Dennis Chowenhill Interviews Carol Lashof

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Dennis Chowenhill, Resident Dramaturg at the Virago Theatre Company, shares the transcript of this illuminating interview of librettist, playwright, and educator Carol Lashof.

DC:  How did you get into playwriting?

Lashof:  I probably should credit my 4th Grade teacher.  I was at the Laboratory Schools in Chicago, a pre-K through high school, run by the University of Chicago in association with their Ed. School. There were a lot of “faculty brats” there. It’s the school the Obama kids went to when they were living in Chicago.  My 4th Grade teacher, Louise Pliss, had us write and produce a play, as a class. Actually, there were two teachers, Faye Abrams and Louise Pliss, who shared their classrooms.  Miss Pliss, who was also a children’s book writer, taught English, and that is where I was also introduced to Greek mythology. I can still remember the opening lines of my 4th Grade play, “Let’s play baseball!”  “It’s going to rain!”  “You’re not sugar, you won’t melt!”  So that was my real debut as a playwright, a co-author. And I always wanted to write. As long as I can remember I wrote poetry and stories, as soon as I learned how to read and write.

And I grew up in Chicago going to theatre—it’s a great theatre town. We had a very good theatre program at my high school. I remember the tremendous frustration as an aspiring high school actor trying out for, let’s say Death of a Salesman, and there were two women in that play, the whore and the faithful wife. They were scraping the floor to find guys to fill the men’s parts, and then dozens and dozens of talented teenage girls all trying out for the wife and the whore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arthur Miller’s work, but . . ..   Eventually that was a motivation for me in writing plays. I wanted to create good roles for women. I wanted to level the playing field, and it’s been my desire ever since.

DC:  Did you continue to pursue acting?

Lashof:  I took a few acting classes in college, but I had no chance at being cast in anything in college. I went to UC Santa Barbara, in their College of Creative Studies/Literature program with a lot of fabulous writers, including Lydia Bird, whose memoir is in the new “Shebooks” ebooks series. And I’m still in touch with some of the other folks from that program. That was a program where they believed that young adults, whether they were in the sciences or literature or art, are capable of doing serious, important work, and they’d give people a free rein. It was one of those programs that began in the 60s and that people kept trying to shut down. Eventually the University figured out that many of their most illustrious graduates were graduates of the College of Creative Studies, so now of course they boast about it. Being in that program gave me the confidence and freedom to become a writer at a very young age, and not just take writing classes, but really to think about myself as a writer and focus on that very seriously.

I didn’t take playwriting when I was an undergraduate—I don’t think they offered it then. I took lots of courses in fiction and poetry, I wrote a lot of poetry and some fiction, though I was not a very good fiction writer. But I wanted to create characters and tell stories in ways that you can’t do in poetry.  What I discovered about playwriting is that it combines the things that I most like about poetry and fiction.

Also I never could get the hang of narrative voice. I love studying and talking about narrative voice, reading novels, talking about them with students, but I never could quite get the hang of it as a writer. I much prefer simply putting myself into a variety of characters and speaking in their voices. I like the polyphony of playwriting, and I also like the intensity of the language. You don’t have to waste time, in Virginia Woolf’s words, with the novelistic business of getting from breakfast to lunch to dinner, and describing the brass coat buttons. But Woolf just managed to remake the novel.

I like the multi-vocality of playwriting and the intensity of the language. And I think it’s quite close to poetry. Whether you’re working on a small piece of a long play, or on a short play—I wrote a couple of one-minute plays for the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival last winter—writing dialog is like writing lines of poetry, even when you’re not writing what looks like poetic dialog, when you’re writing something that looks like or sounds like people talking. It gives me that visceral pleasure in language, which for me comes from childhood.

I wrote my first play at around the same time that I graduated from college. I had written a lot of fiction and poetry while an undergraduate. But I graduated from college at 20, so I was still young when I began writing plays. After I graduated, I spent some time trying to complete a novel and also applied to graduate school, getting in to the Modern Thought and Literature program at Stanford.  As a graduate student I kept writing as much as I could, and kept trying to complete that novel.  I eventually abandoned the novel, for a bunch of reasons, one of which was that it wasn’t very good. Then I was in a course on Cosmic Dramas, with Martin Esslin in the Drama Department there, and I asked if I could write a play instead of the seminar paper.  I wrote a play re-imagining Genesis. Martin was the dramaturg at the Magic Theatre at the time—I didn’t know enough at that time to really know what that meant—and he passed my play on to Artistic Director John Lion, so that it was produced.  We rehearsed across the hall from Sam Shepard.  I was about 24, and doors were opening before I knew enough to knock on them.  Then Martin directed the play for the Bay Area Radio Drama Series that Erik Bauersfeld did. That program, by the way, has a beautiful website, and my play is on it. The audio-link is not accessible at this time, but eventually will be for anyone interested in hearing it.

