Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
April 9th, 2018
In the fall of 2015, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino made her Off-Broadway debut at the Roundabout Theatre Company with her well-received play Ugly Lies the Bone. Now, less than three years later, she has two productions running Off-Broadway: Amy and the Orphans, inspired by her aunt with Down syndrome, at the Roundabout, and This Flat Earth, about a young girl coming of age in the wake of a school shooting, at Playwrights Horizons. She also is under commission from Roundabout, MTC, South Coast Rep, and The Geffen. It’s an impressive rise for a playwright still labeled as emerging. We recently spoke to Lindsey about writing This Flat Earth and Amy and the Orphans, her career trajectory, writing female protagonists, and more.
You have two shows that overlap this season. How has that been for you as a writer?
They had overlapped rehearsals by about two weeks, so it’s been a very busy, slightly creatively draining, but exciting time. The plays are extremely different, not just in subject matter, but also in tone and pace, so I feel like that was the biggest challenge of doing both at once. Amy and the Orphans is a much faster paced play that’s closer to comedy, and I think that This Flat Earth is a much quieter, more delicate, more intimate play. So switching from Amy to This Flat Earth totally was a big adjustment for me.
Let’s talk a little bit about This Flat Earth, since it’s opening soon. What was your initial impulse for writing it?
I started writing the play about three years ago. I was thinking a lot about Sandy Hook. It had been some years since Sandy Hook when I was thinking about the play, and felt like there had been enough time and critical distance from the last mass shooting to really write and talk about it. I was thinking about childhood and coming of age, and I found a journal from when I was in middle school, and our English teacher had told us that we should write a list of the things that we’re most grateful for, and among them I had listed I was grateful I didn’t grow up in a time of war. The journal entry was dated September 10th, 2001, and the next day was September 11th. Finding that journal entry reminded me that during that time, I certainly didn’t logically believe it, but I emotionally kind of thought I had somehow superstitiously jinxed 9/11 to occur by writing this down. So just thinking about what does it mean to understand national events at a young age, and in what way do they sort of filter down to you or come upon you, and this childhood mentality of trying to put meaning on what seems to be chaos. The play came from those places.
When you actually sit down to write, do you have a character in your mind, do you have an image, is there some sort of impulse that’s the way into the play for you?
I usually start with dialogue, something that I’ve heard that I can’t get out of my head. And something in my personal life that I have been thinking of, and also some political event that I’ve been thinking of that I can’t get out of my head, and then trying to find where those two things meet and overlap, and if there’s not an intersection, seeing if I can make one. That’s sort of where I start.
For This Flat Earth, was it a slow or quick first draft?
It was a pretty slow first draft. I had written a one act play about a boy who had lost a parent and was trying to hook up with a girl, sort of not understanding the emotions and displacing them. I had written that before writing this play and that sort of turned into this play. This play more than any other play has just gone through many, many, many different drafts, and changed structurally. Once I write the first draft, I usually keep the structure but change lots of moments within, but with this play the structure has continued to shift as I developed it.
I think the process was really about focusing in on being from a kid’s perspective. I feel like once I clicked into that, then I sort of really knew what the play was. Until then I feel like I was still searching for what it was. So once it was from a kid’s perspective, then I feel like the structure kind of developed around that thinking, and what does it mean to understand seemingly mysterious things in the world from a kid’s perspective.
I wrote a draft when I was still a student at Yale, and we did a workshop production of it at Yale, but it still had another character in it. Then I didn’t touch it, and then I did a reading of it at the Kennedy Center where I cut that character. And then I really didn’t touch the play. It’s not had the same sort of development life as my other two plays that have been produced have. I just sent it to Adam Greenfield [Associate Artistic Director] at Playwrights Horizons, and he read it and said that he really loved it, he just wished it was longer. I’ve never had anyone say that to me—I feel like play development is always about cutting and pruning and tightening and tightening and tightening, and in all of the playwriting training I’ve had, no one’s ever just said, “Make it longer.” That somehow just released it for me. And so I did another draft.
How would you compare and contrast this writing process with Amy and the Orphans?
Amy and the Orphans came out fairly fully formed, not to say that I haven’t workshopped that play to an inch of its life, but the structure of that play came out in the first draft. Once I knew it was a road trip, the play just took place, and the two time periods of the play have always been there from the very beginning. The workshopping process of Amy and the Orphans was about making sure that the actors with Down syndrome felt comfortable in the roles, that the language sort of suited their speech patterns, that it was active and playable for them, and focused around them.
