Claudia Barnett grew up in the Bronx and lives in the woods of Tennessee. She has served as resident playwright at Stage Left Theatre and Tennessee Repertory Theatre and has developed four scripts with Venus Theatre, where Witches Vanish opens on August 20.
Her plays have been included in the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival, the MultiStages New Works Finalist Festival, Stage Left Theatre’s LeapFest, and the Women’s Work Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She teaches playwriting at Middle Tennessee State University and is the author of I Love You Terribly: Six Plays (2012) and No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn, or Emily Dickinson’s Sister: A Play in Two Acts (2015), both published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. More at www.claudiabarnett.net
Why are you a playwright?
My brain thinks in plays. I don’t have a narrative voice running in my head telling me stories, just phrases and impressions that grow into scenes.
What type of theatre most excites you?
The kind I can’t imagine on my own. I love surprises.
What starts a play moving in your imagination?
One day as I was driving to work listening to the radio, I heard Garrison Keillor say black bears and beavers once roamed Manhattan island. That led to my 9-11 play Another Manhattan. A TED Radio Hour story last summer sparked my current work on neuroscience.
An article I tore out of The New Yorker about disappearing women in Juárez, Mexico, sat in my drawer for years, until I heard Ivan Klíma lecture in Prague about samizdat, and what he said somehow took me back to Juárez, and I started writing Witches Vanish. I hear or read things I know nothing about, and I become suddenly and irrevocably obsessed. I spend a ton of time on research. Witches Vanish turned into such a vast project: I found myself reading memoirs of the Soviet gulag, histories of the Spanish Inquisition, science journal articles about mammoths, textbooks on astronomy, psychological interpretations of fairy tales. Being a playwright is giving me a great education.
Do you have a favorite writing place?
My desk is a big wooden table that overlooks my front yard. Once in a while, deer wander through my line of vision. My dog Lucy curls up beneath my chair. My husband delivers my coffee. This is a good place.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
Sept 4 – 20
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
Bethesda, MD 20815
Details and Tickets
How did you choose this play to debut at the Festival?
Deborah Randall, the genius artistic director of Venus Theatre, chose it, and I can’t wait to see my sprawling play on her tiny stage. (I love that tiny stage.) I feel enormously honored to be included in the Festival, particularly with this play that gives voices to women who’ve disappeared.
What female playwrights have influenced your writing and how?
Naomi Wallace. She makes politics into poetry—totally visual poetry, equal parts language and body, intellectual and sensual. I think One Flea Spare is perfect. I also love Slaughter City, even though it’s less perfect, for its gushy experiments with form and time.
Caryl Churchill. Each of her plays is different and brave. I read and saw Cloud 9 in college. It was shocking in so many wonderful ways. The opening scene of Top Girls has affected me deeply—the idea of mixing history and fiction, and also of overlapping time periods and bringing people together who could never really meet. In the play I’m writing now, the fairy godmother character pretty clearly grew out of The Skriker.
Adrienne Kennedy. I have two photos from A Rat’s Mass hanging on the filing cabinet in my office. I printed them to show my students a few years ago, and then I couldn’t file them away. The characters are humans turning into rats, and as horrible as that is, the images are strikingly beautiful, almost sacred.
Judith Thompson. Sometimes I finish writing a scene and think, “Done!”—but then I know it’s not really done, so I ask myself: What would Judith Thompson do? (My students think I should have “WWJTD?” engraved on a bracelet.) I’m thinking in particular of Lion in the Streets, where she pushes each scene way past anyone’s comfort zone and shows just how brutal even small talk can be.
Quiara Alegría Hudes. I planted an asparagus patch and a giant hollyhock right in front of my house to make it look like Mama Ginny’s garden.
What’s missing from theatre today?
Normally I’d say women’s voices, but here we are (!)—at least for a few months.
What are you working on now?
The official title is Don’t Kill the Angels, but I think of it as my brain play. It’s about something neuroscientists call a “feeling of presence”: the imagined but palpable sense that someone (a god, an angel, an alien, etc.) is there with you. It can be positive or negative—calming or terrifying. Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare is considered a portrait of this condition. I guess you could call my play a dramatization of this condition—at least that’s my goal. My main character is a lizard.
Answer this: “If I weren’t a playwright, I would be … “
A professor. Well, I am a professor. And I teach playwriting. Pretty cool, eh?
Anything you would like to add?
Yes! Come see Witches Vanish. I am floored by what Venus is doing with it. They’re unbelievably good.