By: Jordan Traut
English graduate students Madeleine Bair and Jordan Traut from Millersville University were invited to attend a special author talk with two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer Lynn Nottage at the Fulton Theater in Lancaster City, PA on Sunday April 3rd, 2022. A part of their “IDEA Speaker Series,” Nottage was interviewed before the community by Kevin Ressler, CEO of United Way, about her award-winning play Sweat. Graduate students from ENGL 642 Drama will be attending the show on Friday, April 8th, 2022.
Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to writers and artists who best tell the stories of Americans. Nottage spoke about her first encounters with storytelling in her Brooklyn home as a child. She would listen to her mother and her mother’s teacher friends laugh and tell stories while she sat at the kitchen table doing her homework in the afternoons. Nottage is always trying to replicate that experience in her work as an adult.
“There’s something about being in a dialogue [with] people in a room that I have always enjoyed,” she shared with audience members, speaking on her personal experience with the craft of transforming oral storytelling into screenplays for the theater. “The way a story shifts and moves” based on how people respond to it in real-time is the magic of the performing arts and what sets drama apart from other literary pursuits.
A commission of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Sweat is one of Nottage’s most celebrated plays. It came to life through oral interviews with blue-collar workers in the post-industrial small town of Reading, Pennsylvania, for which the drama is set. Its characters reveal how entire segments of the American population can feel invisible, especially in the working class. The author points out during her interview how the crew can be virtually unseen during a production yet remain the backbone of the theater. She says, “Here we live, going about our lives, not really thinking about our neighbors. Our neighbors who are really struggling and who feel invisible.”
For Nottage, her work is about intentionally seeing the people that American society does not want to see – the communities we build our highways around and the people we do not give names to. Crediting her “nomadic imagination,” the author explains how she finds the unseen people to tell stories about without exploiting them. “My brain is always looking for a beach that no one has been to before,” like a backpacker is always searching for that remote spot few have ever been to before. Nottage “illuminate[s] those spots that don’t get seen that often.”
As a Black female writer, there were few mentors who looked like her in the industry. Nottage explains that successful people often are the support systems they wish had supported them in their journey. “I have been the person I wanted to be mentored by,” she says. She expresses her desire to make the theater equally comfortable for everyone in the United States, encouraging non-traditional venues to disrupt the norms of accessibility. Along similar lines, it is critical for the younger generations of all communities to see themselves reflected in the characters in books and on the stage.
The last piece of wisdom Nottage gave to audience members at the Fulton is to not write to the expectations of anyone else. As a more experienced artist, she says, “I am only in service to myself.”