by Samm Madsen, dramaturg
This interview has been edited for clarity and length with permission from the author.
What was your path to being a playwright like? I grew up loving theatre because my parents were avid theatre attendees. I was attending plays around the age of 2…basically as soon as I could sit up and sit quietly! I also always loved writing and reading. I read voraciously as a child! I relished creative writing projects in school, particularly during my elementary and middle school years. However, during my high school years I was much more focused on academic writing and sadly any creative writing projects subsided. It wasn’t until I began to gain an interest in children’s theatre/TYA, in my late 20s, that I began to get creative ideas for plays for young people. At first they were just ideas and I had no idea if I could write a play. When I was 27 I was accepted into the MFA Theatre for Youth program at Arizona State University and I finally decided to try playwriting. The graduate school environment turned out to be the perfect place for me to experiment and combine my lifelong loves of theatre and creative writing. I took graduate-level playwriting workshop and began working on plays for young audiences, With Two Wings was one of the first plays I started writing.
Was there anything that you did when you were younger that helped you on your path to being a writer? As mentioned above, I think it was a combination of seeing a ton of theatre, reading all of the time, and writing creatively. As a young reader I also loved different genres and styles of books. Some of my favorites were books that presented challenging ideas, like Tuck Everlasting. They posed the big questions of life to me. What does it mean to be human? Why are we here? What will death my like? How do you move through seemingly insurmountable obstacles while maintaining your humanity/integrity?
What inspired you to write a play on a Greek myth? Did the myth come first or did the story? With Two Wings is inspired by my own family. My older sister has a learning disability and for a time she was married to man who also had a learning disability. They had a son, my nephew, who has no disabilities and is very bright. As my nephew began to grow up, I began to wonder what it was like for a child with no disabilities to be raised by two adults who did. At what point would he realized his parents were different from others? How would he react? How would that affect the parent/child relationship? What would it mean for his future that he would surpass his parents intellectually at a very young age?
I didn’t want to write a straightforward play tackling these issues, I wanted to make it theatrical. So, I chose to create a semi-fantasy world that seemed like ours, but different. As my sister and her former husband have learning disabilities, which are unseen, I changed the disability of the parents in my story to a visible/physical one with their wings.
Finally, after working through a 10-minute version of this play, I had a dream about flying and I made a connection between my story and the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. In my dream I saw the reversal. Instead of a parent watching a foolish/impulsive child flying too close to the sun, I saw the child watching the parent as fallible. That’s when it all started to click into place! I started to see how the Greek story could fit nicely into the themes of my play. That is the moment that With Two Wings really started to take shape as a full-length play for young audiences.
Now, With Two Wings has been done quite a few times, even all over the world, right? Yes, it’s surprising because when I first published it, Kim Peter Kovac, who is the head of TYA at the Kennedy Center, I think he had read an early version of it and they had won a little Kennedy Center award it when I was a grad student in Arizona, and it was still in a place where it was strong, but it hadn’t gone through the process in Indiana and wasn’t in its final form. Anyways, Kim Peter Kovac was at a conference in India and talking to a Japanese director there who was interested in a play about disability, but wasn’t really sure which one to do, and Mr. Kovac said, “Well I know this young woman in the Arizona/wherever she is now. Why don’t you read her play, With Two Wings?” And the Japanese director loved it so much he did the play, translated into Japanese, and did a second production within a couple of years.
And then my friend Iran, who I met a long time ago before grad school, she is a professor now in Taiwan, but I met her in Milwaukee at First Stage Children’s Center. She decided to direct it with her students. In Taiwan I believe they speak Mandarin, so it was translated into Mandarin and performed with Taiwanese students there. So I kind of always joke that I’m big in Asia. It’s really cool to know that the story has some translation to other cultures and languages.
We talked earlier about some other productions that you’ve seen or you’ve heard about. What have been some of your favorite innovations or interpretations you’ve watched come to life? Well, the wings and the flight, I always wonder “How are you going to do that?” Nobody does it in a Peter Pan style, or anything like that, and I never wanted that to be something that people did. But I’ve seen a lot of different interpretations of the wings and the costumes. I’ve also seen a lot of interpretations of the work nest. I’ve seen some places where they do a big fence around the stage, I’ve seen some where the work nest kind of opens into the yard like a play box.
It’s interesting, a lot of those things happen because I’m not a designer, I’m not a technical person. Even when I was writing it, I asked some people, “OK, I’ve got this nest like area, and a work nest that has all these knickknacks… is that going to be too difficult? I just don’t even know how anyone would make this or build this.” And someone just said, “Write it how you see it and creative technical folk are going to figure it out, and they’re going to they’re going to do something you would never even imagine.” And that’s true.
For me, if I write the story and I’m true to the story, then other people will figure out how to make it come to life. It’s the magic of theater.
I’ve noticed all of your published plays are for TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences), what draws you to that genre? Maybe it’s for my love of young children’s literature when I was a kid. The stories that I think of are about kids. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like the idea of someone experiencing something for the first time, or that they’re grappling with a big question of life for the first time. That makes it so much more intense and exciting for me.
I also think a child audience is really exciting to write for. If adult audiences don’t like your play, well they have a season subscription or whatever, they’re going to sit there and they’re going to look at their watch and shrug it off. But kids, if they don’t like your play and you have not caught their attention they’re going to start wiggling in their seats, they’re going to start talking. I just think there is an extra special challenge about trying to capture the imagination of a child audience. They’ve been brought there by somebody, they’re sort of a captive audience. They’re not coming they’re on their own volition and they are told to sit down and be quiet– which is the opposite of what I do as a drama teacher with my students, we’re out and we’re loud and we’re moving. So if those circumstances are what I’m given, how can I write the most exciting, engaging, funny, interesting thing to capture their attention that I can write? That inspires me.
Any final thoughts for people who come to see the show, especially for young writers who might attempt our writing challenge? I always hope by the end of With Two Wings that kids and parents are in the car afterwards, or on the school bus, talking about the characters and the decisions that they made in life, or what they think will happen next. How to stand up for people, whether it’s your family or other people, with a bully or in other situations. There’s a lot of different things that could be talked about, and I hope that this show is a conversation starter for people to be able to talk about their own relationships.
As for writing, why not give it a try? That’s always my invitation to people who think about writing. Just give it a try. You never know, you might be very pleasantly surprised by where your creative mind takes you.