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It's curious how seemingly innocuous events can shape someone's ultimate path.
Pulitzer-nominated playwright Tanya Barfield remembers being a high school student in Portland, Ore., when she and some friends were riding a bus across town. She'd been studying "Romeo and Juliet" for class and was so entranced by the language she insisted on reading excerpts aloud to her pals.
Barfield selected the scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet - a lightning bolt of poetic energy wherein The Bard's expressions of pure romantic love are astonishing even in the context that he was, well, Shakespeare.
Barfield got so emotional that, at a crucial line, she lost her place - and was startled when, from a seat a few rows toward the front of the bus, an older woman spoke aloud and completed the quote in mid-verse.
Instinctively, Barfield and the woman finished the scene, each doing a respective part.
"It was a magical moment," Barfield says. "The language is so beautiful, and then to have something like that happen ... After that, how could I do anything but go into the theater?"
Barfield describes this while relaxing on the back porch at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. It's a misty afternoon and she's just finished a long rehearsal with director Giovanni Sardelli and the actors who, tonight and Saturday, will stage a reading of her latest play, "Bright Half Life." The piece is the final presentation of this year's O'Neill National Playwrights Conference.
Barfield is reluctant to provide a plotline for "Bright Half Life" but says she did write the play's capsule description in the conference program: "A kaleidoscopic love story (in which) Erika and Vicky are hurled through 25 years of love and heartbreak in a collection of the moments that make up a life."
A graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights Program, Barfield's works include "The Call," "Of Equal Measure," "Blue Door," "Dent," "The Quick," "The Houdini Act" and "121º West." Productions of her plays have taken place at Seattle Repertory, Berkeley Repertory, Playwrights Horizons, Primary Stages, the Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory. Barfield also teaches at Juilliard and New York University's Primary Stages. Along with the Pulitzer nomination (for "Blue Door"), she won the Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, received a Lark Play Development/NYSCA grant, and has twice been a finalist for the Princess Grace Award.
She's modest and self-deprecating about praise and awards, but she offers a small smile when she reflects on "Bright Half Life.
"I do think it's my best play, but it's also not very linear in the context of the classic, Aristotelian three-act structure. In the course of 20 pages, the characters might visit eight different years in their lives - out of sequence. But, rhythmically, there is definitely rising action to the story."
Barfield says she's not trying to be abstract - there's a definite story in mind, and she says she'll "always reverse-engineer" the plot if she has to make sure the audience is invested and moving along with the rhythm of the play. It's also true, she says, that she probably couldn't have written "Bright Half Life" earlier in her career.
She smiles. "I've done a lot of rewriting and polishing and made a lot mistakes over the years. There's a definite learning curve and you have to learn to self-edit." She describes a monologue in her play "The Call": "I thought it was some really good stuff and I was proud of it - but in all honesty, I had to chop it in half. It was too self-reflective and didn't work for the momentum of the play."
Typically, Barfield says her ideas are inspired by characters rather than plot ideas. A particular character might appear in her mind - or even a distinct voice.
"I hear the voice and the cadence, and then I have to figure out who it sounds like or might belong to. 'What would their job be? Is that a plumber?'"
Slowly, the gathering imaginary cast then suggests story - and the narrative evolves as she writes and refines the characters. She also takes into consideration elements unique to storytelling in theater - as opposed to writing novels, short stories or even screenplays.
"Being a playwright is an inherently extroverted and introverted exercise," she says. "It's important to collaborate with the actors and director in the theatrical community. At the same time, you're still a writer - and that's a very solitary discipline."
She says the O'Neill experience has been very rewarding.
"Well, everyone in the whole theater world knows about this place and how important it is. And then you actually get here. It's beautiful. I love it here," she says. "It's a gift to get to work with so many talented people - and you get to explore the work with no reviewers or high ticket costs and without the scrutiny of New York.
"Giovanni is wonderful; a really good director - and the actors - we all speak the same language. They sometimes know what I'm thinking before I think it, and it's a process that helps me articulate what maybe I couldn't before."
Barfield pauses and quickly laughs as an image occurs to her. "We've been working our little butts off!"
What: “Bright Half Life” by Tanya Barfield
When: 7:15 p.m. Friday and 8:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford
How much: $28
For more information: (860) 443-1238, theoneill.org