Art Talk with Marcus Gardley

By Rebecca Gross
Headshot of playwright Marcus Gardley

Marcus Gardley. Photo by

Some people fight injustice through the courts, others with civil disobedience, and still others with their art. Award-winning playwright Marcus Gardley falls into the third category. His dramas are both wildly inventive and rich with history, invoking poetry, original music, and Greek mythology to focus attention on social issues, as seen through the lens of the African-American experience. Last year, two organizations received NEA grants to support the premiere of his work: the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for Black Odyssey, and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the premiere of The House That Will Not Stand. The former tells the story of Ulysses Lincoln, an African-American soldier just returned from Afghanistan. A reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, the play crosses timeframes, blurs lines between human and god, and makes it clear that history remains very much alive in the present day. In The House That Will Not Stand, we go to 1836 New Orleans, where the concept of freedom, in terms of slavery and relationships, plays out among the daughters of a newly widowed freewoman. Like all his work, both are equally epic in their message and their storytelling.

The son of a pastor and a nurse, Gardley was born and raised in Oakland, California, where a childhood steeped in literature and politics eventually informed much of his career. We recently chatted with Gardley about his artistic obsessions, the influence of music and poetry, and the lessons he tries to impart on his students at Brown University. An edited version of the conversation is below.

NEA: You began writing at a very early age. Can you describe how your writing self first developed as a child?

MARCUS GARDLEY: My mother was an avid reader, so there were tons of books around the house. We were always surrounded by books, and we always read and were being read to. I think because I read all the time, a passion for writing grew. I actually wrote a play before I saw a play. All of my siblings are writers too: my brother's a poet and my sister's a novelist. We were always very precocious, and a little too smart for our own good, to be honest. We always wrote—I can't remember not writing. It's strange.

NEA: You originally focused on poetry; you took your first playwriting class when a creative writing professor said your poems read more like stage directions. Could you talk about the transition from poetry to drama, and how poetry still influences your work?

GARDLEY: I feel like those poems were plays. There was a presentational quality about the poetry that was needed in order to understand how the art works in space. When people used to read my poems in class, I would stop them mid-way, and say, "You're reading it wrong." The teacher would say, "You can't tell them how to read it; it's a poem." So I started writing stage directions so people would understand how to read it, and of course that didn't do any good. What was even more profound is I didn't like the part of poetry where you read. You wrote it by yourself, and then you presented it, and that was it. I felt like there was a step missing. I found that step in the theater, where you make it with other people. That was what really excited me about the theater: the making of it when I get into a rehearsal space with other artists, and making it three-dimensional.

NEA: It sounds like that collaborative element is pretty important to your process.

GARDLEY: Very important. I feel like the real writing only happens when you're in rehearsal. Before that, it's blueprints; it's rough drafts.

NEA: Your plays deal largely with social traumas that have happened throughout history, from slavery to contemporary gun violence. How do you hope your work fits into this larger social narrative?

GARDLEY: I consider myself an activist, and I couldn't do it if I wasn't hoping that the work would somehow spark a dialogue, or somehow cause people to look at social issues differently. What I intend for [the plays] to do, is cause conversation afterward. From that conversation, [I hope] people are not only inspired to see more theater, but also inspired to do things in their community, so that the work is actually, literally causing a spark for change.

For example, my early work was actually going into communities and interviewing people about some of the social issues that they were facing. Then we would cast people in the communities in the play, as a means of having them deal with these issues that they were struggling with. Then I thought if you want to reach a larger group of people on a much bigger scale, you have to work in the regionals, in the larger houses. It's different though: [in my early work,] people were dealing with it face-to-face, and in regional theater, it's the post-play discussions where people are grappling with these social issues.

NEA: How did that activist dimension develop?

GARDLEY: My uncle is one of the founding members of the Black Panthers, so it was part of my upbringing. I was surrounded by people growing up who were heavily influential in my neighborhood in politics and social activism, so it became natural to my siblings and I as well.

NEA: Do you consider it a responsibility, or is it more of an artistic choice?

