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Catching Creativity: An Interview with Playwright Christina Anderson

On January 19, the Goodman Theatre will be premiering Christina Anderson’s latest play. Imaginative and thought-provoking, How to Catch Creation explores how one writer’s words and actions profoundly affect four artists fifty years later, influencing their work, dreams, and sense of self. Anderson, the inaugural recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Playwriting and a two-time PONY-award nominee, spoke with me on the phone about creative inspiration, black literature, and forgotten authors.

Playwright Christina Anderson

Can you talk about the title, specifically the word catch? It’s an interesting word choice because it sounds active—to catch something, you must pursue it and grab it. At the same time, it sounds passive, the way you, “catch a cold,” or, “catch feelings.” Can you talk about how that word ties into the play’s themes?

When I started writing the play . . . I started to see how art was a theme throughout these [characters’] lives. Some of them were making it, some of them were consuming it, but there were real relationships with art in the piece, and also, the mystery of art, and creating it specifically. I’ve been writing plays since high school and one of the joys of writing—but also one of the tragedies—is just because you did it last time doesn’t mean you’ll do it next time. You always have to begin again, which is exciting, but also it’s terrifying that you constantly have to start over.

That title, I think, really captures the need to travel through life in an artistic sense, in a personal sense, a creative sense. I embrace that title . . . like the different types of ways that people can catch things. It lives in the play because every character is trying to catch love, art, creativity, their truest self, community.

I have the list of books that you and the Goodman’s dramaturg shared with the cast. [These can be found at the bottom of this interview.] How do those relate to the play?

The play started out as a commission with [American Conservatory Theater] in San Francisco. I had a residency out there at the time with Magic Theater, and I was living in Oakland for a couple of months, and then I was living in San Francisco proper. The play itself is set in a city that’s similar to San Francisco. I always like to play with geography and create a world that’s familiar, but also has some things that aren’t necessarily familiar for us as an audience. San Francisco influenced me heavily.

I was meeting a lot of different types of black folks that I hadn’t necessarily met before because I grew up in Kansas. It was just a different culture out there in the Bay Area. I was meeting so many black intellectuals in Oakland, specifically, the kind of black people who were reading all types of different material, and I was meeting black men who identified as feminists. For one of the characters in the play, Griffin, I was interested in showing a literary life as a black person. That’s also true for the G. K. character. Like, what does it mean to live a black, literary life?

I feel black women, specifically, have a history of being erased in terms of their literary contributions in America’s literature. In a lot of ways that’s true for women of color in general, so I think the most important part is to keep these women’s voices alive and active and circulating, which is how I created the character of G. K. Marche.

Movement in Black by Pat ParkerDid any of those erased authors influence the way you wrote G. K. Marche?

Absolutely. I think, if I have my timeline correct, it took me a real long time to discover Pat Parker, who’s a black, lesbian poet from the 1970s. I discovered her around the time I was writing the play. It’s kind of like, “How did I not know about Pat Parker?” I couldn’t believe it. I had gotten her book of poetry, and there’s really great videos on YouTube of her reading her poems. She has this great voice, and she passed away, I think, at a fairly young age.

A couple of years ago, I discovered this essay by Maisa Priest called, “Salvation is the Issue.” The essay is really short, but she talks about multiple black women intellectual and literary figures who passed away at early ages, and she hypothesizes the reasons why that might be. It was the first time I had seen a list gathered and presented in such a way. It was really heartbreaking to think that we’ve lost this generation of black women thinkers and artists.

I wanted her to embody multiple qualities of black women writers, specifically from the ’60s and ’70s, and even into the ’80s as well. I also wanted to have this black, woman, literary figure who was living a joyful life in her older age.

If a group of artists were to discover your work 50 years from now, in what ways do you hope it would inspire them?

The thing that I would hope for my work is the thing that I experience reading other writers, such as Ntozake Shange, and Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni, and Patricia Hill Collins. Those writers and those women inspired me to explore myself and my thinking and my relationship to my work, and also my community and the people who I engage with in my country.

If a group of artists find my work 50 years from now, I hope my plays and my work would inspire them to create their work and explore themselves within the work and also engage with community within the work. Also, too, 50 years from now, I hope they’re like, “Yo, she was a good writer,” just on a simple level. Because even in the play, a lot of the characters are like, “G. K. was a good writer.”

What was the last truly amazing book you’ve read?

I’ve been reading The Sovereignty of Quiet, by Kevin Quashie. It’s been enlightening to think about how quietness can be a form of activism within the black community.

I’ve been interested in playing with silence, a moment of silence in a play, so that’s the thing that’s been really sitting with me recently. . . . How can silence be as loud and as profound [as dialogue] and trying to structure a piece that allows room for that to happen.

Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

I love libraries. I do a ton of research for all of my plays and I try to cull as much information as I can once I have an idea. A lot of my plays start with a question because I try to really remain open and curious throughout that part of gathering this information. I’m super indebted to librarians and institutions that help me discover these things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I just want to give a shout out to all those people who are doing that good work.

Liliane by Ntozake ShangeHere are the books the cast of How to Catch Creation referenced while crafting their characters. The titles are linked to Booklist reviews when available:

Experimental Love, by Cheryl Clarke

Funnyhouse of a Negro, by Adrienne Kennedy

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Liliane, by Ntozake Shange

Movement in Black, by Pat Parker

No Disrespect, by Sister Souljah

Passion and Some Changes, by June Jordan

Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

Women, Culture, Politics, by Angela Davis

About the Author:

Biz Hyzy works as an editorial assistant for Booklist's Adult Books department, where she pilfers the most appealing ARCs before anyone else gets the chance. Besides reading, she enjoys swing dancing and ninja training (though, in her case, both include a lot of bumbling around).

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