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The City of Ritual

by Aaron Carter

Aaron Carter: What inspired this play for you? Lisa D’Amour: I often start my plays from a sense of location or world. I grew up in New Orleans, and I was fascinated with these motels on Airline Highway—it’s a road that goes from the airport to the city and it used to be the main road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In the 20s and 30s all these really nice art deco motels were built there. But when the interstate came through in the 50s and 60s, that road wasn’t needed anymore and the motels fell into decline. When I was in high school, the ones that were left were “no-tell” motels, where all the preachers and politicians got caught with prostitutes. As I started imagining the people who might live in these motels, I decided these people are preparing to throw a living funeral for Miss Ruby, who is almost like a surrogate mother to them. I was interested in how emotional it can be when you’re celebrating someone’s life who was the core of your world—how much love is present on a day like that, but also how much fear, because you’re afraid that your world is going to fall apart. In the play, there’s also someone who returns after leaving this community to live more of a “straight life,” and that forces the people who had been left behind to look at themselves in a new way. AC: Speaking of Bait Boy and his return. Do you think it’s possible to change? LD: I feel like I’m asking myself that question in every play I write. I do think it’s possible to change, but I think change is really hard. I think true change takes a lot of honesty and reflection. AC: So Miss Ruby is inspired by… LD: Chris Owens. She’s amazing. I had always heard about her—she runs her club in the middle of the Quarter. I think she’s in her 80’s, but I have no idea. The first time I ever saw her, I went for my bachelorette party in 2008. We went thinking it was going to be kind of kitschy—which it was—but we didn’t expect that we would be utterly inspired. Because this woman was just pouring her heart out for us. It was like constant energy and pure intention and I was totally blown away. AC: This idea of Miss Ruby being the maternal figure in this community, did that come from something you had read about Ms. Owens? LD: That’s really a construction. I was drawing on my experience of other people. When someone important in New Orleans dies, there’s a huge second line parade for them and you learn a lot about who they were and what they meant to the community. I’ve seen a lot of surrogate families develop in New Orleans. AC: Why do you think that’s a feature of the area? LD: Well… I think New Orleans is a city where there are a lot of locals who have grown up there, but it also attracts people who maybe didn’t quite fit the rhythm of other cities and New Orleans is now the only place they can live. Their real families are far away, so they develop new families in New Orleans. It’s a city that thrives on ritual and parades and celebration, and to make those things happen, you’ve gotta reach outside your house and pull it together with your tribe. AC: One of the ways you create a sense of a community in the play is by showing us simultaneous scenes with overlapping dialog: there is a lot going on at once. Was that difficult to orchestrate? LD: You already know the way I write it: I lay out in columns how two conversations might overlap. And I’ve erred on the side of making it too clean as we go back and forth between two conversations, but I think Joe Mantello and I will go back through and let it overlap some more. Even though two different groups can be having two different conversations, there’s a meta-conversation that happens all together. That’s the community. AC: Does Joe’s success as a musical director mean he has insight into how to deal with layers of sound? LD: It’s not just the music of the language, there’s a choreography to the visual world. I think part of why Joe was drawn to the play is that it has a big landscape. AC: You’ve been really busy since Detroit was here. Do you want to give us some highlights of the work you’ve been up to since then? LD: I’ve completed a couple of projects with my company, PearlD’Amour. One is How to Build a Forest, an 8-hour performance installation in which an audience gets to watch a forest being constructed from a completely bare stage. We’ve also been working on a project called Milton. We’ve been visiting five towns named Milton in the United States, interviewing different people about their lives and creating an experimental performance that we’re bringing back to each Milton. And my play, Cherokee—which was a Steppenwolf commission—premiered at the Wilma in January. AC: One of the things I admire about the way you generate art is that you work in big theatres and still continue to do independent experimental work. Do you feel like they inform each other or are they two completely different worlds? LD: Both. I see common themes in both kinds of my work. If you look at Cherokee, Detroit, and How to Build a Forest, there’s a sense of the relationship between the urban landscape and the wild that threads through all of them. And with Milton, there’s a sense of “Oh, here’s what I think a small town must be like,” but through the performance, you get to have those assumptions overturned, or at least get to experience the idiosyncratic details that make up a small town. And I see a little of that in Airline Highway. When I’m in the flow of things, it feels like one thought process creatively. It’s just two very different worlds to market myself in. AC: When the New York transfer was announced, did the fact that this will be a Broadway show have any particular resonance for you? LD: It’s a little abstract to me, because it’s new to me. What really hit me was how significant it is that a woman writer will be featured on Broadway. When it was announced in the New York Times, the writer chose to focus on the fact that there haven’t been many women produced on Broadway recently. If there’s anything that really gets me excited, it’s that—just to be able to help break through that.