With the Essential Theatre Festival right around the corner, BANG! got the chance to grab Ravens & Seagulls writer Karla Jennings, whose aforementioned piece landed her a spot a co-recipient of the Essential Theatre Playwright Award. Jennings has written over 17 plays, co-founded Atlanta’s Working Title Playwrights, received numerous accolades like the Pillars Playwriting Prize and advanced to final positions in the O’Neill Playwrights Conference- on top of her free-lance work appearing in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and our very ownAtlanta Journal Constitution. Read on below about Jennings’ process and insights.
BANG! When having a play produced, how much of your vision do you hold steady to and howmuch is lenient? What parts?
Karla Jennings When a play of mine gets produced, the whole play is my vision. If changing a part of it hurts that vision, than I don’t do it. I’m quite willing to rewrite it if that will improve the play, and often do; in fact, I usually rewrite during workshop and rehearsals because once actors start speaking the parts and the cast and crew discuss the work, I discover passages that are unnecessary or can be improved or condensed.
My overwhelming experience in theater is that the people I work with are professionals who appreciate and respect what other artists have to offer and don’t try to force any changes that the playwright disagrees with. Only twice over the last 20 years have I worked with a director who’s demanded changes in the script that I didn’t agree with. Those situations are really rare. Theater’s a collaborative effort, and professionals will respect each others’ abilities and be considerate toward their colleagues; that’s usually my experience. Part of becoming a professional playwright is learning how to listen to insights and suggestions from other people, and be willing to reject suggestions that you think would weaken the integrity of the play and accept suggestions that will strengthen it.
BANG! The Essential Theatre Festival focuses on Georgia playwrights, what kind of atmosphere for theatre do you think exists in Georgia?
Karla Jennings It’s tough. Theater has to compete with dozens of other entertainment options, and Atlanta’s a big sports, music and movie town, while Georgia’s support for the arts isn’t commensurate with its size and financial health. But people who work in theater still pour their time, sweat, and hearts into it because it matters, and there’s amazing theater being done in the Atlanta area and statewide. Essential Theatre is the major force behind producing Georgia playwrights. Their productions are tremendous encouragement and has launched a number of playwrights who’ve gone national. Another major force is Working Title Playwrights, which helps develop plays and gives playwrights a community where they can meet other writers and learn the craft. Playwrighting, like most writing, is a solitary profession: without Essential or Working Title Playwrights, the solitude can get to you and bring you down.
BANG! In the process of writing, do you seek out inspiration or did your ideas come to you naturally?
Karla Jennings Both.
BANG! Is playwriting your chief medium? If not, what else, and how does it compare?
Karla Jennings My background is as a newspaper reporter, which was valuable for learning how to listen to people and observe character and action. Since leaving my staff job I’ve freelanced a lot and have also written four books, one of which has been published. I’ve also had a number of essays published. However, writing plays is the easiest for me. My chief strengths are in dialogue, character, and action, the basic elements of a play, so that might be the reason.
BANG! Who do your think play speaks to?
Karla Jennings Anyone who likes dark comedy. Anyone who’s ever lost someone. Anyone who’s gone through the surreal experience of caring for a loved one who’s very sick. Anyone who’s ever wanted to scream at an angel out of grief and anger. Anyone who’s ever wondered who’d be the best Friday night date: Thor or Loki?
BANG! Does your story change throughout the fine-tuning process?
Karla Jennings Yes. A lot. Working with David Crowe (director) and Michael Evanden (dramaturg) has been genuinely exciting. I’ve overhauled the play in a major way that’s made it a much stronger work, which would’ve been impossible if I didn’t trust David and Michael so much, feel safe with them, and respect their ability to analyze a play. I think, during our critique sessions, I’ve only hit Michael once (sorry about the black eye, Mike). I also took a swing at David but he ducked; that boy has fast reflexes! No, seriously folks, I’ve enjoyed working with them on this.
BANG! What is the avenue of getting a play produced like without the help of Essential Theatre?
Karla Jennings Really really really tough. Outside of Essential Theater, which has produced my work twice, I’ve had a handful of full productions, though I’ve had many workshops and showcases. It’s called “workshop hell”; theaters can get small grants to workshop plays, but producing them is much more expensive and time-consuming, and theater budgets are traditionally really tight, so theaters workshop a lot more plays than they will ever produce. Making the leap from being one of several plays a theater workshops annually to being one of the few plays they’ll produce that year is extremely difficult, especially if they don’t know you and aren’t familiar with your work.
BANG! What do you hope your maximum contribution to your audience is?
Karla Jennings That they walk out of the theater with a new appreciation for what a beautiful gift it is to love someone, and for how fleeting that gift is, because life is fleeting, and that for the rest of their lives they will better appreciate the treasure that is life. I hope they gain that from experiencing the play, because it will make them happier. But that’s a tall order! At the least, I’d be glad if they decide who they’d rather date: Thor or Loki, and be able to explain their reasoning if asked.
Check out Essential Theatre’s Calendar for all showtimes of Ravens and Seagulls.