Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall is best known for her Olivier Award-winning play The Mountaintop, in which she explored Martin Luther King’s last night before his assassination. She talks to us about writing for theatres on both sides of the Atlantic, handling criticism and getting distracted by Beyoncé…
Each play comes out of me absolutely different.
I do not write every day. In fact, I hate writing – I’ll do everything to prevent myself [from it]. I do things that I hate even more than sitting still for five hours, like wash dishes, exercise, eat carrots, go to www.beyonceworld.net (well, I actually like to do that). Writing is hard – it takes a lot out of me. You have to go deep into your well and unless I’m going deep, I don’t want to do it. But when I get there, I can write for 12 hours straight.
I try to “write” in my head before I sit down in front of the pad of paper or the computer. It’s not that I want everything figured out – I want to discover the world along the way, otherwise I’d be bored – it’s just I want the idea to be incubated. Then I sit down and do a ”vomit” draft, where I fly through from beginning to end. I always have to finish what I started.
When I first started writing I always wondered, “Are my words enough for the revolution?” I didn’t know what revolution I wanted to be part of, but I asked myself this nonetheless. I’m not very religious but I think of the theatre as a church: it’s my salvation in the way that I can move people to tears or to laughter. That’s the first step towards social change: when we see one another in our darkness and our light.
Taking the play [The Mountaintop] to London was the smartest thing I did. The cultural and historical distance that British audiences have from [Martin Luther] King as a subject made them receive the play; they weren’t judging me or what I was doing – they were witnessing the story. I’ll never forget the opportunity James [Dacre, theatre director] and Theatre503 provided for me. The US develops new plays; the British produce them. I’ve only had two plays produced but I’ve had over 25 readings of my 10 plays. That’s the state of American theatre right now. Ain’t it sad?
I don’t feel there’s a lack of plays that dramatise African American experiences, but I feel there’s a lack of plays that are produced. Camille Darby. Dominique Morisseau. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. Radha Blank. Christina Anderson. Joshua Allen. I want to see their stories on stage – writing on the extremes of the African American experience, in different styles with diverse voices.
Although most of my plays are set in Memphis, I don’t really write about what I know; I write about what I want to learn more about. Every play is an opportunity for me to learn about myself, about my world.
Learn how to rely on yourself for notes. When starting out, we think the director or some random actor’s notes are going to solve your play – that’s too much power to give somebody. You have to figure out your craft for yourself and learn how to tell people to shut up and that you don’t need their feedback.
Be the tough mother you need to be, then when it’s grown, kick it out the nest and watch it fly.
In Focus: The Mountaintop – how to weave fact with fiction…
I actually didn’t think it was challenging because I knew that what I was writing was ficitionalised. I will never know how [Martin Luther King] sounded like behind closed doors, what kinds of jokes he told, whether or not he talked to himself. I had to use my imagination. I didn’t feel beholden to historical facts. I thought about how any human being – whether they were man, woman, living in the past, living in the future – would react to feeling like death was always knocking on your door. There were eyewitness accounts of Dr King jumping every time the lightning struck when he gave his “Mountaintop” speech; that made it into the script as a suggestion of human behaviour. That’s when research and facts are helpful.