I wrote, like, half of a play and turned that in at the end of the semester.  But it still didn’t occur to me to focus on writing, I guess, until I got involved with this performance collective, and we did experimental performance, you know, postmodern stuff.  And then I was doing poetry readings and my pieces were sort of poems, monologues and performance texts hybrids.

Was it you speaking or a character speaking?

It was me speaking. And then I gradually moved into characters, and I ended up writing a solo show. 

This must have been during the height of hip-hop theater in the 90s…? 

Yes, I was fresh out of school and hip-hop theater was taking off.

And it was suddenly a whole movement, and the hip-hop theater festival started…?

Yeah.  It was at the beginning, so if I’m remembering it correctly, I don’t think slam poetry had really bloomed in its entirety at that point. 

And this was all mid to late nineties. 

Yeah. Mid-nineties. I was on the fringes of the slam poetry scene, for quite a while.  Then, [playwright] Chiori Miyagawa ran this program, the Van Lier Fellowship, which was a writers’ group under the auspices of the New York Theatre Workshop for writers of color.  And she invited me to be in it because she liked my solo pieces.  So I did that.  And I wrote a somewhat experimental two-hander. 

And was that the first play that you wrote for another actor?

Right.  I had no intention or desire to be in the play myself.  I became somewhat disenchanted with performance. I got tired of self-producing, so I quit. 

Ever since that Macbeth...

Yeah!  I was like, “I don’t want to self-produce!”  It’s really hard to do. I don’t have the skills.  And I had become tired of garage theater.  But I was playing around in this writers’ group. Leigh Silverman was an assistant director at the time who was around the Workshop quite a bit.  She and I really hit it off.  We did a developmental workshop together (organized by an actress) in which I wrote new pages every night.  And over a two week-long period, Leigh staged the new pages the next day.  When it was over, Leigh said, “Why don’t you apply to Juilliard?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve only written one and a half plays.”  And she said, “I think you should apply.”  So I applied.  And I got in.  That was another thing that changed my life.

As you write plays, how much of your experience as performer do you take into the writing process?

I hear the voices of the characters first.  My plays tend to be pretty character driven; sometimes my plays don’t read as well on the page because they have to be spoken to make sense.  Certainly my early experience, as an actor and then as a solo performer and performance artist, influenced me.  Half of the plays I write tend to have linear narratives, the other half are much more non-linear.  Blue Door is non-linear, and the new play I’m working on, Bright Half Life, is very non-linear.   But Of Equal Measure and The Call are both more traditional in their trajectory.

They’re all so differently structured from one another, though.   At what point do you start thinking about structure?  Do you know who the characters are first?

Usually I just hear the characters’ voices first, but I don’t know who’s speaking.  It’s sort of like a séance. [Laughter]  And then after a while the voice becomes clear to me, but I still don’t know the particularities of a person.  So I hear the characters’ voices, and about a third of the way through I start to pay attention to whatever structure has emerged – it’s different for each play, as you say.  It’s the structure that helps inform me as to what the play is about at its core.  Often times the main character’s vocation or something like that is one of the very last things I figure out.  

So okay, thinking specifically… In Blue Door, there’s Lewis, the present-day character, and he’s visited by characters from the past – especially Simon.  The structure that you came up with, which is so non-linear – you know, it’s characters walking through walls – was it then that it became clear to you?  Do you remember, did you hear Lewis first or Simon?

Simon. I heard Simon first and wrote a lot of his stuff.  And then I thought, “Well, this is good, but what do I do with this?  And who is he talking to?”  So Lewis was really born out of who Simon was talking to.  After writing some more, I realized it was actually Lewis’s story, and that it was his journey to go on.   But it was only once I figured out who Simon was talking to that I figured out what the play was, why Lewis was listening, and what his problem was.

And was that the first time that you were...

That was the first time I was writing about race, really. 

And history?

And history, yeah.

Then, I believe chronologically the next play you wrote was Of Equal Measure, which is about segregation in the White House during the Wilson administration.  So it’s very much about both race and history.   It’s interesting to me that you weren’t writing about history or race before, but then you started writing Blue Door and after that, Of Equal Measure, which is a play that stands apart from the rest of your body of work.

Yeah.  It’s very different.  I know that Of Equal Measure was the least successful of my produced plays because it was so ambitious. 

It’s such a muscular piece of writing, sort of akin to Arthur Miller, maybe, at least in the way it examines political hypocrisy on a large canvas.  As opposed to Blue Door, which looks at history through one, intimate long night, this Dark Night of the Soul for Lewis.   

[Of Equal Measure] was a really different kind of play for me.  I started it because I wrote this small play for The Women’s Project that was an adaptation of the Antigone story.  My play was set during WWI, and it was about a woman trying to get a medal of honor for her brother.  As I was researching that play, I read that there were no medals of honor bestowed on African Americans during the First World War.  None.  That’s the only war that America has ever been involved in where black people didn’t get medals of honor.  I was like, “That’s odd.  Why’s that?”  It was a mystery.  I started researching just because I was curious, and I found out that it was because of Wilson and his forced segregation in the federal offices.  Then I found out that the federal offices weren’t segregated before his presidency.  Blacks and whites worked side by side in Washington before that.  There were even instances in which African Americans were not only working alongside but were in supervisorial positions. I made a couple visits to the Library of Congress and it was a lot of research, but I became a bit possessed by the whole thing. That’s how the play came about. It was my intellectual curiosity that drove the writing. 

