An Interview with Christina Anderson

Written by Victoria Myers

September 17th, 2014

“My career is made up of a lot of theatre things and that’s really exciting,” playwright Christina Anderson tells us. Exciting is, indeed, the word. Two of Christina’s plays had world premieres this year in cities spanning from West Virginia to California. She’s also had work at The Public Theater, Steppenwolf, and Yale Rep, among others. She’s been nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice) and the Wasserstein Prize, and she’s won the Lorraine Hansberry Award (again, among others). It’s not just her career that’s exciting, but also her work and her thoughts on theatre. Her work is often highly theatrical with a heightened use of language, and—although she did not speak to us in verse—her passion for this type of theatre was clearly evident. Also exciting are her thoughts on how theatre, and the conversation about theatre, can evolve. Plus, she has a passion for cartoons and sneakers. Intrigued? We thought so.

(i.) Themes

Do you see any themes in your work?
I absolutely do. With my work, right now, I usually focus on black American stories. I usually deal with race, gender, and class. I’m really interested in geography and landscapes and cities, and that’s usually been a general theme. Every time I start a play it sort of comes from a theme or a question or something that kind of pisses me off, and then I build from there and think about how a piece can live on stage. I think a lot of my plays sort of fall into those themes right now. But, you know, the great thing about themes is that right now it’s this, but five years from now it can transform and change.

Your plays have been described as theatrical, which we find is a word that gets thrown around a lot and means something different to different people. What does that mean to you?
Well, when I think about theatricality, it’s about how are you using the stage. How can this piece only live on stage? If it ever feels like it can move to film or like it could just live on the page, then you have to step back and be like, “Why is this on stage?” I also teach undergrads in playwriting at SUNY Purchase, and I’m always pushing them to think about the stage, because a lot of them are interested in TV and film. TV and film have resources that we do not have, but I think theatre has this one powerful thing where adults are still willing to pretend. You can go to the theatre and have an actor pretend to be a priest, and we can have someone holding a toy boat and we can agree that he’s on a real boat. So, when I think about theatricality in my work, it’s just how are we using the stage, how are we using the space, and how can this only live in theatre.

Do you consider yourself to be a visual writer? Do you think about the stage and the physical space as you write?
It comes up sometimes. My plays generally tend to use a lot of locations—a lot of times they move around a lot—and so I’m cognizant of how space affects relationships and storytelling. It’s like, why is this scene taking place in this location? How does it live in that location? How does it live theatrically? I never really think about the limitations of the space because that’s where the pretend comes in and being able to travel places—if I’m dealing with six locations, how do we deal with that in a black box, how do we signify that this is a living room, a café, a car—to me, that’s when the theatricality comes in that we can travel to all of these different places. So I try not to limit myself by the realities of what a lot of theatre spaces are.

(ii.) Language

You use some heightened language in your writing. You’ve been influenced by poetry, yes? How does that affect your use of language?
When I started thinking about performance, when I was about fifteen, I was influenced heavily by a lot of poets and a lot of spoken word poets. Jessica Care Moore was on Showtime at the Apollo, and she was the first spoken word artist to be on Apollo and win. I was really interested in how language sounds. Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez were two women who placed language on the page, but seeing Sonia Sanchez perform was absolute magic, and how she uses language is fantastic. So, I grew up with that. And also growing up with hip-hop and rap. And I grew up with musicals. A lot of my language is always slightly heightened—I’ll throw in alliterations, rhymes, play with onomatopoeia, people speaking over each other. I think it’s fun to be able to do that in theatre. Language is one of our biggest resources, so why not have fun with it? Paula Vogel is a huge mentor of mine and she embraces a lot of language—Baltimore Waltz has a ton of different languages in it. A lot of her students, who I also admire, play with language, so there’s sort of a sea of people exploring language and how it sounds on stage.

(iii.) Mediums and Materials

Do you have a dream cultural collaboration for a theatre piece?
Taylor Mac is doing some really fantastic work with live theatre and song and performance. So I’ve been really interested in music and language. I’ve also been really interested—I just had a show in West Virginia at Contemporary American Theatre Festival, and we used a lot of video images—so I’ve been interested in using video. I have a solo piece, Hollow Roots, that I think has potential to play with video and sound and creating soundscapes. Then there are tons of people I’d like to work with. I love cartoons and animation.

