Getting to Know the Playwright: An Interview with Victor Lesniewski

Victor LesniewskiVictor Lesniewski
(Photo: Joshua Bright, The New York Times)

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to write a play? For most of us, the mere idea is daunting enough. Let’s face it, many of us, myself included, found it tough to write papers for school, much less write an entire play! Believe it or not, there are many people out there who would gladly accept the challenge. In fact, a lot of them do.

Recently, I was given the incredible opportunity to pick the brain of one of this year’s Festival of New Theatre (FONT) playwrights, Victor Lesniewski (Amid Purpleheart). Mr. Lesniewski is known for his two works Cloven Tongues and Where Bison Run:

Alex Ovechkin, Professional Hockey Player from Russia, Provided Some Inspiration for the Character of Vitaly in Where Bison Run

Alex Ovechkin, a professional hockey player from Russia, provided some inspiration for the character of Vitaly in Where Bison Run

Cloven Tongues follows the story of Lela, an immigrant whose past is unknown. After she is arrested at the border, she is taken in by Jenny, a social worker, and Ronald, a priest. As Lela’s personal history comes to light, Jenny and Ronald struggle with how best to heal her, and they find that they must also come to terms with their reasons for attempting to help her in the first place.

Where Bison Run features a young hockey star from Belarus who travels to the United States for the first time to play in the NHL. As Vitaly comes of age in this strange new culture, his teammates and handlers soon get caught up in the tricky waters of American and Belarusian politics. In Lesniewski’s own words, it’s a “gripping story of sport and diplomacy, on and off the ice.”

 

Writers often touch on subjects of personal importance or interest. I thought it’dbe fun if I asked Mr. Lesniewski questions that would help us get to know Mr. Lesniewski, and understand what it’s like [for him] to write a play.

Q: Okay, so, first of all, can you tell me a little about yourself, how you got into writing, etc?

A: I always enjoyed the theatre when I was younger.  I built sets and worked backstage during high school and when I got to college I felt like I needed a creative outlet so I did a Drama Minor to go along with my BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering.  I was extremely lucky to be at Carnegie Mellon where both the engineering and drama departments were top-notch.  I took my first playwrighting classes there and continued writing in my spare time before deciding to get my Playwrighting MFA.  I did that at The New School for Drama in NYC and have been making a career of it ever since.

Q: Without giving anything away, what can you tell me about Amid Purpleheart?

A fan cheers for the Minnesota Vikings, the team Walter (Amid Purpleheart) used to play for. (AP Photo)

A fan cheers for the Minnesota Vikings, the team Walter (Amid Purpleheart) used to play for. (AP Photo)

A: Like most of my plays, this one is the collision of a variety of different things that I’m interested in, or things that were really on my mind at the time I began it.  It’s probably obvious to say so, but I’ll say it anyway: my work is often peppered with things that I’m working out in my own life.  Most of these things show up very indirectly as none of my plays are very autobiographical, but when I self-analyze after I’ve written something I always note that there are definitely themes I gravitate toward. For this particular play, I was extremely interested in new research that was being done linking concussions to permanent brain injury.  All of this was coming on the heels of football players who were dealing with memory loss, depression, etc., some of whom had their brains analyzed after death.  I was also extremely disheartened that no one was talking about it.  (Since I first started writing the play the issue has become much more prevalent in the media, thankfully.)  So I began crafting a character who was a former NFL star who would be faced with people telling him that he has to be vigilant for this disease because he’s a prime candidate.  I wanted to steer clear of something that felt like docudrama though, so I just used this premise as the launching pad and the play really evolved so that it became much more about a difficult father/son relationship and the son being forced to confront some long-buried issues from his childhood.

Q: You mentioned something about certain themes you “gravitate” to?

A: Definitely.  I write a lot about isolation and the idea of a single person pushing back against the world around them.  Sometimes I find that a bit surprising as I’m a pretty outgoing, social person, but there is something innate for me about being able to access those emotions, the feelings of being an outsider, or misunderstood, etc.  I also write a lot about war, which I view in a similar way: people lost among chaos.  How we deal with things in this world that are bigger than ourselves has always been something that is very important to me.

Q: Do you find that you have one set process for writing, or do you find yourself tackling each script differently?

A: I do have a bit of a set process in that I like to research and outline for a substantial amount of time before sitting down to write.  But my actual process for writing is often different with each script.  It’s usually dictated by whatever else is going on in my life.  Because I have a non-related day job I don’t have the luxury of writing everyday or on any kind of regular schedule.  I need to carve out time here and there.  Most of the early drafts of Amid Purpleheart were written over weekends and holidays when I could carve that time out.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky enough to be in an organized writers’ group at the time, I’ll write a new play over the course of several months with a weekly or bi-weekly deadline for a small amount of new pages.  That manages to keep me somewhat regular.  I started Where Bison Run when I was in grad school so that one was a little more regular as I turned in pages every week in class.  Also though, because I was still in school, I was less assured as a writer and as a result it has undergone more rewrites over the past couple years than any of my other plays.  Cloven Tongues was also totally different.  That’s the only full length play of mine that was originally a one act, so the focus was much more on discovering the new terrain that I had never even considered before.

Q: What have you found to be the most helpful part about hearing your play(s) read aloud for the first time?

A: There’s a lot of clarity that comes with hearing a play read by talented actors.  It’s not just about the back and forth of the dialogue and whether the flow feels correct, but when actors pick up on the subtext and bring that to life you can tell how much of the play is really working, the guts of it, beyond the words themselves.  Those are the plays I love (and the ones I want to write), the ones that really latch onto you, in your gut.

Q: One final question Mr. Lesniewski, What, to you, is the most important thing about writing?

A: Creating a dialogue with an audience; Raising questions that an audience can take back into the world with them.  Hoping that these little moments we share in a dark room might spur further discussion, awareness, [and/or] understanding of something in our own lives, in our own relationships.  That, that understanding can be contagious to others.  As I’m writing this I’m thinking maybe I’m more of an optimist than I ever realized…

Did you know that storytelling is probably the oldest tradition in human history? Since we first started drawing on cave walls, it was to tell a story. Every playwright is part of that legacy. Stories can connect us to people, places, things we never knew we could. Sometimes, a story can change the way you think about something. Others are just good for a laugh. Either way, the most important thing to realize is that behind every story, there’s a person who decided to tell it.

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