Artist Interview: Lindsey Ferrentino
Tim Sanford: I love to learn the origin stories of how playwrights become playwrights. People from all different backgrounds find theater. They don’t have to grow up with it. How did it happen for you? Why do you think you’re a playwright?
Lindsey Ferrentino: Well, my dad’s a comic; he’s a stand-up comic magician. And my uncle’s a comic; all of my dad’s friends are comics, so I feel like I grew up in the back row of comedy clubs and theaters where he was performing. And watching the same act over and over again but with different audiences. I became really interested in audience dynamics, how an audience reacts as one, and how you can tell early on if it’s going to be a good show or not, why that is. And how incredible my dad’s act really was — that it always worked, despite the crowd, that there was a rhythm, and a real universality to it.
And this was your dad’s living?
Yeah! Since I’ve been alive, it’s the only thing he’s done for work.
Did he travel a lot?
Yeah. He did. He was the opening act for Crosby Stills Nash and Young for like 10 years.
Get out of here!
He was! And he did a lot of TV in the early ’90s; he was on the show, “Comic Strip Live,” a lot. And then he semi-retired from that life of flying to LA all the time and touring and started doing a lot of cruise ships, so I also grew up on cruise ships. We would go for the whole summer with him. I never really talk about it, but I saw a lot of cruise ship shows growing up – these Vegas-style, cheesy dance shows on the nights he wasn’t performing and I really loved them. I’d try to learn the routines, perform them in our cabin. It’s a secret side of me.
You grew up in Florida, right?
First in New York, then in Florida, right.
When did you move to Florida?
We moved when I was in fifth grade.
Was that hard?
Oh, it was awful. The only thing I wanted to do, once we got to Florida, was move back to New York.
When I graduated from sixth grade, my family moved, and it was only within California — and it was devastating.
That’s a terrible age to move. Yeah! There was some culture shock for me, in Florida, too. Because it’s so different from New York. It was this small town in Florida where there were very few minority students, and — like I had a teacher trying to teach our class what Passover was. And I’m half Jewish, although I wasn’t raised religious, and I raised my hand, because I was the only student that had ever even heard of it. And someone pointed at me and shouted, “You’re a Jew-People!”
A Jew-People. And the KKK came to our school because we were reading a book about the civil war told from a slave’s perspective. So the KKK came up to protest.
So then a letter was sent home to the students saying that if you wanted — this was the bargain that the school struck with the KKK — that if you wanted to allow your child to read the book, then you had to sign the permission slip, and if not, you were allowed to “peacefully” leave the classroom when we read it. And my parents brought us up very liberal, so we were very confused about where we ended up.
And the objection to the book was... that you were acknowledging that a slave is a person or something?
I think so, yeah. That it was “biased.” Like a “biased telling of the Civil War.”
I don’t know if I can go on.
That’s sort of how I felt at the time. I was at the age of Julie in the play and didn’t know how to process what that meant. We were joking at recess, “Oh, I hope the KKK doesn’t get us!”
Was your school not integrated?
No, it was, but not nearly as much as the New York public school system.
Did you have any exposure to theater growing up in Florida?
I think my first exposure, not counting the comedy clubs, was really on the cruise ships my dad worked on.
What was your mom’s gig?
She was a comedy club manager when my parents met, and she manages hotels now. And for a time, between those two gigs, she was a stay-at-home-mom who took us to cultural things so we weren’t just seeing cruise ship dance shows all the time. [Laughter] She took me to my first Broadway play. And then I started to do theater. I acted first, but I was also always writing at the same time, too, I wrote poems and short stories.
You didn’t have a standup routine?
No, never. But I always wrote plays for my friends and cousins, even before I knew you could be a playwright.
I used to perform Bill Cosby routines at lunchtimes for my friends—
That’s amazing — my dad did that with Steve Martin!
He’s a troubled man, but a great comic.
Totally, totally... Yeah... I wrote little plays for my cousins, I was always putting on shows in my living room, and making my cousins perform them.
