An Interview with Tanya Barfield
Written by Victoria Myers
February 11th, 2015
“How do you create everyday speech that has a musicality to it?” is a concept that we touched upon many times in our discussion with playwright Tanya Barfield, especially in conjunction with dramatic structure. In the span of two years’ time, Tanya has had two very different plays on stage of two of New York City’s most respected non-profit theatres. In the spring of 2013 her play The Call was presented at Playwrights Horizons, and on February 17th her play Bright Half Life will premiere at Women’s Project Theater. The plays not only have very different subjects, but different styles as well. Needless to say, we were excited to talk to Tanya about exploring different themes and variations, and the many ways to tell a story. Some of her other plays include Feast, Of Equal Measure, and the Pulitzer Prize nominated Blue Door. She has a won a Lilly Award and a Helen Merrill Award. And, speaking of different ways to tell a story, she’s currently a writer on the upcoming Starz series The One Percent. It’s no surprise that she’d have many fascinating insights into being a woman in the theatre (especially a woman with children), and the many ways that can take shape.
Bright Half Light starts performances February 17th at Women’s Project Theater. We read that you didn’t want to give too much away about the play.
It’s not so much giving it away, but I think because of the structure of the play—it moves back and forth through time, and you see fragments, and you see something that happened in 2010, and then you see what started it in 2009—part of the pleasure for the audience, I think, in watching the show, is figuring out the sequence of events. When we’ve done readings of it there have been different moments for different audience members of when the light bulb has gone off like, “Oh, that’s connected to this and I connected it to that in that way.” So, the structure of the show is thematically relevant to the play, but also gives the viewer a different kind of experience.
When you were conceiving this play did you always know how you wanted to structure it? Or did that come later as you saw how the emotional life of the story was unfolding?
The structure of it came later. When I started the play, I thought that I was just writing scene fragments to explore the world of the play and the characters. Then I realized, after I’d written several scenes, that what I was writing was the play; that the fragmented nature of the scenes was actually what the play was about on a larger level. It’s very different than the play [The Call] that I just had two years ago at Playwrights Horizons, which unfolds linearly, has long scenes, and traditional structure. This play is quite different, which I find very exciting.
Language plays a major structural role in this play. Would you mind telling us a little about that?
The rhythm of the language is important. It’s important to me that the language sound real and true to life. Oftentimes, we don’t construct our sentences with subject, verb, object, so I might say, “The telephone over there, hand it to me.” And in many ways, the sentence structure with the beginning, middle, and end being out of order, is very much how the play works. But what I tried to do was give the audience the sense of rising action, beginning, middle, and end, and Aristotelian dramatic structure rhythmically. So, they’re going on a ride that feels almost traditional, but it’s all scrambled and mixed up.
It sounds almost musical.
Actually, even though the play is comprised of many short scenes, I’ve divided into ten parts that we’ve called movements, and they function very differently.
What’s your process like as a writer?
I usually start with writing something that I’m resisting writing. My play The Blue Door, which is ultimately about blackness and internalized racism, was something that I didn’t want to explore. And my recent play, The Call, was about adoption and I thought, “Well, that won’t make a good play.” And for this, somebody many years ago said, “Why don’t you write a love story?” and I thought, “Eh, I don’t want to write a love story.” Then I wanted to write about the challenges in long term relationships, so the play became a hybrid of both those things. But it came out of, “I don’t really want to write about that.” That tends to be how I end up writing. My best plays, or plays that I’m most satisfied with, are plays that I either thought would make a terrible play, or I thought, “Maybe that would be a good play, but I don’t want to write it because it scares me.” I tend to start from a place of resistance.
How do you go from resisting to actually sitting down and writing?
I usually say, “Well, I just need to get this out of my system, and once I just free-write a little bit of this, then I’ll sit down and write the real play, the good play.” It’s an act of purging this creative material that ultimately ends up being the play.
You started by doing solo performance. It seems like that would give you a unique perspective, especially on theatricality. Is there anything you’ve taken from that and put into your playwriting?
