Playwright Tira Palmquist

Playwright Tira Palmquist explores tough choices — personal and professional — made by law enforcement officers in her new four-character play The Way North, which is getting a development opportunity in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-by-Play New Play Reading Series April 19-20, 2019. Three public staged reading performances are planned at the Babcock Theatre on the campus of the University of Utah, where Pioneer makes its home.

In the play, Freddy, a retired county sheriff in rural Minnesota, expresses that she believes part of her former job was not just looking out for bad guys, but looking out for everybody else — that is, taking care of others.

“I would like to believe that Freddy is not alone in this,” Palmquist told me. “And it’s probably true that there are a lot of individuals in law enforcement who behave with humanity, who have community interests at heart first. Unfortunately, I fear the system does not encourage this humanity.”

Here’s how Pioneer characterizes The Way North: “When a lost, cold and very pregnant young woman stumbles on to her rural homestead in the Minnesota wilderness, Freddy Hansen doesn’t hesitate to take her in. It’s the right thing to do, and as the county’s former Sheriff, Freddy has dedicated her life to protecting and serving others. But when her new guest turns out to be a Sudanese refugee making a run for the Canadian border, what it means to protect and serve becomes a more complicated, and far more dangerous, question.”

Christy Montour-Larson directs the Utah reading. The Pioneer reading cast features Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin as Freddy; Mirirai Sithole as Agnes; Latoya Cameron as Freddy’s daughter, Alex; and Christopher DuVal as Freddy’s former fellow cop, Dan.

Get tickets here. Read the play at New Play Exchange.

Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin will play a conflicted former county sheriff in “The Way North.”

Play-by-Play is the invaluable new works development series that gave a reading to my plays Two Henrys in 2015 and Alabama Story in 2014.  The latter subsequently got a 2015 world premiere on Pioneer’s mainstage. By spring 2020, it will have been presented in 27 markets around the country since the premiere. Ask for a perusal copy of Alabama Story here.

Here’s my Q&A with Tira Palmquist, who talks about the roots and objectives of The Way North, its development at other theaters, her interest in poetry and her path to playwriting.

I love that The Way North advocates for humanity and nuance when it comes to law enforcement, something that seems achingly relevant as we continue to look at the number of cases of black people killed by cops who seem to be overstepping the boundaries of “necessary force.” Was this idea central to the play from the beginning, or did its focus change?

Tira Palmquist: This idea — that there would have been some moment of “necessary force” — was something that I discovered in the process of writing the play. I knew that Freddy would be a retired sheriff, but I wasn’t sure, right away, why she would have retired. I did a lot of research about why women leave law enforcement, but finally what made the most sense in the story was Freddy’s sense of justice and what it meant to “protect and serve.” Having shot someone in the line of duty was, in her own scales of justice, something for which she could never be judged innocent. By her own code, she no longer deserved to wear the badge. She needed to be better.

Three of your characters are people of color, including Agnes, a Sudanese woman fleeing for the Canadian border. There is a powerful conversation happening in the theater today about cultural appropriation and who can write about what community. At the moment, and this is true of my current and past work, my feeling is that with enough research and sensitivity anyone can write about anyone else. As a white dramatist, was this on your mind as you created The Way North?

Tira Palmquist: Oh, it was absolutely on my mind — and absolutely on my mind that I had to get this right. I should say that when I started writing this play, I tried to hedge my bets, and wrote that Freddy and Alex should be cast, you know, “from any ethnicity,” a kind of essential playwrights’ indecision, if not cowardice. The fact was that I wanted Freddy to be black, but I feared that if I did so, people would come at me, and I would be dragged, mercilessly. A dramaturg I know read a very early draft of the play and encouraged me to make the decision that was best for the play. And the best decision for the play is for Freddy to be black, because a story about a Sudanese immigrant being saved by a nice White Lady in Minnesota would be a very unfortunate story that we really don’t need. Like, at all.

And, you’re right to raise questions about who can and should write certain stories, but I see in Freddy people in my family — my family that is not all white, and it’s important to me to write stories that look like my family, and sound like my family — and so I’m not trying to appropriate a culture that isn’t mine. I’ve heard stories from members of my family about what it’s like to be the only black person in a white Midwestern town, and so I knew I could honor this story well. The first actress to read Freddy in a workshop happened to grow up in Northern Minnesota, and she said that Freddy certainly resonated for her.

