Stimac Talks with
Opposite Photo: Liza
Photo Credit: Robert Kim
Playwright Liza Lentini Takes on Tough Topics and
Flourishes on the Fringe
Liza Lentini is a playwright who
has three shows coming to NYC this summer. First
up is the provocative new play The Euthanasist,
opening May 29 at PS 122 (www.euthanasist.com).
She will also have two plays produced
in this year’s Fringe Festival – Woodhull,
a biographical play about first woman to run for
President in 1872, which features a 20-person cast;
and a modern retelling of Thumbelina: The Story
of a Brave Little Girl, being presented as
part of Fringe Jr. (She has already had success
at the 2007 NYC Fringe Festival with Roxy Front,
a critical favorite in last year's Fringe Fest.)
Lentini also runs
Elephant Ensemble Theater, a company which produces
theater for children in area hospitals (www.elephanttheater.com).
You can also check out her personal website at www.lizalentini.com.
Photo Credit Carol
Photo Credit Carol
Elias Stimac: What was your artistic
I was born in Boston and, like a lot of little girls,
started studying ballet at the age of 3. (I would
study throughout college, and eventually take an
interest in choreography and modern dance.) I'd
been singing and dancing since I was a child, but
what interested me most were the stories behind
the performance -- both on and off stage. As a very
little girl I would write down conversations, cut
them up and make stories by arranging the dialogue.
I was constructing scenes, but I didn't know it
at the time. I would staple them together like little
books and hide them in my jewelry box.
At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, I started out
as a creative writing major, but wanted to graduate
in my third year and they wouldn't allow it. So
I switched to an English Dramatic Literature major,
and graduated early. By the time I was nineteen,
I'd already had a play in the American College Theatre
Festival. I just assumed it was a fluke. I never
thought I could continue to write plays anyone would
want to produce. But while at the Festival, Paula
Vogel came up to me and handed me her card and asked
me to study with her (at Brown). I feel ridiculous
saying this now, but had no idea who she was at
the time! Still, I felt encouraged. That same year
someone in Boston wanted to produce a play of mine
at a legitimate theater. I remember my dance teacher
asking me, “Are you the same Liza Lentini
whose play was written up as the 'thing to see'
in the Boston Phoenix?” I hadn’t
seen the paper, and didn’t know anything about
the importance of PR. I wasn’t pushing my
plays at all, but I seemed to get encouragement
from everywhere, and so I kept on writing.
In the fall of 1994 I attended Southern Illinois
University's 3-year MFA Playwriting program. I was
an absurdist, but the program focused on the well-made
play. It was the best thing I ever did, and a great
experience. It really helped me to develop a method
for my madness, so to speak.
Elias Stimac: How long have you
lived in New York, and what is it like to be a working
playwright in such a theatrical town?
I moved to NYC in May of 1997 from Southern Illinois.
Even though I grew up near Boston, I really was
that girl who arrived wide-eyed with two suitcases,
and planned to stay for a summer. New
York is the place to be. All the clichés
are true about this place: It's the toughest and
the best. Not at all for the faint-hearted. There
are some amazing opportunities for any artist who's
willing to work for them.
Elias Stimac: Who were your writing
inspirations growing up?
When I was young I saw a production of Beckett's
Happy Days on television, and I remember
feeling as though I'd found my calling. I understood
this wacky woman, and what she was trying to communicate.
What's important to note is that the production
was in French, and I don't speak a word. I love
Beckett to this day, also Pinter, Ionesco, and Caryl
Churchill, to name a few. I think that playwrights
have a very special ear, and feel drawn to do something
with it. It's a very tough profession; I'm not sure
if anyone chooses it, or if it chooses them. But
I've always been a writer – even since childhood.
Elias Stimac: How did the script
for "The Euthanasist" come about?
I had a friend who, very casually one day, mentioned
that her uncle had been a euthanasist. He lived
in London, and decided he wanted to help terminally
ill men and women, at their own pursuance, hasten
their death. The other part to his story is that
he ended up in a mental institution, and though
euthanasists certainly exist, it gave the story
a strange, epic fictitiousness. I didn’t know
his name, or even any valid details. The conversation
stuck with me, and I felt I had no choice but to
explore the life of this character on paper, and
Elias Stimac: Did you set
out to write what some are calling a "provocative"
piece of theatre?
Not at all. This is a story about a woman (in this
case, but it was written for either a man or a woman)
who, like all great characters, is defined by her
actions. It's a very personal topic for most people
because, sadly, many have watched a loved one die.
The play doesn't take a stance on the issue of euthanasia
or doctor assisted dying -- it let's you decide
for yourself how you wish to feel about it.
Elias Stimac: What is it
like having a production done at the legendary PS
I've had a wonderful experience. The play was initially
developed and produced by Manhattan Repertory Theatre
in December of 2006, and so this process was different,
because through a development period, there’s
a tremendous focus on the script. With this current
production, I've been able to sit back and enjoy
the production process as it unfolds. It's been
great, and an honor to be in such a reputable theater.
Elias Stimac: Tell us about
your two plays in this year's Fringe Festival.
The first is Thumbelina: The Story of a Brave
Little Girl, which is the show we're currently
touring with in hospitals. This will be in FringeJR.
The other is called Woodhull, which tells
the story of the first woman to run for President
against Grant in 1972. It's pretty timely!
Elias Stimac: What are the biggest
challenges of writing a play with a twenty-person
cast like Woodhull?
Well...I wrote the play at a time when the only
books about her were from the 1940s! (There have
been many more since -- the play was originally
written in 1996.) However, whenever you deal with
history you have to remember that to a certain degree,
you create perception. History is subjective, whether
we like it or not. Many of the sources I was working
from were disgusted by her. I think she's amazing,
and as flawed as any politician. I got my sources
from so many different places. It took a while to
research, write, and develop.
Elias Stimac: Is it daunting
to rewrite a children's classic such as Thumbelina?
Daunting? No! Just the opposite. It was amazing
re-creating such a beloved little character. She
just needed a slight update, that's all. Our Thumbelina
doesn't need a prince -- she's enough of a girl
on her own. And boy does she know how to look out
for herself. She's a cool little kid.
Elias Stimac: What things did
you learn from last year’s Fringe that helped
you in preparation for this year's festival?
Expect the unexpected! The Fringe is so much fun,
and wild, and exciting. It really is its own animal.
I can't wait for this year.
Elias Stimac: What was the
impetus behind starting Elephant Ensemble Theater,
which produces theater for children in hospitals?
I'd wanted to do something with my training that
went beyond a commercial pursuit. It sounds corny,
but I wanted to do something good. I really love
kids, so these particular kids were the most obvious
audience. They're remarkable, and so inspiring.
Every month we bring a show to a New York City hospital,
and it's the most amazing experience. Often in the
theater you don't get to see the effect you have
on people, but when we visit these kids, we know
we're doing a great thing.
Elias Stimac: What advice do you
have for aspiring playwrights?
Like all great artists, perfect the realistic form
before you mess with it. Even Picasso perfected
his craft before he decided to share his cubist
interpretation of the world on canvas. Also, know
what you're trying to say, and the importance you're
words hold to an audience.
Most importantly, have a life so you have something
to write about! The theater can be so absorbing,
and while it's a definite lifestyle, don't mistake
it for a life. Life is an adventure, the good and
the bad of it.