Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus
After a previously sold-out run off-Broadway, Lynn Nottage’s breathtaking play, Sweat, opened recently at the Studio 54 theater. The show, based in Reading, PA, focuses on deindustrialization and its lasting ramifications. In our current political climate, Sweat’s arrival could not be more timely. The show forces its audience to fully delve into the lives of blue-collar workers in America. In a country becoming increasingly divided, as evidenced through the 2016 Presidential Elections, Sweat explores and explains with breathtaking eloquence and clarity the malaise that has spread through many segments of the nation.
For those who have not seen the show, it focuses on the lives of friends working together at a local steel mill. Slowly, as jealousy flares and the workers realize their jobs–and the cultural status that came with them–are dwindling, they each begin to turn on each other. In trying so hard to save themselves and clinging to the work ideals many of their past family members have learned to expect, they are forced to find new work as the impacts of globalization and deindustrialization affect their town.
The show’s strong text is paired with skilled actors and a mundane yet detailed set. The play is primarily set in the local bar, where audience members watch the lives of these workers unfurl as if they were flies on the wall. In each interaction, one can see the close friendships of the characters. In particular, the show focuses on the close bond between two friends: Tracey (played by Johanna Day) and Cynthia (played by Michelle Wilson). In initial scenes, the two characters laugh and drink, jovially sharing stories about their students and their factory jobs, just like normal close friends do. However, after Cynthia is promoted to a role off the factory floor, jealousy flares as Tracey copes with not getting the promotion she truly wanted. As this jealously increases, tensions rise with conversations about race (as Tracey becomes convinced Cynthia was promoted solely for being Black) and the responsibilities of friendships.
To learn more about the show and how it came to be, we sat down with its playwright Lynn Nottage who–in addition to playwriting–is a Professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Nottage, originally from Brooklyn, studied at Brown University for her undergraduate degree and later studied and taught at the Yale School of Drama. She has won two Pultizer Prizes and received both the Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Grant.
Will Essilfie: How did you originally get interested in writing?
Lynn Nottage: I think I have always been interested in writing, but I don’t think I had language to describe it until I was older. When I was very young, I used to create little dramas, for my brother and myself and friends, and we’d perform them for my parents. I didn’t realize I was playwriting; I just was creating dramas. I went to music and art, which is LaGuardia high school, with an interest really in music, and through music, I think I found my way to the theatre–musical theatre. And then I discovered that I wasn’t a great composer, but definitely a much better lyricist, and I was a mediocre lyricist, and I realized that I was pretty good at storytelling and at writing scripts.
Will: What did you pursue in college?
Nottage: I went to Brown university as a pre-med student. And I was a terrible Pre-med because I had won a scholarship that was given to me, not because I necessarily wanted to be a doctor, but they felt I had an aptitude to be a doctor, which I clearly didn’t. But there at Brown, I decided that I loved writing plays, and I began writing scripts that ended up getting produced at places like Rites and Reason theatre, and then Leeds Theatre, which was one of the theatres where the students did productions and then from there I applied to graduate school. I applied to the Yale School of Drama, which was very hard to get into at the time, and I got in much to my surprise because I was anticipating that I might take a different journey as a writer. I might go to graduate school for journalism, which was something that I was really interested in, and I had gotten into Columbia School of Journalism. And so I was trying to decide, do I go to Columbia and become a journalist, or do I go to Yale and become a playwright. It’s like tough choices.
Will: Yeah, this clearly worked out.
Veronica Roach: I’m happy that you decided to go to the School for Drama.
Nottage: And so, I decided to go to the school for drama and ended up being there for three, very difficult years. And after I graduated, I decided that I needed to take a little time away from writing and find myself, and find my voice, and find my vocation, and really who I wanted to be, and so I worked in a human rights organization for many years and eventually came back to writing. And so, that’s my origin story.
Veronica: So obviously, you’ve talked about how you came to be a writer. So how did get involved with teaching? Especially, as a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, I’m sure you have had plenty of different offers to teach at multiple schools, so then why choose Columbia specifically to come back to?
