Jacqueline Lawton

Illustration of a mask haging from a pair of gloved hands over a city landscape.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Photo credit Jason Hornick

Jacqueline Lawton: Ah. Theatre is a space where we come together as a community to explore new worlds, different types of people, different experiences where we can learn about the way the world is shaped, the way the world wants to be shaped. Theatre is a place where you can explore ideas, challenge yourself, study the human condition and it’s a space that’s just so magical because the “what if” is a constant question. I mean, theatre is everything <laughs> to me.

Jo Reed: That’s playwright and theatre lover Jacqueline Lawton and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

You might remember Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who was outed in 2003 in retaliation for an article her husband, diplomat Joe Wilson, wrote for the New York Times in which he disputed the allegations that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Jacqueline Lawton’s new play, Intelligence, isn’t about Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson per say —but she uses their story as a spark and takes an imaginative leap—in a political thriller that examines a woman working undercover for the CIA at a time of war. Intelligence has been commissioned by Arena Stage as part of its new series called Power Plays. With Power Plays, Arena Stage will develop 25 new plays that emphasize diverse voices throughout American history. Intelligence is an apt fit—with its story of a woman who’s a covert operative and the price she and her husband pay for their patriotism. Throughout her career, playwright Jacqueline Lawton has reveled in pushing boundaries and shifting paradigms. But still I wondered what inspired this particular story….

Jacqueline Lawton: What inspired me to write this play is when Molly Smith asked me to write a play for the Power Play initiative, I knew I wanted at the center of the story to be a woman. And I wanted the woman’s experience to have impacted not only our political landscape in some way, but also national security. I was looking at what was happening around ISIS and what was happening post-Arab Spring, and I just kept going back to 2003, to this war in Iraq in 2003, and the series of lies that were told that led us to that war in 2003. And I just thought, “This is a pivotal moment in our country,” and that is what led me to this story that was going to be about what transformed our national conversation around national security and what transformed our politics. And I wanted to tell a story about speaking truth to power. I wanted to tell a story about what the consequences were of speaking truth to power. And I remembered what happened when the truth of the lies about yellowcake came out and how this diplomat was punished and his wife, who was a CIA operative, was outed. And I thought, “This isn’t how our democracy should work. When citizens speak the truth, when citizens hold our public officials and leaders accountable, that should only strengthen our nation. There shouldn’t be the space of retaliation against those individuals who are actually really holding the foundation of our society together.” And so that <laughs> is what really brought this play into being.

Jo Reed: So is it loosely based on Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson? Do you use their names, actually?

Jacqueline Lawton: So it’s not based at all, because based requires a sense of, told from their point of view, and I wasn’t interested in doing that. I wanted to do a historical fiction. I wanted to be able to dream and use that magic “what if” that theatre allows you to do when telling stories. So, the story that’s on stage is a very interpersonal story about an operative and her husband who’s pursuing the truth, the operative and her boss -- so there’s a five-character play, and there’s a character who’s name is Valerie Plame and a character who’s name is Joe Wilson – these are all fictional characters that are embodying this world of the play that allow me to tell this very big story in an intimate way.

Jo Reed: And you created the character of her boss, a completely fictionalized person, and she’s an African-American woman.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s exactly right, yeah. I remember we had conversations with CIA officers. They came, they heard the reading of the play and they offered their thoughts. And one of them actually said, “You know, there aren’t women of color in powerful positions like that in the CIA.” And I said, “I know. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.” And that’s the power of theatre is that we’ll be able to create a space where what should be or could be can be imagined and seen before us. 

Jo Reed: Intelligence is part of Arena Stage’s Power Play series. Can you explain that series to me?

Jacqueline Lawton: What Power Play is -- Arena will be commissioning and developing 25 plays over the course of the next ten years. And the focus will be on American stories, politics, and power. So exploring people, events, that have shaped our nation’s narrative, our nation’s worldview or what we can do, how we aspire to be. And what I think is really particularly exciting about this is that there’s going to be one play for each decade, beginning in 1776. So already there are seven commissions. And there are two plays that were already produced as part of the Power Play, and that was John Strand’s The Originalist and Lawrence Wright’s Camp David. So mine is the third, which is very exciting.

