Feeding the Dragon
Jan. 11 – Feb. 4
Written and performed by Sharon Washington
Directed by Maria Mileaf
- A Christmas Carol (2017)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Our Great Tchaikovsky
- Heartbreak House
- The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
- Cloud 9
- The Comedy of Errors
- A Christmas Carol (2016)
- The Piano Lesson
- Queens for a Year
- Having Our Say
- Romeo & Juliet
- The Body of an American
- A Christmas Carol (2015)
- Rear Window
- An Opening in Time
- Kiss Me, Kate
- The Pianist of Willesden Lane
- Private Lives
- A Christmas Carol (2014)
- Ether Dome
A Conversation with Sharon Washington
A Brief Chat About the Play’s Inspiration and Inception
By Skye Robinson Hillis, Artistic Apprentice
You’ve had a very busy career on stage and screen as an actor, ranging from Broadway to Hollywood. Where did the idea to write this play come from? Why was it important to you?
I’ve been told for many years that I should tell my story of growing up living in a library. So back in 2007 I went by the St. Agnes Library to revisit and conjure some memories and it was closed! There was construction netting over it and dumpsters out front – it looked like they were going to tear it down! They were actually beginning a major renovation, but it made me think about what would have been lost. All the stories held in those walls gone – like we never existed. That really lit the fire to start writing. And naturally I first began writing it as a book.
But as an actor I’d had really wonderful experiences for the past several years working exclusively on new plays. Contributing to their development process from first readings, through workshops and sometimes to full productions. There is something about that collaboration, of creating something that did not exist before. Telling a story that I haven’t seen on stage before is particularly exciting to me as an artist. Collaborating to give voice to a new character. Using my skills to help a playwright craft a new story. I never considered myself a writer – more an interpreter of others’ words. But as I worked on these new plays I felt the urge to use some of those same tools on myself. I’d been helping tell other people’s stories for years. Now it was time to tell my own.
Your childhood growing up in the New York Public Library has many fairy tale elements to it, and the process of “feeding the dragon” – aka the coal furnace in the basement – is quite a mythical one. Can you tell us a little about what those storybook connections mean to you?
I grew up reading fairytales. There were big old beautifully illustrated classic collections in the library – like the Lang Colored Fairy Tale book series that I devoured. Even as a child I was fascinated with the “flipside” of the fairy tale – the dark side. Let’s face it, most of the classic fairy tales are pretty brutal: kids threatened with being eaten, or stolen, or sold, wandering alone in forests or locked in rooms. Scary stuff! I think as an only child I found comfort in the resourcefulness of these protagonists. They made their way out of some pretty terrible situations and survived and thrived. If they could do it, so could I. It’s why the Neil Gaiman quote resonates so much with me:
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist,
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Have you learned anything about yourself and your own family throughout the process of bringing this story to the stage? What impact has working on this piece had on your life today?
I’ve been given a gift: to be able to spend time researching my family history. Hours of revisiting stories I’ve heard for years and discovering what’s fact and what’s “embellished” – and many times the truth really is more interesting than fiction. I’ve been able to hear the voices of the people I love who’ve passed on and carry them with me almost every day. Sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s very hard. It’s hard because I still miss them. But this process has also given me insight, through a personal lens, into the history of our nation, its cities and institutions. The contributions and sacrifices my family, as well as many other poor working class families made, are in danger of being forgotten. Yes, mine is the story of an African-American family which comes with its own very specific set of challenges. But I’ve been amazed after performances how many people come up to me and say. “I couldn’t be more different than you, and was raised in a completely different part of the country, but that was MY father!” Or mother. Or Grandmother. I guess the saying is true, “the more specific a story – the more universal”. I certainly hope that’s the case. It’s important to me that today, in this very divisive atmosphere in our country, that we try to find commonality. That we stop seeing people different from us whether because of race, class or gender as “the other.” Because it’s only then we can begin to see past stereotypes and single narratives and have real conversations.
Have you had any surprises and/or challenges crop up for you during this experience?
Yes. Being both performer and playwright still takes a little getting used to. Wearing both hats has been a bit of a challenge. I was pretty overwhelmed by it during the first production – I was still creating much of the piece while performing it. So I was never fully in one head or the other – the playwright in my head was always judging, trying to rewrite the lines as they were coming out of my mouth – and the actor in my head was just wishing the playwright would make a choice! I’m learning how to be just one thing at a time. Now, as I would with any playwright, my job as the actor is to say the lines as written and make that work. And of course because it’s a solo piece I don’t have an acting partner on stage with me – now the audience is my scene partner. I’m communicating directly with them. And the responses vary from night to night. It’s exciting and yes can be both surprising and challenging!