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Interview with DETROIT playwright Lisa D’Amour

15 September 2014


Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell was lucky enough to speak with Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright Lisa D’Amour about her play DETROIT.  She shares a little about its origin, how its changed, and what it is like having her next play produced on Broadway.

Mark: Can you share with us a little about the origin of DETROIT?

Lisa: I sat down to write DETROIT after a huge year (or maybe two) of collaborative projects and commissions. They were all great experiences, but required a huge amount of group think, compromise and writing-to-order. I wanted to start a project that was just mine, that would allow my mind to run wild. I’d written a two-couple play before: THE CATARACT is about a couple from the North who take in a vagabond couple from the South. So there is obviously something that I am trying to work out, over time, about opposites / dopplegangers and a hidden longing for our shadow selves.

What are some of the changes that came to the script during the development process?

The biggest change has to do with the final scenes of the play. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say the house was still there at the end, Mary and Ben were having dinner with the Pink Jogging Suit lady in the last scene!

If the play doesn’t necessarily take place in DETROIT why title the play DETROIT?

The title dropped into my head about halfway through my writing process. Looking back, I realized I really titled the play from an outsiders perspective — having never visited DETROIT, the images that the word evoked were all media images — factories closing, white flight, economic collapse and so on. I’m from New Orleans, but perhaps it is similar to the images that come to mind when non-New Orleaneans think of New Orleans — they picture parades, drinking, strip clubs, maybe jazz. Of course it’s more than that, but I understand why those images come to mind. I think the city name DETROIT evokes a certain anxiety in many readers / viewers — anxiety about America and where it’s going, anxieties about financial security. And that anxiety is part of what fuels the play.

What playwrights do you feel have been most influential to your playwriting style? Why?

Mac Wellman who taught me the importance of nonsense and poetry. Sherry Kramer who taught me about the importance of the perception shift and magical objects. Caryl Churchill who taught me about economiy andof language and structure. August Wilson who taught me how to celebreate the beauty and strangeness of vernacular speech. Irene Fornes who taught me the power of strange female sexual energy on stage.

How has winning an Obie and being nominated for a Pulitzer changed your life as a playwright?

It has not changed the way I work — I still write plays for the regional theater and self-produce a ton of experimental interdisciplinary work. However I do think it has made theaters more open and eager to read and consider my work. One of my latest plays, Cherokee, which is being done at Woolly Mammoth and also had a production at the Wilma is a pretty wild ride. And I am not sure theaters would have taken a chance on it without the track record of DETROIT behind it.

What has surprised you the most about DETROIT in actual production?

How the ending polarizes audiences. In every production I have been a part of, the audience falls into two camps — one camp thinks Mary and Ben’s marriage is over, that all is lost. The other think Mary and Ben have been given a gift — and their life together is about to be discovered/ reinvented. It’s always thrilling to hear the two camps argue in post-play discussions!

What do you think gives your play such broad appeal?

Oh you know. Doesn’t everyone want to reveal their secret self at some point in their life?

Do you personally identify more with Mary and Ben or with Kenny and Sharon?

Definitely all four! I see myself in each one of them, and lovingly so.

You got your MFA from UT here in Austin and were active in the local theatre scene. Can you tell us a little bit about how this city may have influenced or shaped your artistic career?

I always say that I grew up as an artist in Austin. I was there in the mid-1990’s, when SVT, Rude Mechs and Physical Plant were all just beginning, and Frontera@Hyde Park Theater was barely an adolescent. It was a thrilling time — nobody had any money, but everyone was making new work — in sheds, in groves of trees, in back yards. If your theater wasn’t big enough, just start your play in the parking lot across the street and have the audience eventually move into the theater and then into the back alley (this is how Vicky Boone staged Enfants Perdu by Erik Ehn). There was an energy of constant discovery, of sharing resources, of shaking things up. Also, thanks to Frontera, there were guest artists coming through town regularly – David Hancock, Laurie Carlos, Erik Ehn, Daniel Alexander Jones, Ruth Margraff. So there was constantly new blood, new material, new ways of looking at theater. I also feel like Austin was — and probably still is — unique in that the boundary between the University and the local theater community is very porous — with students leaving campus to work in local theaters and vice versa. You don’t see that very often, and the dynamic just creates an incredible conversation between the two worlds.

You have performed and written pieces performed at Hyde Park Theatre where we are producing DETROIT. What is your impression of the space and relationship to the city?

It’s so amazing that has remained such a vital and active space all these years! Perhaps the most magical corner in Austin. It is so amazing to think of the many epic worlds that have been created in that shoebox of a space. It is an unassuming but absolutely crucial anchor to the Austin arts scene.

It was recently announced that your play Airline Highway is heading to Broadway. How does it feel to get your first Broadway production? What should audiences expect from this play?

Well, it is going to be a wild ride! I feel like I am in good hands because I have such a great relationship with Steppenwolf, where the production originated. I’ve also been getting to know Manhattan Theater Club this year because I am in the middle of a commission from them. MTC is an Off Broadway theater that also has a Broadway house, so that makes me feel safer too — it’s not solely a commercial interest, so there was no pressure to, say, cast stars in all the roles. I think the play is going to look great in a big space — it’s set in a crumbling motel on Airline Highway on the outskirts of New Orleans, and takes place over the course of one day when the hotel residents are throwing a “living funeral” for a friend of theirs who is dying. I was thinking a lot about Hot L Baltimore when I wrote it….and Tennessee Williams of course, because it’s set in New Orleans, and so there is a bit of an old fashioned feel to the play…..perhaps looking back to the days when straight plays were produced all the time on Broadway, with gorgeous sets, cast with stars of the theater, not film. It was really fun to be able to write something of that scale … with 9 characters and a big ole set. I wasn’t totally sure Steppenwolf was going to go for it. So it was really amazing when they programed it, and then Broadway opportunity came along.

Whats up next for you?

Rehearsals for Airline Highway start November 2nd. And then Cherokee will rehearse and perform at Woolly Mammoth next Spring. And I continue to work on MILTON, my latest project with my company PearlDamour, a peformance based on 5 towns named Milton in the United States.

What would you like audiences talking about when they leave the theatre after a performance of DETROIT?

Their own lives, the ghost of the American Dream, the search for (and fear of) the ecstatic moment, the ways in which American attitudes towards money can seduce us into living timid lives…..and so on…