Jo Reed: So when Molly and you spoke about this commissioned work, what did she say to you? How did she present it to you?

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh. That’s such a great question, because it’s something I still remember. What she said is that she wants to create plays that speak very much to what is DC and how can Arena Stage be a theatre that lifts up the DC voice, the DC political voice? And that it’s not one voice, it’s-- because the DC voice is not a monolith voice.  The artistic voice is not a monolith voice. And the stories that Arena wants to tell on stage are inclusive and diverse. But she knew she wanted it to be political. And she knew that she wanted it to be something that was very palpable and right now. What was just really exciting about that initial conversation is that, she said, “The stories that Arena Stage wants to tell are American voices. And there’s a multiplicity of those voices.” And with these Power Plays going back as far as 1776 there’s so many stories that we know about, but there are also stories that have never been told because there are certain voices that have never been allowed to actually be the leaders of those conversations. They haven’t been the playwrights that were selected to write plays, or they haven’t been the playwrights selected to write plays about these types of individuals because sometimes playwrights are siloed. You know, women playwrights are told that they’re only writing about women’s stories. Black playwrights are told they’re only meant to write black plays. As though that only means one thing. So that was the wide-ranging breadth and excitement of our conversation, is that we could dream very big.

Jo Reed: Well, what about that? Is there anything in your background, for example, that really attracted you to this particular story?

Jacqueline Lawton: For me, specifically, my father and grandfather were both in military intelligence; my brother was in the Air Force, now he works in the Army; my sister works for the VA; so I come from a very military family. I have a great deal of respect for the military, so that’s why this story was attractive to me. 

Jo Reed: So that’s why the themes of national security and intelligence resonated with you.

Jacqueline Lawton: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s definitely the key, my key in, is, like, knowing what my father’s work had been when he was in the Army and then always just on my own having this deep respect and fascination with our intelligence community. Because we do need people to gather intelligence for the protection of our nation. What gets really tricky is when that intelligence is politicized or when a political ideology is set to frame around that intelligence to move forward a specific narrative. And we actually saw that happen with the war in Iraq. Like, let me dig into this, because there’s a conversation that we can have that’s really relevant to not only our history but what’s happening currently, that I really wanted to vibrate and dig in deeper to.

Jo Reed: I want to talk a little bit about process, because this is a world premiere. And you are telling a very big story. Can you tell me how you work, for example, with the set designers to give a sense of expanse or to allow the bigness of your tale to come through?

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh. That’s such a great question. So, with the set designer and also our projection designer and also our-- like, all of our designers basically --what we were able to do is very swiftly and seamlessly go from a home in DC, to a boutique in Georgetown, to a conference room in Langley, to a coffee shop in Jordan, to a detention center in Jordan. And we do that literally through lights. We do it through the costume design. Like, what is a particular character wearing in which scene to help us indicate where they are? We have these walls that are on the stage that move in and out of each other, that create and take dynamic shape. So a wall, as positioned in one space, gives us a living room, and on the other side you might see the CIA. Positioned in another space, it’s a boutique. And on the other side you might see the café. And then the projections are just really quite striking. We have this phenomenal designer who’s moving us forward in time with the projections, who’s helping us to remember what happened. So in terms of hearing the speeches of the time, we’re not hearing them exactly how we heard them but the way that memory does. Like, “Oh, I remember that line. I remember that gesture.” And he’s able to bring us back to those moments, which is really wonderful, because with my writing, it helps me not to have to build so much exposition, to catch the audience up, or, “Remember this? Remember this?”

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Jacqueline Lawton: We can do it with the projections.

Jo Reed: Exactly. Because it seems like yesterday but it’s, what, 14 years ago.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. Yeah.

