Adam Szymkowicz: I Interview Playwrights

I Interview Playwrights Part 217: Tira Palmquist


Tira Palmquist

Hometown: It’s difficult to say that I have a hometown. I was born in Albert Lea, MN, but my family moved to Le Center, MN. (a very tiny town) when I was an infant. Since my father was a Lutheran minister, we moved fairly frequently (from Minnesota to Wisconsin, and from Wisconsin to Iowa). The short, non-specific, answer for where “home” is, then, is the Midwest.

Current Town: Irvine, CA. (And that’s another story.)

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’ve got a couple projects up my sleeve. First, I’ve recently finished (and had a couple readings of) a full-length that I’m hoping to continue to work on with [names of theatres redacted because I haven’t heard anything yet and I’m trying not to count chickens]. Then, I’m working on a new full-length (working title “The Unfortunates”) for which I’d like to have a complete draft by the end of the summer. 

Q: You just attended the Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive. What was that like?

A: In a word, amazing. 

But now for the longer answer:

Gary Garrison knew what he was doing when he called this an “Intensive,” and not just because you spend a lot of hours each day in workshops, and not just because you have a lot of homework at the end of the day. The truly intense part of the intensive is that you and your work are under scrutiny -- and, honestly, if you’re getting your money’s worth, you’re putting yourself under scrutiny. Lookit: we all have our own particular set of baggage as writers, and if you’re not willing to figure out why you’re doing that thing, or why you keep banging your head against one wall or another, then… what’s the point? I honestly was pretty surprised by this part of the intensive. It’s not just about learning skills, or learning about the technical particulars of writing for the stage. My biggest breakthrough in the intensive was learning that there’s a difference between going with your first impulse as a writer and going with what’s obvious and easy. That’s a fine line, and I didn’t see that until mid-way through the intensive.

The intensive becomes a bit like Top Chef, in that they just keep throwing challenges at you, and the real lesson is how you handle each challenge. I’ll admit, there were some exercises that I completely bombed or that I completely resisted. I think I would have failed myself if I didn’t ask myself…. “OK, Tira: so… what was THAT all about.” Each of us have to ask pretty tough questions about why we’re writing, what we’re writing, why we’re writing the stories we write – and if we’re not willing to interrogate that, then we’re just sailing along on auto pilot. SO: in a nutshell, the intensive provides an opportunity to figure out some fundamental questions about your work. In the end, we pay a chunk of change to be there, to get there, to have a place to sleep there – so I think a writer would be a very foolish writer not to take this experience with the appropriate sense of play (and, at the same time, playing it for real).

I fully expected the intensive to be difficult in some respects, and so I went into it leaning into the difficulty. I think the intensive was empowering for a lot of people, and I think that’s valuable…that just wasn’t my deal: I wanted to have my shit flipped. And I did. So… that was a win.

Finally, the intensive is just a hell of a lot of fun. I met some amazing people, laughed a lot, got far too little sleep, drank a bunch, and never felt so good and awake in my entire life.

Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A: I had to think long and hard about this one. 

But… here’s one I just remembered.

When I was small, we lived in this tiny town in Southern Minnesota. All good Minnesotans know that winter is no excuse to stay indoors, and we used to play outdoors all winter long, building amazing, extensive snow forts in the huge pile of snow dumped by snowplows from the driveway and parking lot of the church right next door into the space right behind our garage. So – I think I must have been about 4 or 5, playing out in the snow when I met two kids I had never met before. The girl didn’t have mittens, and her hands were red and chapped from the snow. I asked her where her mittens were, and she said she didn’t have any. I mean, she didn’t have any mittens – at all – and I thought that she needed to have a pair of mine. This wasn’t something I thought long and hard about. It was just that her hands looked like they hurt – and I had extra mittens, so… why not? I took her to my house, and announced to my mother that I was giving this girl a pair of my mittens. I remember the look on my mother’s face, and although she gave up a pair of my old mittens, I don’t think she was really very happy about that. I remember my father (the minister) talking to me about this later, and I remained steadfast – if someone didn’t have mittens, and I had a pair, well, darn it, I was going to do something about that. I realized, much later, that my parents were a little freaked out by the fact that I saw nothing dangerous about bringing home anyone and giving them anything. I still feel this way, though I try to be smarter, now, about my generosity.

This story applies in two ways: first, my mother has always said that I’m a very empathetic person (hence, the need to give away mittens willy nilly), and I think you have to be empathetic in order to inhabit your characters (or let them inhabit you); second, I still find myself compelled to write about people like the girl who didn’t have those mittens. I don’t often write about people of privilege, of power, and I think where I grew up and who I grew up with, has a lot to do with that.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A: Oh, dear. One thing? OK: here’s one: timidity. I know why theatres do revivals of shows – whether it’s the revival of American Buffalo, or the revival of Hair – but I worry that the impulse to do revivals is because those shows have been vetted and become a safe choice. I think this is why some people shy away from new work: because that work does not come with the imprimatur of someone else’s stamp of good taste (and really, how do we know if something’s good if Someone Important is not telling us so?). I think some theatres make pretty timid choices – though I think they’d be the last to say that what they’re doing is timid. I’ll grant you that anyone running a theatre these days is taking a gamble on any show, but I don’t think the answer is to do a season that looks, for all the world, like a “best of” hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I’m not trying to say that theatres should only do world premieres, or that I’m calling for a world in which playwrights only get one shot at a performance for each play, but I do think that it’s too easy to follow the lead of others.

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A: Groups/Companies: Anne Bogart and the Siti Company. Elevator Repair Service. Wooster Group. Bread and Puppet Theater. Five Lesbian Brothers. Boston Court (in Pasadena). Burglars of Hamm. To name a wee few.

Playwrights: Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Martin McDonough, Tennessee Williams, Lynn Nottage, Constance Congdon, Sheila Callaghan, Mickey Birnbaum, Jacqueline Wright... And many others too numerous to name without boring the readers of this here interview.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I am always excited by theater that aims for the impossible, that is loud and bold and tries to expand our storytelling vocabulary. I love television and movies – don’t get me wrong. In fact, I love all sorts of TV and movies (just ask my husband). I even have pretty broad tastes when it comes to theatre (after all, Our Town is still one of my favorite plays, and I still can sit through endless productions of Hamlet or Much Ado, though I expect something smart and energetic out of those shows). But… if I’m gonna spend money on a show, I don’t want to see something that really meant to be on some kind of screen. I’d like something that is immediate, intimate – something that startles me, that makes me lean forward, and then gets its hands inside my ribcage and shakes me a little bit.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Read and watch everything. Go to as many shows as you can.

Then, stop sitting in the back of the theatre in the dark. Act, direct, stage manage, sew costumes, anything. Some of my favorite playwrights have also been actors, or started out as actors or directors. Take an improv class. Learn another language. 

And write even when you don’t feel like it. 

Q: Plugs, please:

A: Recent buzz:
Play Lab, Great Plains Theatre Conference
Semi-Finalist, PlayPenn new play development conference
Semi-Finalist, Seven Devils new play development conference