Nottage: Sure, I began teaching in 2001, the day after 9/11 at Yale, which was my very first teaching gig, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, how am I going to get there and the subway is barely working?” I had to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to Grand Central Station, and get on a train, and then bike to Yale, and I was quite scared, because at the time I thought, “Oh, I’m young, and I’m too green to teach, and what do I have to impact to the students?” But in the classroom, I discovered that I really enjoyed the conversations and how encouraged I felt about craft when I left. It was sort of like that craft rush, that when I, after talking to the students, immediately went to go home and write, and I thought, “This is a great feeling!” And I ended up teaching at Yale for 13-14 years. I was a visiting lecturer, and so I taught one class–sometimes I taught two classes, but mostly one class–and then I did a semester at Princeton, where I got a fellowship to teach there. And then an opportunity came up to substitute for someone here at Columbia and I taught a course–I guess that was four years ago–which I really really enjoyed and I spoke with the faculty about coming on board. I loved that I could teach theatre in a school that was in New York, and I felt like I could serve as a real gate-way between the professional theatre world and the university, and I thought it was ideal.
Will: We’re happy you’re here.
Veronica: So you even commuted to Yale from New York City then.
Nottage: Yeah, I lived in the city, and I commuted, but I have to say that Columbia is almost as long as Yale. I thought, “I’m not going to have to commute,” and then I thought, “Yes I do; I still have to commute.”
Veronica: It’s funny how that works out.
Nottage: It is funny. But I do a lot: I get a lot of reading done, which is nice, and I listen to some books on tape. But I’ve really had a fantastic time here, and the students, that at least I’ve engaged with, have a real hunger and are really quite wonderful writers.
Will: So what kind of classes do you teach here? I think she [Veronica] tried to sign up for one of your classes, and then realized it was a graduate class.
Nottage: It’s a graduate, yeah, just don’t do it. It is hard enough because I feel like the classes are a little too big, and so I can’t really make them any bigger. So that’s why it’s hard for undergraduates to get into the graduate. I think it is important to keep the classes relatively small and tight so that everyone can get the feedback that’s necessary to really feed their work. I think that when it is too large the conversations become too diffuse, and we don’t always get to everyone’s work, and so I’d rather have fewer people and spend more time with each script.
Veronica: I understand that feeling completely because I know, with University Writing, having that smaller class always works out better.
Nottage: It is better, it’s just better. I feel like writing workshops ideally should have no more than eight to ten people.
Will: So transitioning to your most recent piece of work, what inspired you to write Sweat? Because you grew up in Brooklyn, but it’s based in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Nottage: It was based in Reading, Pennsylvania, and I was really interested in sort of examining the roots of de-industrialization in America and the way it was reshaping how we understand ourselves as Americans, how it’s reshaping our American narrative. I think that one of the things that drew me to it is that, as an artist, I’m very familiar with economic insecurity. I mean that’s the way: we live on a regular basis, where we have moments in which we are doing very well, and the grass is green, and everything is fertile. And then you walk out one morning, and the grass is brown, and you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to do for the next year. And I think that for a long time in America, people weren’t familiar with that sensation. It was that you signed up for a job in a factory, and you were able to work there for twenty to thirty years and leave with a healthy pension, and leave with a community, and build a life, buy a house, take a vacation, and that shifted. And that shift really has recolored how we think about working in America, particularly because our identities are so wrapped up in what we do.
Will: One thing I read was that the show ended up performing in Reading…
Nottage: In Reading, yeah. So, I ended up spending a number of years in Reading just interviewing people, not quite knowing what story ultimately I was going to tell, and sort of landed on the story of the steelworkers and then wrote Sweat. And one of the wonderful things that happened as a result of doing it is that we were able to take the production that was produced for Public Theatre back to Reading and do a performance of it in December for an audience of about 500 people. We were terrified because we honestly didn’t know whether they would say, “This is not our town, this is not representative of who we are,” but we felt really it was the opposite, that what was happening on stage was very familiar to people.
Veronica: It’s funny how it ties into undergraduate life at Columbia so well because I know the democratic organization on campus actually went to Pennsylvania to campaign, and they went to Reading Pennsylvania so..
Nottage: Yeah, in the past I’ve gone there to Pennsylvania during elections to knock on doors and get people to out to vote.
Will: I also wanted to know like when you wrote Sweat, who did you like intend the audience to be? Because I felt like when I really watched it, like especially with this time period, I left it going, “Wow, I feel like I actually understand what is happening.” Before I was like, “Why would they ever like want someone like Trump, or things like that?” And then I left the show going, “Wow, there is a lot of issues that I was not aware of.” Did you have surprises when you were writing it yourself?
