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Playwright Claudia Barnett: A Conversation

by Clara Wilch

Playwright Claudia Barnett visited the University of Pittsburgh recently for the first of two campus productions of her work slated for this year. She took some time to speak with us about her winding road to fully discovering her unique writer’s voice.

Barnett mused about the happy mystery of her first foray into what has become her passion. She began in a playwriting course as an undergraduate at Cornell University but she said, “I didn’t think I was going to be taking that class.  I was excited that I was going to be taking a class in existentialism, but then I walked into the theatre instead. And I stayed.”  That is, after jumping through several hoops to earn a place in the already fully-enrolled class. The spirit of patience and an eye for serendipity and opportunity in this anecdote suffused Barnett’s perspective of her growth as an artist and writer.

Barnett studied and wrote scholarship for years, earning an MA and PhD in English at Ohio State University and teaching as an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Her plays meanwhile, she describes as at first “terrible” and then “less terrible,” but she couldn’t resist their pull. “My brain works in dialogue and images,” she explained of her unique interest in the dramatic form.  She mentioned the Mid-America Theatre Conference playwriting symposiums as providing an important education in how to develop plays. In 2009, after presenting yet another academic paper to yet another small conference audience, Barnett confided to a friend, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing about other people’s plays. I want to write my own plays.” Her friend fully supported this realization, and soon thereafter, Barnett committed to redirecting her career.

The first professional playwriting experience Barnett gained was through a submission to the Ingram New Works Lab at the Nashville Repertory Theatre (then called Tennessee Rep.) Her leap of faith happily took root when her submission was selected and developed.  So began the third of six full-length plays Barnett has written to date, amongst other, shorter plays. From her first professional project onward, she has embraced opportunities for collaboration and reworking pieces over time; She is a believer that a piece is never “done” and so is always open to what new perspectives and performances can show her.

Barnett’s work Witches Vanish was given a staged reading at the University of Pittsburgh recently, and Aglaonike's Tiger will receive a Lab Production in Fall of 2016, both directed by Shelby Brewster. These works reflect Barnett’s ongoing interest in the stories of women throughout history and the recurring struggles they are faced with, from doubt or judgment to extreme violence, and in creating singular female acting roles in the process. The upcoming production, Aglaonike's Tiger, is the story of the earliest recorded female astronomer who was perceived as a sorceress because of her ability to predict lunar eclipses.

Barnett’s plays embrace the fascinating overlap between historical fact and cosmic balance that the writer perceives and embraces, even in her own grounded yet intuitive perspective on life. “It’s magic. And science. And it’s the perfect combination. Very fun.”