Madeleine Gray: Hello and welcome to this episode of the PMA podcast, Landings. My name is Madeleine Gray, Cornell PMA and English class of 2020. In this episode, current Yale School of Drama playwright Gloria Majule, PMA class of 2017, talks about her experiences as a playwright and an artist.
Gloria Majule: I think fear is good. I think fear is motivational. And I mean honestly the thing that keeps me going is this quote that's just always been in my head, which is if your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough. You're better off taking a risk and failing as opposed to never taking the risk at all. 'Cause I feel like if I had just been too scared to apply for playwriting at Yale and I was scared because I didn't get in the first time, then I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now. If you don't do something that you're passionate about and something that your heart is telling you to do, at some point you'll think back and wonder why, why didn't I do that? And you don't want to be like 50 and realize, Oh my gosh, I should have totally done theatre because that was what I loved. So you might as well just try and see where it goes.
Gloria Majule: I feel like I initially was really interested in acting, but I just didn't feel like there were any roles written specifically for me as a black African woman. I felt like there was a shortage of roles that I could play, which didn't feel like stereotypical. Basically I just didn't feel like my voice was represented in the theater or in the shows that I was seeing. So I figured I would write those roles myself. And that's how I guess I veered from acting to playwriting and I mean I've always, I always did love writing so I didn't feel like a drastic shift in a career. It just felt like a more specific focus. Playwriting, It's very vulnerable. Somebody recently said to me, it's like writing is like bleeding your heart out. And I feel like I'm still trying to navigate that and what it means. Especially 'cause like before I came to Yale I hadn't really had other people direct my work 'cause I directed Life Sentence [at PMA spring 2017] myself. Learning how to collaborate with different collaboratives in the field, working collaboratively with a team and sort of seeing how your words come to life. I just feel like it's a very vulnerable experience when you put something on a page or on many, many, many pages and then share it to the world. And that's a challenge. But it's also an experience when those words touch people. If those words touch people.
Gloria Majule: I wrote, I wrote a play last year. I was just for like a new play lab and I grew up watching telenovelas and Spanish soap operas and like I took Spanish in college, I was fluent in Spanish and I loved telenovelas. So I wrote a play, which was sort of like tackling the question I had in my head about the ongoing immigration crisis in this country. We had to write the play for the ensemble. I had two Latinx characters and I had three, four characters who more or less spoke Spanish. So I've ventured out to write a play that like took the tone of the novela genre for like the first chunk of it and it was like hyper-realistic, wild, imaginative telenovela about like a wedding scandal and then somehow there was like a twist and the world shattered and we entered the real world with the immigration crisis in America right now. I remember there was some people who were saying that the play was racist. I think that that came as a shock to me because I did not anticipate anyone to like picture it that way. I guess my main question or wonder was, Oh, was I not allowed to tell this story because I am not a Latinx person? But at the same time, I am an immigrant in this country and the immigration experience is something that I can relate to, in a way.
Gloria Majule: One of my biggest setbacks is this being an international foreign student and a black woman in America. Definitely there's always days where I feel so foreign, and I feel like I don't really know how to navigate the world around me because I am not from here and this is not my country. This is not my home, in a way. It makes me wonder, what if nobody gets my plays or what if nobody can relate to my plays. It's because I'm writing from an experience that's different and it turns out most people don't know if they even care about, and I feel like that I guess as an insecurity, but I also feel like it helped me think about my audience and who I write for. I do know that there are people like me who are in this country and they feel foreign and alienated and if I can get them to come to the theater and see plays, and that's my core audience and I feel like then they will feel like, Oh my gosh, yes, we have our birth location in the theater industry, in the media industry, we have stories that are written by us for us.
Gloria Majule: My main goal is to just see roles for black people in theatre that aren't stereotypical and to give them characters that are fully flushed out and you know to give them juicy roles to really bite into and play as actors. I do tend to write more for black women than I do for black men and I do set my plays mostly in Tanzania and I guess maybe one or two have been set in America, and one in Kenya, all very different stories, all full of very different people. They all try to explore different questions and different challenges, but I do mostly focus on places that I myself have lived and places that I can envision in my head when I'm writing just because I do feel like a lot of my plays are inspired by my experiences or, I mean, it is my voice and it's the way that I tend to tackle some of the things that are chewing away in my head in terms of like the world and the way I see it.
