First, it can take years to write a play, and then it can take another set of years for it to reach production. And in most cases, the playwright (when she's a living playwright) is intimately involved in every step along the way, even in the production, from auditions to rehearsals to design meetings. And when the playwright is very, very lucky, the show gets a second production, or a third, or more. Even in these follow-up productions, the playwright typically follows the script to each theater and each rehearsal. Writing a play is just the beginning for playwrights.
Last week I chatted with writer Lisa D’Amour at Playwrights Horizons, the Off-Broadway theater where her show, Detroit, is receiving its third production and its first in New York, this one directed by Anne Kauffman. D’Amour gave me a backstage tour of the theater before we sat in the empty theater ahead of the night’s preview production, talking about what her daily life is like while working on this show.
This production is very different from the work for which D'Amour is best known in the theater community. She has for years created work that blends theater and installation art—it's often site-specific, outside of traditional theater settings, and plays with narrative and structure. In those plays, she typically works with her long-time collaborator Katie Pearl; together they operate under the name PearlDamour. Detroit finds D’Amour taking on a different role—acting as the playwright, instead of the playwright/director/fundraiser/producer/sometimes-designer/collaborator/tour manager role that she usually shares with Pearl.
Backstage at Detroit
A more conventional work, Detroit has followed a fairly conventional path to production, though in the 21st century, fewer and fewer plays follow the path that decades ago was standard for successful playwrights. D’Amour wrote the play in 2009, then had an informal first reading in a friend’s apartment. Soon after, the play ended up in the hands of someone at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and they decided to organize a reading of their own. By fall of the following year, Steppenwolf was mounting a production. After that there was talk of a transfer to Broadway. The play became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Then, this spring, the play made its way to London’s Royal National Theatre, and opened officially yesterday at Playwrights Horizons here in New York.
On a typical day during this production, D’Amour wakes up at the apartment that she shares with her husband, composer and sound designer Brendan Connelly in Bed-Stuy. The couple split their time between New York and New Orleans (where D’Amour is from), and though she’d love to be able to be in New Orleans full-time she told me that, given everything she has going on, “in the next decade it’s hard for me to see that happening.”
Before starting work, she mentioned an important new ritual in her schedule: “The first part in the day-in-the-life of a playwright—a 42-year-old playwright—is back exercises. You’re just sitting all the time. My back problems were terrible in London, so this trip I started spending a half hour in the morning stretching and doing yoga.”
The rest of the morning she spends collecting her thoughts and reading through her notes from the previous night’s rehearsal and performance. When I asked her if she attends all of the performances once a show goes into previews (the performances that precede the official opening of a show, when changes and tweaks are still being made to the script and production), she said she attends about three-quarters of them. She likes to take time off to get a little perspective. “Playwrights tend to obsess, and you’re not always obsessing in the right direction,” she said. This is also the time of day when she makes changes to the script, if needed—looking for places to tweak the tempo or tone of the work, or make adjustments that might help the actors or the crew to get their emotions or props into the right positions.
Then she’s inevitably rushing into Manhattan for rehearsals and meetings with the press. She said that particularly during previews it’s hard to predict how the rehearsals are going to go because actors are bringing up new things now that they’ve had a chance to do full runs of the show, but they also need to keep some of their energy for that night’s performance. “So, you have to be very flexible,” she said. During our backstage tour I also gathered that these rehearsals offer the crew crucial opportunities to make changes to the set and props where needed.
The set for this production is deftly tucked into Playwrights Horizons’ small stage. There’s a large turntable on the stage that spins a double-sided set between the front and back yards of the two couples who are the main characters: Ben (David Schwimmer) and Mary (Amy Ryan), and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) and Kenny (Darren Pettie). Special effects are tucked away behind the set and inside of props, and different dressings for the set are carefully piled into the one or two spare areas of backstage. Unlike the Chicago and London productions, where D’Amour said that the sets basically stayed the same throughout, this set changes regularly. D’Amour described why director Anne Kauffman made that decision for the show. "[Anne] was just really interested in what moving from the front yard to the backyard does to the tone and the energy of the play, and how you get kind of disoriented because you keep switching spaces," she said. "Anne’s personality is such that she loves thinking about style and visual language and how that connects to acting style."
D’Amour’s time backstage is little. Unlike productions for PearlDamour, she primarily sits in the audience during rehearsals, offering thoughts and ideas, but leaving more of the practical decisions to the director and crew. Once rehearsals are over, there’s a break. “I either run for a drink to calm myself down or get some food," she said. "And often Anne and I will discuss what we’ll be looking for in the show that night."
During the shows, she and Kauffman tuck themselves into seats in the back row or up in the mezzanine. Even though this is D'Amour's third production of Detroit, she told me, “That moment before the show starts is as terrifying every single night. Terrifying and totally exciting.” Even playwrights get stage fright. I asked her how those nerves manifest for her. "I feel like I’m going to have to run out of the theater. It’s very hard for me to stay in my chair."
After the show ends, there’s a short break before the beginning of a technical meeting with the crew and the director. D’Amour said that whenever she’s there for a show she stays for the meeting, to help out in whatever way she can, though she’s not required to be there. Then she and Kauffman usually head across the street to the West Bank Café for a drink to figure out what to focus on the next day. By the time they’re done chatting it could be 11:30 or midnight, or later. From there, it’s back to Brooklyn.
“The hardest part of a playwright’s day,” D’Amour said, “is winding down enough to go to sleep. You check your email, you watch 30 Rock or Friday Night Lights—I’m on season five—just to get out of your own head. Then you lie in bed with your head racing. And then you get up and do your back exercises.”