Episode 84 │ For Homesick Girls/When the Writing Is Enuf (LONDON)
Updated: Sep 15
"If I had the opportunity to do the experience again of studying abroad, even though I was extremely homesick by the end, I would absolutely do it over and over and over... It as 100% worth it." (Brittany, Episode 84)
We've got another writer in the house! And even better, she's from Louisville, Kentucky! This week's guest is Brittany J. Thurman, an author of children's literature who earned a drama degree in London before becoming a writer. When I found Brittany on Twitter recently and saw that she was from Louisville, I knew I had to reach out and invite her to be on Young, Gifted and Abroad. Obviously as a former high school theatre kid, I wanted to know what it was like for her studying theatre in London. But also, I was excited by the prospect of interviewing someone from Louisville again. Louisville is where my mom's side is from, and after previously featuring one of my aunts (Fay from episode 29) and two of my cousins (Kayla from episode 1, Patrick from episode 6), I was more than happy to welcome another Louisville native to this show.
Although Brittany is a Louisville native, as part of a military family she also spent some toddler years in Germany (which she has no memory of), and much of her grade school years in North Carolina. And North Carolina was where she stayed for college at first, completing her freshman year of undergrad at North Carolina Central University, an HBCU. While she doesn't disparage Central, she does admit that she didn't put a ton of thought into her college choice ("I basically just chose any place"), and she simply didn't feel challenged enough. Having been enrolled in various performing arts classes since preschool and studied theatre in high school, Brittany knew she wanted to pursue drama at the university level as well. Similarly, from a very young age she had also been drawn to the United Kingdom, developing an obsession that she could never explain and didn't feel the need to question. As a result, she had a plan of action, "If I'm going to study theatre then it needs to be in London. It couldn't really be any place else." After seeing a poster for a study abroad program in the UK and consulting a study abroad advisor about how she could specifically go to London, in September 2006 she flew across the pond to begin studying drama for a year at Kingston University London.
When weighing her options with the study abroad advisor, Brittany had chosen to go abroad for a year rather than a semester because a semester seemed way too short. Little did she know, a year wouldn't be long enough for her either. While she did take a drama class during her first semester at Kingston, her study abroad program was structured in such a way that the bulk of that first semester was dedicated to acclimating her and her fellow study abroad students to being in the UK. They were in classes together, and as a group they went on arranged trips to attractions and locales including Stonehenge, Bath, and Brighton. The second semester was when each student was on their own to concentrate on their chosen course of study at the university.
Much of her first year at Kingston had felt so much like playtime, and time sped by so rapidly that Brittany knew she wasn't done learning and exploring yet (both in the UK and in Europe more widely). She feared that studying abroad wouldn't have the lasting impact she'd desired and that she would miss out by leaving so soon, "I had not been in London enough to feel that I had done anything... my memories from that experience would have basically evaporated." And since she'd already been planning to transfer from NC Central to a different university anyway, she decided to try transferring to Kingston, becoming a fully-fledged, degree-seeking international student. Brittany had to apply from scratch as any student in the UK would, and there was a chance that she would not be accepted and would have to return to the United States once her year was up. Thankfully, however, her efforts were rewarded. Her demonstrated ability to already be an active student at Kingston likely worked in her favor and influenced her application in a decisively positive way.
Coming from the U.S. and a theatre background that focused on performance, Brittany was surprised to discover how much of the drama program at Kingston was devoted to theory. There was a historical emphasis placed on what she learned, with her first year classes centering on the work of notable playwrights and theatrical artists, as well as the development of theatre in the UK. Her second year involved classes on devising theatrical performances, improvisation, and experimentation within theatre, and during the second half of that year she had the opportunity to put on her own production. It was a semester-long project, and the play she chose to produce was For Colored Girls, the highly-acclaimed and long-cherished choreopoem about Black women that playwright Ntozake Shange debuted on Broadway in 1976 (full title: for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf). One of Brittany's Kingston professors introduced her to For Colored Girls, and she felt called to do this play in a way that was reminiscent of how she'd felt called to come to London in the first place, "I felt this strong desire that would not leave until I was there." Brittany not only produced the play but also starred in it along with two other actresses, with her playing the Lady in Yellow.
