Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with multidisciplinary theatre artist, Tara Taylor. Tara’s roles include manager at Light House Arts Centre; CBC Information Morning Cultural Columnist; Playwright/ Director / Animator / ACTRA Maritimes member/ Playwrights Guild of Canada Member / Director; Festival Director — Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival; Chair — Union of Black Artists Society; Board Member — Black Women Film! Canada; Recipient of the ANSMA Industry Development Award for her body of work in presenting musical theatre and film. Original staged works, Viola: the Musical, Hood Habits and Love, Peace and Hairgrease co-produced with Eastern Front Theatre, nominated for Outstanding Production by a New or Emerging Company at the Robert Merritt Awards.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I am a grassroots artist, and since I was in high school have had a love for the stage. The first play I wrote was called Shine. It has never been staged. I wrote it to express my self in other ways in addition to painting portraits.
Here is the synopsis:
Shine is a heartfelt tale centered around the Harris family in East Preston. It begins with the family enjoying breakfast together, engrossed in a discussion about an upcoming talent show at their school. Tracey, one of the Harris daughters, expresses her uncertainty about participating this year. Despite her apprehensions, her father, Mr. Harris, assures her that her routine is exceptional and encourages her to give it a shot. Tracey is skeptical, believing that Shiniqua Jenkins, known as the “Miss Ghetto Queen of Hip-Hop High,” might have an edge with the judges — particularly her uncle, Mr. Barrett, who is both a judge and a shop teacher.
The narrative then shifts to Barrack Obama District High School, where an English class talent show meeting takes place. Shiniqua, exhibiting arrogance, firmly asserts her belief that she will emerge as the clear winner. However, her classmates, including Sherry, Derika, and Missy, dismiss her self-proclaimed superiority.
The conversation then turns to Germaine Harris, Tracey’s brother, and his potential participation in the talent show. Shiniqua, accompanied by two other students named Chris and Fantasia, finds the idea amusing and laughs at the notion of what Germaine could possibly contribute. Shine intricately weaves together the dynamics of family and the competitive high school environment to explore themes of self-doubt, determination, and the importance of support. As the story unfolds, it promises to take the audience on a captivating journey of growth, resilience, and the power of self-belief.
I realized I had a knack for dialogue and loved the idea of escaping from your reality into these character’s lives. I wrote them mostly for youth to perform. I moved onto writing spoken word within the plays for the Atlantic Fringe Festival. My first musical was Viola Desmond: the Musical. I was commissioned to write this to celebrate her $10 bill coming out. It was the first time I wrote songs.
What does your writing process look like?
Brainstorming: I often begin by brainstorming ideas for a play or a title might come to me from an inspired conversation. This might involve conducting research, drawing inspiration from personal experiences, or exploring social and cultural issues I’d like to address. Then comes:
Outlining: Once an idea takes shape, I usually create an outline or a structure for the play. This helps organize my thoughts, plot, and characters. Next:
Drafting: The next step is to start writing the first draft. I might write dialogue, think of who needs to have a song, where the songs should take place, stage directions, and descriptions as they bring their ideas to life. I jump around and flesh out scenes as inspiration strikes. Next:
Revising: After completing a draft, I engage in a rigorous process of revising and refining. I also will hold what I like to call “scene parties”. Inviting folks to take on the characters, I give them a few scenarios and they play-act what they would do in those instances. This also involves reviewing the dialogue, evaluating character development, pacing, and ensuring the overall coherence of the play. Revisions often go through several iterations to refine the story. Next:
Readings and workshops: I often seek feedback by organizing structured readings or workshops with actors and directors. This allows me to see the work performed and gather feedback from collaborators and audiences. It also helps them identify areas that may need further revision. Next:
Polishing and finalizing: Based on the feedback and insights gained during readings and workshops, I’ll make further adjustments and polish the work. This might involve refining dialogue, clarifying plot points, or strengthening character motivations. And finally…production if the funding is right!
You’ve written a number of musicals, including Hood Habits and Love, Peace & Hairgrease. Why did you choose to share these stories in musical format, and what have been some of the challenges and rewards of creating pieces of musical theatre?
I am a Choir singer, grew up singing with friends and family in the East Preston Baptist Church. This is my background so its hard to separate music from my stories. The main challenges were the fact that I am a grassroots artists, not formally trained and the way I compose melody is very unorthodox, I was once told lol. I head out to the beach, become at one with my surroundings, nature and the Spirit works with me to compose the melody for each song. I do however know when a song “doesn’t belong to me”. This is when I move onto collaborating with other musicians. I give them the lyrics and what’s happening the scene and they compose the melody/harmonies. I only play the piano by ear so it was challenging to get the full music out of my head so they knew what I wanted it to sound like. Once I had the melody, I sang it into my phone from start to finish and pass it along to my team Ross Unger, Charity Stairs, and ark Flowerdew to create the second half of the magic! Harmonies and instrumentals.
You have been called “the Queen of Collaboration”. Why is collaboration so important to you, and how do you feel it’s reflected in your work?
I feel like anything truly successful, a movie, a hit song, a play, no matter what, had a full team that had a hand in making it a success. I know I am blessed with a gift and can come up with good ideas, but we were made to weave our gifts together to create strong ties and that always results in the success of your work. I have allowed actors to suggest changes to certain parts of my work and even rework the melody of a song to fit their voice or the story. Then it’s simple, you add them to the credit and watch your audience marvel over the work of the team! There is truly no “I” in teamwork!
You’ve mentioned that your late mother has been a major inspiration in your writing. Can you share the ways in which you drew inspiration from a person in your life, and the impact on your plays?
My mother is a Queen. She was very witty, came up with slapstick comedy naturally, was very wise in the way she moved through the world and viewed the world. When she would say off the cuff statements or give advice, I knew those words had to come out of the mouths of a few characters. Audience members would actually let me know how relatable those characters were and say things like ,”Nana sounded like my mom”. I put a piece of her or a memory of her in my work all the time, either through props, costumes, dialogue, etc.
What are you working on next?
Currently, I am working on a new musical called Wounded Worship: the Musical and preparing 7 new Black playwrights to produce their first full length plays in the 2nd Annual Black Theatre Festival. At the first annual festival, they presented a one act from their work.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
Yes! I am inspired by Dominque Morrisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud based on the lives of The Temptations and Obediya Darrell-Jones and his musical Jacket of Blue. I was hired to direct it in Cleveland, Ohio and now we are working together to bring it to Nova Scotia. He is a gifted Classical musician who also plays so many other genres of music.
Keep up with Tara on social media, @risentalent.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.