Curious About Playwriting? A Conversation with Lisa D’Amour
Jake: My guest today is Lisa D’Amour. Lisa is a brilliant playwright, she has taught at some of the finest grad programs in the country, including running the MFA Playwriting program at Brown. She is a Pulitzer finalist for her play Detroit, and she is also one of my mentors. She is the gifted teacher with whom I studied playwriting when I first came to New York City.
And so it is a real honor for me to have Lisa on this podcast and also to have Lisa now teaching for us at Jacob Krueger Studio.
I wanted to ask you first: whether you’re a playwright, a screenwriter or a poet, a novelist, a memoirist, a song writer, everybody talks about this thing called voice, right?
Jake: We all know that the great playwrights and screenwriters that we admire have a specific voice. So how did you find your voice as a writer? And what did that mean to you, as you were coming up?
Lisa: Hmm-mmm, that’s a great question. I sometimes associate voice with things like chemistry and sense of humor, actually. Not that I’m trying to say that in order to find your voice you have to write funny plays, that is not what I mean at all.
But, when you’re with friends and you’re feeling really at ease and someone makes a joke and suddenly you just find yourself laughing and feeling so flexible and open– I think that when we are writing and feeling our own voice, when we’re writing inside what we call our voice, there is something that feels very pleasurable and very free.
And for me, as a very young writer before I went to grad school, I remember trying to write plays that looked a lot like “plays”– that had lights up, lights down, a single set– just kind of trying to fit my words into the structural box.
And I remember that one day I just was like, “You know, I don’t know if this will get produced, I don’t know what this is going to look like, but I’m curious about these two characters that are hanging out in a New Orleans cemetery.”
And New Orleans cemeteries are unlike these other cemeteries; they are these big, above-ground kind of tombs. And I really just let myself be with those two characters, and what I remember is finding lusciousness, finding poetry, and in some ways, finding some humor.
But it was really letting go of what the shape of the play was going to be, and just kind of being with the space and the characters.
Jake: I love the word “curious.” I was always a student of writing and so I was always studying the masters, I was always studying the scripts that I loved, and that caused a kind of intellectual approach for me early in my career where I was trying to control everything.
And at the beginning of my career, I always felt like voice was my weakest thing. Now, I actually feel it is where my strength is. But at the beginning of my career, I always felt like, “I don’t even know what people are talking about when they say ‘voice,’ I’m just, I’m putting the Legos together and trying to make the Death Star.”
And that lesson about curiosity, coming from a place of curiosity rather than control, is what helped me.
Lisa: Yes, I love that, that’s great. Yeah and I think also just like being, letting yourself be and see what feels good to you, see what cracks you up in your own writing, can sometimes be a good sign.
Sometimes I talk about that moment when you’re like, “Oh my god, I just wrote that? Can I write that? Am I allowed to write that?” And that’s usually a good moment.
Lisa: So, it’s an interesting process, and it is hard to name that process of finding your voice.
Jake: I like what you said about, “Am I allowed to say that?”
Often, when we actually start to crack that shell and actually start to find our voice, what happens is we’re actually just dipping into this subconscious place in ourselves.
And we start to write things that are not comfortable, and that makes us feel extremely vulnerable.
Many of us will have the instinct to dismiss that kind of writing as “bad” because it is not like anything we’ve seen before.
It is uncomfortable, because it is a lot like you. Or, maybe, it is a lot like a part of you that you are not really comfortable with being a part of you.
So I like what you’re saying about giving yourself permission to write the thing that you’re interested in. For whatever reason!
“I’m interested in these two people at a gravesite.” You’re looking for that thing where you’re wondering “am I allowed to write that?” You’re looking for the thing that’s disruptive for you.
Lisa: We’re talking about voice, but I also sometimes talk about “being in the zone.” We all know what that feels like, when we’re kind of in the zone and we lose track of time and we’re in the world of our play.
And for me that is a very sensory experience, I hear the characters speaking, I am very aware of the texture of the world that they are in. And so it is beyond just dialogue, it is a very sensory and sensual experience, for me, anyway, when I feel like I’m kind of writing inside of my voice.
Jake: We all have those days where we feel like, “there is my voice, I’m in it, I’m in the zone, the muse is speaking through me,” right? And those are such great days. How do you approach it when the muse is like “go away I’m not talking to you today?”
Lisa: Hmm, yes, totally. I thought you were going to ask me for the recipe to get there every time and I was going to have to disappoint you.
Jake: If that recipe existed… we would be very fortunate!
