“I love connecting with a friend of a friend. You often see the qualities or interests that you admire in your own friend in this new, glorious person you get to know. That was the case with Sharon Washington, an actor and writer based in Millbrook, NY who is creative, loves (and tells) a great story, is interesting and engaging, just like the friend who connected us. I loved getting to know her more and am excited to let you in on the conversation.” – Michaela
I’ve just ordered my copy of Feeding the Dragon and as a child who was the first one at my local library when it opened in the morning and then was routinely kicked out so they could you know, close at the end of the day, I know I’m already set for a real, relatable experience. Could you share a little bit about the piece and the inspiration behind it?
To be completely honest. I didn’t set out to write a play. I’ve wanted to tell the story of living in the library for a long time. Every time I’d tell someone where I’d grown up as a child they’s say, “You HAVE to write that story!” I remember sitting on stage during a break from rehearsal at the Public Theater over 30 years ago, telling the story to my castmate Wendell Pierce and him telling me that if I didn’t write the story he would – haha! But of course as the former little-girl-who-lived-in-the-library I’d always thought of it as a book; more specifically, a children’s book. Flash forward 20 years later when I was really considering starting the writing process – I didn’t know how to begin. A writer friend suggested I start by taking a class at the local Y. I was living in NYC at the time and there was a memoir writing class at the McBurney Y taught by the wonderful Patty Dann. She uses prompts to get her students writing and that’s when the stories began to take shape. They poured out of me in no particular order and I still wasn’t sure how to put it all together as a book with a beginning, middle and end. Patty’s advice to me, and advice given to most novice writers is not to worry about what it will be – just WRITE. So I did. The reaction from my fellow classmates and Patty encouraged me to keep writing, and what kept coming out was more adult memoir than children’s story.
There was the modern-day fairy tale of the “Little Girl Who Lived in the Library” but there was also another story just under the surface. Most classic fairy tales have a dark side that coexists with the “happily ever after”. I call it the flip side of the fairy tale. That part of my story was fighting to be told as well. So I decided to follow that path – like Alice down the rabbit hole.
What came most naturally was recalling the stories through the various characters I remember from my childhood: my father, my mother, my grandmothers, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. I could hear their voices inside my head. Maybe because as an actor I’m trained to hear the inflections in someone’s speech. When I tell stories I naturally mimic the person’s voice – I think we all do that to some extent. When I got stuck in the writing process another friend suggested I speak the stories into a recorder – and as I did, deeper colors began to resonate. The stories were living inside my body. When I unlocked that it started to become clear that my way in to these stories might be through the dialogue. That’s how the idea of a solo play began.
You not only wrote Feeding the Dragon, but you’re also an accomplished actress who starred in the one-woman production of it in several different productions. Did you have any self-doubts about not only sharing your own story as a writer, but also putting yourself out there physically in acting it out?
Oh absolutely! Never in a million years did I think that soon after completing my first play would I be offered a production (the play had no ending when I started rehearsals fro the production at City Theatre in Pittsburgh!) I seriously just wanted to get the story out of me. Over the years I felt like the embodiment of that Maya Angelou quote,
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I was subsequently offered two more opportunities to do the show – culminating in an Off-Broadway run. Then it was recorded and released on Audible where to date is has been downloaded over 9000 times. Mind-blowing!
But I was filled with doubt every step of the way. And a couple of times in Pittsburgh I was consumed by it, so much so that I actually went to the Artistic Director and asked if she would call it off (impossible of course, and she and my director spent lots of time talking me off the cliff.)
I was petrified of being found out as a fraud. Who was I to think my very first play would be good enough to be produced? Who would come? Why did I think anyone would be interested enough in me and my story to buy tickets and have me talk to them for 90 minutes? Crazy! And of course, there was the fear of sharing so much of myself and my life for public consumption. As an actor I’m used to going to some dark places, but I’d always had something to hide behind: the playwright, the character, the costume; the mask. Those characters were not me. So however you judged my performance you were not judging me, Sharon, personally. I had a layer of protection.
