With the first performance of The Magician’s Daughter coming up tonight, it seems like a great time to share some thoughts from playwright Lila Rose Kaplan on the play, her writing career, and the things that inspire her. Unfortunately, she and the whole creative team are pretty busy this afternoon. But don’t worry, I’ve got something up my sleeve.
Our 2018 Festival of New Theatre included a workshop and reading of The Magician’s Daughter. In addition to rehearsals and the time she spent working on the script, Lila Rose also managed to sit down with Geva’s Literary Director/Resident Dramaturg Jenni Werner to answer some questions and read from some of her plays at an event we call The Author’s Voice. If you weren’t here with us on December 1st, I’m sorry that we can’t recreate the experience of seeing Lila Rose perform parts of her own plays. But at least I can share with you the conversation from that evening.
Jenni Werner: Welcome to Rochester. You’ve been here since Thursday [November 28], and you live in Boston now. Are you from Boston originally?
Lila Rose Kaplan: I’m originally from New York. I grew up in Westchester, outside of New York City. I came to Rochester when I was in 8th grade. My dad went to the University of Rochester and we came here for a reunion, so that was my first Rochester trip, many moons ago.
JW: What was he studying at UR?
LRK: Biology. He talks a lot about the tunnels and the snow, and he’d tell us stories. He also talks about a great dance class he took, which is surprising, if you know my father. I think he was the only guy in a modern dance class, which might have been part of what made it great.
JW: Do you think that the experience of growing up just outside of New York influenced your interest in theatre?
LRK: I think so. We saw a lot of shows – though my parents were both doctors, they really love the arts, so we were always making shows, and singing songs, and I don’t know. There was a lot of music and art and theatre in my life from a very young age. And then I was really fortunate to go to a high school that had an incredible performing arts program. Actually, my music teacher from it is here tonight, which is incredible. But something I really valued about that program is that we just made a lot of stuff, so by the time I graduated from high school, I had choreographed a dance that was performed, I’d written a play, directed some scenes, and had also been in shows. We were given authorship really early, and I think before we were – I mean, you’re self-aware and self-conscious in high school, but not quite the same as college. There was a way that we just, oh, it’s time to make a dance, so we did. And then coupling that with going to see shows in New York, I think was really great. I have these memories of my parents taking us to shows, and me, ever the good student, being like “I have to do homework today,” and they’d say, no, we’re going to see a musical.
JW: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
LRK: I’ve always loved stories, I think it was very deep inside of me and I couldn’t imagine not writing. But I also loved math and science, and I loved dance. I kind of loved everything. I was sort of a little renaissance woman.
I think that playwriting and I found each other. I wrote my first play in high school, and it was a twenty-minute play about a couple who stops using the phone because they believe in human communication. So people would have to come to their house to get their census filled out or invite them to a party, or all the things they would have called for. They ended up with a crazy collection of people in their living room. It was a comedy – I definitely was bitten early by the “making people laugh” bug. But what I remember is standing in the back of the theatre watching the show and it was an extraordinary experience. And I remember thinking that playwriting is this amazing nexus where I get to be like Emily Dickinson up in the attic writing her poems, which is one part of who I am, but I also get to come downstairs and make something with other people, which is also a large part of who I am.
So I had that experience, and then like any good 17-year-old, I forgot about it and did a lot of other things. But all through college, I just kept taking playwriting classes. I went to Brown, which had no requirements and you could kind of take anything. I was really fortunate to study playwriting with Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel, who are two incredible playwrights, and I think they kind of shepherded me into the path by saying, you can do this, and we believe in you. So it was a long, slow way in.
After college, I moved to New York. I was still directing plays, and also writing them, and also got a day job. Somewhere in those couple years, I realized that writing was the thing that really made me. I was accepted to go on this amazing playwriting retreat in Ireland. It was the first time I’d ever just focused on writing for two weeks and wasn’t, like, writing on the subway between tutoring and my day job. And then I went to grad school, for playwriting, at UC San Diego.
