Playwriting’s Next Big Thing: Pulitzer Finalist Lisa D’Amour

 

When playwright Lisa D’Amour, MFA ’96, finished a workshop at Hampshire College last year, she checked her voicemail. To her shock, dozens of vague, celebratory messages had poured in: “Lisa, congratulations!” and “Wow, just heard the news!” D’Amour turned to a friend and said, “I think I just won something.”

D’Amour’s play Detroit had just been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The elite honor was only the latest accolade in D’Amour’s highly acclaimed and rapidly ascending career—she also won an OBIE, or Off-Broadway Theater Award, for Nita and Zita in 2003.

In the past few weeks alone, arts and culture giants the New York Times and the New Yorker have both published glowing reviews of Detroit, a dark comedy about relationships and the recession co-starring former Friends star David Schwimmer. The Times called Detroit “Superb … a sharp X-ray of the embattled American psyche as well as a smart, tart critique of the country’s fraying social fabric.”

New Orleans native D’Amour found time last week for a visit to campus, where the Department of Theatre and Dance will soon stage her drama The Cataract (performances run Oct 19-28 in the B. Iden Payne Theatre). In between a packed schedule of workshops, guest lectures, and media appearances, D’Amour caught up with The Alcalde.

Why did you choose UT?

It was a bit of a shot in the dark. At the time, UT’s MFA in playwriting program was a very young, up-and-coming program, and I liked that about it. I ignored the advice that I give to young playwrights today, which is not to go to grad school too early. A lot of being a good playwright comes from having varied life experiences, meeting different kind of people, and just living outside of school…but I was a young MFA student, maybe without the experience needed to get into a really elite program. UT has since become an elite program, but at the time it was young, and so was I. We really grew together.

Why are you a playwright?

Because I love stories, I love to write, and I love to collaborate. I grew up in New Orleans in a very musical, creative family. As a child, I remember writing little skits and making my brothers act in them. Then after college I interned at the National Playwrights Conference, and I realized I wanted to live a writing life. Playwriting is the most collaborative form of writing there is—I create a skeleton, and the actors, designers, and directors flesh it out.

What have the effects of the Pulitzer Prize nomination been?

Some extraordinary things have happened, like the New York Times review. But it’s not as if all doors have opened and money has poured in. Theaters are still very careful about what plays are right for them. I think theaters may be more willing to take a risk on my work now. Really what was moving for me about being a Pulitzer finalist was the company, because the other finalists—John Guare and Bruce Norris, who won—are both wonderful colleagues and inspirations to me. So to me, being in that company meant more than the honor itself.

Some people never go to the theater. What’s your message to them?

I think people fear that plays will talk down to them. That’s definitely not the case with Detroit, and I think it’s not the case with many plays. What people want right now is a conversation that has nothing to do with the words Democrat and Republican—a conversation that is direct and relates to your life. Theater is the place for that. At the very least, you might sit next to and chat with someone different than you.

What’s next in the world of theater?

It’s a big challenge to get people into the theater, and that’s a bigger problem for big theaters than small ones. Not because they have more seats, but instead because small theaters tend to be very community-focused. Small theaters are booming right now—there are so many now in New Orleans. So I think we’ll see a trend toward more small theaters that are really tied to the community.

Lisa D’Amour watches a rehearsal of The Cataract at UT. Photo by Josh Rasmussen.

 

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