Written by Victoria Myers
December 9th, 2014
In Laura Eason’s play, Sex with Strangers, the protagonist, Olivia, who is a novelist, makes an acerbic remark about female writers not getting the same treatment as male writers. It’s a funny and witty line (we didn’t want to try paraphrasing), and also very true. After seeing Sex with Strangers this summer, we googled Laura to find out more about her because we had a suspicion she was someone we should talk to. And we were right. We love people who do lots of things, and Laura definitely does a lot of things. In addition to writing, she has also directed and performed with Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago where she was also, oh yeah, artistic director. She’s a story editor for House of Cards, and this spring you can catch her play,The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, as a co-production between Women’s Project Theater and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Needless to say, her wide-ranging career in the arts gives her a fascinating perspective, especially on how women are viewed both on and off stage, and we’re really excited to share her interview with people.
You’re bookending this year with two plays in NYC; Sex with Strangers this past summer and The Undeniable Sound of Right Now in the spring. Do you see any themes between them? It seems like they both touch on how different genders and generations approach and consume art.
Yes, there’s a similar thematic exploration in terms of different generations. I’d also say there’s some thematic crossover in terms of selling out or marketability of art, and how much one thinks about one’s art as being a commodity or not. They’re realism; they’re straight-ahead character pieces. There’s not a huge level of abstraction to them or heightened theatricality. It’s really people you’re coming to know and watching them on their journey. So I’d say there’s a stylistic similarity.
One of the things that we thought was great about Sex with Strangers was that you had a female protagonist creating art, and that was part of her story and journey in the play. We think it’s important to have that depicted. Would you mind telling us about that?
A lot of what Olivia is struggling with in the play—which I think is an understandable struggle for women artists—is, “Will my voice be heard?” or, “I had a chance for my voice to be heard and it didn’t go that well. Am I going to get another chance?” Because women don’t often have the opportunity to fail the way I feel like men do. If you’re a female playwright, and if you have a production in New York and it doesn’t go well, the chances of getting another production in New York are really challenging. So, I think that struggle of women making work and the questions—of how do I get it out there, how do I get it seen, how well does it have to do, how well does it have to do to get another chance—are very interesting to me, and something I think about myself a lot. The show did very well this summer in New York and I’m very grateful for that because there’s the potential for another chance, whereas if you get killed in the reviews it’s very hard to feel like more opportunities will follow.
We’ve been talking a lot about critical reception to women’s work. Do you feel that work by women is spoken about by critics the same way that men’s work is?
I really think there’s a significant gender bias in the way women playwrights are evaluated by male critics, and some female critics. I feel like they bring a set of tropes and stereotypes to the lens through which they view the show, and it makes it really hard to view the work. I think it’s tricky in terms of reception, but I also think it’s tricky in terms of construction. It was very important to me in Sex with Strangers to have the character of Olivia have this distinction. She’s very confident in her abilities—she knows she’s a really good writer—but she feels she’s been misunderstood and misrepresented in terms of the packaging of her book. She’s not insecure and she’s not weak. She’s actually very confident with a lot of ambition, and trying to make peace with the opportunities not yielding the results that she had hoped. And it was so interesting to me that in previous productions, even though it’s counter to a lot of what’s in the text, critics would say, “She’s insecure and weak,” because they are bringing that lens to that character. So I continued to work on the text to make sure the volume was up on that quality of hers, so there was no way it was going to be misinterpreted as insecurity, but I still feel that is really hard for people. I did an adaptation of a short story by Elizabeth Crane called When the Messenger is Hot, and it’s an amazing story of her dealing with the loss and very complicated relationship with her mother who died of cancer, and her falling into relationships as a little bit of a means of escape from her grief. What I loved about [the short story] was that it really captured one’s inner dialogue. Instead of making it all a very realistic thing, I thought, how great to use our theatrical tools to capture that sense of inner dialogue. The character’s name was Josie, and so I created three Josies. Well, the show did great in Chicago, so we took it for a short run in New York. Now, I’m not arguing people’s taste—people can like something or not like something—but the thing that was difficult and frustrating for me is I feel like a lot of the critics came and saw three women—although it was the same character—who, during the course of the show, go on some dates and, even though it was really about the relationship with her mother, a lot of the reviews were like, “Sex and the City.” Because it’s three women and they go on some dates. Now if there was one paradigm of a man coming of age and it was like, “We’ve seen that,” so much of literature would be eliminated. It’s like, “Dickens already did that, so we’re done with that story.” And that’s not what the story was. So the fact that there are very few of these female stories, and then that’s the lens that’s brought to this project and that it’s unable to have its own voice heard, was incredibly frustrating to me. I think there’s a lot of coded gender language and a lot of coded racial language. Someone did an analysis of Latino and Latina writers and the words that are used to describe their work, which ends up feeling very coded and very racially specific. And the hardest thing about it is there’s no recourse. There’s no forum to respond that doesn’t just feel like sour grapes.
