'Live at the Lortel' Podcast Interviews Associate Professor Lynn Nottage
Live at the Lortel, an Off-Broadway podcast, recently hosted Associate Professor Lynn Nottage for an evening of conversation.
Nottage is a two time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter. Her plays have been produced widely in the United States and throughout the world. Nottage was first awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009 for her play Ruined, and received the honor again in 2017 for Sweat. She recently presented This is Reading, a performance and media installation at the Franklin Street, Reading Railroad Station in Reading, PA.
The Live At The Lortel series “is designed to give theater-makers the opportunity to share insight into their creative process and inspiration with a larger audience.” The podcast is hosted by Eric Ostrow, along with alternating co-hosts Joy DeMichelle, John-Andrew Morrison and Daphne Rubin-Vega. “For season two, while theatres are dark, we are discussing with our guests their thoughts on the reckoning the theatre community is facing for systemic racism and their vision for the future of the American theater,” Ostrow said. “We offer these conversations to help us learn and to start the healing process.”
DeMichelle joined Ostrow for this episode and had the opportunity to introduce Nottage to the Lortel’s audience. Nottage’s play Sweat holds a special weight for DeMichelle, as she had the opportunity to understudy for it at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Sweat follows a group of friends in a Rust Belt town who have spent their lives sharing secrets and laughs on the factory floor. When layoffs begin to chip away at their trust, they’re pitted against each other in a heart-wrenching fight. DeMichelle shared how she could recognize her own family in Nottage’s thoughtfully crafted cast of characters. “What [Nottage] did in terms of bringing these people to life, the life of factory workers, that these people had amazing lives before the economy turned upside down, and what that did to people and their relationships, was amazing,” DeMichelle said.
DeMichelle also asked Nottage to speak about three artists whom Nottage has cited among her greatest inspirations: Bertolt Brecht, Toni Morrison, and Richard Pryor. “Those are three very foundational artists in my life,” Nottage said. “Certainly Toni Morrison arrived in my childhood at a moment when I most needed words from an inspirational, creative, poetic writer.” Nottage encountered Brecht during her graduate studies as she was exploring the tension of wanting to be an artist and an activist, and how she was going to converge the two. “In Brecht’s writing, I found that kind of urgency and necessity that I hold onto to this day.” Speaking about legendary comedian Richard Pryor, Nottage shared how she loves his irreverence, fire, and fearlessness. “I think there are enormous lessons in the way in which he approached his craft and his writing...these three people are part of my creative DNA.”
As DeMichelle noted, “Nottage writes contrasting, provocative, empathetic, socially conscious plays.” Ostrow asked Nottage to speak to theatre’s role in effecting change. “I always like to think that theatre is at the vanguard of change,” Nottage said, “but my frustration over the years is that we’re not able to reach as diverse an audience as I feel is necessary to have real systemic change. But I do think there is something magnificent about the way in which we as storytellers can build empathy and create a communal energy that then can be taken out and released into the world. I don’t think there’s any other medium that has that capacity, perhaps with the exception of live music, dance, and others falling under the umbrella of the performing arts.”
Speaking more about her time as a student, Nottage shared her experiences of being underestimated early on. Nottage, who has always felt a proclivity for creative writing, spoke about how she noticed the disparities between how she and other students were graded in a high school senior seminar. Occasionally, Nottage’s teacher would grade the creative writing assignments anonymously, and Nottage noticed a trend. “All of the pieces of writing that I did that had my name—Lynn Nottage, this Black girl from Brooklyn—I got C’s, and all of the anonymous papers, I got A’s or A+’s. It told me, instantly, all the information that I needed to know: I was going to face an uphill battle. The way I looked, the way I spoke, because of my gender, I was constantly going to be underestimated in many ways. But I think in some respects, because I encountered that early on and I understood it, it really armed me with the tools to fight it through to today.”
DeMichelle asked Nottage what advice she would share with young artists who seek to have that same kind of fortitude. “What’s fundamental,” Nottage said, “is understanding one’s truth, and leaning into it, holding it, and protecting it at all costs. There are always going to be people who are going to poke holes, challenge, undermine, and underestimate, and it’s really about holding onto, with both hands as tightly as you can, and protecting it.”