Dec 14, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 541: Laura Marks
Hometown: Lexington, KY
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about Bethany.
A: I wrote this play in early 2009 right after I’d been laid off. It’s a darkly funny study of desperate people in desperate times, set in a community that’s been decimated by the foreclosure crisis. Since writing it, I’ll confess that I’ve been anxiously watching the news for signs of economic recovery, worrying that my play would stop feeling relevant. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I don’t think that’s been the case…
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I have a spooky play called Mine that’s getting its Chicago premiere at the Gift Theater this summer, and I’m working on a new play called Gather at the River which is about religion, morality and the extreme ends of the blue-state vs. red-state divide. It draws on my Kentucky roots.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I can’t think of a truly definitive story, but there’s a character in Bethany who’s a wilderness survival enthusiast, among other things; and working on that play reminds me that one of my favorite childhood books was the US Air Force Combat Survival Manual. I don’t even know why we had this in the house. My dad must have bought it at some Army-Navy store around the same time when he started keeping canisters of freeze-dried eggs and sausage in the garage, just in case of nuclear winter. He’s a thoroughly rational guy, a doctor —not your typical doomsday prepper. But I have a bunch of his love letters to my mom when they were in college, and even as a young man he had this strain of concern that I find very moving: he was already worrying about protecting my mom and their as-yet-unborn children.
So anyway, we had this insane book. And it was about the stuff every kid wants to know: how to stay alive after you’ve been shot down in enemy territory. You didn’t just learn the basics like how to build a lean-to or ensnare wild animals. There was crazy shit in there, like how to distill your own urine if you couldn’t find clean water. And there was a first-person account from a guy in a Vietnamese POW camp who had performed a hemorrhoidectomy using the sharpened steel arch support from his combat boot. He described the postoperative patient as “living in considerably greater comfort.” I mean, you can’t read that as a kid and not have it etched in your brain.
I have two little girls of my own now, and I’m often surprised at the extreme scenarios they’re drawn to in their make-believe games. But it seems utterly normal and healthy for them to work a few things out this way. Marsha Norman once said, “Plays are about survival.” And I think that’s true, whether the plays are being done with LEGOs in the living room or on a professional stage. We all like to imagine how we’d act under different types and levels of duress, how we’d function and survive.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I wish it wasn’t just for the rarefied few. I wish that audiences—and the people who make theater—were more representative of the whole community.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: For sheer pluck and doggedness, I’d say Helene Hanff and Moss Hart. They’re not heroes in the Olympian sense. They feel accessible. Hanff wrote a book called Underfoot in Show Business—I believe it’s out of print now, but it’s this wonderful, humble memoir of her time as a young playwright trying to get produced in the 1940’s and 50’s. It’s the perfect antidote to self-pity. And Moss Hart’s memoir, Act One, has the most epic account of a rewrite that I’ve ever read.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: “To see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang the beautiful incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified. The difficulty most worth tackling can only be… the greatest the case permits of.” – Henry James
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Apply to the Emerging Writers’ Group at the Public. Apply to Juilliard’s playwriting program. Send your stuff to the Lark Play Development Center. Apply to New Dramatists. Join the Dramatists Guild.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: This spring, I can’t wait to see Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 at the Public and Tanya Barfield’s The Call at Playwrights Horizons.
And my play Bethany will be at City Center Stage II, running January 11-February 17, 2013. The Women’s Project is producing it, Gaye Taylor Upchurch is directing it, and the cast and creative team are an absolute joy.