Playwright Tira Palmquist, whose work has been featured on The Kilroy’s List, is in rehearsals for another world premier. This time, she’s working with Clutch Productions, a women-led theatre collective in New York City. The Worth of Water, which premiers October 4-20 at HERE Arts Center, was commissioned by Clutch Productions as part of their 12-month play development series. Today on the blog, Tira speaks about her process, climate change, and her newest play at Clutch Productions.
StateraArts: The headline on your website says "Viking + Writer = Motherfucker". Tell us about the special alchemy of that equation and how it manifests in your creative work.
Tira Palmquist: I should say that I’m in the process of updating my website (which is sadly a little out of date, and something that I have been too busy to get to!) – and I’ve been thinking of changing that to Viking + Writer = Badass. But the point is, I think, the same: I am inspired by the warlike nature of my cultural and ethnic ancestors. A phrase I use when I am angry and about to go off on someone or something is “Going Full Viking.” I picture a shield maiden, outfitted for war, taking out her battle ax, ready to charge in, with a full-throated battle cry. As women, we’re often taught (or expected) to be meek, quiescent. I’ve never really been very meek or quiet, and the older I get, the less bullshit I’m willing to put up with.
But, to answer the question, I aspire to be brave in the choices I make (either about the stories I’m telling, or how I’m telling them) – and to be generally ready to fight the good fight, to stand up for myself, to know when to say no, to be clear, and direct, and uncompromising about the important things.
SA: We always like to hear how playwrights become playwrights. How did you come to writing?
TP: The short answer was I was an actor and a poet, and the perfect marriage of these things is to be a playwright.
Here’s the longer answer: As an undergraduate, I wanted to be an actor. I had done a lot of acting from the time I was a kid, and I loved the theater. At the same time, I really loved writing. I wrote in journals, wrote letters, wrote poems from the time I was in grade school. When I was at the University of Iowa, I was in the undergraduate poetry workshop, and one of my teachers (the poet Jorie Graham), said, “You need to get your MFA in poetry.” I honestly had never considered that – but at the time, I was feeling frustrated with acting: getting cast as whores and grandmothers and nuns. So, I applied to about 6 different grad schools – and got into almost all of them. In grad school, I found that I couldn’t stay away from the theater, acting and writing my first (very bad) play. A few years later, while my husband and I were living in Columbus, OH, I was asked to join a multidisciplinary performance group to write poetry for performance. While doing this, I found that I gravitated to writing narratives… and wrote my first very good play (one that won an award shortly after that).
SA: Your plays all seem to collide at the intersections of personal agency, collective grief, and the destruction of the natural world. Can you tell us about writing plays in the age of climate change?
TP: I find that I keep circling back to a few themes:
What is home, and where do we find it?
How do we move forward, how do we put one step in front of another, when hobbled by grief and loss?
How can science and rational thought save us? Or, rather, how will science and rational thought (and our passion for these things) give us the capacity to save ourselves.
I know that I feel the destruction of the natural world quite acutely, quite viscerally – and I also think that theater has the capacity to change (as the phrase goes) hearts and minds. That’s not to say that I’m interested in writing polemics, but if someone can come to a play, and be moved, and then find themselves have considered another point of view, then maybe this is one way that theater can be involved in collective action. Theater works because it asks us to be ready for deep empathy. These moments of deep empathy have to change us – or, at least, we have to be willing to be changed.
SA: When you have an idea for a play, how do you proceed? Do you research, take notes, plunge right in?
TP: It changes from play to play, but generally the idea begins with a character in some extremity, a character with some problem they’re either trying to escape or trying to solve. Then, I have to frame up the foundations of the story. That is, I have to know things like: how many characters? Where is it located? What time period? How many months or years? Who’s the protagonist? What’s their driving desire? Do they get what they want? What’s the essential conflict of the play? How does the play end?
I don’t really outline before I write, but I do have to figure out all of those questions above before I can write. I like to think of this period as the “proving” period (like baking). I can’t start writing before all those foundational questions are answered, or I’ll be stuck. Sometimes the answers to the questions come quickly. Sometimes I have to puzzle it out. To continue the baking metaphor: richer doughs take longer to rise – and I can’t short-change that process. I have to be patient.
SA: You are a prolific writer. Tell us about your writing routine? How do you schedule yourself? Or are you a loose stop-and-go writer?
