The Phillips has commissioned five plays from local playwrights in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. The resulting 10-minute, one-act plays will be performed on Oct. 20. In this series, we interview each playwright.
Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Norman Allen: It’s entirely my parents’ fault. They began taking my sister and me to shows when I was 7, but they were very thoughtful about how they did it. My mom would sit us down by the old record player and play an original cast album. Hello, Dolly! was the first. After each song, she’d lift the needle and fill in the story, then play the next song, then fill in the story again. The following day we went to a matinee fully prepared to have a great time. And it was magical! Broadway musicals are still my first love. They’re also the gold standard in terms of dramatic structure and character development.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
NA: I usually write in a big old armchair that’s roomy enough for me and my two dogs. I slouch down, get comfortable, and write on my laptop. The other thing I love is writing in coffee houses. (Never Starbucks.) I love getting immersed in the writing for 30 minutes or so, then looking up and taking a break with some top notch people-watching. Then it’s back into the world of the play. The caffeine helps too.
Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
NA: I’ve known the series for a long time, ever since writing a documentary about The Phillips Collection for PBS back in 1999. In a way, it’s a theatrical experience, certainly a narrative one. In the world of theatre we’d call it a “promenade production” where the audience follows the action through a series of locations rather than sitting in their seats and letting the actors do all the work. The Migration Series is like that. You move through it. I also love that it’s about travel, about movement—both the sweeping, epic movement of a people and the courageous journey of each individual. And courage is key. Anyone—any immigrant—who leaves what is known and sets out for the unknown is a person of great courage.
Tell us a bit about your play. What is it about and what do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after hearing it?
NA: I kept the basic movement from a repressive, dangerous situation to the supposed freedom of New York City, but I set in 1980 and I made my protagonist a young, gay man who’s escaping an abusive family and community. He meets a conductor on the train who was actually part of the Great Migration, and who becomes a kind of mentor—and friend. In studying The Migration Series, I was struck by the similarities to the migration of gay men to urban centers during the last half of the 20th Century. Places like Greenwich Village in New York and the Castro in San Francisco became havens—then became thriving, rich communities. But there’s the dark side too. I set the play in 1980 so that the characters would be unaware of the AIDS crisis that was about to hit. They’re unaware, but I hope the audience still remembers that devastation, and feels the weight of its approach.
Which of the Migration Series panels inspired your play? What drew you to it? What was it like to write a play inspired by a work of art?
NA: I chose Panel no. 5. It depicts a black locomotive moving through the night. Heavy smoke pours from the top and flows toward the back, but a headlight shines forward and a bright yellow bell is swinging. I was initially drawn to it for personal reasons. I’ve traveled a great deal by train, crossing the United States several times, and traveling across Europe, including a couple of long trips from Amsterdam to Moscow. And I especially love being on a train at night, watching the lights of small towns or farmhouses pass by. I didn’t realize at first that the panel is also a hopeful image. All that is dark falls behind, and the light shines on what’s ahead.
It was fun to write with a specific visual as my inspiration. In my early years I used to spend hours in museums, writing short stories that riffed on classic paintings. It was nice to return to that. It was also great to be able to visit the Phillips on multiple occasions and experience the work firsthand—and observe others doing the same. It’s always interesting to find what emerges when a writer is given a specific prompt or a visual to start from. There’s the possibility that it’s going to be limiting but it usually becomes a launching pad, and whatever is lurking in your subconscious, the story that wants to be told, is going to bubble up. There’s no escaping that.
Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play relate to that message?
NA: As I said above, I found direct ties between The Migration Series and the experiences of gay men escaping their abusive homes and communities. But there’s a much more immediate resonance in the vast movement of refugees today. The journeys are arduous and dangerous, sometimes deadly. They take great courage. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing today often mirrors what happened during the Great Migration. That act of courage is met with distrust and exclusion, with slamming doors rather than open ones. But not always.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
NA: Get your work off the page and onto a stage. Hear it, assess it, and revise, revise, revise. You don’t need a full production at some high falutin’ theatre. Gather your friends in your living room, order some pizza, and hear the play read aloud. Raise the funds to self-produce your work in a small venue, or as part of a fringe festival. Find an audience, listen to them, learn from them.
What’s next for you? Where can we follow your work?
NA: My musical retelling of Carmen re-opens in Prague this fall, where it’s been running on a repertory schedule at the Karlin Music Theatre for more than five years. The score is by Broadway veterans Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy, so it takes me back to my musical theatre roots. It’s also in its second year at the State Musical Theatre in Kaunas, Lithuania. These are beautiful theatres, built at the turn of the last century to house operettas. I just love that my work is living in those spaces. Here at home I’m in the midst of getting a Masters of Divinity from Wesley Seminary. A lot of my published work these days are essays on spiritual and religious topics—always from a liberal perspective. And I still can’t escape my musical theatre roots! One of my most popular pieces was for the OnBeing website, an essay called A Sound of Music Theology!