For the past year and three months, I've taken part in Arena Stage's Playwrights’ Arena, the newest new play initiative developed by the American Voices New Play Institute. Curated by Director of Artistic Programming David Snider, I joined fellow playwrights Norman Allen, Randy Baker, Heather McDonald, Danielle Mohlman, and Shawn Northrip for twice monthly meetings.
When we first convened in January of 2013, New Play Institute Dramaturg, Jocelyn Clarke, set the tone for our work together in the room (paraphrased from my notes):
“We are to serve as each other’s memory for the work we originally set out to do on our respective plays. We are here to champion and challenge each other. We are here to ask questions and listen intently. We are here to dig deeply and honestly into our process and forge ahead even when it all falls apart.”
Toward the end of May, we took a three month break to focus on completing our scripts and returned in September. I wrote about our process for Arena Stage's blog Stage Banter:
"Our focus is on script development. But it’s more than that. We are investigating our dramaturgical practice and our writing process. We’re exploring our theatrical and creative mindset and exploding assumptions about what is and isn’t theater. We are shaping a philosophy of theater that guides our writing practice and acts as a point of entry into our story telling. We are here to experience the ecology of playwriting — we are learning who we are as playwrights in relationship to our work and process to each other and to the American Theater.
Each session allows for an intense, focused and rigorous practice of inquiry, writing and study. I leave each meeting exhausted and rejuvenated all at once, which is really quite thrilling. I feel so fortunate to be able to spend a year dedicated to communing with such exceptionally talented and diverse playwrights. After only five months together, I felt that I had become a stronger and more confident writer. What’s more, I had a renewed sense of love for the theater."
We returned in September for further development and workshops with actors. Hearing the play aloud and embodied by actors was essential. It's important to discuss a play, but there's only so much development that can happen in that space. Also, it helped that this cast came into the room so prepared. They asked smart questions and offered invaluable insight from their perspective.
Our time together culminated in a two day open rehearsal that was presented as part of the Kogod Cradle Series. Jocelyn Clarke served as my dramaturg and led the work in the room. In the course of 48 hours, I slept for four of them and wrote nonstop. It was the most exhilarating, inspiring, encouraging, deeply satisfying, and productive experiences of professional career so far.
Now, below you will find a few things about NOMS DE GUERRE, including a recent blog post, an interview with DC Metro Theatre Arts' very own Joel Markowitz, and wonderful photos from the open rehearsal by Ryan Maxwell. Please enjoy!
Thoughts on Noms de Guerre
Noms de Guerre is a play about war … about the cost of war, the price of freedom.
I come from a family of soldiers. My grandfather was in the Army and served in the Korean War. My mother and father were also in the Army and served during the Vietnam War. My brother served sixteen years in the United States Air Force. My sister has worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs for five years.
Noms de Guerre is a play about war … about honor and glory, pain and sacrifice.
Originally, this was meant to be a play about the War on Women and our ever-changing role in society. I wanted to write about a conservative Black woman whose political decisions hindered women’s reproductive rights. Ultimately, I write to make sense of the world. In the wake of what’s been happening to women around the world and in America, I wanted to understand what could possibly drive a woman, a politician, to do this to other women. The play was to follow the evolution of a friendship between two women, Mira and Jude. Over the course of seventeen years, we would have seen certain events play out in their lives that addressed these larger issues. But despite many valiant attempts and wonderful conversations with my smart, talented and fearless fellow playwrights at Playwrights’ Arena, I found that I couldn’t write that play. Instead, this other story, this story of war … about how a broken soldier returns home and disrupts the lives of his wife and her best friend, needed to be the driving force. So, after speaking with Arena Stage’s brilliant, discerning and passionate dramaturg Jocelyn Clark, I set forth to tell this story. And in the most haunting, exquisite, and terrifying way, these other issues have come through, but now on more personal and deeply intimate levels.
Noms de Guerre is a play about war … about its necessity and its waste, about the impact of war on returning veterans and their families.
The first man I ever loved played the French horn, graduated from high school a year early, joined the Army, survived boot camp, and killed himself two days after my birthday, one week after holding me in his arms for the last time. The second man I loved left me to join the Marines, married someone else, had two children, did two tours in Iraq, and then returned to me for a year and half before parting again … this time to Afghanistan and to a woman more suited for military life. The third man I loved was born into a civil war that lasted on and off for the first thirteen years of his life. He longs to return to his home country, but cannot owing to its continued state of uncertainty. Each time Lebanon appears in the news, I write to him and ask after his family.
Noms de Guerre is a play about war … about broken rules of engagement and the lengths the government will go to stay on mission.
