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A Closer Look: Vivian Barnes

Playwrights’ Corner
Headshot of Vivian Barnes

Vivian Barnes’ journey to taking on the title of ‘Playwright’ started with writing skits for her family, and continued through high school one-acts, short plays in college, internships, and grad school. Now, as one of The Lark’s Venturous Playwright Fellows, Vivian is currently working on her play, The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes. In this interview, we talk to Vivian about why this play feels both exciting and risky to her, both personally and in terms of form, and what she’s looking forward to over the course of her Fellowship at The Lark.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Jennifer Haley: How did you get started in playwriting? What excited you about the form, and what drew you to it?

Vivian Barnes: I was raised in church from the time I was in the womb to the time I was 18, and we were always very active in our church, so sometimes I’d write little skits for church services. I’d also write skits for my family that we would do when we’d meet up with our whole extended family in Mississippi, and that was always fun. But I never thought of myself as a writer. 

Then in high school, I got involved in theater. We did a one-act play festival—like a student-written play festival—and I remember thinking that it was so cool. I submitted this very silly one-act play about two people who’s apartments share a wall, but the walls are so thin that they can hear what’s going on in both apartments. I remember thinking it was amazing, but I didn’t get into the festival and I was devastated. I was like, well I guess I’m just not a good writer. 

I went to college and continued studying theater. I went to a college that did a general theater degree, not a specialized theater degree, and I took a semester abroad while I was there. I went to London and saw a bunch of plays, like the most plays I’ve ever seen in my life because I didn’t have access to see a ton of professional theater before that. And for some reason I just started writing. I would write whenever I was on the train, I would write as I was waiting for intermissions to end. They were just these little sketches of scenes. They weren’t even a complete story or anything. But something had clicked. 

Writing during those four or five months was the first time I felt in control inside of a role in the theater. I did an independent study when I got back, and I wrote a big thesis that was all these short plays that I’m sure if I look back at them now I’d be like, what in the world? But that was the moment I was really realizing that that is what I want to do. I just wasn’t sure how because I had never taken a proper playwriting class. I had only written on my own and done a one-on-one independent study where my teacher would basically say “This works, this doesn’t.” I knew eventually I wanted to go to grad school, and I was very hesitant to ever claim the title of “playwright” before that. 

JH: Did you go straight to grad school after undergrad?

VB:  I took two years off and I did a marketing internship at Baltimore CenterStage, and then I did a Dramaturgy and Literary Management Apprenticeship at Actors Theater of St. Louis. Both of those were great because I had never been to a big regional theater. I didn’t have a lot of access to theaters, and so it was great to not just see them in a romanticized way. I learned what the ecosystem of a theater was, and what it takes to make an institution run behind-the-scenes.

The dramaturgy internship was really special because it was the first time I got to really meet writers. There were all these people I admired, but in my mind  it was sort of like “I’ll never meet those people” and I held them up on this pedestal. That theater just had so many heavy-hitting writers who came through there, so that was the first time I felt like I was also understanding that I could be a part of that world that I had felt outside of for so long.

JH: Who were some of those writers, and how did that help you learn more about playwriting and where you wanted to be within the field?

VB: I worked as a dramaturg on a project Isaac Gómez did with the apprentice company, and that was the first time I felt like I could be a writer’s peer. There have been points in my time of slowly becoming a playwright when I needed people to say, “I see you as that,” so that I could start to see myself as that too. I remember I was talking to Isaac, and he was saying that I didn’t need to wait to go to grad school. I kept saying I wasn’t ready yet, but he was like, “I don’t think that’s true. I think you should just go. If you feel like that’s what you need to do, you should do it now.” It was one of those moments of someone being like, I see that you can do this and I needed that. 

That same year Anne Washburn worked on a musical, and they did the Dominique Morisseau play, Skeleton Crew, and she video-called into rehearsal and spoke to our whole team. Seeing people like that close up sort of broke down the pedestal in my head that I had put on everyone, thinking I would only read about them in books and never be a part of their ecosystem.

