Jacqueline Lawton: How long have you lived and worked as a playwright in DC? What brought you here? Why have you stayed?
Marni Penning Coleman: I grew up in Arlington, and used to write little plays to put on in our living room or backyard. My sisters and I, and our friends, would invite the entire neighborhood, and make tickets; it was quite the production. I have always enjoyed writing, but didn't really start writing plays until 2003, and finished my first full-length in 2006. I've worked a lot in DC as an actor, butfrom 1994 to 2000 I lived in Cincinnati, and from 2000 to 2009 I was based in New York. So I've just relocated full-time back to DC in 2009 to marry my wonderful husband.
JL: Have you ever been a member of a DC area playwrights writing group? If so, did you find it useful? Would you recommend that other playwrights join them?
MPC: I haven't; the only playwrights' group I've ever been a part of is the LA Writers Center; I've been a member since 2006. I would love to get involved with a group of playwrights here in DC - perhaps I'd actually finish the two other plays I'm working on right now! :)
JL: In DC, we have the Capital Fringe Festival, the Intersections Festival, the Source Theatre Festival, the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival, the Black Theater Festival, and the Hip Hop Theatre Festival. We also have the Mead Lab at Flashpoint Theater Lab Program. Have you participated in any of these? If so, can you speak about your experience?
MPC: I've only been involved with the Fringe Festival as an actor last summer; I thought about producing Carol's Christmas at the Fringe, but Pinky Swear Productions snapped it up before I had a chance to do that, so I was very lucky. I'm hoping to get more involved with those festivals as I produce more work.
JL: What kind of work do you do to pay the bills? How do you balance this work with your writing?
MPC: I started writing when I was on the road as an actor, so my "day job" was acting. I was lucky enough to make my living solely as an actor. When I was in "The Unmentionables" at Woolly Mammoth, I really came to admire Bruce Norris. He and I talked a lot about being an actor who writes plays, and how that helps our playwright's voice. He was huge inspiration to me. Since I've moved back to DC, I do voiceovers, I've taught, I coach, and also have been working as the Sales Trainer at the Container Store in Clarendon. Full-time work has really hampered my writing, though. I kept copious notes in my iPhone for play ideas, but wasn't making the time to write them out. I'm hoping to do more now that I'm home with my one month old son (and have a good dictation program, since my hands are never free to type!)
JL: How many plays have you had produced in the DC area? Were any of these plays self-produced? If so, where and what did you learn from that experience?
MPC: My first full-length play, Carol's Christmas, was produced by Pinky Swear Productions last November and December. I have not self produced down here in DC. I loved working with the women of Pinky Swear. It was a fantastic experience as a playwright, and what I learned was to trust the actors and director and step back from the rehearsal process. I was too close to the words; I knew if I was there at every rehearsal, or even half the rehearsals, they wouldn't be able to find things I didn't realize were there. I had already had two readings of the show and DC and in LA, and I just needed a committed group to take the show and run with it - which they did, and I'm very proud of the results.
JL:If you could be produced at any theatre in DC, which would it be and why?
MPC: I'm a huge fan of Woolly Mammoth. I've done three shows there, and I love the type of quirky, edgy, pushing-the-envelope material that they produce. If I could aspire to write a show that would be accepted anywhere, I would pick Woolly.
JL: DC audiences are ...
JL: DC actors, designers and directors are ...
MPC: Some of the best I've worked with in the country.
JL: DC critics are ...
MPC: Ah, how do I answer this one? Every artist has a love-hate relationship with critics. But most critics in DC seem to have a genuine love of the theater, and love getting the word out about work that they admire. It's like anywhere else, I guess. You need to have publicity to get the word out about your shows, but if the reviews have a negative bent (and some critics tend to lean that way more than others), everyone wishes the critics wouldn't be quite so "critical." Know what I mean? That said, we do have some very good advocates for the arts in our community. My take is, you can say anything you want, just spell our names right and put them in big letters with a great big photo. :)
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to get your work produced on the main stages?
MPC: In DC we have such a diverse community, it feels like we're always celebrating our differences in a good way, whether it be nationality or race or gender. This isn't a town that only churns out plays by dead white males. I haven't been produced on the main stages, so I can't speak to that part of the question. But I don't feel that me being a woman would hinder my chances at all; it always seems that our arts centers are actively seeking out diversity.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based playwright or a playwright who has just moved to D.C.?
MPC: Go see plays at every theater you can. Introduce yourself to everyone and let them know you're new in town, or that you're a playwright if they don't know you yet. The arts world is so small, you're bound to have people in common. Get to know each arts organization and their strengths, and get in touch with artists whose work you admire. It's always flattering for actors to hear from playwrights who say they like their work. Build your network this way, then when you've got a piece that's ready, you already have a built-in base of people with whom you can share it. If it's not right for one person, they may know someone else for whom it might be a fit. Be open to anything!
JL: What's next for you as a playwright? Where can we keep up with your work?
MPC: I was on hiatus from the theater while I was pregnant, and I'm slowly getting my feet back under me, but it's still early. I'm two thirds of the way through my next full-length, and I have another full-length play rattling around in my brain that I just need to get down on paper. You can follow what's happening with my work on my website - www.MarniPenning.com. Maybe now that I'm a mom, my writing will take a different bent. We'll have to see!
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!