Tim Sanford and Lisa D'Amour
Tim: Let’s talk about how you became who you are and how you became the artist you are. So you’re from New Orleans, right?
Lisa: I wasn’t born in New Orleans. My mom was born in New Orleans. And her mom and her mom. I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Which is my dirty little secret.
The other end of the Mississippi.
My dad was in grad school studying philosophy. Basically from the time I was born until the time we moved back to New Orleans when I was 9; it was all about making our way towards to New Orleans.
You have siblings right?
I have two younger siblings.
Were they also born in Minneapolis?
No they were born in Morgantown, West Virginia. My dad was a professor of Philosophy at WVU. My mom agreed to move there because she it was closer to the south than, well, St. Paul.
So your father was an academic?
He was a professor. By the time he moved to New Orleans he became an administrator. A university administrator. So now he’s Vice President for Government Affairs at Xavier University, a historically black university in New Orleans. So he’s the fundraiser. He was the guy who had to raise all the money to rebuild that university after Katrina—its entire campus flooded. So yeah, a huge job to say the least.
What about your mom?
My mom’s a teacher. She’s retired now.
Anywhere from preschool to 8th grade. Towards the end of her career she was teaching 8th grade at a Catholic school. Mostly teaching religion, actually.
Religion and philosophy. Were they at odds with each other or in sync with each other?
They were in sync with each other because my mom and dad were both a really specific and intense brand of Catholic. They met doing social work through The Catholic Worker, which is Dorothy Day’s organization; it’s like the social justice arm of the Catholic Church.
What’s their relationship to art?
All of us kids make art in some way, shape, or form. My dad grew up a musician. He paid his way through college by playing drums in a jazz trio. My whole upbringing involved hanging out in the living room with him playing the guitar and singing songs. So that’s the main core of it. My mom wasn’t an artist. My grandmother was an amateur writer. She wrote poetry and a lot of articles about theology. And so I think I was influenced by that a lot. But I think it was more the music, my family’s focus on music.
What was your relationship to religion growing up?
I was very very Catholic, and happily so. Really until I was almost out of college. And I don’t feel like I left the Catholic Church with a lot of bitterness and resentment. I went to Catholic school from 6th grade until I graduated high school. And all of the memories are quite good.
What about it held you all the way through college?
I was very drawn to its mystical elements and the ritual elements, and of course the sense of community. My family and extended family were very devout. Picture dozens of us heading out the midnight Easter Vigil at St. Ben’s Abbey in the middle of the woods north of New Orleans. But it was a complicated devotion, because most of my family were also huge critics of the church bureaucracy and of their intolerance towards Women’s rights and gay rights. My mom was constantly in battles with the priests at the parishes where she was teaching—I believe she actually got fired from a job for allowing a girl to play Jesus
What are your earliest memories of artistic self expression?
The two really clear impulses I remember as a child are making huge outdoor performances in our backyard in West Virginia. The one that I remember most clearly was a Passion Play. I made my own Passion Play which processed up this hill in our backyard and made all the stops.
So like Oberammergau in West Virginia...
It was basically that, yes. I can remember dragging my parent’s whole dinner party out to watch me crucify Missy Zimmerman in the vegetable garden. It was very controlled and rehearsed.
The second thing was this big project one summer where I was trying to record all of the isolated sounds at this summer house that my family co-owned with a lot of relatives in Covington, Louisiana. So there’s this whole tape of me going like “the sound of water rushing in the river” and I would put the tape recorder near it. And I recorded this whole vocabulary of sounds. And then I started taping conversations I overheard. I would hide the tape recorder and tape whole conversations.
How do these memories fit in with who you are artistically?
I think they reflect the two sides of myself, the playwright and the collaborative interdisciplinary self. If we just look at my plays half of them either have a really specific quirky approach to language based on the particular way people speak, like that in Detroit which feels more naturalistic. And half of them have songs embedded in them and have a particular approach to language and to landscape—with characters really connected to their space sometimes refusing to leave their spaces and then this whole musical feeling to it all. It’s kind of woven itself together into a style.
I think there’s a relationship between your writing and your roots in Catholicism too, with both a deep spirituality and a kind of earthiness.
