Tanya Shaffer: Writer, Performer, Traveler
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Bio
         Sitting on buses and tro-tros, I find myself repeatedly telling strangers the story of my life… Some need seems to drive my narration, as if through the telling I'm constructing a self-image that I can anchor myself to and believe in. I want the events to be linear and the lessons cumulative, building on each other like Legos: this led me here, and I learned this, and then I was here, and I was lost, and I found this.
         Life, of course, was never so orderly. It was more like my hair after a ride in the back of a truck: an ungovernable tangle... Growth happened when I wasn't looking. It happened later, after I'd given up hope. And love wasn't like that: so transparent and unequivocal, a balance sheet of pros and cons. Life was life and love was love. All the explanations came later.
- Somebody's Heart is Burning
Bio-at-a-Glance
Tanya Shaffer is the author of the book Somebody's Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa, the plays Baby Taj and Brigadista, and the solo performances Let My Enemy Live Long! and Miss America's Daughters, as well as the one-act play "The People in the Park." She also co-authored the children's show "On the Other Side" (with Alisa Peres) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe musical "Social Work." Her stories and essays have appeared on Salon.com and in numerous anthologies. As an actress, she has worked with the California Shakespeare Festival, the Old Globe Theatre, TheatreWorks, and many others. She is currently writing the script and lyrics for the musical The Fourth Messenger, with composer Vienna Teng. Tanya lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, social entrepreneur David Green, and their two beautiful, boisterous boys. She hopes, one day, to have a dog.
More About Me
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T. S. Elliot, “Little Gidding”
The wonderful thing about working in the arts is that you get to bring your whole self to the table, all the time. (The difficult thing is that you have to!) In writing my plays and solo performances, I feel incredibly blessed to be able to combine my passions for theatre, writing, travel, social justice, and, more recently, motherhood.

As a traveler, my goal is to enter into the cultures I visit as deeply as possible. I'm fascinated by the ways in which our backgrounds define who we are as individuals, as well as the ways in which we transcend such definition. I revel in exploring both difference and commonality across national and cultural lines, and the comedy and drama that arise when cultures rub up against each other. At its best, I believe such exploration affords us the opportunity to see ourselves through fresh eyes, widening our perspectives and deepening our understanding of our own role in the global narrative. My love of both acting and writing go way back. I acted in my first musical ("Oklahoma!") at the age of eight, the same year I started writing my first, unfinished, novel. At nine I wrote in my diary, "I want to be an actor and a writer on the side." Although that balance has shifted many times over the years - I'm currently on an indefinite hiatus from acting while I write and play mama to my two amazing boys - these twin passions have stayed with me ever since.

I began creating my first solo show, Miss America's Daughters, while a senior at Oberlin College. The piece dealt with what were, for me, the most burning issues at that point in my life: the portrayal of women in popular culture and the formation of young women's identity in the face of those messages. After moving to the Bay Area in the summer of 1988, I premiered the piece at UC Berkeley, La Peña Cultural Center, and San Francisco's sadly departed Julian Theatre. I then toured it around the country for the next couple of years, mostly by Greyhound bus, accompanied by the gloriously versatile multi-instrumentalist Ed Roseman.

In 1990 I traveled to Nicaragua as a volunteer coffee-picker, construction worker, and electoral observer. This gave rise to my first full-length, multi-actor play, Brigadista, a satirical look at the attitudes of American volunteers in Nicaragua during the 1990 elections. Brigadista had its first full production in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived for a year with two friends from college, Rick Sperling and Do Peterson, creating theatre and working as artists-in-residence in the Detroit Public Schools. (Our company, Mosaic Theatre Project, later evolved into the spectacularly successful Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, still helmed by Rick Sperling.) I later produced a four-week run of Brigadista at San Francisco's Capp Street Center with my own company, Larger than Life Productions. That production went on to a twenty-one-city tour which, although commercially and artistically successful, was such an emotional drain that it burned me out on producing for nearly a decade.

I skipped the country and spent the better part of a year in West Africa, volunteering and traveling. That year-one of the most transcendent periods of my so-far life-sparked two major projects: my solo show Let My Enemy Live Long!, based on my journey up the Niger River to Timbuktu, and my book, Somebody's Heart is Burning. The inspiration for both of these came from the extraordinary individuals I met in Africa and the friendships we formed. I chose the book's title-a line from a song I learned in Ghana-because it captured something about each of the people I profiled in the narrative, including, ultimately, myself. Each of us was burning for something, whether it was connection, escape, salvation, or a chance at a better life.

I began work on the stories which would eventually form Somebody's Heart is Burning almost immediately upon returning from Africa. Drawing on more than 500 single-spaced pages of transcribed journals, I developed the first pieces in writing workshops taught by Jonathan Lethem, a writer whose wisdom, discipline, and uncompromising commitment to his own vision never cease to inspire me. A year or so later the first of my Africa pieces appeared in Salon.com's now defunct Wanderlust section. The continued demand for my stories on Salon.com kept the thread of my African experience alive for me over the next couple of years, when I was largely focused on building my career as an actor in regional theatres.

Let My Enemy Live Long!, which I developed in collaboration with director Amy Mueller, had its first production in 1999, almost five years after my return from Africa. Thanks in part to an enthusiastic column by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, the show developed a huge following, and played to sold-out houses for over six months in the Bay Area, moving from a tiny South of Market venue to the newly reopened Eureka Theatre to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and garnering a Bay Area Critics Award for solo performance, before moving on to productions in Seattle, San Diego, Santa Cruz, and elsewhere.

In 2003, a full nine years since I began work on it, I finally finished the book. With the help of my wonderful agent, Richard Parks, it found a home at Vintage, home to many of my favorite travel books. After the highs and lows of a nine-year writing process, including countless times when I was sure I would never finish it, this was a dream come true. The book got lots of good press, including a mention by the SF Chronicle as one of the Best Books of the Year, positive write-ups in USA Today and the L.A. Times, and my personal favorite, a feature in Vogue. (!). My older son was born the same year: my most productive year yet.

A three-month jaunt through India and Nepal in 2001, coupled with my status as a single woman in her mid-30's who longed to have a child, provided the inspiration for my next major project, the romantic comedy Baby Taj. (Baby Taj is a fictional conversation with the issues I was grappling with at that time. For a non-fiction account, check out my story Of Sweethearts and Sperm Banks, published in the 2006 anthology The May Queen.) Baby Taj premiered at TheatreWorks in 2005 in a spectacular production directed by Matt August, and was selected by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Oakland Tribune as one of the Top Ten Shows of the Year. It is now available in print from Samuel French, Inc.

Which brings us to the present moment. Now a mama of two, I'm now bringing to fruition a project I dreamed up almost fourteen years ago while attending anine-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. In writing The Fourth Messenger, a musical I developed in collaboration with the magnificent singer/songwriter Vienna Teng, I brought to the table yet another of my most deeply held preoccupations. Although our project in no way resembles an epic Buddhist biopic-the setting is contemporary America and the title character is female-the teachings and biography of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, are the jumping off point for our tale. We've spent the last five years developing the script, and our now fund-raising to produce the world premiere production in the San Francisco Bay Area in early 2013. Contribute to our fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, or Sign up for my email list to be kept up-to-date on this and other exciting projects.
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