Jo Reed: How do you begin? How did you begin this play? Was it with character? Was it with research?

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s a great question. So I began with research. And so I began reading, literally <laughs> as much as I possibly could about the powerful figures of the Bush administration. So reading whatever autobiographies and biographies that they had. And I watched a lot of documentaries of the time period, of the war. YouTube has footage, hours and hours and hours of footage of the war. I watched that. I just sat and watched it as though I were a journalist watching it and trying to discover or imagining as if I were a CIA agent trying to discover. I learned about the CIA, different strategy, the history, the politics within the CIA. I learned about food of the Middle East, specifically Jordan and Iraq. I learned about, like, what are the popular sort of party foods in 2003, like, trying to remember. Like, if someone was hosting a party, what would they have cooked? And --this is actually really important; I got myself as much as I could back in 2003, because something that might be hard to remember, the thing that we did not know at that time is when would the next attack be? So, 9/11, 2001. By 2003, there wasn’t a settling of this was done. There was a high anxiety that something else was coming. I had to really get that suspense and really shift us back to the palpable fear that we held in 2003, that something else was coming. And that’s what the research helped me do. Because hindsight gives you all the things you know, but I have to take out of my head.  We didn’t know this. We didn’t know this. We didn’t know this. So, that can’t be in the play.

Jo Reed: Right. It’s like thinking about World War II. When you’re in World War II, you don’t know how it’s going to end. You just don’t know.

Jacqueline Lawton: Or that it’s going to end.

Jo Reed: Or that it’s going to end.

Jacqueline Lawton: Exactly.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jacqueline Lawton: Exactly.

Jo Reed: Exactly. So you write. And you have these voices inside your head. And then, “boom.” There are actors.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s right. <laughs>

Jo Reed: And they’re embodying your characters.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s right.

Jo Reed: That has to be a revelation.

Jacqueline Lawton: Well, it is a revelation in the terms of, like, they’re breathing. These are breathing <laughs>--

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jacqueline Lawton: --characters that are on stage. And I can hear for the first time how what I wrote sounds. You know, outside of my own head. The other thing that’s so critical is I can hear for the first time what is it in the play? Because I’ve done all this research, I’ve done all these revisions, but I can’t know until I’ve heard this play, heard the actors do a read-through, what is missing. Like, what does the audience need to know about?  And to put it in, but not in a way that it’s exposition. Exposition is important, right?  Because we need to know character relationships. We need to know time period, settings, circumstances…

Jo Reed: We need to know where we are.

Jacqueline Lawton: We need to know where we are and we need to know why where we are is so critically important. But it needs to be done in a way that when the information is given, it’s moving the plot forward, so that it’s just not didactic. And, like, that’s my greatest fear, is that <laughs> a play is didactic. So the actors come, we hear it, it becomes, like, “Oh, wow. It’s a real world. There are characters. There’re emotions.  There’s stakes,” you know. And we’re rooting for these people and we’re scared for them.  Then the designers come in and then the world of play begins to fill even more. I mean, the play could not be the play without the production team that brings it together and then brings it to the-- but then, then, it really comes together once we have an audience. And we got to the point in rehearsal where we’re like, “We are so hungry for an audience. We have to know how this play works and lands.” And it’s always so surprising when they laugh at a line that we didn’t know was funny but you’re like, “Okay. That’s great.”

Jo Reed: I’ll take that laugh.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s right. That’s right. Oh, we’ll take it. Or the gasp. We have gasps that happen in the same place every night and it’s just, like, you know it’s coming and you almost feel for the audience, but you’re like, “There it is,” because of what happens and they’ve been following so closely the journey. It is such a beautiful process to go from being in my office in my home in Chapel Hill, writing away, writing away, researching, to being in the rehearsal, and then to finally being in the theatre with our wonderful audience. It’s been so exciting.

Jo Reed: Now, I know you had previews for a while where the play undergoes revision.

