F.J. Hartland has been called “Pittsburgh’s most eminent playwright” and his plays have won numerous awards. Hartland’s MOTHER TONGUE, about a different kind of love triangle, will be one of the highlight productions of this year’s GayFest! Hartland spoke about his background, success, and influences ahead of GayFest! 2015. [Plays & Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place] August 13-21, 2015; quinceproductions.com.
Eger: What sparked your interest in theater in general and writing plays in particular?
Hartland: When I was 13 or so, I asked for a typewriter for Christmas. My parents obliged, and I just began writing plays. And I’m not exactly sure why, as I come from a family that has no interest in theater at all. If I wasn’t involved, they probably [would] never see a play!
Eger: Three guesses: You had good teachers who encouraged you all the way.
Hartland: Yes,I had many wonderful teachers who encouraged my writing. For the 1974 summer program of The Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, I was accepted into the creative writing class.
I went to college to study acting, but the head of our theater program told me I was “too short, too fat, too ugly and too untalented” to be an actor. So I went back to writing. Nobody cares what a playwright looks like. So I switched to the English Department where my new advisor encouraged me to go to graduate school to study playwriting.
Eger: You have been writing plays for over 40 years. Were there any themes or patterns that emerged?
Hartland: There is a joke in Pittsburgh theater circles that all I write about is death. And I guess that’s true. What’s more dramatic than life and death? I have a new play opening in Pittsburgh in September called Games of the Mind. I told the producing Throughline Theatre Company that they should use the advertising tag line, “It’s a Hartland play and nobody DIES!”
Eger: You spent your professional life as a playwright, actor, and director. Given that rich background, what were some of the highlights?
Hartland: This past spring I played the lead in the play The Whale at Off The Wall in Carnegie, so that was one of the true high points in my acting career. I’ve been a member of Actors Equity for almost twenty-five years, and The Whale was a real pinnacle for me.
One of the best times I ever had as a director was over a year ago when I directed The Mystery of Irma Vep for a local theater. I had an amazing cast, wonderful designers, and a crackerjack crew of dressers who kept those two actors racing through hundreds of quick changes. I was able to sit back and enjoy just directing, or as Orson Welles used to say, “presiding over the happy accidents.” And we had many happy accidents.
As a playwright, I feel like I have reached a true achievement when a total stranger tells me how much my words have moved him or her. If something I put on a piece of paper can make someone I don’t know laugh or cry . . . wow.
Eger: In 2008, you were the recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship. How did that honor impact your life as a writer?
Hartland: It was a true godsend because I was broke at the time and the $5,000 saved my life. Sadly, that was the last year the state of Pennsylvania awarded individual artist grants. Budgets were cut—starting with the arts.
Eger: Tell us about your writing process. What works for you and what does not?
Hartland: I can’t even start writing until I know the first and the last thing I want the audience to see. Then my first draft is trying to see if I can get from that first picture to the last picture. I often say that a play has to “simmer on the back burner” in my brain for a long time before I am comfortable enough to commit to the idea.
I have playwright friends who just sit down and let the story take them wherever the story takes them. I am too much of a “control freak” to do that. If I get in a car or a bus or a plane, I need to know where I am going. If I commit to writing a play, I need to know where I am going.
Eger: You have written mostly one-acts, but also some full-length plays. Which ones get performed more often?
Hartland: Definitely the one-acts. There seems to be a much bigger market for them. I think there is something really wonderful about a well-crafted one-act. If they’re good, they are little jewels. Probably for the same reason I love short stories.
Eger: You said that your ideas come from many different places. Tell us more about the things that influenced your plays.
Hartland: I once wrote a play based on a name I saw carved on a tombstone. Once I wrote a play based on a photograph I saw in the newspaper. Another play was inspired by something funny my sister said. I keep all my inspirations in what I call my “idea book.” It is an unorganized mish-mash of possible play titles, character names, ideas for plays, and funny lines.
Eger: Very few writers can live on their plays. What did you do to support your writing financially?
Hartland: I lived in Pittsburgh for seven years and did a myriad of things to keep body and soul together. I was a college adjunct, teaching mostly freshman composition and public speaking. I wrote and edited copy for a small newspaper. I worked as a proofreader. I graded essays for a company that processed the standardized school testing. Sometimes I held down as many as five part-time jobs.
A year ago, I accepted a position teaching theater full-time at a small liberal arts college here in western Pennsylvania.
GayFest! 2015 runs August 7-22, 2015, at Plays & Players Skiner Studio [1714 Delancey Place]. MOTHER TONGUE has performance August 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, and 21 (all at 7pm). Check quinceproductions.comfor the full schedule and tickets.
Video interview with FJ Hartland, “Pittsburgh’s most prominent playwright.”