See, that’s something I hear all the time in these interviews. How old were you when you did this?
I was like a preschooler when it began.
I never did that growing up. Helena, did you do that?
Helena Pennington [Literay Fellow]: No, I didn’t.
I think it’s a playwright thing!
Yeah... My mom always tells this story about when she went to pick me up from preschool, and the teacher was very excited and told my mom that I had made all of the students pick up their chairs and carry them to face a blank wall and told them to pretend we were at the movies, and the teacher found this very creative— [Laughter]
One of the other students was Annie Baker, and it inspired her to write The Flick.
Yeah, exactly! And then there was an English teacher — there was a playwriting contest that I didn’t enter, and my English teacher sort of yelled at me and forced me to enter it. She said, “Write it — the play — tonight, and turn it in tomorrow.” And I thought I was very sneaky and wrote this play about a playwright who couldn’t think of anything to write. It was just a little one-act, and it won the high school competition, and it won the county, and the state, and then it was produced at the Kennedy Center through a high school playwriting competition right after I graduated high school, and it was only then that I realized that that was what I wanted to do. After seeing something I had written performed by somebody who was not my cousin, in my living room.
It’s pretty seductive.
Yeah... At that point I had auditioned and been accepted to NYU as an actor, and instantly regretted that decision. I tried to get out of it, but couldn’t, so I took as many playwriting classes as I could but stayed on as an actor, which ended up being great because I was the one writer among actors instead of being one writer among writers, so I had actors and rehearsal space at my disposal and then wrote as many plays as I could, while I was at school. I took all of my elective classes in writing, and then I took a semester abroad in London, and that was the first time in my life that I only studied playwriting. I had an incredible playwriting teacher named Roy Kendall. I had only done conservatory training as an actor, I had never done that kind of training as a writer: it was three or four days a week, nine to five, just talking about writing, reading what we had written, being given more writing exercises, this sort of exhaustive, very rigorous writing training. I feel like I learned so much from him, and from being in England, and seeing plays. Even though I was living in New York and seeing theater, there was something about being in a different city and thinking about where I came from with some sort of critical distance, and writing about it every day — I felt like I could do this. Like I want to do this.
So... Now... Another interesting trivia tidbit, you have two MFAs?
What’s up with that?
[Laughs] I went to Hunter for two years and studied with Tina Howe and Mark Bly, and then I came out of Hunter — well I was about to come out of Hunter, and then would have to go back to having a day job and paying off my student loans, and—
And if you went back to school, you wouldn’t start having to pay it.
Exactly. So I applied to programs that are fellowship programs, and got into Yale and that allowed me to focus on building a body of work for three more years. I wrote This Flat Earth while I was at Yale, and I also wrote Amy and the Orphans. I feel like there was a great momentum that I had started while at Hunter, both in my career and in terms of what I was writing about, and I wanted more training to focus on that. And I just really loved Jeannie O’Hare [who ran Yale’s playwriting department at the time] who had interviewed me, and Sarah Ruhl, and felt like I really wanted to be around these women and learn from them.
Does Jeannie still have a relationship with Yale, or is she just at The Public now?
She’s just at The Public now, yeah. But I was there — she was only at Yale very briefly, but I got to have her for all three years, which I feel like changed my writing completely.
What do you identify as your first play?
My first play that was produced is called Exile. It had a production while I was in my last year of NYU at Manhattan Repertory Theater, which is about half the size of this office but across the street from here, like on the 10th floor of an office building. They just provide you with the space, and you have to provide the production. But it allowed me to have this big, insane play that I had written when I was at NYU, to see it realized. And an acting teacher I had from NYU directed it with professional actors, which was so exciting. It doesn’t match at all with what I’m writing now, but was still a play that I really cared about at the time.
What made it insane?
It takes place in front of a wall, and it’s Albert Einstein, Trotsky, Napoleon Bonaparte, a nun, Brecht—
Oh, one of those plays—
They all meet in front of a wall, and try to get over it.
