One of Tennessee’s treasured playwrights, Claudia Barnett, and I sit across from one another at a Starbucks. Offering to buy my chai tea latte, her piercing hazel eyes sparkle as she pulls out a gift card. I hesitate, albeit briefly, before saying yes and her already generous smile broadens. She likes giving me this gift.
Talking with her is easy and warm, like Claudia herself. She’s thoughtful and gently animated. She speaks as clearly as she thinks and is somehow humble in spite of having a CV over five pages long as a testament to her career as a professor and playwright.
Claudia is on what she calls a “half-sabbatical” from teaching at MTSU where she’s enjoyed more than two decades as a professor. She calls it thus because she’s still teaching and advising students part time. In January she applied for, and was chosen as, a Fellow for the inaugural season of the Tennessee Playwrights Studio New Play Development Lab at the Darkhorse Theatre in Nashville. TPS looks for strong, brave, fierce voices under the direction of Guild member Kenley Smith.
I sip my latte. It tastes especially sweet.
C. Kay Andy Landis: What motivated you to apply for this fellowship?
Claudia Barnett: I saw your post on the Dramatists Guild – TN Chapter Facebook page and applied because I needed a deadline. Without a deadline, it’ll take me twice as long to finish my first draft.
CKL: So the timing was –
CB: Perfect! Once a month we’ll have actors reading our pages which is essential for me. I don’t know if I’ve written drivel, you know. It might be drivel but I won’t know it until I’ve heard it come out of the mouth of actors. I’ve been working on this play for a long time and now I’m motivated to finish.
CKL: Do you want to share what your current play is about?
CB: It’s called Kingdom: A play about Snow White and Climate Change. It’s about Snow White –
CKL: – and climate change.
We both smile. How can we not?
CB: I like spectacle, challenging sets and impossible stage directions. This play’s no different.
She sips from her cup of tea.
CKL: Do you consider yourself an academic first or a playwright front and center?
CB: I always felt odd calling myself a playwright.
CKL: Odd? Why?
CB: I did academic criticism for such a long time. Actually, I didn’t define myself as a playwright until 2009 when I was writing a book about Tony Kushner and realized about half way through that I was putting all my time into his plays instead of my own. My friend Lesley Ferris, a professor at Ohio State, pointed this out to me. Besides, Kushner doesn’t need me to write about him. He’s doing just fine without my help.
CKL: (laughing) That’s probably true.
CB: Definitely. (grinning) I love teaching. I’m passionate about my students knowing both the plays and the playwrights. I invite professional writers to come speak with them and I want my students to think of themselves as playwrights from day one. In fact, I begin all my emails to them with “Dear Playwright.” But I also, very much so, define myself as a playwright.
CKL: You’re a prolific writer, so why plays?
CB: I have a quiet life. I teach, I hang out with my husband, I walk my dog and I write. When I write plays I know I’ll be seeing my work come to life through the energy of other people – and that’s magical. There’s incredible beauty that goes way beyond writing that happens in the theatre. I’ve written for literary publications, scholarly articles and reviews, and it’s rewarding. But there’s nothing else like theatre.
CKL: Why is theatre itself important?
CB: (she looks down, takes a breath.) In theatre we share a common human experience. We have opportunity for intelligent debate and discussion. It brings out the best in us because theatre reminds us to be civilized. Yes, it’s important. (she smiles) Aristotle probably had something to say about that.
CKL: (smiling, too) Next step?
CB: Hopefully, Kingdom will get produced. Seeing it staged would be incredible but I’m not focusing on getting a production for the moment. I’m focusing, happily, on writing.
Claudia’s half-sabbatical is going positively. In fact, I don’t think she feels odd about calling herself a playwright anymore.
To find out more about Claudia Barnett visit: www.ClaudiaBarnett.net. For more about Tennessee Playwrights Studio go to: tnplaywrights.org.