Well with this play, the theatricality of the play felt very natural to me. There’s a certain type of freedom you have in solo performance because you have to bend the rules of theatre, because you’re the only one there. So, I embraced that in this play. My other play, The Blue Door, was in many ways structured like a solo piece. It was two guys monologuing, and then dialogue scenes, and there was a meta-theatricality to it that is common in solo performance. And in Bright Half Life I think that the basic theatricality to it is something that is familiar to me from working in other mediums and performance art and stuff like that.
What other areas of culture affect your writing?
I wouldn’t say that art or music or film affects me per se, but the processes of artists, novelists, and filmmakers affect me. Novelists, I think, are in many ways on the vanguard of storytelling because they do things that no one else will do. Nowadays, of course, film is breaking out, but novelists have been on the vanguard of storytelling for a long time, and just hearing about their process is exciting to me. I’m the one who goes to an art gallery and reads the artistic statement more than I actually look at the art itself because I’m interested in people’s creative processes.
What are the top five things you’d do if you had more time to do them?
1. Spend more time with the people I care about.
3. Watch TV.
4. Drive long distances to try different restaurants.
5. Take a sushi making class.
One of the things we talk about a lot is new play development and what people think can be done to improve upon it. Especially since so much is development rather than productions.
I think new play development is both the greatest thing to ever happen to theatre and the worst thing that ever happened to theatre. I think the chance to explore a play without the pressures of production is really wonderful, particularly in the New York marketplace where you have a very short rehearsal period and critics come, and the pressure and the stakes of doing theatre off-Broadway, on Broadway, or regionally are so high that having a safe space to develop plays is really wonderful. The pitfalls, to me, of development, is that you get in this endless cycle of development where you can do fourteen readings of a play and everyone gives you different notes, there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to produce that play, and you feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel going round and round and you never get your treat. So all of those different opinions on your play, if you take every single one of them in, you go away from your own impulse and your own voice, and you end up ruining your plays. So the type of development you do is really important. You need to find a way to honor yourself as a writer and that you don’t do so much development that you write the play out of the play.
We hear a lot about people writing towards development.
One of the things about Bright Half Light is that we did readings of it and I knew the play worked on the page. It’s actually very difficult to read the play on the page, but I knew the play worked out loud when the audience heard the play because I’d heard it read. What I didn’t know was if the play worked in three-dimensional space. So, when I did the O’Neill development, we got up on our feet. We had scripts in hand, but at least I got to see the play moving in space, and that was incredibly encouraging to me because I was like, “Okay, what I wrote actually can be alive in space,” which is what I’d hoped, but because I’d done only readings of the play the feedback I’d gotten was, “This play is meant to be read and not seen.” In my gut I knew that wasn’t true, but I felt like I had to prove that to people.
You’re working on The One Percent. What’s it like working on a TV show? Writing in a room is pretty different than playwriting.
It couldn’t be more different. I love it, but it’s not anything like playwriting. It’s interesting because Bright Half Light has a lot of short scenes, and I think you could assume that it was influenced by writing for TV, but I actually wrote Bright Half Light before the TV show. I actually wrote it, and since it does have short scenes, I thought, “Oh, maybe I actually could write for TV.” It’s very collaborative. You’re in the room. I think you spend more time talking about the story than you do writing the story, so you really have to get along with people and be a team player. So I don’t actually think of it as being anything like playwriting. Hollywood now likes playwrights because we tell stories and we’re good with dialogue and we understand character, but to me, as a medium they’re quite different.
Do you see any themes in your work?
I think that my plays are about the individual within the larger social landscape. I try to write a micro story within a macro story. There tends to be multiple storylines or stories happening on more than one level and they collide.
Do you find they have changed and evolved over time depending on what’s going on in your life?
Definitely. I feel like now my writing is closer to myself, which doesn’t mean that it’s autobiographical, because I hate using specific things from my life in my work, but I think it often appears autobiographical because I write a play that treads the territory of what I’m trying to figure out. It’s usually about things I’m grappling with. So even though Blue Door was thematically dealing with material that was close to me, it was about two men. The Call was about people adopting kids and I have two kids that are adopted, but the protagonist was a white woman. Now this play is about a gay couple, and I’m gay, so it becomes one step closer to me.
One of the things we’ve found is that women are asked much more about autobiography in their work than men are.
