Christina Anderson: Not in Kansas anymore

Last week, I briefly stepped into the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with playwright Christina Anderson to check out the set for her play, “How To Catch Creation.” The Jason Sherwood design is a revolving set with an impressive representation of the Golden Gate Bridge. It allows the scenes to shift quickly from era to era.

Anderson, who originally hails from the Midwest, is in town for the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of her show, which runs through April 14. She’s known for tackling heavy subject matter and infusing it with a little bit of humor.

PGN: How does a brown queer girl get along growing up in Kansas City, Kansas?

CA: [Laughs] Oh wow, in general?

PGN: Did you spend your formative years there?

CA: Yes. I was born and raised there. I didn’t leave until I left to go to college. I went to Brown, and it was my first time living away from home. But I’ve been on the East Coast mostly since about 1999. I did a residency for one year in San Francisco at Magic Theatre Company in 2011. The play is based off of my experiences living there. ’Cause, you know, I was a landlocked baby, and then there was the East Coast, but the West Coast had a completely different energy.

PGN: Tell me a little more about growing up in Kansas City.

CA: Yeah, yeah, you know it was cool. I had a lot of family there. I’m an only child between my parents, but I had a lot of cousins from both sides of the family nearby. I was a big nerd and liked school a lot. I was into English and the arts. I did a lot of drama in high school. When I was a freshman, I got into a playwriting roundtable for young playwrights and that’s where I got hooked on writing shows. It stayed with me all through my life. Even as a kid, I was always writing stories.

PGN: Do you remember what your first story was about?

CA: It was in kindergarten, and at that age I was better at telling stories than writing them. But the first one I can remember is about a little girl who had a ball, and when she bounced the ball it grew wings and flew away and she had to run after it. That’s the earliest one I remember. But my mother says that before I was able to write properly, when I was 3 or 4, I always had a story to tell. I would attempt to write them down in my little chicken scratch that no one else could read [in a child’s voice]: “These are letters and these are words that make up my stories, and I’m going to tell them to you now.”

PGN: Wow. The flying ball sounds like the Snitch from Harry Potter, was J.K. Rowling deciphering your chicken scratch?

CA: Oh yeah, now that you mention it! [Laughing] See, if I’d stuck with it, I’d be making that J.K. money now!

PGN: Were you always behind the scenes or did you act as well?

CA: I did a little acting, mainly in my Introduction to theater classes. I’ve also done some spoken word, so I’m comfortable on a stage. In high school, I played Mrs. Hannagan in “Annie.” I started to get gigs performing, but I really wanted to be a playwright, so I decided to chill on the performing and focus on the writing.

PGN: What made you choose playwriting as opposed to becoming a novelist or screenwriter?

CA: When I was a freshman in high school I went to this all-day, intensive introduction to playwriting. At that time, I knew there were playwrights, but I just assumed they were all dead! [Laughs] It didn’t even occur to me that I could write something and it could be immediately staged. It really opened the gateway. I could write something and perform it, or have my friends perform it immediately. It was such an empowering feeling that I could take the stories that I wanted to tell and the things that I observed, and people would come and watch it. I loved the immediacy of it.

PGN: It’s amazing what can happen when people are exposed to the arts. It created a whole career for you.

CA: Right? Just one class made such a difference.

PGN: What things were you into before you discovered theater?

CA: I did debate. I did forensics, which is like … comedic solo performances, monologues, duo scenes, etc. I had a very short stint as a basketball player in the seventh grade, but that did not go well.

PGN: What happened?

CA: There was a big game that came down to a buzzer shot in the final seconds and somehow the ball ended up in my hands. I immediately was like, OK, I do not like this feeling or want this responsibility. So that was the end of sports for me.

PGN: Did you make the shot?

CA: Of course not!

PGN: [Laughing] You’re a bad lesbian! So what did your folks do for a living?

CA: My mom ran an intensive-care unit. She’s retired now, but she did that for years. My dad died when I was 3, but he was a jack-of-all-trades.

PGN: So it was just you and your mom?

CA: No. Her sister and my three cousins lived with us. Since I grew up with them, they felt more like siblings to me. I had a lot of relatives from my father’s side of the family nearby as well. A lot of them went to the same church too, so it was great having family around. On the other hand, I was also ready to get out of Kansas City when it came time to pick a school!

PGN: I know nothing about KC.

CA: I grew up in Wyandotte County, which is where Janelle Monáe grew up. She’s a little bit younger than me, but she lived about 10 blocks away. There are two Kansas Cities: Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. [Kansas City, Kansas] is like the stepchild of the Kansas Cities. Where I grew up was fairly suburban, a lot of working-class families. Church was about it for the arts: preaching, playing instruments or singing in the choir. But at home, I took a lot of lessons — piano and drawing, so there were artistic things in my life. But it wasn’t until I went to high school and then to a children’s group called the Coterie Theatre that I cut my teeth as an artist.

PGN: When did you first come out?

