Tammy Ryan born and raised in Astoria, Queens, left to go to college, and, despite having New York roots, officially became a #PLONY when she wrote her first play as a theater major at the University at Buffalo (UB) and had it produced in the back room of Nietzsche’s bar. The Francesca Primus Prize winner—now permanently settled in Pittsburgh—has come a long way since then with work commissioned, produced, or developed at The Alliance Theater Company, Dorset Theater Festival, Florida Stage, Marin Theater Company, The REP at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, City Theater, Bricolage, and the Lark Play Development Lab among others. I was fortunate to overlap with her for one year as regional reps for the Dramatists Guild, so this was a wonderful opportunity to catch up and congratulate her on all that’s happened since we last saw each other.
What is a #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
If you were in school for theater, what made you write a play?
I wasn’t being cast in the plays they were doing, which were restoration comedies and I had a thick New York accent and a lisp and something of an attitude. Plus, I’d never even seen a play before I went to college. I came from this big dysfunctional Irish American family and my uncle was an actor, and it seemed like an exotic life so I kind of latched onto that. I lived in New York City; you’d think we would have gone to plays. My mother was a Girl Scout leader, and we went to the Statue of Liberty and Central Park, but not plays.
Were you ever even in a play?
In middle school, I was cast as Mrs. Peterson in BYE BYE BIRDIE; I couldn’t sing. Then I went off to high school and went off the rails, started playing hooky and doing all the crazy things a wild, unsupervised girl does, so I didn’t do theater. Once I managed to graduate from high school, I got a job in Manhattan typing insurance cards, which was the most deadly boring horrible job you can imagine and I was 17. I realized I’ll die if I have to do this.
How did you get out?
I saw an ad in TV Guide for an acting class at Barbizon School of Modeling. I had this deal with my dad where I’d pay him rent and he’d put the money in a bank account for me, so I told him I wanted the money to take this acting class. We had this huge fight and he gave it to me on the condition that every time I paid rent after that, the money would go into his bank account. I took the class and this woman Deborah Millay gave me Juliet’s speech and something from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and I had no idea what I was doing, no education or background, but I knew I wanted to do something in theater. So Deborah took me for a walk and said “What do you plan on doing?” I said “I’m going to audition,” and she said, “No, I think you need to go to college,” so then I did, first to Queens College, and then transferred to UB.
Where you did not get cast.
I was rough. But another student wrote a play and put me in it, and I thought, “If she could do this, I could probably do this.” And that’s why I wrote my first play, FLYING PIGEONS. It was about my father, and his relationship with his father, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and had pigeons on the roof, so that was metaphor for the relationships. Initially, I wrote it for me to be in it, but then I changed it from a father/daughter play to a father/son play and showed it to my acting teacher, Jack Hunter, and he said, “Tammy, you better write the second act because I’m going to produce it.”
It ran for a month in the back of Nietzsche’s, and I made money and got a lot of encouragement for it, way more than I ever got from acting. And it was a lot easier than acting because I have terrible stagefright; as a playwright, I could sit in the back in the dark with a beer. I thought, “I want to be a playwright now,” and I applied to a couple of graduate programs and was an alternate at Yale but I didn’t get in, so I was discouraged. Meanwhile, my husband, who’s an air traffic controller, was looking for a city to live in, so we settled on Pittsburgh, which was not too far from Buffalo, where we had friends and people and stuff, but I thought, “I’m not applying to any more grad schools because I can’t take any more rejection.” But Susan Anner at UB said, apply anyway, and I got into Carnegie Mellon University [CMU]. The plan was to get the MFA and then go someplace where there was an actual theater community, but this was where my now husband had a paycheck and we started having kids; before I knew it, I was staying here. I was very unhappy at the beginning but, gradually, a theater community began to sprout up around me.
What did you do when there wasn’t one yet?
I was writing, teaching adjunct, temping. I was a little lost for a couple of years, and depressed. When I got out of CMU, I said “I’m going to be a nurse or something,” because I was so discouraged. It’s a different program now, but then I didn’t get a lot of feedback or direction. The city had no theaters doing new play development or local playwrights then, and CMU was like a fortress, and more of an acting school; a lot of the writers and actors who came out of it would go to L.A.