I hate that. Because I feel like in some ways, that’s a way of saying, “You couldn’t figure out this story on your own. You couldn’t write a fictional story. You couldn’t figure out how to be a writer unless it’s autobiographical,” which I think is just bullshit. We all write plays and make stories. David Lindsay-Abaire said in an interview about Rabbit Hole that he had to do something he was afraid of, so he wrote about what would happen if something happened to one of his kids. I think that’s about as autobiographical as my plays.
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Well, the first story that I really remember responding to was Macbeth. They did it in my school. I wasn’t in it, but the advanced English class in the 5th grade was in it, and I was totally blown away. I’d never seen a play. The language was a feast. And seeing people on stage in an imaginary world was really exciting to me. So that sparked my interest in theatre. That came back in my high school English class when we read the play, and then the Oregon Shakespeare Festival came and did a mini performance of it. Then I directed the play in high school. My high school did not have a theatre program, and I told the principal that I wanted to direct a play. I was being all cocky and like, “This school should have a theatre program. There’s something wrong that we don’t have one. And other high schools put on plays and we don’t. And I’m going to direct play.” I just said this off the cuff and they were like, “What play?” Well, I’d only read one play and it was Macbeth, so I did that. Then later I ended up going part-time to a performing arts high school and learned that there were living playwrights.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I didn’t have heroes, really. I think I was just like, a kid that played, and I didn’t think about the future or what I could be someday. I think my world was pretty insular. With the exception of listening to Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, I don’t think there was a sense of, “Wow, there’s greater possibility in what you can achieve and do.”
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
Well, I could answer that a couple of ways. One would be my first encounter with racism where it was just like a loss of innocence. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is a wonderful city, but at the time it was very segregated—it’s still segregated, but less so—and there were sort of provincial attitudes. So the realization that people treated me differently and thought that I might be stealing stuff, that was like, “Oh my god, my life is not similar to my white friends’ lives.” And my mother is white, so I think it was really eye opening for me, and I felt like I wasn’t a kid. Then the other time, when I was in college, I remember going and opening a bank account, and that was sort of a big deal. I opened the bank account and a few months later I went and put my card in, which was really exciting, and then there was no money in it, and I thought, “Oh right, there’s no money in this account because I have no money.” And suddenly I was like, “I’m a grown up. I have to have money so I can pay my rent.” And I’d had jobs all through high school, but my money was spending money; it wasn’t money to buy toilet paper.
How do you think theatre can better address diversity?
To me, there are two parts of that. I’m very fortunate to have my plays produced. When I was a more emerging playwright, I was workshopped a lot and had a lot of readings of my plays, but never produced. Some of my contemporaries were produced more than I was, and I felt that my plays were equally as interesting and worthy of production. But I noticed that the kind of opportunities I got were all readings or workshops. At one particular institution where I did a reading of a play—we had three hours of rehearsal—there was an article written on me in the major newspaper of that region and my photo was plastered up in the theatre. They did not have a photo up on the wall of the white man whose production they were doing. It suddenly dawned on me: they’re getting grant money to develop diverse work. They’re never going to produce me. They’re never going to be interested in my work, but I’m going to get a lot of workshop and reading opportunities that are going to lead nowhere, because these theatres are getting grant money to say they’re interested in diversity. On the one hand, I was having more opportunities than many of my white contemporaries who were not getting reading opportunities, but on the other hand, there was this awareness that breaking through to production was going to be really challenging, and that I was going to have to work extra hard to get there. And I found that’s true in my whole career. So that’s one thing I think about diversity and how we talk about it, and the pitfalls of marginalization. The other thing is about the economics of theatre. We’re now seeing this this exodus of playwrights to TV because they pay. And many writers don’t have as much money so they can’t stay in the theatre; it’s not sustainable as a career. That tends to be particularly true of people of color. It’s not like there aren’t wealthy people of color, but there tend to be fewer. It’s just not sustainable.
One thing we like to discuss a lot is this issue of people bringing a ton of baggage to female characters—like that they have to represent all women and they’re held to a weird standard.
In my play The Call, people, I think, judged the main character. In the play, she’s set to adopt a baby and there’s some stuff that goes wrong—I don’t want to give away what—and then she questions whether or not to adopt a baby. Now, people judged her for that. It’s not like she had the baby and gave it back; she just questioned whether she was going to go through with it. And she has this line in the play, “It’s not like other people are running out to do this.” But people judged her, I think, because she was a woman on stage speaking a truth that is, in a way, an ugly truth that people feel. She was reflecting, I think, probably the feelings of 90% of the audience, but they didn’t want to admit that.
