Special Reports

Sharon Washington Turns Storyteller Into Subject in Feeding the Dragon

The actor-playwright opens the book on her life in her solo show.

Sharon Washington in Feeding the Dragon, a production of Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Sharon Washington in Feeding the Dragon, a production of Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© James Leynse)

I didn't set out to write a play. But I’ve wanted to tell the story of my unique childhood for many years. During the early 1970s my father was the custodian of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library. Back in those days many city buildings, including public schools and libraries, were heated by large coal furnaces that had to be tended 24/7. So an apartment for the library's custodian and their family was provided as part of the job.

Having lived in a library of course I’d always thought of my story as a book — specifically, a children’s book: "The Amazing Adventures of the Little Girl Who Lived in the Library," or something like that. There was the modern-day fairy tale of the Little Girl Who Lived in the Library, but there was also another story just under the surface. Most classic fairy tales have a dark side that coexists with the "happily ever after," and that part of my story was fighting to be told as well.

Several years ago, when the St. Agnes branch underwent a major renovation, I was asked to attend the reopening ceremony as a special guest. There was an article published about my family in the "About New York" section of the New York Times, and the next day my inbox was deluged with people wanting to write my story. I thought I'd better get it written before someone else did. But it kept coming out of me more as memoir than children's story. So I decided to follow that path — like Alice down the rabbit hole.

Sharon Washington and her father on the roof of the St. Agnes Library.
Sharon Washington and her father on the roof of the St. Agnes Library.
(photo provided by Sharon Washington)

As an actor, some of my favorite and most exciting moments have been being part of the birth of a new play, using my craft to help the playwright give voice to their words and find their story. A few friends suggested I try this on myself and read a few pages of my book aloud to see if that would help crack open the spine of the story. It did just that and much more. This play is the result of that journey of discovery. My hope is that each time I perform the piece I will learn — along with my audience — something new. Hearing a word differently. An intake of breath. A moment. A shift. A shared experience. That’s why I chose to make this a theatrical piece.

It has been both a great joy and an incredible challenge to write Feeding the Dragon. It is so personal, but the shared experiences in the work are, I hope, universal. One of my biggest challenges early on was figuring out what proverbial hat I was wearing when: Some days in rehearsal I could only be the playwright. Other days I would try to just be the actor and say the playwright's words as written. No changing or editing lines as they came out of my mouth. This is where having my wonderful director Maria Mileaf and dramaturg Clare Drobot in the room with me during the first production at City Theatre was invaluable. They were able to be that critical outside eye observing when my head couldn’t and shouldn’t be in both places.

While this may be my debut as a playwright, as an actor, I am, after all, a storyteller, and this time I'm telling my own story. In my own words.