Today at Literary Labors we’d like to welcome playwright Nancy Gall-Clayton. Based in Kentucky, Nancy has numerous projects to her credit and her work has appeared on stages throughout the United States and abroad. If you’re in the Louisville area, make sure to catch the reading of her newest full-length play, Lightening Up, at 7:30 pm on January 18, at The Bard’s Town. You can find more details here.
How did you get into writing?
My parents encouraged me to write from the time I could hold a pencil. My mother wrote for a newspaper in Greenwood, Indiana, before marrying my father. My father, an electrical engineer, gave me “books” of specifications that were printed on only one side of the paper. I created anthologies of stories and poetry by writing on the blank sides of these books. When I was 9, my mother submitted my poem “Thanksgiving” to Jack and Jill, a children’s magazine–and it was printed! That’s when the Writing Bug first bit. My next publication was bittersweet. A piece I wrote about my mother dying in a car crash when I was 12 was printed in American Girl when I was 16. It won first prize for non-fiction and earned me $10, my first paid writing!
How did you go about becoming a playwright? Is this something you’ve done all your life or is it a recent thing?
David, I think the two questions above are answered in the following excerpts from an artistic statement I wrote January 2, 2015, for Brian Walker in connection with the January 18th reading of my newest full-length, Lightening Up, at The Bard’s Town Theatre in Louisville. The whole artistic statement will be on Facebook.
“I wrote my first play when I was 10. The characters were dancing mice. Dancing Mice was never produced. I wrote my second play when I was 44. The characters were people. Special Delivery was produced in Louisville, Kansas City, and New York City. A Finalist for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 10-Minute Play Contest, it also earned a workshop presentation at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington. Between Play 1 and Play 2, I published poetry, fiction, essays, Midrash, book reviews, and two non-fiction books. It was fun to see my writing in magazines, newspapers, literary journals, and anthologies—but not half as fun as seeing a play on stage!
So I wrote Play 3. In the Waiting Room was so terrible that Sallie Bingham couldn’t finish reading it. (At the time, Sallie was the person I wrote book reviews for and the author of several plays.) I had no clue why Play 2 worked or why Play 3 didn’t. My degrees in education, counseling, and law were not useful, so I looked to people, conferences, and books. I was privileged to learn from Warren Hammack and Liz Fentress at Horse Cave Theatre, Jeffrey Sweet and Kate Aspengren at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and Romulus Linney and Laura Maria Censabella at Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
I kept writing plays. I gradually became part of the theatre community. I found my people! Magic happens when playwrights, directors, actors, designers, and producers work together—sharing and debating, inspiring one another, collaborating to make the best possible show. Unlike a poem or short story, a play isn’t done just because the word “End” appears on the last page. A play isn’t done until a team of people work with it, and I love that.”
What was it like the first time you saw your work produced on the stage?
Very exciting and validating! Twenty years ago, writer, singer, and theatre director Sandy Neuman heard my short comedy Special Delivery at a meeting of the Cherokee Roundtable, a multi-genre writing group that we both still belong to. Special Delivery takes place at a zany clinic where people can custom-order babies. Sandy picked two other shorts of mine and created a bill that was produced at the Rudyard Kipling where many a Louisville artist has had her first show. Sheila Pyle, co-owner of the Rud, titled the trio of plays Changing Patterns of Western Civilization.
We had full houses for each of the five performances. My sister and her husband—who lived more than 500 miles away—made a reservation under a false name to surprise me on opening night. Selma Jacob, founder of the Cherokee Roundtable, who also attended opening night, had a beautiful plant delivered to my table, which remains a prized possession.
What is your process like? How often do you write a day and for how long? Are you one of those people who can sit down and write entire pages nonstop or do you labor over each line?
I try to write, revise, submit, and/or market every day. I try not to revise as I write as it slows me down. My goal when I write something new is to get words on a page, not to make them perfect. I spend anywhere from a few minutes to several hours at the keyboard each day. I prefer writing on my computer, but I also write with very sharp pencils (I own two pencil sharpeners) or Uni-ball Micro Point Roller pens.
I wrote 31 plays in 31 days in August 2014 and have the T-shirt to prove it! I take part in the Playwright Binge in which members commit to making 30 submissions in 30 days in March and the Playwright Purge where members commit to writing every day in September. Bingers and Purgers exchange updates about their work, supporting and encouraging one another and sharing submission opportunities.
In addition to these exhausting but exhilarating projects to create and promote one’s work, I love writing retreats. The Cherokee Roundtable has had retreats in New Harmony, Indiana, and at the Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Kentucky. I’ve also taken individual retreats in Nerinx. I’ve written at Hopscotch House, the retreat center for the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and at Normandi Ellis and David Hurt’s PenHouse Retreat Center in Frankfort.
(My first time at PenHouse, I was fascinated to learn that David’s late wife was Susan Kingsley. I will never forget Kingsley’s performance in Marsha Norman’s powerful Getting Out, which was produced in 1977 at Actors Theatre of Louisville, in the early days of what is now called the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Nor will I forget my sorrow at learning of her death at age 38 in 1984 in a car accident similar to the one that killed my mother when she was Kingsley’s age.)