The character of the secretary, Jade, in Of Equal Measure, becomes gradually aware of the interconnectedness of people’s actions.  She realizes her behavior has consequences, especially working close to the President’s office as she does, she begins to see how her life effects other people.  And we see the same thing in Lewis, who’s the protagonist in Blue Door.  Both characters have a narrow view of life, and gradually over the course of the play’s action, both see themselves as part of a larger historical and geographical network of events.   Which is also, I would say, the central action of The Call.   Are these themes you consciously come back to?   Is that your experience of the world?

That’s interesting.  Leigh [Silverman]’s mentioned that to me. I don’t think that I do it consciously.  But it’s interesting to have someone read my work and say, “I noticed this theme,” and then I think, “Oh, wow! First of all, thanks for reading all my plays and thinking about them!” [Laughs]  But yeah, the effect our actions have on our future is interesting to me.  Maybe that’s also why I jump backward and forward in time so much in Blue Door and in Bright Half Life.   I’m interested in causality.  I think in The Call there’s that question of how our small actions have reverberating consequences.   You know, that Hundredth Monkey sort of thing.

It’s like there’s two different ways to look at a timeline. There’s the short way, close up, and the long way, from a distance.  It seems like at the beginning of your plays, the characters we’re introduced to are looking at the world in the short way: the present moment and the world immediately around them.  But over the course of the play, the perspective shifts, and they see that the little moment they’re in is just one moment out of many moments in a much bigger world than they were in before.  I feel like that’s certainly true of these three plays.

I think that’s true.  Even the play that I first applied to Juilliard with, years ago, has that “one moment out of many moments” idea.  Again in the new play, one moment out of many moments.  So I guess you’re right, that is a strong theme in my work.

And throughout all of this you were also going through the process of adopting from Africa yourself, which makes sense that you’d start to see your life become bigger.

Yes, yes, that’s true.

As a writer, and also as the literary manager at Juilliard, and also as the mother of two, how do you find time to write?

It’s hard to find time to write. That’s why, since I became a mom...  Well, I’ve always been a little bit this way, like I need to write the play I write… But certainly since I became a mom I’ve had to be more driven to write in a way that’s different than what it was like before.  When I wrote The Call and the subsequent newer plays, I got up at four a.m. and would write from four to six, and then my kids would wake up, and I’d help them get to school, and then go to work at Juilliard, and then pick up the kids or make dinner, do bedtime, and then sometimes read, or not really read because I’d be really tired, but I would write some more, and think, or something like that, and then go to bed. So I operated on very little sleep, which had a completely negative effect on my personality. [Laughs]  But I did get to write some plays.

The truth is there’s a great number of people who work in theater who just have money, who don’t have to worry. And then there’s people who have to think about how you’re going to bring in money, pay the rent.   I mean, the reality is, if you could, you would be a full time writer and a mom and not also have a full time job as a literary manager on top of that.  So you have to squeeze your writing time in.  Does that feed the process, or is it a hindrance?  How do you negotiate the needs you have as a human being with the need to write?

Yeah, that’s interesting.  I realize now, telling the story about my beginnings, that I’m still waiting for someone like my high school principal to come with money and help my career.  [Laughter]  But I think that’s why I write differently now. It’s harder for me to do research-driven work because I don’t have time to do the research and write.  So I have to just write.  There’s this sort of, like, rawness that’s in the work now.  Because I don’t have time to censor it.  It all just comes out.  When you’re writing at four in the morning, it’s just more raw.

Your job at Juilliard consists of reading a ton of plays, and you’re developing long relationships with writers who are students in the program.   How does that feed your writing career?

The part of my job that I like the most at Juilliard is that I get exposed to a ton of exciting work.  I mentor emerging writers, and I do advocacy for those writers, and I get to hang out with Chris [Durang] and Marsha [Norman] who are both brilliant.  So the things that have fed into my writing are the vitality of emerging writers and the lack of jadedness about theater in general.  The burning impulse that people in their early career have — that has really helped feed me.  One of the things about being immersed in that program is that most people tend to write at their full capacity. They write beyond what they thought they could. So I know Juilliard playwrights who come into the program and they’re like, “I write one play every two years.”  And then they’re suddenly writing two or three plays in a year.  Being around that level of commitment and excitement and vitality has been helpful for me. In the last year and a half I wrote two plays, which is pretty quick for me, particularly with kids and a day job.  On the flipside, it’s hard to advocate for yourself when you spend all day advocating for other people.  It’s a lot easier for me to advocate for the students at Juilliard than it is to advocate for myself.  And since they’re all great, it’s easy to talk about how great they are. 

You’ve been working on your new play [Bright Half Life] for about a year now. I know you’re in the middle of the process with it, but can you talk a little bit about what this one is? How is it different from your other plays? What are the unique challenges of it so far?   [pause]  Or, just, what is it about?  [Laughter]

This is one reason why I can’t advocate for myself: I never know how to describe my plays!  Um.  It’s a two character play about two women that are in a relationship over twenty-five years. It shuttles back and forth through time looking at different moments in their life together, both pivotal moments and seemingly mundane, insignificant moments.  It’s completely non-linear. By the end of the play you feel, hopefully, that you understand that summation, that “many moments make up a life and make up a relationship.”  We can’t exactly pinpoint one moment, necessarily, that changes a life.  But when you take a collection of moments, you can see an arc, or even a radical right turn or left turn in someone’s life.  And we don’t necessarily know where those come from. I think in relationships, particularly when a relationship deteriorates, you can’t often say, “It was this moment that made things go wrong.” Conversely, you can’t always say, “This is the moment that I fell in love.” Sometimes you can say, “I was walking here, and it was this moment that I felt this one thing,” but often it was many moments contributing to that singular moment when your feeling changed.  Unthreading time is what interests me in that play — maybe in all of them.