Welcome to our interview series with the current rockin MFA playwrights, leading up to Seabury Quinn! This year the interview series will be a little different since different pairs of writers interviewed eachother! These pairs of writers were chosen by the head of the program to be “writing partners” and give each other feedback on each others plays throughout the spring semester.
The first interview is questions for Philana by first year playwright Inna Tsyrlin. Philana Omorotionmwan is a 2nd year MFA playwright and wrote “Fireflies.” Check out the interview below and then see her play, Thursday April 20th!! Also watch out for all 7 of the other interviews with our other writers!
Inna Tsyrlin: What is it about insects that got you interested to use them as characters (and metaphors) for your full-length play?
Philana Omorotionmwan: I didn’t set out to write a play that used insects as metaphors, though I am always trying to figure out how to have my writing function on the level of metaphor. So arriving at the use of insects has most likely been an accumulation of things over the years. It might have begun with reading Audre Lorde’s poem “Menace or the Survival of Roaches” in college. I wrote two very short plays after that in which the characters were roaches.
A few years later I began meditating and started to really think about how all life is interconnected and question why we actually kill bugs. Because they carry disease? If so, doesn’t squashing them just spread the germs? Or do we simply kill them because they creep us out? I started making a conscious effort to catch and release bugs instead of killing them. In that process, they became more “human” to me, in the way that a cat or a dog is. (Not that I necessarily want to keep any bugs as pets.)
Finally, I spent most of last summer here in Athens. I had never before heard or seen anything like what happened when the 17-year cicadas emerged. I started reading about their life cycles of spending 17 years under ground and only having 4-6 weeks above ground to find a mate (for the purposes of reproduction). All of that noise began to make a lot of sense to me. Though I have more than 4-6 weeks to find a mate, as I get older, I’m starting to feel like I should be running around yelling at the top of lungs like the male cicadas do.
So as I started writing, all of these things started to fall into place. Sort of. The metaphor is still pretty muddled.
Inna: In your work we sometimes see the cycle of life, where there is a clear beginning and end. Has something in particular sparked this or is it something you are always thinking about?
Philana: I’m not sure why I keep to attempting to encompass large spans of time in my writing. I think it may simply be that with my plays I feel I won’t have enough material to fill a full-length if it doesn’t cover an entire life. I know that’s not true because other playwrights manage to do it. I just haven’t figured out how yet..
Inna: Your writing has a very unique sound to it and not only with your choice of words. When I hear your work there is this lovely lyricism to it and space for breath. Do you concentrate on sound when writing and what techniques or tools do you use to assist you in that?
Philana: I think there are probably a few reasons for that: 1. One of the things I wanted to be growing up was a singer, but I can’t sing. 2. I really “committed” to writing and playwriting in particular at around the same time I started writing spoken word. Spoken word often falls into very specific rhythms, so that’s definitely been an influence (for good or bad). As far as what I do to concentrate on sound while writing… I write out loud a lot, and I change things if I don’t like how they sound coming out of my mouth.
Inna: What gets you excited about theatre and/or writing today (in 2017)?
Philana: Excited… hmm… I pause because the most exciting things I’ve seen that make me want to keep writing have been film and TV, not theatre. Specifically, Moonlight and Atlanta. I appreciate that they refuse to be bound by convention or formulas. Additionally, they tell stories that are moving beyond stereotypical representations of black people. (Yes, there are drug dealers in both, but drug dealers do exist. And at least both works are showing them in ways that humanize them.) Also, and this is less excitement and more relief, but I’m glad that there are conversations happening and steps being taken to address the lack of parity for women and people of color writing for the theatre, film, and television.
Inna: Part of the writing process is re-writing. This can be painful at times, but it can also be a way to either challenge yourself or find something new to discover in your initial idea or draft. How to do approach re-writing? What gets you through it?
Philana: My approach to re-writing is still forming. I’m finding that I make the best rewrites when I do them 2-3 days before and 2-3 days after hearing a draft of the script read by actors. Knowing that I’m going to have people in the room makes me work harder than I might otherwise. Hearing it allows me to identify when things are missing, when they make absolutely no sense, when I don’t like how the language sounds, and so forth.
Now that Philana is your spirit animal, go see her reading!
Written by Philana Omorotionmwan
8:00 pm, Thursday April 20th, Elizabeth Baker Theater, Kantner Hall
It’s twilight time.
And the small, winged things—
like spiders and roaches and fireflies—
have begun to stir and search for light.
Will Then-Self find it before she dies?
Or will Now-Self find other ways to survive?
Fireflies is an exploration of one girl’s longing and search for intimacy through the lives of insects.
More about Philana
Philana Imade Omorotionmwan is originally from Baton Rouge, LA. She earned her BA from Stanford University where she first began writing plays under the mentorship of Cherríe Moraga. Philana’s writing frequently considers how the processes by which we are “othered” often restrict us from experiencing the fullest expression of ourselves. Her play BEFORE EVENING COMES has been developed by BAPF, Br!nk, and La MaMa. FIREFLIES recently received a workshop at UC Berkeley and STRONG FACE was the KCACTF Region II Finalist for the NPAT Award. Production of Philana’s short plays includes THE SETTLEMENT (Ensemble Studio Theatre) and BLACK BOYS DON’T DANCE (Manhattan Theatre Source), and her ten-minute play DIS DA HOOD was a finalist for the 2016 Heideman Award. Her poems have been published in New Delta Review and African American Review. When she isn’t writing, Philana spends her time running, practicing yoga, and perfecting her RBF. philanaplays.weebly.com