And this was pre-Internet, and access to opportunities and to apply to things and connect with theaters didn’t exist; there was no guidance and I had no idea what to do. I told myself, “I’m going to write one play and then I’m going to quit.” And I wrote this play, PIG, which is inspired by my big dysfunctional family, a black comedy; it’s my AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. I sent it out to a couple of places, and it was done at the YES Festival of New Plays at Northern Kentucky University. And with that teeny bit of encouragement, I was able to pick myself up and keep going—like Pavlov’s dog. My overwhelming quality that kept me having a career was just perseverance, just being too dumb to quit. Rejections are hard; I’d get them and despair and then one little thing would happen and I’d fall in love with it all over again.
What was going on in Pittsburgh during this time?
I connected with a couple of other playwrights and we started Pyramid Productions, which produced the No Doze Dozen, ten-minute plays by six playwrights with three directors, and the same cast. This was the beginning of people doing ten-minute plays, and we did it because we couldn’t produce our full-length plays. I was a minor member because I was the lousiest producer, so I tagged along and helped as I could because I had a baby. We did start producing full-length plays, and mine, PIG, might have been second. It was a great apprenticeship for me, but it came down to I want to be a playwright; I don’t to produce, so we kind of broke up.
But then, 29th Street Rep in New York did PIG—I probably found the submission through a Dramatists Guild newsletter, and sent them play, a different, well-made play, and they wrote back and said, “This is the kind of work we do,” and it was like Tracy Letts’s KILLER JOE; they did the first New York production of that. So I sent PIG, because PIG was like that. And it did very well, got a nice review in the New York Times, I got an agent out of that, and I thought “Now things are going to start happening.” And that’s the story of my career. I always think, “Great! Now things are going to start happening.”
Do you still have the agent?
No. He was an okay agent; I learned what it meant to have an agent, but then we broke up in kind of an ugly way and I didn’t have an agent for a while. Then I had another one, who was 90, and didn’t do much for me either, and didn’t have many clients anymore, and finally let me go. And then I got Susan Gurman when LOST BOY was being done at Premiere Stages in 2009.
So after 29th Street, and the agent, what happened with your career?
I don’t know if you would call it a career. I had a baby and was going back and forth to NYC having readings. Seth Gordon was the associate producer at Primary Stages, and he started a ten-minute play series and the first one was called the Legacy Project, and he brought me in to do ten-minute plays for a few years, and 29th Street did do my next play called VEGETABLE LOVE, which was a mess and not ready for production. I had the wrong director and a terrible review in the New York Times, and I said, “Oh, now I see. Fuck it. Fuck New York,” and I retreated back to Pittsburgh and vowed not to go back to New York until somebody brought me back. I’m just going to focus on the next play.
THE MUSIC LESSON. Because PIG was done in New York in 1996, Pittsburgh was impressed; all of these places are more impressed by what’s happening in New York, and because I was from New York and had a bit of an accent, I had cachet. Pittsburgh began to take more notice of me, there were articles in the paper about me, and two things happened: one was a commission by Prime Stage Theater For Youth and Families to write a historical play, something to do with Pittsburgh, TYA, and had to focus on an adult friendship with a younger person. I was going to go to the historical society to find a subject, but, meanwhile, a couple from Sarajevo had moved next door to me; they’d just escaped the war a year and a half ago. They were musicians, and I kept running into them, and they kept pouring out these stories. So I wrote this play called THE MUSIC LESSON, which then in 1999 went to the Bonderman National Playwriting for Youth Symposium at Indiana Repertory Theater, which was two weeks of development for a new play, and TYA people from all over come to it. It was a huge hit; all these companies wanted to do the play after that, and the first company to do it was Florida Stage. Marin Theatre Company did it, Alliance Theatre did it—it’s had over fifty productions, three in the past year. It’s my most produced play and can play to adult or young; it straddles those two groups. PIG is published and still gets the occasional production. It’s actually my second most produced play, which is weird comparing it to THE MUSIC LESSON.
