Wednesday, May 05, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 164: Laura Eason

Laura Eason

Hometown: Evanston, IL

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY. I lived in Chicago for a long time and still frequently work at Lookingglass Theatre (where I am a company member) and Steppenwolf Theatre so people often think I still live there but I've lived in New York for almost five years now. I go where the work is and much of it still happens to still be in Chicago, which is fine with me!

Q:  Tell me please about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer now at Hartford Stage.

A:  Hartford Stage commissioned me to write a new adaptation of the Twain novel. Jeremy Cohen, the Associate Artistic Director who is also the play's director, called me a little over a year ago asking, "are you interested in a commission to write this play and if you are here are your production dates." The kind of call you always hope to get. So, they committed to the production before reading one word of the play. Obviously, it's based on Twain's book and the intent was to keep the adaptation true to the source material but, still, even with my good track record, they took a bit of a risk having never worked with me before. The development process was wonderful with Jeremy, artistic director Michael Wilson and the rest of their artistic staff. They are all really smart and supportive and Hartford Stage is a wonderful place to work. I'm so happy to have had the opportunity and I couldn't be more thrilled with this production. Jeremy did a wonderful job and put together a remarkable teams of designers and actors. My hope was that we could create a genuinely playful, fun adventure that kids would love but that grown-ups would, too, and that it would spark memories of their own childhoods. Never once did we think of it as "children's theatre". I don't know how to do that or really what that means. We just made the best show we could of this story using incredible artists and it turned out really well. It's very physical and visual with movement sections created by Tommy Rapley of the House Theatre of Chicago and an amazing score by the Broken Chord Collective, beautiful, transformative set by my Lookingglass colleague Dan Ostling, and perfect lights by Robert Wierzel, among others. And it does appeal to the large span in the age range of the audience (which is from about 6 to 80's) in a wonderful way. We are hoping this production will live on in 2011- - 2012. There has been a lot of interest regionally.

Q:  You write both adaptations and totally original works, can you talk about that?

A:  About half of what I do is adaptation, the other original. I could talk forever about adaptation and why I love it and think it's great. Adaptation and story theatre are an essential and really rich part of the theatrical landscape in Chicago. I don't think that's so in New York, which I think is too bad. (Although it is totally accepted in the realm of musical theatre, which is interesting to me.) But I won't bore everyone to death with that conversation. Suffice to say, I think adaptation can yield gorgeous and unforgettable work. In relation to my work specifically, getting to spend a lot of time and become very intimate with great works of literature (I've adapted Dickens and Twain and Wharton to name a few) is a huge pleasure and I think has made me a much better writer in general. Also, I have learned a lot about clarity of story telling and structure doing adaptation. A lot of people think it's just editing which isn't at all the case when it is done well. You are, ideally, constructing something new that has it's own point of view and a big idea at the center. You're using elements from something already existing, of course, but you are creating an original and cohesive dramatic structure and a theatrical delivery system suited to that story. In my experience, adaptation is as hard as creating original work. Again, plenty more to say on why that is, but I'll leave it at that.

The other half of what I do is original. Because my adaptation work is often sprawling, plot driven, very theatrical with a strong physical and visual sense and scenes are often short and economical, almost filmic, my original work (at least right now) is almost a response and tends to be very character-driven with long scenes and lives more in realism I also have a couple of "hybrid pieces" that combine realistic scenes with more metaphoric movement sections which, I think, is a cool combo-platter not a lot of people are exploring.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I have an original two character play called Sex with Strangers that is part of the subscription series at Steppenwolf next year that deals with the public/private self. I am going to direct a new adaptation I did of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome at Lookingglass next year (I often direct my own work at Lookingglass). So, I'm working on rewrites of both of those. I also have a three character play that I did a reading of at Rattlestick in January called Plainfield Ace -- I am working on a rewrite of that to do another reading with them. I'm also dipping my toe in the water of book-writing for musicals. I was just brought on as book writer to a fantastic musical project that's been in the works for a while called The Mistress Cycle that lyricist and composer Beth Blatt and Jenny Giering have created and developed. Kent Nicholson, whose work I have admired for a while, since his CA days, will be directing. I'm very excited about it. I'm also working on the book of a musical that Grammy winner Kurt Elling is developing. In addition to being an incredible artist and one of the finest voices in music today, he is just generally the coolest and super fun to hang out with and listen to his stories. I'm also working on a short piece for a project the playwright's lab of 2008 - 2010 (that I am a member of) at the Women's Project is putting together. There are 11 playwrights in my group and we've all grown really close and are putting together a final project that will be in the Julia Miles in July. Stay tuned. Finally, I have co-written a screenplay with writer/actor Paul Oakley Stovall adapted from his play As Much as You Can which should be happening off-Broadway in the next year. The screenplay was just optioned and we're hoping the movie gets made in the next year. I'm very interested in branching out into more screenwriting. I think that's all. Also always researching and exploring ideas for future projects.