The likability thing.
Yeah, you have to be likable. Just like any woman. A man does something and he’s assertive, and if a woman does it, she’s a bitch.
Have you experienced feeling like if one of your plays was by a white man that it would be talked about differently by critics or literary managers?
I don’t know. But I think there is a sense sometimes of not understanding the work. Or undervaluing the work. I think that’s the main thing—that the work becomes undervalued by both men and women. I’m sure when you talked to Julia Jordan, she mentioned that study [where the same plays were submitted to literary directors only some with female names and some with male names]. I was one of the writers that she used. And it’s just interesting to me that would happen. It was really eye opening.
It must have been bizarre to be one of the people used in that study.
It made me think, “Wow, this is actually personal. This is actually something that affects me.” So it just brought it home.
Before that, did you have the experience of feeling the bias, but not having your experience validated? We’ve heard from people that sometimes, in the past, when they’ve tried to talk about this stuff with people they get told they’re crazy and then start to think, “Is it in my head? Am I just crazy?”
I think you feel crazy. You never know. You can never know if that person was sexist or racist. You’ll never know. People are too savvy and unconscious to just come out and be assholes most of the time.
But the study—when it was just switching the names—made it kind of clear.
Yeah. Kind of clear.
You teach, and you also worked with the Juilliard playwriting program. Do you ever notice any differences between male and female students in terms of confidence?
I think there is a huge difference. I see more confident men than I see confident women, and it’s to women’s detriment. The confident women who go out there and are sure of themselves and say, “I’m great and look at this thing I did,” they do well. And there are more men like that.
Is that something you had to think about in terms of yourself?
Yeah, I’m not very confident. I seesaw in terms of confidence, and when I’m confident things go better. When I’m insecure things don’t go as well. And what I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to learn how to hide my insecurity.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges for women playwrights?
I think there are a lot of issues of being a mother and being a playwright, where opportunity and doors close to you. That doesn’t affect all women, but it affects a lot of women; you’re trying to break through and it’s just much harder. So that, I think, has been a big stumbling block for me. As a mom you have to be home more than a dad. Not to say that there aren’t amazing dad primary parents, but traditionally, it’s a mom that does that—and even in a gay relationship, you’re a mom. And whether it’s guilt or instinct or society, there’s that pull to be there for your kids, and that takes away from your career, and people judge you for it. I remember when we adopted the kids, people just wrote me off and were like, “Well, your career is done.” And people even said to me, “I guess you’re not going to write plays anymore.” It was really shocking. And I didn’t get invited to things. And, the truth of the matter is, I don’t go to things—I put my family first in that way. But a lot of development opportunities are out of town, and a lot don’t allow your family to visit, and so I can’t take a lot of opportunities that I used to be able to take, and that puts you outside the circle. So I’d like to see that kind of thing change.
We’ve had people talk about this before and how the responsibility usually really does fall to the mother.
And my partner, she’s the mother too, and she picks the kids up and does all of those things too, so I’m lucky in that way. But yeah, if it’s over my kid’s birthday or it’s three weeks away, I’m just not going to do it. Or if the kids can’t visit.
The Lilly Awards are working to make the residencies family friendly.
That would be great. And I understand the need to hole up and not have the outside world, but one of the things that’s great about New Dramatists is that you can have a retreat in the city. It would just be great if you could have a writers’ retreat and get a couple of days off. It’s not like the kids have to live with you there at the retreat, but if they could just visit or, if it’s for three weeks, that you could leave for a few days and go see them.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think producers can look at the track record of their theatres or look at their own track records and see if there’s gender parity. And then try and examine that and ask, “What can I do to change that?” If you look at your theatre and see you’ve only produced men, then look at yourself. Examine yourself and see why that is. If you think it’s because good plays are only written by white men, then take a look at that and figure out how to read more plays by different people. Get your literary manager to give you plays blind. When I was at Juilliard, I instituted blind applications because of Julia Jordan’s study and I thought, “I’ve got to figure out if I’m part of the problem.”