That was a pretty big first thing! What was the second?
I started doing outreach projects with City Theatre in Pittsburgh—devised pieces before they called them devised. They would choose a community group that mirrored in some way what they were doing on stage, and those people would tell me stories. Then I’d shape it into a play and challenge myself not to add anything; I used them as exercises to learn about structure, how to make it narrative active. I did a lot of those with different groups like the homeless, visually impaired, women on welfare, ACLU lawyers, all these different people who didn’t have a voice on stage to give them this voice and the play would be performed one or two nights.
When they ended that program, the woman who developed it, Roni Ostfield, started Playback Theater and once in a while, she’d bring me in to do what I did at City Theatre; one of those was with the Lost Boys of Sudan and Catholic Charities together. It was interesting because the guys had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t have a lot of respect for women, so it didn’t work the way it normally worked. They didn’t respond to direct questions, which was the normal way I would go about this, so I asked the actor to share with them a childhood game and they did Duck Duck Goose and then one of them shared a game from Sudan called “Agalang Chiroot, which was like a tug of war and from that point they began sharing their stories and it all came pouring out, and, as a result, the next week. seven more would show up. But we wrote a play together called LONG JOURNEY HOME, they performed it, and it was amazing, and I couldn’t forget about them. And then I moved and there was a Whole Foods around the corner and there were all these Sudanese working there, and I knew what their story was; nobody else did, but I’d had this close interaction with them, and that’s where LOST BOY IN WHOLE FOODS came from. It’s based on separate research and is a fictional story—I didn’t want to exploit them in any way—but I’d never have written that play without all those other projects.
This was over the course of a lot of years; were you writing other plays during that time?
Yes. Around 1997-98, Pittsburgh Playhouse called out of the blue and wanted to produce PIG [and that led to them] kind of adopting me. When I got out of CMU, I was lost for a number of years, and then they found me and I found an artistic home. A few years later, they commissioned another played called IN THE SHAPE OF A WOMAN and then this kind of happened that every other year. They’ve done eight of my plays.
This kind of relationship comes up again and again as important for successful #PLONY.
There are no other theaters in Pittsburgh who have done that (to this extent) for anybody else. Pittsburgh Playhouse has produced other Pittsburgh writers, but it began with me. Early in my career, I was able to see plays fully produced, and that’s the key to developing as a writer. I don’t think I’d have the career I have now if it weren’t for Prime Stage, Playback Theater, and the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and those three things just kind of came together and kept me writing. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and doing it in Pittsburgh, which is like writing in exile in a way, having breakout moments and then going under the waves again.
What do you mean?
When THE MUSIC LESSON was done at Florida Stage, it was a LORT production, and, again, I thought “I’m breaking out.” But then I got pregnant again, and I know there are playwrights who have young children and keep doing it, but I’m not that kind of person. I tried after my second child was born to continue chasing the career, but three months after she was born, THE MUSIC LESSON was being done in Louisville, and my husband said, “You have to go, get back on the horse.” I went, and did all the interviews, and saw the play and did the talkback, and was exhausted, and ready to come home. As I was pulling out, I was broadsided by a van, and I’m lucky to be alive to tell you the truth. The car was wrecked, but somehow I drove it seven hours in the rain to get home to my baby, and when I got there, I said, “That’s it. I can’t keep chasing the career. I gotta raise these kids.” So I let go of the career again and said, “I’m going to write the next play and Pittsburgh Playhouse will do it.” And I kept writing the outreach projects and that’s kind of what kept me going. THE MUSIC LESSON was getting a couple of productions a year, but, for a while it was just the one play in Pittsburgh.
But you wrote other things as well?
