FRANCES LOUISE TIMBERLAKE’S Midwestern Ohio childhood could hardly have been farther from the cliffs of South Africa, where she set Umtya (The String), a finalist for the 2018 Thespian Playworks program. Drawn to that country’s history by what she describes as an “intense, empathetic connection,” Timberlake found herself returning to the powerful narratives of apartheid and its aftermath for nearly four years as she drafted her play.

Umtya spans five decades to examine the effects of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an attempt by the government to address the atrocities of apartheid. The play focuses primarily on one Xhosa family: 11-year-old Notu, her pregnant mother, and her often-absent father. Timberlake weaves their story, set in the 1950s at the beginning of apartheid, with testimonies to the commission investigating its legacy in 1996.

Frances Louise Timberlake at the 2018 International Thespian Festival.

Frances Louise Timberlake at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Corey Rourke.

An alum of Troupe 3950 at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, Timberlake recently completed her first year as a student of dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I had a class called Drama Lab that asked us to think about writing through the eyes of a director or an actor,” she said. “As we put our work on its feet in class, I realized how the Playworks experience gave me the chance to see actors and a director look at my writing as something that could be performed. It was the first time I had a piece produced, and I got to be a part of the process of developing it as a play when before it had just been text.”

Timberlake urges other emerging playwrights to listen to the world around them. “I record people’s conversations, write down anything and everything I hear throughout the day that was funny or interesting, and listen deeply to people,” she said. “I always return to these notes and fragments of conversation when I’m looking for inspiration. In a nutshell, steal from real life, and it doesn’t have to be your life. It’s much more fun to write when you have the opportunity to imagine a life you haven’t lived.”

Though your theatre background includes performing and directing, you focused on creative writing in high school. When did you become interested in writing?
I went to the School for Creative and Performing Arts because I thought I wanted to be an actress. I loved acting and performing, and before I found out that writing could be a creative outlet, I had a love for everything theatre. I think subconsciously I wanted to be a playwright even before I knew. My parents told me that my first-grade teacher wrote on my report card that I was really engaged in reading when it was in the form of a script. Everything I wrote when I started writing came out in colloquial form. Book reports, essays, short stories — they were all essentially long monologues.

The first play I wrote was an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, although it was more of a musical. At Christmas, I cast myself as Little Red and made my cousins play the other roles. It was a full-fledged production with choreography, costumes, and makeup, and it was a total disaster because I was the only one who wanted to do it.

I have vivid memories of taking old spiral notebooks and writing “Frances’s Notebook” on the cover, then writing love songs and short stories inside, telling dramatic stories with my stuffed animals and dolls. No matter how I look at it, I wanted to see and hear the things that were happening in my head.

What inspired you to write Umtya?
It’s a complicated story, but it started when I went to D.C. in 2012 with my grandparents and had dinner with two women: Judy, who is a brilliant humanitarian and academic, and Betty, an African American woman who has led close to 80 tours of South Africa. Judy has done a lot of work with refugees and is a close friend of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, so she had also been to South Africa many times and worked with him to promote reconciliation in the post-apartheid era. It was inspiration enough to hear their passion for and belief in the healing of the country, plus the fact that they’ve both spent their lives doing what they love. But the next day, Judy invited me and my grandma to her house to watch a documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Long Night’s Journey into Day. It’s a beautiful film that had a profound impact on me. Seeing mothers who had lost their children endure the pain of losing them again as they faced the men who killed them made me experience an “everything at once” feeling that inspired the play.

I connected deeply with the women in the film not because I had ever experienced anything close to what they had but because I felt their stories. I don’t really know how to explain it other than it was an intense, empathetic connection that made me feel the bond I believe exists between every person and every thing. It’s this ineffable, beautiful feeling I experienced in Judy’s living room that I tried to recall as I was writing the play.

I knew I wanted to write about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I had no idea how to do it. The only character I heard in my head from the beginning was Notu, the little girl who’s the throughline of the story. Everything else the play wanted to be was floating somewhere above my head, and I couldn’t feel it until I started reading books like Country of My Skull and listening to audio recordings of the amnesty trials. Even then, I had no idea what the story was or the structure of the piece. My playwriting teacher Ms. Lenning helped me realize that the structure had to be connected in the way the premise of the play claimed the world was. In other words, the scenes needed to be connected to each other with some recurring element.

My research started to incorporate the Bantu language, then elements of nature and belief systems held by the Xhosa people. Slowly these elements came together and allowed me to structurally weave the scenes in a way that emulated what I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was about: finding human connection in the wake of a system that had torn the country apart. What I cared about more than anything else was that the research was accurate and thorough, because I was writing stories that were bigger than my singular experience with the world.

Did your play change during Thespian Playworks at last year’s International Thespian Festival?
I made very few changes to the play. The rewrites I did make were minimal adjustments of phrasing or order of lines. It had already gone through so many edits before the process started that it was kind of living on its own. But the way I thought about the play changed a lot. I had what my director called postpartum feelings, meaning the play became this organism that I didn’t have any claim to anymore. I still felt connected to it, but more like teaching someone to ride a bike — and then watching them ride themself.

In addition to writing, you enjoy social sciences and would like to join the Peace Corps. Do you see a natural connection between your interest in storytelling and in exploring other cultures?
Completely. I’ve struggled a lot with the question of whether or not people, including myself, should be allowed to tell other people’s stories. I keep going back to a Toni Morrison quote: “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” I think it’s boring to write only about yourself, your singular experience. I want to travel, listen, see, and feel other people’s stories so much that they become part of my own. I want to adapt to other ways of being because there’s so much creative and personal freedom in being able not just to understand the ways in which other people live but also to live that way yourself.

Part of your Thespian Playworks experience included the opportunity to attend the Dramatists Guild Foundation gala in New York last fall. What was the most valuable part of that experience?
It was inspiring to be in a room full of writers whose writing manifests in music as well as words on the page. The most inspiring part was when we all met and talked to Andrew Lippa about his journey as a lyricist and composer. It was reassuring to hear that even someone who has achieved as much success as he has still doubts himself and his work. I think the doubt you experience throughout your career makes each success that much more rewarding. You know you can feel really good about it when the voice inside your head is finally quiet.

Are you interested in writing? Learn more about Thespian Playworks, sponsored by Concord Theatricals, online.

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