EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW
Below are excerpts from the December 3, 2016 Interview Magazine interview with Sweat playwright, Lynn Nottage.
Read the full article by Emma Brown
“My motto when I was writing this was ‘replace judgment with curiosity,'” explains Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage of her latest play, Sweat, which is currently in its last week of performances at the Public Theater in New York City. “I wanted it very much to be an ensemble piece and to be a collective narrative,” she continues. “The way that the play is structured is that each of the characters has their own aria … There are certainly characters that I judged a little heavier and harsher, but I tried to have empathy for all of them.”
EMMA BROWN: What made you want to tell the story of the characters in Sweat?
LYNN NOTTAGE: It began on a very personal level: wanting to understand what was happening to friends of mine around 2011, who suddenly found themselves struggling to make ends meet, and me not understanding how they could go so quickly from a situation where they were doing quite well to being in dire straits. I set about to find the answer to that question, and decided that I would go and investigate in my own way a city that I felt was representative of what was happening in the United States on a larger scale. I found a city called Reading, Pennsylvania, which was in the 2011 census as the poorest city in America for its size. I spent two and a half years going to Reading as often as I could, trying to listen to folks and understand what their situations were. Eventually I stumbled upon a group of steel workers who had been locked out of their plant for 93 weeks. I found that their story was incredibly compelling and representative of a lot of what I was hearing from other people in that they had been solidly middle class—they had completely and totally invested in the American dream—and then had found that the rug was really pulled out from under them. That’s what really led me to telling the story of Sweat.
BROWN: So you didn’t specifically begin with this idea of American deindustrialization?
NOTTAGE: I did. I had received a grant from Oregon Shakespeare, which was specifically to look at American revolutions, and I was very interested in the de-industrial revolution. So I went to Reading with that very much in mind, not yet understanding what story I was going to wind up telling.
BROWN: When you met these people from Reading, were they quite keen to talk to you?
NOTTAGE: I found that everyone that I encountered, regardless of whether it was a homeless person or the mayor or the police chief or steel workers, everyone immediately wanted to tell their story. They felt marginalized by the mainstream media that, by and large at the time, had been ignoring the stories of these mid-sized, post-industrial cities. They felt like they wanted to go on record
BROWN: When people were telling you their stories, did you get a sense that they thought about who you were—that you were a playwright coming from New York?
NOTTAGE: I was incredibly transparent when I began speaking with people; I let them know that I’m a storyteller. In many instances, I ended up speaking with people over the course of two years and getting to know them—it was a relationship that was built over the course of time. That’s what made it slightly different. Over time they came to trust me and they understood that I had a real investment in telling their story, as opposed to some journalists who when they learned that the city was the poorest city in America came in for an hour, did some quick interviews, left, and then wrote articles based on those encounters.
BROWN: Do you find it easier to write about people once you have a relationship? Or do you start thinking about, “Will they like this? Will they think it’s fair?”
NOTTAGE: I really think it’s more difficult. It’s much easier to conjure characters strictly from your imagination than to have to think about whether you’re representing people in a truthful way. These characters are purely fiction—they’re inspired by people I met—which I think gave me a certain amount of leeway that I wouldn’t have had otherwise were it a verbatim piece.
BROWN: When did you know that you had done enough research—talked to enough people—to start writing the play?
NOTTAGE: I see procrastination and research as part of my artistic process. [laughs] It took me two years of procrastination and research to finally find the story that I wanted to tell. It’s when I land on that moment in which I think, “Ah, yes, this is it, this is my departure point”—then I can push away the research and never revisit it. For me, it’s when I have that impulse to push away that it’s time to begin writing.
BROWN: As an audience member, on the one hand, you want to understand everyone’s perspective and be compassionate, but there was definitely a part of me that felt, “At the end of the day, you’re just wrong.”
NOTTAGE: Well, they are. Some of the characters do have questionable morality, which I find interesting. And in examining the play, everyone on that stage in some way is culpable and takes some responsibility for the outcome. Some more than others, certainly, but I think that that’s what I was interested in.
BROWN: What do you want the audience to take away from Sweatideally?
NOTTAGE: I want the audience, when they leave, to think of the characters on the stage in three dimensions. I want them to have empathy. I also want them to think about engaging more with where we are culturally.
Sweat hits the stage at Everyman Theatre beginning October 23rd, through November 25th, 2018.