Mostly staying local. I had the accident in 2002, and I had a commission from City Theatre—A CONFLUENCE OF DREAMING. They didn’t pursue the play, so I put it aside, and wrote another called BABY’S BLUES, about post-partum depression, because Woolly Mammoth had contacted me—they must have read PIG—when I was pregnant with my second daughter and asked for a proposal. Andrea Yates had just drowned her children and I was about to give birth, and terrified of getting PPD again, so I wrote this play in an effort to not get it again. Woolly didn’t choose it, but I’m so grateful I wrote it because I think it’s one of my best plays. My then agent read it and said, “Tammy, you’ve crossed the line with this one,” and we broke up shortly after.
It seems like many of your plays take on pretty heavy subjects; is that an accurate take?
They’re dark, some deal with uncomfortable subjects, or make audiences uncomfortable—maybe that has hampered my career in some ways, too. They’re about PPD, PTSD, gun violence, rape; I have a rape trilogy. MOLLY’S HAMMER is about the threat of nuclear annihilation. They’re not diversions; they’re engrossing plays that are provocative and cause people to think, that stay with people. I live with these plays a long time before I write them. They’re not easy to write or take in. But… I always try to write toward the light, they’re not hopeless….and there’s always a lot of humor. People will always laugh.
Going back a bit, is LOST BOY AT WHOLE FOODS kind of what pulled you back into the larger playwriting universe?
Yeah, my plays kept getting produced here in Pittsburgh, but I had a gap in my national profile. By 2008, I was feeling isolated, so I rejoined the Dramatists Guild, and Gary [Garrison, co-executive director] asked me to be a rep. I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and met Paul Walsh, then artistic director of New Harmony, and submitted LOST BOY and went to New Harmony with it. Premiere Stages at Kean University also started developing LOST BOY, it was read at National New Play Network’s National Showcase, had a reading at the Lark and Premiere, and Playwrights Theater of New Jersey produced it. That was 2010, and I won the Primus Prize for LOST BOY in 2012. And it will get its LORT premiere at Portland Stage in March.
That wasn’t your first play with Premiere Stages, though, right?
No, they’ve also kind of adopted me. It’s a little bit like the Playhouse in that it’s in residence at a university [Playhouse is in residence at Point Park] and they do a festival every year where they do readings of four plays and choose to one to develop further and produce. The first was DARK PART OF THE FOREST, and that’s probably the first play that caused me to get a production just because somebody liked the play, but they’ve done three of mine now. You develop relationships; I think that’s the key to getting produced.
Do you think living in Pittsburgh is what gave you a career?
Living in Pittsburgh helped me have a career, but if I think I would have had a better career if I was in New York. I met Julia Miles, the AD of the Women’s Project with my second play, THE BOUNDARY, and was invited to their playwriting lab, but I couldn’t do that because I live in Pittsburgh. If I had more opportunities to meet people, where people could come to readings or workshops, or I could be part of playwriting groups, I think I would have had a very different career. But you have to grow where you’re planted; I chose my life first. I have kids, a house, a community here, but there’s always a tug of war between writer and person.
It’s frustrating but there are also opportunities. It’s all about redefining success. I do have eight published plays and all 15 of my plays have been produced. I wake up in the morning and I’m thinking about plays; my life centers around that. And that’s good, because what else is there really? I know writers in New York who don’t get produced as much as I do and they’re amazed. Be the last person standing in the room is kind of my mantra. Keep doing it. It’s like a compulsion; you become a playwright and you have to keep doing it.
Would you ever move to New York now, or when your kids are out?
I go back a lot, several times a year, to visit or to see a show. I also travel for auditions. But my life is in Pittsburgh now.
How do you try to overcome the perceived disadvantages of living in Pittsburgh?
I keep writing the next play. I keep focused on the work. Lately, as my kids have gotten older, I try to go places. If my play is having a reading, I try to meet people and follow up on connections a little bit more. Ellen Lewis kind of inspired me; she said, “If you don’t go, nothing’s going to happen. If you do, something may happen.” Around the time I met her, I thought, “I want a career like that.” That’s something I do, look at other playwrights’ careers and say, “I want a career like that.” Eric Coble, Ellen Lewis—I want a career like them. So I look at what they’re doing and try to be inspired by them.
