Playwright Interview: Claire Willett
Trisha Mead digs into the writing process of 4-time Fertile Ground playwright Claire Willett, author of Artists Rep’s featured festival project Dear Galileo.
Dear Galileo by Claire Willett
Directed by Stephanie Mulligan
Venue: Artists Repertory Theatre, Morrison Stage, 1515 SW Morrison, Portland OR 97205
Festival Dates: Jan 21 @ 2pm; Jan 23 @ 7:30pm
Tickets: Pay What You Will; $10 suggested donation | 503.241.1278
Three women in three different times wrestle with their identity, the conflict between science and religion, and what it means to be their fathers’ daughters. In Renaissance Italy, Celeste Galilei lives under house arrest with her elderly father Galileo, the disgraced astronomer who wants to defy the Pope yet again by publishing one last book. In a small town in Texas, creationist author and TV pundit Robert Snow is at a loss when his 10-year-old daughter Haley’s newfound passion for science begins to pull her away from the Biblical teachings of her upbringing. And in Swift Trail Junction, Arizona, home of the Vatican Observatory’s U.S. outpost, New York sculptor Cassie Willows arrives to find that her estranged father, world-renowned astrophysicist Jasper Willows, has gone missing. As the three stories move toward their point of convergence, the destinies of each become inextricably bound with the others, linked through time by love, family, grief, faith and the search for identity. Cast includes Portland favorites David Bodin, Adrienne Flagg, Chris Harder and Gilberto Martin del Campo. Join us for a post-show talkback after each show with the playwright and director, moderated by Mead Hunter.
Trisha Asks, Claire Answers
Give me your one-sentence thesis statement for what kind of work you like to create.
Funny and moving stories about messy, complicated people trying to figure out the big stuff in life – faith, grief, family, love, identity – and occasionally really screwing it up along the way.
Four years, four festival projects. What keeps you inspired to create new work?
I still have so many more stories I want to tell, and different creative leaps I want to take. Every play I write, I get a little braver, more willing to take a risk. When that clump of half-formed thoughts rattling around in your brain finally coalesces into the beginning of a real story idea, you just want to keep running down that path as fast as you can to see where it’s going to end up, and you won’t know until you get there. And the best thing about Fertile Ground is that it gives you a new goal every year. As soon as this year’s festival ends I know I have a year to write my next year’s play. It pushes me to keep writing, to always have a couple ideas on deck and to be writing all the time. I’m so grateful for that.
Do you feel you’ve discovered your ideal audience? Describe the typical/perfect audience member for a Claire Willett play.
I’m Catholic, so there’s a very Catholic sensibility to my writing, even when I’m not writing about religion (though I often do). And I love, love, love using theatre to sort of invite people who don’t define themselves as religious to enter into that world. I wrote a play 2 years ago about monks, where one of the major plot points had to do with somebody going to Confession, and after the show one of my best friends, who is completely non-religious, was like, “I TOTALLY want to go to Confession now. It sounds RAD.” Those are my favorite moments. People leave a little bit different than they came in – those are the perfect audience members. If you get a handful of those, you’re lucky.
I think of myself as the Fertile Ground poster child. Without the resources available through this festival – the shared marketing, the visibility, being under the umbrella of a larger organization with all that entails – I can reach an audience I could never have found otherwise. I’d just be in my living room doing readings for my friends. But now I feel like I’m building a bit of a regular audience. People who follow theatre stuff in Portland are starting to know who I am a little bit. There are Portland theatregoers who have seen all four of my shows. They don’t know me, they just found me in the Fertile Ground catalog that first year and liked what they saw and kept coming back. I hope I give them a better show every year.
Think about the writer you were four years ago. What advice would today’s Claire give four-years-ago Claire about creating new work and participating in Fertile Ground?
Child, you have trust issues. It won’t kill you to let someone read a first draft before you think everything is perfectly polished. It won’t kill you to put the script in a director’s hands and then WALK AWAY. Relax.
Also, your smartest audience member and reader will be your dad.
You had the opportunity to complete your current festival project with the help of a month-long writer’s retreat. Tell us about that experience. Do you feel it impacted what you chose to create?
