Interview with a Playwright: Tess Barker
Tess Barker is a Los Angeles-based writer and nationally touring comedian who has appeared at the Comedy Central Stage, Meltdown Comics, UCB, and at clubs and colleges throughout the country. She has written for TVLand’s “Throwing Shade,” TruTV’s “Billy on the Street,” and is regularly published on a number of outlets, including Vice, The Guardian, Vox, MTV News, Jezebel, and LA Weekly, where her work has ranged from investigative pieces about wage inequity in professional cheerleading to profiles of icons like Charo and Betsey Jonson. She was one of the hosts of Ovation TV’s “Broadway Bash,” — a talk show devoted to the television show Smash.
Playscripts is proud to license Showdown at Palm Tree Pines, Barker’s warm and quirky comedy about drama within a retirement community. Our Content Manager, Nik Sorocenski, caught up with Ms. Barker to discuss her work.
Tell us about your journey in becoming a playwright!
I am a life-long theater kid, but as an adult writer, I’d primarily intended to focus on narrative non-fiction and writing for film and television. Around ten years ago, though, I co-wrote a two person musical with my friend Brett Schrier, who is a brilliant writer and composer. The show, Time Between Us premiered at the New York Musical Festival and has had some beautiful regional productions since. Getting to sit in the audience in New York and watch talented actors bring my writing to life was a uniquely thrilling experience, and I guess that was my first taste of being a playwright. I think a play is the most alive something you write can be. Everything else will eventually have a final, published form, but a play changes, not just with each cast that does it, but every night, depending on what the actors are doing.
You’re very much a playwright amongst other things. Tell us about the other dimensions of your career.
In addition to being a playwright, I am a stand up comedian, journalist, screenwriter, and podcaster. I realize externally those may seem like disparate ventures, but to me, there’s a continuity. I think I’m a storyteller with slightly different instruments. I don’t really look at it as “What kind of writer am I?” so much as “What kind of story is this? What form does it want to take?” I’m curious about the world, so I really enjoy talking to people and just looking around to see where the stories are. Some of what I write is fictional, some not. I think good fiction is just non-fiction with a wig on anyway.
Most people would argue that comedy is hard. However, it seems to be easy for you. What’s the secret to comedy?
Thank you for saying it seems easy for me! (My secret is that it is not.) I think a lot of writing comedy is letting go and trusting that if you can get your brain quiet enough, you’ll hear the jokes. The easiest way to do this, in my experience, is to make strong choices for your characters and get to know them before it’s time to start writing. Then, when you’re actually putting dialogue down, sit still and let them tell you what they want to say, and hope that their point of view will be funny. If it’s not, though, don’t let yourself get too stuck. Just write “Joke here” and come back to it. Also, whenever possible, give your characters something physical to do.
What gave you the inspiration to write Showdown at Palm Tree Pines?
I write for actors, because if the actors are having fun, so is the audience. I always loved playing old people when I was younger, I think because it was a chance to make big comedic choices with my physicality, voice, and makeup. I thought if I wrote an ensemble comedy where most of the characters were big characters who happened to be old, it would be an opportunity for a bunch of different performers to showcase their comedic chops in a playful kind of jazz-like way.
What’s some advice you’d give to aspiring writers?
Read every day. If you want to write comedy, read everything by Neil Simon. See as many plays as you can. Keep Legos or Silly Putty on your desk so you have something besides the Internet to distract yourself with when you’re feeling fidgety. Finish what you start.
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