In [the recent Alabama reading in Red Mountain Theatre Company’s Human Rights New Works Festival], I was, again, gratified to have a group of actors and another audience respond positively to the script. I was talking to one of the artistic advisors of the festival, Kenita R. Miller, and she told me how surprised they all were when it turned out I was the writer of the script. I’ve gotten that several times now — that kind of double-take when people see my picture after having read the play. But also, after having had four different sets of actresses tell me how much the play resonates for them, I’ve stopped worrying about being dragged, and feel grateful for the opportunity to share this story.

Can you take me to the first time you had a glimmer of an idea for The Way North? Did something specific inspire it?

Tira Palmquist: It was just after the last election, and there was an article in the L.A. Times about people trying to get across the Canadian border. The specifics were harrowing: immigrants who were afraid of what Trump and his new administration promised for them (and equally afraid of the countries they would be deported to) braved some difficult conditions to get across the border. Some of the people in the story were wearing little more than tennis shoes and light jackets — and many of those individuals suffered frost bite — or worse: some people trying to get across the border simply didn’t make it at all. Looking at these pictures — families, children, pregnant women — moved me.

In the article, Minnesota farmers talked about seeing these refugees struggling their way toward the border, or finding bodies in their fields, and Canadian homeowners brought sandwiches to exhausted travelers. I thought about what I would do if someone came to me with such a desperate need, if I would be brave enough to break the law to help them. And the seeds of a story started.

When you’re starting a play, does something specific regularly present itself first? Like, a location, a character, a setting, a conflict? Or does it differ from play to play? What “presented” first here?

Tira Palmquist: It changes from play to play, but generally the idea begins with a character in some extremity, a character with some problem they’re either trying to escape or trying to solve. Then, I have to frame up the foundations of the story. That is, I have to know things like: How many characters? Where is it located? What time period? How many months or years? Who’s the protagonist? What’s their driving desire? Do they get what they want? What’s the essential conflict of the play? How does the play end?

I don’t really outline before I write, but I do have to figure out all of those questions above before I can write. I like to think of this period as the “proving” period (like baking). I can’t start writing before all those foundational questions are answered, or I’ll be stuck. Sometimes the answers to the questions come quickly. Sometimes I have to puzzle it out. To continue the baking metaphor: richer doughs take longer to rise —and I can’t short-change that process. I have to be patient.

Mirirai Sithole will play Agnes, a Sudanese woman seeking refuge in the Pioneer reading of “The Way North.”

There’s a great “stranger in a strange land” angle to the play — both Freddy and Agnes are outsiders in this world. Was race and cultural difference always a part of this play?

Tira Palmquist: Once I finally allowed myself to write Freddy as black, yes. Agnes is certainly “in the ghorba,” as she says, in exile, here in the U.S., yearning for home but unable to ever return home again. For Freddy, she is both a stranger in a strange land in the sense that she is the very rare black woman in a predominantly white part of the state. There are more racially diverse parts of Minnesota — but Koochiching County is not it. Then, to be a woman in law enforcement? And a black woman in law enforcement? There are many ways in which Freddy is alone, without another peer to compare experiences. So, now, for her to be alone, in a cabin, in the wilderness, might be the most natural expression of her professional state.

The play very early on subverts expectations, both in form and content: there are time shifts; there are poetic monologues; the violence we so associate with racial encounters between white cops and black victims is up-ended.

Tira Palmquist: I think that subverting expectations is part of my job as a dramatist. If I only show what you think you know to be true, then I don’t think that is a providing the necessary challenge of the art form, or engaging in the conversation that we can be having.

Can you share your relationship to poetry, and why sections of your play are in verse?

Tira Palmquist: I trained as a poet before I was a playwright. I got my MFA in poetry from the University of California-Irvine, and I like to think that I bring my sense of poetry to all of what I write, even when I am not writing verse sections like you see in  The Way North. These sections need to be in verse because for me they are not just monologues, but are moments that transcend time, that transcend prose. In the front matter of the play, I say, “The monologues are meant to indicate a moment when the speaker begins by telling a story to the other (Agnes to Freddy, Freddy to Agnes), but when a person either truly inhabits a memory or when recalling that memory takes the speaker to a place neither fully in the past, nor fully in the present. Make of that what you will, but let the poetry be in a liminal space.”

