Thursday, July 10, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 674: Laura Schellhardt

Laura Schellhardt

Hometown: I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and my family moved around a lot when I was growing up. But we've been in Chicago for the longest stretch of time now, so I consider it my hometown.

Current Town: Chicago, IL

Q:  Tell me about your play in the Kilroys List.

A:  So THE COMPARABLES is a dark comedy about three women vying for control of a high end real estate agency. It emerged in two shifts. The first incarnation was inspired by the series of town hall meetings Julia Jordan launched at New Dramatists several years concerning why female playwrights were so scarce in the Broadway/Regional Theatre circuit. There was some abysmal statistic - something like 10 or 12 percent of the new plays produced around the country that year were by women. So the statistic got me thinking - and by thinking I mean it threw me into that frenzy of rage and despair that often (for me anyway) results in art. However, it was actually a series of comments on an article about those meetings that inspired the plot. A female reporter wrote a thoughtful summation of one of those town halls, and for some reason it prompted a slew of vicious comments from readers - one of which stated women would be happier if we just accepted that men were the creators in this world and women were the caregivers. And that comment was made by a woman. So that happened, and then I started to write.

That version of the play though was just a series of scripted half-thoughts until Braden Abraham and I began discussing a commission for Seattle Rep. Originally we wanted to adapt Genet's The Maids, but it's difficult for American writers to secure those rights - so we decided that what we loved about that piece was its rumination on the specific nature of female cruelty - the unique way women compete with women - and all of a sudden those half-thoughts began to take shape. The play isn't an adaptation of The Maids, and I hope (pray?) it's funnier than The Maids, but it shares the same primary theme.

What else are you working on now? Honestly? Right now I'm working on a way to type with one hand while I hold my newborn with the other. Also how to function on three hours of sleep. Also the world's a whole lot more delightful and terrifying with him in it, so I'm working on finding a balance between those two states of mind.

Writing-wise, I'm working on a commission from The Goodman Theatre about the first state-certified electrocution in America, as well as a young adult piece about a group of kids trying to escape the island they live on in search of a better future. This goal is made difficult by the adults in their lives and the gators surrounding the island. Electricity and reptiles - that's my creative life these days.

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

A:  Well, when I was seven I had the opportunity to meet President Reagan, and I turned it down in favor of the buffet table which had chocolate-covered strawberries the size of my fist. For some reason that story seems relevant to my work.

The story that keeps coming up as I think about that question though is a production of Choose Your Own Adventures that was put up at my grade school in Virginia, with five actors playing fifty roles - including inanimate objects, animals and the weather. I was young at the time, but I know that event was formative for me somehow. It was funny and surprising and seemingly impossible, and also it required physical virtuosity - which I think has become one of my definitions for success.

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

A:  I know most people say it should be less expensive - and I agree with that. I'd also love it if the nightly news replaced some of their sports coverage with arts coverage - or here's a thought, cover them both - so more kids saw both as equally viable options. I'd also like more theatre - mine included - to involve specific communities in process and production. I think that's the fastest way to grow new audiences across the country. That wasn't one thing, sorry. I'm big on change.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:   Oh, most of them are teachers. Paula Vogel and John Logan have been guiding lights in my life - professionally and personally. Paula's changed so many people's lives for the better - I mean, she's got the Pulitzer in drama, but she should also have a Pulitzer in humanitarian effort. John taught me tenacity and rigor. My former acting teacher, Mary Poole, taught me that vulnerability is not a weakness. Also my siblings who find humor in even the darkest of events. Also my husband - who's a classical musician - has a professional discipline I will never achieve, but it's important to have something to shoot for. Also now my son for whom everything is new. I'd love for more of my world to feel new again.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I like theatre that moves quickly - not short productions necessarily, but work that has a fast pulse. Also theatre where cruelty and beauty collide. Also theatre that demands its performers be physically or linguistically virtuosic at some point (or all the time.) And I'll see any play with a chase scene in it.

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

A:  Stay in the game. Unless you fall out of love with the game, then do something else. And don't compare yourself to anyone else. And don't expect that the things you thought would be the most fulfilling are actually the things that will be the most fulfilling. They might be, but also they might not. Oh - and figure out how to type quickly with one hand, because one day you may have a newborn, and that will be a useful skill.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Here are my Chicago shout-outs: Dog And Pony Theatre Company - doing some of the most innovative work in the city, check them out. Ike Holter - follow his work. His new play especially - Exit Strategy - is fantastic. All the writers in the Goodman Theatre's Playwright's Unit - that's a personal plug but mostly a plug for that program and the plays that come out of it. Anything Hallie Gordon commissions for young adult audiences at Steppenwolf. If you're interested in learning about the new classical music scene - check out the Spektral Quartet. I'm married to the violist, so I'm biased, but also they're commissioning a lot of new pieces themselves. And finally - if you're in Seattle next winter (2015), go see The Comparables. We've got one hell of an ensemble.

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