James Tyler: The True Currency of Playwriting

James Tyler is an award-winning playwright who has a MFA in Film from Howard University and a MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University, where his concentration was playwriting. His work has been presented by OBIE Award-winning playwright Israel Horovitz at The Cherry Lane Theatre (“Hand Held Out“), The Sixth Annual Fire This Time Festival (“Dolphins and Sharks), and the 4th Annual Beer-Battered New Play Festival (“Loveeeeeee Play). His play “The Drop Off” was featured in The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Playwrights Playground and their Future Classics Series. “You’re Sitting in the Dark” and “hop tha A were semi-finalists for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and “hop tha A” was featured in Asolo Rep’s 2016 Unplugged New Play Festival. James is one of the first recipients of the 2015 First Round Fellowship presented by Open Bar Theatricals to expand “Dolphins and Sharks” from a ten-minute play to a full-length play. “Dolphins and Sharks was presented in staged readings for LAByrinth Theater Company’s Up Next and Barn Reading Series, Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Capital Stage’s Playwrights Revolution, and was a finalist for the 2016 O’Neill Playwrights Conference. His play “Some Old Black Man was presented at La MaMa Theatre as part of the Shadow Festival where it starred Arthur French, and the Berkshire Playwrights Lab will present a full-production of the play this summer that will star Tony Award-winning actor Roger Robinson. His honors include being selected by the OBIE Award-winning 48 Hours in Harlem Festival as one of their 2015 Playwrights, the Paul Robeson Award, and a John Golden Award for Excellence in Playwriting from NYU. He is a proud member of Harlem’s Emerging Black Playwrights Group, a 2014-2015 Dramatists Guild Fellow, a 2016-2017 Ars Nova Play Group Resident, a 2016 Working Farm Playwrights Group Resident at SPACE on Ryder Farm. He was awarded The Playwrights Center’s 2015-2016 Many Voices Fellowship, a 2016 Theatre Masters Visionary Playwrights Award and is currently a Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Fellow at The Juilliard School.

We met in Tisch School of the Arts when we studied dramatic writing. What made you pursue that after getting a degree in film?

My intent on going to [the Department of Dramatic Writing] was to write more screenplays and dabble in television. I just wanted to get through the playwriting classes but once I started I realized, oh, this is interesting.

Were you raised in an artistic household?

I grew up in Las Vegas in a blue-collar home. [My] stepfather worked in construction. At one time, my mom owned a janitorial business. Then she worked in different customer service positions. When my brother and I were young, I remember my mom taking us to the video store, and I was just obsessed with film.

Do you remember a moment when you realized you wanted to be a storyteller?

My mom used to buy us those Mead notebooks just to give us something to do, and I would fill those up in a day. She would have to get me to ration them. [Laughs] When I was in middle school, my uncle asked what I wanted to do, and I had no idea. He pointed out that somebody had to write those movies and TV shows. I hadn’t thought about it until then.

What was your experience like at DDW?

Those were two really great years in my life. I mean, I also had to work my way through NYU to help pay for it, but I still felt so invigorated whenever I was on the 7th Floor in Tisch!

Working and doing graduate school is really hard!

I was working 40 hours a week and going to school, but I also felt so energized. I liked the spirit of the [DDW floor] and being around people who were serious about their craft.

I’ve never met someone who hustles as hard as you do. How do you sustain that and keep up your energy?

I always think you work really hard, and you play really hard too. I do try to give myself space without work. I like going out and having some whisky, seeing a show with some friends. I try to travel as much as possible. What makes the grinding easier is that I really do enjoy writing, even with all of the frustrations.

I’ll always remember you telling me before a writer’s group, how you had stayed up until five in the morning writing, and you were only on your eighth cup of coffee or something.

Honestly, the coffee habit didn’t start until I went to NYU. [Laughs]

Self-care 101. [Laughs] Has there been a moment where you didn’t know if you could keep up with yourself?

When I was in school and working, I was so busy that I didn’t have time to think about it. The struggle was immediately after graduation. I got rejected from everything I applied to. That was a frustrating time. I created really great friendships with some of the professors, so I used to stop by with coffee and get a dose of reality from people who’ve been through this before. There are so many talented people out there and everything is so subjective.