JW: Boston and California are very different places.
LRK: The whole time I was in southern California, I kept being like, “I miss seasons! I miss seasons!” And now, I miss southern California. So, yeah, they are very different. And certainly both very different than New York, also.
JW: And very different theatre scenes, as well.
LRK: The San Diego theatre scene – I was really at UC San Diego, which isn’t even in San Diego, it’s in La Jolla, and La Jolla Playhouse is the big regional theatre there that we were connected to. In the time since I’ve left San Diego, actually, a bunch of companies sort of sprung up. I think it’s a good moment there.
Then I moved to Santa Barbara, which has, like, one and a half theatres and is not the place most people move as a new playwright in the world. But, I fell in love, which happens sometimes, and my now-husband, then-boyfriend had gotten a great science fellowship in Santa Barbara. So I ended up getting this fellowship in Los Angeles and commuting. A good thing about driving in Los Angeles for three or four years is that then when I moved to Boston, I was unafraid. People think driving in Boston is horrible! And I was like, “well, it’s aggressive, but it’s a little more intelligent.”
And then the Boston theatre scene is actually really vibrant right now. A lot of the existing theatres are making a bigger commitment to new plays, specifically new plays by local writers. I’ve done a lot of shows at Merrimack Rep with Sean Daniels, who I think some of you probably knew when he was here. And then there are these middle and smaller companies kind of bubbling up, so it’s a great moment to be a writer in Boston.
JW: This might be a great moment to hear our first scene. We’re going to start with a scene that’s actually a short play, so it’s an entire play. This is called “The Chapel Play.” When was this written?
LRK: I wrote this in 2011.
JW: Is there anything that we should know about the play before we hear it?
LRK: There’s this wonderful company in LA called Chalk Rep. They commissioned a bunch of playwrights to write 10-minute plays to happen in a church. We all went and scouted through this big church, which had a couple different buildings, and we had to choose a place where our play was going to happen. So I chose this cute little chapel, and I wrote this play.
[Reading of “The Chapel Play”]
JW: What’s it like to read your play out loud?
LRK: It’s so fun!
JW: How long has it been since you did that?
LRK: I did an event kind of like this 8 years ago, at the Lark, where I read one of my plays out loud. The last time I acted-acted, I was Celia in As You Like It, in 2003. So, quite a while.
JW: One of the things I love about this play is you captured these two people in the moment before they do something big. This moment of meeting each other changes what they’re going to do. Is there anyone you’ve met who had that kind of impact on you, changed something about what your plans were?
LRK: That’s a great question. When I was applying to grad school, I flew out to San Diego. I was a finalist. When you’re from the northeast, San Diego kind of feels like another planet, and I was like, “do I want to go to a whole other planet for grad school?” I was trying to figure it out. And I did have this sense I was supposed to leave New York and New England – I went to Brown in Providence, I’d lived in New York. I had the feeling it would be good for me to live somewhere new. But I couldn’t quite tell if San Diego was too far.
There was this wonderful playwright named Adele Shank who used to run that program, and who sadly has passed away now. And I had this beautiful lunch with Adele, and I said to her, “you’ve read two of my plays. What do you think I need to work on? What would you recommend I think about for my next play?” I had asked this at each interview I went to, and the other schools had said, you know, character development, sort of craft-y things. Adele was like, well, you’re a playwright. You should come here, and write your next play, and we’ll see. We’ll see what it is. And that was such a gift. I’m such a good student that it was such a gift for her to say, come here. You’re an artist, and we’ll work all together on your craft.
Then my flight was delayed. I didn’t know I was the last candidate, and they had the meeting to decide who to take right after I left. So as my plane landed at JFK, my phone rang, and I saw it was Adele. I wasn’t even off the plane yet. I was like, oh, I must have left something. I had no idea why she was calling. And she said, we’d love for you to come. And I feel like most people ask questions about housing, or fellowships, or say they’ll think about it, and I was like, “oh, I’d love to come!” Still standing there on the plane.
