Backstage at Detroit With Lisa D’Amour: “Even Playwrights Get Stage Fright”

09/19/2012 1:07 PM |


A playwright writes her play, prints out a nice clean copy, mails it off to the theater, and her job is done. The theater takes it, sprinkles a little fairy dust on top, et voila, presto change-o, a beautiful, Broadway-ready production emerges ready for all the world to behold.

Not really.

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.

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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.