The 24th Annual Seabury Quinn, Jr. Playwrights’ Festival is almost here! The featured, Thesis Productions of our Third Year MFA Playwrights debut this weekend in Kantner Hall on the Elizabeth Evans Baker Stage. To celebrate the opening of the featured productions, and leading up to the festival staged readings on the 26th, 27th, and 28th, we will be featuring daily interviews with the current playwrights about their work.
Third Year MFA Natasha Renee Smith (pictured below!) was interviewed by First Year MFA Jean Egdorf about her play, Vessel.
Jean Egdorf: For anyone who saw your second-year reading of Vessel in last year’s Play Fest, they are in for a brand new experience of the script; what are some highlights of your experience in getting to work with a script over two years, from staged reading to full production?
Natasha (Nat) Renee Smith: New play development can take years, and I’m still figuring out how to be a playwright. So my journey with Vessel has taken me all over the place. At first I was very focused on structure, then I let the creative process take over, and this year I think the two have started to balance each other. I feel lucky to have had so many wonderful collaborations; Anne and Carson were both involved in my second-year reading, so they have helped this play through its many iterations. When we finally got into production, it was like bunch of puzzle pieces coming together at last. And I’ve learned so much about the play in the rehearsal process! Now I’m ready to take a step back—when you’re this wrapped up for this long, it’s hard to be objective about your own work.
Jean: Your play includes a number of images and ideas that seem like they would be disparate, yet come together in harmony (the metronome/music, biology and bacteria, chaos theory…). What inspired you to build these images into your play?
Nat: I have no idea. I try to have a sense of my artistic process (and purpose), but it’s difficult to track how everything develops. The images I work hardest to find do nothing for my play and get cut, while images that randomly appear really resonate. I suppose that’s what artists mean when they talk about “flow” and accessing the unconscious. Obviously, it’s not really random—but it happens in ways that can be surprising. Of course, one image often leads to another. Magnets are connected to metronomes, which are connected to music, and so on. I write many, many, many drafts. As the story shifts, so do the images, and sometimes I lose moments I loved in rewrites. Playwriting is like breaking your own heart over and over again.
Jean: Your play is set at MIT. Did you ever want to pursue an education in STEM fields?
Nat: I went through a phase where I really wanted to go to MIT. I always did well in math—and I really enjoyed problem-solving. When I was a junior in high school, I advanced to the second round of the American Math Competition. I was pulled out of classes for a day to study with the other six people from my school who had advanced. They were all boys, and I felt totally out of place. I avoided a lot of pursuits I might have enjoyed because I didn’t feel safe or welcome in all-male spaces. And I was terrified of failure. In the arts, there’s a lot more freedom to be yourself. Both are challenging, but in different ways.
Jean: What sort of research did you undertake for writing this play? How did it compare to your usual process of incorporating research into a script?
Nat: I was really intimidated at first and thought I needed endless research. I read books, dug through websites, tracked down articles… I think a part of me wanted to sound really smart! I still worry that I should have done more research, but I pulled back for a reason. It’s easy to take one idea and run with it, and notice too late that it’s clouding the story. So I pruned a lot of the explicit scientific research. I tried to keep the most evocative language and beautiful images. Hopefully, everything I’ve learned about chaos theory can be put to use in another play someday!
Jean: You use piano music throughout your play. What is your favorite composition/who is your favorite composer?
Nat: My dad is a classical pianist, so I grew up hearing piano music constantly—and I can’t hear Rachmaninoff or Debussy without thinking of him. When I was a kid, he would test me and my siblings by playing the opening bars of a movement of a Beethoven symphony. We had to guess which one it was. I also played cello, and loved Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites. So hearing classical music often takes me back to childhood.
Natasha Renee Smith studied playwriting at Amherst College with Constance Congdon, where her play In Her Place (Denis Johnston Playwriting Award) was produced. Through a Civic Engagement Fellowship, Nat spent the summer of 2010 teaching fiction writing in Nairobi, Kenya. The three-time recipient of the Roland Wood Fellowship, she apprenticed at Horizon Theatre Company and interned at the Alliance Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company, where her play Catapult was featured in the Café Bohemia Reading Series. Her ten-minute play “Tried” was a KCACTF Region 2 semi-finalist; “The Party,” a monologue, appears in My Mother#!^!#! College Life (Dramatic Publishing 2017). She writes about unsettling facets of love and family, illuminating the deceptive beauty of human flaws.
by Natasha Renee Smith, directed by Anne McAlexander
2:00 pm – April 21st & 28th, Elizabeth Baker Theater, Kantner Hall
8:00 pm – April 26th, Elizabeth Baker Theater, Kantner Hall
Metronomes are controlled by magnets. Magnets are controlled by the Earth. The Earth is controlled by the sun. Who—or what—controls Tiana? The MIT sophomore enters into dual orbit with Luke, a professor of chaos theory. This darkly romantic play explores mental illness, power dynamics, and the poetry of visceral pain.
Tickets for the Featured Productions are $5 general admission or FREE for OU Students (with valid student ID) through Arts for Ohio; available at the Templeton–Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium box office.