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The Playwright’s Playground: Playwright Lisa D’Amour Discusses Process, Transformation, and Her Long Journey with ‘Cherokee’

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In this edition of The Playwright’s Playground, I interview playwright Lisa D’Amour, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and interdisciplinary artist who comes from a long line of female storytellers.

On stage at Woolly Mammoth until March 8, 2014 is her play Cherokee – D’Amour’s examination of what it means to lead an authentic life. The heartfelt and comedic Cherokee is the Woolly commissioned companion piece to Detroit, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, a 2013 Obie Award-winner (Best New American Play) and the 2011 Susan Smith Blackburn prize.

Lisa D’Amour is the recipient of the 2008 Alpert Award for the Arts in theater, the 2011 Steinberg Playwright Award and is a recipient of the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. As a playwright, D’Amour has received fellowships from the Jerome and McKnight Foundations, and an NEA /TCG Playwrights’ Residency. She is one half of the OBIE-Award winning performance duo/company PearlDamour. With this interdisciplinary company, D’Amour is a four-time recipient of project funding from the Rockefeller MAP Fund and a 2009 Creative Capital grantee. Lisa D’Amour received her M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a core member of the Playwrights’ Center and an alumna of New Dramatists.

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.Playwright Lisa D'Amour.  Photo by Zack Smith.

.Playwright Lisa D’Amour. Photo by Zack Smith.

Sydney-Chanele: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer? Why do you write plays?

Lisa: I am the oldest of three, and I grew up taking long car trips between West Virginia and New Orleans (where my mom grew up, and where we moved when I was 10). This was the 1970’s, and our main distraction was a cassette tape recorder – I would make my brothers act in little audio plays. I always loved writing growing up, and in high school, got heavily involved in theater projects at school. I majored in theater and English at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, and did a little bit of everything – acting, directing, stage management, and even lighting design.

However, the big moment for me was working as an intern at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut at the National Playwrights’ Conference. It was here that I first saw playwrights developing plays and making a life for themselves – the first time I had seen professional playwrights in action. And I was hooked.

Cherokee interrogates our contemporary landscape of what it means to lead an authentic life. What was your inspiration?

I grew up camping in Cherokee, NC! And saw the play Unto These Hills many times. As I grew older, became fascinated by the “tourist face” of Cherokee, and wondered about the truly local culture that I would never get to see. How are these two things separate? When do they blend and mix?

What aspects of the play are most personal and relatable to you?  Has your life been transformed by a certain event, action, or spiritual regeneration? 

I’m from New Orleans, and I feel very tied to my French ancestry in New Orleans (through my mother’s side). It’s made me who I am in this way that I don’t understand – in ways I cannot put into words – one of the great mysteries of my life.

And you know, I’m always looking for ways to have a fresh perspective on who I am, on ways to keep my own assumptions in check. There have been mentors who have helped me shatter assumptions (Erik Ehn, Laurie Carlos, Mac Wellman, Kathy Randels), life events (discovering Zen meditation, helping my family through Hurricane Katrina), books (too many to list here) and so on.

Cherokee captures many of the complexities of our public/private self. What do you see as the themes, and what questions would you like audiences to take away? 

How did I get to where I am in my life? Am I in too deep to go back and start over? Have I been shaped by my own instincts, or outside forces? Do I even know who I am? (Many of these questions can be asked about the individual characters OR the United States of America).

There are larger questions about the dynamics of race in the United States of America that run though the play as well. I don’t address them directly, but I think that theme rises to the surface as the play moves forward. As a country, what does it mean to transform out of a white male paradigm /point of view?

What was your biggest challenge writing this script? When did you know you were finished? 

This one has been a long journey. I have been writing it on and off for four years. There have been many other projects I have worked on in the meantime, but yes – I call this play my problem child, in the most loving possible way. I think the production at the Wilma and my work on the play at Woolly has helped me come to terms with it. I’m really proud of where this kid is now. They are ready to go out into the world! (“They” chosen intentionally as a pronoun!)

The Cast of Cherokee at Woolly Mammoth: (l-r) Thomas W. Jones II (Mike), Erica Chamblee (Traci), Jennifer Mendenhall (Janine), and Paul Morella (John). Photo: Stan Barouh).

The Cast of’ ‘Cherokee’ at Woolly Mammoth: (l-r) Thomas W. Jones II (Mike), Erica Chamblee (Traci), Jennifer Mendenhall (Janine), and Paul Morella (John). Photo by Stan Barouh.