GARDLEY: It's both. Quite honestly, I grew up in a very bad neighborhood, and the people in my neighborhood chose me. They saw that there were choices I was making that were not positive. They picked me up and decided to mentor me, and the cost of that was made quite clear: I had to pass that on in whatever I did in my life. They said, “Most people are required to be good citizens; you need to be a good citizen and you need to mentor people.” They were activists, so I feel like in a lot of ways, I'm following in their footsteps, continuing the legacy. So I feel responsible in that way. But also, it's my voice. I could not express myself any other way.

NEA: You’ve spoken a lot about your artistic obsessions—that's a word that comes up over and over again in your interviews. How do these obsessions develop, and how do you know when they’re ready to be turned into a play?

GARDLEY: I always used to obsess about things that were happening in the news, or in my community, or amongst my friends, and the way of really dealing with those obsessions is to write about them. I can't sleep sometimes, I can't stop talking about it, and I can't stop teaching it when I'm talking to my students.

I have tons of obsessions. Obsessions are stories, obsessions are social issues that need to be talked about. The best way to answer your question is something happens to me, the obsession blooms, and I have to deal with it then. Until that moment, the stories, the obsessions are gestating in my mind.

For example, gun violence in Chicago. Growing up in this particularly bad neighborhood, I lost a lot of friends to gun violence. I knew I needed to write about it, but writing about it in the scope of Oakland, where I'm from, was too close to home. There was something really powerful about spending a lot of time in Chicago, and talking to people and interviewing them. I had both a distance and also what felt like a responsibility, because I had gone through similar things that a lot of people I talked to had gone through. So the obsession was always with me, but I found a context for it, because people in Chicago were not only willing to deal with it, they were angry and passionate about the subject matter. It fueled this obsession that lay dormant inside me for so long. [Ed note: this became the basis for Gardley’s play The Gospel of Lovingkindness.]

NEA: What are some of your current obsessions?

GARDLEY: Right now I'm writing this piece that takes place in 1676 Virginia. I'm really obsessed with what this land looked like 100 years before we became what we know as the United States. What did that look like? What did it mean to be a black person, or a white person? What did it mean to be an indentured servant? I discovered that laws were being passed where all of a sudden you could kill someone and not be held accountable. Or you came here as an indentured servant, and you were supposed to serve seven years, and all of a sudden they told you, overnight, you're going to be a slave for life. These questions, these histories, these stories need to be told. I'm obsessed with that, and I think in an interesting way, it reflects something that's happening now in our country.

Then I have an obsession with the prison industrial complex. I just did a piece in New York last year about that, and different forms of policing, and the idea of a community deciding how we're going to police each other instead of traditional forms. I feel like our world is changing rapidly, and I want to be part of a movement in which we are growing and becoming better citizens.

NEA: Most of your work deals with history in some way, whether it’s a particular period or incident. What sort of research do you do, and how do you balance this research with your own artistic vision and freedom?

GARDLEY: I read everything. Unfortunately, there aren't actually a lot of histories that date back to the 1600s and 1700s, especially the histories of African-American people. There's very little. So I just read everything that's been published. Then after I read it, I get rid of it. I give it to someone else to hold for me so that I'm not writing an historical document or a documentary; I am writing a fictionalized account of a period. I’m also purposely using poetic language because there's no way to really capture how people spoke then, especially people of a lower class. You don't have anything written, because a lot of those people were illiterate, so they didn’t write. What is beautiful about poetry is that you can—in what I have found to be a very profound way—fill in the gap. Because humans always speak in poetry; our first language is music. Even if I haven't figured out their cadence, or the phrases they would use, because the language is already heightened, it's reborn to us. It's a way to represent a group of people without diminishing their beauty and their culture.

NEA: Music figures heavily in your work. Does music come into play in your personal life as well? How does it become integrated into your plays?

GARDLEY: I was a musician—I played the piano, clarinet, and trumpet. But I also grew up in the church. My father was a pastor, so I was surrounded by music; six or seven days a week I sung in the choir. So I'm inspired by rhythm and lyricism.

