I had been waiting for thirty minutes, fidgeting with my phone in fear he would not show. I was seated in Joe, a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan, waiting to meet with the playwright that New York Time’s theatre critic, Ben Brantley, describes as “extravagantly gifted”, Tarell Alvin McCraney. Surely the man senses must have seized him and caused him to realize he can’t devote an hour to the three readers of The Ecstatic Flash in the melée of previews of the New York debut of his play, right?
McCraney may be a MacArthur-Genius-Grant-receiving, Doris-Duke-Award-winning tour de force, but he is above all a gracious and graceful human being: he was simply running late because he’d gone the wrong way. It says a lot about his temperament that he carved almost an hour to sit and chat with me about his life while the production of his play, Head of Passes, starring Phylicia Rashad was in the throes of previews. Show up he did, if a fitted maroon sweater, with chambray collar peaking out just so from beneath the crew-neck, topped with a pristine pea coat in very civilized navy.
Head of Passes, directed by frequent McCraney collaborator, Tina Landau, is currently running at The Public Theatre in New York (March 28th – April 24th, 2016). NYT’s Brantley rightly raved about the production and the “surprises [it has] in store — and not just of plot but of tone and structure that make the patience-taxing conventions of the first act worth sitting through”. The play, inspired by the book of Job, is a rumination on tribulation as lived through a matriarch, Shelah (played by with impassioned yet meditative vivacity by Rashad), and her gallant grappling with grace as life literally caves in around her.
McCraney is himself no stranger to trial or to grace. Initially laconic in his responses, the immaculately-dressed gentleman’s paucity of words at the beginning of our interaction gave way to a flow of inspiring personal truths and stories about art, creativity, self-doubt, faith and the way of grace.
TEF: So tell me, who is Tarell Alvin McCraney
Tarrel Alvin Mcraney: [Laughs]. I have no idea. All I know is that I was born in Miami. I grew up in New York, sometimes LA, sometimes in Chicago, a few times in London. Yea. I write plays. I do that, and I teach at the university of Miami
What do you teach at the university of Miami?
Playwriting. It’s mad simple. Acting too sometimes.
Do you act at all?
What’s your educational background?
I went to a performing arts high school and I then went to undergrad at [The Theatre School at] DePaul University. I majored in acting.
Was performing arts high school your parents idea?
No, no: it was my idea.
Really? So have you always existed in a creative space and identified as a creative person?
Oh yea, yea, yea. Someone asked me the other day, when did you start working? When did you start performing?” I was like “That’s a really tricky question!” My earliest memories are of performing, since 5 years old. Even though I did not grow up in wealthy family —in fact I grew up in the opposite of a wealthy family; I grew up in a pretty impoverished family (particularly on my mothers side)—somehow I was still able to eke out a really practical education in the arts.
That’s particularly interesting given that notion that the arts— the classical arts— are indulged in and enjoyed by people of privilege
It is, and understandably so. Although, it’s a privilege that we all need to be afforded, it is a privilege. In terms of what parents think of as necessary for children, we know [the arts don’t] provide any needs: it doesn’t feed your kids, it doesn’t make sure that they have shelter. But, it’s a need in terms of their imagination and their growth as human beings: its necessary. Somehow, I got a really great education in the arts. Mostly because there were a lot of social contracts that I sort of wandered myself into as a kid.
Given your great education it the arts, I imagined you dabbled in more than theatre in your youth. What other modalities of art were you involved in growing up?
We had all kinds of classes. I was acting always. At about 14, my mother was in rehab, and in the rehabilitation center there was a new director of prevention for students and in that program they wanted to do theatre outreach. So, this new director who had studied avant-garde theatre started a guerilla theatre group of students who would go into the community and do agitprop or preventative theatre. And it was a crazy experience because he was teaching us things he had just learned. He was showing us Augusto Boal, and Peter Brook, and Jerzy Grotowsky. It doesn’t sound profound but when you are teaching it to 13 or 14 year olds who come from the inner city…
By the time I got to undergrad, they were like, here is this thing you’ve probably never heard of”and I was like, oh I’ve done this! I’ve heard this! “ [This exposure] coupled with the fact that I did go to a performing arts high school where I was learning Stanislavsky and Chekov, it was just really well-versed education. I also started learning dance there. I had to take singing unfortunately. We had to take visual arts courses. By the time I got to undergrad, I had had a really solid base. And in undergrad I would still take dance classes outside of school, learn religious arts, and then take the conservatory program at the Goodwin School of Theatre at Depaul. And then when I left DePaul, I decided I wanted to focus on playwriting specifically. It was the one thing I felt like I didn’t have a formal enough education in. In the summers I would come here [to New York] and study at the Ailey School, dancing.
