INTERVIEW WITH DRAMATIC PUBLISHING
For twenty years Laurie Brooks has been among America’s most distinguished playwrights for young audiences. Her award-winning plays have been commissioned and produced nationally and internationally, including long-term collaborations with The John F. Kennedy Center, The Coterie Theatre, Nashville Children’s Theatre and Graffiti Theatre Company in Cork, Ireland. Brooks is celebrated for her powerful plays for young adults and her innovative After-Play Interactive Forums. Three of her plays, Selkie: Between Land and Sea,The Wrestling Season and Brave No World: Community. Identity. Stand-up Comedy., have been honored with Distinguished Play Awards from The American Alliance for Theatre and Education.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your most recent play, Jason Invisible, and about your experience with the Kennedy Center producing it.
A: Jason Invisible is my first adaptation. What I learned is that the process of writing an original play and adapting a script from source material is not as different as I had imagined. Both processes require making choices that drive the story within the confines and imaginative possibilities of the theatre space. In the case of Jason Invisible, one of the challenges was to pick and choose from complex narrative fiction what to include and what could be left out while remaining true to the author’s original intent. The fun part is bringing to life the highly theatrical elements in the novel—the three imaginary characters in Jason’s head—Smart Guy, Dream Girl and Crazy Glue. This play is so middle school! I am particularly excited that The Kennedy Center has asked me to create one of my After-Play Interactive Forums for the run of the play so that audiences of middle schoolers and caring adults will have the opportunity to dialogue about mental disability and young people as caregivers of their parents.
Q: What, for you, are the essential qualities playwriting demands?
A: Many of the basic tools of narrative fiction are crucial for the playwright—fully realized characters; careful, earned plot development; plenty of conflict and action; compelling contradictions; the unexpected, forward motion and tension—but a playwright must understand what the theatre does best, and that is ask the audience to use its imagination. The limitations of the theatre space ask the audience to “suspend their disbelief,” to buy into the story and its embedded ideas. I am committed to the creative use of theatrical possibilities, to imagining a space where anything can happen.
Atypical Boy at The Coterie Theatre, 2009.
Q: What was your inspiration for writing Atypical Boy?
A: Jim Eisenreich, the baseball star who played with the Kansas City Royals, founded the Jim Eisenreich Foundation for Children with Tourette syndrome in Kansas City. The foundation partnered with The Coterie Theatre to commission a play that would explore what it is like to be a child who is different. The result is a highly theatrical tragicomedy set in an imaginary worldwhere conformity is valued above individuality. The young protagonist tries desperately to fit in but is shunned because he cannot conform to their narrow rules. When he finds himself labeled a monster, he must decide if he will be ruled by his anger or if he will search for a new humanity. Many of my plays are inspired by young people who find themselves on the outside and, through their own determination and tenacity, overcome the obstacles life throws at them.
Q: How did you become a playwright?
A: When I went to graduate school at New York University I had three young children at home. The children were at the center of my life, so it makes sense that I was compelled by theatre that speaks to children’s concerns. After playwriting classes with Lowell Swortzell and Aurand Harris, my first play won a John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Award from the New England Theatre Conference, the first ever given to a play for young audiences. I was fortunate enough to have the script developed at The Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices Symposium. That was pretty encouraging! It’s funny. If you track the ages of the protagonists in my plays, you can see them grow along with my three daughters from children to teens and beyond. I am continually inspired by the passion and bravery of young people and love writing for them.
Q: What has been your proudest moment as a playwright?
A: When audience members, especially young people, recognize themselves and their feelings in my plays. Those great spontaneous hugs. “How did you write me into your play?” they ask, or “Thank you for understanding.” One time an older woman came up to me and said the performance was the most fun she’d ever had in the theatre.
Q: What is your process for writing plays?
A: I do extensive up-front work, reading and researching ideas that surround the topic, location, time period and culture. I take pages and pages of notes. I call it arming myself with information. If the play is set in our time, I meet with young people to ask for their help in determining specific language and points of view about the issues embedded in the plays. For both Atypical Boy and Jason Invisible, I spent time with professionals who informed me about aspects of dealing with difference and mental illness. Once I am deep into the research and the characters and story line begin to emerge, I do an outline, a road map of the play. Then the actual writing begins.
Q: Many of your plays feature young people who are faced with moral dilemmas and are forced to reevaluate their lives.
A: I write stories that ask questions, stories that ask the characters to make choices, good and bad, and then let audiences decide for themselves how they think and feel about what they have seen. I like to use storytelling to explore issues of character, morality and ethics. Many of my plays, including Atypical Boy and Jason Invisible, have an Interactive Forum design included so that audiences have the opportunity to dialogue about the ideas and moral dilemmas presented in the plays.
Q: You are writing a new adaptation of Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton. Can you give us an idea of the challenges you faced in dramatizing this novel? What can people expect in this new dramatization?
A: Rumble Fish is a classic novel, and S.E. Hinton is often credited as a forerunner of the YA novel genre, so I am thrilled to take on this new stage adaptation. Two versions will be available, one with a small cast of six, for professional theatres, and one with a larger cast for those theatres that need to involve more actors. In addition, girl characters are more prominent, and the script is updated for today’s audiences in language and current culture. The young protagonist, Rusty-James, is every teen who finds himself or herself adrift in a world that is both confusing and demanding. At the center of the story is the search for identity. For young people, that search is as relevant today as it was in 1968, the year the book was published. This new version includes a highly theatrical approach that re-energizes the story for today’s tweens, teens and their families. I will be developing the script at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park with director Mark Lutwak and a group of young actors. So excited for that!