What initially drew you to Black Beauty?
Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty was a book I first read when I was 10 or 11 years old. The book belonged to one of my grandmothers and it had a beautiful shiny cover that featured a drawing of a black horse. I grew up around horses so I was probably first drawn to the cover art — and also my grandpa had a black horse named Beauty, so maybe I thought the book was about his horse! That’s the thing about being a curious reader as a kid — maybe I thought all books were about me in some way, or maybe I was always searching for the personal, how stories connected to my own young life as well as how books and stories might transport me out of my own young life. Even though the novel is set in 19th Century London (a place I didn’t know and could barely imagine) somehow the story of Black Beauty was accessible for me — somehow it reached this kid who lived in a tiny town in Kansas. When I think back on that now, it must have been because the story is told from Black Beauty’s point of view and that I recognized his vulnerability and playfulness and curiosity as well as his desire for fairness and justice, the ways he came to value friendship and kindness.
Did or do you have a relationship to horses in your life?
I don’t remember ever not being around horses. My parents had both grown up on farms in rural areas of Kansas and horses were part of that life. And even though we lived in a small town, my dad bought our first horse when I was in the 2nd Grade. We kept him in our backyard! Eventually we moved to a house (still in town) with about 10 acres — and from that point on we always had two, three, or four horses. My dad still has two horses (Domino and Lady Three). I grew up not only aware of but paying attention to horses. We rode our horses in Fourth of July parades, in the County Fair parades. In the summer on weekends sometimes we’d ride the horses in nearby pastures where we could trot or gallop a little bit. Those were longer, quiet rides. But I also want to talk a little bit about connecting horses as fellow creatures. Have you ever looked into a horse’s eyes? Really, really looked? There is something very present about the gaze of a horse. Also the way horses move — when they gallop, they are almost running and walking at the same time, there’s something about the way they seem suspended in mid-air. It’s mysterious. And let’s face it — the old expression “to kick up your heels”? When a horse lets loose and playfully moves around an open space, they literally kick up their heels. I want to know how to do that more. I also am intrigued by the effect horses seem to have on humans. I’ve seen people transformed around horses — they are suddenly quiet, more gentle, even calmer around horses. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a horse. But that long absence hasn’t changed my connection to them, my respect and awe.
How are you collaborating on the production?
Collaboration is all about the people you make work with — and the people I’ve spent time with around my new imagining of Black Beauty have been smart and committed and imaginative and fun. Initially my primary collaborators were director Courtney Sale and Puppet Designer Annett Mateo because from the beginning Courtney and I imagined this premiere production as bold and theatrical. After years of suspicion, I had come to love and respect the work of great puppet artists because of some wonderful television shows I’d worked on as a writer and producer. I came to see puppetry as an art; and with the right story — puppets are another layer of storytelling. That’s where Annett’s artistry comes in. Next in the process was a 5-day workshop with actors. Annett and scenic designer Carey Wong were a big part of the workshop as well. Also important and inspiring in the workshop was the work of composer/musician Rob Witmer. Rob helped us to begin thinking about Black Beauty as a musical and percussive world. I loved working with the Seattlebased actors — thoughtful, fun, demanding, every day was joyful. Since the workshop, the rest of the design team joined the process, and happily I was included in the design process for the production. When a collaboration works — when everyone involved is doing their best work, asking big/deep questions about the play and its world and story — that’s when I feel most confident as a writer, most excited, most humbled, and most alive. I would also be remiss if I did not mention director Courtney Sale as she is one of my primary collaborators. We have dreamed about this production for many years now and there is no one else I would want to share this moment with. As a writer, I need to know the director “gets it” — as their engagement with the play rings a loud beautiful bell for everyone involved. Courtney will bring her own vision and artistry to this production — and that will inspire me too. My collaboration with SCT will continue through rehearsals, tech, previews, and opening night. And like any good collaboration, it will leave many fingerprints on my play and help make me a better writer.
When you sit down to write a play, do you know what you're capable of?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this question in exactly this very interesting way. Hmm. I don’t want to be glib here — talking about writing this way is deeply personal because it’s a process that is unique to every writer. For me as a writer, there’s real tension between ego and humility. I have to have ego to believe I can write something, and I have to have humility as a way of acknowledging the mysterious and mostly unknowable parts of writing. In that way, I know what I’m capable of — but I rarely know the story is capable of… how is it going to unfold during the writing process? And how will it change me? I am a different person because of every play I’ve ever written — some of the plays have had a profound effect on me as an artist or citizen.
Did you write as a child?
I did write as a child. But even before I was writing, I was thinking in stories. And I certainly “wrote verbally” — that is, I made up stories. Even after I was old enough to write and was writing the stories down on paper, I was still talking stories. I remember when I used to mow lawns as a part-time job when I was in middle school, I’d make up a long involved story while mowing the lawn. The mower was so loud no one could hear me, and it made the work go much faster. When I was in the 7th Grade I entered a state-wide (Kansas) writing contest and a story of mine got 2nd Place. It was called The Lady in Red and was about the first woman President of the United States. Sadly, all these years later and my prescient story remains fiction. Then in the 8th Grade I entered the same contest and this time a story I wrote won and a poem I wrote received honorable mention. I think there was prize money, maybe $25, and a certificate. But most importantly it lit up a corner of the world I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know that writing could be someone’s job. It started me thinking about writing in a different way. For one thing, I got interested in the writers themselves. I wasn’t just reading books anymore, I was reading books written by writers who had big life stories.
What do you hope audiences will bring to the play?
Well, an open heart, of course. A yearning for time spent with characters and their stories. I want audiences to bring curiosity, playfulness, empathy for others, and generosity for the actors and staff of the production. Mostly I want them to bring a desire to be with the play on that day, at that performance. I think it’s human nature for us to want to feel seen and heard. I think that’s true for stories too. I want an audience to bring a sense of being present so that Black Beauty can be seen and heard.
What is your biggest dream for Black Beauty?
Is there any such thing as a “small” dream? All dreams are big. I want my play to deeply engage with my collaborators. I want the director and designers to want to do amazing work. And I want the actors to love sharing the play with audiences, every single time. I want people to think about justice and kindness in 2019 in new, urgent ways. I want Black Beauty’s story to matter.