When Eugene writer Rachael Carnes decided to take a local playwriting class three years ago, she had no idea she might one day win a spot at the most renowned short play festival in the country.
I caught up with the 48-year-old budding playwright, mother and master multi-tasker to discuss her recent success as an artist, which ranges from a coveted residency at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee to the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival in New York.
Smiling and a little worn from the hustle, carrying a paper bag full of vegan treats, Carnes delights in her third act.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky in the short term I’ve been writing to be invited to some really esteemed events,” she says. “I’m tickled pink!”
Don’t let the Ned Flanders-like gratitude fool you. Though genuine in her humility, Carnes is an ineffable force. A former dancer and a seasoned writer for Eugene Weekly, she is also founder of Sparkplug Dance, a nonprofit educational dance initiative, and works as a cultural services liaison for Eugene, supporting events, youth mentorship, public art and volunteer coordination in the city.
Carnes wears a lot of brightly colored hats — all of which have primed her for playwriting.
“It’s surprising to me that my lifetime of moving and learning, being influenced by culture, would all percolate into being really rich fodder for my own creative work,” she says. “Nothing’s wasted.”
Penning plays has always been a goal for Carnes. After enrolling in a playwriting class with Paul Calandrino at Oregon Contemporary Theatre in 2016, she began the practice of writing scripts every day, often in the early hours before her family gets up.
“I wish I had more time to write,” she laments, “but I don’t see myself in a mountain cabin with cheese toast and a cat. I need a little grit — that juggling act of being an emerging artist, working and being a mom.”
Carnes sought out whatever resources she could, including New Play Exchange, an interactive digital library of scripts, and the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, which offers workshops and seminars for playwrights to connect with each other and professionals in the field. Playwrights can give and receive feedback while getting their work out into the world.
Recently, thanks to the digital realm of playwriting, Carnes was contacted by the Iowa State Theatre Department for the rights to her play Crabs(dot)com, a revenge comedy about a scorned lover who releases pubic lice at the Gap.
“It’s always nice when your play about pubic lice gets to see the light of day,” she laughs.
Carnes has an ease to her, the manifestation of Mom cool with glasses. She has a way of balancing humor with the heavier stuff of life, perhaps a strategy for the incessant demands that seem to weigh only on us mortal folk. Even the writing process itself comes infuriatingly natural to her.
“When I’m writing a play, I’m not thinking, I’m just writing,” she says.
While writer’s block may not be an issue for her, submitting work is a daily grind for Carnes, and despite the par-for-the-course rejections, her plays have been work-shopped, published and produced all over the world, from New York to London — even in South Korea.
Carnes’ repertoire ranges from deeply absurdist comedies like Inertia, a play about a scorned, decoupaging sock monkey, to the more personal and pained, like Practice House, a play inspired by Carnes’ own grandmothers and the home economics educational programs of the 1930s. Carnes recalls a time in which both of her grandmothers spoke of their own experiences, cautioning and encouraging her to take advantage of opportunities.
“That stuck with me,” she adds. “That idea of limitation of education possibility, especially having a daughter.”
Practice House is also the play that earned Carnes a spot at the highly competitive Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2019, a two-week residency program, and ultimately ended up as a New Dramatist Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist. It was recently given a table read in New York with Roly Poly Productions.
In 2017, Carnes responded to a submission opportunity for plays focusing on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sarah “Sally” Hemings. Struck by the word “relationship” and recalling the unsettling family trips to Mount Vernon of her own childhood, Carnes wrote her most stunning and poetic play yet, Partner Of—, the piece that has earned her a spot among the nation’s top new playwrights at the 44th annual Samuel French Festival.
The initial script took only a few hours to write, but the journey to Sam French has been hard fought. Carnes spent countless hours reviewing Jefferson’s detailed ledgers: an inventory of the lives of more than 600 slaves at his Monticello plantation. She consulted with historical experts including Niya Bates, public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello, who was more than willing to set the record straight.
“It was really striking to me, as I was researching, how the mythology of the founding fathers had eclipsed so much of what their real impact was, and I think it’s still felt today,” she says.
Hamilton diehards and dusty history professors need not apply.
Carnes’ play aims to expose the true nature of the supposed relationship that culminated in Jefferson’s raping a young girl and fathering at least six of her children. All are said to have been born in a barn, a common practice on Mulberry Row, where many slaves lived on Jefferson’s plantation.