Lisa: Yes, there are two things that come to mind.
The Timer Technique: set a timer for 20 minutes. Say you’re going to write for 20 minutes without stopping, even if you think it’s bad writing, and make yourself write till that timer goes off, even though it’s torture. And then look at it the next day.
Sometimes I’ll do that for three or four 20 minute segments. But then when I go and look at it the next day I’m like “Oh look, there’s little something I can use, there’s another little something I can use.”
Often, things are coming out when we’re writing– I don’t want to say better than we thought they were, because that’s a terrible way of putting it. But I think, just when you’re not feeling it, whatever structure you can give yourself to just get some words on the page or whether that’s writing or typing.
Another technique I like: I have this deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. It’s a deck of cards created by Brian Eno. They’re little prompts. If I’m stuck, I can pick up this card and it might say something like “try the reverse” or something like that. And it will jog my brain just enough.
And that deck of cards is something you can buy, and you can also generate a card online on their website.
So I think of structure like the timer exercise, and then I think of things to kind of jog your brain, jog you outside of your head, to get you writing again.
Jake: My fiancée, Lacy, actually uses tarot cards in a similar way. She does life coaching for artists, and she’s also a writer. In the New Year, we’re hoping to offer a Tarot for Writers class with her.
But she uses the Tarot cards in a very similar way. She is not just using them as archetypes, in the way that they’re traditionally used, she is not using them for fortune telling, but she is using them almost like a Rorschach test, that allows you to look at what are you really trying to say and where you really want to go. So, I really like that idea of introducing something random to shake up your writing.
Lisa: Well, I think that when we’re not feeling the muse or when we’re feeling blocked, we create kind of a tunnel vision for ourselves. Our view becomes very limited. And I think sometimes using a card or sometimes I’ll even just take a book off the shelf, open it up and see what this page has to say to me, and use that as something that can jog me back into writing.
Jake: There’s a line in a movie called The Zero Effect, which is a Sherlock Holmes update and I always thought it is such a great metaphor for writing.
The Sherlock Holmes character, played by Bill Pullman says (paraphrased), “When most people try to solve a crime, they start by looking for something very specific– which is always a mistake. Because out of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them.”
He says, “When I’m trying to solve a crime, I start by looking for anything, because out of all the things in the world, you’re certainly going to find something!”
And I always thought that line by Jake Kasdan was one of the greatest pieces of advice ever for writers. That random thing that shakes up your control can give you that window into your subconscious and into what you’re really trying to say.
So, I’m curious, when you’re doing this exercise, when you are forcing yourself to write whether you like it or not, whether it feels horrible or not, for 20 minutes, and you’re generating some maybe-wonderful-maybe-horrible pages, when you look at them the following day, or a couple of days later, what’s your approach to looking at them? How do you think about them as you’re reading them over again?
Lisa: Great question. I try to start by just reading them over, and trying not to stop and take any notes. Try just to read it. I’m probably taking notes somewhere “back here” [in my mind], but I’m trying just to read them. And then it depends on what phase of writing I’m in.
So if I’m looking at some pages, and I already know what the play is, and I kind of know where the play is going, then I may stop and try and figure out “Well what are these pages showing me?” Or “how are these pages serving, say, this particular theme in the play?”
And I might realize, “Oh if I change this word or two, or if I change this interaction between these two characters, that might help this theme emerge a little bit,” like a little touchstone for the audience.
So I sometimes might look at them in terms of different things that I know are travelling through the play and how that scene will serve them.
Another thing I always do is, I’m always trying to figure out how I can say something with four words instead of twenty. It is not even really about making the play go faster, but just about tightening and having control over the energy of the scene, so that I understand when I need the scene to go faster, when I need it to go slower, and how can I do it with the greatest efficiency.
Jake: Yeah, what’s so interesting is you’re really talking about the two different sides of the brain, right? You have the subconscious mind where it is just like “I have to set her free and let her write. I’ve got to get this stuff out of my head where it is perfect and amorphous and get it on the page where it is going to be flawed but at least it is physically there.”
Jake: And then there is this other side of your brain that is really the editing brain, it is really the conscious mind that’s asking either, “How do I use this within the framework?” or “how do I compress it? How do I increase its power by squishing it down to its bare essentials?”
And I also really like what you had to say about theme. Because, it is starting to point the way. And this is one of the things that I loved about studying with you. I was very new to playwriting, I had started as a playwright in college, but really my career was built in screenwriting, so coming back to playwriting for me was learning a new art form.