Even as an empty nester who no longer has pets, I can become distracted at home. I sympathize with Anne Lamott who has said that there was a time when she couldn’t begin to write if there were dishes in the sink. She’s past that now and claims she could write even if there was a corpse in her sink! I’m not that focused yet.
In regards to craft, Henrik Ibsen said “Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.” Is this how you treat your characters, or is the overall situation more important for you when you start writing?
Absolutely not. I sometimes write bios about my characters and monologues in their voices at the beginning stages of writing a new play or when I’m stuck, but mostly I learn about my characters as I write. Toward the middle or end of the first draft, my characters often start talking to me. I once tried to rename a character in General Orders No. 11, a Civil War drama produced at the Jewish Community Center, after deciding an independent woman should not be named Lily, especially in the 19th century. I used the Find and Replace function to change her name to Joyce. Well, she refused to talk to me again until I changed her name back to Lily!
Character and the overall situation (story or plot) are important, but if I know my characters well and begin the action at the right moment of time, the story usually unfolds as I work.
On your website you say “I adore ten-minute plays. (Doesn’t everyone?)” What is it about ten-minute plays that you like so much?
I can create a ten-minute play and revise it 10 times in a week or two. Yes, I do at least 10 rewrites for short plays and many more than that for full-lengths! Kathi E.B. Ellis, a director I work with a great deal, calls me the Queen of Rewrites. Full-length plays take me several years, so I like the sense of accomplishment that comes when inputting the words “End of Play” though in my opinion, no play is truly finished until the playwright’s ashes have been returned to the earth. Another reason I adore ten-minute plays is that I can toss those that simply aren’t working without losing sleep.
Where is your favorite spot to write?
I can write anywhere, but at home I usually write in my office. When I look outside to rest my eyes, I see trees, squirrels, butterflies, and two summers ago—a lovely argiope aurantia, the scientific name of the Writing Spider, so named because its web looks as if it’s been writing words. I also write outdoors, at libraries and gas stations, in waiting rooms and food courts, in airplanes, gardens, and hotels, and of course, at meetings where I’m bored.
Dorothy Parker famously said “I hate writing, I love having written.” Do you agree or disagree?
Disagree. I love all aspects of the writing process.
Speaking of famous writers, who are some of your favorites in the literary world? Which playwrights have influenced you most? Why?
In no particular order, playwrights who have written plays I deeply admire (not what you asked exactly but it’s what I mean) include Tina Howe, Wendy Wasserstein, Naomi Wallace, Caryl Churchill, Kia Corthron, Lauren Gunderson, Dael Orlandersmith, Elyzabeth Wilder, Basil Kreimendahl, Donald Margulies, Douglas Post, Christopher Durang, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Beth Henley, and Marsha Norman. These writers inspire me to keep writing, to be unafraid, and to write about issues I am passionate about. However, every play of mine is not issue-oriented. Some are crazy comedies like my short The Palmetto Family about a family of cockroaches, which was produced as part of a Mother’s Day festival in Houston. But even that goofy play raises questions about the way we live and choices we make.
Lightening Up, a comedy about love, lingerie, and dreams of Costa Rica, is a bit of an anomaly for me. Most of my other full-length plays deal with serious subjects—racism in the military during World War II, anti-Semitism during the Civil War, a troubled young man, a mother coming to terms with her son’s sexuality. But once I “met” Emil (by pulling a photograph out of a basket offered by Carridder Jones at the Kentucky Women’s Book Festival), Lightening Up had to be written.
What do you do when you’re not busy writing or getting your work on stage?
I go to plays, I read plays and fiction, I garden, contra-dance, do yoga, walk the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge, and give playwriting workshops at Kim Crum’s Shape & Flow Writing Instruction Studio at Mellwood Art & Entertainment Center in Louisville and at the Carnegie Center in Lexington.
And let’s close with our obligatory set of questions:
Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces, our literary inspiration here at Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip)? Do you like cheese dip, by the way? Do you have a favorite cheese dip recipe you could share with us?
Yes, I’ve read the amazing book (God bless the author’s mother!), but as a vegan, I don’t do cheese dip. How about a vegan dip?
Nancy’s Hummus for Vegan Writers
2 15-ounce cans garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of soy sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or juice from 2 lemons)
¾ cup tahini
¼ cup minced parsley (cut with scissors)
Plenty of black pepper
3 green onions, minced from head to toe
Drain one can, but save the liquid from the other Using a blender, puree half the ingredients with the saved liquid, then add the remaining ingredients and puree again. Chill several hours. Makes enough to fill two medium bowls.
Nancy Gall-Clayton has written six full-length plays and 60 short plays, including her collection of 11 shorts about historic Kentucky women. Her work has been on stages in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Australia. She was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at Sewanee Writers Conference and a Visiting Artist at Ohio State University. Her work is published by Motes Books, Dramatic Publishing, Smith & Kraus, Meriwether Publishing, and others. She belongs to the International Centre for Women Playwrights, Derby City Playwrights, and 365 Women a Year Playwriting Project. Nancy is Kentucky’s representative to the Dramatists Guild. She has degrees in education, counseling, and law.