I first met Tanya Shaffer in person at Angell school a few years ago. A few parents were chatting on the playground and we became friends. There was something vaguely familiar about her but neither of us realized that our paths had crossed long before that day.
While looking at her website a few months later, I saw that she had written a book titled Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa. I recognized it as one of the books I designed while working at Vintage Books in NYC twenty years earlier. It was a small world moment!
Tanya, who lives in Ann Arbor with her family, is truly a multi-faceted creative. She is not only an award winning playwright, but also an author, actor, blogger, podcaster, and teacher of writing workshops.
Originally from the midwest, she grew up in Kansas in an academic family and discovered early on her passion for writing and acting. She pursued those interests at Oberlin College where she was involved in theater and majored in creative writing.
After her graduation she moved to the San Francisco Bay area where she lived for close to three decades, working as a regional theater actor and touring with various solo performances and plays she wrote. Her musical,The Fourth Messenger, a collaboration with composer Vienna Teng, enjoyed sold-out runs in Berkeley, Taiwan, and the New York Musical Festival.
About her creative path, she says “writing for the stage was an ideal way to combine my passions for acting and writing . I also took time off to travel and volunteer, particularly in the developing world. This led to my publishing a number of travel pieces on Salon.com’s now-defunct Wanderlust section, and eventually led to my travel memoir, `Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa.’”
Four years ago, Tanya and her family moved to Ann Arbor, where she had ties to the area. Her children’s father grew up in Ypsilanti and studied at U of M, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student. Tanya also lived here in 1990-91 and helped her friend, Rick Sperling, start a theater company (Mosaic Detroit ) while they worked as artists in residence in the Detroit Public Schools.
When asked how living in Ann Arbor is different from living in the Bay area, she says “I spend a lot less time driving, which is great! […] There are always a million things going on in the Bay Area, but somehow knowing that meant I always felt I could see things any time, so I didn’t have to do it right now. There was also the hassle factor, between babysitting and traffic and parking. Here I got a subscription to UMS and started getting out to see music and dance as well as theater. The relative ease of getting to downtown Ann Arbor made it feel like less of a big deal to go out.”
For some, the Michigan winter, with its cold and snow, can be challenging to embrace. For Tanya, the dramatic changes of the seasons and of the natural world are things she loves about the midwest. “Since moving here, I have become very passionate about photography, and winter is my favorite season to photograph. I especially love taking closeups of ice and all the incredible shapes and patterns it makes.” She even has a gallery of her winter photographs on her website.
Since moving here, in addition to writing, Tanya also teaches workshops called, “Off-Leash Writing” in eight to ten week sessions. She has new as well as repeat students that join her class.
She described the teaching method she employs: “The Off-Leash Writing Workshop differs from a traditional workshop structure in that it is all creation and no critique. I give prompts and we write in quick bursts of 5-15 minutes, then share what we’ve written with the group. We write fast and furious, to outrun the inner critics and burn through to our authentic voices. It’s fun and liberating, and though it’s not therapy, it’s also therapeutic. Writing our way through the pandemic was an incredible gift for both my participants and myself. A lot of people told me it saved them, and I feel the same. It’s a profound experience to witness and be witnessed.”
She has also recently added a Memoir/Fiction/Personal Essay Workshop. In it there is some freewriting but it also includes discussion and feedback of people’s work for those who want a more structured, critique-based approach.
The pandemic has been an obstacle to many live events. In March of 2020, Tanya’s musical The Fourth Messenger, which was scheduled to be performed at The Ark, had to be canceled.
However, the pandemic has also been the catalyst for a number of creative projects such as Remote Theater, a company that Tanya became a part of early on. “It provided online theatrical experiences for folks while they were stuck at home. We continue to produce content, and most recently have been exploring bringing together several playwrights to write short plays centered around hot-button social and political issues. We presented a piece called “Insurrection” on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots, for which I wrote a short play called “Our Brightest Days Are Before Us.” Our next offering will be in May, and will center around Roe v. Wade. I’m one of ten playwrights creating short plays for that event, another of whom is former U of M theater professor Anita Gonzalez.”
Tanya also maintains an active blog where she writes about various topics such as creativity, parenting, Buddhism (which she studies and practices), travel, and more. Another one of her creative endeavors is her podcast Off-Leash Arts. When asked about what motivated her to start a podcast, she responds “When the lockdown started in March of 2020, I suddenly found that I had a couple more hours of free time in the day […]. I’d always had an alternate life dream of being Terry Gross, and I suddenly thought, “Why wait for another life?” I decided to do a podcast called Off-Leash Arts in which I would interview artists from a range of disciplines about their creative process.” In these podcast episodes she explores the work of each guest. “When I speak with them, I inevitably learn things that contribute to my own creative process, and sometimes things I can share with my classes.”
Tanya will be teaching another session of Off-Leash Writing Workshops starting the week of March 21, and a Memoir/Fiction/Personal Essay Workshop starting April 6. Ten week sessions start at $300 and all workshops are currently online, via Zoom (in person classes may start again at a later date).
For more information about Tanya, her work, and the classes offered, you can explore her website at tanyashaffer.com.