Are you still dancing at all?
I take class. I wouldn’t consider myself a dancer but yea, I do take class.
It’s brilliant that you make time to take class with your hectic schedule.
It rarely happens. It happened more so when I first started rehearsal [for Head of Passes].
Do you find that there is in any crossover between your dance education and your work as a playwright?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I am only interested in what the bodies can do in space and sometimes…my plays are more structured like ballets than they are plays. I probably see more dance than I do theatre. I am sure some people are like “I wish he would see more plays.”
Is that shade to yourself?
I just know people who feel that the structure of plays should be in a very well made a b c order but something about dance feels more organic in storytelling. There is a something more naked in it.
I suppose in any art form there is the technique and structure right? One of the most profound things I recall one of my dance professors saying is you study technique so you can break free of it. So that you have that backbone that you can do whatever you want…
Yes that! But also, form and content crossover. What’s interesting is that we often try and silo what works in [one art form versus another]. So, you would, say, never try to make a Pointillism play. But that is not true. If you look at Brecht’s work or any other playwrights that wants to take moments that are really small and intimate and pick them apart so that when you stand back from them, [it is evident that form can crossover] and that it a worthy practice. So, just because the divertissement is [a feature of] ballet doesn’t mean it can’t exist in other forms [of art].
What inspires you to create?
It is very difficult to pinpoint. Inspiration is all around. You walk down the street and the way the sunlight hits a tree… The important thing about inspiration to is to grab it, feed it, and grow it. It’s difficult with busy schedules. Sometimes you are like, “Wait! Wait! Wait! I have to finish this first”
I know, rright? You want to scream “Holllllld! Why are you coming now? Where were you last week when I had nothing going on?
Exactly! [Laughs]. “Hollld” is a very good way to put it.
What is a your process like when you are writing a play?
I am always writing a play. It may not be on the page but I am always writing a play. You kind of just let things build around it—at least I do—I let things build about in my mind until I am like, “ok, I have to get this out. “ That normally happens when I know what the ending of the play is. You’ll just keep writing and writing and looking for it and I know won’t find it unless I already know it. Maybe I am just lazy, because it is exhausting in my head to seek where the piece is going, so the best way to get there is to know that’s what we are after so I can just fill in the blanks. When the imagination has filled the world , I can put it down; its difficult for me to fill the world on the page. My hand is not faster than the world that is being created at the same time.
What’s your favourite part about the playwriting process?
Collaboration. Its also the most nauseating [aspect] because you never know who you are actually collaborating with until its too late sometimes. You don’t know if someone is as eager to give in to process as you are or in what way they give in. People come to the table differently. It is thrilling. I am working with Phylicia Rashad now and I have never worked with someone who is just so generous and so hungry. In terms of how quickly she takes the information and runs with it, its just stunning.
I have worked with Tina Landau, [the director of Head of Passes], for a long time. We come from different backgrounds in terms of theatre,. She will tell you she grew up seeing Broadway shows with her family (her parents were in the industry). What is interesting is that we have very similar ways of working around the work. We are very courteous and kind of all in. But I’m also very much like oh, Tina is working so I can sit back now,” There’s a certain kind of protocol —a protocol that is organic — between us. We understand how we each need to work and have room for that. So that’s my favourite part: I like working with people
What’s your least favourite part?
My least favourite part is people trying to fix something about the work but not having any idea [how to fix it]. You are more than welcome not to like something, but if you are coming to me as the writer to say, “oh I didn’t like that”or “you need to fix it”, then let’s talk it through but people just sort of walk away. And so now what was the point? My feelings are hurt and nothing constructive came of this.
Do you think there is any such thing as constructive criticism?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I believe in it completely because. When people love something or have found their way into something, even if they don’t enjoy it per se, there is a way to say I wanted to be invited into this work like this or like that. One of my weak areas is visual art, I would say. I have a very crude understanding of visual art. I would see something and say “oh that’s nice” and move on. I am still learning how to take pieces in and how the gaze of visual art works but in that, even when I am not understanding something, I am there for the learning experience. I am there for “oh you are not taking this piece in correctly”, or “you walked away too fast. No, no, no stand here”. I am interested in that conversation. I think all art—especially by living artists—is living and so it is important that we live in it , that we handle it in different ways and that it affects us in different ways.
Switching gears a bit, let’s talk about Writer’s Block. Do you believe in it?
Sure. I believe writers get it. I certainly believe that there are times where you don’t know the answer to something. I have never had a paralyzing moment where I didn’t have anything to write: that I have never experienced. I am sure it happens but again, even if it may not be good, there is always something to write about. But I understand more the fear of people. There is a gripping fear people nurse, trying to write the best next something or other and I get that fear totally, but again, I’ve never had a moment where I have never had anything to write.