I find it easy to burn out if I am constantly strategizing, rather than seeing what comes out. How do you manage comparison with your fellow writers?

You’re expressing the things that you specifically know and feel about the world. What’s to compare? I only know what I can do, and the same with you. They will both have value in the world. We have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s not a competition, it’s all about expressing the things that you feel and that you know.

What’s your happiest memory as a writer?

There’s a lot. I loved getting confirmation from three professors who told me I was a playwright. I think I needed to hear that to get serious about playwriting. My first Play Lab at Julliard was very memorable (I’m currently in my second year at Juilliard). Being in rehearsal for this show, “Dolphins and Sharks” at LAByrinth Theater Company. We just have such a great team.

It’s really great that you have all these great memories sprinkled throughout.

With playwriting, that’s kind of our currency. We’re not going to get rich off of it, but if we can be around great people and dig into work that makes us feel deeply and think deeply about the lives outside of the theater, that has to be our currency.

What’s your least favorite thing about writing?

[Pause] Trying to turn off my own judgment about my own writing. I think most of us are our own worst critic.

I struggle with that too. When I’m ten pages in and I think, I already know it can be so much better. It can make you want to start over.

Or abandon it. I learned the hard way to shut off that critic thanks to Suzan-Lori Parks.

She’s so down-to-earth and makes you feel safe with your writing.

By her living like that, it allowed me to feel that I didn’t have to be this tortured playwright. Also, when I was in a class with her I wanted to abandon the play that I was working on and she wouldn’t allow it. I’m so thankful that she wouldn’t let me. Now, that same play will be produced this summer by Berkshire Playwrights Lab.

What are some themes or subject matters that you like to explore as a writer?

I’m constantly exploring racial dynamics in my work. I love doing plays with characters of various ages. I love workplace dramas because you spend so much time there just so you can live a life outside of it.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

Of course, I love Suzan-Lori. I love Annie Baker, David Lindsay-Abaire, August Wilson, Ed Bullins. Lots of people.

What do you envision as a successful life?

[Laughs] You stumped me. [Pause] Just being able to write and have fun doing it. I don’t want it to be an obligation. Hopefully I am digging deeper with each play, and thinking of ways to be more inclusive in theater.

The balance between diverse representation and ticket sales is always a tough topic.

I think many people that don’t go to the theater would make more of an effort to go if they knew theater was also serving worlds that they know by telling stories where they could see themselves/the people that they know. If you go anywhere in New York City, you see different people from different places, so much diversity. But when you go into the theater, you don’t get to see that. Even on stage and behind the scenes, theater is still very white. Discrimination and racism, the policies built around both things are intentional, so the solutions have to be just as intentional. It feels like people aren’t going out of their way to intentionally change things.

What you said about making our decisions intentional really resonated with me. It’s important to let your work flow naturally, but I don’t think it has to be the enemy of making decisions to reflect your principles, including with casting.

I think I can go to my grave without needing to see another show or play about a group of white people in their 20’s, set in a living room. Been there, done that a million times. I really think things will improve when leaders get serious and intentional about being inclusive.

For folks who are struggling with things you can relate to, what would you do or say?

It’s getting harder and harder to be an artist, especially in a city like this. I know this because I’ve done it (and I’m still doing it), but sacrifices have to be made in the pursuit of being an artist. I always advise artists to avoid the job that’s going to use up all of your energy and brain power. You have to put your ego aside and find that job that a dog in a suit can do/anyone can do it and it doesn’t require much energy. You have to know your purpose in life. If your purpose is to be a writer, keep that in mind, and this other thing that you do is just to survive. Your family might not be bragging about your job, but whatever.

That’s very real. You might know your purpose, but it doesn’t mean everyone around you will believe it.

That’s what’s great about programs like DDW or writers groups. You have your fellow writers who understand the struggle. Your grandma might not, but your fellow writing comrades will make you feel like you’re on the right path.

We have to make sure we save time for the people who actually make us feel good.

That’s really, really important.

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