We’ve noticed that women’s work is taken much more literally; people don’t see the metaphor and heightened theatricality, and instead just see the plot. Or they assume it’s autobiographical.
I get that a lot. In Sex with Strangers, for example, people would be like, “You’re Olivia, right?” And I’d be like, “I wrote the whole other character, and actually there’s as much of me in him and maybe even a little more than in her.” And that’s hilarious to me. I wrote the whole play—I didn’t just write her. I don’t know what they think—that we don’t have the imagination to make things up? I think it’s so hard. Because we’re caught a little bit in this dynamic of wanting it to be a level playing field, and don’t differentiate between us [and men], make it about the work—but I do think some female playwrights are interested in exploring work that’s less linear, more metaphoric, more atmospheric, that’s more about idea as opposed to plot, and that the show accumulates in a different way. I think there is some difference in women’s work that is beautiful and should be celebrated, and more room needs to be made for it. I think work that doesn’t fit the more mainstream perspective isn’t getting produced, and I think women are writing more of those plays; I think how we make more room for those plays is a really important question.
What is your process as a writer like?
I think for a long time before I actually sit down and write. I read a lot and I keep a giant folder on my computer of articles and ideas that are interesting to me. And then a big idea for a play starts to gather—often out of that a character will show up, then a situation will show up, and then dynamics and scenes. I’ll start to write in my head, and I’ll often write in my head for about a year. Once I have enough of it in my head, I sit down and either write a 25 page outline of the play or I’ll write a first draft—like a 60 page first draft—in four or five days. Unlike a lot of writers who write 150 page first drafts, my first draft is this very essentialized 60 pages; the themes and ideas are a little too forward, the dialogue is too on the nose, it’s all very clear. Then, the next part of my process is fleshing it out, throwing some dirt on it, and kind of making it have more breath and space in it that’s more about the characters and less about the big ideas. I rewrite a lot. I’m open to a lot of rewriting in rehearsal and production. I feel like you actually become a playwright when you’re in rehearsal and you watch a scene that doesn’t work, and you have to rewrite that scene or write a brand new scene in 24 hours, and the quality of the work you turn around in 24 hours has to match the quality of work you’ve had three or four years to develop. When you’re finally able to turn something around that quickly, in the pressure of production, then you’re a playwright. It takes a long time and a lot of productions to get the confidence to stay clear headed under that pressure. It’s a muscle, and you only develop it when you have a chance to do it. There’s no replacement for the heat of production. That’s why I think these development programs that actually give you a workshop production—where the actors aren’t at music stands but it feels more realized—are the greatest gift you can give to an early career playwright, because you have to learn to rework your play in space, in real time.
It seems like new play development is really geared towards readings, and readings that aren’t leading to anything. How do you think that’s affecting the writing?