Jacqueline Lawton: Right, right, right.

Jo Reed: And your play did.

Jacqueline Lawton: And we’re still in previews, actually, currently.

Jo Reed: And you’re-- yeah.

Jacqueline Lawton: And we made-- oh, we went through a huge revision. So on Sunday night, I had a great conversation with Molly Smith, our artistic director. It was really lovely. She’s like, “We have a great play. Now let’s make it excellent. I’ve got some radical ideas for you.” So my dramaturg Jocelyn Clark and I are like, “All right. What are your radical ideas?” Because I was hungry for something. And she said, “Let’s remove this first scene between Valerie and Joe.” I’m like, “All right. Let’s cut it.” <laughs> “Okay. Let’s now remove this plotline that sort of veers us away. Let’s jump right to the heart of this story.” So we got rid of that. So because we got rid of those two, which were nice, easy cuts, what it did then is I then had to recalibrate the very first Joe-Valerie marriage scene so that we could see how they love each other, how they bicker, how they fight, how they play. So that shifted, which was very exciting. Then we trimmed through the rest of the script. And now we have a 90-minute thriller. A 90-minute political thriller that just soars. And there’s this -- the epilogue, there’s this powerful moment where the character says the very last line. There’s a snap-off of the lights and you hear this, <exhales loudly> this exhale from the audience. And then applause. It’s phenomenal.

Jo Reed: Okay. Now, explain. Here the play is. It’s in preview. So actors are out there every night giving performances, and you’re there rewriting, rewriting.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s right.

Jo Reed: How do you insert the rewrites?  How--

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh, my gosh.

Jo Reed: --When do they get a chance to rehearse? How does everybody keep track of everything and how do you do that?

Jacqueline Lawton: We do it very carefully with a lot of love and generosity and patience. Because, oh, gosh. I mean, when I realize that when a playwright says, “yes” to a change, the ripple effect that that has on the director, the cast, the designers, the production team, the marketing team, because this went from a two-act play that ran maybe two hours, to a 90-minute, no-intermission play. So that had to go on the website. So what happens is I get the notes. I write until 2:00 A.M. <laughs> I try to sleep, but an idea comes overnight. I wake up at 4:00 A.M. I write until rehearsal and I give the pages to my, to the literary fellow, who gives them to the stage manager, who passes them out to the actors. We all come together in the green room and we hear the new pages. And that just gives us a chance to say, “What’s here? What questions do you have?” “Okay.  No. You’re missing that line, and that line was so critical to this moment of development. But here’s what’s actually happening that’s moving us forward in this new energy of a play.” And so then what our director does is like, “Okay. Let’s take it to the stage and let’s see what kind of staging, restaging we have to do, because now we’re in a new world here that’s been created.” And so that happened on Tuesday. More changes came on Wednesday.

Jo Reed: Wait, wait. I have a question.

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh.

Jo Reed: Okay. So Tuesday night, what play did the actors do?

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh. That is such a great question. Okay. Tuesday night they did-- <laughs> they did part of the new play and part of the old play.

Jo Reed: One act or two acts?

Jacqueline Lawton: It was one act.

Jo Reed: Okay.

Jacqueline Lawton: But because we were only able to work through in rehearsal, few of those changes for Tuesday night’s performance. Which meant that half of the play was still in the old world. <laughs> Then on Wednesday we came in to work through the rest of the changes, and I got to tell you, that was a focused, determined day, because we got through the entire play, all of the changes, which is huge. That’s a huge undertaking that the cast went through, that the designers went through. And then by last night, finally, last night’s performance, we are now all in the same play. <laughs> It is the 90-minute political thriller, new vision of the play from--

Jo Reed: And last night was Thursday, for listeners.

Jacqueline Lawton: Last night was Thursday, yes. Thank you. Sorry about that.

Jo Reed: No, that’s okay.

Jacqueline Lawton: Yeah.

Jo Reed: So the actors must be able to memorize fast.