Nottage: I wasn’t surprised by my own writing to answer your question. I am joking, but what surprised me is that the place was so closely aligned with what’s happening in the headlines today. I certainly was not surprised that people were suffering; I saw that. What surprised me is that people didn’t realize that people were suffering to the extent that they were. I had no idea that people didn’t know that because I had spent five years learning that. And I thought, “How can other people not be interested in understanding why this is happening?” And so that’s what surprised me, that shocked me.
Will: Yeah. I could see that; I definitely walked in, and I was like “Oh, these are issues I never would have thought about.”
Nottage: But most people have that response, that seems to be, I think, 95 percent of the people who come in, and they are like, “Wow.” I kind of didn’t know, and I get it.
Will: Bravo to you for figuring that out, especially–it was really surprising–with the timing is perfect. I think that this is a play that people need to see.
Nottage: I agree with you. I feel, at least, if they don’t see this play, I feel like it is an issue that people need to be really actively engaging with, because it is going to reshape who we are.
Veronica: So, then how do you think that politics and theatre can intersect and interact in some ways? Because it is very like politically relevant right now.
Nottage: Oh yeah, so here’s the deal: it is like I remember years ago, seeing Werner Herzog, who is a documentary film maker: He said that the role of an artist is to keep their eyes open, and the thing that I add is “when everyone else’s are shut,” is that we are really the first responders, is that we have to get out there and interrogate culture and try to understand what’s happening, because that’s what I think our role is. And I think that we fail as artists if we’re not actively engaged with the culture, and it doesn’t mean that you have to be political theatre artists, but I think that in some ways, you have to reflect what’s happening in the world.
Will: So one thing you said in the New York Times when you were talking with your former professor, and now she’s…
Nottage: Oh yeah, Paula.
Will: …Paula, you said, “The two of us write history plays, and we write political plays, it think that’s why, perhaps, our journeys have been a little different,” in terms of getting onto Broadway. “The plays are unabashedly political, and they’re about very difficult subject matters, and they tend to be unafraid of the darkness. And I think that women writers are supposed to embrace the light.” So, I guess in one sense, why did you choose to, and you have kind of answered this already, but why did you choose to write on political plays? Because a lot of Broadway tends to be musicals, feel good things.
Nottage: Yeah, yeah, so I don’t think that I chose to write a political play; I think I chose to write a play that was socially engaged, and as a result, it is a political play. But I don’t think that I set out to say, “I’m writing a political play.” It’s just, it what it is and–to use the word again–unabashedly so. I wanted to write something that was a little tough, something that felt very real, something in which the characters actually had the opportunity to speak their truths, because I think so often when you see working people that are represented on the stage it’s presented as sort of poverty where people are presented as not necessarily being smart, and that’s not what I encountered. I found that most of the people who I encountered were very self-aware and were articulate about the way in which they were struggling, and I felt like if I was going to be truthful to telling their story, I had to present it in a way that was truthful to who they were. And, I think what makes it political is that a lot of people don’t want to hear those truths.
Veronica: Talking specifically about the production itself, how involved are you with the production of it on Broadway and at the Public, or do you kind of take step back as a playwright and let the director help more with that?
Nottage: There is a very clear hierarchy in the making of theatre, but ultimately it’s a very collaborative medium. Particularly, when you’re writing a new play, the playwright is part of the process from beginning to end. We take a step back when it’s the second, third, fourth production, but, when you’re really trying to shape the voice of the play, I think you have to be part of every aspect of it–from the casting, to being in dialogue with the designers, though the director really is the person who shapes the sensibilities of the physical production. But as a playwright, I’m in dialogue with the director, and I’ve stayed in dialogue through Broadway.
Veronica: It’s amazing, because I know that the set really helped shape the play, too, and what I found great about it was that it felt as if it was the entire building you were seeing–it wasn’t just one side of it. You saw it turn, you saw the outside of it.
Nottage: Yeah, it was cool, and I think Johnny Bailey was the set designer, and I thought he did an amazing job. He has such an incredible eye to detail, and I remember in one of review in Oregon, someone described it as a very generic bar. And I thought, “Oh no, then you didn’t look,” because, people who come from Reading, they know instantly what bar that is, and they recognize the sconces. I mean, there is such incredible specificity, if you are in-the-know, when you look at that set. And I think that that is part of the story telling, that the bar had a certain kind of warmth and familiarity.
