Dallas — Playwright Lisa D’Amour says her life seems to be playing out in two different worlds these days. One is the downtown Manhattan world of experimental theater, where she and collaborator Katie Pearl—as performance duo PearlDamour—are known for creating “large scale performances that mix theater and installation.” (You can learn more about them at http://pearldamour.com/.) And in her busy “other” world, D’Amour’s straight-up playwriting has brought commissions and productions from Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Playwrights Horizons in New York, and London’s Royal National Theatre. Her darkly comic play Detroit, which has its regional premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater this week, was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and won the 2013 Obie Award for Best New American Play.
D’Amour talked with TheaterJones recently about the upcoming Detroit, and she spoke thoughtfully about how awards, royalties, name recognition and success are—and aren’t—changing her life and work.
TheaterJones: Just using the name Detroit is a kind of provocation, isn’t it? You have to know that the audience will come in with a lot of images, ideas, and political and social opinions—lots of baggage.
Lisa D’Amour: And it’s interesting, the baggage has shifted somewhat since I wrote the play in 2009. Although the play on its surface looks like a regular, naturalistic play, it reads a little more like a fable. It’s rather stylized, and the setting is not an actual neighborhood in Detroit. When I chose the name, I thought about how the city holds a mythic place in the American psyche. It reminds us of our general ideas about the death of the American Dream, about white flight, about the death of manufacturing, and so forth. I’m not from Detroit, and I feel I titled the play very much as an outsider. People in Detroit have a much more specific knowledge of what it means to live there.
When you say things have shifted or changed since you wrote the play, what do you mean?
Detroit’s been so much in the public eye the last year or so because of the bankruptcy proceedings. It’s gone from a city struggling to find its way to suddenly feeling like a city that’s hit rock bottom. However, that’s the general view. Since I wrote the play I’ve visited Detroit twice, once for a theater festival, and once to actually see a production of Detroit in Detroit. I’ve learned a lot about the city. You start to see the people behind the headlines, the do-it-yourself grassroots movements to try and revitalize whole neighborhoods. You start to see people taking matters into their own hands. But you really only see that if you go and spend time there.
There’s a lot that’s lost in my play, but there’s also something at the end of the play that feels like a bubbling up of something new, of potential. It’s the feeling of a cycle of loss that might lead to a rebirth. I can’t say I was thinking of all of that consciously when I wrote the play, but I think it was hovering on the edge of my imagination. And it’s become quite clear to me as I’ve watched several different productions of the play.
You catch Ben and Mary, the more middle-class couple of the play, at a particular moment in time: he’s been laid off, but still has one more month of severance pay. It’s as if they’re still in the lifeboat, looking at the water full of sharks—but they haven’t fallen into the water yet. And Ben is still thinking maybe he’ll save them with an e-business he’s setting up. The other couple has already lost more, fallen further down the economic scale.
Both couples are in the lifeboat, and they’re both in a very precarious position. And I don’t think they would have reached out to each other if they weren’t. If they were completely settled and safe inside their bubbles, there’d be no need for help or new knowledge. But I feel like both sets of couples are craving some kind of new knowledge; it’s almost as if each couple wants to be the other. And so they’re trying to connect, trying to find—in whatever strange and awkward ways—a new path, because neither couple is very satisfied with the path that they’re on.
So what are they looking for—some 2.0 version of life, “an” American Dream, if not the old one?
I think Mary and Ben have a very limited view of what it means to succeed within the American Dream. They’ve gone down that conventional path. And now, I wouldn’t say they’re at rock bottom, but they’re down there—and I think sometimes when you get to that point your perception doesn’t just change, it can also widen. I think maybe they’re trying to figure out “well, what is my American Dream?” Who am I as an individual, with all my ragged edges? How can I break away from convention and maybe forge my own path? Which is something Mary and Ben never really did before, question the path they were on. Kenny and Sharon [the other couple] have had a more complicated path because it was forged by their addiction. They’ve been in their own kind of fantasy land.
If I were looking at the Great Recession as source material—the whole economic downturn and its impact in the past few years—I’m not sure “comedy” would be the first thing that would spring to my mind. But that’s where you took it.
There’s a certain amount of humor in all of my work, though it’s a humor with a very strange tone, I think. People laugh in this play because the situations or turns of conversation are strange. I think the way this two-couple relationship develops is unexpected, so I think a lot of the laughter is surprise, too. But this isn’t Noises Off [laughs]; it’s not that kind of play.
