Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother Sister Plays, Head of Passes) won an Oscar for the screenplay for Moonlight and now heads Yale’s playwriting program. His play Choir Boy hits Broadway in January, and next spring he’ll star in his play Wig Out! at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he’s an ensemble member.
FRANK RIZZO: Having been a playwriting student at Yale, graduating in 2007, what’s it like to be now heading the program?
TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: I’m not in this because I want to be the professor from Dead Poets Society—to get the praise and all. That is not why I’m doing this.
So why are you here?
Because I want to be watching, listening, and learning as the new shapers of the American theatre unleash the waves that are coming. This year has been wildly rewarding.
How did you choose your first class last year?
There is no shortage of talent in America. It’s a relatively simple process, but at the end of the day what you’re really looking for are community members whom you hope will thrive under the auspices of the program here. But narrowing it down through all these wildly talented people—well, that part for me was awful. This coming year we had 180 applicants, from which we chose three writers. The year before, because the deadline was extended, we had 205.
What did these students most want to know from you?
It depends. The third-year writers who were already in the program when I arrived are much more interested in asking career and professional questions. For the others, it’s somewhat different. Sometimes I’d offer [advice] and they’d look at me like, “We didn’t ask.” That’s okay. They’re finding their own voices, and at that moment they don’t want to hear someone else’s voice. But at some point later on, they’ll remember something that I told them. That happened to me. Now I remember something Nilo Cruz or John Guare or Lynn Nottage said and I think, “Oh, yeah, that’s just the thing they said in class.” But when I was at school, I would think, “Well, that’s her experience, that’s not going to happen to me.” And then you get out there and think, Oh, I’m so glad she said that, because now it’s connecting with what I’m doing. So you learn to take what everyone says from their experiences and you just put that in your pocket.
Richard Nelson, who ran the program when you were there, called you at the time “a significant figure in the theatre.” Do you look for others with a particular new voice?
I don’t have to look for that one special voice. They’re all here. You know, I wasn’t the only one who was unique when I was here. Amy Herzog was in my class. Now she has a play on almost every major stage across the country and is constantly sought out for commissions. The same thing is true of other writers when I was there. The thing about writers—and all artists—is that the maturation, or coming into one’s own voice, or blossoming into a career, is different for everyone. There are many ways and means by which people come into their own. I am not here to look for that “one,” but to experience all of them.
How did these new playwrights affect you?
I’m always excited about what they’re doing, and sometimes I am confused and confounded [by the forms and content of their work]. But as you spend enough time telling writers to just be themselves—well, that rubs off on you too. Telling a kid over and over again not to lose patience usually helps you gain patience.
What did you learn here when you were a student? And do your students get the same rewards?
Yale School of Drama taught me to be multi-faceted. I was already, but it helped me refine those skills. I came here as a playwright, but I had been an actor most of my life, though I had been writing forever. At the school, I had the opportunity to at least work on other things while still focusing [on playwriting].
Look at Taylor Mac, and other extraordinary artists who look to tell their stories in the best way possible—that means sometimes you can’t just write it. You’ve got to sing it, direct it, act in it. We can limit ourselves on what we can tell if we only look at one aspect of the telling. All stories aren’t told the same way. There are communities engaged in telling stories in a way that is completely different from the platforms that we set up for traditional theatre.
If you weren’t a storyteller, what would you be?
I always wanted to be a lawyer. I like the idea of social contracts and justice, but I hear there’s a lot of reading involved, and I read so slowly. But I’d give a great summation to the jury!