Yes, you’ll have moments deeply immersed in the sensory details of life: the sound of water, rocks between toes. Protestantism is more in the head. Catholicism has a crucifix, Protestantism just has a cross. You know?
There’s a day in the church calendar, I think it’s during Easter, where you have to walk up the aisle of the church and kiss the feet of Jesus on the cross. There are all of these rituals about transforming the self through these ritual actions. My mom was really into saving up things you were working on during lent and then burning them all the day before Easter.
Once upon a time people would go to war over whether it was the actual body of Christ or a symbol of Christ when we took communion. That was something to kill somebody over.
Totally. Yeah. And I think when you look at Detroit too and the way the play goes to ritual at the end, and these characters needing to almost like cleanse themselves to get to the next part of their life, it feels very connected to what we’re talking about.
When did you begin to self identify as an artist? And what kind of artist did you want to be first? Or did that come later?
Well it came later I think. I was doing a lot of theater in high school, I was in a girl’s high school and the Christian Brothers high school my two brothers went to had a good theater department. The Christian Brother who ran the department was a really awesome mentor and a director. I was really into it but in some ways it felt like more a part of my social life. Like in that high school way? So when I went on to college at Millsaps in Jackson, Mississippi I didn’t think I’d be a theater major. I thought I’d be an English and Psychology major but I was immediately drawn to this very small theater department.
What drew you to that college?
What drew me there was that I wanted to explore the world outside New Orleans—I didn’t get so far, as Jackson is only 3 hours away! But my dad was teaching at Tulane at the time, and they had a tuition exchange program that meant I could go to Millsaps for free.
Were you a big reader?
Mhm. Definitely. I got really into southern literature when I was there. I mean it was all around you! My Southern Women Writers class went to tea with Eudora Welty, in her house! So amazing…
And how was that part of you that made your own passion play and recorded sounds of the earth, how was she developing?
Millsaps was the kind of department where you had to do everything and learn everything. While I was in college I designed lights, I stage managed, I acted, I directed, I built sets, I did all of that, taking turns in different plays. There was kind of this whole artist approach to being a theater artist which I think was really great. And my junior year I went to Hunter College through this exchange program. That was a big eye opener.
Your whole junior year?
My whole junior year I lived in the dorms and took classes there. I didn’t act in any plays but I took my first playwriting class there. I don’t remember who the teacher was but I wrote a play and he thought it was really good. So I was like “Oh, maybe I can write plays.” But first I went back to Millsaps and for my senior thesis I directed Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Which I think was a huge moment for me. I was kind of scared by it. By the structure… But the great thing about Millsaps is when it’s time to direct your thesis play you have to do everything. They really kind of left me alone to direct it. I don’t know if it was a good production or not, but directing that play was a huge moment for me in terms of becoming the writer I am now. Then my first year out of college—I had done an internship at Manhattan Theatre Club while I was at Hunter Assistant Stage Managing a revival of a Terrence McNally play, Bad Habits, and the stage manager of that play, Tom Berger, was the main stage manager at the O’Neill Center in the summer at the National Playwrights Conference. And he said to me, “Listen send me a letter when you’re out of college if you want to come intern at the O’Neill. I’ll get you a spot.” And I did that. I remember I was a nervous wreck composing that letter and then calling him and of course he was like “Of course you can come do props or something.” So I went up for a summer and it was then that I saw writers being writers. Jeff Hatcher was there, and this amazing writer named Paul Zimmerman who now writes screenplays. Phil Bosakowski. August Wilson. I think he was dramaturging actually that year. It was like going to a different planet. I was like, “oooh like here are writers spending all of their energy and time trying to make a play right.” Ya know? I can remember talking to each of them about what their lives were like outside of the O’Neill and sort of being really shy and nervous and asking them to read some of the first things I had written. And of course they were all so sweet and generous. So sweet. And I can remember I left the O’Neill determined to be a playwright. Completely determined to try and do it. And I went back to New Orleans and I lived in New Orleans for two years and was like a manic writer. I just like wrote like mad for two years. And the other thing that helped me was that Julie Hébert was in New Orleans as the Artistic Director of a place called the Contemporary Arts Center and she had a writers group which gave me discipline and validation.
Did you do any theater there as well?
