An Interview with Amy Wheeler
March 4, 2020
Beyond being a celebrated arts nonprofit leader, Amy Wheeler, the outgoing Executive Director of Hedgebrook, is a playwright, theatre artist, and teacher. Under her 16-year leadership, Hedgebrook—an organization based on Whidbey Island and in Seattle—grew from a writers-in-residence program supporting 60-80 women-identified writers a year, plus a Playwrights Festival, to a global community of several thousand influential alumnae who are authoring change in literature, theatre, film, music, and every sphere of public discourse.
Personally, Amy is a playwright and an alum of Hedgebrook and Yaddo. Her plays have been produced and developed nationally, including at The Guggenheim Museum, The Greenwich Street Theatre, and Seattle’s Theatre22, to name a few. Two of her plays are published Rain City Project’s Manifesto Anthologies. She’s taught playwriting at the University of Iowa, Cornish College of the Arts, Freehold Studio Theatre Lab, Hugo House, and in ACT Theatre’s Young Playwrights Program.
For these reasons and more, Amy Wheeler is the recipient of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ 2020 Prowda Literary Champion Award, alongside the non-profit Books to Prisoners, for her role in making the Puget Sound an outstanding place for readers and writers. To celebrate, we asked Amy about her favorite moments leading the team at Hedgebrook, some of the inspiring writers she’s met around its farmhouse dinner table, plus some advice for the playwrights out there…
Can you tell us a favorite moment or two from your seventeen years at Hedgebrook?
It’s been a gift to join writers-in-residence at Hedgebrook’s Farmhouse dinner table many times over the years, and to hear about their struggles and blocks and breakthroughs—then celebrate down the road when their work manifests in the world. It’s an honor to be on that journey with them. And a humbling reminder that the creative process is not easy, for anyone, no matter how much experience you have. There are blessed, exciting windows of “flow,” but a lot of it isn’t that. So being on the journey, and staying on it, being persistent, is what matters. It’s also been such a gift to become friends with Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler, two of my favorite feminist iconoclasts whose presence and work inspires me as a writer, leader, and woman.
What are your current writing projects?
I am currently adapting Holly Morris’ captivating documentary film The Babushkas of Chernobyl to the stage as a musical. The story follows a small group of elder women who are living illegally in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. They were evacuated after the nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986, then snuck back in under the barbed wire and have been there for over 30 years — living off the land — because it is their Motherland.
Last fall, 5th Avenue Theatre selected the project for their First Draft Series, focused on supporting the work of “womxn, gender non-conforming, and non-binary folx” in creating and developing musicals. They connected me with the brilliant Ukrainian composer Natalie Nowytski, based in Minneapolis, and I’m loving collaborating with her on my first musical!
Who is a writer you saw early on at Hedgebrook whose career you’ve gone on to follow?
Hedgebrook’s done such an amazing job of identifying emerging, early career writers, so there are many. And I love that there’s not an age attached to those words. Often a woman isn’t fully able to focus on her own creative projects until children are grown, or she’s moved on from an all-consuming job. So “emerging” at Hedgebrook can be someone right out of college, in her 20s or 30s. But it might also be a woman in another phase of life who’s new to writing.
A few writers I’ve stayed in close touch with who came early in their careers include: Hannah Tinti, Monique Truong, Janet Mock, Shobha Rao, Namwali Serpell, Naomi Jackson, Sherri L. Smith, Jacqueline Woodson, Ruth Forman, Suheir Hammad—there are so many!
What are you most proud of you and your team accomplishing at Hedgebrook?
Two things: the radical hospitality that every writer who stays at Hedgebrook experiences. We’ve kept the essence of founder Nancy Nordhoff’s original idea in the way writers are nurtured and given space and time at the Whidbey Island retreat. And then there’s how we’ve expanded Hedgebrook’s impact, through new programs and partnerships that are resulting in more work by women and non-binary writers being published and produced. In every industry, because we added programs for filmmakers, songwriters, TV writers, and the next generation of writers.
Hedgebrook’s mission to support historically marginalized storytellers continues to be groundbreaking in the movement towards equity and equality. I’m inspired by poet Muriel Rukeyser’s words: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” We’re seeing the impact politically and socially of movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter that split the world open with truth, and spark our collective consciousness. Our world needs to split open now, to create space for more stories from those we haven’t heard from to take root and rise.
What advice would you give people who want to get into playwriting?
A playwright creates a road map for other people (actors, a director, designers) to go on a journey. With a novel, the reader enters the world through their imagination and takes a solo journey into that other world. But a play doesn’t fully exist on the page. It’s a story that happens in space and time, embodied by actors and experienced live. You’re “in the room where it happens.” And that journey will be fresh every time, because a new audience is experiencing it.
So my best advice would be to go to the theatre as often as possible and experience all the ways plays are brought to life onstage. And read plays to experience all the ways playwrights create a theatrical world on the page, and use the language of the stage — words, light, sound and movement — to tell a story.
Thank you, Amy!
SAL will be publicly celebrating Amy Wheeler and Books to Prisoners at Carol Anderson’s Literary Arts Series event on April 15 with a special video.