Jacqueline Lawton: I think so. They must be able to memorize fast. They must be able to have agility, right? Agility of thought.

Jo Reed: A mental-- yeah.

Jacqueline Lawton: But also there’s body. There’s a kinesthetic memory that has to be disrupted and then learned anew. So that’s why I say that the change happens with generosity and patience and a lot of love.

Jo Reed: And do you sit in the audience and watch every night?

Jacqueline Lawton: I do. I’ve watched every night so far. I do think I should probably take a break and not see it and then come back, but we’ll see if that actually happens.

Jo Reed: Do you talk to the audience members?

Jacqueline Lawton: I eavesdrop.

Jo Reed: You eavesdrop. <laughs>

Jacqueline Lawton: I play the anonymous person, just kind of meandering. The best thing to do is to go to the bathroom right after the show, because then you can hear people talking about the play or just kind of make your way through the lobby just slowly and hear people talk about the play. But I have to hide my script, because that’ll give me away if I don’t.

Jo Reed: Is it more pressure to write a commissioned piece?

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh. That’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s more pressure to write a commissioned piece, but so far the majority of plays of mine that have been produced have been commissioned. So there is a vision of the theatre that you are working toward while also writing within your own voice. So for me, there’s not a difference in terms of pressure. Like, even when a theatre decides to produce a play that they haven’t commissioned, they’re still producing the play within their season with their own standard of excellence and values and understanding of their audience members. It’s a question of how do we all come together? But what’s been really, really great about my past few projects is that everyone’s been working towards, “How do we get your voice as strong as possible with our production?” So that’s been wonderful. I haven’t felt a sense of more pressure. I’ve actually felt more support than anything else.

Jo Reed: And what does theatre mean to you?

Jacqueline Lawton: Ah. I mean, theatre is everything <laughs> to me. Theatre is a space where we come together as a community to explore new worlds, different types of people, different experiences where we can learn about the way the world is shaped, the way the world wants to be shaped. Theatre is a place where you can explore ideas, challenge yourself, study the human condition and it’s a space that’s just so magical because the “what if” is a constant question that pushes you towards examining the way multiple truths can coexist at one time. It’s a place where, like, how Molly talks about a multiplicity of voices, I feel we need a multiplicity of voices in the American theatre. Otherwise we can’t call it the American theatre. Because if we’re not lifting up the fabric of our society, the multiple stories of our society, then what are we doing? It’s a place where I feel any time that there’s a big question that I’m wrestling with, I can go to the theatre to work it out. Like I said, as I -- I became a writer because I didn’t find the roles. So I haven’t always felt welcome in the theatre, but I felt that there’s a place for me to be, to exist, to grow, push and challenge the American theatre. And that’s what keeps me coming back. 

Jo Reed: How did you come to theatre? Tell me about your upbringing.

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh. So I grew up in East Texas, this tiny town. It’s not even a town really. There’s more cows than people. It’s called Tennessee Colony. And so I was this little country girl, and I was, I have an overactive imagination. And so I’d write these little short stories about my stuffed animals. I have a little sister. So I, when I was in school, I’d write these little short stories about what our stuffed animals would be doing and we’d turn those into plays. And I’d rope her into doing these performances. My mother loved MGM musicals, so all the Judy Garland. You know, all those beautiful -- at night. So we watched those growing up and I would, you know, sweep the porch while dancing and singing. So I just fell in love with the theatre. And then in middle school and high school I did performances and then when I got to college I studied acting, playwriting and screenwriting. Actually, when I graduated from undergrad, and I went to University of Texas at Austin, for undergrad. I was going to go to Paris, because I thought, “Well, you know, I’m a black woman. I’m a writer. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to go to Paris,” you know. And my amazing mentors were like, “Oh. There’s a slot open in the MFA Playwriting program. You could apply, and if you get in you’ll be able to teach. You can learn more about your craft, travel during the summer.” So that’s what I actually ended up doing.

Jo Reed: Did you think about pursuing acting too?

