Theatre is an inherently social artform, depending on collaboration and communication, so it’s not surprising that playwrights have found difficulty during these isolating times. One playwright has had no such problems.
I caught up with DC Area playwright Bob Bartlett, the writer of such works as the multiple Helen-Hayes-nominated Swimming with Whales (1st Stage), E2 (Rep Stage), and The Accident Bear (The Avenue Laundromat). There’s something inspiring about his attitude when he says, “These days, I’m not writing with production as a destination, and I may have convinced myself this way of thinking and creating will make me a more interesting writer.”
Randy Baker: Every time I hear from you, it seems like you’re working on something new! What are some of the projects you’re working on right now?
Bob Bartlett: Well, at the moment, I have a mini-stack of full-lengths I’ve written since COVID which I’m pitching with bits of interest here and there: Union, a provocative historical fiction chronicling Walt Whitman’s years living and loving in Washington, DC during the Civil War, and The Regular about a war vet driving across the country in her RV while writing a “foodie” blog about the great American diner. A production of my three-hander romcom REM’s Cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Wall of Death Sucks, was set for production this fall in a lovely record store in downtown Annapolis, but the COVID resurgence has pushed it into the new year. It seems I’m always working on more than one project—whatever has my attention from day to day.
Randy Baker: Your play set in a record store makes me think about a couple other works you’ve done. Just before the pandemic, you wrote a play that was performed in a laundromat (The Accident Bear) and last year you created that beautiful play performed around a backyard firepit (Three Strangers Sitting Around a Backyard Firepit at Two in the Morning Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska). What draws you to site-specific work?
Bob Bartlett: I’ve always loved site-specific work. There’s something primal about the connection between performance/story and audience when theatre is shared in a field or in the middle of the woods or in a vacant storefront or warehouse. With E.M. Lewis, an extraordinary playwright, this summer I co-wrote a site-specific Zoom web series, Duck Harbor, which was produced by 1st Stage here in the Washington, DC area. We set out to capture as much of the live theatrical experience as possible: our two actors never met or rehearsed throughout the three-month run. They heard each other’s lines for the first time in performance each week. As theatre companies and buildings shut down in the last couple of years, site-specific theatre made even more sense to me. There’s something that I don’t trust about theatre produced in multi-million-dollar spaces. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt welcomed into those spaces or places, as an artist or patron. I’ve always been more excited about found spaces and poor theatre: the body, the actor, language and action, and spectator – together in a room, or not.
Randy Baker: These past eighteen months have affected creative minds in different ways. While some writers have had a hard time finding inspiration, you seem to be thriving. What motivates you these days?
Bob Bartlett: It certainly isn’t the promise of production. I guess, you know, writing and creating keep me sane. I’ve come to terms with who I am as a writer. I guess I’ve convinced myself that I do this for me. I enjoy writing, and the struggle of it all, which doesn’t frustrate or anger me. Some folks wake every day and play video games or build puzzles; I make up stories.
Randy Baker: Do you feel like the pandemic has influenced your work? Has it influenced your writing habits?
Bob Bartlett: Oh, yes. I’ve always lived a mostly solitary life, which works for me, so locking down wasn’t a big deal. However, six or so months into COVID, I decided to put down the wine bottle, which I had believed to be a vital part of my writing process. That was a lie. I’m healthier, and a stronger and more productive writer without the three or so glasses of wine a night. While I’m still a writer who writes in coffee shops and museums, and seeks inspiration in travels and adventures, I’m more at peace writing at home. Thank you, COVID.