Just the Basics

Playwright Amy Evans on the creative process - and her advice to emerging writers

| 21 Oct 2021 | 11:23

Playwright Amy Evans is completely dedicated to her craft. A veteran writer of nearly three decades and an assistant dean at the Juilliard School, Evans has put in the work required to become a master of her field, writing, rewriting, revising, and fine-tuning her plays until they reach a high level of excellence. Her hard work has more than paid off: venues such as the Soho Theatre, HB Playwrights Foundation, and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture have all produced her work to great acclaim.

Audible’s Emerging Playwrights initiative has recently commissioned her latest work, “Roadkill, or The Cottage on Mountain Lane,” which is about an African-American couple who buy their dream house in the Hudson Valley, but then have to come to terms with the racism in their own back yard. Cape Cod Theatre Project, a summer workshop for new American plays on Cape Cod, produced “Roadkill” as part of its 2021 season, and it is already generating buzz as a play to watch. We sat down with Evans recently to talk about her time at CCTP, her artistic process, and the advice she would give to her younger self.

How did you become a writer? Where did your journey start?

From the time I can remember, I was fascinated by writing; I loved to read, I loved words, I loved the way they sounded, I loved the way they tasted, I loved everything about them. And really found my way to writing through reading novels, reading essays, short stories, that sort of thing, and thought that would be my trajectory.

I went to Oberlin College for my undergrad, majored in creative writing, and at Oberlin, you sort of had to declare yourself a certain kind of writer. And I chose, okay, I’m fiction; that’s what I do. After I finished up at Oberlin, I relocated, I moved to Germany. While I was there I started going to see plays. And I had a very good friend who was very often in the thearer, and he just said “hey, why don’t you come with me?” I went, and saw what exactly can happen when you have a nine-month rehearsal process. When you have a director who is forcing actors to do something with their bodies that is utterly supernatural. All of a sudden, this whole landscape opened up. And I was like, “Whoa, this is cool.”

What drew you to Europe in your early twenties?

I really wanted to get out the U.S. quite simply. I left with no intention of going back. I really was like, “I’m picking up and I’m going to become whatever it is that I become over there.” Also being in a place like Berlin in the late nineties, it’s a very cool city, I love it today. I love it any day of the week — it’s a great place. But in the nineties, this was just after [the Berlin] wall had come down. So you had this city that literally had this giant scar down the middle of it. And the east side was a giant question mark, and the west side was very familiar, because it has the influence of western culture.

But the east was this interesting kind of place where there was a mixture of people who’d been there their whole lives, and then there were people coming in, mostly artists. Rent was low, so here you have a city where rent is cheap and you can have a lot of space. The space might not be heated (laughs), it might not have lighting. But you’re going to get artists coming in and starting to create and do their thing. And that’s exactly what started happening in the late nineties.

It was a culture where you could develop your craft, and explore what you did. And so I found myself in a community of dancers, of musicians, of other writers, of academics. It was this very fertile kind of place and a very creative place, and a stimulating time to be there.

During your time in Europe, you also went to graduate school for playwrighting at Goldsmiths College at the University of London. What were the main lessons you took away from your time in graduate school in England?

I think the biggest lesson, first of all, was that it’s important to just, for any playwright, you can learn approaches to craft, but sooner or later, you have to figure out your own process. And I think in order to do that, you sort of do have to slog your way through a few pretty bad plays. And I say this having written at least two or three really awful plays before I started my grad school program. But it was important to go into grad school being like, “Okay I’ve tried it, this is what I came up with, what can I do differently?”

The biggest lesson for me was learning to first of all accept that you have to write some garbage before anything good comes out of it, and be okay with that. And also try to be a little bit less precious. I think that the biggest mistake that I as a writer coming from prose made is that I really love words and I love language and all this sort of stuff. And sometimes words, that’s not what’s needed. Sometimes that long, beautiful (or what I thought was a long beautiful) monologue, it’s better achieved in three lines, or even two words. I think learning to let go of that long, beautiful text and hand the actor something they can really use, that’s an ongoing lesson, but learning that lesson started when I was in grad school.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think when I was younger, I had such a narrow idea of what it meant to be successful in theater. I got so fixated on it that it was hard for me to just focus on creating the work. And I think that’s sort of the note that I would give myself and that I’d give to anybody. It’s always about the work. It’s about the integrity of what you’re doing. Do you believe in what you’re writing? Is what you’re writing as strong as it can be? That’s the number one thing that has to happen.

It’s so important to not be devastated when that play you feel so strongly about is not finding a home. Who cares? Write the next one. Write the next one, write the next one, write the next one, and make sure they’re all as good as they can be.

You recently had your new play “Roadkill” workshopped at CCTP. Are artist-in-residence programs like this one of value to you?

Yes (laughs). Where do I start? They’re everything. They’re everything. And the importance of them is not to be underestimated. [I read] an interview with David Byrne. He was talking about the ninety percent of the artists whose brilliant work we never see. And we never see it, because ninety percent of those brilliant artists, maybe even more, they have day jobs, they have families, they have other commitments. And they don’t have the space it takes to really dig into their craft. Most artists don’t have that.

I’ve done a number of residency programs. And those are always the periods of time when I feel I am able to go a level deeper into my own craft. When I make discoveries about who I am as an artist, it happens in those [settings].

What do you like to do outside of playwrighting?

Honestly, if I had my way, I’d be writing pretty much all the time. You know, I went on vacation once. I don’t go on vacations very much, like conventional vacations. It’s something I really ought to learn how to do ... I went on a long weekend ... And while I was there I was just like, “You know, all I feel like doing is writing.” And that’s exactly what I did: I went hiking, it was great, and then I went back to my hotel room and I wrote. I also feel like that’s the one thing that I can actually do pretty well. That’s one place where I feel grounded.

In your play “The Champion,” the great jazz singer Nina Simone asks, “if you had five minutes to say something and the whole world was listening, what would you say?” If you had the attention of the entire world for five minutes, what would you say?

In “The Champion,” there are a couple of people who have answers to those questions. Christopher White says, “Nothing.” Al Shackman says, “Stop. Look at people. And really see them.” And then Bobby Hamilton says, “Be nice. Don’t lie.” You know, just the basics, right? And I think I fall somewhere in between those. There are some basic things. Just the basics.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more information about Evans and to read about her upcoming projects, go to her website at www.scriptingrage.com.