I find that to be really admirable advice. Another writer friend of mine mentioned a story about Dr. Dre. It was something to the effect of his secret to success is that he works everyday. It’s not always good work, but he works everyday nonetheless. And I believe it’s Isabelle Allende who said show up, show up, show up and eventually the muse shows up too.”…
Yea. Suzan Lori Parks says the same thing: just write until the end. I can’t remember the exact quote but Athol Fugard says the biggest censor in his life was not any government trying to stop his work but the time he had a fear of putting the pen to the page. He just stopped himself and he lost volumes of work that way.
Story of my life
We all live there, don’t worry. We all are in that terrible, terrible state together
Do you ever have feelings of self-doubt?
All the time. I have to go to therapy. I am extraordinary self-deprecating.; I doubt myself constantly. What I don’t doubt is that these stories are compelling, because I didn’t make them. There are no new stories anywhere. We have just been telling the same 26,32,28 stories all over the world in varying degrees. I also know that I usually don’t get to sit down to the page unless it feels like this is necessary. And I know that even if I get it out and it doesn’t work out in the way that I wanted it to, that’s not the point, the point is to get it out. And as I have seen with all of my work, somebody always doesn’t like it.
Speaking of not being able to please everybody, do you believe that how good something is can be measured by a set of codified parameters (i.e. that beauty is not a subjective determination.)
It’s complicated. We see it all the time with people’s idea of beauty and shifting what they find beautiful with time. I do think that there is a universality in the human condition that opens people’s understanding just a crack and as such they are able to let in more experiences; you know, that saying about making the familiar foreign or the foreign familiar. I am a Libra so unfortunately I’m ruled by Venus so beauty is a thing [I can separate from liking]. My friends get mad at me all the time because we will notice somebody who is really a not niece person. And I’m like “Yeah, they are not nice. They are beautiful, but they are not nice.” And they are like, ”Why do you keep saying that? They are not beautiful if they are not nice,” and I’m like “that doesn’t make any difference. They are physically appealing…I can’t turn that off. I’ve seen some really gorgeous or incredible pieces that I felt were not really great but found something about it that is appealing. So I don’t have that filter but I know some people do.
Do you have any favourite playwrights or plays?
I like the red letter plays but Suzan-Lori Parkes: Fucking A, In the blood . I don’t now if I have a favourite. If you go through the canons of people’s works, there are lots where I can go, I love that play, I love that play, I love that play. I don’t know if there is one I return to over and over again. I am sort of obsessed wit the Scottish play at present and Julius Caesar. I don’t know why.
I was very much obsessed with Julius Ceasar when I was in the 9th grade. I don’t know why either. I am always obsessed with the Scottish Play. You worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, did you not? What was that experience like?
It was an experience. I learned a lot. I was happy a lot. I was sad a lot. I was mad a lot. It was a life. It really does feel like a life, but one I would not trade for anything. I wish I had…gotten to know more people. I walked away with a few relationships there or from there. This guy named Tunji Kasim is one of my close friends and I love him to death. Michael Boyd: he was the former artistic director and I still adore him. Otherwise, I don’t have a lot of relationships there, mostly because many of those people left to be fair. For instance Jeanie O’hare became the head of Yale playwriting and then a guy named Jeremy who was producer there actually came to the Public [Theatre]. Anyway, the relationships there weren’t as strong as I would like or as I have had at other theatres but as for the impact of it, I can only pretend to guess what it will do and what it has done. I still think about moments and think, “ohhh now I know what that means.
And now your play, Head of Passes, is opening on the 28th of April at The Public. Tell me a bit about that.
Head of Passes was a commission from the Steppenwolf [theatre] and this production is a co-production between Berkley and The Public theatre, which has supported my work since before I was out of grad school, which has been incredible. It is a play that was inspired by the book of job. It takes place in the Head of Passes which as an area just south of Louisiana where the Mississippi river pours out in to the Golf of Mexico, on a slice of land which is shifting as we speak. It takes place on the night of Shelah’s birthday. She is not doing well and wants to gather her family to talk it through. A storm hits and the events of the night unfold. The play is dedicated to my grandmothers because it is a portrait—for lack of a better word—of how I have seen them engaged in faith especially when life’s perils hit. Its an and hour and forty minute piece and we are doing the best we can with it. I am really proud of it in a lot of ways; its terrifying in a lot of a ways. There are questions I don’t know the answer to.
McCraney’s Head of Passes, directed by Tina Landau and starring Phylicia Rashad, is currently running at The Public theatre and has been extended till April 24th, 2016. To purchase tickets, click here
Are you a man of faith yourself?
