The Stages of Change
Playwright Rachel Lynett doesn’t want to complain about society. She wants to change it. That passion fires her current works in progress as part of FST’s Playwrights Project. Her latest plays include As You Are, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Carry Me, which explores the confluence of the abolitionist and suffragist movements. Both plays draw from the past. But as William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As Lynett sees it, remembering the past is the best way to stop repeating it. Change always begins in the mind. And the stage is a great place to start.
How’d you get started as a playwright?
It’s complicated, but here’s the short version of my hero’s journey…I started out as a stage manager, and worked with a lot of plays. Going through all those stories, I didn’t see families like mine or people like me. I realized the best way to see the plays I wanted to see was to write them myself. So I started creating my own stories with complicated characters, who looked and sounded like me. That’s how I got into playwriting.
What topics grab you?
I write a lot about things I see in the news – what critics might call “social justice” issues. To me, they’re just issues that involve my life. Journalists stick to the facts – that’s their job. I try to explore the human stories behind the headlines. That’s my job.
You’re known for dark comedies. Your topics are serious, but your writing isn’t.
I like to say: “First, we’re going to laugh. Then, we’re going to talk.” If people think you’re preaching a sermon, they’ll head for the hills. If they think you’ll make them laugh – and you actually do – then they’ll hear what you have to say.
As You Are is a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I understand it’s also a musical?
I’ve been joking that it’s a musical by accident. I always knew there was going to be music in it, but it turns out there’s a lot of music in it. With one exception, all of the songs are from Shakespeare – As You Like It has a lot of songs to begin with and some come from his other plays. Trying to blend Shakespeare’s Elizabethan lyrics with modern dialogue is a challenge. Suppose one character says, “Let’s go on a jog.” How do you segue from that to “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind,” or whatever? It’s not easy mixing those elements together. But it’s fun.
Tell me a little about Carry Me.
It grew out of a 10-minute piece I was writing for FST’s Suffragist Project. Doing my research, I found out about a wealthy black family living in pre-Civil War Philadelphia. They were both suffragists and abolitionists – and that opened up so many intersectional possibilities. My cast has two white women and two black women. The white characters say: “Voting is the most important thing. Hold off on abolition. Get the vote for women first, and then we’ll vote to end slavery.” How do you deal with that if you’re a black woman? How can you even make that choice? That dilemma exists in a historical context – but it has echoes in the world of today.
Could you talk a little bit about your writing process?
I’ve been told I work fast. I can whip off a ten-minute play in about 30 minutes; a full-length play might take me eight hours. For reference, the playwrights I know and work with might take about three months to write a full-length play.
What’s your secret?
I think it’s because I don’t start from an outline. I believe in character-driven conflict. My first draft is just the bare bones. I’ll often start with a set of characters, and just let them talk. Sometimes they’ll talk for 20 pages before I know what the underlying conflict is. At other times, I know what they’re fighting about before I start writing. I’ll begin with a basic problem that’s come up in their lives, and let them wrestle with it on a personal level. As they discover the truth, so do I. I’m a big fan of exploring and chipping away at things rather than having a strict outline. I think that’s why I end up writing so quickly — at least in my first draft. If you want me to edit a play, it’s going to take me about four months. I guess that’s the trade-off.
I’ve been told you don’t have an agent.
That’s not by choice. I’m constantly looking for submission opportunities – I submit about 100 times a year! It’s hard work. I do it myself, because I have to. But I’d love to have an agent.
How has The Playwrights Project affected your creative process? Are you working any differently?
I think it’s been very liberating. I got the initial invitation from FST on a very rough day. Thanks to the pandemic, the prevailing message to playwrights was: “Think small, think basic.” But the email from FST said, “We want playwrights to dream as big as they can.” That felt incredible to me. I was so happy, I think I literally screamed. “Do I want to participate?” Of course, my answer was “yes.” As You Are seemed like a dream before this project. Too ambitious, too different. Now I’m working on it, and I’ve got a support team to help me. It’s like a dream come true.
Rachel Lynett is a queer, Afro-Latinx playwright currently based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work for FST’s Playwrights Project includes As You Are, a contemporary musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Lynett is also continuing with Carry Me, her commission for FST’s Suffragist Project. Lynett’s playwriting credits also include Good Bad People, Well-Intentioned White People, and Abortion Road Trip.