Arkansas-based playwright and theater artist, Rachel Lynett Spurgers is the 2018 Recipient of an Arkansas Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship. She also happens to be on staff at walton arts center. Inspired by her work, we asked Rachel about her award, playwriting and the significance of the arts in everyday life.
What does this award mean to you?
I moved to Arkansas back in 2011 (I’m originally from Los Angeles). I feel like I had a second maturity here so I really do feel like Arkansas is a second home. I met my husband here, I went to grad school here, I grew up a lot here. I’ve been applying to Arkansas Arts Council (AAC) Individual Artist Fellowship since 2012. I have applied every year in every category. For a while, it started to feel like I would continue to get my work produced outside of Arkansas but that I wouldn’t get anything from my home base. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that was. I was writing about living here (Well-Intentioned White People is based on my experiences as a professor here in NWA.) I was beginning to feel like I would have to leave in order to keep moving forward in my playwriting career. Winning the award gave me some confidence that I could continue to work in Arkansas and that my work mattered to the people I was writing for. It also taught me the importance of persistence.
As a playwright and employee of an arts organization, what is the significance of the arts in everyday life?
I can’t imagine my life without art. For all of my adult life, I’ve only worked at arts organizations. Art is important because it teaches us empathy but it also challenges us to self-reflect. Art’s job is to connect to the subconscious and pass something along to the viewer/observer. And I think that’s the closest thing to magic we have. I’m continually amazed by how moved people are by “adults playing dress up” or “just a piece of a paper on the wall.” As artists, we have the ability to transcend the realities around us in order to connect to others through a shared experience. I hope to always help create opportunities for people to experience the magic of the arts.
What sparked your interest in play writing?
I didn’t get into theater until junior year of college when I had to take a fine art requirement. I decided to take Script Analysis and Dramaturgy. And I fell in love with it. I realized I wanted to work in theater but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I tried acting but didn’t find a lot of roles that were outside of the maid or sassy best friend. I then got into stage management and while stage managing got to work on a bunch of different plays. And I realized there weren’t a lot of roles for people with lives like mine. I wanted to change that. I wrote my first full-length play in 2012 about the DREAM Act. For me, playwriting has always been an act of protest for me; an opportunity for me to spotlight inequality and focus on social justice. I mostly got into playwriting to create roles for people who had limited opportunities to be a lead and to begin difficult conversations with diverse audiences.
What themes do you explore in playwriting?
I write plays about complicated, complex women of color. My characters live in the duality of good and bad, simultaneously. These women are neither saints or villains; they’re eternally both. Each of them struggle to make the right choices because, more often than not, the wrong one is easier. These women are intelligent, blistered, and, most importantly, real. As these women navigate through the American landscape with a series of different issues, they all also struggle with the complicated idea of what it means to be a woman today and the layered complexity that adds to their various dilemmas.
I write plays that reflect the world we live in. All of my plays spotlight diverse characters by pushing them to the forefront of the story. Race, sexuality identity and gender add an additional lens to the stories, adding a dimension to the reality of these women. As a woman who is half Black and half Latina, my life isn’t just about race but my ethnic background creates the lens through which I see the world.
I write plays that reflect the problems of the world we live in. I invite the audience into my world using humor and creating a recognizable world. We sit together, we drink together and we live in these spaces together and my work reflects that. I write my plays to feel like a warm bubble bath that you can’t completely wash off. While you’re in the bath, you’re comfortable, you understand the circumstance but days later it still tingling on your skin. And hopefully, since you can’t quite wash the words off, you decide instead to be part of a proactive change to better the community around you.
What author/playwright/artist/etc. has been a major influence on your work?
My major influences are Caryl Churchill, Suzan Lori Parks, Lydia Diamond, Jose Rivera, Paula Vogel and Maria Irene Fornes.
What advice would you give to someone considering playwriting?
Trust your instincts and be patient. It’s a long game. There isn’t really a “I made it.” Some years, you get into everything and then the next two years, nothing. Sometimes everything overwhelms you and then suddenly you’re wondering if you shouldn’t quit. This career takes a lot of patience and hard work. Instead of being upset about rejection, submit somewhere else. Write a new play. Keep moving forward and trust that in the end things will work out.
Any simple tips or tricks to help with a “brain freeze?”
Jose Rivera has the best advice for this. He says “Embrace your writer's block. It's nature's way of saving trees and your reputation. Listen to it and try to understand its source. Often, writer's block happens to you because somewhere in your work you've lied to yourself and your subconscious won't let you go any further until you've gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over.”
What would you like people to know about receiving this award that would not normally be shared?
This goes back to the long-game. I’ve applied for the Individual Artist Fellowship through the Arkansas Arts Council since 2012. Everything takes time. Even when I submitted this year, I thought there was no way I’d get it. But I submitted anyway. My favorite thing to say is “Don’t stand in your own way.”
As a non-profit organization, Walton Arts Center and the Walmart AMP support learning and education programs that insure that the arts remain an essential part of the lives of students, teachers and families in Northwest Arkansas. Through the generous support of our sponsors, most of our school programs are offered at low or no cost.