When I first spoke about the play to my father, he told me about a flashback he had experienced more than thirty years ago. It was the middle of the night. He found himself suddenly on the front porch with a gun in his hand. He asked me if I remembered this. I told him that I didn’t. I was probably four at the time and fast asleep. He then told me that the only thing that saved him was talking to his father about all that he had seen and done for his country.
Noms de Guerre is a play about war … about heroic deeds, acts of horror, and the strength and courage it takes to speak truth to power.
I’ve dedicated this play to my father.
(Originally posted on Arena Stage's Stage Banter.)
Playwrights Arena Interview
Joel Markowitz: What or who first inspired you to become a playwright? And why?
Jacqueline Lawton: Growing up, I always loved writing plays and poems and short stories. I did so mostly to entertain my little sister, but also to escape poverty and racism. Life was a little less harsh and vastly more entertaining in my imagination. I even wrote a passionate novella when I was eighteen. My sister found it a few years ago amongst some other long ago lost treasures and gave it to me. It’s a good thing she did, because my father no doubt would’ve had it published in the local newspaper by now! But I was inspired to become a playwright, as in earn an MFA and make a profession out it, by my former professors Amparo Garcia Crow, Ruth Margraff, Omi Olono Osun, and Jill Dolan. These women are brilliant scholars, extraordinary artists, and passionate advocates for gender parity, racial equity, and social justice. They believed in me and my voice as a writer, and showed me that I could do great good in this world from my work. As a playwright, I could address issues that mattered to me and also write parts for women and men of color, which were sorely lacking in the cannon of plays being taught.
JM: Now, tell me about your play being featured in Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena Showcase?
JL: Ultimately, Noms de Guerre is a play about war and its impact on the lives of soldiers and their families. I spoke about the play at some length here on Arena Stage’s blog, but here’s the synopsis to further pique your interest: Noms de Guerre is a haunting, lyrical and passionate story of friendship, love and politics. Attorney General Mira Hamilton is a rising star in the Republican Party, whose campaign against women’s reproductive rights puts her at odds with her long-time best friend, Jude, an award-winning, truth-seeking Broadcast Journalist. At home, Mira struggles to run a campaign for Governor and help her war hero husband, Douglas—a former Marine Gunnery Sergeant and member of JSOC, who battles terror-fueled delusions and flashbacks, adjust to civilian life. When Jude discovers that Douglas is linked to a massacre of Afghan civilians, Mira is thrown into a whirlwind of political intrigue and must decide whether to hold on to her career or save her husband.
JM: What do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after experiencing your work?
JL: With this play, I’m addressing three big ideas in deeply personal and intimate ways: (1.) the ever-changing role of women in society, (2.) the impact of government and military policy on human rights, and (3.) the damaging impact of PTSD on veterans and their family. I hope folks become more aware of these issues and consider how they resonate in their own lives.
JM: How has being a part of Playwrights’ Arena helped you as a playwright?
JL: Having the support of Arena Stage, David Snider, and Jocelyn Clarke has been wonderful. It’s been empowering to be a part of an intimate group of playwrights. Interestingly, being a part of this group reminded me of how much I love working with playwrights and why I love being a dramaturg so much. For the past few years, I’ve shifted my focus away from dramaturgy in order to focus on the growth and development of my own plays. Honestly, I miss it and was so glad to be asked to serve as dramaturg on browsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee, which will receive a world premiere production as part of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New Plays.JM: What did you learn about your writing process?
JL: I became more aware that my writing rituals are rooted in discipline. They are as meditative and focus-driven as they are inspirational and process driven. Also, I became even more aware of how important solitude is for me. As lovely and inspiring as it was to meet regularly, I would not have written this play without time away from our meetings. Also, that I rely heavily on my dramaturg for process and can only take a play so far before needing to hear it read aloud with actors. What’s great is that Playwrights Arena allowed for all of this to take place.
JM: What else are you working on now?
JL: I’m working on an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz for Adventure Theatre MTC next season and a ten minute Biblical feminist play about Miriam and Tzipora for Theatre Ariel to be featured at the Women’s Shabbat at Germantown Jewish Center in April and again at Salon Ariel’s 10×8: Food, Family and Philosophy Festival in Mary. I’m also working rewrites of The Hampton Years ahead of a reading in Miami later this year and a new full-length play, Among These Wild Things, which revolves around an interfaith/interracial couple, Nigel and Lee. When Nigel loses his beloved grandfather and learns more about the lengths his family went through to survive the Holocaust, Lee struggles to negotiate the introduction of religion into her life. It’s still in the early dream stages, but I’m so excited to get started on it.
(Originally posted on DC Metro Theatre Arts.)
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!