Brecht put songs in his play as a respite, but also as a way in which characters can comment indirectly on a social issue or a character in the play. The way I use music is it's a respite from the poetic language, but also it sets the tone of the world of the play. How can you get at representing Louisiana, New Orleans, in the 1830s? Well, you need Latin hymns because they were Catholic. The music in that world somehow transports us. I try to use actual music from the period because, like I said, I have to make most of the language up. But the music is authentic.

NEA: Could you walk me through your creative process?

GARDLEY: I always say plays find us. What happens is I'll have an idea; I'll have ingredients. So I know the main character in this play is a woman who sells fish on a beach. Then, a year later I may find something else, maybe the title, and then months after that, the plot, and then months after that are the characters. So it comes over a span of three or four years: the original songs, how I’m going to use language to deepen the characters. Once I have all of those ingredients, I can write the play in about three weeks because I've meditated over years what's going to happen.

NEA: Do those ingredients just come to you? Are you actively working on them, or is this solely an internal process?

GARDLEY: It's both. Because I have so many ideas, it has to get past the mental stage, which is just internal thinking, constantly thinking about it, meditating on it. Most of those ideas never make it to the second stage, which [is when] I use this magic box and notebook. In the box I collect artifacts that symbolize moments or themes in the play. Like if it takes place on the beach, I might get a seashell—just things I collect. I learned that from Nilo Cruz, who's a playwright. Then I get a brand new notebook and I start jotting down plots, points, and character descriptions and things that the characters will say. Then I start doing research on songs, writing lyrics in the book. When the book is half-full, you know it's time to start sitting down and actually typing.

I do that because when I first started writing plays, I would start doing [those early two stages] at the computer and never get anywhere. I would get frustrated with myself because I felt I couldn’t write a play. Really I just needed to meditate more on what I was doing, so when I actually sat down, I had all the ingredients I needed to get to the end.

NEA: That is a fascinating process. I hope you save those boxes.

GARDLEY: I do. It's hard to keep them all because they get cluttered, but I do keep them. They’re important.

NEA: You teach playwriting at Brown. What do you think is the most important thing you can teach your students?

GARDLEY: The most important thing I've learned in the last few years is that you have to be open to redefining objectives for yourself in order to stay focused as a writer. I always ask my students to give two forms of success: there's success where the only thing preventing you from achievement is you, and then there's a level of success that requires other people. As long as one of those is working, that should be enough for you to keep going.

I do that because oftentimes, somewhere along the way someone tells you success is the Pulitzer. That is a form of success, but the problem is if that’s your goal, the journey of getting there could be long. It's much more practical and much more realistic to set a [more attainable] goal for yourself. I tell my students, "Challenge yourself in each play. Everything you write, challenge yourself. This last play you wrote had 12 characters; the new play has two. Or the last play took place in the present day, the new play takes place in the past.” If you have a variety of goals for yourself, I think the journey is much more interesting as a writer, but also it's less stressful.

I don't think you can teach playwriting; I think it's a talent. But you can teach craft. So I like to talk about craft, I like to talk about how to survive as a writer. I think in a lot of ways that's the most important education, because most people are not talking about that. You could have all the talent in the world, but if no one's telling you how to survive and the importance of hard work, then it can be very difficult.

NEA: So what are the essentials of your survival guide?

GARDLEY: Find a group of actors that understand your work and keep them close to you. Find a number of directors that understand what you're doing and keep them close to you. Look for a theater that is producing work that you admire and respect and no matter what level or what kind of prestige they have, that's where you want your work to be produced. It's really important to try other mediums because that's actually how you improve as a writer. So I would say the last ingredient of my survival guide is to make sure that if you're a writer, that every so often you act in a play, every so often you direct a play, try your hand at writing for TV, try your hand at writing for film. These other mediums and these other forms of expression actually sharpen what you're already doing as a playwright.

NEA: Why do we need art?

GARDLEY: Art is the most profound way in which a group of people can understand their culture and other cultures. Somehow art gets at the soul of who we are as a people. It transcends race, class, and gender. It transcends sexual orientation. It transcends history. It transcends war. It, for me, is the only thing that truly is eternal. Histories get rewritten and changed. They get buried. But art, for some reason, manages to remain untainted.