Gloria Majule: To give an example, the play that I'm doing right now, it's called Tilted and it takes place on Mount Kilimanjaro. So it's the classes I had about the ghost of colonization and on the continents specifically focusing on Tanzania and the tourism industry, narrows down the tourism industry to Mount Kilimanjaro, which is one of the main tourist attractions of Tanzania. I think it's second only to safaris. So it follows a Kilimanjaro tour guide. Basically the ghost of colonization, what it means to find your own identity, I guess, in a country that you perceive as yours, but it doesn't feel like the country is truly freed itself from the influences of colonization.
Gloria Majule: I wrote Life Sentence and I wrote a play Uncut. And I wrote that during a gap year I took after Cornell where I interned in two literary departments. So I interned at the Manhattan Theater Club and at the Ambassador Theater Group. Honestly, I feel like just living in the city for almost a year and seeing so many different plays, I realized I wish I had seen more plays when I was in Ithaca, just because like seeing a lot of theatre and constantly going to see different plays is really helpful in terms of knowing what's in the industry right now and what's the kind of work that's being produced and what's the kind of story that I'd be telling, because then you can sort of like figure out what kind of stories you want to tell and how your voice will be different from the voices that are already out there. So I feel like, yeah, definitely that gap year in terms of like seeing different shows and going out to see a play a week, and also just reading a lot more plays 'cause I was in a literary department so I was constantly reading plays. I feel like that definitely broadened my understanding of playwriting, and also my understanding of the industry because I basically worked for the department that would be hiring me, if that makes sense. 'Cause you submit your plays to literary departments. So like understanding how those work, it helps you prepare like into what you're getting yourself into in a way. Because I feel like a lot of our industry, it is a lot of rejection and there's a lot of sending your plays over and over again until somebody—hopefully you're not sending the same play over and over again at the same company—but, basically sending your plays to different companies and hoping that one of them is excited about the work and wants to produce the work. And it's sending different places, different companies because every theatre sort of has its own different...flavor? That's not the right word. It's more like what kind of plays they produce? So definitely learning that was fundamental, I think in, my pursuit of this career.
Gloria Majule: Reading a lot of plays and seeing a lot of theatre helped me write my second full-length play, which was, yeah, which was Uncut and it was about female genital mutilation. And that is the play I used as my submission to Yale. Everyone told me it was the best and I always seek to strive for the best, I guess? I feel like that's just been my mantra for as long as I can remember, striving to do the best I can to get into the best place. And Yale was the best school for playwriting, from what I heard. So I was like, okay, I'm done, that's where I want to go. Yeah. And I mean it was, I mean also Tarell as the head of the department, Tarell Alvin McCraney. He wrote Moonlight and he wrote Choirboy, so he's an Academy Award winner. Tony nominee. He, he's pretty big in the industry right now and he writes beautiful work, very beautiful plays. He's the head of my department, so he's taught a few classes that I've been in and I mean he mentors the works that we do, like he mentors, he mentored me in this play that I'm working on right now for the festival of new plays that's coming up. Tilted. Yeah, like my professor, he was like my teacher. So he, he's there to ask me questions and help me figure out how do I get from one draft to the other draft, and how to build my voice as a writer and think about my audience and who I'm writing for. And yeah, it's like a sort of dramaturgical role, in a way, and a professor-teacher role, in terms of like helping me with developing my plays. I thought the opportunity to get to work with somebody like Tarell that was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I don't want to... Yeah, that I really wanted to take advantage of.
Gloria Majule: I actually applied twice. I applied right after Cornell and I think I applied with Life Sentence and I didn't get in, but I got into other MFA programs and Yale was my first choice, so I wanted to give it another shot before I decided. So that's why I took a gap year and then I got more industry experience, and I was able to see more shows and read more shows and make more connections. And then I applied again with a different play. And after that, yeah, I got called for an interview and then I got a call that I got in, and it was an exciting and amazing process and just like being able to get into my dream school was really affirming and humbling at the same time. And then I started, what is it, a year and a half ago now? Yeah. In 2018, so I'm an international student and a lot of the things will depend on my visa. I did bring up the concern, I think in the first class I had was with Sarah Ruhl. She was... I was like, yeah, I am worried because I don't know what I will do after I graduate 'cause I'm an international student in this program. And she was like, you know, I feel like you can just put that aside for three years and just focus on this opportunity. And I feel like that's what I'm doing. I'm making the most of this opportunity and learning everything I can and then we'll see what happens after that.
