DC playwright Jacqueline Lawton on The Hampton Years, getting its first production at Theater J

Local playwright Jacqueline Lawton has spent over a year and a half researching and writing The Hampton Years — a play now brought to life in her first regional production. This week, in a whirlwind of activity, the show began performances at Theater J as part of the second annual Locally Grown Festival.

The world-premiere, which plays through June 30, explores the founding of the art department at Virginia’s vocational Hampton Institute by Austrian husband-and-wife immigrants Viktor and Margaret Lowenfeld, and the burgeoning careers and lives of Hampton’s black student body, including African-American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis among others.

Jacqueline E. Lawton (Photo: Jason Hornick)

Jacqueline E. Lawton (Photo: Jason Hornick)

“If you’ve ever had a dream — something you had to do — and people told you that you couldn’t do it, you can really relate to this,” said Lawton, describing one of the central driving forces in The Hampton Years. “To witness how much these artists had going against them, and to see their works of art as essential to the community and to what they overcame…. That’s a theme anyone can latch onto and feel spirited about.”

The full production bears the fruits of an ongoing relationship between Lawton and Theater J, where The Hampton Years was commissioned and then developed — a process that began with a first reading in January of 2012. DC Theatre Scene spoke with Lawton by phone last week about her accomplishments and discoveries with this project. That interview, in edited and condensed form, appears below.

In addition to commissioning this play, Theater J has played a guiding role in its development. How has it been with work with director Shirley Serotsky [Theater J’s Associate Artistic Director] and this creative team?

I feel really lucky. Shirley has been a best friend for years, and I’m working with her now for the fourth time. It’s great to be in the room with someone who really knows your work and who has been to see everything you’ve done. We are always mindful to talk through moments and discuss as we go along, but I also trust her director’s instincts.

It’s really a team effort. Shirley and me and our dramaturg, Otis Ramsey-Zoe, are all working in service of the script. I really don’t get that sense of ego in the room, as sometimes happens. It’s the same with the cast. I’ve been among casts where ego becomes a challenge to creativity among the group, but among this group I know that everyone has an interest in moving the show forward. It’s a new play, and suggestions are being made as we go, but it’s in a way that feels in service to the stronger, deeper nature of the play. There’s a lot of laughter in the room during rehearsal and celebration of great moments that have been achieved.

Sounds like a lot of fun.

We’ve made great progress. But my favorite day might have been first rehearsal, just because of all the questions that get asked. I get so much from actors and designers on the day of that first read-through. I live for those moments of discovery and for the questions that come up. It’s great to be in a room with artists who are so smart and ask questions.

Shirley has set up a room in which there are no stupid questions. With a show about race, particularly, you have to be able to ask each other in the room what may be considered stupid questions. That’s important.

Theater J art for The Hampton Years

Theater J art for The Hampton Years

What is it like to be the playwright in the room?

I spent the first week in rehearsal just listening. Then I took two days off and did rewrites to the script. Then, once they were working with the new script, I went away and came back for the design run. We’re all going through a process of deep discovery, but for me it’s good to leave the room and come back. Then it’s a matter of seeing how much they’ve grown. It’s so cool to see that.

The first stumble-through is really exciting to me — that first time all the way through from beginning to end. I love the grit and sweat that goes into it. There’s such beauty in the struggle of putting something like this together. You can tell how much the actors want it, how much they’re fighting for the lines and the blocking. In those moments, making a show feels so wonderful and rich. It mirrors beautifully what the writer goes through, struggling with that question: How the hell do you put this thing together?

It sounds like you trust Shirley so much that you’re able to really have a good time with it.

I absolutely trust when she has an impulse. Like, for example, there’s a moment in the play where the character Samella has learned that a sculpture she’s made is missing. After it’s bought and given to a museum it goes missing. And when she realizes this, she’s devastated. Viktor, her professor, asks her to start work on another piece. Now, Viktor is also in discussion about the fate of his job, so my focus had been on him in that part. But Shirley really wanted the audience to see Samella getting back into the work of creating — to see what that was like for this woman at this time. She wanted the voice of a moment. I didn’t question anything about that impulse. I wrote the text, and they found a way to do it.

This whole process has made me really, really happy. I wouldn’t always say that, but it’s so true in this case. A lot of it is about friendship. [Sound designer] Matt Nielson and I have worked together before, and [scenic designer] Robbie Hayes too. Deb [Sivigny, costume designer] I’ve known for a long time. I know all these people. As a design team we’ve all grown up together, in a very real way.