And one of the things that I really appreciated about studying with you was that you did so much to free my subconscious mind, but that you did also always find a layer of structure there. You were really able to help us easily make that transition from unconscious writing to structure. And you brought up one of the tools that you use when you talked about theme.
So I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about theme and how theme functions in a play for you? How do you find your theme?
Lisa: Usually when I start, I may have a question about some characters. I don’t know that when I start writing a play that I can absolutely articulate the theme. But I think that, as I am writing, there is a point about halfway through where I am like, “Oh this is what this play is about and this is where it is going.”
And I have to say, for me, I think it was Sherry Kramer that taught me something like “we try to write about everything but make it look like we’re writing about nothing.”
And I think that’s the thing that I’m always thinking about. How can I write about big issues like maybe suburban fear, or the American economy, or the economy crashing, but make it look like two couples having a barbeque?
So I have to say sometimes my work, in letting a theme travel through the play, is tricking an audience into not thinking about the theme until a very particular moment, when I want them to think about it.
It is a little bit of a magic trick, to be honest, and it is so tricky, because if you turn up the volume too much on what you’re trying to say, suddenly the audience feels talked down to.
So that’s the other thing that I’m always trying to parse out, is how to really let the characters and the plays and the action embody the ideas I’m trying to talk about.
In my play Detroit, there is a very subtle theme of fire and cooking that travels through the whole play. And it is different people barbequing, different people lighting candles. But by the end of the play, the whole house burns down. And it really starts to say something about… let’s say, the repressed American dream in the suburbs, let’s just call it that.
But I didn’t really plan it– it was after I wrote the first draft and maybe even after I wrote the second draft that I was able to track that image system through and realize how it was speaking or revealing what the play was about.
So, sometimes it can be an image that travels through that helps you track your theme or convey your theme.
Jake: Yeah, I know I have always found that in my own writing. I’m always looking– because I do the bad writing exercises as well– I have a terrible problem with perfectionism, and so I have to shake myself up and I have to force myself in that way.
And often, when I’m looking at rough pages, especially when I don’t know where things are going, what I’m looking for are images that either I don’t understand or that feel important or that move me in some way.
And then I just try to come back to those images again and again and again. Just how many times can I reuse them? How many different ways can I reuse them?
And with that kind of curiosity– a curiosity of, “Well, what does all this actually mean? What am I actually trying to say with that?”
And I’m wondering for you, how much is a plan?
Do you know that the place is going to burn down and then work backwards to the candle? Or do you find the candle and then one day you realize, “Oh! It is going to burn down!” or is it different in different projects?
Lisa: Well, it is really different in different projects, and with Detroit it was especially different. I don’t know that has happened this way before. But the play had a totally different ending; it didn’t burn down in the first draft.
And it was only when I realized, “Wow!” I felt like the play was kind of building to something and then to use the right word, fizzled out. And I realized, “Something bigger needs to happen… something bigger needs to happen,” and that’s when I realized, “Oh right like they actually want to tear this whole thing down, they want to burn this whole thing down.”
It was after that, that I was able to go through and kind of track the moments leading up to that.
I would say for me in general, I may have an idea of like, “Oh this idea keeps coming up, I’m going to let it repeat, even though I don’t totally understand it yet,” and then at the end of writing the play, I understand it and then I go back into a lot of revising.
Jake: You brought up something so important. We write plays because we want to move people. But there is a big difference between theme and moral. There’s a big difference between “I’m moving you and because I’ve moved you, you’ve made a choice to think about the world in a slightly different way” versus “I preached to you and I told you what you’re supposed to think.”
And I’ve always felt like there are wonderful movies that do that and wonderful plays that to do that, but I’ve always questioned whether people just end up telling themselves, “Yeah, I really should do that…” and just kind of move on.
Whereas, I always feel like if you’re able to get an audience to connect and to wonder and to question and to wrestle, they then internalize and come to their own solution, which they’re much more likely to actually act upon.
And one of the ways that I try to do that is by trying to write something into a little bigger than I understand. Or if I find myself getting up on my soapbox, trying to attack my own beliefs, trying to find a character that has a really strong counter argument or trying to find a situation where my own beliefs really don’t work, so I can test myself and look at what’s on the other side of my beliefs.
Lisa: In most of my work, I’m very interested in making room for people who are watching it to want to go out and talk, engage or feel differently about people who are very different from them, people whom they have never encountered before.
So I feel like that might be kind of the hidden message in a lot of my plays: get out of your comfort zone, see what happens if you go out into the world and mix with people you haven’t mixed with before.
