Oct 19, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 78: Liz Duffy Adams
Liz Duffy Adams
Various small towns in northeastern Massachusetts. Went to high school in Ipswich.
East Village, New York, NY
Q: You have a show coming up about Aphra Behn. Can you tell me a bit about the play and the upcoming production. How did you come to write about her?
A: A few years ago I read her collected works and biography and I found her fascinating. She seems to have had a genius for reinventing the world around her instead of adapting herself to it. I thought it would be fun to write about her. But I didn’t want to write a straightforward bio-play/period piece and I didn’t see my way in yet so it was on my backburner for years.
Eventually two things occurred to me. One was the setting. I always start with a sense of landscape (this is one of my few plays that takes place indoors). Between the plague, the Great Fire, and the war with the Dutch, London in the late 1660s was a desperately ravaged place. Almost post-apocalyptic. That is the sort of setting that works for me. The other thing was that the Restoration period was humming with a kind of aesthetic/ideology that reminded me of the late 1960s, at least within a certain bohemian/artistic/aristocratic subculture: a back-to-the-garden pastoral lyricism, a post-repression explosion of freedom and radical new ideas about how to live and love, a golden-age utopianism, all reflected in art and fashion. I’m attracted to a cyclical view of history, and this resonance made me able to see the play.
It’s very different from the rest of my work, except that it turns out to be, like all my work, about how to reinvent civilization in an emergency.
In the end after all those years of mulling I wrote it startlingly quickly (for me) in about two weeks, mostly during a New Dramatists Playtime workshop, less than two years ago. Women’s Project is premiering it, with Wendy McClellan directing and a gorgeous cast: Maggie Siff, Andy Paris and Kelly Hutchinson.
Q: You're working on a commission for the Children's Theater in Minneapolis. I was there and was very impressed with them and with their shows. Can you talk about what you're writing for them?
A: Sure, it’s far enough along to talk about. It’s called The Buccaneer, and it’s a musical about a Victorian-era girl who runs away and is captured by a totalitarian pirate king, whose entire crew is made up of kidnapped children and teenagers. Our heroine after many obstacles outwits and defeats him, and becomes the new captain of the pirate ship, now under a democratic rather than despotic system. The wonderful music is by playwright/composer Ellen Maddow and is inspired by sea shanties and world music. It’s being aimed at their 2010/2011 season, I believe. And I agree — CTC is impressive; a beautiful facility and a great mission of real theater for kids. They urged me at every step to go as dark and tough as the story wanted.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’ve got a new play just started that I can’t talk about yet. I’ve started a music/text project with west coast composer David Rhodes called 5 Places, still in its early stages. I’ve got a alt-rock post-apocalyptic musical (with composer John Hodian) for which I’m seeking a production, called The Listener of Junk City, adapted from my play The Listener. And I’m working on a spec TV pilot — Wendy McClellan and I have developed and written a treatment — a virtual-life sci-fi drama about a librarian/cyber-warrior.
Q: A lot of your work has been done in San Francisco. What is the theater scene like there?
A: In my experience, there’s a wealth of small theaters doing new work there; it’s a fantastic place for new plays. I’ve worked with a handful — Crowded Fire, Shotgun, Cutting Ball — and there are many more. And Playwrights Foundation is tremendously supportive of local and visiting playwrights. I love the Bay Area, I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there. The audiences are marvelously smart, receptive and un-jaded.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a person or as a writer.
A: Early in first grade, the teacher handed out sheets of paper with arithmetic problems on them. It was 2 + blank = 4, that sort of thing. Only instead of blanks or underscores, there were shapes. Triangles, circles, squares. I’d never seen a math problem before. I had no idea what was being asked of me. So I got out my crayons and colored in the shapes. I did some stripes and dots as well. I was quite pleased with it.
When the teacher collected my sheet it was instantly clear to me from her face how far off I’d been, and it was also quickly clear that every other kid in the room had known what to do. That sort of thing happened all the time — I was always wondering how did they know? I felt like sort of a failure at the time but later I saw that there are worse things that making up your own game when you don’t know the rules. And I think that says something about my work: structure with surprises.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Surprising, expansive theater. I’m not aesthetically ideological anymore — mostly I just want to feel alive in a theater — I want to be woken up and amazed. Isn’t that the whole point?
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: This is just my opinion obviously and probably bad advice but don’t worry about a career. Put the work first and when the work deserves good things, good things will come. Work with your friends, work obsessively, self-produce in odd cheap spaces, take risks in your art and your life, be reckless, be arrogant. Know you’ve got to write a lot of bad stuff first (or messy, anyway, which has of course its own virtue) so have a ball doing that. Most of all do not let ANYONE tell you how to write your play. Make your own mistakes and learn from them — it’s so boring to make other people’s mistakes and all you learn from that is to not do that.
Q: Plug for your play and any other plugs:
A: Or, previews start October 29th at the Julia Miles Theater on W.55th St: http://www.womensproject.org/on_our_stage.htm
And the wonderful MOXIE Theater in San Diego is currently reviving their 2005 production of my play Dog Act: http://www.moxietheatre.com/node/2