Q:  You were once the Artistic Director of Lookingglass. Has helming a theater affected the way you write?

A:  I was AD for a total of six years and saw a lot of shows through development and production. I think it has made me more understanding of how much budgetary concerns affect artistic choices and that the difference between a cast of 8 and a cast of 5 can be the difference between your play getting done or not. It sucks, but that is true. So, I think it makes me balance out my work. I don't write all 10 character plays. I make some small shows, too, because I know more people are looking for them. I also think I appreciate how hard everyone works to get a show up. So, when I'm in process, I try to be really open to input and to the collaboration that is theater making. Being a good leader is knowing you don't have to have every good idea, you just need to know the good idea when you hear it, no matter who comes up with it. That is true for writing for the theatre, too. You don't always have to have the idea. An actor or the director or the dramaturg might have a fantastic suggestion and, to me, being a good writer is actually being open to those suggestions.

Q:  What theaters or shows in Chicago should I check out?

A:  There are around 300 active companies in Chicago, just so people know. As well as god knows how many one-off productions.... the scene is huge and robust. And although I'm there a lot, I can't keep up like I could when I lived there so there are newer companies I don't know. But some that have been around a little while (for 15 years plus to at least a year or two) that people might not have heard of that are fantastic are: Redmoon, Dog and Pony, The House Theatre, Silk Road, About Face, Pavement Group, 500 Clown, Congo Square, The Side Project, Theatre Seven, XIII Pocket, Timeline, Curious, Red Orchid... oh, so many more but that's what I can think of off the top of my head. I know I'm going to regret it tomorrow when I realize who I forgot...

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was 6, I really starting to have doubts about Santa Claus and these other magical characters (the Tooth Fairy, etc) being real and having a hunch it was all my parents making. So, when I lost my next tooth, I put it under my pillow and didn't tell my parents. In the morning, when I woke up and found the tooth still there and no money, I marched into their room, brandishing my tooth like a weapon, and announced, "There is no Santa Clause, no Tooth Fairy, no Easter Bunny" and marched out. And that was that.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I would make everyone stop having such an inferiority complex! Everyone is always moping around, soul searching "Is the theatre irrelevant?" or in crisis mode "The theater is dying!" or so generally insecure that we feel like we have to have movie stars in plays or people won't come to them. I just want everyone in the theatre to stop all the hand wringing! Can we please just be proud of what we do and feel good about it? Sure, there isn't a lot of money in it. OK. Does that always need to be the headline?! How much better would it be if we all walked around talking about how awesome the theatre is?! 'Cause it is! We get to tell beautiful and ugly and scary and thoughtful and dangerous and moving and important stories that help us think about what it means to be human. What is better than that? Sure, maybe every once in a while we can complain about how we don't want to have to go to the laundromat anymore and wish the theatre could afford us a washer and dryer (see, I fall victim, too) but really, we need to encourage each other to stop theatre bashing. It's like the perfectly pretty, nice, smart girl in school who is constantly talking about how boring, stupid and ugly she is. When you first meet her you think, 'hey, she's kinda cute and really nice and, wow, maybe this could be something' but by the time she stops pointing out all of her faults you're like, 'Jesus, what was I thinking! Get me away from her!' If WE can't celebrate all the many wonderful things that a life in the theatre is -- and they are many -- then why should non-theatre people respect us or care about us. Seriously. And if theatre were going to die, it would already be dead -- we would have killed it with our pathetic attitudes!