With DRAGON I was completely naked. Vulnerable. And I had no idea just how “alone” doing a solo show feels. It’s ALL on you. Of course there are your creative collaborators – and I had an AMAZING team every step of the way; director, designers, stage managers. But ultimately it’s just you out on that stage. Eight times a week. There’s no one else to pick up the slack if you’re not feeling on top of your game that night. No one to throw you a line if you get lost. Sometimes the audience is receptive and vocal. Sometimes they’re quiet and you swear they hate you – haha! But whatever happens you have to deal with it. Alone. In the moment. Solo work is physically and emotionally exhausting. I think it probably took me a year to fully recover.
You grew up in a library, with a plethora of stories at your fingertips, yet it always seems that there are more “sorts” of stories that need to be told. What are some of those in your opinion?
One of the reasons I wanted to write DRAGON was because I’d never seen this particular little girl. It’s getting better, but there is still a lack of diversity in the stories that center African-Americans specifically and POC in general. Particularly in children’s books and stories told from the POV of children. Where are our films like STAND BY ME or STRANGER THINGS? There seems to be a lot of the same story – stories of overcoming hardship, stories about our great civil rights heroes and heroines, slave narratives. Chimamanda Adiche calls it “the danger of the single story”. One narrative that is deemed “authentic” and representative of an entire people. There never seem to be enough stories about Black families simply being. Living life with the same joys and challenges of everyone else. Universal themes that apply to us all. Of course race is a factor but a lot of times it’s dealt with in a very heavy-handed way. My goal with DRAGON was for people to connect and see some of themselves in my journey.
I don’t have to declare that I’m Black – they can clearly see that, and my culture is reflected in the specificity of the writing. That is the given of a story told from my personal POV, but it is not the primary engine driving the story. It’s one of many. One of the best compliments I ever received was after a show in Pittsburgh; I had to do a matinee the day after Trump’s election in 2016 – I couldn’t believe it. I was alone in Pittsburgh where the city leans Blue, but the surrounding areas swung solidly Trump Red. I remember thinking that my matinee audience that day would be older and white and predominately from the surrounding suburbs. It was one of the hardest shows I’ve ever done – trying not to pre-judge my audience and let my emotions in that moment color the story I wanted them to hear. After the performance a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I couldn’t be more different than you, but in your father I saw my father.”
Speaking of New York and the gift of imagination, Betty Smith writes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “…the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.” How do you think we can hold onto (or recapture) that childlike sense of imagination (and curiosity!) as adults when we have seen a whole lot of ugly in this world?
That’s a great quote and absolutely on target. Here’s one I kept referring back to while writing DRAGON:
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because
they tell us that dragons exist, but because
they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” –Neil Gaiman by way of G. K. Chesterton
I think it is essential for us to hold on to the world of imagination because that is a coping mechanism. The lessons we learn in the safety of that imaginary world we bring into the real world. It’s also hopefully where we are taught the value of each person’s uniqueness. That different kinds of beings and worlds other than our own can co-exist. That our friends don’t necessarily have to look like us. That in the world of imagination we are still connected by our inner essences – our spirt or life-force. I believe we hold onto or recapture this spirit of wonder through the arts. Reading or watching or listening about other places, other people’s lives. Stepping into their shoes and walking in their footsteps for a little while. Through music and dance and visual art we are able to expand our horizons and open ourselves up to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world and that will ignite our curiosity to learn more. Even if you don’t consider yourself as an artist personally you can experience it through others’ work. Stretching ourselves to see something that we might not initially understand can help us not see people as “the other”. Art is what counters the ugly in this world.
Sharon and I will be picking up this conversation later this week to talk about hidden gems in her adopted hometown of Millbrook, NY and her forever hometown of New York, NY, pre-show rituals and more. In the meantime, you can check in with her here and also over on Instagram where her gardening action has had been salivating all summer.