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Acclaimed playwright spills secret to becoming an artist: Working at it

Award-winning playwright Lydia Diamond (C92) returned to campus this month as the 2012 Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Visiting Artist. Before attending the Theatre and Interpretation Center’s production of her theatrical adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Diamond met with students in the Wallis Theatre, an experience she described as “very surreal and very special.” Moderating the discussion were Rives Collins, assistant professor of theatre, who directed the Northwestern production, and Zayd Dohrn, assistant professor of radio, television, and film.

The Bluest Eye is one of more than seven acclaimed plays written by Diamond, among them Voyeurs de Venus, The Gift Horse, and Stick Fly, which recently opened on Broadway and is being produced by Grammy winner Alicia Keyes. Despite her flourishing success, Diamond told students she remembered during her early days at Northwestern, “thinking everyone in acting class had a secret and knew how to act, and I didn’t. I didn’t understand that you could learn to be an artist. I just thought you had to be good at it.”

Her a-ha moment came, she said, when she saw her classmate Jenny Bacon (C91), “the Michael Jordan of the theatre department,” walking to class in deep concentration, rehearsing lines. “I suddenly realized, oh, she works at it,” Diamond said.

While Diamond came to Northwestern intending to be an actress, she left a playwright. “Your artistry is proportional to how hard you’re willing to work for it,” she told the students.

Diamond also noted some benefits to taking up writing and, as the playwright, taking part in the staging of the work.

Diamond ranked a strong work ethic and “being nice to people” the two most important practices the students could cultivate. And while she acknowledged that her work has created complex new roles for African-American actors, she does not feel the current theatre adequately represents the country’s diversity.

“Our stages in America need to reflect our bus stops,” she said.

The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Visiting Artist program was established through a generous gift by Wirtz’s grandson and his wife, W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz (C75) and Marilyn Wirtz. Rocky Wirtz, who studied communications at Northwestern, is president of the Wirtz Corporation and Chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is a member of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees and has served on the School of Communication’s National Advisory Board since 1986.