“The Worth of Water” is a new play by Tira Palmquist who is known for her ability to blend the poetic, personal and political via her work. Her plays have won awards and been presented all across America.
Tira is currently in New York working with a nonprofit company called Clutch Productions that is dedicated to creating opportunities for emerging female artists in theatre and film. She recently discussed her career as a playwright and her latest piece—“The Worth of Water”—via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into writing and what drew you to playwriting in particular?
Tira Palmquist (TP): I grew up in a family that loved books and literature and words, and I wrote stories and poems from the time I was in grade school. In high school and as an undergraduate, I wrote a lot of poetry, and it was about that time that I was encouraged to get my MFA in poetry. However, I’d also been acting during that same period (and worked in all aspects of the theater, including props, lighting, costumes and stage management) – and so even when I was getting my MFA, I continued to act. A few years later, when I was invited to be part of a multi-disciplinary performing arts group (primarily as a poet) in Columbus, OH, I found myself tipping into narrative – and gradually began writing short plays. The transition from poet to playwright was made easier because I had spent so many years being in and doing plays — and, in retrospect, it seems utterly natural.
MM: How would you describe your style and what most inspires your plays?
TP: I am known for plays that merge the personal, the political and the poetic. While the majority of my plays are naturalistic or realistic (or, at least, have realistic characters, and realistic-sounding dialogue), these same plays often include experiments with form and style (including, but not limited to poetical language, non-linear structure, use of ghosts and non-human characters) and it’s important to me that plays do more than be live-action television. I yearn for and appreciate theater than embraces the magical, the impossible, the mythic.
It may seem funny, then, that the starting point for many of my plays is often something in the news. For example, my play Age of Bees began when my brother sent me an article about Colony Collapse Disorder and pesticides. I knew, immediately, that this would be my next play, though I had no idea what that meant, what kind of play it would be, what shape that play would take. Sometimes, too, my plays begin with a kind of personal challenge. My play Two Degrees started when an actress I know bemoaned the lack of good parts for women over 40 – and I realized I needed to be a better advocate for the actors I know and love.
Finally, of course, I’m inspired by what I read, the people I know, the real and profound struggles they experience in their lives.
MM: How many plays have you written and what are they about?
TP: I’ve written a number of shorter plays – but let’s put those aside for a moment. If we’re only focused on my longer plays, I’ve completed 13 full-length plays, and the subject matter of these plays range from the problems of millennials today, to climate change and political inaction, to immigration, to sex trafficking. I find that I keep circling back to a few themes:
- What is home, and where do we find it?
- How do we move forward, how do we put one step in front of another, when hobbled by grief and loss?
- How can science and rational thought save us? Or, rather, how will science and rational thought (and our passion for these things) give us the capacity to save ourselves.
- How can we be better humans in the face of so much inhumanity?
MM: Where did you get the ideas for your plays and do you have a personal favorite?
TP: As I said, above, many of my ideas come from what I read in the news, and what it means to live in with things that cause us grief and/or rage. And as for a favorite – I suppose that’s a bit like choosing a favorite child. Right now, one of my favorite plays is The Way North, a play inspired by the immigrants fleeing our country after Trump’s election, trying to get across the Canadian border in the dead of winter.
MM: What is “The Worth of Water” about and what inspired it?
TP: The original inspiration was a conversation with a former colleague of mine who told me that she was going to Mermaid Camp with her mother and sister. I had never heard of this place – but suddenly, immediately, I thought, “Oh yes this has got to be a play.” But then there was this election, and, like many artists I knew, I found myself struggling in the weeks and months after the inauguration, after we began to see the real costs of what was happening. I was going through a fairly tough time, personally, and I could not write. Not only did I see millions of voters having their voice silenced, I began to experience my own kind of voicelessness. This, then, became another theme in the play: How do we go on when things are difficult? How do we regain our voice and power?
MM: How did you go about getting this play cast and staged?
TP: I was fortunate enough to have Clutch Productions choose me for their recent commissioned plays series. They responded to my pitch, and gave me the time and resources to write the play over the period of a year. Then, of course, I am incredibly fortunate to have had Clutch decide to produce the play. They’ve been great partners in finding some incredible artists – actors, and designers and musicians – to help realize this play.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the play?
TP: That they, too, have the capacity for forgiveness, for grace, for the power to release what burdens them, and to find the power of their own voice — that they, as Thomas Fuller warned, don’t only know the worth of water once the well is dry.
MM: Do you have other theatrical or writing projects coming up that you would like to discuss?
TP: In October, my play The Way North will be one of the featured plays at the Ashland New Plays Festival. Then, in November, my play Safe Harbor (another commissioned play) will go up in Los Angeles, produced by Lower Depth Theater Ensemble. Then, in January, I will go into rehearsal for a workshop of a new play written for the UC Irvine graduate actors, called All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.
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To learn more, visit the official website of Clutch Productions.