Dynamic Duo Tanya Barfield & Leigh Silverman Talk Shorthand, Artistic Aesthetics and Bright Half Life
February 27th, 2015
by Tanya Barfield & Leigh Silverman
Sometimes the best theatrical collaborations happen well before the audience hits the theatre, like that of acclaimed playwright Tanya Barfield (left) and Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman (right). Their latest play, Bright Half Life, challenges the constraints of traditional storytelling as it charts a lesbian relationship over 25 years.
The drama, produced by The Women’s Project Theater, marks Barfield and Silverman’s fifth collaboration, including The Call and Blue Door, which earned Barfield a 2007 nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Below, Tanya Barfield and Leigh Silverman take on nine questions about the way they work, why this personal piece stands out and how they still impress each other.
My first impression of her was:
She walked into the room, and I saw right away that she was smart, assured, striking.
VERY smart and extremely interesting. I knew of her because she had been a solo performer and her play, Without Skin and Breathlessness was so gorgeous—I was intimidated for sure.
Now five shows in, the most important factor of our working relationship is:
My favorite moment in rehearsal for Bright Half Life has been:
All the moments are my favorite. Here’s one: not my favorite but a crazy moment…One of our actresses [Rebecca Henderson] was supposed to fly back to NYC during a snowstorm and her flight was cancelled. She couldn’t get back for three days and we’d already lost a couple of rehearsals due to scheduling conflicts, so we were all panicked. Leigh decided that we’d conduct rehearsal anyway and Skype Rebecca in. The play’s a two-hander... and, although it would have been better to have both Rebecca and Rachael [Holmes] in the same room, the Skype rehearsal was surprisingly (and ironically?) intimate. The play is a love story and so building that intimacy was incredibly important.
When Rachael Hauck our set designer and I showed the set to Tanya and she was so surprised and happy with how we had visualized her world. I like surprising her and she has VERY specific ideas about design.
An example of the shorthand we have now is:
Leigh: This could be—
Me: I know!
Me: You know the part where - ?
Tanya: Yeah do you think I need to - ?
Me: I do.
Off-stage, we bond over:
Most of our time together exists in the rehearsal room or theater. But, whenever I have a personal problem of any sort, Leigh’s the first person I want to talk to. She’s one of the wisest people I’ve ever met.
How long we've known each other and how tired we are.
What makes this play stand out from our other collaborations is:
Bright Half Life resonates for both of us in a way that’s unique—in subject matter and aesthetic.
This play is very close to both of our hearts.
I think the most we’ve ever laughed together is when:
That’s a hard one…Leigh tells amazing stories with perfectly pitched self-deprecating humor. Sometimes, I’ll prompt her to tell the same story again (in a different situation). I laugh each time.
I admitted to her that I had been lying about my age and I was actually younger than she thought. I was so embarrassed.
I’m in awe of her ability to:
Run tech. And the way she pushes collaborators to be better—work harder—than we thought possible. And, after two 10 out of 12s (when energy is flagging), she can still deliver the perfect one-liner that elevates everyone’s mood.
Hear rhythms in language—she has an incredible ear. She also has the ability to honestly assess her own work. Also, she gets up most mornings at 4am to write. That is IMPRESSIVE.
If I had to describe my collaborator in a song, it would be:
Leigh is deserving of something really off-beat and profound and unexpected and rare. But, when I think of Leigh, I think of “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys. Now it’s stuck in my head.
“Searching For the Ghost” by Heartless Bastards. I think it captures Tanya's generous, loving, ever-searching soul, "Along the way/we hit some bumps/got cuts and bruises on our hearts/always knowing where we wanna go/but still get lost in every part."
Hurry over to see Bright Half Life at New York City Center Stage II through March 22.