[With This Flat Earth] Parkland happened on the third day of rehearsal, and then on the third day of previews there was the shooting in Maryland, so it’s very in-line, sometimes problematically in-line, sometimes gratuitously in-line with what’s happening on the news. When I wrote this play, it didn’t feel like a school shooting play, it felt like the school shooting set off the series of events. I think it used to be that the school shooting was a metaphor for something else, and there’s no way you can see this play now and have it become a metaphor for anything else but what it is, which changes the play.
I was going to ask if you felt like Parkland and the response by students had affected the play.
You write plays like this because you want to have a conversation about something, and you are simultaneously frustrated to still be having to have that conversation, and you are hoping that this play is going to be outdated as soon as possible. When Playwrights first programmed it, I don’t think they were thinking of it in terms of what The New York Times called “a growing canon of school shooting plays.” I think they were thinking of it as a metaphor for how the adults have failed children in this country, and that extends from school shootings outwards to many, many things. They were really thinking of it in terms of, as [Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director] Tim Sanford says, a post-election play, and seeing this country from the kid’s perspective. Maybe we’ll see that in this play again, but [right now] without changing the emphasis on the school shooting it just becomes so much more about that as an event.
Since you’re still in rehearsals and previews, as you work on the play, do you feel like mentally you have to lock into it being written prior to what’s happening now?
I think that the whole play is structured around the protagonist’s innocence, and innocence of realizing how the world is, and I think that innocence has been, to a certain degree, taken away from children in this post-Parkland era of children becoming activists and having a real political voice. The play still has to start from that place of innocence. There are certain text adjustments that I made sure are there, but I don’t think you want to set this play exactly now. I think it’s in the not-so-distant past more than in this exact moment. You have to buy into the reality of the play, and not see it as something that literally was written from today’s headline, because it just wasn’t.
Do you see any themes in your work?
I tend to write a lot about family. I write about home, and what home is, and the meaning of home. There always tends to be some sort of political issue, but from a smaller, much more character-focused side story. I guess that’s not really a theme. I feel like themes are for other people to pull out, but I feel like those are sort of my guiding principles. I’m usually interested in writing about a class of characters that you don’t necessarily see onstage, and under-represented women specifically, but I feel like theme is for the audience to pick out. I just have to stick to the story as it is, and follow those characters, and not worry about that.
What do you think can be done to improve new play development?
Say things to playwrights like Adam Greenfield said to me like—make your play longer. We have so much play development and so much development time, and each development place wants to put their stamp on it. I have nothing against development. That’s where I made my career for years before I actually had a real production, and it helped me grow my voice and figure out what I want to write about, but I also think that in that process a big play can get smaller. The big risk is that big plays can get smaller and initial impulses can get ironed out, and sometimes the most interesting parts of plays, I think, are in those weird wrinkles and questions that don’t fully get answered but are still posed to the audience. Like in life, things just are what they are, and they don’t have to come back into the play six other times, and not everything needs a perfect bow on it, and I think when you’re developing the play there can be the impulse to go, “Oh, I can tie this bow, and this bow, and this bow.” I think sometimes it’s better to have some loose strings still in the play.
You’ve had a few productions in New York relatively quickly in your career. What, to you, feels like the major turning point in your career?
Roundabout was the first theatre company to give me a production. I’d had smaller university productions up until that point, but the big turning point for me was the first night of previews of Ugly Lies the Bone at the Roundabout Underground, which is a 60 seat black box theatre, but it was full and I didn’t invite any of my friends and I remember being in the theatre thinking, “Who are all these people?” I didn’t advertise it, I didn’t beg people on Facebook to come—like I had to every other reading, and workshop, and production I’d had up until that point—and I remember a woman coming up to me and saying, “Oh, I read about this online, and I saw something posted on Roundabout’s website, and I’m so excited. I didn’t know anything about the show, I just came on a train from Long Island.” She inadvertently answered the question I was asking myself in that people just come to see theatre. It’s such a small thing, but a really weird turning point for me in going, “People are paying to see this, they’re not my friends, they’re not my family, I’m not writing for an audience that I know, and who are these people that come to see theatre, and they’re not all theatre students and where do they come from?” And that felt, to me, like the first time that I was like, “Oh, I’m doing this now as a professional person for a living and not as a student or as an amateur.”
Is there something that you wish you had known sooner about having a career as a playwright that you feel would have made a big difference to you?