I directed and self-produced a play called Pigs and Bugs by Paul Zimmerman...I wrote a couple of monologues that I performed myself at different places. And working at a law firm one year, and a library the next. I was in the nitty gritty of the New Orleans theater scene then, and also seeing tons of Brass Band music in tiny clubs that no longer exist, like the Little People’s Place and Joe’s Cozy Corner. The intimacy of those music experiences feels important to my writing somehow.
What were your plays like?
They weren’t very good. I remember the first play was a big Catholic play about a dying priest…
Hey isn’t this about the time you left the church? According to your chronology.
Yeah, yeah it was. It definitely was.
So one of the things you did with your departure from the church was write a play about being…
Yeah about my struggles with the church, basically. It was a terrible play but it was a big full length play. So at least I finished a play. The writers group was very hard on it, which was really good. I also became really great friends with Carlos Murillo—an extraordinary writer whom you recently commissioned—at this time. He was an intern at the O’Neill as well. And after that he started working at The Public. He was like in the literary department there. So we would read each other’s work and keep in touch. That was a huge friendship, I think, that kind of kept me going. Then after two years I got into grad school at UT Austin.
Why did you go there?
Totally random! I had a boyfriend there and I had heard it was a good program. By the time I moved there the boyfriend only lasted another four months. So I like to think Austin was luckier than the boyfriend! Being in Austin really changed my life. It was a really amazing time to be an artist in Austin.
Because in Austin, especially at that time, there was a real permeable boundary between the theater department and what was happening in the city. I don’t know why. And there was some really amazing theater that was happening. It’s when Frontera @ Hyde Park theater was starting, it’s a theater that’s no longer—a community theater but doing all experimental new work. It’s when the Rude Mechanicals were starting, Salvage Vanguard was starting. So there were all of these young companies moving to Austin. And all these young people in this like very hip town that was still cheap to live in. But no theater spaces. Maybe like two theater spaces, so just making art anywhere and everywhere we could make it.
Now, most of those groups are highly collaborative, right?
It was all really collaborative. And then these other artists were just randomly like cycling through Austin. Like Frontera kept bringing through David Hancock to do his work and teach workshops, so he’d show up and we’d all get a little bit of David Hancock. And then they were working a lot with Laurie Carlos, who’s completely collaborative and so grounded and smart and experimental and fierce. Erik Ehn was in the middle of forming the RAT Conference he was passing through and doing work there. I acted in an Erik Ehn play while I was there. And some of these Jerome Fellows from The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis—like Ruth Margraff and Bridget Carpenter—would come down, live there for a month make a play and go back. It was just this really amazing time.
Was it a three-year program?
Yes, and I stayed for a fourth because of a post graduate fellowship. It’s also when I finally got to meet Mac Wellman. I had been reading his plays for a while and UT brought him down to teach. And so I really came of age in nontraditional spaces, mentored by experimental artists. Oh, and other cool thing that happened in Austin was I met Katie Pearl. That was the beginning of our 15 year artistic relationship—we now make work under the name PearlDamour. We did our first piece together when I was finishing school. And that was the last time we ever lived in the same city
Yeah. It’s a bit crazy. I know I know we managed to make all these pieces and we never lived in the same city. Then I moved to Minneapolis because I got a Jerome Fellowship, which was awesome in its own way because Minneapolis is a place of institutions. There’s a lot of arts funding there, so theaters have, you know, buildings. So it was just this really weird progression from DIY theater in people’s charming sheds to a theater that is more formal, more well-supported financially.
How long was the residency?
It’s one year… I think at the time the grant was $7,000 but they have a residency requirement, so you have to move there. Which sounds crazy, but the real “prize” is not the money, it’s the resources: The Playwrights’ Center hosts readings and workshops of your plays and then the staff also connects you to theaters around the country.
So you started sending your plays out?
I went looking back through our submissions history and we couldn’t find anything before 16 Spells to Charm the Beast.
That was, like, 2000. Then I remember meeting you when you saw Anna Bella Eema in 2003.
At New Georges, right?
Did you do anything in New York before that?
Uh my first my very first thing in New York was 16 Spells with Clubbed Thumb, which I think was in 2001. I worked with Anne Kauffmann on that.
Did you write that at The Playwrights’ Center?
It feels like a Playwrights’ Center play in a way.
Because it’s got a play structure but it’s got a lot of surreal bits.
