Core Writer Christina Ham is at the Playwrights’ Center this week, workshopping West of Central in advance of its world premiere at Pillsbury House Theatre in September. She’s collaborating with director Hayley Finn and actors Regina Marie Williams*, Brian Grandison*, James A. Williams*, Mark Benninghofen*, Olivia Wilusz, Jamila Anderson*, and Kory LaQuess Pullam (*Member of Actors’ Equity). An interview with Christina:
Last year, you took your play Scapegoat to the town it is set in: Elaine, Arkansas. What was that like?
As a writer it is difficult to put into words what it was like to take Scapegoat to Arkansas. The play was performed in Helena, AR about 20 minutes from Elaine. Quite simply, it was a real time opportunity to see how art can provide some catharsis to an unthinkable event. The 1919 event had to do with the slaughtering of hundreds of African American sharecroppers who were trying to organize as a union so that they could get equal pay for their crops. In the audience were descendants of the landowners that had committed these atrocities alongside the descendants of the survivors of this mass murder. What I experienced in that reading is the resilience of the African American and the triumph of the human spirit. In the midst of where this country is right now with the fallout from Charlottesville as I write this… I just don't know how much more conciliatory a people can be.
You write a lot of genre plays. How do you approach a play that you know is going to be a horror, noir, or other specific genre?
All of the plays that I write, whether genre or not, usually have a lot of research behind them. So, part of it for me is really getting a feel for the environment and world that the play is contained in. Most of the plays take place in places that I’ve traveled to before, but a lot of them don’t.
What is the most unusual place you’ve found inspiration for a play?
I don’t know if it’s unusual, but… the shower.
In what ways are playwriting and screenwriting similar? Different?
Playwriting and screenwriting are similar in that at the end of the day it’s all about having a great story and compelling relationships. Where they differ is that playwriting is dialogue-driven and screenwriting is visually driven.
When did you know you wanted to be a playwright?
My senior year of college, after taking an undergraduate Playwriting I and II class with Velina Hasu Houston, I decided I didn’t want to go to law school, but instead, go to graduate school where she did (UCLA) and study playwriting.
What is a play you wish you’d written and why?
Wow, this answer could change on any given day… from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to The Crucible to Sweeney Todd. It’s hard to choose.
What is your advice for finding or creating an artistic community?
I think my advice for finding or creating an artistic community is that you have to network. See who’s out there. Take them out to coffee. See if these folks that you are encountering have the iron sharpens iron capability to take you to the next level as an artist. And, most importantly, the seriousness. Not everyone does.
How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?
I balance my writing with the rest of my life by creating boundaries. When I’m writing I’m writing and when I’m not… I’m not. Nothing gets in the way of that.
What was the most thrilling artistic experience you had recently?
The most thrilling artistic experience I’ve had recently is having four of my plays produced back to back in the Twin Cities last season. That was pretty fantastic.
Describe an “aha moment” or moment of discovery you’ve had.
Writing a recent project and realizing that part of the structure and the current scene work that I had wasn’t working and I was going to start over and that I’ve now been doing this for over 25 years and that I knew everything I needed to know to not only fix it, but make it better.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?