So that was all very heady stuff. The down side of it was that I did not learn how to advocate for myself. I was expecting to be famous before I was 30, but also even at that time I was able to see that one was not likely to make a living as a playwright, and I was already on my way to getting a Ph.D., and I liked academia and I liked teaching and I was good enough at it to think that I could make a career of that.  Being young and full of energy I believed I could do everything—I could write plays, and be a Virginia Woolf scholar, teach full time at a Liberal Arts college, get married, have kids, and you know, do it all!  Why not?  Then I got my job at St. Mary’s, which I did straight out of graduate school—I hadn’t even finished my Ph.D.  When I went to graduate school, people in the writing community would say, “You’re going to ruin your writing. You won’t keep writing.”  I thought, well I will drop out of graduate school. But I kind of kept writing.  So, some of my writing was writing my dissertation and papers for my courses. And again, when I started teaching, people said I wouldn’t be able to keep up the writing. I thought that if I can’t keep up the writing and do the academic job, I’d quit the academic job.  And I did; it just took me twenty-five years!  So, I kind of am doing everything. I’m just not doing it all simultaneously. The years were tough when the kids were still young and I was still trying to get into the professional theatre world and I had a couple of productions and I was at rehearsals late not seeing the kids, and my husband couldn’t come with me because he was baby-sitting, and then I’d go to work in the morning and teach very badly, which is a terrible feeling—that experience was bad. In some ways, however, it was also great. I don’t regret having continued my teaching career, and it made the life I’ve got now possible.

DC:  Of the playwrights I have been working with in the last few years, you are the most patently informed by identifiable theories and perspectives.  I don’t know whether it is that you are primarily interested in promoting thought in those areas, or that it comes out simply because that is what has been informing you through your studies.  Tell me about issues, perspectives, or themes that you are interested in presenting your writing, if you are consciously aware of that.

Lashof:  Absolutely I am aware of it. It’s also true that it’s what comes out. It’s just who I am. It’s what matters to me. I do love to write.  Sometimes the administrative work that I do to get plays produced, though I am glad to be in a position to do it, makes me feel, “I just want to get back to my writing!”  And when I was teaching full time and the kids were young, and the writing was really on the back burner, on a very low simmer, I would occasionally wake up in tears because I had a writing project I wanted to be working on. It is a visceral thing; I do it because I love it. But I’m also motivated by a desire to say something, I want to participate in a larger conversation. Often it’s because I’ve read something or experienced something that’s pissing me off.

DC:  Right. Tell me some of those details.

Lashof:  I’ll tell you, one of the things that pissed me off that contributed to my writing Disclosure was Mamet’s Oleanna. Just recently a theatre in Milwaukee, I think it is, mounted a production of Oleanna in which they cast Carol as a male actor.  Mamet and his publisher got wind of this change which had not been announced publically, or been cleared with Mamet, and the theatre was forced by Mamet and the publisher to shut the show down. I would have loved to see that gender-switched production. And I am so sick of the trope, just as I am sick of the faithful wife and mother versus the tramp. And I’m sick of the theme of the girl who makes the play for the older professor—not exactly the situation in Oleanna of course—and then accuses him of harassment. I’m just sick of these stereotypes.I’m not going to complain about anyone’s going ahead and writing whatever they want to write, but I’m just going to write my own, tell it the way I see it.

DC:  Also, we find a perspective in Disclosure, which is actually discussed by the characters themselves, regarding language and reality, and we have characters who not only speak to each other put clearly are listening to each other. And we hear about Girard and Foucault.

Lashof:  I took a class with René Girard at Stanford, which is where all the “mimetic desire” stuff is coming from.  You mention the characters actually listening to each other—I think that’s my reaction against recreational argument.  In many of the communities of which I have been a part, scoring “points” via conversation is common. I have noticed when editing my own drafts that the words “listen,” “listen to me,” are in I think everything I have written, and appear lots of times [laughs].

