Labor of Love

With her latest play, Sweat, School of the Arts professor Lynn Nottage turns hard work into high art.

by Stuart Miller '90JRN Published Spring 2017
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Nottage found openness pretty much everywhere she went in Reading. “There was no wariness,” she says. (Locals were also thrilled when they brought the show to town for a staged reading last fall.) “It was, ‘Wow, someone is interested in us; our world exists.’ In New York we take that for granted, but they feel like they are ignored. It’s like a little dose of validation.”

But while everyone was willing to talk, few had much hope, no matter how hard Nottage looked. “I always look for spaces of sunlight, but there were so few pockets of optimism,” she says. So while she was trying to avoid writing “poverty porn,” she did end the show without uplift or even resolution. “I couldn’t end with more resolution because I don’t know what the next step is and the pundits don’t know either.”

At each production — in Oregon, in Washington, and off-Broadway — Nottage and Whoriskey fine-tuned the play; they made a minor tweak in the ending after Election Night but not in the dialogue. “It was a small calibration that had to do with the nature of the stillness on the stage,” Nottage says, adding that while she didn’t think Trump would win, after spending so much time in Reading, she was “surprised that people were surprised that there was so much anger and frustration. The working class has been struggling for a very long time — not just the last eight years but the last twenty years.”

For Broadway, Nottage had to look beyond the script to “the marketing game plan, the art — you have to expand your entire machinery,” and she had to worry about whether her show could fill a 650-seat house instead of a 199-seat one. “That’s kind of daunting,” she says. “But what’s exciting is that 650 people can see the play in one night — if it works.”

Nottage did not have the luxury of focusing on Sweat alone: she is working on a musical adaptation of the film Black Orpheus with director George C. Wolfe and an opera version of Intimate Apparel — all while her father is ill, her daughter has started college, and she has a seven-year-old at home.

“It has been a terribly chaotic time,” she says. “It’s a lot that my brain is processing and a real test of stamina.”

With all those balls in the air, Nottage finds her one other responsibility — teaching at Columbia — to be “a refuge.”

“Strangely, when I go up there and I sit in the classroom, I feel at peace,” she says. Everyone in her life knows that she has set aside her Fridays and cannot be distracted from her two three-hour classes and her independent studies. “In the spring, I also stay afterward, often till ten o’clock, to see the students’ work, but I did ask this semester that they not do two-hour plays without intermissions,” she says with a laugh. “That would break me.”

Managing her life and her Broadway opening is also a teaching tool for her graduate students. “They are curious about it, and I have to be very realistic about what it takes to make a living as a playwright,” she says. “And it really involves being a very adept juggler: you have to be doing multiple things to pay your rent, to pay for your health care. We talk a lot about juggling things and still finding time to write and still finding time for your mental health.”

Nottage, who has been a visiting lecturer at Yale University and elsewhere, says that the Columbia professorship “frees me to be a writer” — a feeling she had experienced in 2007 after winning a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, which came with a $500,000 grant. “That meant freedom from a certain level of anxiety,” she says. “I hadn’t realized how paralyzing it could be and how much time it consumed, worrying about making a living. That liberated me as an artist.” Understanding those stresses also helped inform her writing, especially in Sweat.

And while the play is finished, Nottage is not ready to let go of Reading. She hopes to return there later this spring to mount a multimedia art installation about the city and its people. She’s also setting her next play there. It will take place in 2008 and revolve around locals trying to reclaim their lives after getting out of prison.

While that sounds like another heavy topic, there will also be some lightness. “It’s a little funnier than Sweat, and a little more Buddhist,” she says.

The research should be easier this time around, not just because she has already spent so much time in Reading. “This one is about a sandwich shop,” she adds with a smile. “So eating sandwiches is part of my research.”

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