Lynn Nottage on Theatre for One, and theater for many, and keeping busy during COVID

Lynn Nottage, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Ruined, Sweat), was put on the waitlist to see Theatre for One’s “Here We Are”; ;that should give you a sense of its popularity.

Nottage is actually one of the eight playwrights whose work is featured in this latest collection of one-on-one “micro plays,” which have been presented online every Thursday from August 20 through September 24 – for free, but you have to sign up at exactly 10 a.m. on the Monday before, and it’s sold out within minutes.

Update: Due to popular demand, extra late-night performance times have been added through September 24 and performances have extended through October! 

It is one of the many projects with which she’s been involved over the past few months, from the incredibly small to the remarkably large, from much-anticipated to deeply unexpected. She is involved in THREE Broadway shows (which will quadruple the number of shows she’s had on Broadway; before this, only “Sweat”): “MJ: The Michael Jackson Musical”, for which she’s writing the libretto; an as-yet untitled play slated for the Hayes about the formerly incarcerated kitchen staff at a truck stop sandwich shop; and the first-ever Lincoln Center Theater play commission for its Broadway house, the Vivian Beaumont, which the press release describes as the third largest stage in New York after the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music Hall.)

But she also served as Queen Mermaid to fellow playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ King Neptune in the 38th annual — and first virtual — Coney Island Mermaid Parade, and she has participated in online play anthologies and podcasts and panel discussions and interviews (such as the one below) and sundry other activities far too numerous to catalogue.

At the same time, she has filled her Twitter feed with a Pandemic Diary (sometimes explicitly labeled that) which often expresses  the everyday frustrations of life during this peculiar period, occasionally provoking some dialogue.

Theatre for One in Times Square in 2011, my first, unsettling experience as a single audience member in a booth with a single performer.

I wanted to talk with her about all this, especially after “attending”  her contribution to Theatre for One, “What Are The Things I Need to Remember?” a 15-minute play in which Eisa Davis portrays a New Yorker recalling a fleeting friendship in childhood that ended badly — which to my shock, sparked me into suddenly remembering a similar story from my own New York childhood.

I had talked to Nottage once before about Theatre for One, in 2015, after seeing the other play she has written for this company founded by the award-winning set designer Christine Jones. In Nottage’s “Five,” a man (portrayed by Keith Randolph Smith) is talking to a job interviewer (i.e. the audience member), explaining the ten-year gap in his resume. His circumstances are “not for the reasons you probably imagine.”   He was the victim of a horrendous shooting. “I decided that I wanted to create a piece that toyed with the audiences expectations,” she explained to me at the time.

She also shared with me her initial reaction years earlier as an audience member to plays in which there is just one performer and one audience member at a time: “I found it to be an intense, a little frightening and absolutely amazing experience. It felt more like an intimate conversation with a stranger on the bus than a performance.  At first I struggled and resisted the experience,  but once I committed to making eye contact and exchanging energy with the actor, I found that the piece really came alive and touched me in unexpected ways.”

How did you come to write for Theatre for One this time around?

I received an invitation from Christine Jones and [co artistic director] Jenny Koons with whom I worked before. They were looking for ways to bring theater to audiences during this COVID moment and they spent some time developing some technology that could establish the same level of intimacy that you had when where you’re doing Theatre for One in person. She explained to me that this was a commssion, and I thought that was wonderful. Also part of the mission was to produce work by women of color, and directed by women of color, and I was really excited to be in the company of some of these other playwrights. I think Christine and Jenny were really interested in celebrating work of folks that have been under-represented in the theater.

Did you approach this differently because it was virtual, and because of the specific mission?

I don’t think I approached it any differently. What I was interested in was writing a piece of theater that felt conversational, that felt intimate, that felt like it could be an exchange between two people, and I think that I had an advantage in that I had done Theater for One before, so understood in some sense what kind of thing works best. I tried not to have the fact it was going to be remote and digital be an obstacle.