DC:  Are you conscious of an artist—of any medium—having an influence on your style?

Lashof:  The playwrights who influenced me, who were sort of new and important, when I was in my twenties, were Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard. Also, Ibsen and Shaw, though that is probably less obvious now than it was in my earlier writing.  These are playwrights that were working with ideas. I’m a fan of Virginia Woolf, and I wrote my dissertation on D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, so I’m sure both of those writers have influenced me.  Certainly Virginia Woolf has influenced my thinking a lot. I wrote a libretto for an as yet unproduced chamber opera about Virginia Woolf which was kind of a composite of her writing.  Oh, and another important influence:  Rocky & Bullwinkle and Fractured Fairy Tales!  That’s a big literary influence.  And Greek mythology. Disclosure is one of the few plays that I have written that really is contemporary realism. A lot of what I write is based in mythology.

DC:  In your own reading, where do you get the mythology?

Lashof:  Ovid is kind of my main source.

DC:  Tell me about your reading. What do you read?

Lashof:  I read contemporary fiction, and things my friends are writing. I just finished reading Monster’s Chef, by Jervey Tervalon, who was at the College of Creative Studies. I like fiction with good plots. I’ve read a lot of Dickens in my time, though not recently. I’ve read the first two volumes in Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, and the third one, MaddAddam is on the top of my pile of books to read. But it’s so depressing that I have a hard time reading it before bed, which is mostly when I read. It gives me nightmares. But I also like mystery novels. I agree with Michael Chabon that anyone who would object to escapist fiction must be a jailer. I also like sci-fi fantasy.

DC:  What are you working on now, as a writer?

Lashof:  Mainly, I have been working on the script for the production of Just Deserts, which goes into rehearsals in less than three weeks. For quite some time I have been working on revisions of both Disclosure and Just Deserts, and that has taken a lot of my time. I’m also working on a short play, called Daughters of Ocean, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival. It will be up on November 5, as part of Nymph Night, at the Exit Theater. I wrote two short plays for them last year, which I’ve now welded together with a transitional scene as a single one-act, about Briseis and Chryseis in the Iliad. I imagined a romantic relationship between them in which Chryseis is ransomed and Briseis is not, because she doesn’t have a rich daddy, so they have to separate at the end. It’s a play about these women who in the Iliad are just trading pieces. I did that for the Olympians last year, and it was a lot of fun.

DC:  I have a whimsical question for you:  Imagine that your family and friends are not able to travel with you, but you need to be on an airplane for fifteen hours.  Who do you want in the seat next to you?

Lashof:  Tony Kushner wouldn’t be bad. He could keep me entertained for fifteen hours, if he was willing to talk to me.  When I was in college in Santa Barbara, one of the wonderful things that the College did was to bring in members of the New York City Ballet to do a lecture demo of whatever they were working on. Jacques d’Amboise, Suzanne Farrell, and some others performed on an intimate stage and essentially did an open rehearsal and talked about what they were working on.  Right at that time, my grandfather died so I needed to get on a tiny plane from Santa Barbara to LA and then from LA home to Chicago. They don’t have assigned seating on those little planes from Santa Barbara to LA, and I saw Jacques d’Amboise walk in right in front of me, so I grabbed the seat right next to him.  o, that was a little less than an hour, but, you know, I might do that again if I had fifteen hours. When I identified myself as a student at the College of Creative Studies, he had a lot of questions for me about the College. He’s one of the sweetest men on the face of the planet.

DC:  Other comments?

Lashof:  We’ve been talking about the literary roots of my writing, but I’m really also passionate about theatre and other art as ways of including people. For our show that we’re doing for Just Deserts, the inaugural production of Those Women Productions, we have been given access to the theater that adjoins the Willard Middle School in Berkeley where they do their drama program. They’re allowing us to use the theater without paying rent if we make the tickets by donation only, which I’m very happy to do. I’ve adopted the term “radical hospitality” from some other theatre companies. We really want everybody there.  Of course, we also want people to donate because we want to be able to pay our artists!

Also, I worry when people note that Just Deserts is a play about Greek mythology and they think they need to know the mythology in order to enjoy the play.  The fact is, people don’t need to know anything to prepare for enjoying this play.

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