It was AMAZING. I’m used to writing from 10 at night until 2 in the morning, because with two jobs, that was the time I had. But with a whole month of uninterrupted days stretching ahead, I wrote completely differently. I could take time. I could do research. I could sit with an idea until it fully germinated. I could sit in my studio with a pot of coffee and read all of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in one day and take notes, and then spend the whole day just re-reading and thinking about those notes. I wasn’t writing in a rush, or with the phone ringing, or with a tiny chunk of time in between a million things to do. I felt free and expansive and I think the writing is freer and more expansive because of that. I think people who have seen my other plays will feel the difference in this one. I had time to get everything right the first time, to take it slow.
This is the first year you are not having to self-produce your project. What does it mean to you to be selected as one of Artists Rep’s Fertile Ground projects this year? What opportunities has it created?
Having the stamp of approval of the city’s second-largest theatre company makes a huge difference. It will change how the script is perceived when I start shopping it out to theatres for production. It’s already changed my media and press visibility. Being Artists Rep’s project kicks me a major step up the ladder in terms of how much attention a project gets. It gives you access to a whole new audience. For my last three projects, it was all on me. I did all my own press and marketing. I made the programs. I paid actors out of my own bank account. I set up and took down chairs every night. I tore my own tickets at the door. Year One we were in a tiny music studio with room for like 30 chairs. Year Two we were at Jim & Patty’s Coffee, and the night baking shift came on around the beginning of Act II, so oven beeps and delicious cookie smells were constantly wafting over the counter. Year Three we were in an honest-to-God warehouse; the actors hung out “offstage” in a room full of table saws. A theatre with real seats feels like a crazy luxury. And not just any theatre, but Artists Rep, where I used to work. It’s like the theatrical equivalent of that great first love you never get over. I know these people. I wrote grants for them, I ran around carrying cases of wine in high heels at opening nights, I edited playbills and staffed photo shoots and stuffed envelopes. Being back there not as an administrator but as an artist – and working with some of my favorite former colleagues like Stephanie Mulligan and Carol Ann Wohlmut – is indescribable.
When I first started writing plays for Fertile Ground, most of the Portland theatre world knew me as a grantwriter, and I kept waiting for someone to point at me and accuse me of being a fraud. “She can’t be an artist, she’s an arts administrator!” But nobody did. It was like, “Oh, you also do this thing too? Awesome.” Just immediately accepted. It was only me that felt like I wasn’t enough of an artist to sit at the cool kids’ table; nobody else was looking at me that way. People root for each other here, in a genuine and non-clique-y way. It’s really inspiring.
The big difference, to be quite frank, is legitimacy. I don’t want to be a scrappy DIY-er self-producing in warehouses forever. I had a low point last year around this time, where I just hit a wall – as we all do from time to time – because I had written what I thought was a really awesome play with my writing partner Gilberto Martin del Campo, and we were really proud of it, but we kept applying for all these grants and opportunities and it was no after no after no after no. And one night I just lost it. I kept thinking, “If I’m secretly really terrible at this and it’s never going to go anywhere, I just want someone to TELL me so I don’t keep breaking my heart over it.” I just wanted ONE institution to put their stamp of approval on something that I wrote – a fellowship, a grant, a professional reading, a real review, anything – so I didn’t feel like I was just a “hobby” playwright who was never going to go anywhere. I was stuck in neutral, waiting for a sign that I had what it takes to be a real writer. I was closer to throwing in the towel than I’ve ever been. And then the very next day I got an email that said I had been picked as the 2010-2011 Oregon Literary Fellow for Drama. So I guess the moral of the story is, all that crap people always say about it being darkest before the dawn is actually really true. I asked for a sign, and I got one. I just had to keep pushing through.
What’s next year’s Claire Willett Fertile Ground project?
Well, hopefully Dear Galileo again, as a real production. That’s the dream. And then maybe if it’s done in time, you’ll also get to see the postmodern chamber opera inspired by Norse mythology that I’m co-writing with a terrific L.A.-based composer named Evan Lewis.
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Click here for more information about the show.
Click here to listen to Claire’s recent Stage & Studio radio interview about the project.
Click here to read Claire’s blog about the writing process from her summer writing residency.
Click here for a video of Claire reading excerpts from the play.
Click here for more information about Claire.