Welcome to the DGF Fellows Spotlight.
This series of interviews put the spotlight on individual DGF Fellows and invites you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program.
The 2020-2021 class of fellows was asked a series of questions exploring where they’ve been, what they’re up to now, and what they hope for the future.
Please take your seats, unwrap your candies, and silence your cellphones as we put the spotlight on Calley N. Anderson!
What was your first experience with theater?
I saw a touring company production of Elton John & Tim Rice’s “Aida” at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, TN (my hometown and deepest love) when I was a kid. I can’t quite remember what age I was, maybe around 11 or 12, but I remember being struck by this world where a world beyond my own could be made real right in front of me so earnestly. It was one of those moments that my brain stored that wouldn’t fully materialize again until college. That’s where I took my first play analysis class and started to find the right language for exactly why theater moved me. It would take three more years for me to realize that I wanted to not just study plays, but to write them myself.
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
Funny enough, I didn’t decide I wanted to be a writer until after I’d written my first one-act play. It was a final project for a class in undergrad and, after finishing it, I felt this kind of loss that I’d never quite experienced before. I wanted more of the challenge, the rush, the complexity. Sure, I’d flirted with the idea a little–I was also taking film classes at the time and working on a short screenplay–but I didn’t put any real weight behind it. But my advisor, who encouraged me to take the playwriting class, said I should try it. Then the teacher of the playwriting class said I should keep going once the final project was over and done. And then I won an award for that final project three months before graduation. The rule of three, you know? So I graduated, and I committed. As much as any unemployed college graduate could; I moved home, started working at local performing arts nonprofits by day, and wrote at night. Eventually, that led to graduate school applications, then graduate school, and here I am now–still committed, pandemic and all!
As far as writers and pieces that stuck with me enough that I count them as “influential,” I think of Blue Door by Tanya Barfield. I studied it in my advisor’s play analysis class and have probably read that play more than any other I own. There’s something about it that made me say “that–that’s what I want to do”. And it’s not just about the playwriting part, but about the kinds of stories I want to explore, the characters I want to interrogate and unearth. And it’s a truly amazing two-hander (which I’ve still never written–still a bit intimidated by it).
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
I’m fascinated by moment-to-moment shifts in human behavior and how unstable it can be when you try to rely on it. It comes up in a lot of my work. When I do my own beat analysis for my plays, those pivotal shifts can happen anywhere from mid-line for a character to two or three lines of dialogue, but a beat rarely lasts much longer than that for me. I like to think of it as my characters keeping me on my toes and consistently surprising me with what they’re responding to and experiencing. I tend to mix those shifts with subject matter that reaches into the uncomfortable muck that we like to glaze over in our interactions with others–the things that we act like aren’t working (for or against) us in the moment. Those things go into a funnel that more times than not has to do with history, culture, lineage, truth, and legacy (with a Memphis-Southern-Black lens on it). Then, with a lot of patience and a lot of listening to the characters’ voices, a play comes out of the funnel’s bottom. I don’t think any of that individually sets my work apart exactly, but I think my blender is unique because of my Southern Black womanness. It invades all the questions I ask, all the perspectives I’m interested in, how my characters speak and listen, what worlds come to a larger stage, and what I push an audience to walk away seeing and feeling and understanding.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
The Alligator is a story about legacies, secrets, relationships, mental illness, fear, and coming-of-age in Blackness. It is a Southern gothic tale about Bradley, a 15-year-old Black kid who, after suffering a mental breakdown, just wants to get back to doing normal 15-year-old things with his best friends Kings and Darryl (like learning to drive). But when he suddenly finds himself being haunted by a looming figure donning a pimp suit made entirely of alligator skin, Bradley has to turn to the only person he knows who has seen this figure before–his estranged father, Kirk. No one believed Kirk when the figure showed up the first time, but now that the figure has his sights set on Bradley, the two must forge down this path together despite the years of distance and pain between them. It is naturally set in Memphis and is full of so much that I love.
I’ve gone through so many very different drafts of this play (six!) and feel like, with DGF Fellows, I finally ended up on the path that works and is right for these characters. The Alligator showed up one day and made clear to me that he wouldn’t go away until I did him justice, so he’s been haunting me just as he haunts Bradley. I’m really excited to see where the road takes us next–The Alligator is such a physically daunting character. It will be thrilling to meet him in the flesh (whenever the pandemic allows me to do that)!
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
That I get to witness people shift, ask themselves questions, ask others questions, reevaluate their positions after thinking about a character or a moment days later, disagree with how a character handled a thing, feel a way about me writing a thing, that anyone cares enough to do any of those things. I think often people feel (or are led to believe) that theater is something they applaud because that’s what you’re supposed to do or say they loved something when they didn’t. It’s thrilling to me that my work leaves a window open for people to be honest about how they feel, whether they say it to me directly or not. My work picks at truth and the many definitions of it even when it’s difficult. So far, the people who engage with my work feel they are allowed to do the same. It’s brilliant. I never want people to not feel that way. I love that people, so far, have not felt that way.
Thank you, Calley, for contributing to the blog! You can stay up to date on Calley’s work by following @calley_ands.