Yeah, it’s really different to write to a reading than to write towards a show moving in three-dimensional space. If you want to have a big movement sequence, how are you going to do that in a reading? How are you going to show that part of what you’re using is how these actors relate to each other in space, and it’s not in the text, but it is a really important part of the story? In the theatre, the story doesn’t just live in the words, it also lives in the physical relationships between the characters. I have a new play that I’ve developed a lot and done a lot of readings of, and there’s a character who is sort of haunting our protagonist in her mind. That character becomes literalized on stage; the actor who is playing the character that she meets and is haunting her in her imagination is physically in the room. You can’t get the impact of that in a reading and how powerful that could be in a scene where she’s having a conversation with her husband but actually kissing this other man. When you talk about it, you don’t get the same visceral response, and it’s one of the most important parts of the show. That’s why I think, after awhile, time behind the music stands begins to be diminishing returns.
When you’re writing, how much do you think about the visuals and the staging?
Well, I do original work and I do adaptations and I do books of musicals. My theatre company in Chicago [Lookingglass] is a very physical and visual company. We often tell stories where the physical life is speaking the story as much as the words are. Often in my adaptations, more than my original work, the physical life of the play carries a lot of the story and is extremely important. I’ll write scenes in my adaptations that are all stage directions. This is another big topic—people ignoring or disregarding stage directions. Of course there’s room for interpretation, but because it’s a play and not a book, what the playwright is trying to tell you in terms of the story, that the movement and action is trying to carry, is often embedded in the stage directions. For me, I think to not allow ourselves to create sequences that are physical and not just living in the words, is limiting the tools we’re using, and it’s problematic. But it’s tricky. I was once told by a director I was doing a workshop with, “You need to stop directing the play when you write it,” and that was really upsetting to me. I feel like, as a generator of work, I’m allowed to write a sequence that is wordless but carries story. Directors can choose how they’re going to execute it—they don’t have execute it exactly like I have it in the script—but I have to give them a version of it so they can understand the story points. I was really distressed to have a director basically say to me, “You stick to the words and I’ll handle the visuals,” because we’re creating something that lives. I’m not a novelist. I’m allowed to create and ask to have a certain physical thing happen in space.
We wanted to talk to you about adaptation. We found an interview where you said that you thought adaptations were misunderstood in New York.
I think there is a very preconceived notion of what a story is and how you’re supposed to do it. There isn’t this idea of: this is this person’s take. There’s this expectation of what is important and what is not important, and if you say you’re doing an adaptation of a novel, I feel like you don’t always have a lot of freedom. I think people don’t always understand how much the voice of the writer is in the adaptation—in terms of the choices we made, how it was executed, and what was added. We’re not writing an adaptation that is neutral or separate from us—it’s completely from our point of view—and I think there’s an expectation that it’s supposed to be neutral.
You’ve been working on House of Cards. We’re always interested in the dialogue between mediums. We were wondering if working on a TV show has affected your idea of theatre and how we tell stories?
I think they’re different mediums, and I think you approach them differently. What I think about a lot is the reach—how many people you reach—and how even with a very successful play, the number of people you reach is so much smaller. And the opportunities, even with a show like House of Cards that I think people find very entertaining. The episode I did was in season two, where Claire admits to having an abortion in an interview on national television and then she twists it in a, hopefully, interesting way. Then, one of her causes for the year, which comes out of this very personal place, is sexual assault in the military. Now that wasn’t paramount to the series, but the amount of attention we were able to shine on sexual assault in the military… And it was all part of the plot. We don’t have an agenda to do good at House of Cards, but there’s something very gratifying about being able to shine a light, and get it out to that many people, about things that are important. I think that’s very exciting. I can feel sometimes that the reach of theatre can feel so limited, and that can be hard when you work so hard and feel like so few people hear what you’re trying to put out into the world.
You were artistic director of Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. One of the ideas we’ve been toying with is that the infrastructure for producing theatre is antiquated, and maybe there are ways to change it to make it more conducive to producing more diverse voices. What do you think about that?