Yeah, it definitely jumps around a lot.
Also very different from Anna Bella Eema…
Yeah, it is.
Tonally. I remember one of the first things Sonya Sobieski [PH Literary Manager at the time] said about you was that “she writes very different styles.”
And that still is the case. I never know quite what is going to come next. I’m trying to embrace that as a plus. I don’t know. Like, I so admire Melissa James Gibson because I feel like she has this super graceful life project. Her plays are all so distinct but I felt like there was such a consistent core to the inquiry, this stylistic project of exploring characters in close quarters—in side-by-side New York apartments, in hallways and lobbies of apartment buildings. I feel much more all over the map, writing in one style one month, and then trying something completely different the next. I’ve learned not to fight it. What else can you do but go with what you’ve been given? You know, the gifts you’ve been given.
I mean, you certainly have common motifs.
What’s the earliest play of yours you’re still interested in?
There’s this trilogy of short plays called Three Mutants I wrote. One is called Tale of a West Texas Marsupial Girl. It’s really short. Another is called Monique the Mosquito Takes First Runner Up. And the third one is called Autopsy. They’re like these three weird plays about mutant girls. I always thought that would be interesting to see, but I’d have to say that 16 Spells and Anna Bella Eema feel like the first plays to me, plays which show me being confidently myself, a more mature writer self.
These plays like to cast spells in a way. They have chants in them. In Anna Bella Eema they feel like children’s rhymes but also kind of like liturgy.
I think there’s also women going through a big crisis about who they are and where they belong in the world. Which I think carries through a lot of my plays.
There’s a motif in 16 Spells, that’s also in Detroit, of the kind of uptight woman. And the beast across the city who you wonder, “What’s going to happen when they meet?”
Right, right. And like what kind of power is inside this woman that she hasn’t harnessed? Which I think you feel a bit in Detroit that Sharon sees in Mary.
When I was talking about you recording sounds of water and the Catholic interest in Earth I think I was thinking of Anna Bella Eema and the character made out of mud.
Definitely. I also grew up doing a lot of camping.
See we can talk about all your plays at once, we don’t have to go one at a time! It also struck me in The Cataract there’s a character who’s … why is she bleeding?
Oh yeah… I don’t know that you ever know. I think it was some mysterious altercation that went on from a fight with a man.
And there are all these accidents in Detroit. And at the end of 16 Spells the character Lillian….doesn’t she like dismember herself?
That’s in the middle. She cuts off her arms and legs. (laughs)
But then she comes back with her arms and legs.
Oh yeah yeah it’s just like a little… it’s this thing where her husband is yelling at her and she like turns his volume down, and we see him talking, but he’s on mute, and then Lillian takes out this mysterious wooden crate and chants this spell and cuts off her arms and legs and puts them in the crate and then turns her husband back “on” and she’s fine.
Cataract was the first play of yours we did a reading of. It’s sort of similar to Detroit in some ways in that it starts off with a very realistic premise: it’s set in late nineteenth century Minnesota and the men have real jobs working on the bridge over the Mississippi. And then it gets progressively weirder.
I gave myself some constraints in writing Cataract. It was not too long after I had written both Anna Bella Eema and 16Spells and Tale of a West Texas Marsupial Girl and I felt like, “Wow everything I wrote is really baroque and flowery and in this like kind of ever unfolding world.” I was obsessed with the Stone Arch bridge, which is the bridge the two men are building in the play, and I said to myself—“When you write this play you can only use two images. There can only be two images which you use through the whole.” And I think it was like the moon and the river were the things I gave myself. I also told myself that the language has to be as spare as possible—kind of using Richard Maxwell as a guide. I also gave myself rigid time constraints—the scenes are just morning, lunch, dinner, night time / dreamtime and I wouldn’t let myself vary from that pattern.
Did the reigning in free you or did you lose something?
It definitely freed me. It was great. It was really great. It became an obsessive little logic game or something. I remember I felt a little bit like a monk, copying something in a cellar forever. Of course I eventually started breaking rules, but that’s part of it. Later, when I had a chance to work on the play for a week, through the Skirball-Kenis Center, I actually brought a visual artist with me as my dramaturg because I wanted someone to help me think visually through the play.
I think we commissioned you about this time.
