Timberlake Wertenbaker has written extensively for the stage, radio and film. In January 2018, Ford’s Theatre presents the American premiere of her latest play, Jefferson’s Garden. Read her thoughts on writing about the complex beginnings of our nation and our relationship with freedom

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An Interview with Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker

In her new play Jefferson’s Garden, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker explores the contradictions between our founding fathers’ ideals and the realities of freedom in America. In the following interview, Wertenbaker explains her work and the compromises that were made to secure our freedom.

Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker.
The play is set during the American Revolution. What inspired you to write about this moment in American history?

Wertenbaker: I was interested in the notion of freedom. The American revolutionaries fought for freedom and spoke of hope, but there was a deep contradiction at the heart of their rhetoric. It seemed to me that this particular moment in American history is when the fault lines were laid, when the definition of freedom was corrupted. These are fault lines we suffer from today. 

Jefferson’s Garden premiered in 2015 in England. How do you think the play will resonate with audiences in America in 2018? 

Wertenbaker: I don’t know how the play will resonate with American audiences. But there’s a lot of soul searching going on at the moment. I think plays are there first of all to be enjoyed and then to open up some questions. I can only hope American audiences will come and enjoy themselves and possibly find something in the play that moves or challenges them. 

As the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre is closely intertwined with the story of freedom in America. What are you looking forward to about seeing your play on this stage? 

Wertenbaker: When I heard Ford’s would put the play on, I was thrilled. It seemed to me to be the perfect place because of all the historical resonances of the theatre. And it’s a beautiful theatre. I’m very excited to be working there. 

Felicia Curry will play Susannah in the Ford's production of "Jefferson's Garden." Photo by Christopher Mueller.
The work on the Ford’s Theatre stage often illuminates key moments in American history. You also seem drawn to historical subjects. As an artist, do you prefer them over depicting modern events and why? 

Wertenbaker: I’ve written both historical and contemporary plays. History is a rich metaphor and playwrights have used it time and again to look at their contemporaries. I think historical plays open up contemporary problems in a way a contemporary play sometimes can’t. 

The United States is very deeply embroiled in its history and in the consequences of that history. If plays are there to help us see ourselves, then historical plays are a good way of doing that. You could say a contemporary play is like a photograph and a historical play is more like a portrait. Both try to reveal something but in slightly different ways. 

Jefferson’s Garden is part of the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival in Washington, created to highlight the scope of plays being written by women. What else should be done to address the gender gap in theatre? 

Wertenbaker: I’m not quite sure where to start. Everything needs to be done. It’s my belief that there are as many women writing plays now as men, and this should be represented on the stages, big and small—preferably big. There’s a long history of making women invisible in the theatre as there is elsewhere. Call it erasement. And by definition, it’s hard to fight erasement.

"Jefferson’s Garden" will play at Ford’s Theatre from January 19 to February 8, 2018. Reserve your tickets at https://www.fords.org/performances/current-and-upcoming/jeffersons-garden.

 Liza Lorenz is Director of Communications and Digital Strategy for Ford’s Theatre. Follow her on Twitter @Liza_Lorenz.