And this was before you decided to write plays about women’s experiences.
This was before I stopped trying to impersonate Beckett. I had seen this incredible production of Waiting for Godot at NYU; it was a touring production from Ireland, and then I wrote this play. I did that for a while: I would see a play that really moved me, and then I would write my version of that play, while I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to write about. But Exile had a few small productions — like there was a small production in Florida—
How on earth did those happen? Did you have an agent?
I sent them out!
You sent them out?!
I sent them to people! You probably have an old email from me saying, “Please read this. I’m important, I just graduated NYU!” I really did that — sort of embarrassingly, looking back, but I was a big self-promoter. I really hustled!
What was your next one? Something you wrote at Hunter?
No, no. More NYU plays to go through. There was one more, called Queens of Corona, about women living in Queens, near the World’s Fair.
Very different from Exile.
Very different from Exile! But still not really me either. Kind of closer, but I’m not from Queens. But there were parts of my family in an abstracted way. Then the next play I wrote was called Magic Man, which is set in the South Side of Chicago. It’s from the perspective of a kid whose family are drug dealers, set in a drug war... And that’s the play that I got into all of the grad schools with. But that wasn’t really my voice either.
You mentioned somewhere that you like political plays? Maybe the Chicago play had sociological implications?
Where was the side of you influenced by your dad’s stand-up?
Well, Magic Man is my dad’s act, told through the perspective of the imaginary friend of this little kid who is a magician.
So I’m curious — you’ve said a couple times now, “That wasn’t really my voice.” When did you discover your voice?
I feel like Ugly Lies the Bone was the first successful partnering of everything that I was trying to do, but there were two plays that I wrote before that I can very clearly now see as steps to it — one was called Paradise Bar and Grill, and that was my first play that sort of made the rounds — a bunch of not-for-profit major theaters did readings of it. It took place during a hurricane in Florida: four redneck friends in a bar that was falling into this sinkhole. That was definitely closer to my voice in that there were people I knew growing up, who would just say what was on their mind. And it had a stronger sense of humor in it than I think I’d allowed myself to have in the past. Then I wrote this play called Moonlight on the Bayou which was set in post-Katrina New Orleans, sort of half in dreams and half in reality. It was marrying my impulse to write about post-trauma and lower class southern people, and the play was also more theatrical and magical. I like breaking realism, and I feel like that play was the first time that I more successfully crossed the two. I still like Moonlight, and I think I would be up for doing a rewrite and considering that one of my plays.
What did you mean when you said you let the play have more humor than you had let yourself do before? I mean, your dad is a stand-up comic and you’re pretty funny as a person.
I think I knew I wanted to write dramas. But I didn’t know how to write plays about serious issues without being just serious. And my natural voice is not just serious. But I thought that I couldn’t write humorous things if I was writing a serious play. Which is silly, now, obviously, for me. I know now that you can do that. [Laughs]
It’s hard, though!
It is hard. And I think with all of my plays, it’s always a discussion with the marketing team, because if you ever just said what these plays were about, no one would want to see them. How do you prep the audience to think that they’re not just going to be seeing a serious play about a school shooting, about a burn victim, about a veteran? Because tonally, they’re not as serious as you might imagine them to be, based on the subject matter alone.
You’ve talked about how Ugly Lies the Bone is set in a Florida community much like where you grew up that changed when the Space Program ended. Did that happen when you were growing up there?
No, I was in college, but I would go home to Florida a lot in the summer. And every time I came home, I saw the town changing, and the industry changing, and the town sort of emptying out because people were struggling to find work. And the tourism that came because of the space program dried up. And the property values fell because no one knew if the town would continue.
So you really embraced the idea of writing about where you’re from.
