May 5, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 349: Eric Lane
Hometown: I was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, about 10 minutes from Jones Beach.
Current Town: Sunnyside, Queens
Q: Tell me about “Ride.”
A: “Ride” was just published by Dramatists Play Service. It tells the story of three teenage girls who take a life-changing road trip. It was first inspired by a local farm stand that my partner and I would visit in Northwest N.J. We would see these kids working side-by-side who normally would never hang out together. They were forced to spend an entire day, week or summer together, talking, not talking, ignoring each other and connecting in ways they never expected.
The play was originally written as a 10-minute piece. As it was first being produced, I started to think about what happens to these girls once the 10-minute play ended. Out of that, the full-length play sprang.
The three girls in “Ride” are 18, 17 and 11 years old. I love writing characters who on the surface seem vastly different from myself. For me, sometimes those are the characters that turn out to be the most personal. Maybe it’s because of that surface separation between their physical reality and my own that I’m able to pour more of myself into the characters. In the end, they often feel the most fully developed, vulnerable and real.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’ve started working on a new play commission for the Adirondack Theatre Festival. I began my work during a recent residency at the artist’s colony Yaddo, which was incredibly helpful. I needed to let myself not know what the play will be, and Yaddo was the perfect environment to give myself that permission. Two of the characters are well-known figures so it involves a different kind of research that I’ve never done before. That’s very exciting.
Q: Tell me about the books you edit.
A: With Nina Shengold, I’ve co-edited 12 contemporary play anthologies for Viking Penguin and Vintage Books. Our newest collection, “Shorter, Faster, Funnier: Comic Plays and Monologues,” was just published. It includes work by 44 wonderful playwrights – from established and emerging writers, to playwrights who are in print for the first time.
In total, our books have sold over 350,000 copies. Drama Book Shop told us, “Your books are the most shop lifted titles in our store.” That really made us laugh.
As editors, we read the submissions hoping they'll be terrific. There’s a real joy in discovering wonderful work. And when a play is great, it jumps off the page from the moment you start reading it. You can feel it from the first stage direction or line of dialogue. That’s incredibly exciting!
Nina and I will read up to 500 plays before deciding on plays included in the collection. As a playwright, it’s incredibly helpful to read that many plays in that short a period of time. It has taught me a lot.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is not to take rejection that personally. You may have written a brilliant play, but it may not match what that publication or theater is looking for at that particular moment. They already may have chosen another play that is somewhat similar. Or they just may not like it. I’m not saying don’t get pissed off when your work is rejected. But it’s important to use that anger or disappointment to fuel you in finding the right place for your work.
Also, be smart about what you send in. For example, an agent submitted a full-length drama for an anthology of short comic plays. Bad idea.
And try to think of it from the point of view of the person reading your submission. If they’re reading over 500 plays, your play needs to stand out in some way – its use of language, humor, depth of emotion, originality, characters, story, theatricality, skill, etc.
I feel very lucky to have edited these anthologies with Nina. And to be in a position to discover amazing playwrights and help put their work out in the world.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My high school in Wantagh was right next to the pet cemetery where Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers was buried. My friend Shari and I would occasionally cut class and hang out on Checkers’ grave. One day, these wild turkeys appeared from out of the bordering woods, and Shari and I decided to chase them around the cemetery. To this day, Shari will ask me, “Did that really happen or did we both dream that?”
My first play ever produced is called “Dancing on Checkers’ Grave.” I decided Checkers’ grave offered theatrical and emotional possibilities that a living room or kitchen just couldn’t approach. I guess I try not to take anything for granted. Whether it’s the setting, characters, story or language, I try to choose something that’s unique and completely a reflection of the characters’ world and experience.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I’d love to see plays chosen for production based on their originality and vitality, rather than how commercial they’re perceived to be.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Shakespeare. Every time I see his plays, I’m amazed that someone actually wrote that. 400 years later, his work remains incredibly relevant, vital and alive. Also Chekhov, Robert Preston in “The Music Man,” and anyone who continues to write plays and maintain a generosity of spirit toward other writers, artists and the world.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Anything theatrical. By its very nature, theater offers unique possibilities for expression, and I love works that explore that potential. Also anything that’s good – dramas, comedies, musicals and works that combine comedy and drama – from Shakespeare and Chekhov to “I Love Lucy.”
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be original. If there’s another playwright whose work you love, don’t imitate them, but use their originality to inspire you to find your own unique voice. And most of all, hang in there.
Q: Plugs, please:
“SHORTER, FASTER, FUNNIER”
“DANCING ON CHECKERS’ GRAVE” and “HEART OF THE CITY”