Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney talks about how he gets his ideas from his head to the stage
The rising-star playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney may only be 28, but his career has hit enough high notes to last a lifetime. The Miami native attended the Yale School of Drama, where he formed a lasting working relationship with the famed theatrical innovator Peter Brook, author of The Empty Space. McCraney graduated in 2007, and made his New York theater debut that same year with The Brothers Size, part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. A year later, McCraney’s Wig Out!, a portrait of the Harlem drag-queen scene, opened at the Vineyard Theater to rave reviews. Last week he became the first-ever recipient of The New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award.
I recently spoke with McCraney as he rode the New Jersey Transit to Princeton, where the McCarter Theatre is producing his Brother/Sister trilogy.
Show Business: Congratulations on the New York Times award. When did you first hear that you were being honored?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: When I was in England, and I was still working on Wig Out!, they called me and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you an award, but we don’t know the name of it yet, and we don’t know what it is, so you can’t tell anybody.
SB: What is your process like when you become inspired to write something?
TAM: Usually something haunts me for a while, like I’ll just keep thinking about a subject over and over again.
SB: Are you one of these focused, ‘I have to write everyday’ types?
TAM: Not at all. I had this conversation with Peter Brook very early in my career. I kept talking to him about the fact that I didn’t think I was a real playwright. The way he described the writing process was that he would sit at his desk for hours and sort of cry and write. He’d get up at eight and be at his desk until five.
SB: But every writer has a different way of working.
TAM: They do. I can’t start writing on the page until I can imagine what the play will look like in a theatrical space—or until I’m actually in a space and I can feel what the scene is going to look like. Until then, I can’t put it down on the page. When I said this to Peter, he was like, ‘Oh, no, that just makes you a playwright and not a novelist.’
SB: Where did the inspiration for The Brothers Size come from? I know it’s based on West African mythology.
TAM: It is, partially. You know, I had seen so many plays about brothers, and I really felt like there was still more to add to the conversation. So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m inspired.’ I really sat down and I planned to write a play about brotherhood because there’s a little more to the conversation that I wanted to talk about.
SB: Your plays have been produced in London. What’s your impression of the New York theater scene compared with theater over there?
TAM: It’s easy to compare the two because a lot of the same shows run over there, but the way in which theater operates there is so different. It’s mostly funded by a council. The government is really influential in underwriting the arts scene, so there’s a little more room to experiment.
SB: It must be nice to have that freedom.
TAM: It’s not totally free, but there’s a little more room to say, ‘Oh, we can try this bold new show,’ and theaters aren’t as terrified that if they make a flop that it will be the last thing they do and they’ll go under.
SB: Do you have any plans to become a bona fide New Yorker in the future, or will you eventually return to Miami?
TAM: I think I’ll definitely go back to Miami at some point. Right now, I’m just taking it a day at a time.
Originally published in Show Business, May 2009