JW: I know this play takes place in a chapel because of the project you were working on, but do you find that religion has a big place in your writing?
LRK: I think religion, and people finding their own versions of religion, has a place in my writing as well as in my life. My parents are both cultural Jews who believe in science. But then there was this woman named Daphne, who basically raised me and my sister, who was a very devout Christian. So I grew up knowing a lot about Christianity, and a medium amount about Judaism, all from Daphne. Daphne would read us Bible stories for Jewish children every night. So I think I grew up with this sense, as a kid, that religion belonged to other people and we were being snuck into it, kind of. And as an adult, I’ve taken the view that everyone finds their own path with the ingredients they have.
JW: It’s interesting that you bring up science as well. I was reading about a residency that you had at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. Can you talk about that a little bit?
LRK: I was their first, and probably last, playwright in residence. The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics is at UC Santa Barbara, and I lived in Santa Barbara for a couple years after grad school. For a long time they had a journalist-in-residence program, but then newspapers stopped existing, or at least having science sections that had money to send someone away for a couple months. The point of the journalism residence was to get a journalist really connected to theoretical physics, get to the heart of things and talk to people about them. And while the journalist was there, they were supposed to give two public talks. So they had this funding, but they didn’t have any journalists. There’s this wonderful playwright named Lauren Gunderson who writes a lot of plays based on science. And she, in her wonderful tenacious way, convinced them to make her their first playwright in residence. She thought she was going to be living in LA. Then she moved to San Francisco, so she called me and was like, you write plays about science and you live in Santa Barbara, you should do this. So I did, and I wrote a play called Entangled, which is inspired by the idea of entanglement in quantum physics.
JW: What does that mean?
LRK: Entanglement is this way that particles can be connected across great distances. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” So it’s this thing that sounds really magical but it’s actually scientific. Perfect for me.
I grew up with this deep love of science – my dad, as I said, studied biology here and while he became a medical doctor, I think his true love is still biology. So he kept us very immersed in science throughout our childhoods. I remember when I was in 7th grade we had to summarize a current-events article. Everyone else brought in something in the daily news, and I brought in something from Science. Like, the journal Science. Maybe Scientific American. Science was always around.
And this fellowship was really illuminating. Theoretical physicists are not the easiest people to talk to. There’s a heckling culture, at conferences there, a lot of yelling at the speaker. I remember I walked in [to give my first talk], and it was a room of all men and this one woman up in the back who was a French graduate student. OK, she’s going to be my buddy. Then she fell asleep. I’ve done a lot of performing, I’ve done a lot of teaching, but I was just up there, like– And these two men got in this huge fight. It was the most specialized guy and the most generalized guy and it was a fight about, like, the applied-ness of theoretical physics. They were just screaming at each other! And I was there trying to teach them how story structure would help them give better talks. Talking about Dorothy and finding a protagonist. I’ve ended up giving that talk several other times to scientists who aren’t theoretical physicists and it’s gone fine.
JW: They haven’t heckled you?
LRK: No one else. Although the beautiful thing about that workshop was—This talk was called “How to Hold Onto Your Audience at a Conference or a Cocktail Party.” Because one of the things they had shared with me in my time working there was that they’d go to their kids’ soccer games, and someone says “what do you do,” and they’d say “I’m a physicist” and people would sort of get a little scared and walk away. So I had them do this exercise, how would you explain what you do to a 10-year-old, in one sentence? This was actually the best part of the day. Everyone went around the room and had these amazing sentences about these highly complex things, but in language that kids would understand. And I said, “the secret is that you can actually say that sentence to anybody, of any age.”
Then, after this talk was over, this man came up to me – and this place had people from all over the world, I think he was from Latvia – and he was like, “I’m a little shy. I didn’t want to say this in front of the whole group, but I have my sentence.” He said, “I study the coldest place in the universe.” Wow. I would want to read that Roald Dahl book. That was such a cool moment for me. Like, oh, maybe it wasn’t just heckling.