Did you put any constraints on yourself to write this play?
I don’t know. I remember knowing that I shouldn’t be trying to write a play that I thought would fit here because that just gets in the way every time. But even when you tell yourself that, you still try, I think. By this time I had finally moved to New York and I was living in Bed Stuy and I was really interested in the actual reality of gentrification and how expensive it was getting to be to live in New York. And how isolated I felt from all the money in Manhattan and so I think I was interested in some very real issues that I felt like could be best dealt with in a naturalistic play.
I thought that even though you said you tried not to think about writing a play for Playwrights Horizons, you sort of ended up doing it. It felt like parts of you as a writer were in check.
The other thing that happened during Night Sky was Katrina.
And how did that affect it?
Well Katrina happened right after I wrote the very first draft. And that whole year was so stressful. I was going back to New Orleans when I could, to help family and friends, but for the first month or so it was hard to even GET back, the city was just so crippled.
So kind of waylaid the writing?
Totally. I feel like I was a mess that whole year because if I wasn’t in New Orleans I was like feeling stressed about not being in New Orleans. There are times when I wish I just would have taken that whole year off from writing and gone down to New Orleans and just been there.
And what happened with your family?
They are all fine. My parent’s house wasn’t affected at all because they were just outside of New Orleans. My brother’s house the whole first floor was flooded but he’s a lawyer with insurance for his house so he was able to start rebuilding right away. My parents put in a lot of hours. My parents wound up buying a house three blocks from him, a flooded house that they renovated. And then my husband and I bought a house three blocks from them in 2008. So we all live within a couple of blocks of each other which is awesome. But then it wasn’t just my family it was my theater friends who were trying to figure out how to keep their theater companies going when their houses had flooded. There wasn’t much I could do to help, but there was just like a psychic weight about what was going to happen in New Orleans that kind of exacerbated the homesickness I had been feeling for a long time.
How did you come to write Detroit?
I had been collaborating all year long on really big collaborative experimental projects and I finally had a moment to breathe and I was like, “I just want to write a play that’s just for me.” I had no commissions. I had nothing. And I just had this idea that… it’s kind of an elaboration on The Cataract because there are two couples in that play too, and I just sort of had this little idea of these two couples living next door to each other. Two very different couples. And I just started writing it in this very relaxed way.
Did you first decide, “I want to do something for myself,” or “I have this play I want to write?”
No, I would say that first came “I want to write something just for myself.” Almost every time I finish a play, I’m convinced that it is my last—that I am out of ideas. Every time. I very rarely know what I’m going to write about next and I often have to trick myself into stumbling into the next play accidentally.
Did you put any constraints on yourself?
No. You know I wrote it so fast it almost seems like an accident in a way. I didn’t set out thinking about how it was going to deal in a subconscious way with the economic anxiety in the country at that moment. I wasn’t actually thinking all of that through. I was in a moment in my own life—I remember my husband Brendan was unemployed and we were like figuring out how to get him 200 dollar a week unemployment checks. We were kind of scraping by and I feel like everyone that I knew was in that same situation. And all the news was about the housing bubble, foreclosures and so on. So I think a lot of that was on the edge of my imagination.
What year was this?
I wrote it in the summer of 2009, and it was produced at Steppenwolf in 2010.
It’s interesting to hear you term the economic anxiety in the play as a subconscious element. I think in some ways the title seems to underline the primacy of that theme. How did the title come to you?
I feel like I titled it like three quarters of the way through. It just kind of dropped in and it never changed. I actually don’t think I knew that the house burned down yet when I titled it Detroit. And I think at that point I was really feeling the pressure in the play around Kenny losing his job and Ben was not doing a great job at building his own business. So something about the way the name of that city vibrates in the American imagination.… I just think that name evokes this kind of iconic anxiety around the crumbling American dream. I keep trying to talk about it as this transformation of our economy. I don’t even know if we know what our economy is anymore. I keep thinking there are not going to be any jobs left for anyone to do anymore. How are people going to figure out what a career is and what their livelihood is?
My parents and I were in Detroit in 1967 and left the day the riots started. I actually saw a fire.
Until recently there was--you might know more about this than me--the night before Halloween was this traditional night to go out and burn a vacant house. Devil’s Night. And I recently went to Detroit for a theater conference, and I heard that now the city puts up all these billboards around Halloween to discourage people from arson. They renamed it “Angels’ Night.”
