This is a Q&A with Rita Anderson about her play-writing, we’ve previously talked to her about her poetry.
Why was it important to return to school for an MA Playwriting?
In 2011, I entered grad school a second time—this time for theatre, and I was a frustrated actor. Yes, I’d been voted “Best Actor” in high school, but I followed my parents’ advice not to pursue acting in college. Although Mom and Dad did not pay for college, I knew they were right that, with an impossible 1% employment rate, a life in theatre was nearly as improbable as was flying to the moon without a rocket. At the time, I thought I had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than at “succeeding” in a career that revolved around my deepest passion. But the urge to make art and to do theatre never left me. [I did get a lead in a show at my undergraduate university, and I was the only non-major to be cast; plus, I wrote my first full-length play (that I let exactly no one read, not ever—and I’ve since lost the play) while working for Dr. John S. Scott, an African-American playwright and the Playwright in Residence at the college.
This trend continued so that, even after earning an MFA Creative Writing, I made my money outside the arts, but I kept dipping my big toe in theatre and I performed with community theatre in three states. Finally, sometime around 2009, I hit a wall with the way I had “monstered” my life. Here I was trying to juggle that which I had to do (the money jobs) to survive, and the creative work that gave me life and made the blood run wildly through my veins, but I was miserable. I longed to devote my life to art, but I didn’t have the guts to risk it.
Oddly enough, it was adversity itself that made me return to school for my first love, the theatre. I, an actor, had just been rejected for the umpteenth time by a local theatre who not-so-secretly pre-cast the best roles with their cadre of cronies. Unfortunately, a lot of theatres do this, but what was worse is that the plays were all written by men. The casts were typically like 5M, 2W—and the few parts for women were sad, one-dimensional “bits.” Roles which were nothing more than parsley on the plate, an afterthought, something pretty that you don’t like and can’t really use. And that’s when I had my Gandhi moment: I need to go back to school to learn to write plays for women, the kinds of roles I’d love to play. If not me, then who? If not now, then when?
I’d like to wrap all this up in a pretty bow and end by saying that grad school was a breeze, and that the seas parted and welcomed me in, but none of that is true. Still, I attended six theatre conferences where I made some great connections, I won a few awards, and I even published a play before graduating. Regardless of what did and did not happen within that grad school time frame, I am worlds happier now doing what I love best and what I think I’m pretty good at doing—writing for a living.
When did you get ‘serious’ about playwriting? Was there a particular flashbulb moment or a time period?
The world tends to think in extremes, polarities, binaries. On, off. Here, there. Now, never. Male or female. Books or sports. But I am a poet and a playwright, simultaneously, and both genres have always existed as outlets for me, extensions of myself, and they are equal, integral parts of who I am. In trying to explain this, I can only say that my artistic identity is not a matter of “either/or” but I am “both/and.” –To answer this question now, however, strictly for playwriting, I’ll say that as a child I wrote plays that my sisters and the neighbor children performed in the family garage and, later, I wrote the variety shows that these same children (I think, “pool of actors”) performed at the summer neighborhood picnic. Then in high school, I was asked to write skits for school assemblies to pump up the students for the annual candy bar fundraiser and the like. Also, since I went to a pretty progressive high school, I could even do skits and perform as alternative assessments for some class projects, which I loved and always took advantage of, if such were offered. Currently, I am happier to be the invisible author offstage or behind the scenes, and I rarely perform myself. Except, of course, at the occasional karaoke party. Karaoke is one of my most favorite guilty pleasures.
How do you go about editing?
First, let’s remember that with “all things writing,” we’re given “tools, not rules.”
With that said, no, I don’t have a “hard and fast rule” about editing, but I do know that if you’re too critical too soon, you’ll never get anything written. If you’re “erasing” ideas before they’re fully formed or on the page, then it’s two steps forward and three steps back. Writing requires revision in order to shape thought, and how can you shape anything if you’ve already thrown the new idea out by being your own worst enemy? While developing a critical eye is necessary for a professional writer, you must first allow yourself to take chances with your writing or there’s no growth in the art or the artist.
When I taught English and tried to explain the critical process of editing to my students, I gave them the analogy of the Surgeon and the Patient to explain the roles of or the relationship between Editor and Writer. But, all writers must develop both of these roles or skills. For example, your play is the Patient, a character you must create and fully-develop. Once the Patient/Play (full of characters) is ready to edit, the Surgeon enters and examines the Patient to identify the areas that need to be “operated on,” but the Surgeon must be skillful, and it’s only with expert handling that she can do her work and still keep the Patient alive.
Rita Anderson, an award-winning playwright and poet, has an MFA Creative Writing and an MA Playwriting. She went on scholarship to The O’Neill, and Frantic is the Carousel was the National Partners American Theatre (NAPAT) nominee and one of three full-length plays that earned Rita the Ken Ludwig Playwriting Award, the top national prize The Kennedy Center awards for “Best Body of Work.” Rita has had 50 productions and 100 publications to include Early Liberty, a “Best-Selling Play” for the international publisher, and two books of poetry: The Entropy of Rocketman, and Watched Pots (A Lovesong to Motherhood), both of which have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Rita is a member of the B. Iden Payne Arts Council, but the highlight of her emerging career so far was serving on a playwriting panel with Christopher Durang. Contact Rita through her website or find her online on Twitter.