I have some thoughts. I think institutions get so entrenched in their own institutional history, how it’s gone, and the subscriber model, that the thought of turning everything upside down seems really scary. The next generation needs to say, “You guys, seriously, this is how it can be different.” I think one of the ways to try and get more exciting, innovative, interesting work is to create a company structure that isn’t beholden to one space. Having a company that is project driven, instead of season driven, allows less room for panic because it’s less about, “We have to fill these slots and they have to tick off certain boxes to get our subscribers to come.” If the art is the center and everything is emanating out, then it’s like, “Look, we want to do this piece and we know it’s a challenge, so we’ll do it downtown. And these are the other companies we’re going to target since we know there’s a crossover. We’re going to do it in a timeframe where this actor who we really want to work with, but is busy doing other stuff, is going to have a window.” There are ways of constructing it all so you’re responding to the reality that there is a bottom line, but you’re not in the hamster wheel of season planning. As someone who has been in the hamster wheel of season planning, it’s very hard—even from my company, which is very adventurous—the bottom line of having a space and a big staff is that it’s hard to take risks. There’s the possibility of failure. So, I think letting the art lead as opposed to the facility and the staff lead is helpful, but that’s very antithetical to the way most regional theatres work.
We’ve noticed that there are a lot of people who are interested in other areas of culture—they go to art openings, film festivals, read the “in” novels—but they don’t seem to go to theatre. Why do you think that is and what do you think can be done about it?
Do you think it’s ticket price?
For some people yes, but it seems like it’s used a lot as an easy excuse. We both know a lot of people who complain about ticket prices but then go out to eat and spend the price of a ticket on a meal or going out to bars on weekends. That’s how they’re prioritizing how and where they spend their money. And then for the people who have a lot of disposable income, it seems supporting theatre doesn’t have the same cool factor as supporting MoMA or NYCB.
We talk a lot about this at my theatre company in Chicago, because you look at how much people will spend for super shitty seats at a baseball game that they could watch on television and see better. That blows my mind. I think part of it is the event of it; it feels really fun to go to a baseball stadium. And, if you like the theatre, going to the theatre can feel like an event and can feel exciting. But I also think part of the reason people love sporting events so much is that they had exposure to them growing up; they played baseball growing up, even if it was just in the street with friends. There’s a connection to it in a very essential, primal way. I went to theatre all the time as a kid and I studied theatre as a kid. There’s some statistic that’s like, “If you don’t get someone into a theatre before the age of eighteen, the odds of getting them to a theatre after the age of eighteen are almost zero.” People will do stuff that’s not cool if they really are interested in it. I think there is something that is particularly harrowing about a bad experience at the theatre. At a baseball game you can step out and get a hotdog; at the ballet at least the music is beautiful; at a movie you can leave and no one cares; but going and seeing bad theatre is just particularly excruciating, and you have to have a certain level of commitment to get through the bad stuff and go again. You have to believe in the endeavor in a larger way. Someone could go to a super shitty baseball game, and they’re not going to stop watching baseball, but there is something with theatre where it’s like, “I tried that, it was terrible, and I’m never going again.” There’s something about trying to get them invested in a bigger sense that’s important. My friend, Michael Rohd, does huge exploration of civic engagement and what it really means to engage with an audience, and he thinks the bare minimum is post-show conversations. Trying to have more conversations with the audience, and show that we care and that they’re not just there to give us money and leave, I think is valuable too.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
There are two things that come immediately to mind. The Piven Theatre did story theatre and I took class there, and when I was eleven I saw their Young People’s Company perform a collection of short stories including an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair, which was incredible. Then, I saw a production when I was twelve or thirteen of A Streetcar Named Desire that was life-changing.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
I feel like the bar is ever raising. Like, you think you’re a grownup like, “I have a job and I have an apartment and I’m paying for my whole life,” and that felt very much like a grownup moment to me. But then more milestones happen and it’s like, “I thought I was a grownup, but I was so not a grownup.” It’s an ever-evolving process.