TP: I am busy and have several different jobs -- so I can’t really afford a set and rigid schedule. However, there are a couple of things I’ve learned about myself. 1, I write better earlier in the day. 2, I have to set short, interim deadlines for myself. 3, When I’m starting something, I have to set smaller goals (like setting aside a chunk of hours per day, or deciding that I’m going to write as many scenes as I can, irrespective of the “right” order in the play). I try not to write when I’m depressed or feeling negative about my own writing. If that’s the case, I try to do something else active, like walking and thinking, or gardening and thinking, or doing more research. Doing something – anything – positive and proactive usually helps me get out of whatever negative spiral I’m in.
SA: When you are working, are there other art forms you go to for inspiration?
TP: I rarely listen to music while I write, though sometimes I turn to music for inspiration during the research process. Painting and other visual arts are also helpful to me. I find, though, that a lot of my inspiration comes from other research: science, archaeology, history, folklore, medicine, politics.
SA: What aspect of playwriting do you find to be the most difficult?
TP: There are two parts of the process that are the scariest, and thus the most difficult: the first draft, and the final draft. The first draft can be difficult because it’s hard to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism. I have to keep reminding myself, in those moments, that the first draft just has to be done, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Then, in the final draft, I am actually aiming at perfection – and all the little monsters that come out of the corners at that point – self-doubt, fear, all that – can hamstring those final choices.
SA: Mentorship is at the core of StateraArts' mission. Can you tell us about your mentors and how they've shaped you?
TP: I’ve been lucky to have different mentors at different points in my life – some personal, some professional, and the best mentors were there at key moments to remind me that, yes, I could make powerful choices, that I could do more than I thought I could.
SA: Your play, The Worth of Water, is about to open at Clutch Productions in NYC. How did this new play come about? What was the inspiration?
TP: The original inspiration was a conversation with a former colleague of mine who told me that she was going to Mermaid Camp with her mother and sister. I had never heard of this place – but suddenly, immediately, I thought, “Oh yes this has got to be a play.” But then there was this election, and, like many artists I knew, I found myself struggling in the weeks and months after the inauguration, after we began to see the real costs of what was happening. I was going through a fairly tough time, personally, and I could not write. Not only did I see millions of voters having their voice silenced, I began to experience my own kind of voicelessness. This, then, became another theme in the play: how do we go on, when things are difficult? How do we regain our voice and power?
SA: You recently said "The older I get, the more important it is for me to be visible as an older working artist."What do you see as the most effective way to combat and transform age bias for women in the arts
TP: First, I think it’s important to be honest about our age. I’m 56. I will never lie about my age, or cover it up. In my father’s family, we don’t tend to show our age in our hair, and maybe I’m lucky that way – But I do think we have to embrace the truth, celebrate that truth. I’ve made a conscious decision in my plays to write more characters for women over 40, and to make sure that these older women are powerful, active forces of nature – to make sure that they are flawed and sometimes terrible, and full of desires, or worries or needs. So – I’m trying to combat and transform age bias on and off the stage by, you know, Going Full Viking.
SA: At StateraArts, we believe wholly in collaboration over competition. As a storyteller, what role does collaboration play in your work and how has your community supported your creative trajectory?
TP: I’ve been lucky to work with individuals and organizations that support the development of new plays – which is often difficult because there isn’t one set path for success, and while there are better processes for individual artists, it’s hardly foolproof. Each new play is its own beast, has its own individual quirks and complexities – and so the best way to collaborate is to move forward with a set of good principles about communication, trust, and compassion. It’s very hard not to get competitive, as we’re sending out plays, as we’re trying to make a name for ourselves – but as long as we just focus on the work, do our best, be good with each other, the more the work will get easier, better, etc. It’s also incredibly important to celebrate each other. I find, for example, that the more I share the successes of other writers, the less I find myself comparing myself to them. We just have to be more joyous in the presence of other good work – otherwise, everything will start to get small, and mean, and petty (including our own work).
SA: What was the best piece of advice you ever got about being an artist or writer?
TP: Tell your own stories. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
The Worth of Water runs October 4-20 at HERE Arts Center in NYC. Tickets can be purchased at www.clutchproductions.org/theworthofwater.
To learn more about Clutch Productions and their commission process and EmpowHER Play Reading Series, please visit www.clutchproductions.org.