Works by Women

Supporting creative work by women

Interview: Lisa Dillman

The Works by Women blog, thus far, has focused on New York-area events and theatermakers. During the Wasserstein Prize controversy, many of our readers encouraged us to expand our reach.  In the coming months, we will shine a light on theater created by women across the United States and the world, interviewing artists and offering insights about what’s on stage.  We are thrilled to publish our first interview with a playwright from outside the New York environs — Chicago-based Lisa Dillman.

Lisa Dillman’s plays have been produced in Chicago at Steppenwolf, American Theater Company, and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble; in Los Angeles at Rogue Machine Theatre; in New York at Hypothetical Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Source, and the Summer Play Festival (SPF-NYC); and at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Lisa has received two commissions from Steppenwolf Theatre Company (Flung, first produced by American Theater Company, and Rock Shore, presented at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, both available from Dramatic Publishing) as well as commissions from Northlight Theatre Company (Ground and The Molly Goldberg Project [in development]), Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (The Walls and Chiaroscuro), and the Chicago Humanities Festival (Shady Meadows, Chicago Humanities Festival).

She has received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, Millay Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, and the William Inge Center.

Recent productions include The Walls (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble as part of Steppenwolf’s Visiting Company Initiative) and Ground at the 2010 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Lisa is currently working on a new play commissioned by the Goodman Theatre, where she is a member of the theatre’s inaugural Playwrights Unit.

1) Lisa, we first met when your short play The Curse of the Horned Babby was part of the Estrogenius Festival in 2007, and all of my friends count it as one of their favorite plays ever. What was the inspiration for that very dark fairytale?

I was working on another piece entirely, a full-length play with a fairytale element, so I was researching fairytales from different sources, and I wound up reading excessive amounts of the Brothers Grimm. Most of the Grimm’s tales are very short, often just two or three pages. Typically they’re pretty action packed, lots of intrigue, horror, and mayhem … and then they just kind of stop. There’s no moral, and you almost never get a happy ending. Terrible things happen and … the end. Instead of using this research in the longer play, I wound up writing a short piece using Grimm as a jumping-off point. From a very general idea (intrigue/mayhem/end), I took the fairytale staple of a wandering minstrel and the trusty “stranger comes to town” set-up. Then I set three women in a village square and wandered the minstrel directly into their midst. I knew the women had a dark secret involving the disappearance of the town’s menfolk—right? that’s a given—but I didn’t know what the secret was until one of characters suddenly came up with it: a ravenous flesh-eating horned babby. It made me laugh (and flinch), so I went with it.

photo credit: donje’ photography

2) Your full-length plays seem to deal with different themes than The Curse of the Horned Babby. What are you currently working on?

I’m developing a new play as part of my residency in the Goodman Theatre’s inaugural Playwrights Unit. It’s a comedy about success, economic bubbles, and America’s love affair with overconsumption. It’s set in the Midwest in a high-end cupcake emporium.

I’m also excited about The Molly Goldberg Project (working title), a piece I’m working on under commission from Northlight Theatre. It’s about one of the icons of radio and the early television era, Gertrude Berg, the powerhouse behind the radio and television series The Rise of the Goldbergs.

3) Your play Ground premiered at the Humana Festival in 2010. What was that experience like?

Thrilling. Challenging. Moving. Exhausting. It meant a great deal to me; I’d wanted to have a play at Humana for years. It was also the first time a play of mine went up in a venue larger than 200 seats. I learned so much during my time in Louisville, and I worked with some wonderful Actors Theatre artists along with a terrific cast of Chicago actors most of whom had taken part in Ground’s development at Northlight Theatre (where the play was commissioned).

Being part of Humana was a crash course in regional theatre production. In the past, when I had attended Humana as a spectator, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to its “festival” aspect; I’d simply looked at it as a chance to see a few new plays within a relatively short time span. But seeing firsthand just what it takes to make the whole thing happen—six full productions in rotating rep in three spaces, an off-site apprentice event, plus an evening of ten-minute plays, all playing out over the course of just under six weeks—was impressive. I saw how they did it, and I still can’t figure out they do it. But I’ll always be grateful that they do.

4) I read your fabulous interview with Adam Szymkowicz where you recount living in Mexico as a teenager and your developing affinity for dialogue. Are there any other places or situations that have really inspired you as a playwright? Some place where you feel you really grew as an artist? Or playwrights whose work really moved you?

In 2001, I spent a month at the Blue Mountain Center, an arts colony in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. I arrived there in late September, just two weeks after 9/11. I had almost decided to give up my scheduled residency—the image of the towers falling was still so fresh, the whole country was shaken, and everything seemed tenuous and out of control. But at the last moment, I changed my mind and went. The center consists of two large, comfortable houses that look out on a deep, cold lake and densely forested mountains. Most days were still warm, and the leaves were beginning to change. I spent each day writing and researching, thinking, walking in quiet woods, and soaking up the deep peace and isolation of the place. Then, in the evenings, I joined the 15 or so other writers and artists around an enormous dining table where we ate, drank, talked, laughed, argued, often till late into the night. In those four weeks we formed a bonded little community—it was a healing time, and inspiring, especially given how fragile and fractured everything had seemed going in. While in residence there I wrote the spine of what has become one of my favorite plays, Rock Shore, a drama, set in a 1913 Adirondacks tuberculosis sanatorium, about a disparate group of patients who become a community.

5) What excites you about theater in Chicago?

Its guts. Its variety. The amazing depth of its acting pool. Its close-knit community of playwrights and the fertile environment for new work. In Chicago, more so than anywhere else I have been, theatres and individual artists tend to support one another. There’s a great vibe and a tremendous amount of cross-pollination in this city.

6) What do you think is the greatest challenge facing female theater artists?

Well, the numbers are clearly not good in a side-by-side comparison of plays by women and plays by men produced over a given season. So to me the greatest challenge is to get the work produced. New play development can be truly wonderful, constructive and inspiring, but production is the ultimate goal.

7) What gives you hope for women in American theater?

My hope—and I have a lot of hope—is mostly based on the array of talent in the field. There are so many compelling women’s voices out there right now. And women theatre artists are by and large a pretty savvy and resourceful bunch, so I see a lot of writers taking things into their own hands and making opportunities for themselves, creating new-work festivals, forming theatre companies, and self-producing. I’m also hopeful whenever I think about the continued energy and passion of longtime producing organizations whose mission is and always has been the creation, support, and production of new work by women—places like The Women’s Project (founded in 1978) and New Georges (founded in 1992) in New York, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (founded in 1995) in Chicago, and others across the country.


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