Named a Finalist for a National Playwriting Award
by Dr. Sara Hollis
Only three years after he began writing plays thanks to the encouragement of local actor Lance E. Nichols (HBO’s Treme) who praised his talent for writing dialogue, New Orleans writer, journalist and university administrator Harold Ellis Clark has been awarded a coveted prize in the Stanley Drama Award’s 56th Annual Competition for playwriting.
The award ceremony took place Mar. 18 at The Players in downtown Manhattan, NY, a club founded in 1888 by Edwin Booth, Mark Twain and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. This national competition was established in 1957 and is administered by Wagner College Theatre Department, a private liberal arts college in Staten Island, NY. Several previous winners, including Jonathan Larson (Rent) and Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman), later won Tony Awards.
The competition awards three top honors. Clark is a finalist. He was honored for his play, “Tour Detour”. His play performed last year at Dillard University, “Fishers of Men”, clearly demonstrated Clark’s gift for complex and revealing dialogue, as well as a depth of vision.
What follows is a conversation about Harold Ellis Clark’s current blossoming career as a playwright.
Hollis: Describe your overall experiences with the Stanley Drama Award.
Clark: Beginning with the phone call in late December from the Wagner College Theatre Department informing me that I was a top-ten finalist for the Stanley Drama Award, everything associated with the experience was first-class. My wife, Cherie, five other relatives from San Francisco, Austin, TX and Baton Rouge, respectively, and former New Orleans resident and current New Yorker Jude Lastrapes, who treated us to a great after-ceremony-dinner at a wonderful Brazilian restaurant, all attended. Prior to the ceremony, I participated in a tour of The Players and learned of its’ amazing history. During the ceremony, drama students from Wagner performed selections from the musical Rent, which previously garnered a Stanley Drama Award prior to the world-wide acclaim the production later received, and professional actors performed an excerpt of “The Return of Tartuffe”, written by this year’s winner, Brian Mulholland. I also talked extensively with playwright David Ives, a 2012 Tony Award nominee for his play, “Venus in Fur”.
Hollis: Mr. Clark, you are widely known and often awarded in New Orleans for your WYLD-FM program Sunday Journal with Hal Clark and two recent performances of plays you have written, “Marrero Action” and “Fishers of Men”, and of course as the executive associate to the chancellor at SUNO. Would you consider this national recognition, as a finalist for the Stanley Drama Award, an important step in your career as a writer?
Clark: It’s very important. Each of us has goals we’d like to realize regarding the work that we love. As a playwright, one of my goals is for audiences nationally to experience my work. The recognition I received from being a finalist for the 2013 Stanley Drama Award helps in that regard.
Hollis: Are there any planned performances locally of the play for which you won the award, “Tour Detour”?
Clark: I entered the play into several national competitions which require that it remain unproduced and unpublished. However, some decisions regarding productions of “Tour Detour” may be made around mid or late April.
Hollis: I love live drama and have attended plays on both coasts and many cities in between. I was able to see your play, “Fishers of Men”, at Dillard last June. I was so impressed with the way the dialogue carried the drama and how the ending caused a total re-evaluation of what had gone on in the whole play. I found my mind turning over the ideas embodied in the play over and over for days after attending. To my mind that reflects great drama. Is this what you are hoping to achieve with your writing?
Clark: You’ve precisely summed up the overall hope. I attempt to get characters to verbally joust and present various sides of a given argument or subject in an effort to make audiences question their own beliefs or feelings about a topic. John Grimsley, who directed “Fishers of Men”, says he likes to participate in theatre that “moves” people. I strive hard to make audiences “move” by making them laugh, cry, and at times feel uncomfortable. That uncomfortable feeling, in my opinion, ultimately becomes a good thing in that it challenges people to think differently.
Hollis: In addition to your plays, I understand that you have written several novels and screenplays, and that your screenplay, “Urban Realities”, was made into a short film in 2000. Of these genres, which would you most like to see your work showcased and published in?
Clark: Plays are my primary focus. I love the communal experience of initially working with actors and directors and later having audiences experience the work. I read tons of non-fiction, plays and screenplays, but haven’t read a novel in five years. I’m not sure when I’ll return to writing novels.
Hollis: As an educator, I am always interested in knowing the age successful, creative people were when they first showed an interest in an area. When did you or your family first realize that you were seriously interested in expressing yourself through writing?
Clark: The first signs occurred when I was six. Writing evolved from my voracious appetite for reading and comprehension. Before I was a teenager, I penned several stories.
Hollis: Did you have teacher early on who encouraged you?
Clark: Yes. A couple at John Ehret High School and at Grambling State University. After reading some of my work in high school, a teacher remarked that I’m a critical thinker, which I believe is key to being a good storyteller.
Hollis: Were you writing through your high school and university years? Or was this something that has come to the surface in recent years?
Clark: I’ve been seriously writing fiction since 1992, which I consider to be my official start with actively pursuing the craft.
Hollis: What would it take for you to relocate your family to New York or Hollywood to follow your dreams of being a playwright or film writer? Or do you believe that you can be just as successful working from here in New Orleans?
Clark: Numerous literary agents encouraged me to move to New York to pursue playwriting or move to Los Angeles to pursue screen writing. While I’ve lived in New Orleans for numerous years, I’ve also lived in California, Ohio, Illinois and Kansas. I’m always open for new and better opportunities wherever they may be. While in New York City for the Stanley Drama Awards, my wife and I stayed at a hotel located a few blocks from Times Square. Walking past several Broadway theaters and being in locale with numerous people who understand and respect the importance of the arts is quite attractive. Keeping New Orleans as a base and living periodically in New York City would be ideal. Writing is about people, and some of the world’s most interesting people live in Louisiana, which is where all of my work is set, so New Orleans will always be home regardless as to where I reside in the future.
Hollis: What would success as a writer mean to you?
Clark: Remaining passionate about writing for 21 years despite numerous challenges of having my work being rejected by countless literary agents, publishing houses, film and TV production companies and theatrical companies and continuing to write in some form on a daily basis represent success to me. Success occurred when I self-published my novel, “Chummy’s Spirit”, produced my play, “Fishers of Men”, and knowing that I don’t need anyone’s validation in terms of when the public gets to experience my work. Whenever my longtime editor, LaRita Davenport, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, likes my work, I consider that to be a major success. Her logic and critical thinking skills are second to none. No one sees anything I’ve written until she’s seen it. My wife’s great at gaging the emotional depth of my work, and I respect her opinions tremendously.
Hollis: How would you like to see the world change as a result of all of your creative work?
Clark: When describing my play, “Tour Detour”, to the audience during the Stanley Drama Award ceremony, award-winning playwright and music producer, Matty Selman, who served as one of the final judges, said that the play speaks to everyone who longs for a relationship with the father they never had. He didn’t say that the play only speaks to Black people because it’s written by an African American and features two black characters. Despite our cultural differences, humans desire many of the same things. I’d like to see my work play a small role in helping people to appreciate our cultural differences while at the same time recognizing that each of us ultimately wants to better our own condition.
Dr. Sara Hollis is the Director of the M.A. Museum Studies Program at SUNO. She can be reached at: email@example.com.