Interview with Pamela Turner

Posted by on Aug 11, 2012 in Feature, Interviews | 0 comments

AYWI student writer Erin interviewed and profiled director and playwright Pamela Turner.  Read on to learn more about this incredible writer!

A play is a communication device, and to communicate, there must be someone both sending the message and receiving it.  You, the theatergoer — or even you, the reader — are the receiver.  And, at least in the case of plays such as Mother/Monster and The Judas Gospel, the sender goes by the name of playwright Pamela Turner.

Playwriting is a very specific genre in that it is just as much about the visuals as it is about the language — “show not tell” is especially true here where so many of a character’s inner thoughts have to be projected, sometimes even wordlessly, onto a stage.  Also, all movement has to be shown, making clear stage directions essential, and to write the script, a talented playwright is another elemental part of the equation.

Pamela is not only a prolific sender with over 16 plays to her credit but also a gifted one:  awards she has won include the 2006 American Theatre Coop Playwriting Competition winner for her play Funny Valentine, “Outstanding Playwright” in the 2007 Chester Horn Short Play Festival for the play Male Man, and the 2001 Porter Fleming award for The Further Adventures of Louise Heavingbodice.  She has others in the works too — Hidden Man is only one of them.  After all, communication isn’t one thought.  It takes many, and sometimes a sender just wants to keep on sending. 


What drew you towards playwriting instead of other genres?

I have written things since childhood, though I never thought of myself as a writer, and my mother loves to tell people that as a little girl I would keep the household awake late at night by telling myself stories very loudly. That sense of the visual, and of performance and immediacy (every time it happens, it happens in a slightly different way) are what keep me producing plays even when a project starts in another genre. Writing a play is like a dance on page, and it forces me to separate out the images, the action, the dialogue, and the location (place) and then to mesh them all back together again. I also love that a play is not meant to be read silently, or to play in one’s head, but instead requires a group of people to bring it to life. So the short answer:  I just intuitively think of everything through the lens of a play, as it is something dimensional that many people share at the same time. The other short answer is that I started as an actor, doing my initial training in Germany, and then moved to directing, and finally acknowledged that I’d been a playwright all along.

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect to keep in mind while writing a play?

The most important aspect of a play is that it is always in present tense. Even when characters look back at something that happened or share a memory or are responding to their past history, all of that material is useful only in how it affects the character and the situation at the very moment of it being revealed on stage. That’s why theatre writers have to be careful about flash-backs—they must be in the “now” in emotional and affective terms even if it is showing something that happened before. In other words, a writer must only bring the past into the play because it is forcing its way into the present and people find themselves behaving in a certain way because of it. The other “most important” thing to keep in mind when writing is that an audience will take in as much or more information from what they see as what they hear. If you can put those two things in conflict at times, it can make for a deeper and more real scene.

When you spoke at the Summer Writing Workshop, you said that a play is a communication device.  Is there a particular message that you try to convey throughout all of your plays?  Are there any themes that you try to avoid?

Well, my plays are pretty edgy, and I also set up impossible stage directions in my work so a director has to figure out how to do them. I also like to set up contrasts: humor and horror, sadness and silliness, intensity and inertia. My messages are political 99% of the time but will still emerge out of a story rather than trying lecture people. I hope that audience members will leave my plays arguing about an issue and then realize that I may not have given a clear position. I also want to sneak into each audience member’s mind through symbols and images that make him or her almost unconsciously make a connection to something. I do include violence in my plays at times, whether actual or implied, even though I am personally horrified by it. It is sometimes hard for human beings to resist the seductive power of violence which is what makes it so very terrible and also something that may be inseparable from an honest character depiction on stage. What I avoid is anything gratuitous, including violence, sexuality, or even stupid comedy. I also can’t even go near anything where animals are mistreated or that is even discussed or where children are brutalized. And, I don’t write comedies but always put unexpected comedic elements in my plays. Finally, there are some things that just don’t interest me, so rather than avoid them, it just never occurs to me to write about them.

Your plays present an extremely varied cast of characters (remorseful dogs, magicians, gay soldiers, historical figures, etc.).  Where do you get the inspiration for them?

Some of my plays start as commissions where a theatre has asked me to write about a certain subject, but regardless, a play usually starts with an image in my mind, a question that preoccupies me, or something that someone said. I less often start with an actual story. That often comes after I begin to play around with some ideas or wake up with a scene that is forming in my head. I am very fanciful and love pulling together cultural references and people or situations that don’t normally go together. I have a degree in art as well as in theatre and in symbolic anthropology, so rituals and the meaning of objects often play into my work. But again, there is nearly always a political theme that is climbing on my back and insisting that I give it consideration—my best way of thinking about something is writing it. What is good for a writer is that each day a person lives adds material that will crop up at weird times and insert itself into a play. That’s why it’s important to find a writing space where one can get lost and be open to all the fanciful images and words and noises that will make their way into the script. BTW, I am constantly cutting out pictures that interest me and keep a very full images file. I also cut out news stories and articles from the newspaper and keep them even if I don’t know why they piqued my interest.

As a theatergoer yourself, do you ever see a play and think you would have changed a scene or worded a line differently?

Yes, all the time. That’s why many people avoid going to see a play with me because I sometimes start writing notes right there in the dark of the theatre. Being both a writer and a director just makes me more insufferable. But, the very nature of a play is that you can’t see either its full range of faults or its most wonderful strengths until it is produced on stage. So, though I sometimes see plays that should never have been allowed on stage, it is more often that I can see how some change would really serve to make a good play better. That could be in the writing or in the production or in the acting, by the way, because all these elements are part of the product. If I start fidgeting and mumbling under my breath, though, it’s a very bad sign. I try not to do it, but sometimes….

Thanks, Pamela!

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