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1100 Playwright Interviews

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Mar 12, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 723: Nina Louise Morrison

Nina Louise Morrison

Hometown: White Plains, NY

Current Town: Newburyport, MA

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I am devising a play with Project: Project about a folklorist who, while researching an obscure Grimm's Fairy Tale, falls Alice-like into the story of The Boy Who Went Forth To Learn How To Shiver. It's been such a fun process to work with my four brilliant collaborators; we improvise, visualize, physicalize, and invent new ways of working every time we meet. The Grimm's story is about a boy who can't feel fear, and our protagonist is a woman with a lot of fears – so we have done a lot of research and development around fear, work/creativity and gender, and unlocking your own creative mojo – and it’s a story about storytelling, so it’s pretty meta. It's been a total dream to get to work as an ensemble to devise this play for a year and a half. And there will be puppets! I'm also directing a play at Mount Ida College – Jonathan Rand’s Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit. I have really been enjoying mentoring my team of enthusiastic assistant directors and stage managers there. I’m planning for the Mad Dash, a 24-hour play festival produced by Fresh Ink Theatre and Interim Writers. And I’m working on my own writing of course, but I’m at the beginning stages of a couple of things that are so early in the process I’m not ready to talk about them. But I’m writing every day, which is a new thing that has been really great.

Q:  Tell me about the fellowship program at Huntington.

A:  I go see all the productions, attend special events, and we meet every couple of weeks. The Huntington is a big institution, with big resources, the most important of which to me is the people – the fellows and the literary staff – they're all incredibly smart and also hilarious. It’s a really honest, challenging and supportive environment to be developing work. There are opportunities for readings and workshops, and many alums have had their work produced by the Huntington. But being produced by the Huntington isn’t the goal of the program - developing our writing is really the focus, and for me just being around productions on that scale is exciting. And my cohorts are incredibly brave, smart, and kind of on fire right now, so it’s totally inspiring to get to hang out with them and talk about writing. I just saw The Second Girl which had a gorgeous and incredibly detailed kitchen set with a working sink and the smell of cooking bacon wafting out into the audience. It’s always a little bit of a miracle to be able to sit in the audience and be reminded that new plays need not necessary be built for shoestring budgets. So I think the fellowship will push me to dream a little bit bigger and bolder.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I was always performing as a kid, and I wanted to be an actor – my father was an acting teacher. I think I was about eight or nine and I saw some of my fathers’ students perform at the New Actors Workshop. I was so energized by the performers and the emotional risks they were taking - I particularly remember a man delivering a monologue sweating and spitting, you know, like really emoting. I have no idea what it was about, or whether he was good or bad, I probably didn’t know then either. But afterwards I stood alone on the stage in the dark in the red glow of the exit sign and kind of had a moment where I was like I want to be an actor, I want to take this seriously. And then I went home and wrote a poem about it! I recognize that moment now as not - aha, I want to be an actor - so much as aha, I want to be seen, and I want to be heard like that, I want to almost sing my feelings at that level - and then my actual method for doing that was to write about it. I think the writing impulse came because I identified with this male protagonist, but I wondered even then – where are the parts for women where they get to swear and sweat and spit? So it was as much as wanting to be seen and understood as it was about wanting to expand the possible narratives I could identify with – this complex mix of empathizing with the “other,” wanting to share some authentic self, and to be able to imagine myself as a woman with agency. I did end up training as an actor in college and at the National Theatre Institute, but as I was doing that I began to fall in love with cold reading new plays, so similar to the adrenaline rush of improvisation. Playwriting has become a method for both questioning existence and celebrating it at the same time. And it allows me to listen to and see others who are crying out to be heard and seen.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  5050 in 2020. http://theatrewomen.org/programs/5050-in-2020-parity-for-women-theatre-artists/

Playwrights can’t create in a vacuum - they need great collaborators in order to be great. And female writers have historically been excluded, marginalized and misunderstood, a fact I must acknowledge but not allow to hinder my own impulse to create. Because I do have hope – for my own career, and for the future. I believe strongly in the next generation of theatre makers, critics and leaders, and that the biases of previous generations will gradually fade out. I love teaching because my students want to know the why and how of everything – it means I can’t stay complacent – not in my teaching or in my writing practice.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Go to the theatre. Observe deeply, question everything, dream bigger than you think possible. Be proud of your rejections because it means you’re doing the work of putting yourself out there. And be good to people – to your collaborators of course, but also your family (that you make or are born into), and yourself. The same people who came to your shows and brought you flowers when you were young are the people who will be important supporters of you and your work when you are older. Develop your patience, let go of past failures, keep redefining your own success. Ask for what you need. Cultivate relationships with people you can trust to read your work and give you both encouragement and smart constructive feedback. Feed your curiosity; write about the things you wish you knew. Read everything out loud, including the stuff you scrawl in the margins that you think is nothing – keep listening to the stuff you write that you think is nonsense – you never know what it might be, it may be where something important and authentic lies hidden. Write towards the scary, ugly, lumpy stuff. Make up your own writing exercises. And definitely make your own list of advice just like this one: then try to live up to your own advice!

I wrote a blog for GrubStreet about the three things I can’t live without as a playwright. https://grubstreet.org/grub-daily/three-essential-ingredients-for-being-a-playwright/

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Project: Project's SHIVER will go up at Boston Playwrights Theatre in June, 2015! http://www.projectprojecttheatre.com

The Mad Dash https://24hpf.wordpress.com

More about Nina: http://ninalouisemorrison.wordpress.com

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