That was something that Tina Howe had recognized in me instantly while I was studying at Hunter, and really encouraged me to write. I think of myself as someone who’s very interested in high brow and low brow things at the same time, and I think Tina was like, “Of course, you read W. H. Auden and your dad’s a comedian and you grew up on cruise ships and you can contain all of that in one play.” And she was so excited about that, and I think that that was the first time I felt like, “Oh, that is what I’m interested in! I like really dumb humor, and poetry, at the same time!” Yeah. She really was the one who saw and got that. And she felt like Florida was the place of Disney and rocket launches and poverty and big dreams. I’ve come to think of it as the perfect microcosm of America, and what I’m interested in.
Quickly explain why you just said W. H. Auden.
My grandfather’s first cousin was his life-long partner, and they considered themselves married even though they weren’t legally married, and they wrote opera librettos together. When I was in high school, I found a box of Auden’s letters to my grandfather’s cousin in our garage, and I became obsessed with uncovering their relationship. I contacted — when I was still in high school — anyone who knew them. I just wrote them a letter, and that included a lot of beat poets, and that included Edward Albee, that’s how I got to meet Edward Albee.
Didn’t you say that Albee had approached Auden as well?
Yes, in the same way. And I was absolutely obsessed with Auden. I read everything about him and by him. I thought I was writing a movie about it, but then I just overloaded myself with information and I’ve never been able to do anything with it.
So what was next? Amy and the Orphans?
No, next I wrote This Flat Earth.
But I read Amy and the Orphans before I read this play.
Because I wasn’t sending This Flat Earth out — I’d given up on that play.
We did a little second year production at Yale, it was very bare bones: I think we had costumes, the set was very bare bones, basically one step up from cubes. And we did a production of that which I didn’t feel was successful, and then I just got kind of freaked out by that. I think that was the first time that I hadn’t felt like I had my hands around a play that I was writing. And then I just didn’t touch the play again.
I know from working on it with you that it’s a tricky play to cast. It’s really important that Julie doesn’t feel cute, that we believe in her.
You know, it was really hard — and I think the actors at Yale are amazing — but I think that it was really hard to hear this play with actors that were in their 20s for the entire cast, to not have a woman in her 80s, to not have kids, and I feel like that was part of it. And I was sort of overwriting to compensate and over-explain the age gaps. And then I think I really just lost my confidence in it, and also, when it was produced at Yale there was an extra character in the play that I added based on production stipulations.
Who was the extra character?
Dan was not a single dad, he was a married man with a wife, who was pointless in the play, because I had written it and then added her so I could use this play for this particular production. And then cut her out after. Yeah. [Laughs]
Pirandello would have something to say about that.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughter] But yeah, I just put the play away.
Why’d you pick it back up?
I did a workshop of it at the Kennedy Center. I had submitted it for something, and — full circle — went back to the Kennedy Center for the first time since I had seen my play there in high school, and got to work on it with the dramaturg Mark Bly, who I hadn’t had the chance to work on anything with since my time at Hunter. And I think he really just loved the play. He saw something in it. And that’s where I cut that extra character. And I wrote a lot more of Julie’s character, there. The play wasn’t as centered around Julie as it should have been. And then I met with Adam [Greenfield], and he had read Ugly, and he had read Amy, and said that he wanted to read something else, “even if you don’t feel like it’s polished.” And I kind of debated whether or not I should send it to him. But I sent it, and the next thing I heard was Adam saying, “I love this play. Before I show it to Tim, could you write another draft and just make it a little longer.” And I had never had anybody say that to me, even in five years of grad school training; no one had ever said, “Make it longer, you know what you’re doing, you can say more.” So I did that, pretty quickly, and then sent it back to him. And the next thing I knew — I didn’t even know he had sent it to you yet — was us meeting for really the first time and you offering to do it. It was insane.