How has Cherokee evolved in Woolly Mammoth’s commission process and since it premiered at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia?  

While the main plot of the play has remained the same, certain key character traits have changed – John, for example, in the last draft, had recently been FIRED from his job; in this draft, he is in the midst of an existential crisis around his promotion. I’ve also added a metatheatrical frame to the play – a prologue of sorts – that frames some of the issues in the play. And many other small changes throughout. Woolly also connected me with the National Museum of the American Indian in DC – they were a wonderful resource in terms of exploring the character of Josh, and really thinking about what it means to be a 25-year-old from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.

In some ways, I really tore the play apart, and Woolly was INCREDIBLY supportive and even excited that I was doing so. It was a great experience, because they loved the play before I ripped it apart, but were also kind of thrilled that I was taking the risk to go deeper into the work. A really profound experience.

Your writing has ranged in style and subject. Is there a throughline or a conceit that is at the heart of your playwriting and how you write dialogue?

I think there is a theme of transformation that runs through a lot of my work – yearning to transform, shaking one’s self into transformation. And there is often a mystical/fantastical element that runs through my work… Mike’s disappearance and transformation in Cherokee, Irene’s connection to the supernatural in Anna Bella Eema, even the final “party scene” in Detroit has a feeling of a surreal Bacchanal. I often wonder if this trend in my work comes from my New Orleans roots – a city steeped in ritual and ghosts. 

What was your biggest surprise in writing Cherokee?

The biggest surprise for me was Mike leaving the play in the fourth scene!  I didn’t know that was going to happen. And I just made myself deal with it…

        A DEEPER LOOK:  Process. . . & . . .

Was there a specific incident or achievement when you felt that you were a professional playwright?

Hmm… well I really began to develop my aesthetic while in grad school at UT Austin — during this time I was also making a lot of collaboratively created work with people in the Austin theater community, at Frontera @ Hyde Park Theater, Salvage Vanguard, Physical Plant. Soon after, I received a Jerome Fellowship from the Playwrights’ Center and moved to Minneapolis – that was a big moment for me, the first time I had received a national award. 

What is your writing process? How disciplined are you with your writing?

I write on a computer. I like to write in the morning, in front of a window if possible. When I am rewriting, I like to have a tablet nearby, to take notes, or make lists of thing things I want to work on. In general, I like silence when I write.

We are all flawed people. What intrigues you more when writing about characters – the mistake (and the drama leading up to the mistake) or the recovery?

Oh, I just love my characters’ flaws! And the way they try so hard to understand them, and the way they fail! One of my mentors, Sherry Kramer, taught me that a play isn’t about people changing; it is about people TRYING to change. That has always stuck with me.

You have said that you were raised in a family of powerful female storytellers. What are your thoughts about the disproportionate number of female playwrights consistently being programmed by theatre companies?

My thought is: I am surrounded by a huge number of incredibly talented female playwrights. There is no way those numbers won’t change. We’ve come from behind: for so many years, women couldn’t even imagine that being a Playwright was an option for them. So, we’ve got some catching up to do. I also think we are on the cusp of a huge change in the way we perceive gender. So the issue of male vs. female is going to become a stale conversation very soon. Like, this afternoon.

I guess the only other thought I have is . . .   as much as I admire so many of the Artistic Directors out there, I do look forward to a day when there is more diversity, in terms of race and gender, among Artistic Directors. I’m not judging those in power. But I wonder a lot about how the white male leadership in the American Theater affects everything from who is on the boards of the theaters to who gets hired by theaters to the stories that get told in the theaters to the kinds of audiences that come to the theater. How did we get here? How do we transform?

Besides Cherokee at Woolly Mammoth, what else do you have going on in your professional life in 2015?

My play Airline Highway just closed at Steppenwolf and will transfer to Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel Friedan Theater in April. I am also continuing my work with my interdisciplinary company PearlDamour.  Our site specific piece Lost in the Meadow will premiere at Longwood Botanical Gardens in Pennsylvania in September and we are continuing work on Milton, a performance about 5 small towns named Milton throughout the United States.

Cherokee plays through March 8, 2015, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Lisa D’Amour’s website.
Pearldamour’s website.
Skyovermilton website.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights and artists in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney Chanele Dawkins

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