Caleen Sinnette Jennings is an actor, director and playwright who is a founding member of The Welders, a new D.C. Playwrights’ Collective. Eight of her plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing Company, and her work has appeared in 7 play anthologies. She has received playwriting awards from the Kennedy Center and The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, as well as two nominations for outstanding new play from the Helen Hayes Awards. Her plays have been produced at the Kennedy Center, Imagination Stage, The Folger and Source Theatres. Caleen is Professor of Theatre in the Department of Performing Arts at American University in Washington, D.C. where she joined the faculty in 1989. In 2003, she received A.U.’s Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. She has also been a faculty member of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute since 1994. She received her B.A. in Drama from Bennington College and her MFA in Acting from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She will have two plays in the festival: Queens Girl in the World opens September 16 at Theater J; Darius & Twig opens October 31 at The Kennedy Center.
Why are you a playwright?
The last two places in society where people can come together LIVE with people who are different from them — and interact, learn and be moved — are the theatre and the classroom. I’m lucky enough to be in both. Everyone has a story. We think we know other people’s stories just by looking at them. But human beings are surprising, complex, endlessly fascinating. I’m a playwright because I love being surprised and moved by people and I want to create live experiences where that happens to others. Film is not live – a movie is exactly the same every time you see it. In theatre, no two performances are the same. No two audiences are the same. The air is charged in a way that you don’t experience in a movie theatre. I adore reading but it is solitary. Theatre is communal.
What type of theatre most excites you?
Theatre that surprises me and makes me FEEL. I worry that we as Westerners have become so afraid to feel that we break up and fall in love via text, e-mail and the internet. We protect our feelings and our hearts because we are so afraid of getting hurt. That makes us all the more vulnerable. I love theatre that makes me FEEL deeply. Whether it’s anger, fear, confusion – I don’t care. Rattle my cage, shake my tree. I love theatre created by a playwright who respects the audience and is brave enough to tell a difficult story – a playwright who takes a risk – a playwright who makes us like people we’re not supposed to like and hate people we’re supposed to love. That will wake you up!
What starts a play moving in your imagination?
Almost anything. Sources of inspiration for me have included (but are not limited to) song lyrics, another play, an overheard conversation, a newspaper article or t.v. news story, a moment from history, a desire to create a vehicle for a specific actor.
Describe your writing day. Do you have a favorite writing place?
I write in the cracks of time. I rarely have the luxury to spend a full day writing. Instead, I’ll steal 2 hours here, 3 hours there. I like to move back and forth from free-writing, clustering (webbing) by hand and typing. I’ll take a walk if I need a break. I write best in the early morning, but if my schedule necessitates it, I’ll write late at night. I prefer to create in the morning and edit in the evening.
How did you choose this play to debut at the Festival?
I was invited by Theater J and by The Kennedy Center. I feel tremendously honored.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
Queens Girl in the World
Sept 16 – October 11
1529 16th St. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Details and Tickets
Darius & Twig
October 31 – November 8
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20566
Details and Tickets
What female playwrights have influenced your writing and how?
Lorraine Hansberry. My acting teacher gave me a copy of A Raisin in the Sun in my freshman year of college. I had a role model. I knew I could write about black life in a way that was compelling, complex and exciting. She was the first woman playwright I had ever read. Her play blew my mind! Other important female playwrights in my life: Susan Glaspell, Suzan Lori Parks, Marsha Norman, Caryl Churchill. I’m a huge Lynn Nottage fan. She tells unusual stories – characters we’ve never seen. She makes us ache with compassion. She’s also amazingly funny.
What’s missing from theatre today?
A multiplicity of voices and a range of contrasting opinions. I’m interested in the hip hop playwrights – they are expanding the form, combining music, dance, mixed media in ways that are exciting. What’s missing is patient audiences and patient producers who allow playwrights to develop. Not every play is going to be a box office success. But plays that fail financially are often the plays that are difficult but necessary for us to see as human beings. I’d love to see more work from playwrights of color. There are so many stories still untold.
What are you working on now?
I have a piece kicking around in my head about two policemen. I’m doing interviews with former policemen now. I have no idea what will come of this but I’m excited.
Answer this: “If I weren’t a playwright, I would be … ”
A teacher of English or history.
Anything you would like to add?
I’m excited to see what my sister playwrights are creating. 60 world premieres – that is AWESOME!!!