An interview with Christina Anderson
By Thomas Conners
There’s a sense of wonder in the work of Christina Anderson. Not wonder as in awe, but in why do we do the things we do. While her plays touch on “issues,” it’s the lives depicted, not ideology, that drive the drama. The intersection of past and present plays a big part, too. How to Catch Creation—presented at the Goodman in 2019—moves back in forth in time as it tells the story of a couple drifting apart, a once-imprisoned man determined to adopt a child, and a single female academic who has lost her way. In the ripple, now on stage in the Owen Theatre, a woman looks back on her parents’ efforts to integrate public pools in 1960s Kansas. Here, Ms. Anderson offers a few insights into the way she works.
THOMAS CONNORS: You have set your new play in an imagined town in Kansas. Tell us a bit about the importance of place in your work—both personally and dramatically?
CHRISTINA ANDERSON: Most of my plays are set in fictitious cities or towns that have similarities to the places we know or are familiar with. Doing this offers agency to the people who populate my plays. The characters map their worlds. They decide how we (the audience) engages with their world. They are experts of their histories. It also, I hope, encourages us to listen to these characters tell their stories on their own terms. Discovering place in this way can also create a bit of distance so that we can see history a bit more objectively.
The idea of the American city has always been intriguing to me. The histories we make in these cities. The pace, the rhythm of American cities. The ways we claim ownership, the ways we create (and deny) legacies. So place oftentimes is an additional character in my plays.
TC: Curious to know what got you going on this?
CA: I’m working on a series of plays that explores the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) in relation to Black Americans. This play started as a commission with Berkeley Rep and I decided water would be the first element I tackled. In my research I discovered Contested Waters a book that examines the history of public pools in America. I’m from Kansas City, Kansas. I don’t know how to swim and I was, naively, unaware of the history of segregated pools in landlocked states.
So I decided I write a play about swimming.
TC: I read somewhere that getting pissed off is often the beginning for you in writing a piece.
CA: Anger is a great impetus for writing of any kind, but somehow, it seems theater, unlike a poem or novel, demands that anger be leavened. Do you think this is so and can you say how you may have met that challenge in your work? Or if you disagree, would love to hear that too.
Anger has definitely been the spark of a few plays! But it’s never sustained the writing. I don’t think anger can fuel the entire process. At some point I have to let curiosity, compassion, wonder, love, heartbreak, joy, disappointment enter the piece as well. I’m interested in telling the complicated and necessary story, which requires a mixture of emotions.
TC: You have been writing plays since high school. How do you think you’ve grown as an adult professional. Have you gotten better at creating characters, or understanding what makes a good narrative?
CA: I’ve gotten better at listening to the play. In the past, I muscled my plays into certain shapes. Which was cool. And I learned a lot about what excites me as a creator. But in recent years, there’s been more listening and consideration to the piece as I write it. This shift in my approach has allowed craft, skill, and chance to unite in a more organic way. I don’t know if the plays are better or worse now, but there’s an ease in the formation of a play that’s been very pleasant.
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.