In conversation with Tarell Alvin McCraney

Tarell Alvin McCraney

Can you tell us something about your career so far and how you became a playwright?

I've been a playwright and an actor all my life. I wrote my first play when I was fourteen, which was 15 years ago. I decided to move away from acting into playwriting because I felt that there weren't enough roles for me to play. The roles that were in the theatre in America lacked something. I think it was the diversity. I kept running into the same roles over and over again, or the same plays for African-American actors. So it just felt necessary to try to create theatre productions that involved a wider range of stories.

How has Shakespeare inspired you as a playwright?

The first time I heard Shakespeare was when I was a child. It was A Midsummer Night's Dream and I just thought 'wow-it's so powerful'.

When I went to performing arts high school I got really interested in Shakespeare. In the last year, we had to learn four or five monologues – two of which had to be classical. We worked on them in the summer to perform in front of the entire school. That was pressure! I remember just loving the poetry. In our final year, we auditioned for various conservatories. When I went to audition at Julliard I performed two monologues, one by Chekhov and the other was Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. They asked me if I knew any more Shakespeare and I performed something from Hamlet. Then they asked me if I knew another - so I did one from Henry V. They were amazed that an 18 year old would know so much Shakespeare. For me it was fun, it was poetry, and easier than memorising regular lines. From that moment on I recognised that there was something rhythmical, and therefore magical, in the words themselves. There is a spell-like magic to the words, which can create something out of nothing. I have tried to steal that idea for my own plays.

You have had several plays produced in the UK including Wig Out! at the Royal Court and The Brothers Size/In the Red and Brown Water at the Young Vic. Do you think audiences differ between the UK and the US?

Well they're different from all over the UK. The Brothers Size toured and every time I saw the play, the audiences were different. The UK itself is so diverse, especially London. Doing plays at the Young Vic and then at the Royal Court was like night and day. The plays were very different and the audiences were not alike. The fact that you can have that kind of diversity in one city is beautiful.

Why do you think it's important for the RSC to stage new work as well as Shakespeare?

Well, it's about a conversation, isn't it? It's about what is happening in relation to the classic canon of work. You can never have a void between what Shakespeare's work is doing and how it's affecting other writers. It's also important to continue to invite people of different colours, different social and economic status, with different takes on the same stories, so that the pallet becomes wider. The more narrow it is, the less interesting.

Have you enjoyed working with the RSC and can you tell us about the development of your new play American Trade?

Working with the RSC is the whirlwind tour isn't it? What was I supposed to do here at the RSC? Write a play. And I have, American Trade. But I've also directed a Young Person's Shakespeare (Hamlet). I've been asked to do two radical edits on two major Shakespeare plays and sit in on the Associates meetings. WOWZERS! I never dreamed I would be doing anything like that and I am more rich from those experiences, a little tired but rich.

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Teaching Shakespeare