Do you see influences of cartoons in your writings?
I totally do. I grew up watching a lot of Looney Tunes. I don’t think I’m good at writing a joke—I can say something funny, but not a joke—but a lot of things about playfulness with language, I think a lot of those shows do that. They can do a lot of visual gags, and I try to do that in a lot of my plays.

What are your top five favorite cartoons?

  1. Bob’s Burgers
  2. Rocko’s Modern Life
  3. Looney Tunes
  4. King of the Hill
  5. Home Movies

We saw on your website that you have a section devoted to sneakers. This might be crazy, but do you see any connection between that and your writing?
Yeah, I mean, I think so. The great thing about sneakers is you only have so much to work with, right? Like you have the sole, you have a way to get your foot into the shoe, you have a way to keep the shoe on your foot, and you want to protect your foot from the elements, right? So, it’s a very limited space. But the great thing about sneakers is you can play with the colors, the laces, and the types of sole. Theatre is the same way. At the end of the day, you’re dealing with a stage and an audience and the same collection of words—it’s kind of the same elements. I also just like sneakers. I like a good clean line. I like things that play with color.

(iv.) Spaces and Audiences

We’re always interested in theatre that’s produced outside of New York City, because a lot of new plays are produced that way. Do you find working outside of the city has affected your creative development?
I’ve had some really fantastic experiences outside of New York. A lot of my work has been happening outside of New York in terms of development and also production, and I think it’s a real gift to have these different tiers of support. I had a residency at Magic Theatre in San Francisco for a year; I was with them for a season and it was really great, because I got to see how a season was planned. I got to see the ins and outs, how pieces are picked, and how they’re produced. I’d never gotten that kind of hands on, in depth experience. So, in a lot of ways, it also affected my work because it was really great to be in these different types of spaces with different types of artists who had different outlooks on theatre. There’s some really fantastic theatre going on all over the country. Contemporary American Theatre Festival does full productions and full runs, and I re-wrote my whole play while I was down there and had a really good room of artists. It was in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, which isn’t easily linked to other metropolitan areas, so it felt like we were there to work, and had a real safety net to try different things. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been working a lot all over the country and seeing different theatre scenes.

Do you find the different audiences you get around the country affect your work?
Yeah, like the Bay Area audiences—I’ve had a lot of shows out there—they’re ready to go wherever. And Contemporary American Theatre Festival has built a really good audience and they’re ready to travel wherever. I feel like a lot of audiences around the country are willing to travel and, if you take care of them as an audience, they’re willing to go wherever you take them. And we’re spoiled as New Yorkers. Everyone wants to come here and do a show and we kind of feel like we have seen it all before. So it is hard to get someone to come down and see your play. Like they come and they say, “I was here when Shepard did his first show” and they don’t always want to see the show in front of them. They bring in all of this other stuff.

(v.) Diversity

We believe that how we talk about things matters. How do you think the theatre community can better talk about diversity?
Well, first of all, I think diversity is a complex and detailed conversation, and sometimes I think it just ends up being black, white, man, woman. But I think there is a wide amount of diversity even in the term “women.” Even the term “black”—what does that mean? What does black theatre mean? I think it’s really complex and has so many subtleties to it. Contemporary American Theatre Festival was so exciting because our season had three black playwrights in it. It was Chisa Hutchinson and Charles Fuller [and me]. And that was great. And, because of that, we had a lot of black actors who were in town working on these different plays, and that was great, because that doesn’t really get to happen. People have their slots and they fulfill those slots. But, the fact is, I feel we’d written three different plays, and I think that was important to see. I also feel like the conversation about diversity in theatre is about, what kind of artists are you inviting to speak on your panels, and where are they from? I think there are really fantastic playwrights who didn’t go to grad school, and they’re out there trying to do their work without the connections of people who went to grad school. Sometimes I feel like theatre kind of finds its people to turn to, and they just keep turning to those people. Paula [Vogel] says this great thing that’s, “Theatre should be a circle not a club.” I feel like diversity is much more complex and bigger than what we’re dealing with right now. The language is more varied and it’s more subtle than what we’re dealing with. And then what happens if you just plan your season with all women? With all transgender people? Like what happens? You’ll have different plays. I think people forget that sometimes—they’ll have a representative person, but that person can’t represent a whole community.

