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Elias Stimac Talks with
Liza Lentini

Opposite Photo: Liza Lentini
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.

Roxy Front
Photo Credit Carol Rosegg
Roxy Front
Photo Credit Carol Rosegg

Elias Stimac: What was your artistic background?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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 eventually, stage.

Elias Stimac: Did you set out to write what some are calling a "provocative" piece of theatre?

Liza Lentini: 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 122?

Liza Lentini: 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.

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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?

Liza Lentini: 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.


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