I think, in terms of reconciling all of those impulses we talked about, the comic magician’s daughter grown up, and the social scientist in you, the family connection to W. H. Auden, and the arty Beckett-fanatic.... You know, Ugly Lies the Bone has this spectacular arty ending, but that gesture is very focused as a payoff to the play. And that speech at the end of Amy and the Orphans is similar in a way; it has a force and poeticism that opens the play out. But This Flat Earth introduces nonrealistic elements earlier, like the music of the cellist and the kind of prologue of Julie and Dan listening to the rain. I feel like you’re integrating that part of your voice earlier in the play, and maybe that was hard to have confidence in, because it was sort of a change in the dramaturgy of your work. Even though you could see that the elements existed, all along.
One hundred percent. And I still think of it as the most delicate play; I think it’s quieter than my other plays, and just more vulnerable. I mean, it’s kids talking about big things, and I think the questions are really big. It’s not biographical, but it’s personal; I feel a lot like Julie in the way I’m processing the world. The eternal question for me is, how do you live when bad things can just happen? Are you supposed to just ignore them? How do you just go about your life, how do you get out of bed?
Was there an event that spurred the play?
I found a journal from when I was in middle school with an entry where a teacher asked us to write down things that we were grateful for. And one of the things that I wrote was that I was grateful I didn’t grow up during a time of war. I wrote that on Sept 10, 2001, and of course the next day September 11 happened. And the next day or so, I looked back at the journal entry, and as a very young, solipsistic person, thought I had “jinxed” the nation and caused 9/11 to happen, which obviously on one level I knew at the time was ridiculous, but thought maybe part of it was true.
There’s a basketball player who said yesterday that he thinks that dinosaurs were human pets when humans used to be three times the size of dinosaurs—
Oh my god, oh no—
Some people think some strange things.
Totally. My agents just sent me an email saying they’ve been contacted several times by people affiliated with the “Flat Earth Society” who haven’t read the play but think that I’m one of them.
When did you find the journals?
A few years ago. And I was like, “Oh my god, I forgot that I thought I caused 9/11, that’s so stupid, but sweet, and innocent and powerful.” And I realized I’ve always had those kind of thoughts surrounding death — this weird, superstitious fear. Like — there was a girl in my middle school that died, who I didn’t really know that well, probably around the same time, and I didn’t know her but I went the funeral, and why did I go? She was really beautiful, and the rumor was that she was a model. She died in a car accident on the way to her birthday party. And I really didn’t know her, but I just was so affected by that. And I remember, no one would sit in the chair that she sat in at school; it was a classroom of black chairs, but her chair was orange, and people were creeped out by that — we thought, “Maybe that means something, maybe she was doomed,” do you know what I mean? You know, when you come up with these things, you’re trying so hard to find meaning in chaos, and I feel like that impulse has never really left me. Even as an adult.
So, how did the play begin? Did you start with a scene?
I actually wrote a one-act of this play, first, that was about a kid dealing with a parent dying. It was a boy’s mom who died, and it was after her funeral, him, sitting on a bed, trying to hook up with a girl, and displacing his grief into that. And I think that turned into the play. And then I wrote an unrelated monologue, which is now the ending of the play.
Cloris’s monologue, yeah. And then tried to find out how the two were related.
How did you do that?
Through a lot of rewriting, I don’t remember exactly what came next, but I always tend to write out of sequence. And I was thinking a lot about towns. I was doing a lot of this writing in Connecticut, I was thinking about Newtown. And then I read Our Town again.
That lesson of Julie listening to Cloris’s speech is a little like what Emily has to learn in Our Town.
Yeah, totally. I love Our Town…
When we produced Albee’s play, the revival was playing and I remember him saying, “It’s a tough play, it’s a tough play—”
That was the highest compliment he could pay— An unbelievable compliment, coming from him. One of the best productions I’ve ever seen, I think, was that production, David Cromer’s production of Our Town. I think I saw it four or five times. I just kept coming back.
The cello? Where’d that come from?
I don’t know! Is the honest answer. I knew emotionally it sounded right. I just started listening to cello music. I had the idea that there was something coming from above that she was interested in, in music, and I started listening to the Bach cello suites—
We haven’t talked about Lisa. She’s kind of the lynchpin of the play, in a way.
