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Location! Location! Location!

by Polly Carl and Lisa D'Amour

Polly Carl: Lisa, the play is called Detroit, but you specify in the script that it’s not necessarily set in Detroit itself. Would you tell us about the play’s setting and how it’s important in the story you’re telling? Lisa D’Amour: Well, the play is set in what’s known as a “first ring” suburb - these are the first suburbs that were built near urban areas. These suburbs have houses that are older, smaller houses, built over 40 or 50 years ago. In my mind, the title Detroit could certainly mean Detroit, but I think this neighborhood could also exist on the edges of many other cities in the U.S. When it was built in the 1960s, it was the picture of American Optimism - all the streets in the play are named to evoke a feeling of “light.” In 2010, however, the original houses still standing are starting to fall apart; others have been bulldozed to build homes twice as big. PC: At the core of the play there seems to be a kind of uneasy feeling or anxiety around this suburban setting. What’s the source of the anxiety? LD: There is a general anxiety in the play about what it means to be a middle class American. What are the expectations when you are trying for the American Dream? Couples like Mary and Ben (who we meet in Detroit) are biding their time, hoping to save enough money to move to a newer development. However in many ways, their home is all they have—they aren’t particularly connected to their neighbors, or their jobs. Perhaps their home is a kind of lifeboat? It almost seems like whatever is “out there” is scary to them. They’d like to venture “out there,” and perhaps “in there” to places in themselves they have never gone. But that might mean sacrificing a kind of security. So yes, perhaps that is the significance of the setting of the play: it is a “known” place to Mary and Ben, a place that is familiar but maybe a little ill-fitting, like a shirt you bought a year ago that doesn’t quite fit right anymore. PC: Dreams figure prominently in many of your plays, as in Detroit. What do you think our dreams reveal about us? Do you see a relationship between the language of dreams and the language of theatre? LD: I think the characters in this play desperately want to reveal their true selves to others. But they are deeply scared. When they relate their dreams, it’s like they accidentally take their shirts off and reveal something mysterious that they cannot name. Dreams and dream logic show up a lot in my plays. I love giving audiences the chance to free associate, to track an idea or image through a play, at first not knowing what it means, and letting meaning accrue. We don’t have a lot of time to think sideways in our daily lives - we’re too busy trying to get from point A to point B. We should be allowed (and encouraged) to think in circles when we are in the theater, to see what provocative ideas we might stumble across. PC: You’ve lived in New Orleans, Minneapolis and now New York. Do you have first-hand experience with suburban living? What did you rely upon as you imagined the landscape of the play: any particular experiences, images, books, articles, movies? LD: I did not have a typical suburban upbringing. My early years were actually spent in West Virginia and we moved to Harahan (15 minutes from downtown New Orleans) when I was 10. Sometimes when I picture the houses in Detroit, I do picture that first street we lived on, Park Ridge Drive, a street that had like five different home designs that alternated down the street. So perhaps there is a little influence there, in terms of the look of the play. To be honest, the main source of inspiration was a small detail I read in an article about “first ring” suburbs, which is that many of them were built in the ’60s, but the plywood used to build them has a shelf life of like 40 years, so the walls of these houses are literally caving in, betraying the very notion of “house.” The metaphor is so overt: a dwelling which is supposed to represent safety and security is failing us. While the suburban setting is essential to the play, I think perhaps it is people who have passed through my life that have been the greatest source of inspiration: friends or family members who are stuck in jobs that they totally hate, but are too afraid to get out of; other people I know turning to substance abuse or other forms of escape to avoid facing the demons in their lives. I know a lot of amazing people who are miserable because they are too afraid to take a risk and venture into something that is unknown to them. And sometimes I think America runs on fear of the unknown. What happens when the unknown moves in next door to you? What can you learn? What assumptions can you let shatter? PC: I want to talk just a little about how we have commissioned you to write two plays through a grant we received from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and we’ve asked you to keep Steppenwolf’s ensemble members in mind while you’re writing. Have you written plays before with particular actors in mind? How does that impact your process? LD: I have written for a company of actors in mind. I was commissioned by the NEA to write a play for Infernal Bridegroom Productions in Houston. I worked with that company for a year, writing a play inspired by Texas ghost towns. We took a lot of road trips to different either dying or dead towns and I wrote a play inspired by the trips and the actors. I’ve also had the experience of writing for children’s theater, where I wasn’t writing for particular actors in mind, but for a particular theater space and for a particular audience - a young audience. I got a lot of guidance as I worked through that play about what it meant to write for a specific group of actors. So yes, I have experience but writing for the Steppenwolf ensemble is a completely new and exciting challenge. Such experience! Such range! I’m like that proverbial kid in that even more proverbial candy store. PC: You’re known as a multidisciplinary artist. You’ve done performance art and challenging site specific productions, which are perhaps more intimate and different than the Steppenwolf stage. How does it feel to write for a large space in mind? LD: I love working in intimate spaces and I think my plays work well with them. I think I did write this play with a smaller space in mind because that’s what I’m most familiar with. Right now, I’m in the process of meeting with designers who are designing for the Steppenwolf mainstage. A 500 seat theater - talk about the unknown! It’s transforming the play a little bit, and in a really positive way. While the characters seem “everyday” when the play opens, their lives take some epic shifts as the play moves forward. I think the overall design we can achieve in such a large theater is going to allow these shifts to live in ways I would never be able to see in a smaller space. In terms of the next play I will write for Steppenwolf - it’s allowing me to go to a place that’s kind of epic, even with a smaller cast size. American Buffalo has this epic feel with a cast of three. There is such a history of magnitude at Steppenwolf - plays and performances that are larger than life. This gives me so much room to dream big about what I can write for this company. PC: One last question. Detroit is kicking off a season in which we are looking at the relationship between our public and our private selves. Do you have any thoughts about the play in this regard? LD: The play takes place entirely outdoors - in the frontyards and backyards of the characters’ houses. There’s a distinct difference between the conversations that happen in the front yard and in the back yard and there are a lot of questions about what is going on inside the houses of the neighbors. There’s a moment in the play when Mary, who has been living in the neighborhood for quite some time, goes inside the house of this new couple. When she comes out, it seems her perception of them has completely changed. She’s come a little closer to their “private self” and it makes her uncomfortable. In some ways I feel like the whole play is about the opening up of the private self to the public self.