I love looking at these creative people in the room with me. I think back and remember earlier parts of their careers. To see where we all are now, and to have such a deep respect for that work they’ve done, is great.

How have you gone about revising, editing, and adding to the script over the course of the rehearsal process?

Part of what’s been phenomenal is that all parties have shown a deep commitment to it for months. We’ve been able to do this this development through readings since last year, and so we were able to come into the rehearsal room with the script already in strong shape.

I think my most recent goal has been to clarify the dramatic arc and climax of the play. I don’t always write in the climactic, Aristotelian structure that American theatre is most familiar with. So, for me, there was a desire to shape this play so that it has a stronger and clearer climax.

It wasn’t until we got into rehearsal that we could frame what that climax would look like and where it would happen… where in Viktor’s journey of choosing Hampton and establishing an art department it would happen. Because in real life Viktor struggled with this dream for his entire life.

But we found it, on Tuesday. I located a certain moment, and we worked through what kind of richness and emotions would need to be brought to that moment to make it a good climax. I sent pages to Shirley and to Karen Currie, our stage manager. They worked the pages in rehearsal on Wednesday. Then I saw it performed on Thursday. New play development isn’t easy, but it’s in these moments that I know we’re going to get there.

What other aspects of script work have taken your attention these past few weeks?

This sounds simple. but the audience needs to not be confused. As much as a writer might admire nuance and subtext, the audience needs to know what’s happening. That can be a harder lesson — how to reckon with an inherent level of didacticism that has to live in most plays. You can find ways of providing information that doesn’t feel like exposition, but it can be hard to get to a point where the audience doesn’t consciously know you’re doing it.

I studied performance ethnography in grad school, so this idea of everyday life performance has fueled my writing. Being mindful of the way people speak. And characters are people — they don’t always speak in linear fashion. They get emotional. They conflate ideas. They remember wrong. That’s what makes relationships interesting onstage. But I also have to remember that that the audience is only seeing this once through. They can’t rewind. They have two hours to get it.

At one point in the show, Viktor realizes he has lost his whole family. He can’t return to Austria. He’s with his student, John, and he’s in a state of grief, trying to articulate his thoughts. That’s hard. It’s why Hamlet is so hard. There’s so much under the surface. But the actor needs to be able to figure out what the character is saying, and the audience needs to be able to track it. I have to be mindful of their point of entry.

The Hampton Years
Closes June 30, 2013
Theater J
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC
Performs Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday
Tickets: $45 – $60
Details
Tickets
 
What else has The Hampton Years taught you about your own writing? Are there discoveries or lessons you’re going to bring forward to your next writing projects?

I think a process like this has helped me come to accept that my tendency toward magic realism in my writing is something that I can embrace. This play is very naturalistic, but magic realism always seems to come into my writing somehow. I’m more that writer than anything else.

I admire playwrights who can write naturalistically, who see even such magic in mundane things. But a bigger kind of magic always gets into my plays somehow. Like, in this play, there are moments when the art comes alive. The actors help make that happen through dance. You get to actually see the body and character of the art, à la Sunday in the Park with George, but within this naturalistic world. It’s just amazing. So I think I don’t need to punish myself about using magic realism. I don’t have to try not to do that anymore.

How wonderful to be in a place of confidence and excitement at this point.

This process has been great. I really hope that more theatre companies in town can start saying to local playwrights: We believe in your spirit and your energy, and we would like to create something with you for our audience.

The Locally Grown festival is such a good opportunity. Woolly also has this Free the Beast campaign going, all geared toward new work. I just really hope that more theatre companies in town want to do this — find a local playwright, grow a play with the community, and see what happens.

And we look forward to seeing what happens with yours this month at Theater J.

I’ve had a wonderful experience. Since I’ve been writing to a commission, I was always thinking specifically about Theater J while the play came together in my mind. I’ve been writing toward a particular mission this whole time. I’ve seen every Theater J show for the last six years. I know their style; I know their audience and what kind of energy they want to have in the room. So I get to bring my writing to that. It’s an utter delight.

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The Hampton Years by Jaqueline Lawton . directed by Shirley Serotsky .Features Edward Christian, Sarah Douglas, Crashonda Edwards, Lolita Marie, Julian Elijah Martinez, Sasha Olinick, Colin Smith, and David Lamont Wilson. This interview conducted by Hunter Styles.

More?

Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Web site

Note: On her site, she has a series of notable interviews with women theatre critics of DC.

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