For Colored Girls proved to be an enlightening experience for Brittany and her castmates, made all the more special because her mother came to London to watch the play. Family has always been crucial to Brittany, and she relished every opportunity that her relatives (especially her mother and grandmother, her biggest supporters) were able to come spend time with her during her years in England. These occasions allowed her to show them the city through her eyes, as well as the work she was doing in her drama program, but most importantly these occasions were a salve for Brittany's homesickness.
This homesickness began setting in late in her second year at Kingston, as it weighed on her that she was an ocean away from her loved ones and unable to simply drop her studies and her part-time job to fly home whenever something major happened with her folks. Even though she grew to accept this as the reality of studying and living abroad for a long period of time, such acceptance didn't make things any easier. And as much as she loved London, it was very trying for her to be there alone. She needed her family's presence to help her recharge and collect herself. Altogether, Brittany spent around three and a half years in the UK. She completed her drama degree in May 2009, and enjoyed her remaining months there until she returned to the States just before her UK visa expired in November. Her graduation ceremony didn't take place until January 2010, and so she got to return to London with her mother and grandmother in tow, taking advantage of a chance to rediscover the city. In our conversation she told me that if it weren't for her desire to move on from the extreme homesickness she'd been experiencing, then she probably would still be living in London to this day. Even though she hasn't been back to the city since 2010, it still feels like her second home.
Throughout her schooling, Brittany knew she wanted a career in the arts but didn't know exactly which path to choose; she just knew she was passionate about theatre and tried to see where that passion would lead. And ultimately, theatre led her to writing. During her final year at Kingston, she took a playwriting course wherein she wrote a play that the professor couldn't stop raving to her about. Said professor encouraged her to keep writing, and that planted the idea in Brittany's mind that she should apply to graduate writing programs after returning to the U.S. After applying to both creative writing and dramatic writing programs, she found a home at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She earned her MFA in dramatic writing there and lived in Pittsburgh for nearly 10 years.
"I want kids to feel and to know that they're valid."
It's during these years that a common thread in Brittany's work became more apparent than ever before. The main characters of the play she'd written at Kingston were children, and her plays at Carnegie Mellon always focused on children as well. Furthermore, Brittany has always exercised a deep love and respect for kids, from babysitting her cousins when she was younger to working as a children's specialist at a library in Pittsburgh. Her work at the library often included storytimes, and she got so into the rhythm and structure of the picture books she read to children there that writing her own came naturally to her. Eventually Brittany pivoted away from drama and decided to focus her efforts on becoming a children's literature author. Keeping her own childhood in mind, with her writing she aims to honor both who she was as a child and "the kids that are out there who will eventually become the adults that we are today." She believes that kids are intelligent and aware even from infancy, and rather than dismissing or belittling them as many adults are wont to do, "I want kids to feel and to know that they're valid."
Currently, Brittany's looking forward to the publication of two upcoming titles in 2022. One of these is a picture book (Fly, about a little Black girl pursuing her double-dutch dreams), and the other is a middle grade book that she's co-written with Broadway actress Mandy Gonzalez (Fearless: Boulevard of Dreams, which is set in Harlem and revolves around theatre). Brittany is pleased that her theatre background has circled around again, and she hopes to have more opportunities to bring her interest in theatre, her passion for writing, and her love for children together in the creative projects that she does.
Since relocating to Louisville in 2019, alongside her career success Brittany has been enjoying the process of appreciating her hometown in new ways. Moving home just felt right, and after a lifetime of moving around it's been special for her to reconnect with who she was when she last lived there. She goes sightseeing and exploring in Louisville just like she did in London and any other city she's been to, and her mindset has changed from, "I would never move back here!" (as she vowed when she was younger) to, "Will I ever move away? I'm not sure." In addition to going to London again, Brittany has Montreal and Quebec City (which she visited with her grandmother a few years ago), Canada more generally, and Australia on her bucket list of future travel destinations. While she can't get to those countries just yet due to the current pandemic, recent trips to New York City and the Grand Canyon have made her eager to see more of the U.S. in the meantime. Brittany can be found on her website (brittanythurman.com), Twitter (@janeebrittany), and Instagram (@britjanee).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "For Homesick Girls/When the Writing Is Enuf (LONDON)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Brittany's career spotlight as a librarian (The Pittsburgh Promise)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.