Dec 10, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 293: Jennifer Barclay
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Current Town: San Diego, CA. I came here to get my MFA at UC San Diego, and my husband and I fell in love with the California life.
But my Artistic Home is still Chicago, where I lived for 10 wonderful years. It's the place that fostered my early career both as an actor and as a playwright, and I think of it as my artistic home away from home. So far, I've been fortunate to get to go back there lots for workshops and productions of my plays.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Two plays, a feature screenplay, and a TV pilot.
Writing in three genres at once sometimes creates a pressure-cooker in my brain (like now, when the deadlines are closing in), but for the most part I find it incredibly stimulating and healthy to have several balls in the air. I'm learning constantly about how to be a better story teller, and about all the visual and verbal tools I have at my disposal.
I started developing my play, QUARRY, while I was the Playwright in Residence at South Coast Repertory last year. It's set in Chicago against the background of northside gentrification and Cabrini Green relocation. My feature screenplay, THE RIGHT TRACK, is my first romantic comedy. TAKE TWO is my new pilot-- it's my first sitcom, and one of the most challenging things I've ever tried to write. And I've been developing a community-based play with the Old Globe about the foster system called EMANCIPATED. It's one of the most rewarding projects I've ever been a part of. I've had the chance to get to know 4 amazing young adults who went through the system, and who've been brave enough to let me interview them and share their stories on stage.
And, other than writing: my husband and I are on a quest to explore all the National Parks in California. So far we've done 7 of the 9. After that, we'll move onto other states...
Q: How would you characterize Chicago theater?
A: Nurturing, stimulating, and grounded. I feel it's incredibly open and welcoming to people who are hard-working and ready to collaborate and create. Part of that is the wealth of opportunities (over 200 theatre companies, constantly buzzing), and part of that is how easy it is to live there. Granted, you have to deal with the biting winters, but you don't have to work tons of hours in a day job to afford a nice apartment, time to do your art, and a pretty high quality of life. It's a place where, I've found, many theatre artists go out of their way to help others. Big theatres like Steppenwolf and Goodman not only co-produce with smaller companies, but their artistic staffs also help to make collaborative connections between emerging artists. For the most part, Chicago theatre people are game-- ready to take a risk and open up their doors, while still maintaining incredibly high standards. The theatre community is highly visible and clearly prized in the city. This, combined with its affordability, make productions accessible to a wide range of pretty diverse audiences.
Q: Tell me about Vienna.
A: Oh, Vienna. After graduating from Northwestern, I backpacked through Europe for 6 months on my own. Chicago veteran actor Greg Vinkler had told me about this great English speaking theatre company in Vienna, the International Theatre, and so when I was there I knocked on their door and asked if I could do a monologue for them. A few months later they had an opening in their company, so I moved there for a little while and performed the now-and-forever classic THE MOUSETRAP on weekends, and my one-woman show CLEARING HEDGES on off-nights. The company had a gorgeous apartment and a bike for me to use, and I used to go for rides down the Danube. I taught English for extra cash, learned enough German to order damn fine breads and coffees from the cafes and bakeries, saw the opera for $3, and took weekend road trips to Hungary and Italy. It was heaven.
Q: What could a student in your playwriting class at UCSD expect?
A: It's important to me to base a class in not only lots of reading of plays, but also in seeing as many productions as possible so that the students can constantly be reminded that it's a three-dimensional collaborative art, not just a literary one. Luckily, at UCSD, that's easy because there are several productions a week. I think it's essential to foster an atmosphere in the class which is completely supportive and collaborative; where students feel free to take risks and share their constructive feedback. I owe lots of my teaching techniques to my wonderful mentor, Naomi Iizuka.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was 5, I woke up in the middle of the night, padded downstairs, and announced to my parents that I was changing my name to Micky. When I was 7, I decided I wanted to be a boy, cut off my waist-length hair and renamed myself Chris. And when I was 9, I went up to the front of my fourth-grade class to announce that they should call me Fisher from now on. I've always felt the right and ability to reinvent myself; such an American sensibility. Now, through acting and playwriting, I get to keep trying to reinvent myself over and over again-- while still keeping my old common, feminine, given name.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: More new plays, less Shakespeare.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The wickedly talented and generous teachers I've been so lucky to have, including David Downs, Allan Havis, Karl Gajdusek, Adele Shank and Naomi Iizuka.
My other theatrical heroes include Chekhov, Shepard, Pinter, Albee, Stoppard, Kushner, Steppenwolf, and the Donmar Warehouse.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Juicy, raw, surprising. Dark plays with a twisted sense of humor. Balls-to-the-wall acting. Stories which un-peel new meaning with each revealed layer, and leave me stewing for days or months or years after leaving the theatre.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: See lots of plays and set aside strict hours for writing. Find collaborators you love, stick with them, and organize your own readings so you can hear your work out loud. Don't get too hung up on one play; keep plunging forward. And this career requires a lot of stamina; make sure you surround yourself with people you love, and a life that inspires you.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My play, FREEDOM, NY, will have its world premiere at Teatro Vista in Chicago May14 - June 12, directed by Joe Minoso.
For updates on my work and to check out my favorite fiction writer (my husband), my favorite potter (my mother) and my favorite photographer (my father), check out our family's website: