By Jacqueline E. Lawton, dramaturg for Blue Door.
Jacqueline E. Lawton: To begin, can you tell me a little bit about where you live?
Tanya Barfield: I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn fairly close to Prospect Park. I’m on Eastern Parkway, a huge tree-lined boulevard with park benches and a few remaining cobble-stones. I hear traffic. But I can imagine another time when the parkway was filled with open-air markets and horse-drawn carriages.
Brilliant! Inspiration is everywhere! Now, tell me a little bit about your favorite place to write.
I don’t have a favorite place to write. I write where and when I can. Usually, I write pre-dawn on the couch – with coffee. I’m not a morning person. I write in the wee-hours because I have kids.
Okay, give us a little bit of background where you’re from originally and how you ended up where you are now…
I was born in San Francisco and grew up in Portland, Oregon. I came to New York for undergrad and never left. I studied acting at NYU and did solo-performance for a few years after college. Then, I was invited to participate in New York Theatre Workshop’s Van Lier Fellowship where I wrote my first attempt at a play. Around the same time, I met the now well-known and extremely talented director, Leigh Silverman. At that time, she was an intern and I had barely written a play. Leigh and I did a workshop together where I wrote ten pages a night and the next day she staged my pages with actors. After a week, I had an act of a play called DENT. I wrote the second act over the next couple of months and Leigh suggested I apply to the Juilliard Playwriting Program. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Juilliard where I studied with Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman.
I’m curious, other than being a playwright, what other forms of writing have you done? Were you always drawn to the theater? If so, why? If not, what brought you here?
I haven’t endeavored into other forms of writing. I love plays and I believe that’s primarily where my talent lies. I wouldn’t close the door to other mediums of storytelling but right now, my brain thinks theatrically. I was drawn to the theater in elementary school but I didn’t dream I could be a part of it until my junior year of high school. In elementary school, the advanced English class, of which I was not a part, did a production of Macbeth. Perhaps, I was the only youngster in the audience that watched the show. I was riveted. It was storytelling and poetry like I had never heard. I went on to a very small high school with no theater department. With intensity only a teenager could muster, I lamented over the fact that we had no theater department. So I decided to put on the school’s first play. I chose the only play I had ever read, Macbeth. Indeed, I staged it and it was performed. Everyone that auditioned was cast, and Macduff was played by a girl because not enough boys tried out. I saw my first professional production of a play at the age of 17 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After that, I was hooked on theater. Looking back on it, I think the only reason I studied acting instead of playwriting was because I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a living playwright.
Describe for me the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed…
The first time I heard my work, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was tremendously happy and about to be sick. I’ve always been drawn to working with people that are interested in collaboration. To me, this is the most exciting aspect of theater. Of course, writing is a solitary activity and I’m not interested in “writing plays by committee.” But I do enjoy the exchange between playwright and director; the actor’s input and how they bring the script to life; the way in which the designers contribute to the storytelling; and finally the audience. I’ve seen shows, my own included, change drastically dependent on the audience reaction. Funnier moments can become funnier, sad moments sadder. I’m excited about the relationships one forms with other artists throughout their careers – such as Walter Dallas directing Blue Door at the Arden. I feel honored that Walter’s chosen to work on the play again [Walter Dallas directed African Continuum Theatre Company's production of Blue Door in the Spring of 2009]. Or – yourself [referring to Jacqueline E. Lawton, who served as dramaturg for African Continuum Theatre Company]. I’m glad that you will be revisiting the play and hopefully the new cast and designers will illuminate new aspects of the story. The life of a play is so short. Each production or night in the theater is unique. To me, that’s what makes performance so compelling and different from all other art-forms. It happens in real time and while the script may stay the same, there is no repetition. No two nights in the theater are the same. For this reason, no matter how grand, theater is always intimate.
What inspires you to write? And do you have any particular writing rituals that you follow?
I write because I don’t feel like I have a choice. When I write, I feel like myself. And if I go long periods without writing, I feel estranged. Often it is an arduous task. At times it is joyful. I don’t follow any particular rituals.
What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?
I like to write about people in a state of emotional crisis; people on the edge of discovery.
Part 2 of Jacqueline’s interview with Tanya can be found here.