Playwright Tanya Barfield went to N.Y.U. as an undergraduate to study acting, “because I didn’t know there was such a thing as a living playwright,” she said. But after graduating, she recalled, “as an actress of color, there weren’t a lot of roles for me. It was pre-Waiting to Exhale, and I wasn’t convincing as drug addict or a prostitute, so I started writing my own solo pieces and performing them.” The response to her writing was positive, and before long, she was encouraged to apply to the Juilliard Playwrights program, where she received an Artist Diploma in 2002 and was a writer in residence the following year. Barfield’s plays include the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Blue Door; she has taught playwriting at Primary Stages School of Theater and Barnard College. She returned to Juilliard as literary manager of the Drama Division in August 2009.
What is one of your favorite memories from your years at Juilliard?
My favorite part of the job is the day the playwriting students arrive. They are so overwhelmed, wide-eyed, intimidated, and grateful to be here. It’s as if I’m literally watching people walk on air. They are usually hesitant, afraid of falling, but they are all intensely happy. It’s infectious.
What job at Juilliard would you like to try out for a day and why?
I’d like to run the School. Only for one day and no more. I’m curious to know everything that is going on and how any one decision affects another one.
What is the strangest or most memorable job you’ve ever had and what made it so?
When I was 16, I had a job spelunking through the caves of eastern Oregon. I was helping a biologist monitor the bat population. We would also set up nets around streams or still water. We’d start working at dusk and we’d stop late in the night, around 3 or 4 a.m. The bats weren’t killed. They were tagged. I don’t know all that went in to the actual monitoring. I don’t remember that part. I remember the moon and its light on the water. Or nights so black that I couldn’t see my hands.
If out of the blue your boss said to take the day off, what would you do with your free time?
I have a son who’s almost 9 and a daughter who’s 4; I would take them out of school and bring them to a Wednesday matinee.
How do you balance your job and your artistic endeavors?
I juggle Juilliard and being a mom and writing plays. I write from 4 to 6 a.m. Then I wake up my kids, make sure they eat breakfast and pack their lunches before school drop-off. My mornings are my busiest time. All this gets done before I arrive at Juilliard at 9. Then I drink a lot of coffee.
What other pursuits are you passionate about?
I love watching my son play soccer. I grew up hating sports but now I’m an urban soccer mom. We had family time last summer watching the World Cup.
What might people be surprised to know about you?
I’m an astrology junkie.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
I appreciate New York City’s cultural diversity. I grew up in an interracial home in a fairly homogenous city, Portland, Ore. My family now is a mix of cultures. I like the fact that we fit right into New York and no one stares at us on the street.
What book are you reading?
I mostly read plays, but I’m making my way through—and enjoying—David Rakoff’s memoir, Half Empty.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I live my life swinging from optimism to pessimism. Last year, I embraced positive thinking. Then, over the summer and through the fall, I contracted viral nerve damage, paralyzing my right arm. It was also extremely painful. Fortunately, it was temporary: four months. This condition came on the heels of positive thinking, so I decided to embrace pessimism. However, sometimes, I find my own dry wit and cynicism make me laugh.