Because of COVID we have come so accustomed to being on Zoom, whether we’re talking to friends or family or whether in meetings, and one of the things that’s always difficult with Zoom is where you put your gaze. The technology that Jenny and Christine were able to develop permitted the actor to look directly into the camera, so that the audience member sitting on the other side could meet the actual gaze of the actor. That permitted one of the barriers that exist in digital technology to be torn down.

Even if the audience member doesn’t understand what the difference is, they’re somehow experiencing and receiving the performance in a more visceral way.

Another difference is that by and large the actors doing a Zoom play can’t see the audience watching them. They can see the other actors, they can see the stage manager, but they can’t see how the audience is readcitng to their performance unless perhaps they’re reading the chat, which they generally do not do. But in this instance the performer could actually see the audience member and so you get what you do in live theater, which is an exchange of energy, and the actor can shape and evolve their performance based on the feedback that they’re getting from the audience.

How did you come up with “What Are The Things We Need to Remember?”  this specific story of a woman remembering a long-ago encounter?

I came up with it because I just think this COVID moment there’s been more room for rumination and that the stillness has allowed me to access my memory in a very different kind of way. We couldn’t go out in the early part of COVID and we felt very quarantined and closed in. I just found myself thinking more extensively about the experiences that I had and suddenly memories that had been either suppressed or simply forgotten came up, and that was interesting. I thought the way in which we choose to remember was also interesting.

One of the exercises that I began to do in person was trying to recall things that I had forgotten, people that I had forgotten. Once I began recalling those memories, suddenly other memories flooded in. So in part that’s why I wrote the piece. It helped me think about the New York that I grew up in. It helped me think about the fleeting relationships that you have that are sometimes very important in ways that you can’t even understand until you’re much older.

Did you get a chance to see any of the other seven plays?

I had a chance to connect with the other playwrights in an opening night celebration, but because of the nature of the technology and this moment we’re in, it was very difficult for us to do readings of all the pieces.
I put myself on the waitlist to see some of the pieces and hopefully I will get to see them this week.

The other pieces I know of seem more specific to this political moment. Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Thank You Letter,”writing to Congressman John Lewis for his support of immigrants;  Regina Taylor’s “Vote!
the character honoring her forebears for doing so; Lydia R. Diamond’s “whiterly negotiations,”
complaining about a white editor’s microaggressions. Is your story a deliberate deviation from that?

I’m centering the voice of a Black woman.  I don’t think it’s a deviation. There are people who choose to approach this moment through metaphor, who choose to present the moment indirectly, and I think that’s what I did . I’m right in this moment, so anything that I’m writing is of this moment

What kind of reaction has your play gotten?

I haven’t seen any reaction, or spoken to anybody except the actor (Eisa Davis.) She said that by and large people have had a visceral emotional experience.

You talked about COVID creating room for rumination. Is there an upside for a writer to be in quarantine — a time in which they’re by themselves with fewer distractions?

I assume that the majority of writers feel somewhat paralyzed by this moment. I think it’s true that writers crave quiet times, but I don’t think that writers necessarily crave isolation, and I’m not a novelist or a poet. Theater is a collaborative medium, so I’m used to spending some time by myself writing, but I’m also used to spending an equal amount of time being in the company of others in developing the work. It is difficult developing work when you don’t have that  second half of the process — collaborating with directors and actors and designers in that theater space and seeing the work come to life

And I’m not alone. I have my family here, my son was not able to attend school, since the COVID quarantine began, so he was here all the time, and my husband here, and my daughter is here in the apartment. I’m definitely not by myself

I see from your social media that you took a trip with your family?

I took an RV trip with my family for two weeks.
We felt like we needed to get away, and wanted to travel in a way that was socially responsible, and allowed social distance but still seemed
So we took an RV and traveled to Maine
It was incredibly restorative; I  recommend it if you have the opportunity

It just felt like a reset because, when you’re living in this COVID isolation, it’s important to remember what the world used to be like.

Other than that trip, how often have you actually left your home, donned a mask, taken a subway?

