When Amy Quan Barry recently invited a poet friend to speak to her UW-Madison grad students, that friend called Barry a “restless writer.”
Barry thinks. And liked the term. Because it’s convenient.
Barry, best known as a novelist and poet, as well as for her strong literary presence in college, has lately ventured into screenplay and television writing. And on February 24, Forward Theater Company will present Barry’s first produced play, “The Mytilenean Debate.”
It will follow, on Tuesday, the release of Barry’s highly anticipated third novel, “When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East.”
Skipping genres seems fair to Barry, who is fascinated by the nuances of each form of storytelling. In fact, she wrote “The Mytilenean Debate” over a decade ago and recently submitted it to the Forward Theatre’s “Wisconsin Wrights New Play Festival” competition.
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It was selected, performed in a staged reading (online, due to COVID) in 2020, and then placed on the current season of Forward for full production in the Playhouse theater at the Overture Center.
“It’s a huge honor,” Barry said.
A tale of dreams colliding, “The Mytilenean Debate” centers on the characters of heart surgeon Latimer Ames, his much younger girlfriend Nina, his adult daughter Mary, and her newly married husband Charles.
The title of the play refers to an event in the Peloponnesian War, when Athens considered punishing the people of Mitylene, then backtracked. Barry is fascinated by this idea of a “second chance” – but sets his story in New York, shortly after 9/11.
“These characters are in a world they no longer recognize,” said Mark H., assistant professor of theater at UW-Madison and director of “The Mytilenean Debate.”
“This intimate family drama is provoked in many ways by this larger societal event,” he said.
“America has a very strong tradition of family dramas in the theatre,” such as plays by Eugene O’Neill or August Wilson. “So Amy joins that tradition with this piece.”
“But it’s also the form she plays with” that makes “The Mytilenean Debate” intriguing, he says. “There is an intertwined and very fluid feel to the piece. I think that’s what makes it really beautiful, really unique. I asked the actors to think of the play itself as a piece of music, as if it were a large musical score with various movements and changes.
The cast includes Gavin Lawrence and Marcus Truschinski, both of the American Players Theater, Atlanta Shakespeare Company veteran Olivia Dawson, and Forward Theater newcomer Samra Teferra.
“I feel incredibly lucky” to have this cast in the premiere of the play Forward, Barry said. “They are so seasoned. In many ways, I think I couldn’t have had better luck with this first production.
Writer in residence
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Barry grew up on Boston’s North Shore. His mother grew up in Wisconsin, and Barry remembers many summers with his grandparents in Door County.
The writer herself has now lived in Wisconsin for 20 years and is Lorraine Hansberry Professor of English at UW-Madison, where she led both the MFA in Creative Writing program and the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.
The author of books of poetry and fiction – including the novels ‘She Weeps Each Time You’re Born’ and ‘We Ride Upon Sticks’ – on book covers, Barry drops the ‘Amy’ from her name and is simply known as “Quan Barry”. .” The pen name helps separate his personal life and his literary life.
“I like having that distance,” she explained. “I don’t think of myself as ‘Quan Barry,’ so for me, if something good happens to Quan Barry, I think, ‘Yay, great for her. It is not me.”
And yet, “the restless writer” has combined the two worlds in another role: that of the current writer-in-residence of the Forward Theatre. Barry, who lives not far from the Overture Center, where Forward holds both rehearsals and performances, came up with the concept of a residency to immerse himself in his latest literary form, playwriting.
She’s attended rehearsals for “The Mytilenean Debate,” learned how a regional theater company works behind the scenes, and is now on the advisory board for Forward, a group of creatives who read and discuss plays that might land on a future season of Forward. .
“Being on the advisory board allowed me to read scripts, hear other people talk about them, see what kinds of issues theater companies face,” Barry said.
“No More Cooks”
And through the production of her own play, she learned about complex collaborative process theater.
“It’s such an interesting world for me, because as a poet and as a writer of fiction, I write something and send it to my editor,” she said. “Usually it’s just a conversation between the two of us; she has tweaks or suggestions, and then it moves on.
“In the world of playwriting, there are a lot more cooks involved — which is a good thing,” she said. “That can be a strength of theatre. You have more eyeballs on it, more ears listening, and more suggestions coming in.
For example, in early readings of “The Mytilenean Debate”, Barry heard suggestions that she remove any explicit reference to 9/11. Without it, the issues facing Latimer’s family seem even more timeless — and even oddly relevant in the COVID era.
As the character of Mary tells her husband: “Everything has changed, like people’s priorities. Everyone is recalibrating.
A new “freedom”
Barry said she discovered a new kind of “freedom” in writing plays.
“I’m interested in writing plays with characters of color,” she says.
In fiction, “unfortunately, I have to work to continue to establish that this is a character of color, because often we read characters as white unless we are told otherwise. One thing that I really appreciate about the world of playwriting is that you see who is the character. I don’t need to keep establishing that and I feel there’s real freedom there.
“And I’m interested in seeing characters on stage that maybe we haven’t seen a lot,” she added. In “The Mytilenean Debate”, “They’re upper class black people. Not that they haven’t existed on stage (before). But I’m really interested in thinking about them, in particular.
The production of the play and the release of Barry’s latest novel in the same week gives her the opportunity to talk about both, she said. And because Forward Theater will be offering performances of “The Mytilenean Debate” online as well as in person, Quan Barry readers around the world will also be able to experience the play wherever they are.
Forward Theater will be performing a staged reading of another new Barry play in the future. Tentatively titled “The Bridge”, the storyline centers around artificial intelligence. And the author is also working on a novel set in Antarctica which is “a grown-up version of ‘Lord of the Flies'”, she said.
A new volume of poetry is in preparation. And, of course, Barry will complete his term as the Forward Theatre’s first writer-in-residence.
“It’s something we’re building in as we go along,” she said.
“I can imagine that if they decide to have other (future) writers in residence, those residencies might be very different from the one I do,” Barry said. “But I get out of it what I individually needed to better understand the world of theater.”