The Playwright’s Playground: Playwright Johnna Adams Discusses Giving Herself Permission to Write and Reveals ‘Gidion’s Knot’ Challenges and the Gordian Knot Analogy

Johnna Adams.The playwriting voice of Johnna Adams is bold and unique and the genre and styles of her plays are an eclectic mix.  In 2013, Johnna received a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Citation for her play Gidion’s Knot, a play that The Contemporary American Theatre Festival premiered in Shepherdstown, WV in 2012. More than 16 regional productions are planned around the country for the 2014-15 season.  American Theatre Magazine published Gidion’s Knot in December 2012. She was a 2012 Finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award and the 2011 recipient of the Princess Grace Award. Johnna graduated from the DePaul University Theatre School with a BFA in Acting.  She’s studied with Tina Howe and received a 2012 MFA in Playwriting from Hunter College.

Johnna Adams has written 20 plays in 20 years. In addition to Gidion’s Knot recent plays include:  World Builders; Hripsim;, Lickdpittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens;The Angel Eaters Trilogy: Angel Eaters, Rattlers, 8 Little Antichrists; The Cockfighters Trilogy: Cockfighters, Tumblewings, Godsbreath.

The local premiere of Gidion’s Knot plays for one more week at the Forum Theatre until Aug 3rd. In a partnership with NextStop Theatre Company, the co-production will transfer to Next Stop Aug 28 – September 14, 2014 for a three-weekend run.


johnna adams
Johnna Adams

In Part One of The Playwright’s Playground: Johnna Adams talks about giving herself permission to write, and discusses the title, the concept and the challenges for Gidion’s Knot.

On Wednesday: The conversation continues and Johnna Adams takes DCMTA readers for a deeper look as she speaks about her writing process and her playwriting inspirations.

Sydney-Chanele:  In American Theatre Magazine you said, “You have to give yourself permission to write in a way that would horrify the people you love.” Unpack that statement for me and tell me where you acquired such wisdom – and freedom!

Johnna:  Giving yourself permission to write is one of the hardest parts of writing.

It is the amazing how freeing it is to have someone else give you permission to do or say something. Part of the allure of acting is that you have a script that allows you to feel and behave in ways you never would or could in real life. An actor can dress like a chicken and throw pies at people, sob in public over an epic unrequited love, be a cold-hearted murderer and villain—all depending on what the script allows them to do.  The director is also given permission by the script to do things—aerial ballets, fight scenes, love scenes, car chases. The script is written permission from the writer to take risks and dream big.

No one is there to give a writer permission. Fear of what the people are going to think of you can be very crippling.

My latest play, World Builders, had a reading in Virginia last month. In the audience talkback one of the audience members asked me if I had the same mental disorder as the characters in my play (they have schizoid personality disorders) – if so, when did that start and were my parents worried about me as a child. No trace of humor, just idle curiosity.

Imagine yourself at your job, having your annual performance review.  But instead of your review being done privately in your boss’s office, it happens in the break room, live, in front of an audience.  And one of the questions is “were your parents worried about you as a child?”  Insane, right?  Not for a playwright.

Playwriting is a very, very strange profession.  Gidion’s Knot got some scathing reviews in Chicago and Philadelphia – also some amazingly positive ones. But in the papers that didn’t like it, I suspect that any stories they wrote that day about local serial killers used less scathing language. Journalists just state facts reporting crime; critics get a lot more personal reviewing art. You can’t be timid or concerned with pleasing people. That kind of writing isn’t honest.

No play in the history of playwriting has pleased 100% of the people who read or saw it. Someone probably asked Shakespeare if he was having suicidal thoughts and needed to talk to someone at the first reading of Hamlet, then privately said to the person in the next seat “that was crap, huh?”

But, you still have to write. You can’t let anything stop you.

Why do you write, and more specifically why do you write plays?

I’m not sure. I like reading a lot. And I have always had a sense that I should give back to the universe for all the reading I have enjoyed. That probably explains the urgency to write.

But I am not sure why plays are the medium I am able to write in. I would prefer to write novels, I think. Or make money and write screenplays!  But for some reason of all the writing projects I start, plays are the only ones I finish and believe in enough to show people and are successful.  (Which is magical and lovely.)

And sometimes it feels like the curse of a fairy tale witch at the same time.

Johnna, you are prolific. You have written a lot of plays in a short amount of time. When did you feel that you were a professional playwright? Was there a specific incident when you felt you were “on your way?”

I have written a little over 20 plays in 20 years. That isn’t really very prolific. I wish my average was closer to two or three a year. But my rhythm seems to be around one (sometimes two) a year. I can live with it.  At least it is pretty consistent. It never really feels like enough, though. There is always the feeling that I don’t really write enough.

I think getting an agent probably made me feel a little more like a professional—but I still don’t really feel like a professional. A professional writes for money—and playwrights rarely have an opportunity where they are writing for certain money. You write all your plays on spec—with no idea if they will be liked or earn anything—and then hope for luck in selling them. It is hard to feel like a professional under those circumstances.