Gloria Majule: So I mean I want to write. And that is what I intend to do. I don't know where right now, but I'm also, I'm also just not really thinking about it right now 'cause I'm thinking about developing my voice and developing as a writer so that I can tell the story I want to tell them and tell them in a beautiful and effective way. I'm always sort of motivated by this idea that if your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough. And I actually disagree that you can't have a living out of the arts, because I have seen people doing it and I'm doing it right now. Basically you get paid to write, which is to me, to me that is a dream job. For me, how I decided that for myself was writing, it's something that I love doing and it's something that like I can do until 5:00 in the morning. It's something I'm willing to wake up early in the morning to do. So. It's something that I actually excites me and motivates me.
Gloria Majule: And I mean in the year that I took off, I was doing a desk job. I was doing like [inaudible] administration. I'm really like, this is not for me. I cannot be in a desk job. That's just not how my brain works. And I prefer to be in something more creative, something more dynamic. And so at the end of the day, it became between choosing whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life sitting at a desk doing something I don't love or whether I was going to take the risk and pursue something that I do love and see where that goes. And just like following my own instincts and my own passion. 'Cause I feel like having a lot of passion into something as well is something that can, it's, it motivates you and it motivates you to make it work. And so far I have made it work.
Gloria Majule: I am surrounded by like very great writers. I mean there's obviously lots of people who have influenced me and lots of people who have like motivated me and encouraged me. And I feel like there's writers who I aspire to or writers who inspire me. And sometimes I feel like I've learned a lot from them, even though I've never met some of them. I would say someone that has really helped me and motivated me is Sara Warner. Sara Warner is my favorite person in the whole world because I feel like she always motivated me. There was a time at Cornell where I just did not want to be in PMA anymore and I was like, I'm going to switch to a modern language major. I don't want to do this. I don't know what I'm doing with my life. And Sara Warner just like helped guide me. In fact, she was the one who even encouraged me to write my own play 'cause I was like complaining that there wasn't any place where I was seeing myself. A lot of it was my own background like and how I was raised and how I grew up, and then coming into America and the culture shock faced there. Life Sentence was fun. I wrote it, I think it was my sophomore year summer where I like wrote a, I don't know if I'm allowed to, like what words I'm allowed to use on this program, but I wrote a shitty first draft just to like workshop with some actors in the room, and I think I worked on Life Sentence for like a year and a half before it was done at the Schwartz. But what was rewarding about the process because it was a first play, a first full-length play, so like I did not really know what I was doing, but it was a lot of fun because I did have a lot of support and help. As well as Sara Warner, Aoise, Austin... Basically got a lot of help from a lot of the faculty at the Schwartz in terms of structuring the play and building the conflicts in the play.
Gloria Majule: And I feel like one of the main challenges came during the casting process because we had a hard time finding black actors for the roles. So that was a setback, I guess in terms of that play then and there. But overall I feel like it was a very rewarding experience, and honestly doing that show is what made me realize this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and just like seeing how the actors and the audience were affected by the words that I wrote in a way that I didn't think was possible or, or at least I hadn't experienced in that way. It was just a feeling that I didn't want to ever like have to let go, and I've really recommended getting some professional, like if for the theatre, getting some professional experience even if it's in something that you're not interested in doing because you will learn a lot from it. And you will also make connections, which are important in our industry and networking. I guess for playwriting specifically, I do recommend seeing a lot of shows and reading a lot of shows because that will help you even if you don't write like it. Just knowing what's out there right now is useful, and you can like figure out how your voice fits in in that. I recommend to be bold and to write from your voice and write for your core audience. When you write a play, who do you want to come see it? And if you can, like instead of like focusing on the audience that typically comes to the theatre, like if you focus on writing for the people who you don't typically see, but you want to see in the theatre, then that's a way to invite them into this space. That's my advice.
Madeleine Gray: Thanks for listening to the PMA podcast. Gloria's latest play Tilted ran December 5–11, 2019, in the Iseman Theater at Yale University. To find out more about this play and others, visit gloriamajule.com.