I wish I’d known that relationships are really long. When I was first starting to write plays, every play I wrote I was like, “This is the play. This is the play that’s going to be the thing. This is the one that I’m finally going to get produced.” And then nothing happened, and then I’d write another play and go, “This is the play,” and then nothing happens, and then you write another play, you get a reading and workshop and then nothing happens. I felt like each time it was a real rollercoaster of going, “Almost, almost, almost,” and then no. I think actually doing that was building the career that I have now, and was also building my skill set in a way that I wasn’t even conscious of at the time, and that that rejection made me work harder each time. But, more than anything, the people that I was sending those plays to remembered that I was sending those plays to them, and that even though they weren’t agreeing to produce them, they were still familiarizing themselves with me, and that they were still starting a conversation with me. All of the people that you meet in this industry, it’s always a much longer conversation than you think it is, and patience is key.
At the beginning of your career, what was your biggest hurdle? And right now in your career, what do you feel is the biggest hurdle?
The biggest hurdle in the beginning is money. To say anything else is not true. As someone who doesn’t come from money and has always had to support myself as an artist, I chose to go to NYU on small scholarships and mostly loans, and then came out of NYU with a huge amount of student debt, and then went, “I have to get a job, but I want to be a writer.” I’m saying obvious things, but they’re all the things that a person coming out of school is saddled with: no job, no money, and student loans that immediately have to be paid back. All of that is fine if you’re willing to get a job, but if you want to write plays, sitting in an office all day is not conducive to wanting to go home and sit in your home office all night. For me, the answer was grad school. I went to grad school twice for that reason, to find a way to be able to put off paying back my loans while simultaneously accruing new ones, but, put them off and invest in myself. And that if I put them off for a five year chunk of time, in that five years I had to write a lot, and write well, and build a body of work that I could sustain myself on. I think you have to gamble on yourself, and that, for me, was the biggest hurdle.
Now, I think that’s still part of it. I think I’m not yet at the place where I’m completely relaxed, but it’s better than it was. But now I think it’s about finding the right director relationships. Every production I’ve done, so far, I’ve worked with a different director, and each director brings something totally different and wonderful to my plays, but I have yet to find that one director that I’ve worked with over and over and over again. I think director relationships are tricky, and you don’t know how well you two work together until you’re in a room together. It took me a while to learn that doing a one-day reading is not a good representation of how you’ll work well together in a production. I feel like finding those artistic relationships that you can develop over many productions [is the next hurdle].
All of your three big plays that have been in New York have had female protagonists. Have you felt that there have been any challenges that have come with that?
I think each one is different. Each one is a different set of challenges. With Ugly Lies the Bone, the protagonist is a burn survivor and female veteran of Afghanistan, and with that one there were very specific questions, which I felt were gendered questions, in the workshopping of that play: Will an audience want to watch a physically ugly woman for two hours? That was never something that crossed my mind while I was writing it, and that to me felt very specific. I don’t think that people ask that when they go and see The Elephant Man. No one would think to ask that.
And then for Amy and the Orphans, the protagonist is a woman with Down syndrome, so that was a whole different sort of convincing process. I don’t know if it was gendered or not, but in the early days of me talking about wanting to write this play, other theatres that I will not mention, when I pitched the idea that I wanted to write about my aunt who had Down syndrome and how I was going to write this play and that the person who has Down syndrome has to be played by an actor with Down syndrome, there were several theatres before I went to Roundabout that said, “That just sounds too complicated,” and “No,” and, “I think that it would be too challenging to have an actor with Down syndrome,” and it turns out it’s not challenging at all, and Roundabout was a theatre that would take the risk on that. I’m not sure if that was gendered, but the protagonist is also female.
And then, for This Flat Earth, the protagonist is a young girl. When I’m thinking about these plays, I’m not always going, “It has to be about a woman. It has to be about a woman,” that just tends to be what I’m interested in. I’m looking for stories I don’t see, and chances are I’m going to see fewer stories about women, so that’s what I’m going to gravitate towards more—but because it’s what I’m not seeing more than because I have a mission to only write about women. I think we are seeing more stories about women, and unlikely stories about women. I don’t go into any interaction professionally thinking about myself as a woman. I just go in thinking about myself as a playwright, and me being a woman is just part of that, and I think I try not to care. I guess I just try not to care about what the challenges will be and just write the plays that I feel are important.
What are your professional goals for the next few years?
I just want to keep writing plays and seeing my plays produced. It’s very simple. And hopefully have the time to keep writing plays, and writing them well, and finding homes for them.