Leigh Curran is a playwright, actor, poet, and former director of the Virginia Avenue Project, a non-profit dedicated to teaching writing, improvisation, and theater to low-income children. I can speak to Leigh’s improvisation and poetry classes, which inspired my personal, life-long passion for the arts and desire to bring that passion to others. Her work to provide safe spaces for self-expression offers a blueprint for anyone interested in community arts integration programs. In this interview, Curran discusses her personal writing process and how that translates into her mentorship of young people between the ages of 6-18.
LPR: You write in many different formats from poetry to plays. From where do you draw inspiration for each of your different formats?
Curran: I get my inspiration from a combination of my life and my imagination. From there I decide on the format that will best serve the idea. Poems are short and concentrated and appear quickly. Novels allow for lots of description, dialogue, backstory, tangents, etc. and can take years to write. Plays are my favorite format because I think in dialogue – have since I was a kid – and I love the challenge of telling a story through what people say and do … probably because I’m an actress and have always been fascinated by human behavior.
LPR: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing?
Curran: Self-promotion. Once I decide to write something, I’m very good about sticking with it because, more than anything, I enjoy the creative process. But when it comes to getting whatever I’ve written into the world, I come up against all my doubts – mainly about my worthiness. But I’m working on it!
LPR: You worked on writing plays and poetry with children at the Virginia Avenue Project. What inspired you to work with young people?
Curran: My life had become too much about my career, my fame, my fortune, and not enough about giving back. I was living in New York City at the time and, through a friend, got involved with the 52nd Street Project – a non-profit pairing adult writers/performers with children to create and present original works. When kids and adults write and/or perform together they immerse themselves in an exploration of characters, conflicts, needs, wants, story lines, etc. and, in the process, contribute to each other’s understanding of what it means to be human. When Project kids wrote plays, they started with character profiles – How old is the character? What is his/her greatest wish – greatest fear? How does family history play a role in the character’s decisions? What is the character’s best-kept secret and so on. These questions engaged the adults and kids in a creative exploration that expanded their sense of themselves and the world around them.
LPR: In a lot of your work, you mentored children who came from low-income and/or broken families. How did you encourage these young students to write honestly and to work hard on their writing in those difficult times?
Curran: I believed in all the kids I worked with and saw us as equals. I supported their successes and pushed them gently and with enthusiasm (I hope) to go deeper into the areas where writing can get murky, scary and overwhelming. No matter what age you are or how much experience you have or haven’t had, when you sit down to write you are searching for your story in the weeds. Kids whose lives are full of struggle spend a lot of time trying to make sense out of the chaos. Playwriting allowed them to develop compassion for characters they created but didn’t necessarily understand, to trust their ideas and express them clearly and, finally, to explore complex emotions through the safety of metaphor and storytelling.
For example, one of my teens wrote a play about a business woman and Nothingness – yes, the second character was named Nothingness, and it came to persuade the woman that the new man in her life was only going to leave her so why go out with him? Because the writer had to write a character profile for Nothingness, she had to explore its longings and fears and, in the process, Nothingness was humanized. The writer took a deeper look at what the depression inside her looked like – how she was controlled by it, how she was afraid of it, how she gave into it, how it forced her to wrestle with meaning, how it slowed her down, and how it prevented her from making decisions she might later regret. So, not only did this teen write a very original and compelling play, she and her artist/mentor (who happened to be me) shared in an exploration of what it means to have a shadow side and discovered shadow sides have their good sides too.
LPR: What would you like to see more of in writing today? Or what themes or ideas do you think are lacking in contemporary writing?
Curran: I can’t say I’m that well-versed in contemporary writing, so I’ll answer your question as it relates to playwriting. I’d like to see women writers taken seriously. We are more apt to write emotional journeys than intellectual ones. A while back, in an attempt to distinguish theater from TV and film, theater artists began focusing on language, and while plays are definitely about language, the plays that were being generated often made language more important than story. I found myself leaving the theater feeling satisfied intellectually but unmoved spiritually and emotionally. A stimulating theatrical experience is when I can have all three. Women playwrights can make that kind of magic – it’s in our DNA.
LPR: What advice would you give a person with writer’s block?
Curran: I don’t see writer’s block as a bad thing. I see it as a necessary part of the process. I have a history of falling asleep when I write. I used to think I was unprofessional, but now I understand it as part of the deep dive and wait with curiosity for new ideas to bubble up. While I’m waiting, I might free-write about how blocked I am or about why I wish I wasn’t blocked. I just keep moving my pen across the page – without thinking. Or I put what I’m working on aside and do something totally unrelated until I can’t stand being separated from my writing for another minute. You can’t will the creative process into being, but you can behold its unfolding in its own way and time. And therein lies the magic.
LPR: What projects do you have coming up and what should we keep an eye out for?
My new play is called Body Beautiful – it’s about love, aging, loyalty, sexual proclivities and gender dysphoria. I’ve begun submitting it to local and regional theatres and it will be given a rehearsed reading in Los Angeles in early December under the direction of Elinor Renfield. Ellie directed me in a play in New York in the late 80s and became a great friend. She’s an actor’s director if there ever was one – combines her vision of a play with what she gets from her actors, so there’s lots of give and take which makes for a very creative rehearsal process. This summer I worked with Ellie as a playwright and was just as excited by her dramaturgical skills. Together we made the script shorter, tighter, clearer, deeper and better and now it’s ready to be rehearsed and read for a wider audience. Can’t wait!
Bio: Leigh Curran is a writer, performer, and for 22 years was the Founding Artistic Director of The Virginia Avenue Project, a non-profit using Theatre Arts and long-term mentoring to give struggling children life and communication skills. As an actress, Leigh has appeared on, off, and way off-Broadway, as well as on TV and in films. She’s also a produced and published playwright, novelist, poet, and a reader of personal essays. Her solo show, Why Water Falls, received the Encore! Producers Award at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival and was later produced Off-Off Broadway. She is currently preparing her fifth full-length play, Body Beautiful, for a staged reading in New York City.