Invention and Reinvention: An Interview with the Playwright

By Carl, Polly | American Theatre, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Invention and Reinvention: An Interview with the Playwright


Carl, Polly, American Theatre


POLLY CARL: The first show of yours I saw was a large performance piece called Slabber, nothing at all like Detroit. This has been typical of your career: You do large, often site-specific performance pieces, then a play. How do you talk about this dual nature of your artistic life?

LISA D'AMOUR: I often talk about it as satisfying two different parts of my brain--the part that wants to be in a room making things with my hands with lots of people, and the part that wants to "hermit up" and write. I make my site-specific work with the genius Katie Pearl--together we are PearlDamour. We almost always collaborate from the ground up with artists of different disciplines. The process involves a lot of grappling and a huge number of unknowns. Of course writing plays involves unknowns too, but I only have to grapple with myself!

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You wrote Detroit very quickly, and we decided to produce it at Steppenwolf based on reading a first draft. It kind of came out of you onto the page and ready for production--right?

Yes--bizarre, right? I did a rewrite, and then we spent the first week of rehearsals putting everything right back the way it was. I wrote Detroit after an awesome, very collaborative year that began with making a performance for Swoon's seven handmade boats that traveled down the Hudson River, and ended with lots of development work on PearlDamour's dance-theatre piece Terrible Things, which 1 directed. I think I was just ready to go to a quiet place and write something that was "just mine."

From your perspective, how does this play aptly represent the United States of America right now?

Well, let's say it touches on a panic I feel in a certain middle-class to upper-middle-class United States right now. There's a feeling that the things we thought were solid--whether it be a house or a job or an economy--are actually more like Jell-O. This can result in hardship, but it can also result in a call-to-action to reinvent yourself, to figure out what you really want and need--who you really are--rather than being ruled by messages (media or otherwise) that have been thrown at you since you were born.

In one of the stage directions in Detroit you talk about the difference between being beer drunk and being bourbon drunk. I've always felt that understanding this was the key to understanding the play. Can you explain?

Oh, Polly, please! You're the one that missed my wedding. You're just going to have to come to a D'Amour family barbecue down in New Orleans and I'll sort that out for you.

When Detroit opened at Steppenwolf in the fall, a lot: of your family came up to see it--was it 20 people? Several of them said to me they loved Detroit because it was the first thing of yours they actually understood. As an artist, what's your relationship to your audience? Do you strive to be understood?

I strive toward the unknown. Maybe because Mac Wellman told me I should, or maybe because Sherry Kramer told me that there is nothing that concentrates the mind so much as the realization that you've been wrong. People go to the theatre looking for a new frame of reference. The situation in Detroit is perhaps more recognizable than in my other pieces, but I do think the play pushes the characters (and the audience) to an untamed place where they can reevaluate their assumptions. My hope--perhaps a naive hope--is that the theatre I make invites people to shake off any unwanted thought patterns that may be ruling them, and move toward something new in themselves and in the world.

Talk a little more about your family- What impact have they had on your writing? …

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