I do think there’s a kind of loose metaphoric connection between the title and the fire at the end that moves it away from a purely socio-economic reading of the play. In your subscriber bulletin article you talked about the secret self we all have and how a time of material uncertainty might revive our dormant secret selves. And actually, this is a common motif in all of your work. You often have a dream world rub up against the real world in your plays. And characters are always telling their dreams in Detroit.
Yeah I think there’s always a parallel world as I scan through all of my plays. In The Cataract the dream life kind of invades real life in act two and “strange” things start happening like flowers coming out of people’s eyes. In Anna Bella Eema it’s the hermetic world of this real trailer home and the supernatural life that Irene believes she has access to. But then by the end of the play there’s this very real life show down with cops that almost feels like a TV movie. You know, so I do think there’s often this difference between the way the characters see the world and the world they think they have access to and the reality that hits them. Which I think happens in Detroit.
I think this double world is also reflected in your language. Some of your language is very heightened, poetic. Some of it is quite colloquial. When you made that tape recording as a child, you included overheard dialogue. Do you feel like the dialogue in this play is overheard? That sounds way too literal, but do you think there are ways of talking stuck inside your listening ear?
I’m sure it’s always filtered through me to some extent but I love listening to people tell stories. I love eavesdropping. And people in New Orleans will tell you their entire life story while you are standing next to them in line at the grocery store. Strangers will just talk to you. I think that willingness to pour some really personal details out onto the table is something that you see a lot in my plays. I mean Sharon shares a lot. Even Mary shares a lot. But I also think I was drawn to the language and ritual of the church which is a heightened language. And as I mentioned earlier I was obsessed with Southern Literature during college—Welty and Flannery O’Connor and Kate Chopin—so I’ve always been drawn to heightened forms of self-expression.
There’s also a duality to your artistic life itself, between your playwriting and your collaborative theater making. What is the relationship between that experimental theater maker and the playwright? How do they feed each other?
In my interdisciplinary work I’m always bumping up against the language and expectation of another art form, which makes me realize the assumptions that I have about what theater is and can do because of the language that we use around it or the structure of a traditional rehearsal process. So I’m always revising that idea. I’m always having to let go of things in these interdisciplinary collaborations. And almost every time when I get to the end of the process and we have the show, even if I’m the writer on it, it’s very hard for me to tell what I’ve written and what Katie Pearl has written or someone else has written. So authorship becomes very blurry. Sometimes I feel like I’m hiding inside those projects. I don’t want people to notice the writing—the focus should be elsewhere.
You told me once that many interviewers have asked you about the pratfalls in the piece. Besides the language there’s a lot of physicality in this play.
It’s a part of the play that I love. Things are falling apart. The characters’ physical world is failing them. In a weird way, it seems like it should be this metaphor that’s so over the top and in your face but I think because it’s all so ridiculous—the things falling apart, breaking—it doesn’t register for the audience as a metaphor until the end. I’m glad it works that way.
When does it register?
When their house is gone. It’s all gone away. They couldn’t depend on any of these physical structures and now they’ve got nothing to hold on to. You know, it’s just them.
I loved Anne’s response when someone asked her about it. She said, “I think of it as the house attacking them and it trying to eat them.” But how does the house eat them at the end?
Maybe they defeat the house in the end in that metaphor. The house has been trying to eat them, they vanquish the house.
The other thing about these accidents, I relate to your background in Catholicism. There is a lot of bleeding in the play, reminders of mortality. Offstage too. There’s an operation.
Yeah people are getting hurt all the time. I think these four characters are all really vulnerable but since it’s a very social play everyone is trying to hide those vulnerabilities. And so these injuries kind of force people to become dependent on each other and connect in a way. I think I also wrote in the subscriber bulletin about the whole idea of the fiasco, how like at a party there is often a fiasco and after the fiasco everyone loosens up. So I feel like the injuries function in that similar way. Kind of bring everyone together.
That’s true. It’s also just part of the style of your work. There’s the character that’s made out of dirt in Anna Bella Eema?
Anna Bella Eema is her name.
