A professor at Northeastern University and Harvard Extension School,
Joyce Van Dyke is an award-winning, Boston-based, playwright. Her most recent play Deported/A Dream Play, deals with the Armenian genocide inspired by true stories including those of her own family. Artistry Magazine sat down with Van Dyke and talked to her about her most recent play and herself as a playwright.
How did you first get involved with theater and becoming a playwright?
I started out as an English professor and I was teaching Shakespeare and I decided I really was more interested in doing work in the theater, practical work in theater that I couldn’t do as a regular English professor. I ended up leaving my academic job and doing various other things for a while but trying to figure out how to write plays along the way. It took a while but I ended up continuing to teach; I actually teach Shakespeare at Harvard Extension School and I teach playwriting now as well at Northeastern. I thought I was making a turn away from teaching but instead I have just branched out in a different direction. I’m still teaching but I’m also writing plays and getting them produced.
That’s really great! Obviously, being a playwright and writing plays is a very different kind of writing from essays or a news article. So for you, when you first picked it up, how did you get to become such a successful playwright?
It is so hard to explain not because I don’t want to but because it’s such a mystery. I think writing is such a mystery and figuring how you do it. For everybody, it’s a really different story. For everybody, it’s investing the time and the energy and the commitment to do it and just feeling you have to do it. You have to, you have to do it because it is hard to do and unless you have that, I think it’s really hard to move forward. Because I had spent a lot of time with Shakespeare, reading Shakespeare, writing Shakespeare, teaching Shakespeare, teaching the plays, reading a lot of plays in connection with that, I felt like I had absorbed a lot about how plays can be put together, about how dialogue works, how scenes work. I learned a lot of it from Shakespeare, I learned from other playwrights too but then once you have all of that experience digested inside of you, you still have to figure out how your own writing is going to sound because you’re not going to sound like anybody else. How are you going to make your own story that you feel compelled to put on page seem real and seem exciting to people? It’s a huge process of trial and error and error and error and error and trial and error and working with actors, directors and learning what works. I personally have learned a huge amount from actors as well as directors because they know more than anyone else about how to make it work on stage. I have always used what actors have given me; they’ve given me a lot.
Can you tell me more about your most recent play Deported/A Dream Play?
I actually developed that play with the director Judy Braha who runs the MFA directing program at Boston University. I developed it with Judy and a company of professional actors from Boston that she pulled together. Over a period of several years of working together, doing improvisational workshops, Judy and I would bring in materials about the Armenian genocide because that’s the subject of the play. When we started, I hadn’t written anything. I knew it was going to be about the Armenian genocide but I didn’t have characters, I didn’t have a story, I didn’t have anything written down, so the play really grew out of improvisational workshops with the actors. The things that came into the play just grew directly out of what they did and working with the material that we came in with. There are scenes that are built around what they did and eventually I just kept taking it back to the group of actors and they kept working on it with me. It kept developing overtime, then eventually in 2012, Boston Playwright’s Theater produced it at the Modern Theater at Suffolk University. It was the same company and the same director who worked on it with me from the beginning so it was really wonderful to have that continuity and to see realized. It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that, I’m a pretty private writer so for me I was really going out on a limb creating something in public with all these other people but it turned out to be a really fascinating way to work and I hope to do it again some day.
Your play deals with a lot of really powerful and complex topics and themes, how do you think the actors succeeded capturing portraying those themes to the audience?
First of all, the actors in this company are terrific actors and I think one thing that surprised me was that from the very beginning, they wanted to be involved because of the subject matter. I think they thought it was a really important subject to deal with and also wanted to be involved because they were interested in the process of collaborative creation. They really were so soaked and immersed in these issues and delved into the play. I think it was a very deep, rich experience for them and they brought that to the stage. It’s not a grim catalogue of horror, that wasn’t the objective and so I really wanted the actors to be able to create that really many sided of feelings and they did that.
Van Dyke is now currently working on another play and Northeastern University, along with the rest of the Boston Community is excited to see what Joyce Van Dyke has in store for everyone.