Karen Hartman is an award-winning playwright and librettist whose work has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Helen Merrill Foundation, a Daryl Roth “Creative Spirit” Award, a Hodder Fellowship, a Jerome Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship to Jerusalem, a New Dramatists residency, and Core Membership at the Playwrights Center. Her play Goldie, Max, and Milk premiered this season at Florida Stage and the Phoenix Theater, and Wild Kate opened at ACT in San Francisco. Goliath, Donna Wants, Gum, Going Gone, Anatomy 1968, Troy Women, ALICE: Tales of a Curious Girl, Leah’s Train and others have been commissioned and/or staged by dozens of theaters including the Women’s Project, NAATCO (National Asian-American Theater Company), McCarter Theater, ACT in San Francisco, Center Stage, the Magic Theater, and Dallas Theater Center, and are published by TCG, DPS, Backstage Books, NoPassport Press, and Playscripts, Inc.
She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama. She has taught playwriting in a wide range of settings, including four years at the Yale School of Drama. Karen is a resident alum at New Dramatists and leads an independent writing workshop for New York playwrights.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
Probably when I was about three. I would narrate what was happening to me and my friends in my head. I took great pride in writing with a pencil. I started writing plays in junior high. My friend Amy and I decided to write an absurdist comedy called Anhedonia Meets The Urban Shaman. We pulled whatever we were studying and put it in the play.
Do you remember the first time you saw your work produced?
It was very formal and official. The first play I wrote myself was for the California Young Playwrights Festival. I acted in this festival when I was fourteen in a play by an 8th grader, which gave me a lovely low standard so that I could have the courage to write my own play. My first two plays were produced there when I was in high school. I had an early and totally false sense that playwriting was a road to success and fame and getting into college. It was a comparatively good and glamorous beginning.
Did you study playwriting in college?
No. I took playwriting classes but I majored in literature at Yale. There had been a split between the Literature and English departments. Literature meant reading literary theory and more books in French, and also you could not do a “creative thesis,” which was important to me because it forced me to write a long essay, instead of getting credit for a script.
Were your parents supportive of your career in theater?
They were mixed, but supportive. It helped to have had this strange start in high school. My father, who was a doctor, really liked my plays themselves and he came to see all of them. My parents were worried about it materially, but they liked it. I’m the oldest of four; now all of us are artists.
What did you do when you graduated from Yale?
I moved back to San Diego, where I’m from, and got a job working with The Playwrights Project which had produced my plays. It turned out to be really heartbreaking working in the office counting staples. I felt like a super loser. I was helping to read for the contest, which was nice, but even that reminded me that I was on the now-real road to being an artist– which would be more difficult.
I wound up teaching playwriting for them, which was great, and also teaching SAT and LSAT prep. I’ve always liked teaching and that’s been my go to job ever since.
Do you find that your teaching life informs your writing life?
It does. The better the writers I teach, the more helpfully they intertwine. The teaching I’m doing now, mostly for adults in New York, including some writers who are peers, forces me to think more carefully about how to construct plays. It gets me in the habit of thinking about writing and what could go wrong. A lot of my teaching is about keeping people encouraged and I turn that towards myself.
On the other hand, I’m always running around with other people’s plays in my head. This becomes another way to keep from doing my own work. It can be a good thing if it is inspiring to you. There’s a discipline to learning to set it aside. I take other people’s plays into me and I do carry them.
How long did you take between college and going back to Yale to get your MFA?
I took just one year at first, but then it wasn’t enough so I took another year in between my first and second years of graduate school. It wasn’t the plan, but I got a Fulbright scholarship and I went to Jerusalem. It changed everything for me. It was a big cracking open. I had felt like it was too soon for me to be back in school. I was the only person in my group of five who was even close to my age. I felt like all of these people had lived lives that I was never going to have. I was terrified of coming out of school in three years and having that be the definitive beginning and not having another chance to have another beginning.
Why did you choose to go back to Yale for graduate school after having been there as an undergrad?
It wasn’t ideal, in that it was where I had gone as an undergraduate, but I really wanted to go to Yale School of Drama- I kind of revered it. The program at Julliard was just getting started and I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know about Paula Vogel’s program at Brown. I only applied to Yale and UCSD.
I didn’t think about it that much. Part of being away [in Jerusalem] was about deciding again that I wanted to be in graduate school, and even if it wasn’t exactly right, I wanted to finish it.
Were things different after you got out of school?
Mostly I changed during school. During graduate school I cracked into my first professional style, which was spare and kind of tragic. Before that I had had a much more contemporary and chatty style, which is more like what I’m doing now. But I stuck with spare and tragic for a good five years. I stayed with that voice for most of my twenties.
Right out of graduate school I had a Jerome Fellowship in Minneapolis, and half way through that year I got a teaching gig at Bennington. It put off the post-grad school panic until about five years later. I got my first two commissions my first year out and I had good news about productions of my play Gum in a few different places. I felt really on track, again, like things would be falsely simple.
What was it that happened five years after you got out of school?
The first set of good things that happened to me had kind of played themselves out and I was figuring out what to do next. I was living in New York by then. I lived in Carroll Gardens. I would buy Italian groceries at Caputos on Court Street. I loved that street. I’ve mostly been in New York ever since.
Did you have an agent then?
I got an agent about a year after I got my MFA. She was an assistant to a bigger agent, and a producer I knew from Yale hooked me up with her agency. We were both young and I liked who she was and we got along really great. She felt like my best friend. But I didn’t understand what it meant to commit to someone who is so new in their own profession that they’re not in control of their job. I’ve really had almost everything that can happen to you with an agent happen to me. My first agent left the business, my second agent died, my third agent I left, I’m with my fourth agent and I’m very happy.
Has becoming a Mom four years ago changed your approach to your work?
The first six months were a wash but I had a book-writing job, which was nice, it kept me working even though there wasn’t much in me creatively. Then it was strangely liberating because I had such small time spaces to write in and I was so raw emotionally that I felt really opened up. I wonder sometimes if I weren’t so connected by love to my family, I might be a harder worker, like I might go off by myself and pursue ideas to some pure theoretical limit that I can’t get to because people I love are always somewhere inside me. But I don’t know if that’s true.
One of the advantages to writing is that everything feeds the work, so there’s no such thing as a distraction. Something might be a distraction in the short term (love, grief, birth), but for me the time that I spend in a really deep personal emotion of any kind becomes a muscle memory for that feeling and deepens the creative pool.
Did you have specific mentors who helped you come of age as a playwright?
Playwright Maria Irene Fornes and Ben Mordecai. Ben was a producer who had great belief in my writing and saw everything that I wrote. He would take me to Sardi’s and tell me who was producing my next play. He optioned an early play and also gave me my first musical bookwriting job. He produced all of August Wilson’s plays and the fact that he felt so strongly about mine was huge to me and still is even though I don’t have him anymore. My father and my agent and Ben Mordecai all died around the same time when I was living in New York in my early thirties and it was a tremendous loss to me.
What advice do you give to young artists just starting out?
A lot of people come to New York because they want to be part of the culture. I think that’s really great, but I think that ultimately you have to make your very own work. I don’t mean this metaphorically, like your voice has to be distinctive, I mean literally you should spend most of your time making your work, writing your play if that’s what you’re doing. That is how you will make opportunities.
As a writer you are very, very lucky because at any age you can write a play that will be interesting to other people. You don’t have to work your way up. You don’t have to wait till there’s a role for you. You can just sit down and do it. You have to put your own work first.
Interview by Emily Feldman