Tammy Ryan, the author of Seven Cousins for a Horse, is a renowned playwright who has had her works performed at various theaters both within the US and internationally. We chose Tammy because of her distinctive ability to portray vast moral and social ideas through the lens of family in plays like Molly’s Hammer, The Music Lesson, Tar Beach, and Take My Hand and Wave Goodbye. In this interview, Tammy shares a few thoughts on her writing process and experience as a playwright.
Jonathan Winn: What inspired you to become a playwright and what drew you to the world of theatre?
Tammy Ryan: I was drawn to theatre at an early age. I grew up in a large working-class Irish American family in Astoria, New York. One of my uncles was an actor in Manhattan. I saw his life in the theatre as something exotic, extraordinary. It presented a great avenue of escape for me as an alternative to the working-class options I had at the start of my life. When I went to college, I wrote my first play, called Flying Pigeons, which my acting teacher, Jack Hunter staged at the back of a bar called Nietzches in Buffalo. I paid my rent that month with my cut of the box office and I thought, okay this is my “calling.”
Jonathan: Your work has been commissioned, developed, and performed at various regional theatres across the United States and internationally. Can you tell us about your experience in having your plays produced in different theatres and cultures and how it has influenced your writing?
Tammy: I’ve been fortunate to have my work produced over the years in a wide range of venues from LORT regional theatres to university theatres to civic theatres both here and internationally. I’ve appreciated the diversity of these opportunities, but mostly I value the collaborations I’ve had with so many different, compassionate, committed theatre artists who have seen something in my work that they connect to despite our personal or cultural differences. When I hear audiences from different places respond to my work, audiences who don’t know me, responding in similar ways, it reminds me again how we human beings are really all the same. Everybody laughs at the same things, cries at the same things, listens the same way; we lean in at the same moments. We’re the same even if we don’t realize it.
Jonathan: Your plays often tackle timely and relevant social issues, gun violence, feminism, and human rights. How do you approach researching and incorporating these themes into your writing?
Tammy: Unless it’s a commission, and the themes are presented to me by a theatre, ideas usually come to me, wrapped up in current circumstances I am wrestling with at the moment, along with a combination of societal and sometimes global pressures. There is usually something in the zeitgeist that is bothering me. It’s like an itch, that I keep returning to, and I begin to filter this through my own lived experience. I look around and begin to collect, magpie-like, bits and pieces of characters, circumstances, images, along with a lot of questions. I fill notebooks. When I start research, I try to cast a wide net. I like to read books by journalists. I like to read historical fiction if the play takes place in another time period. I look at art. For this play, I watched films that took place in New England, like The Pale Blue Eye and Little Women along with films about painters, like Portrait of A Woman On Fire. I also immersed myself in the music of the time period, particularly Shaker Hymns, like Simple Gifts and Down to the River to Pray. And finally, I like to get my “boots on the ground,” if I can, and I was so lucky to be able to do that for this project – driving through the New England border states last summer, over a two-week period. I drove by myself with the radio off to feel the silence Ammi must have felt traveling the highways and byways on his horse and wagon. I saw his hometown of Colebrook, CT, where he lived in Troy, and his resting place in Amenia. I stopped in towns where his patrons lived and stood in front of many of his portraits at historical societies where I was able to talk to curators, who let me go digging through archival material. I really am a sponge and just try to immerse myself in all of it, to get it viscerally in my body, so that when it is time to write I can let go of all that “intellectual homework” and just write it in one go, so that it comes as a whole fabric of something. What that something is I figure out afterward in rewrites, but really, I’m trying to channel something outside of myself, that will filter through me in the end.
Jonathan: Thrown Stone commissioned you to write a play about Ammi Phillips, the most prolific folk artist in American History, whose career spanned more than fifty years. How did you approach telling his story for the stage, and how did you choose the setting?
Tammy: Ammi Phillips painted for six decades, in three states ranging from Connecticut to Massachusetts, all the way to Troy, NY. About 900 paintings have been cataloged, though they think he may have painted over 2,000. He was born when the Constitution was written and he died a few months after the Civil War ended; he saw enormous changes in this country and kept working through all of it. I knew I wanted to somehow capture something about what it was like to live through those changes, but frankly, I was overwhelmed.
When it was time to write, I knew I had to find the place where Ammi’s story intersected with my own. I often grapple with larger themes through the lens of family, so I kept going back to the few biographical details we have of him. Inspired by the curators I met (particularly Deborah Shewchuk at The Albany Institute of History and Art and Alex Dubois and Linda Hocking at Litchfield Historical Society), I learned how to interpret the clues that we have and start to put them together. In 1848 Ammi Phillips’s cousin Nisus Kinney invited him to his home in Colebrook (where Ammi also grew up) to paint his seven cousins in exchange for a fine horse. I kept coming back to that in my imagination. Why would Nisus invite Ammi back at that particular time? Why hadn’t he been home before? Why did he need a horse? What else was going on in 1848 that might have impacted this family? So, the questions kept coming and when I stood in front of Nisus Kinney’s portrait at the Litchfield Historical Society along with portraits taken at the same time of Jane Kinney and later, of Lucius Culver who married one of the Kinney sisters, I knew I had my story.
Jonathan: In addition to your playwriting, you also lead playwriting workshops and masterclasses. Can you share some insights about your approach to teaching and mentoring emerging playwrights, and what you find most rewarding about helping others develop their craft?
Tammy: When mentoring other writers, I always begin with process. Learning what your process is and honoring that when you write is the key, I believe, to being a successful artist in any medium or genre (and by success, I mean creating art, not necessarily selling it). Everyone has a story to tell and they and only they know how to tell it. I help students realize their stories, more than I teach them anything. In fact, they teach me more about writing with every workshop, as we explore together how to tell a dramatic story, which can come in many different forms. It’s hard to hear an original voice, so I try to listen as best I can to the writer as they try to articulate the thing that needs to come out on the page for them. The reward for me is that moment when the student writer finds their voice and finishes a play, many of them have gone on to be produced in various ways, and a number of my students are working in the theatre and television now. That’s the best thing for me, when I get to witness that artistic creation, I feel a little like a proud grandmother. But no matter how far my students go, just the act of creation is good for us as human beings, as Kurt Vonnegut has said, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”