Will: That’s true. I also remember one thing that kind of surprised me was, in the show, the actors were drinking throughout the entire time. Like there’s a scene that they were all eating cake; it felt very cool because I think a lot of shows, when they try to bring up these topics, everything seems very clearly faked or over-exaggerated. So, it was cool seeing how it felt very real, like I was just watching them as if I was a fly on the wall, seeing it all progress.
Nottage: That’s wonderful; I’m glad you felt that way.
Will: I was like, “Oh wow, it looks like they’re actually drinking beer,” and at times I thought. “I want to go join them!”
Nottage: Let’s just say that the actors are very good at faking drinking beer, from the way they carry it, but these are clearly actors who have drank beer. There is no pretending there.
Veronica: Kind of taking it back a little to writing, you know, there are a lot of people interested in writing–especially if you come to Columbia and come to New York because there is a large theatre community here and New York City is known for that–so what advice would you give to anyone who is aspiring to go into the theatre world as a playwright?
Nottage: Well, I would say you have to engage with the theatre world. I think you have to go and see as much theatre as possible, particularly if you are a student at Columbia. I mean, the advantage that you have is that you are so close to the center of the theatre world, and that’s very different from other universities. And so I think that you have to just go, and, afterwards, don’t be hesitant to meet the cast, don’t be hesitant to track down the playwright and ask the questions. Those things are important, and that’s the advantage of being in New York City: it’s access. You know, I remember one of my fellow playwrights from when I was in graduate school was really good about writing to all his heroes. And he wrote to Billy Wilder, who was a director–he was a famous director who is now long dead–and he was shocked that Billie Wilder sort of wrote, and he [my classmate] said, “Well, can we have lunch?” and Billy Wilder was like “Sure!” Then he was like, “Really?” And this was the old days, and it was all correspondence, so it was like six letters back and forth. It wasn’t like e-mail; they went back and forth. He did the same thing with Sam Shepard;He was just like, “I want to learn from the best,” and so he was not really shy about reaching out and taking advantage of the resources that are here.
Will: So, why the name Sweat? And how hard was it for you to decide on the title because I know a lot of writers struggle with titling their work?
Nottage: You know, it’s funny because I looked for repetition in the script, and one of the words that I felt was repeated–but repeated in a way that was really resonant and used differently–was the word sweat, and I thought that it really spoke to who those characters were. You know, because you sweat when you’re nervous, you sweat when you work hard, you sweat when you’re sort of excited. Hence, I just thought sweat really had a lot of resonance.
Veronica: I think that wraps it, unless you have any…
Will: Actually, I want to ask of the ending: How did you decide on how you are going to end the show? I remember when we both saw the ending, it came very quickly, like you start the show wondering, “Why are they in jail?” and at the end, very quickly, you see, “OK, this is what happened.” And you see them go revisit the bar again, and … what was the last line?
Nottage: It is, um, “That is how it ought to be.”
Will and Veronica: “That’s how it ought to be.”
Nottage: I mean, I knew when I was writing the play that I wanted to lead to the moment in which you had these four different men standing together in–what the script says–“a fractured togetherness trying to decide what’s the next word to say to each other.” And I feel like that’s where we are in America. So, that’s why it is that way.
Veronica: This is more just like a compliment, but I love, absolutely loved, in the show how you have Oscar there, how as the audience watches they almost become complicit in ignoring him.
Nottage: Yeah, because they don’t see him, and I have to say that the actor, you know, has the acting feet because he’s on stage more than any other person in the show, and yet, people don’t notice that. He’s on the stage almost the entire time until we take him off, which is when the union stuff really turns, but he’s always watching–he’s always there. And so, we wanted it to be effective when he says, “People come in here, and they don’t see me,” and the audience thinks, “Oh my God, I didn’t notice him,” so that they feel that impact. I remember when our artistic directors for theater said it made him think about all the workers in his building who he doesn’t know. He’s like, “I don’t know their names, and I see them every single day,” and he said the play made him want to know who they were and understand that these people all have really complicated narratives.
Veronica: Well, I think Sweat does an amazing job showing of us this.
Will: I am excited to share this; we came back, and we just told our entire floor, “You’re going to this show.”
Nottage: Oh, good! I’m glad you guys came and am glad it had resonance for you.
Tickets to Sweat can be purchased through the show’s website here. The show also offers a daily lottery for $32 tickets daily through the TodayTix app.
*Note: this transcript has been edited for clarity.