I haven’t actually been on the subway since COVID. Members of my family have, but I actually haven’t. I always go to supermarkets. New York has begun to open up, so I’ve had dinner with some friends since probably mid-July and begun slowly restore some level of normalcy to my life. I went this past weekend to the Metropolitan Museum

Do you think Theater for One actually spark a more intense reaction now because so many people feel isolated?

I think that’s absolutely true. I think there’s a real hunger for connection.. I think that there’s a desire to consume in ways that we haven’t been able to during this COVID moment. I think that people want to engage with storytelling in more dynamic ways and I think one of the beautiful things that is going on, and done so wonderfully, is reconnecting the audience with the performer — recapturing the interaction that happens in the theater space where a piece of art is actually shaped and formed by the audience member response.
One of the things that I always say is that the audience is the final collaborator; the piece doesn’t fully come to life until you have that exchange of energy between the audience and  the performer

What’s happening with the opera based on your play Intimate Apparel?

We were in the midst of previews, and maybe two or three weeks away from opening the piece. A tremendous amount of energy and time and passion went into putting it up and it was very painful to have to shut down production, and put it on hold until after theater reopens in New York City.

Your guess is probably as good as mine when that will be. I mean, there are dates that are constantly being thrown out by theaters both on and Off-Broadway, but I don’t know whether anyone can say with any kind of absolute certainty when theater will open up. I think it is dependent on whether there will be a vaccine.

How about “MJ the musical?”

MJ is in the same suspended place until COVID passes. I know there have been dates thrown out, but we are really dependent on Nature, which is an unpredictable place to be. I am confident that as soon as Broadway gets to go ahead then we will begin rethinking about remounting it, but there is nothing we can do until then.
We were very fortunate that we have super supportive producers who are investing in ensuring that the production team stays together. At the time that we would have gone into production we were able to do a virtual workshop of the piece all the way through. Hearing it out loud was super helpful. Based on that, we were able to make some tweaks. But musicals are very specific animals, unlike plays, that require work actually be done in the rehearsal space. So it is hard to do a lot of rewriting without actually physically being in rehearsal.

You seem to be very busy these days.

It is a different kind of busy-ness, because if COVID had not happened, I would have been immensely busy with rehearsal and mounting shows. I would have been doing MJ throughout the summer and then moving into the Fall I would have been working on my new show at Second Stage. But none of that happened, and so I have to refocus the way in which I used my time. So I am still busy but in a different kind of way.

I have lots of little things that I’m doing, which has been nice. I mean it is definitely one way to keep connected to my craft and to keep connected to my community. It’s something that I have done within this time to find various ways to continue to work on quote unquote ‘theater” and to collaborate with people and to stay engaged with my community, and I think during COVID we are constantly looking for ways to connect and ways to keep our artistic practice alive and so I have said yes to lots of little things and yes to some bigger things.

Including the new commission for a play at the Vivian Beaumont. Any idea what that play will be about?

I just got the commission two weeks ago! A commission is just an invitation to develop something for the Vivian Beaumont stage, which as the press release mentioned is one of the largest stages in New York City . So it is an invitation for me as an artist and the others that were commissioned to think more expansively and to create work on a large-scale, which is not often what you are able to do in theater you know. Basically those of us who by and large have had careers Off-Broadway and regional theaters have had to be very mindful of the number of people we put on stage, and the size of the shows. So it is actually quite exciting to be able to think about filling that vast space.

Right before I got on the phone with you, you Tweeted this:
The covid quarantine paradox..That undefinable feeling of the walls closing you in as the universe demands more action.
Can you elaborate?

I am just talking about how in quarantine our world has been shrunken and because we are forced to dwell in a smaller space than we are used to, in a moment politically when it is demanded for us to be more engaged than any time I can think of in my lifetime. It feels very urgent that we be confronting what is happening in this country on multiple scales – what is happening politically, what is happeing economically, what is happening, racially, and it is a time when it feels like we should be outside. But we are told we must be inside, and it is this desire you know to be out in the open and campaigning and protesting at the same moment when someone who is my age has to be hyper-aware of the health consequences of being, you know, in the midst of folks.

Thanks for talking with me.

I hope we all get to be back in theater again.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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