I am. I wrestle with faith. I don’t know how faith can be a stagnant thing. Life is changing in all the time. Your belief in things and the world around you has to shift a little. You try to be steadfast on something and then the ground underneath you slips and goes and then what do you believe in?
Is faith a constant theme in your work?
Both your grandmothers are named Grace. It’s a beautiful coincidence.
It’s amazng. Also both my grandfathers are named Alvin. So I carry the name Alvin because it’s a family name from both sides. So there is Grace and Grace and there is Alvin and Alvin, which is strange.
How would you define grace?
when I was taught the word grace it was the notion of grace of god: this ability to, no matter what, give to people to be generous to people, to have love for them no matter what . [Grace may] translate differently when we think about stature and physical presence. I have been called graceful all my life but I don’t find anything generous about my movement. I am shy so I constrict myself most of the time. But there is a pervading grace that we find within ourselves that is about space…I don’t know how to describe it…but allowing people into space. I was on the train coming down here and someone was taking up a lot of space and realized that they were doing so and so they moved in this way that was not perceptible, but they just moved so that people could come around them. That to me is graceful. That’s full of grace: the ability to just sort of allow and be and understand that I have my space but I am also going to allow us to be here together. I am not finding a clear definition
That is quite clear. The word “allowing” is quite poignant. In the film The Book of Life there is the line where he says there is “the way of nature and the way of grace.” I think of grace as accepting and allowing things, especially adversity, to also have their space.
Right. Because we have this ability to consciously fight and go against. In a way Consciousness in itself can be a way of going against. The fact that you know that there is sugar there already is identifying it, trying to hold it, trying to put parameters around it. But then, there is a way to use that consciousness to just allow the sugar to be there.
Precisely. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” right? (Alluding to Hamlet)
Yea. Absolutely. That’s great. That’s exactly it.
You are in previews now with Head of Passes, you open next week and then what’s next in your world?
Oh my god. I am going home. I am going back to my students. I am starting a summer program for young women of colour in the neighbourhood I grew up in my city. It’s a leadership program where they can come and do a 10 week course in theatre arts, experiencing what it is like to run their own theatre company . We have a terrible inequitable situation in the arts where there are not a lot of women, especially women of colour, in leadership positions and because of that, we don’t see a lot of representation of women of colour in the arts and so for me its about using my position to provide them with the accessibility and the experience to be able to practice so that when they do go off to college and out into the world they will have this under their belt.
Do you have any advice for up and coming playwrights or people interested in a careers in the arts?
Invest in your craft. have a friend who says all the time that if he could just put a little stage in the back of his house and do plays for 10 people or 5 people to come in and sustain that life, he would be very happy. I believe that you have to know what your little stage is. You have to know what your base minimum happy is in the arts because if you don’t, people will snatch it from you all the time. If your happiness is “I would like to be the next Will Smith, then do that. But, if its also, “I would also like to make a sculpture and put it on the corner and have people look at it, “ then know that, and invest in that because that is what is going to feed you…nothing else will.
Do you believe that as an artist you have to sell out–even a little– in order to be successful?
No. No because you define your own success. When my friend talks about putting up a little platform up in his backyard, I’m like, “dude I totally want to write plays for that space. Let’s DO IT.”I enjoy working with people in various ways. When I was 14, we were doing plays for people in halfway houses and I was like: THIS IS SUCCESS. Those were and are some of the best times of my life and I felt successful.
What is the proudest moment of your career?
There are many: working with the young people that I worked with in Choir Boy; seeing some of the people I have taught come see and my plays and be moved in certain ways; the collaborations…as well as many disappointments. But the disappointments always felt like learning opportunities whereas when you get too congratulatory sometimes you forget what you were supposed to learn from the experience. I am always like, “where is the growth in this?
A Production of McCraney’s “Choir Boy”
As my yoga teacher, Kquvien, puts it don’t exist too much in the euphoria or in the sadness and fear. Be aware but don’t cling to it.
For sure. If you hold on to something, nothing can get in our out. Your hand is tight so even if you want more, you couldn’t get it. You have to let go first.
And so it is that Tarell continues to carve space for himself among the pantheon of American playwrights of our time: like Rumi’s “Birdwings”, with an unclenched fist, he is gracefully giving of his talents, accepting grace from the universe and allowing the dynamic equilibrium of existence in general (and creativity specifically) to sort itself out.
Ecstatic Exchange is series on The Ecstatic Flash that chronicles my dialogues with people who inhabit creative spaces. The goal of the series is to engage “successfully”artistic people and in so-doing inspire those of us with the impetus to answer the call of creative careers, and all of us to lead more creative lives in general:
“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
– Kurt Vonnegut