JH: You are one of our Venturous Fellows, and that fellowship is awarded to playwrights that are writing plays that are, as the name states, Venturous, whether in form, style, etc. What does the word ‘Venturous’ mean to you with regards to your plays? Is this notion of venturous something you have in mind when you start writing, or is it something that you discover as you’re writing?

VB: The first thing that jumps into my brain when I hear ‘venturous’ is form. I have these plays that I’ll see or read where I can’t figure out how the person possibly pulled something off. With a lot of plays, it’s sort of like 90 minutes in real time, and I understand how that works. But I love when I can’t make sense of how something came together. 

I always think of Marys Seacole by Jackie Sibblies Drury because when I saw it I was just like, how did she make that? How did she layer all of these things on top of each other and make it all work, and figure it out rhythmically, story-wise, and dramaturgically? 

With regards to my play, I think it feels ‘venturous’ to me because it’s all the scary parts of existing that I’ve always been afraid to get into. I think something I’ve constantly had to work towards is peeling back to a more tense muscle or live-wire place, not just doing what I know will go over well with people. This play feels like it’s hitting on something because I get so scared even thinking about it, or even when I have to open the PDF again.

JH: The play for which you received the Fellowship, The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes, is incredible. Could you talk a bit about what the play is about?

VB: The play is about a dance team at an unnamed historically Black college. They’re preparing for the big homecoming game, which is a time when they’re going to be on view at half time, so everybody needs to be on point. The first 20 pages of the play is a standard scene where the team is getting ready, everyone’s bickering, you’ve got the people who aren’t pulling their weight, the people who aren’t paying attention, the very high strung captain. At the end of the first scene, three of the girls have either gone missing or completely poofed into the air and disappeared. They’re not really sure which because all of the girls’ things are still there, but they are gone. And then the play continues but sort of stays in the same place in a way too.

The play has gone through two iterations so far. There’s one version that I wrote where time is moving forward but the days just feel the same. Then I just tried a version where it’s the same day over and over and they’ve actually just forgotten what has happened. So I’m still playing with which version it’s going to be. 

The other main thing is that there has always been this one character who is a bit outside of the action. In the first draft I wrote, she is completely not a part of the ecosystem of the team, even though she’s there. She’s sort of obsessed with this strange buzzing that she keeps hearing. There’s this big thing that’s just called the Endless Darkness behind them that she keeps staring at and seems to be able to communicate with. In this new version, she’s actually more part of the team and sort of slowly breaks away. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and working on. Something about her always feels right to me that she’s not exactly in it, but I haven’t yet cracked what that means. Especially with the form of the play being some kind of repetition, even if it’s not the exact same day over and over again, what that means to her as well as her relationship to it. 

It’s a lot about Beyoncé and excellence and the pressures both that the world and that we put on ourselves as Black women. It’s about being a team and failing and wanting to give up sometimes, which we don’t always feel like we have permission to do, or at least I don’t always feel like I have permission to do. 

JH: What inspired you to write the play in the first place? You were talking about how it feels really dangerous, so I’m wondering where this play started?

VB: Sometimes I have a really clear idea of the story, and sometimes I just feel like I get sort of possessed by a story that I’ve been thinking about for a long time but don’t know where it's going to branch off. This play was definitely one where it was like I just got possessed. I started taking sticky notes and all of a sudden getting quick ideas and just throwing it up on the wall. There was something to me about this team of women who are getting ready for homecoming because it’s so important. Like it’s just built in that it’s so important to them. And that they’re dancers and movers because I really want them to dance and move. And it’s a lot about getting it right, perfectionism, and all those things. And then I just remember drawing this circle, just knowing that there was something about a circle, needing to do this over and over and over again. I didn’t start it for a long time. I just kept collecting ideas of who the people were and I wasn’t sure how to begin. 