Christopher DuVal will play a county sheriff in “The Way North” for Pioneer Theatre Company.

What sort of research did you do? Wilderness trekking? Sudanese history? Law enforcement?

Tira Palmquist: I am not Sudanese, and, yes, I did have to do a lot of research about that. I found several books about the war in Sudan, about the Sudanese immigrant experience, and I tried to immerse myself in that.

I did a fair amount of research about minority officers once I realized that Freddy needed to be black, and I found out that the first woman to be elected sheriff in Minnesota was named Terese Amazi [in Mower County in 2002]. She attended the Alexandria Technical College [in Alexandria, Minnesota], where my mother grew up.

I also read a lot about winter survival, about winter trekking, about making snow shoes, about frost bite, about moose… I like to research, actually. Sometimes, I have to force myself to stop.

Small-town, wintry, remote Minnesota is a character in the play. Freddy has traded her police job for a career as a wilderness guide and supplier to hikers. What’s your relationship to that part of the country? What’s your relationship to nature? Would you ever be seen on a hiking trail?

Tira Palmquist: I was born in Minnesota. Wintry Minnesota is what I grew up with, and so I didn’t have to do much research for that part of the play! While I’ve never snowshoed, I’ve done cross-country skiing and other winter sports. And, yes, I have absolutely been seen on a hiking trail. While I was working on this play, I spent a week at Tofte Lake in Northern Minnesota (hoping to see a moose — I didn’t), but spent plenty of hours hiking and kayaking, and dreaming of being Freddy.

There are references to nature and to Native people in your play. It seems to want to touch on something ancient and transcendent. The idea of freedom and refuge is someone connected to nature. How did Native culture influence The Way North?

Tira Palmquist: I certainly grew up with a kind of respect for Native peoples in that part of the world, and I heard their stories about the natural world. It’s hard not to be a kid in the Midwest and not hear such things at camp, for example. That respect for the outdoors, for the people who revere it, those First Nations — I believe in that. I can’t say that this deep respect affected the story more than that, but I do mean that respect sincerely.

Latoya Cameron plays Freddy’s querying daughter, Alex, in “The Way North” in Utah.

The play just had a reading opportunity at the Human Rights New Works Festival of Red Mountain Theatre Company in Alabama. Did you learn something specific there?

Tira Palmquist: I’ve been very lucky to have some really great readings and development organizations behind this play — Capital Rep NEXT ACT! New Play Summit, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, Phoenix Theater’s New Works Festival, Red Mountain Theatre Company’s Human Rights New Works Festival.

One of the most significant development experiences was at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. At that point, the play was really, really new (I had only finished the second draft at that point), and I had the opportunity in a week to look at how and why Freddy comes to the decision to help Agnes.

Further, the play always moved back and forth in time, and we played a lot with the placement of those flashbacks. In a week, we felt that the order we came up with worked well to tell the story. When I further workshopped the play in Phoenix, I learned that there was actually a slightly better order for the flashbacks and monologue/poems, an order that not only motivated them but also helped to clarify Freddy’s motivations for her choices.

At the core of the play is a romance. Was that always part of the play? Did you strip it away or add it when your revised it?

Tira Palmquist: Yes, the romance was always there. The older I get, the more important it is to write parts for women over 40 who are not just mothers, who are not just caretakers. Sure, Freddy is a mother and a caretaker — but she is all sorts of other things as well. After the [Red Mountain Theatre Company] reading in Birmingham, one of the ushers (a woman of about 60, I think) told me that the play was particularly meaningful to her because, for her, it was a play about what it meant to start over — that even for a woman at 50, it’s possible to start over. “As my grandmother told me, your life’s not over till you’re in the ground,” she laughed. I liked that. The romance isn’t, however, the main feature of the story. It is important only in how Freddy is in control of it, in how careful she has to be about that, given everything else going on in her life.

Anna O’Donoghue in a 2012 developmental reading of Tira Palmquist’s “Ten Mile Lake” in Seven Devils Playwrights Conference.

How is The Way North different or similar to your other plays?