So you have this play where Sharon and Mary are dreaming these incredibly detailed personal psychic spaces. But they are also just people made of dirt and blood and spit you know?
I hadn’t quite mapped that out but you’re right there is a lot. And there’s this feeling of them all getting really sweaty in the dance party. It’s very body oriented… it’s like when they’re in their social spaces they’re very “in” their bodies. They are getting hurt or kissing each other or sweating. Then when they are in their private space they are dreaming of this other body, this other personality that they wish they had. For Ben its Brit-land, for Mary it’s camping, for Sharon I think it is envisioning herself as a tame suburban housewife..
Your original premise was two very different couples living next door to each other. What is central to that dynamic in this play?
I just really feel like these two pairs of couples need each other and they want to be each other. So I think that Mary and Ben want some kind of model other than graduating from college, get a steady job, don’t lose your health insurance, hang on to your house. But I feel like they’ve never had an alternative model. Sharon and Kenny maybe aren’t the right model but they are at least something fresh. And I think it’s the same with Sharon and Kenny -- they are looking for a model for people who are happy and stable in their lives and they also chose the wrong model. Because really, Mary and Ben are not satisfied with their life. When Sharon and Kenny meet them, they are at an incredibly fragile point in their marriage, drifting apart, fighting, ignoring big problems, etc. I just think that all the characters are genuinely trying. Trying in their own weird way to learn from each other. It all kind of backfires – even more for Sharon and Kenny than for Mary and Ben, I think… I worry about Sharon and Kenny – they are rootless at the end of the play and it seems that they have given in to their addictions. I don’t worry as much about Mary and Ben because I think they’ve been shaken up in a way that is potentially transformative – potentially positive for them. A friend of mine who saw the play recently said “I feel like Mary and Ben have a chance for a real marriage at the end of the play.” A chance they did not have before this encounter.
Sharon and Kenny’s story seems to change a couple of times.
I actually think that much of what they say is true. I don’t think they’ve been together for years and years. I think they passed through each others lives when they were younger and maybe hooked up again either in rehab or a year before rehab and went in together. Do you know what I mean? It’s true they tell white lies, but I don’t think they are out to con Mary and Ben, or fabricate a huge story. I think they are really vulnerable, and just out of rehab. It might be three or six months out of rehab? I imagine their time before they started squatting in Frank’s house was really scary. I think that they have lost family, burned bridges with family and friends. They didn’t have a lot of money. I feel like they really want this to work. They really want this house thing to work.
Why do you think Kenny burns the house down?
It is a spontaneous choice, in the moment, related to his anger about where he is in his own life at this moment. And perhaps in a drunken, wrongheaded way, connected to a desire to burn a whole system down—a whole economic or perhaps social system that he feels has betrayed him. I think in the moment of the burning, he connects it to freedom – Kenny’s last line is “Each day is the first day of the rest of your life.”
There are a lot of beautiful retrospective moments in the Frank scene. When he talks about how they came to him all dressed up…
He said, “They asked me to give them a call and I didn’t give them a call because it was a can of worms I felt best keep closed.”
You can’t help but remember Sharon’s moment…
She says, “We asked if we could live here, we asked if he’d give us a chance.” But he actually didn’t, they just took the chance, grabbed it, even though Frank did not give it to them.
The rejection hits after the fact. And we like Frank. We can see why he wouldn’t call.
I think Frank feels bad that he didn’t call them back. I think Frank has a lot of regret around what happened around Sharon and Kenny and what happened with the neighborhood. And it’s kind of conflating for him in that last scene.
I always thought the Frank scene was so brilliant. It’s almost like a god walks on with total perspective. We’ve been locked into this little moment with these two couples and their two houses and suddenly someone with half a century of perspective comes in. How did that scene come to you?
I had no idea it was coming. I had tried a different ending to the play, one that involved the pink jogging suit lady! And when I was talking with my husband about it he said “what about that uncle? Kenny’s great uncle? I’d like to hear from him…” And I think I sat down that same day and wrote the last scene with Frank. I just love how he forces Mary and Ben (and by extension, the audience) to pan out, in a sense, to a wide shot. Here is who you are, within the context of history. You can feel him struggling with mistakes he’s made, with mistakes his country has made. Still, after all these years, trying to figure out who he is in the middle of all this. And that’s hopeful, I think.