Partner Of— centers on Sally Hemings, her mother and her grandmother as they prepare for life confined to a tiny, windowless room as Jefferson’s “partners.” Though the play is only 10 minutes long, Carnes’ lyrical anguish spills onto the page, etchings of a tragic life hidden behind a popular American narrative. Beautiful and cringeworthy, Carnes’ writing is veracious.
Not limited to any particular genre or style, Carnes’ work has come to life in a variety of spaces. The Plague, a not-so-futuristic play where women’s rights are called into question, was picked up by LadyFEST, a showcase of female-identifying playwrights hosted by The Tank in New York City. In Training is a hilarious workplace comedy that premiered at Nylon Fusion Theatre in NYC and was recently part of this years’ DarkFEST. That’s an entire festival set in the dark, which doubles as an environmental initiative dedicated to utilizing alternative energy sources.
Carnes has earned plenty of gold stars in her short career as a playwright, though she says the accolades fall short in comparison to the community of artists she surrounds herself with. Space-time limitations mean Carnes very rarely gets to see the final product, but the process itself requires constant contact with her peers.
Thanks to the miraculous modernization in communications, Carnes is frequently traversing time zones for workshops and table reads, all from the comfort of her Eugene home.
“All I do is poetry with character names, entrances and exits — and jokes,” says a breezy Carnes. “What’s really enriching is to a have a whole world of relationships. The very best part for me is not the production; I often don’t see them. The best aspect for me is to know that at the other end of that email, phone, country or even right here in town, there is someone who is connecting and building a relationship with me.”
Carnes is involved in a handful of local projects as well, including Operation Shadow Box, an organization for local artists to support and collaborate with one another.
“OSB is just a nice group to be a part of as a local artist,” she says. “It’s great to have a community right here in town.”
Carnes has also teamed up with Carol Dennis and the Minority Voices of Very Little Theatre for At Winter’s Edge, a multicultural holiday show inspired by the stories of diverse local families. You can also catch her with her friend and teacher Calandrino at OCT in December for Bun Fight, a collaborative evening of short plays by Carnes and Caladrino, directed by Inga Wilson and Elizabeth Helman.
Moreover, Carnes frequently pairs up with OCT, including a few stage readings of plays in response to gun violence from a national organization she founded in the wake of the events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School called Code Red Playwrights.
Dizzy yet? Cataloguing the many irons Carnes has in the fire is a disorienting endeavor. Even she has trouble keeping track.
“I forget about the things I do,” she says laughing at herself. “But having too many projects going is a good problem to have.”
Carnes’s family life models her professional world — there’s just no time for compartmentalization when you’re living your best life. Her husband, Ben Brinkley, is an accomplished cellist and poet, though she may or may not have jokingly dubbed him the deadbeat of the family.
She has co-written a play with her 13-year-old son, Hugh Brinkley, called Underfur, an endearing story about a raccoon with relationship problems. The play was produced in the UK and NYC.
“I just kind of gave it structure,” she says. “Hugh wrote most of the jokes.”
And Jane Brinkley, Carnes’ 17-year-old daughter, won a spot at the 2019 Blank Theatre’s Young Playwrights’ Festival in Los Angeles for her play Locus. Carnes, smiling, relishes her children’s adventures.
“I wouldn’t be a playwright without my kids,” she says. “I want to model for them that you can do anything, whether you have the background or not.”
Carnes is a motivational fix, a remedy for flavorless practical thinking. She is content in the moment, seemingly immune to the perfectionist’s dilemma. Sure, she wants to refine her craft, making each blueprint cleaner than the one before, and the map isn’t always clear.
Fiscal sponsorship is only recently a helping hand for Carnes. Full-length plays can be harder to sustain, and musicals are still filed under “yet to come.”
She admits the terror of the revision process, but for her, fear is nothing more than a shortsighted annoyance. She’s simply happy to be in the show.
“I have a lot to learn, but I don’t feel like the clock is ticking. It is what it is,” Carnes says. “I feel like I’ve already been so fortunate, I don’t feel pressure to achieve anything in particular. Sharing and encouraging, that’s what it’s all about.”
Check out what Carnes is up to next at rachaelcarnes.com.