I feel like an eternal amateur, but I don’t mind that.


I saw the thought-provoking World Premiere production of Gidion’s Knot when it debuted at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2012. How has your career changed since CATF?

CATF was a great experience. Ed Herendeen’s production was amazing. Definitely the festival launched the play into a great career. More than 16 productions in the 2014-15 season regionally. I think it was one of my best playwriting experiences ever. And my parents loved attending the festival—it is their favorite production I’ve had because of the festival atmosphere around it. I would love to be invited back someday. Hopefully I will write another play they like sometime.

How did you come up with the idea – the concept – for the play?  Why that title Gidion’s Knot and what specifically inspired you to write a play that references Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot, Gaelic poetry and the Roman dramatist Seneca?

I got the idea several years ago – 2007 or so—and thought I would write a play for three men based on the idea:  A father, a teacher and a school principal, with Gidion appearing in video diaries between scenes. I wrote several scenes, but it was all backstory. I never got to the central scene in that version of the play—where the father confronts the teacher in a parent teacher conference. Instead I just abandoned it.

Years later, when I needed to write a play for my MFA studying with Tina Howe, the idea came back to me. It became a play for two women instead of three men. And it became only the part that I always meant to write—the parent teacher conference.

Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot are a great analogy for society’s tendency to try and neatly label and solve social problems that have no solutions, neat or otherwise. So I included that for a central metaphor and title. Gaelic poetry and Seneca were things I learned about and thought about in grad school.

My motto is write what you are learning, not what you know. So, you can sometimes track my current interests in plays I am writing.

How do you describe the plot and the three main characters of Gidion’s Knot? What do you see as the themes of the play?

That’s a type of analysis that other people can do better than I can. I have no marketing talents. It is a story about two women that I agree completely with but who happen to have completely opposite ideas about the origins and consequences of a tragedy.Their discussion is laced with anger and blame, but very open and bravely honest. They are much braver than I would be in these circumstances, so I took care to write “up” to them and not “down” to them. They each have qualities I aspire to but fail to rise to the standard of.

They are also profoundly flawed and very human. The absent character, Gidion, is a mess of contradiction and pain. He is less real to me as a person. I have the few video diary monologues I wrote for him when it was a different play, and I have a couple of version of his story—other than that I don’t know anything about him.

What was your biggest challenge writing this script and how long did it take you to write it? (When did you know you were finished with the play?)

Writing Gidion’s story was the biggest challenge in the play. It was the hardest thing to give myself permission to do—remove all internal censors, erase all concern with consequence and write something that a character wants to kill themselves over writing, rather than owning up to having written. A big challenge. And I face a constant battle not to soften the language every time I hear it. It is the only thing I have written than I refuse to let myself edit. I don’t trust myself not to censor it down to something less offensive.

I knew I was done with the play when everything I changed started to make things worse. I wrote it very fast, over about three months.

What do you like most about Gidion’s Knot and what you’ve experienced with the many Gidion productions you’ve seen around the country?

I like the fact that Gidion’s Knot really allows a pair of actresses to play very intensely together. These are both roles that actresses like to play. And getting to see a lot of actresses get a couple of nice roles—when otherwise they might have been on the bench or playing small bit parts in other people’s stories—has been wonderful. I gave a season of interesting roles to some actresses—and that is the sort of thing I am thrilled by.

With this play you have two characters who are trying their best to do the right thing. What questions or thoughts would you like audiences to take away after seeing Gidion’s Knot?

I love it when the audience members switch sides a few times in the play and come out not entirely sure how they feel about the “issues” in the script.

There aren’t really any such things as “issues” – that’s just the way the media labels areas of general social concern, it is not a real thing.  It is just a term people made up to label things and people and have conversations about them.

Things aren’t that simple. I also like it when people who hate bad language in the theatre and hate the story find a way to forgive the play for offending them. We don’t forgive other people for much. And it makes me happy and optimistic when I feel like people are practicing tolerance during and after the show. That is one reason I don’t edit that story.  People need to learn to forgive people who offend them. They can practice on me and Gidion.

Gidion's Knot

Gidion’s Knot plays through August 3, 2014 at Forum Theatre performing at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Pay-what-you-want tickets are available an hour before every performance. Advance tickets may be purchased online.

Gidion’s Knot is a co-production with NextStop Theatre Company and will play August 28 through September 14, 2014, at NextStop’s Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or purchase them online.

Johnna Adams –  website.

Johnna Adams – CATF interview.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwright in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


  1. A fascinating play and a fascinating Q&A. Adams’s remarks on writing Gideon’s story especially interested me. It jumps out of the play in the most shocking and disturbing way, and I remember wondering as I listened to this nearly unhearable text…how in the world did she do that?

  2. Thank You John for your comments and thoughtful comments! Gidion’s Knot is a fascinating play and I am thankful for her wonderful, revealing interview.


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