CA: [Laughs] It wasn’t until college. That’s when I started figuring out who I was. Seeing black and brown queer people who were out, proud and fierce. Folks took me under their wing. And then the next year, Yale had a queer people-of-color conference that I went to. I met people that I’m still friends with. I took a class with Elmo Terry-Morgan about queer black theater. We’d read different plays and talk about them. And I wrote a play based on Loraine Hansberry and her juggling her identities as a queer woman and a playwright while trying to be a civil-rights activist.

PGN: When did you go from, “That’s really interesting” to “Woah, that’s me!”

CA: That’s a great question. Probably not until my junior year. I was a late bloomer! I was surrounded by queer people. But I still was never, “Oh that’s me,” until later. I was such a nerd! I was just all about the studying. I love to read. When Dr. Seuss died, I was devastated because I thought he and I were going to write together. That was my plan. I liked reading and watching old MGM movies, especially the musicals. I’d learn all the dance routines and practice them. I fell in love with Judy Garland when I was 12.

PGN: Fast forward: How did you meet your partner?

CA: A friend from college worked at the ACLU and he invited me to march with them at the New York Pride Parade. He also invited her and then put us together. We ended up talking the entire march and by the end that was it. And we’ve been together ever since. It’s been about 10 years.

PGN: What was the first big show of your work?

CA: I had a show produced at a Playhouse in New York, and it was the first big show for me. It was a show that I had written in grad school. It did not go well. It got ripped in the reviews. It was a good experience overall, though. My family came to see it. [Laughing] Fortunately I was living in New Haven, so I didn’t have to walk the streets of New York in pain! The funny thing is, Crowded Fire Theater in Chicago is going to produce it this fall! I’d put it in a drawer never to be seen again.

PGN: What are some of the discrimination challenges you’ve faced?

CA: Oh, I’ve had 60-year-old white dudes tell me that because they didn’t understand it that no one would get my plays. I used to get told all the time that I needed to “behave” if I wanted to be successful. Weirdly, it would be things like if people gave me feedback and I didn’t take notes, I was yelled at and told that I should talk to other artists of color who knew how to behave. That doesn’t happen anymore, but it was pretty regular in the beginning.

PGN: I keep forgetting that you don’t direct the shows. That’s got to be scary, that you are basically taking your baby and giving it to someone else to raise.

CA: Yeah, but I’m a big believer in collaboration. When I first started, I kept a tighter grip but I’m more relaxed now. I’ve learned to trust the people I work with. Often the actors and directors will bring things to the table I haven’t considered. And the success we’ve had bears it out. I just told the actors in this show, “Once we open, it’s your play. You should have fun in your parts and the audience is like another company member.” So I’ve been able to let my babies go!

PGN: Has there ever been a time when you saw the staging and thought, What are they doing?

CA: [Laughing] There have been a couple of times that were close. But, knock on wood, there haven’t been any total disasters. I’ve had some colleagues that had to pull their shows, when they were so bad they had to say, “You can’t do this, it has my name on it.” For me, if I can still see the story, I’m OK, but if you stray too far from the essence of the story, that’s when I get concerned. But so far, there’s not been anything disastrous. And in cases like this production, you can be happily surprised. It was just in Chicago, but we have a completely new designer and cast and set, etc., here in Philly. They’ve done an amazing job, the set looks awesome and the cast is great!

PGN: Is your writing very political?

CA: Yes, I’m interested in how we navigate systems, like oppression and economical and political situations, the legal system and violence. This play is a little lighter, there’s more joy in this one than usual for me, but there are still political elements. It’s a play for everyone. The themes are universal. For me every play starts with a question. Right now I’m doing research on black Republicans. I don’t know what I’ll do with it yet.

PGN: [Laughing] I guess the question to start with there would be “Why?” You are so jovial. Does that humor get into your writing as well?

CA: Oh yeah, I write about heavy things sometimes and often people don’t see it until we get to a table read and then they’re like, Oh wow, that’s funny out loud. I grew up in a household that dealt with some tough things, but there was always warmth and openness and laughter through it all.

PGN: Random questions: Favorite pair of shoes?

CA: Easy. Jordon, J3’s. I’ve got them on now.

PGN: Last time you did something for the first time?

CA: I was in New Hampshire and I was in pure moonlight for the first time. There were no manmade lights around and there was a full moon and no clouds and it was magnificent. All of a sudden every Shakespeare poem and songs I’d ever heard about the moon made complete sense. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before. it was magical.

PGN: Other than you partner, who would you call to bail you out of jail.

CA: Paula Vogel. I think she’d come get me, yeah.

PGN: Best concert?

CA: I finally saw Barbra Streisand after years of wanting to see her but never being able to afford it. And I saw Janet Jackson, I’m going to see her get inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m super excited about that.

PGN: What’s the most fun?

CA: Karaoke! I’m a mean karaoke party thrower and singer. I throw down on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” I love music and dancing.

PGN: One of the things that I read about your play, that we’re starting to slowly see in Hollywood, is that it’s a show, written and produced and starring people of color, but appeals to everyone because of the universal themes.

CA: Yes, it’s awesome. The audiences in Chicago were made up of all sorts of people and it was wonderful to see everyone embrace the characters that I created and love. They make mistakes and do things they probably shouldn’t, but I still root for them and it’s been great to see audiences embrace them as well. I can’t wait for the Philadelphia audiences to see them as well.