You’ve done a lot of things in theatre. We’ve noticed that there seems to be a resistance in theatre to people doing more than one thing. Did you experience that? Do you think it’s different in Chicago?
At my theatre company in Chicago, we all have done multiple things—we act, we write, we direct, some people design. Everyone does a lot of things, and it’s much more fluid. I was given the advice that New York is so competitive, and it’s so hard to move ahead that you have to pick a line here, because that’s how you’re going to move forward. And so I did. So I’m a writer here. Even though in Chicago I’ll direct and I’ll act, which I think makes me a better writer and feeds into my writing. I think it is getting a little better in New York. I think there are some people coming forward who write and direct. Heidi Schreck is an amazing example of an actor and writer. So, I think it’s shifting, but it’s a really competitive place. And all of those things—writing, acting, directing—those are all real skills that you really need to nurture and develop. It’s easy to feel like, “I’m not directing all the time so am I really bringing enough to the table?” But I think doing multiple things that all complement each other compensates. I really do. Even if you’re not directing all the time, what you learn about directing when you’re acting, or what you learn about writing when you’re directing, really helps flesh out your abilities. So, I do think there is this professional evaluation of who is more qualified, and that the person who is doing one thing more is more qualified, but I’d push people to be open to the idea that the person who is also doing other things might be just as good.
You were also part of a band. What are your top five favorite albums?
1. Hounds of Love – Kate Bush
2. Funeral – Arcade Fire
3. Bee Thousand – Guided by Voices
4. Dry – PJ Harvey
5. Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen
5 The first album by The Specials
We talk a lot with directors about if they feel or ever felt pressure to present themselves a certain way. Is that something you’ve experienced?
I’m a very girly-girl. I wear dresses all the time. It’s just what I like. I definitely feel like it comes up in certain contexts, like how to speak to be heard in certain rehearsal rooms. I’m being very frank, but I’d say I notice a difference in men over 45 or 50 and their ability to hear me, and men who are younger. I think there’s a generational awareness of women as leaders, speaking in a broad way; younger men are cooler being like, “You’re the director,” and with older men it’s not as much in their consciousness. I don’t change what I wear or who I am, but I’m definitely aware in those situations of how to construct what I’m saying so I’m able to be heard, and I feel like I’m not always able to be as direct or frank as I wish I could be. I feel like, as a woman, I have to tap-dance a little bit, and that can be a double-edged sword, because I feel like I’m undermining my own authority to be pleasing so people can hear me. It’s complicated and hard to navigate.
Does that idea of “a woman can’t say this the way a man would” come up in writing?
I feel that way sometimes as a writer in my construction of character. I really enjoy writing men because you don’t have to worry so much about your delivery system. A male character can be anything—he can be ugly, he can be challenging, he can be sexy, he can be old—and people will go on that journey. But with female characters, there’s so much that people bring to the table that I feel like is in between them and the female character that you have to wade through. I’m navigating some of what I feel like is in the cultural consciousness, and it can feel like it begins to be more constructed and less organic, because I feel like I have to be so aware of the delivery system and how it’s going to sound and come across in a way that can be really frustrating.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I feel like if you’re talking about theatres with subscription audiences, the best thing would be for audience members, subscribers [especially], to call and write the artistic directors and say, “We want more plays by women.” If subscribers are calling them, the money talks in those situations. I feel like the more calls those artistic directors get that lead them to believe that programming female playwrights isn’t a risk, the more they’ll hire female playwrights and directors. And then, I think it’s important that we keep talking about it. I think there’s been a switch in tone from acknowledging the absurdity of the situation, to then giving a positive action [people can take]. I think the Kilroy’s example is fantastic. I know there was backlash from people who felt hurt or excluded, but as a writer who knows all of those people and was also not on the list, I feel like them very positively offering up forty really good plays, it’s really pushing to the positive.
You can follow Laura on Twitter: @LEasonNYC.