Tira Palmquist: The Way North shares a location with two of my other plays, Ten Mile Lake and Overburden. All these plays are set in Minnesota. In style and form, The Way North shares some similarities with my play Two Degrees, which purposefully moves back and forth in time, in and out of memories, following the POV of the protagonist, Emma Phelps. Ten Mile Lake also uses this device. Perhaps it comes from my own obsessive recounting or nostalgia for the past — but even as I move through the present, I find that I am often pulled back into past events, either as a way to sort through way I’m doing now, or as a way to reconcile where I’ve come.

You’ve worked in many areas of theater. Can you share a little about your road to being a playwright? Was there an “aha!” moment when you called yourself a playwright?

Tira Palmquist: When I was in high school and college I was involved in music and theater at the same time that I wrote a lot of poetry. That writing was deeply personal, and even though I loved literature, and took lots of classes, I didn’t really think I’d pursue it. Then, at the University of Iowa, someone encouraged me to apply to the Undergraduate Poetry Workshop, and I attended that for several semesters. At the same time, I was acting, strongly interested in pursuing a career in the theater, and I had built props, sewed costumes, worked on set, worked backstage, all that. A watershed moment as an undergraduate shifted my focus, and I decided to pursue my MFA in poetry. While I was in grad school, I took a playwriting seminar, but that play was terrible. I mean: terrible.

Fast forward several years: my husband and I were living in Columbus, Ohio, where he was teaching at the Ohio State University, and where I was working as a freelance technical writer and caring for our young daughter. A colleague of my husband, when she discovered I was a poet, asked if I would be interested in writing for a multi-disciplinary performance group, and that sounded exciting and challenging, and so I said yes. At first, writing odd performance poetry was a great muscle-stretching activity, but I found that I yearned for narrative. And then there I was, writing a play. My first one-act play, Breathing Water Instead of Air, was performed in Columbus in 1995, and won the Southport International New Play Prize in 1996.

I have to say it was less of an “aha!” moment, and more of an “well this make sense!” moment for me. I’d acted in plays, directed plays, studied plays, knew how plays worked from the inside out — but I also knew language, its nuances, its beauty, its rhythms. So this felt like a perfect and natural marriage to me.

Raising a daughter came first, though, and it took me several years to carve out time for writing more plays. Like with the bread metaphor: Sometimes things take longer to “prove.”

Kim Staunton and Kathleen McCall in Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of Tira Palmquist’s “Two Degrees.”

Where did you grow up and what was your exposure to theater?

Tira Palmquist: I was born in Minnesota, the daughter of a minister and a music teacher. We moved several times — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa — but I didn’t leave the Midwest until I went to graduate school. My primary exposure to theater was the church, if I’m being honest. The music and the liturgy of the church were my first theatrical experiences. Living in small towns, we had no immediate opportunities for lots of theater. However, my parents belonged to some Record of the Month Club, and I remember listening to tons of original cast albums of musicals as a four- and five-year-old. When I got older, and I could finally audition for shows, I did that as often as I could.

What else are your working on?

Tira Palmquist: I have been working on several projects this year: In the fall, I workshopped a play for twenty-something actors at UC-Irvine called Hold Steady, which I subsequently worked on at the Key City Public Theatre New Works Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. I’ve also been completing two commissions: Safe Harbor, a play about sex trafficking that I wrote for Lower Depth Theater Ensemble in Los Angeles, and The Worth of Water, the Clutch Productions 2018-2019 Commission Prize Play.

You live in L.A.? Is there a day job? Do you have a set writing routine?

Tira Palmquist: I live south of L.A., in Orange County (Irvine). I used to teach at the UC-Irvine, but I retired early from that job because it was becoming too difficult to do that and pursue my playwriting career. Now I teach part-time at the Orange County School of the Arts in the Creative Writing Department, teaching playwriting (and other subjects). This allows me the freedom to write as well as travel for workshops, conferences, festivals and residencies.

When I’m at home, my routine is usually that I work best early in the day. I rise early, drink coffee, walk, then I eat a late breakfast, and then I finally get to write. If I’m able to write uninterrupted, I can write for five to six hours before I tap out. As Ursula K. LeGuin said, “at five, I make dinner and eat it, but after eight I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.” If circumstances change, I try to be flexible.