How many productions do you general get a year?
About six. The most I’ve had is 12, this past year it was 8, and that’s where I’m at right now. It’s starting to be more.
What’s your writing schedule like?
I write in the mornings usually. I don’t write very single day, but I go through cycles. I’m always working on something, but I kind of have to see plays through the end of a process and get the energy to write again. I always draft a new play in the spring or summer and spend a lot of the rest of year revising. Even if I have three plays competing for attention, I do focus on one at a time, although the past two years, I’ve been forced to work on things at the same time.
I think you have to do that to have a career. You have to keep writing, but I also resist that “pump it out” kind of mentality. My plays take a long time to generate in my mind and then once I sit down to write, I force myself to draft pretty quickly because usually I’m at a residency. I also need a lot of down time, so every time I’m doing something else, it doesn’t mean I’m not writing; I do a lot of thinking.
What do you mean, you’re usually at a residency?
After Sewanee in 2008, I decided I need to go to something every year, a residency or development place. In 2009, I went to New Harmony with LOST BOY. In 2011, I went to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts [VCAA], where I drafted TAR BEACH, and SOLDIER’S HEART in 2012. In 2013, I went to Hambidge Center in Georgia where I drafted A NEW KIND OF FALLOUT—my first and only libretto so far, an opera commission with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, and which completely consumed me this past summer! In 2014 I decided I’d try a residency “at home” and drafted the first crazy mess of MOLLY’S HAMMER, and, in 2015, I went back to VCCA to finish some rewrites on MOLLY’S HAMMER. This really helped me to able to be more consistently prolific in terms of drafting a new play nearly every year.
Are you a full-time playwright?
More or less. I do teach one class at Point Park, but not every semester. Lately, I’ve been mostly focused on writing. The past couple years, I’ve made a little bit of money. I couldn’t send my kids to college on it, but I could make myself a sandwich or two.
Could you live on it?
I’ve had good years. THE MUSIC LESSON years, when it was being done professionally, I could have lived on that. By myself. Maybe.
What is your marketing process when you’ve finished a new play?
I have a reading. A problem I have is sometimes I think I get it produced too soon to win some contest or have a bigger theater take notice. The plays that are produced in Pittsburgh—that was often the end of the line for them. I should have sent them for development, so my career was hampered by the fact that I couldn’t go.
Do you ever submit plays on your own anymore?
I don’t really. I have eight published. I’m probably shopping around like three or four right now trying to get second or third or fourth production and MOLLY’S HAMMER is the new one that will be done at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in March. That was kind of a fluky thing coming out of a long relationship. Seth Gordon, who had brought me down for the Legacy Project in New York, was at Primary, and then in Cleveland, and now in St. Louis, so every year, I’d send my new play and he’d write back encouraging me or giving comments, but say he couldn’t do anything with it. Then this year, I sent him SOLDIER’S HEART and, again, got the same nice letter but he asked if I had anything new. I had this mess of MOLLY’S HAMMER, a rough draft, and he said, “You’re right; it’s rough but there are some interesting things here,” and he started working with me on it.
What advice do you have for #PLONY?
If you’re not going to New York, find your community. Find your collaborators where you are. When I got out of grad school, I started a theater company with other playwrights and hooked up with City Theatre’s outreach project. Create your apprenticeship wherever you are because it’s a craft and it will take a number of years before you feel like you own that craft. My daughter is an opera singer, and she just got out of college, but, in the meantime, she has to find opportunities to sing. A playwright needs to find opportunities to write and get their plays on stage. Start locally and go out from there. And apply to contests.
Awards are important for women, but it’s so much about being in the right place at the right time. It’s not a fair business. It’s very frustrating, but if you find yourself doing this, you have to let all that other stuff go. It’s all about the work. In my experience, in my career, which has been a long time, I feel like I keep getting another chance. I don’t know. I’m just grateful for the people I’ve met and collaborators I’ve had. I’ve worked with wonderful people who embraced me and helped me. I don’t have any answers. I’m as confused about my own career as I am about other people’s.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.