Today, the Student Voice is meeting up with Dr. Claudia Barnett of the English department to talk about the tango, playwriting puzzles, and women who kill.
Thanks for agreeing to interview today! What got you interested in English as a subject?
I actually thought that I was going to major in math. But one day in my freshman year, I was doing my calculus homework, and I thought “Somebody’s already derived all of these formulas; I want to do something new and different”. And that was pretty much it. I eventually decided that my focus would be on drama.
And you’ve written plays, correct?
Yes I have.
What draws you to playwriting?
I like how playwriting feels like a puzzle. I have to figure out what the story is, who the characters are, and all those things that you’d have to figure out in other genres, like novels. But since I don’t have a narrator, I don’t have a third party who can explain the motivations of characters, so I have to find a way to deal with issues of truth. Is there any sort of objectivity? Who do you believe, and why? If one of the characters says “This is who I am”, is that really who they are? Do you take that person on faith? And if I want the audience to know that a character is lying, how do I convey that? It’s puzzles like those that I find to be really interesting.
When did you write your first play?
I wrote my first play when I was in college. I took two semesters of playwriting in college, but those were all short plays. I wrote my first full-length play around 2004.
What’s your favorite out of all the plays that you’ve written?
People often say that the one they’re working on now is the one that they love best, but I can honestly say that the one I’m working on now is a big obnoxious bear and I just want it to go away! I don’t know, I kind of love them all in their ways; I really do like my play “Witches Vanish”. It’s the kind of play that I could probably revise a thousand more times, having already revised it about a thousand times. I’m going to leave it as it is, but I’m fond of it.
What is it about?
It has the three witches from Macbeth as the main characters, and they are traveling through time and place to act out the stories of women who have disappeared. It’s based on true stories, and it’s a lot of fun having the witches, with their indeterminate morality, be the ones who are visiting all these different scenes. It goes lots of different places and tracks many different characters. It has three actors and they all play twelve or thirteen parts, so it gets a bit messy.
That would be a fun play to act in!
It’s fun, but it’s also very, very hard. It was produced at Venus Theater in 2015, and I remember the director told the actors that they needed to get in shape over the summer and make sure that they were in excellent physical condition, because there was so much physicality in the play. Then in my next play, everyone had to learn the tango, and I actually went to a workshop production of it and watched the choreographer come in and teach the entire cast how to tango. She offered to teach me too, but I knew there was no way I could learn.
Speaking of learning, how long have you taught at MTSU?
What’s one of your favorite teaching moments?
In my playwriting class, my students always do a final presentation of plays from the semester, and they often participate in Scholars Week and the Celebration of Student Writing, so I get to see my students put on their plays during the course of a semester. Like last semester, my students did two different days of Scholars Week and the Celebration of Student Writing, so I got to keep seeing their plays get on their feet, and I love that. We had our final event in May, and some of them used the same play, and some used different plays. For the final event, they acted in each other’s plays, so I got to watch my students become both actors and playwrights.
If you had to choose one class that you teach that the entire student body at MTSU should take, which class would it be and why?
I teach a gen-ed class that I adore, called “Women Who Kill”. It’s a survey of plays by women about female characters who kill. They’re mostly from the 20th century through today, and they’re all by women, with the exceptions of Medea and Macbeth. I put those much older plays in there, by men, with famous examples of women who kill, and then we use them to contrast the far more contemporary images of women who kill. We go through the history of women in the 20th century in this country with those plays. We get to see a lot of different styles of plays, and a lot of different attitudes about women who kill.
What inspired you to put that class together?
I used to teach a class called Women Playwrights. Then one day I was talking to a colleague from another university, and she was thinking about team-teaching a class with someone from criminal justice; they were thinking about doing a class about women, crime, and plays. She said, “Okay, let’s brainstorm and come up with a list of plays with women and crime”. We came up with a huge list, and we narrowed it down to plays that included murder. Then she said “You know what? I’m tired of women being victims.” So we narrowed it down further to plays about women who kill. I realized that I already taught a lot of those plays in my Women Playwrights class, and that it would be a much better class if I replaced some of the others and narrowed the focus. So that’s how the class was born.
What is some advice that you would give your students about how to succeed, both academically and professionally?
I always tell my students, “Reading plays makes you smarter.” It started as a joke, but it’s turned into a mantra. When you look at a script, there’s a lot of white space on the page, but you have to fill that in. You have to figure out how characters look, how they move, and most importantly, what they’re thinking. There’s no narrator to tell you. Of course, other genres can be challenging, but drama always makes you work—and that kind of work, the kind that makes you seek out clues and use your imagination, is really good for your brain. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.
What was something that you wish you’d done in college that you’d go back and do if you could?
I wish I had gone to France for a semester. I’m very sorry that I didn’t do study abroad; I think that it was cowardly of me not to go. I thought, “Well I’ve only got four semesters, and I don’t want to leave my friends and miss a whole semester of college,” but I think I could have learned so much in that semester that would’ve been worth it. That’s something that I always encourage my students to do since I regret not doing it.
What’s one of your favorite memories of when you were a student in college?
This is going to sound strange for a fond memory, but my freshman year at college, I lived at the bottom of a hill that was covered in ice. This is how all stories sound, right? “Back in the old days…” But I think this was how they hazed the freshmen (laughing). Spring semester was about to start, and the way registration worked–before they invented computers–was that we had to climb the icy hill and stand in long lines in the gymnasium. Each department had a table, and you had to wait your turn in line to register for the class, if it didn’t fill up before you got there. You would go in knowing which classes you wanted, but you had to just stand around for a long time and hope that you got them. This was during my second semester, so I was really low on the totem pole, and I really wanted to take a class in Russian literature and translation. I think I had recently read “Crime and Punishment” and decided that I wanted to read a bunch of big depressing books. I waited forever in this line, and when I got to the front, I was told that this particular professor had left Cornell and gone to Princeton, so I couldn’t take the class. I just looked around and found a table that had no line, and I walked over to it and asked, “Do you have any Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes at 11:15?” And they said “Sure; you can take Introduction to Theater!” And it ended up being the best class I ever took. It turned out to be an extremely lucky situation!