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Joyce Piven who runs the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, IL where i took theatre classes as a child. She taught me the power of storytelling, the importance and value of ensemble, she introduced me to story theatre and she showed me how to make magic in an empty room on an empty stage with just her body and her voice, she taught me that anything can be summoned in the theatre with the power of the imagination. I am in the theater because of her and think of her all the time. Beyond that... Frank Galati who was a teacher of mine at Northwestern, incredible adaptor and director, I learned adaptation from him and how to conceive pieces where you can't really separate the text and the direction, the words and the physical life, it is all one large connected gesture, something my friend Michael Rohd calls 'total theatre'. Frank's production of The Grapes of Wrath is still deeply influential to me. Mary Zimmerman, my friend and frequent collaborator. Before I was a writer I was an actor and I was in 10 of her plays, starting with the first things she ever directed and I learned so much watching her work and growing her talent over the years. I learned from her that if you make the work you want to make, trying only to please yourself, and don't listen to what others want you to be or what critics or people you don't care about think of what you make, if you can stay true to yourself and you walk away feeling you did everything you wanted and it was what you wanted it to be, you will be happy. Also my fellow ensemble members at Lookingglass theatre who decided to make a company when they were just out of school and it's given me my whole professional (and to a large extent personal) life... and have made 20 years worth of incredible work that I've learned so much from. As for playwrights whose work was important to me... I saw a Streetcar that Bob Falls directed at a now defunct theatre in Chicago called Wisdom Bridge when I was 14 and it changed my life. It was an incredible production and my world was totally rocked by the power of the play and this door that was opened onto another world that I got to step into. It was totally magical and a little scary and completely thrilling. I came home and pulled out my Mom's copy of the play and read it and re-read it. I continue to deeply love that play. And Chekhov. I love me some Chekhov. Those were early influences.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that creates a full and compelling world that I feel totally immersed in and that has an important idea or question at the center of it. So, although I love big epic theatre, I'm not aesthetically biased, I can love something totally straight ahead if it's a compelling world and really ABOUT something. I'm not persuaded by work that is really only an exploration of style I have to care. It has to say something and mean something. In the last few years, some things that stayed with me include The Elephant Vanishes (Complicite at Lincoln Center), Hotel Cassiopeia (Siti Company and Charles Mee) Daniel Talbott's Slipping (Rising Phoenix Repertory at Rattlestick) Heidi Stillman's adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov at Lookingglass in Chicago, GATZ (ERS), The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya at Lake Lucille, August Osage County (that I saw opening night in Chicago, unforgettable), In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, there are more but those are some good ones. My hunch is Circle Mirror Transformation would have been on that list but my baby came 10 days early so I couldn't get to it and I had to give up my tickets.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Write. Just write. And then find a few people who you really, really trust that are smart and talented who you know are genuinely on your side to be in dialogue with you about your work. Invite friends over to read your work out loud so you can hear it (but don't listen to them talk about your play unless they are those really trusted friends). Learn how to listen to the idea behind prescriptive suggestions when you receive them, think about what people are circling around as being the problem, don't listen to their suggested solution, that will just make you irritated and defensive but they might be pointing out a problem that is worth paying attention to. If you can't get someone else to produce your work, find some friends that will help you do it yourself. Make your own opportunities. You don't have to wait for anyone to give you permission. Don't be a snob -- nothing in relation to your work is too small or low profile if good people are behind it... a 10 minute play festival in a basement somewhere with people you think are cool? Yes, do that. Finally, it's a process. The first draft might suck a little, but it will keep getting better, you just have to keep moving forward. That's just the process.

Q: Plugs, please:

A:  The Adventure of Tom Sawyer runs another week at Hartford Stage. The Women's Project Show is July 15th at the Julia Miles. And people can always find what I'm up to at Thanks!

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