Is it part of your intention to let comedy “help” in some way—to make people think or feel “OK, maybe there are different lives we could lead” even if things are taking a downturn?
Well, I’m pro-laughter. I think, you know, I really love plays that take you on a wild and surprising ride—that make you go “Wow, I never expected that person to say that!” I hope that laughter sometimes opens up a space, a potential for something. I often think about people coming into the theater, super-stressed out, and I believe that a really surprising play can make you stop for a moment and see a larger world—which can affect the choices we make in that world.
There really hasn’t been a huge wave of plays that have dealt head-on with the impact of all this economic turmoil on “regular” people—it’s surprising, in a way.
It was kind of a happy accident that I wrote this play when I did. I never sat down and thought: “The economy is falling apart and I’m going to write about it.” But it was in the news, and my Dad was trying to figure out his retirement account after the market had crashed for a second time, so this anxiety was around me. And you’re always looking for ways to start a play with characters who are in a tough position that has the potential for change. I think it’s hard to write directly about things; even a play like Angels in America, that was so political, doesn’t come at those ideas head on, but by fracturing them and going at it from a lot of different, very personal angles. People might want to look at a play called Bethany by Laura Marks that premiered in New York last year, though—which is about a single mother trying to cope with the economic mess.
You live in two urban places that are no strangers to cycles of breaking down and building up again—you bought a house post-Katrina in New Orleans, and also live in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
I wasn’t living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, but all my family and many friends were, and I was there a lot in the next year helping clean up my brother’s house, which had taken on seven feet of water. Watching that city come back was one of the most profound experiences of my life. And watching the almost immediate action by so many individual people, as every level of government—city, state, federal—totally failed them, was a really moving and kind of miraculous experience, and greatly affected the way I view the end of this play.
I don’t know if you like this term, but Detroit does seem to have been a “breakthrough” work for you. It took some big awards and generated a lot of recognition around the country. What’s changed in your playwriting life these past couple of years?
It was and it wasn’t a breakthrough, but then I feel I’ve forged a very strange career—I have mostly been in small theaters, doing site-specific performance experiences, and doing a lot of teaching. And I think within that field I was, before this, considered a fairly successful artist. It never dawned on me that I was going to make another leap—so few people ever make their whole living from their plays. I was trying to figure out what kind of artist I was, not how I could write a hit play.
But there was a series of happy accidents that got Detroit to Steppenwolf, in part because of a longtime connection I’ve had with a woman named Polly Carl, who works with them now. So really the trajectory to Steppenwolf and that first production was a very slow and steady one, since it involved years of relationships. But what’s changed are some really specific things. For the past two years I’ve been able to live on the royalties from Detroit and a couple of amazing awards I’ve received. I haven’t been teaching, which is a really new way of living my life.
Taking some time off from teaching must have freed up significant time for your writing, yes?
Yes, it did. And another thing that’s changed is that theaters who’ve always read my plays and thought they might be a little too strange to produce are now looking at them in a new way. This tickles me no end. I have a new play, Cherokee, that’s premiering at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia soon, and that’s a kind of two-couple companion piece to Detroit. It’s a stranger play than Detroit, but the Wilma was willing to take the risk. What I’m hopeful for is that theaters are going to be more excited about taking risks with me and my work, and that is just really thrilling to me.
Playwriting is such a roller coaster ride, of course. There’s no telling if I’ll be able to keep living on what the plays earn—my plays are all really different, and I don’t expect all of them to have this kind of reception.
What I’ve heard about your work was that you were seen as an edgy, imaginative downtown performance artist. Are you still very involved in that work?
I’m doing all of it at the same time. I’ve been here [in Washington D.C.] to see previews of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Detroit. And I’ll be sitting down this morning to work on the PearlDamour project Milton. My collaborator Katie Pearl and I visited five towns around the U.S. named Milton, in Oregon, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina. We’re creating this quite experimental spoken and sung piece that feels like something between a poem and an opera, and we plan to bring it back to each Milton. So though my life feels very divided, I’m still doing these more experimental works too. Last week I was finishing a nine-character play on commission for Steppenwolf, set in a hotel in New Orleans. I’m continuing to do both; it’s a little crazy, because both areas of my life are pretty successful right now, so it will be interesting to see how I toggle back and forth. The dream will be that in five years it feels a little more whole, instead of like living in two different worlds.
Kitchen Dog seems like a good fit for this play, with their interest in pieces that push us to think about the social, political, personal choices in our lives.
Yes, I’ve heard about them for years. I’m really thrilled that they’re producing Detroit.