One of the problems with under-representation is it seems like the writers who do get shows produced are asked to represent a lot of people to make up for the deficit. But that can be at odds with what makes for good writing.
Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re all excellent writers, but the reality is there aren’t that many resources, and there are a lot us. So then, we’re kind of put in these positions where we have to speak for the majority. I think the more you can see all of us in the same space, and the more you can hear all of us speak, people will see there’s a difference. We’re doing different things, and using theatre in different ways and significant ways. So, I feel that a lot of times. Sometimes it’s just put on one person’s shoulders.

And it’s not something white men have to think about.
No. No. They can just exist on their own. I would crack up if someone asked [Sam] Shepard, “As a white man how do you feel theatre is treating you all alike?”

(vi.) Assumptions

Do you think people make assumptions about your work?
I had this solo show as part of the Under the Radar Festival [at the Public Theater], and people were like, “I don’t want to see another For Colored Girls,” and I was like, “It’s nothing like For Colored Girls. You just see a black woman on stage talking at you and you just go down this…” I mean For Colored Girls is a great play and I love Ntozake Shange, but people just see the press release or they read the blurb, and they’re just like, “I don’t want a black person yelling at me about how bad of a white person I am.” I’m just like, “I have an all black cast and you just think it’s going to be about yelling at you?” So that stuff comes up a lot. Especially with the show in West Virginia. There were so many reviews that were just like, “I thought this was going to be a thing attacking me and it wasn’t.” It was really frustrating because it proves there’s a limited understanding of what black theatre can be.

It seems like that goes back to how the theatre community addresses it too. And how they market shows.
Even in the marketing it’s like, “How do we show that this is a black play? Do we have to have a black person on the poster?” I had someone tell me that my name isn’t colorful enough to signify that I’m black. They were like, “Your plays are so political and theatrical. Your name should signify that.” For a while I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to go by Christina Black-Attack Anderson.” So, yeah, I’ve definitely gotten stuff like that. A lot of times people will have “the black play spot”—in February—but that’s changing. And just not being token-ized is always a pleasant thing to experience.

Do you feel like your plays are talked about differently than if they were written by a male playwright? Especially when it comes to using heightened language and different structures.
I don’t often read reviews. Most of the time my agents will be like “they got it,” or, “they didn’t get it.” But the internet makes that incredibly hard now. I mean, I do feel like plays that play with different structures… or this conversation about, “Do you have to like the protagonist?” I was just talking about that with my students. I feel like Shakespeare wrote a lot of people that we don’t really like, but we forget those kinds of things. And I do think sometimes with my work, there is an unwillingness to think beyond. My whole question is, if you see a character do something you didn’t expect, if you look back to the beginning, was it there all along? When I was in school and we’d see plays and I’d read the reviews of the productions—these plays that I’d think were so beautiful and powerful, and playing with different culture references and theatricality—they were just getting dismissed in reviews. There’s no real willingness to look at the thing as it is and to trust the playwright. So I do see that. I see it in my work a little bit.

There’s so much discussion around female characters that it seems we live in a world where writing a female character is a sort of political act. How do you feel about that? Does it affect your writing?
I don’t think about those kinds of things when I’m writing. I hope I write a lot of different female characters in my plays, but I’m also interested in writing men differently. This play [pen/man/ship] I had in San Francisco was set in 1896 on a ship, and there’s an all black male crew. I was watching all of these ship movies, and the sailors were always so boorish. They’d see a woman and be like, “I can’t control myself. I have to have her.” Even though the crew was an off-stage character in this play, I decided to not make them these animals. And you’d be surprised at the number of people who were like, “Why didn’t that crew attack that woman?” or “Why would they listen to that woman?” So I also try to make those changes too. The Ashes Under Gait City is about the early stages of a cult and the black woman who is leading them, and I got a lot of questions from people about, “Why is it a black woman?” Because usually it’s a man. So it’s interesting how even those sorts of changes get people thinking differently. But I just try to write good characters and think about the choices they’d make in the circumstances they’re in. I just want to write a good character and a good story.