Yeah. Jeannie O’Hare had talked to me about this once in a way that was really useful, about picturing the structure of the play as a bulls-eye, and if the school shooting is the center target, then the play exists on an outer ring, but Lisa is the one character who lives on the center target. I always felt like the play needed to not live on the target, but have a character that did, who brought that with her any time she entered the room; that’s kind of the burden that that character has to bear for the rest of her life, that she’s always living on that target. And yeah. I think once I figured that out, then the play really clicked in.
Before you figured that out, you had to figure out what the conceit was going to be, what the analog to 9/11 would be. And I think you told me that Sandy Hook was the general inspiration.
Sandy Hook was something that I always wanted to talk about, but couldn’t. Then after a couple of years, I felt there was enough critical distance to talk about it, and to talk about the fact that they do happen all the time, but don’t always make big news headlines, and the irony of that is — on day three of rehearsal, Parkland happened.
I think your first question was whether it still made sense to portray a girl who didn’t really know about school shootings. And I always thought that having her be younger made her more innocent. But you also made some changes in the script.
Yes, I added that Julie doesn’t have a laptop so she’s not as plugged in. And I changed the setting from “Now” to “The recent past.”
On top of that, I think it made the first scene with them in bed trickier. I think we worried about how Julie’s gallows humor would play in the aftermath.
Yeah, I think the impulse of the play was to write about something really tragic, but from a kid’s perspective, and from a kid who’s not processing grief in the “right” way, whatever that means, or in the way that adults process grief. That impulse is still very much at the heart of the play. But when the grief is more present culturally, it makes it maybe a little harder at first to laugh at the protagonist’s notions. But that said, I don’t think that it should change the play, because these kids don’t know how to process grief. So they’re asking ridiculous questions about it, and joking about it, and picking out random details to find meaning in... And that’s still the same, despite the news. The truth of that is still the truth. And I think that that’s the tragedy of the play, is watching these kids who shouldn’t have to be asking these questions ask these questions because that’s the society that we live in.
Dan has a hard time helping with these questions. And in a way he represents the adults who have no answer to Julie’s questions (or indeed all the Parkland kids’ questions too). But at the same time, we see how much he wants to take care of her and we want to sympathize with him. How did you approach this character?
I think he’s always sort of been that inactive. When I was writing, I didn’t know the answers to them and I still don’t. Answering them in a concrete way always felt wrong. It always felt like she was asking big questions that there weren’t always finite answers to. There are politicized answers, maybe, depending on what side you’re on, but they’re not answers that make sense to a child. Like, when she’s asking, “Why should I go back to school today, if gun change isn’t happening today?” He can’t provide any immediate response.
He’s kind of rendered mute by some of the questions.
Yeah, that’s a big question at the center of the play. The way that we talk about tragedy and grief is the way we tend to talk about school shootings, but it should be talked about in a different way. It’s talked about in the same vein of the girl who died in a senseless car accident on the way to her birthday that I remember from childhood. But that doesn’t really fit. School shootings are talked about as if it’s a sort of unpreventable inevitability of life, and the truisms of grief apply, but they don’t.
Yeah... I think in some ways, Julie does process grief once she actually communicates with Lisa; it’s a great scene. She talks about the hair in Noelle’s brush, and her toothbrush, and the blisters on her feet, but really the payoff of the whole play is her refusing to process her grief like the adults do.
There are things that you just get over, and she’s like, “No!” There are some things that you shouldn’t get over—
Yeah. And we have to come up with a new way of talking about it. It can’t just be talked about in the same way that we talk about tragedy, I think.
Look at Eli Wiesel. Always make sure the extremity and the horror didn’t just become...
Yeah. And that’s what these students are hopefully doing.
Yeah. And that’s what’s so particularly weird about doing this play now. Because this — Parkland — for the first time, wasn’t treated as another inevitable tragedy — the language around it, literally, I mean the literal words that people are using to talk about it, is different for the first time. I have to hope that that has an effect. Or will have one, eventually.