I come from a very extroverted and diverse city of New Orleans, in which it is actually quite easy to be around and mix with people, and so I think that’s just kind of in my bones, you know?
Jake: Yeah, it’s in your DNA.
Lisa: Yeah, and I have to say, in terms of an overt message, my plays aren’t really battle cry plays. Personally, I don’t think you come out of them like, “this is how you must change the world.”
But I do try to think about, “how do my plays open up an audience to something that’s a little bit new in their lives?” Whether it is a kind of play structure they’ve never seen before, a kind of character they’ve never seen before.
So, I’m very interested in pushing an audience into the new, depending on whichever kind of theme or idea I’m writing about.
Jake: A couple of weeks ago we did a free Quarantinis writing class with you and you did that wonderful excerpt where we were looking at Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. And there is no doubt that that is a political play, and there is a whole tradition of Agitpróp theatre, theater to get people to rise up.
But I think there is something so profoundly powerful about when we kind of humble ourselves a little bit as writers and say, “You know, maybe I don’t have all the answers but maybe I can provoke the questions…” and “how can I expose myself to somebody I don’t know? How can I expose my play to ideas that are not mine?”
And I think in that way, all of our work is political. Because what we’re doing is building empathy, we’re allowing an audience to feel empathy. And from my point of view, that’s one of the most political things you can do, because that’s power to change the world.
Lisa: Yes, totally! I just can’t wait for us to be able to gather again. Just being in a live theatre together. It is so weird to say… just breathing the same air now sounds dangerous… it’s so weird.
But just that chemistry of being in a group, watching live actors on stage. It can really spark so much. And I just love plays as a vehicle for healthy arguments back in the restaurant, bar or in your home afterwards, what you thought the play was about. Because that is like waking up people’s bodies, minds and hearts, which is kind of what we’re trying to do.
Jake: Beautiful. I’ve asked you so many questions, and your answers have been so valuable, really for any kind of writing. You can apply these ideas whether you’re a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, even if you’re writing a memoir.
I would love to talk with you about some of the things that are really unique to theatre.
You spoke about being in the room with live actors and that feeling and that energy that only happens in a theatre.
But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the other things that are unique about playwriting and the opportunities that are there in playwriting that might not be there if you were writing a film or a novel or a TV show.
Lisa: For starters, a play is a blueprint for a rehearsal and collaboration with actors, directors and designers. It’s also collaboration with all the other people that bring the play into being and the audience.
So, I’m always trying to figure out,how does my play leave room for the imagination of the people who are going to put it up?
And it’s not something that I’m thinking about with every line of dialogue that I write, but I often think about it in terms of things like stage directions. How is stage direction something that is helping an actor and director know what should happen, but also giving them a lot of freedom as to how it is going to happen?
So I think that’s one thing. And I feel like you learn that through writing a scene or a short play and getting someone to do it and see what it looks like to see it translated up on stage.
I think that my approach to rewriting has changed a lot over the…I guess what is it, almost 20 years that I’ve been writing? Because, I started to realize I could obsess over this line now, or I could wait and collaborate with an actor in the rehearsal room.
So, in some ways, it has made me a little bit less of a perfectionist. Because I know things are going to change once I’m going into rehearsal. When I write a line of dialogue, it’s like I’m writing the tip of the iceberg, it’s like I’m writing just the surface, and both the audience and what they’re projecting into that line and the actor and what they’re bringing to it is bringing a whole lot more.
So, I think there’s kind of a weird less-is-more quality with some kinds of playwriting, because you always want to make room for what the actor is bringing in and what the audience is bringing.
Jake: I think what you’re pointing out about a rehearsal is so valuable to think about. People say screenwriting is a blueprint, but honestly, unless you are very, very famous that’s not really an option, we have to fully visualize…
Lisa: Yes, absolutely.
Jake: Because we don’t get rehearsals and also because the people reading our screenplays are often not really trained in reading. So we have to make it just appear in the little movie screen in their mind without them having to bring a lot of creativity to it themselves.
Whereas in playwriting, you get this wonderful thing called rehearsal, where you actually get to play with a cast and a brilliant director and really explore the shape of what something is and what it wants to be.
And the other thing that’s exciting about that is like you can do that right now as a playwright, in a way you can’t as a screenwriter. You can grab five actors on Zoom and you can rehearse a play and you can explore a play and unlike a film, which is so expensive, you can do it for nothing and you learn so much about who you are as an artist.
Which leads me to the last thing I wanted to talk to you about.