(vii.) Storytelling

What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I read a book when I was a kid that’s called There’s a Monster at the End of This Book. It’s a picture book with Grover. The first page is Grover saying, “I heard there’s a monster at the end of the book. It’s a super scary monster, and we can’t get to the end of this book because it will attack me. Look out for my safety.” And, of course, you keep turning the pages and he’s like, “What did you do? Why did you turn the page?” And he tries to do different things to keep you from turning the page. I remember reading this book and cracking up. I read this book about 100 times. And it was this great little book because it was just Grover and me— and it was the fundamentals of storytelling. And, of course, at the end of the book he’s the monster and like, “It’s me! Loveable Grover!” But that’s the earliest memory of a story that had an effect on me. Also engaging an audience—thinking about performance. It’s a solid book. I think it’s digital now, which I don’t think is as fun. I also just grew up with a lot of people in my family who are really good storytellers. My aunt is one of the best storytellers I know.

(viii.) Influences

Who were your heroes growing up?
My family. A lot of people in my family, like my cousins, my mom, my aunt, and my dad. Growing up in the church, there were a lot of women who ended up giving sermons on Sundays and that wasn’t really supposed to happen, but they fought to make that happen. Hilda Riley, who I went to church with, was fantastic because she was a great orator. I had a lot of teachers who encouraged me and just lived really fantastic lives; teachers who gave me books to read and opened my mind to different ways of thinking and seeing. Artistic heroes like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Morrison. A lot of black female fiction writers from the 70s because they were playing with different ways of telling stories, narratives, structures, and characters.

What fictional character do you most identify with?
Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Not the part where she ends up with Nick and it all goes downhill, but the early stages where she’s super funny and ends up getting in these madcap things.

(ix.) Categories

When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
Talk to me in ten years. I still don’t feel like I am. I just started teaching full time and I got an email about 401Ks. So, I guess, like a week ago when I got that email.

What has been different than you expected about being a playwright? What’s surprised you?
When I first got into playwriting I was fifteen, and there was this camp that Young Playwrights would run for two weeks during the summer. You were in this super intensive playwriting camp. Daniel Alexander Jones taught a class. Sarah Ruhl taught a class. I was seeing all of these playwrights and they all looked happy and like they were doing cool things, so I thought, “I think I may want to do this.” But then, when I started getting into it, the political side of it was something that was totally surprising; the politics of who gets done a lot and who doesn’t get done. And the business side of it I wasn’t prepared for. I was just introduced to playwriting as, you just do it and then you put up a show. I was also surprised how people say “theatre” and it’s supposed to capture all of these different types of theatre. I think Wallace Shawn says this awesome thing about how with music we don’t say Beethoven is like Springsteen—we don’t put them in the same music category. We’ve actually created these sub-categories for music. And I feel like theatre needs sub-categories. Because, in a lot of ways, I’m not doing the same thing that Young Jean Lee is doing. We’re using a lot of the same resources, but I don’t think it’s the same type of theatre, and I think that’s important [as a distinction]. I think both of our theatre has its place. So it’s just the generalization of it all.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think you have to have different types of people in charge. Have different people pushing the buttons and making the choices—and different kinds of people. I often think it would be awesome just to see what would happen if all the theatres were run by people of color, by women, by differently abled people, transgender people. I feel like our seasons would be different, and the way we talk about theatre, and the way it engages the community would be different. So I think that’s the biggest thing—just change up who’s running things. Or at least having a turn over of people. I always thought it would be awesome if you had guest curators for a season and it didn’t just rely on the artistic director. I’d love to see Lynn Nottage pick a season of plays. Or Young Jean Lee pick a season. Or Liesl Tommy. Or Sarah Ruhl. Just see what type of plays they’d pick. I always thought that would be interesting.

You can follow Christina on Twitter: @crawrites