And then when Beyoncé did Coachella, there was some of that possession process. I remember she did Coachella, and I saw that set with those huge bleachers for the first time. I stayed up at some ungodly time to watch it on east coast time, and I remember it was just like I got calibrated. Like huh, that’s it. I had been thinking about bleachers for months. I’d been thinking about a big darkness behind them, and then just seeing it, it felt like a message from something to at least get started. Pretty quickly after that I wrote the initial scene because I knew that it would be the blueprint for the rest of the play.

I always find when I start something I have to get obsessed with it. I have to not stop thinking about it. I had found all these photos of young girls who were in South Africa on flag teams, and I made it my background on my computer so I was always staring at them. I wanted to constantly look at them because there’s something about physicality in this play that I knew was going to be important—the way bodies move and are interacting with the space was going to be central.

JH: One thing I was really curious about was these characters and their relationship to this idea of excellence. Could you talk a bit about this theme in the play and how the characters are relating to or rejecting this notion of excellence?

VB: I think it’s something that I think about a lot because personally I feel trapped by the idea of Black excellence. Sometimes I just feel a little strangled by it. I feel like I internalize it too much, to a detrimental level, and then wrap up all my worth in either being excellent or being nothing. I wanted all these different women who have different levels to which they are, maybe not trapped, but are figuring out their relationships to this idea. Some buy in fully, and some don’t buy in at all. Some don’t just buy in: they buy in and then impose it on everyone around them. And then there are others who are a little more lax about it, others who aren’t really interested in it at all, and some who are really failing at it even though they’re trying to get towards it. 

I’ve held people to certain impossible standards and later wondered, for what? You know? Was that for me, or you? What was that for? Or I get disappointed by people who don’t meet my impossible standard that I’ve placed on them and sometimes they don’t even know about it. I wanted to interrogate that.

Similarly, I’m always really interested in this idea of the strong black woman. Around elections there are always these narratives of like “Black women will save us” that I heard over and over again. Sometimes I just want to see whatever the exact opposite of all that is, which is, to me, a person who is having a really hard time existing in the world. I want those ideas to clash with each other.

JH: What are you hoping to do over the course of your fellowship?

VB: I’m really excited to get to work with some actors. This is one where I haven’t had the opportunity to workshop the play a lot. I’ve had the opportunity to hear it read a lot, which is great, but sometimes there would be something that’s not yet in the form you want it to be in, and it can be a little tortuous to have to keep hearing it out loud. I’m so excited to actually get to work on it, because I think it’s at that point now where I can’t just go into a hole by myself and work on it. It’s getting to the point where I need someone to echo back to me what’s going on, or hear what they think is going on. I’m really excited to do a bunch of different drafts.

Having two years is so nice. It’s such a different model than I’ve had to work with in school, which is great because I’ve gotten to pump out a lot of stuff, but sometimes I would like to have that time to really meditate and think about things between drafts for a while, and spend time stewing. I’m really looking forward to doing a bunch of drafts with time in between to really see what different angles of the play look like. 

JH: To wrap up with the big, lofty question: what are your thoughts and hopes for theater or for playwriting in terms of the future after this pandemic?

VB: I hope that the ways that theaters have found to be more accessible can stay. Especially having been in San Diego for these three years, I can’t just go to New York or Chicago to see a cool thing that I’ve heard about. I hope that the accessibility stays, but that we can find a way to make it work where people are paid what they’re worth to make those models happen. I think as great as it’s been for it to be so accessible with recordings, I do worry that folks aren’t being compensated the way that they should be. 

In terms of the work itself, I’ve been really unsure of the world we’re all going back into. To be honest, I have a really complicated relationship with theater right now. In all this time of reflecting back on past experiences with theaters or rehearsals, I’ve been thinking about a lot of the ways that things were exploitative, or how people were made to feel small in a room because of certain power dynamics. Having time to look back on that has made me have a more complicated relationship to the field. But I still want it to be better because it can, and I want to engage with it because I love it. It’s hard, and I have a lot of empathy in my heart for everyone who has a complicated relationship to theater right now and doesn’t even know what they want the future to look like.