Back when I moved to New York, I used to call it the reverse commute, because I started as a screenwriter and I actually came to New York to direct theatre, and all my playwright friends were like, “What the hell are you doing? We’re all going where you came from.”
And we’ve seen a lot of playwrights recently get picked up by people who see their plays and see what they can do. They picked up primarily for television because of their ability to understand character, to understand drama, to understand dialogue.
And I know screenwriting is not primarily what you do, you’ve stayed in that theatre world and I’m sure a lot of your friends have probably made that transition.
Lisa: Yeah, mostly to TV.
Jake: So I’m curious, what is it that keeps you in the theatre world and what are the skills that you think your peers who have moved into television have picked up in playwriting, that were really valuable as they made that transition?
Lisa: That’s a great question, because it is true that playwrights are getting snapped up right and left for these shows. I would say the first and most important thing is the ability to imagine a world and to really know how to build out a world that could continue week-to-week-to-week, that you want to be in, that you want to keep exploring, that can keep unfolding.
And I think that when you’re writing a play, there’s a real sense of the world that the characters are living in, and the specific tone of that world too. I mean, especially right now, there is such a variety of style in terms of how people are telling stories on TV.
And it doesn’t surprise me that playwrights are making the move, because there are playwrights right now that are experimenting with so many forms in the theatre; with comedy, with satire, with nonlinear kinds of plays. And even playwrights who have big success with a more naturalistic or linear approach to playwriting, almost all of them have written plays that appear a bit wilder, that appear like they operate by a different set of rules, because I think that’s what you learn when you are trying things out or in a playwriting class.
So I think that playwrights are bringing a real kind of nimbleness to TV writing right now. And of course also I think the understanding that a great character is filled with great contradictions. Most of my experiences are with American playwrights and I feel like the playwrights that I know are not afraid to allow a character to exist on stage with many contradictions.
Jake: I can see how valuable that would be in a writers’ room, not just from a career perspective– yes one of the easiest ways to end up in a writers’ room is actually to succeed as a playwright…
Lisa: It’s true! And also, as you know, Jacob, it used to be you had to write a spec script to get on a TV show– like write a fake episode of a TV show– but more and more now people are getting hired just from their plays.
Lisa: So if you’re a writer who is interested in both theatre and TV, starting in playwriting and writing a couple of really great plays can also really serve your TV career.
Jake: Yeah and then also you know as you were describing the layered characters of playwriting, which is also so incredibly valuable to TV writers’ room. Because you have to keep those characters going! In a feature screenplay– an hour and a half– maybe I can survive with a character who doesn’t have layers upon layers upon layers.
But in a show that’s going to run for five seasons, if you don’t have those layers, if you don’t have the artist who can bring those layers, then your show is going to run out of steam.
And I think that’s one of the reasons– it is not just that playwrights happen to write great dialogue– it is that they understand character, and so they become incredibly valuable in writing rooms.
You’re about to teach a four week class for us, which I’m so excited that we’re able to offer, and I wonder if you could just talk briefly about that class and about how it is going to work and what you’re going to be teaching.
Lisa: Great, yeah I mean four weeks, it goes by really quickly, but In many ways I would like to really touch on some of the things that we were talking about today: building a world, creating characters that are filled with contradiction and that entice us, and also what it means for a play to have a style and tone that is uniquely your own.
And in order to explore this, I want us to look at two very different plays. One is my play Detroit. I actually love teaching my own work because I can go into a lot of backstory about why things are the way they are, and we have access.
And the other play that I want us to look at is a play called Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara, which is an incredibly different ride than Detroit. It is episodic, it has a very different tone, it is hilarious. And I want to look at both of those plays how they were built. What are the expectations that the writers kind of seed into the opening scenes of the plays? How does that kind of launch a journey in each play and how does it carry through?
And we’ll be doing some writing exercises to see if we can do some of that on our own, and if you are currently working on a play there will be a way to work on it in the class or if you’re just starting a play there will be lots of opportunity to just start and try some things as well.
Jake: That’s really exciting! And that class is going to culminate in a one on one consultation with one of our mentors here at the studio, so that you can get feedback on the writing you do and so that you can really understand how you’re implementing those ideas that come up during class.
So I’m so excited that you’re part of our faculty now. Lisa is also available for ProTrack if you want to study with her one on one. And thank you so much for giving us your time on such a busy day.
Lisa: Of course, it is really great to see you Jacob. Thanks. I really enjoyed this conversation I’m looking forward to next week.
– Transcript edited for length and clarity
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October 14, 2020 – November 4, 2020
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