Jacqueline Lawton: I did, actually. So my passion was for acting and in undergrad I did audition and did a few shows. But I very clearly saw that there were such limited roles for black women and I had an epiphany. This was 1997. I was sitting in the lobby area of our theatre department and I just, it just dawned on me that if I wanted there to be more roles, stronger roles for women, stronger roles for women of color, someone would have to write them. I had these amazing playwriting instructors, one person in particular, Amparo Garcia-Crow, who just, just opened the world to me about what playwriting could be. And that’s, that’s when the shift happened. So I continued to act every now and then, but really I had this very social justice approach to if we want to grow the American theatre, grow roles for women and women of color, someone would have to be dedicated to doing that. And so that’s how the shift happened for me.

Jo Reed: That was true for Lin-Manuel Miranda too.

Jacqueline Lawton: Oh, great. Great.

Jo Reed: Yeah. He wanted to act and realized, “There just are no roles here. I’m going to have to write them.” <laughs>

Jacqueline Lawton: Thank goodness he did.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jacqueline Lawton: Right?

Jo Reed: Exactly. You’ve done many adaptations. You did The Wizard of Oz, and Faust, Anna Karenina. And I know I’m only mentioning a few. But these all put African Americans front and center.

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s right.

Jo Reed: What do you think happens when we actually see stories that we know but we see them through the lens of African-American actors?

Jacqueline Lawton: Well, what I’m hoping that happens is that it expands the imagination of who and what African Americans can be in this world. Because we do understand that the visual storytelling that happens with the media, with theatre, that if you only cast black actors in certain roles or actors of color in certain roles then-- and if the limitation of roles that are typically given to actors of color correspond with the limitation of who we expect African Americans to be in real life. So for me, I always want to place women and specifically women of color at the center of my stories. So with the adaptation of Anna Karenina, I was very specifically looking at Anna in this role, but I fashioned her off of Josephine Baker. And I set in the 1920s in Paris. And I have the Levin character as a black U.S. soldier who’s come to Paris. And, of course, we know that African Americans coming to Europe during that time found a greater sense of freedom. And the idea of going back to United States where their freedoms were restricted because of Jim Crow laws, was not something they were going to do. So what is this life about? And so you hear, you get the story, the well-known story, but you actually get to see it shifted with this lens of, “Oh. Not only were smart, talented, professional black people around <laughs> in the 1920s but they were living full lives.” Because with black history often in plays, we get the slavery stories, we get the Harlem Renaissance stories, we get the Civil Rights stories, but we often don’t get those stories which have the decades in between. And then we also don’t get characters beyond certain roles. And so that’s what I’m trying to do with my plays is really shifting the expectations of who black people can be so that when we see black people and people of color in the world we’re not assuming one thing about them because of the singular story that’s been told about them prior to your experience.

Jo Reed: What do you want audiences to take away from your play, Intelligence?

Jacqueline Lawton: What I want audiences to take away is that each of us who are citizens have a stake in this country. That our vote matters, that our voice matters, and it can’t just be every two to four years with the election. It has to be all the time. And that we have to have a great deal of courage when it comes to righting the wrongs that we see, whether it’s in our immediate communities or, you know, neighborhoods, the grocery store, but also nationally. I mean, that for me is what’s at the heart of the story is that it’s patriots who were working in service of their country and working in service of the people of this country. So I just hope that audiences walk away feeling emboldened and feeling a sense of great strength and power that they can shape not only their future but also their nation’s future. And that’s what I strongly feel that this play is able to do in a way that, you know, say, any other plays that I’ve written, have not done.

Jo Reed: Jacqueline, thank you so much.  I really appreciate it.

Jacqueline Lawton: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That’s playwright Jacqueline Lawton—her play, Intelligence, has its premiere tonight, March 9, at Arena Stage. You can find out more about the Power Play series and Intelligence at arenastage.org

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Her play Intelligence is a political drama that centers on accountability.