So I wrote this play, and they did it at UCSB, which was great. The theatre department did it. And as I understood it, all the graduate students loved it and all the professors thought the science was not well depicted.
JW: There are a small handful of playwrights who are really interested in science and in telling the stories of science on stage. I wonder what are the things about theatre, and telling stories on stage, that excite you the most?
LRK: I think we’re living in this very individualized moment. For me, something that’s really powerful about the theatre is it’s one of the only communal rituals we have left. And there’s something so powerful about sitting together and receiving a story. TV and film are really good right now, so I think I’m most interested in theatrical theatre that you couldn’t do better on Hulu or Netflix.
There’s something really powerful, too, about engaging the kids inside of adults, and saying, please come here and use your imagination with us. Because I think when we get back to our kid brains we’re actually more likely to grow and learn. That’s what happened with the scientist from Latvia, right? So I’m very hopeful that when theatre is working, it’s people sitting together and imagining how the world could work differently.
JW: That is a perfect segue to hear our next scene, which is [from a play] called The Villains’ Supper Club. It was performed this past spring at Merrimack Rep, where Sean Daniels is the Artistic Director. We’re going to read a scene from fairly early in the play. What is the most helpful thing for everyone to know?
LRK: This is a play I wrote for Sean, basically. He wanted me to write a comedy. So I wrote this play called The Villains’ Supper Club. It’s about a world where there’s only one superhero left, and she’s a new mom. So there’s this group of villains that are trying to take out this last superhero. Kristen Mengelkoch – I don’t know if you guys remember her – was Galactic Girl, our superhero/new mom, and then John Gregorio, who I think has done a lot of work here too, was Lee the Leopard, the main villain.
The scene right now is Galactic Girl, but in her day job. By day she’s living as a journalist, and this is her first day back at work – she was on maternity leave, from being both a superhero and a journalist. And the scene is with Ms. Caliente, who is her icy editor by day, and by night is The Flame, one of the villains. So they both have a double identity but they don’t know.
[Excerpt from The Villains’ Supper Club]
JW: You talked a little bit about how the play came to be, but why superheroes?
LRK: I’m a new mother myself, I have a three-and-a-half-year-old. And the first year of her life, I had five productions of my plays, all over the country. I am a somewhat successful playwright, and a production or two a year is usually a sign things are going well, so this was crazy. The night she was born, I had a show opening off-Broadway. So when I was going into labor, I was watching a run on FaceTime, sitting on a birthing ball. It was this perfect combination of things. So that was kind of a superhero year for me.
When she was six months old, I took her with me to San Francisco and had a show there at San Francisco Playhouse. We stayed with a friend from high school who had an extra bedroom, and we made it work. But I was pumping in all kinds of crazy places, not really sleeping. Anyone who is a parent knows that it just takes a superhuman effort to survive, especially that first year. And I think it really just inspired me to write a play about new moms, because I was someone who’d always thought of myself as a feminist, and I had no idea that there was a whole population that we don’t really take very good care of in our culture. It was powerful for me to create a play where it wasn’t about being stricken with motherhood, but more being a heroic, successful, if challenged character.
One of the characters in the play is Dr. Freida, the German pediatrician. There are these great voice messages that [Galactic Girl] gets from Dr. Freida all through the play. She’s off to, you know, defeat four supervillains and then she’ll be in her phone booth, pumping, and get this message that’s about, I know you’re busy saving people, but your child’s nose is stuffed. To me it’s that thing where you’re suddenly keeping a whole person alive, and I think it’s such an important story to be looking at right now.
I think the comic-book world is so historically white-male-dominated, and it was really interesting while doing research for this play – I’ve never been a super comic person, I’ve always liked graphic novels a lot – but doing this really deep dive into comics, you just feel very invisible. And it made me think of this amazing Toni Morrison quote I read. I guess Toni Morrison didn’t start writing novels until she was 39, and she started because she wasn’t finding the books on the shelf that she wanted to read. So she started to write them. And I think that’s very much what Villains’ Supper Club is for me: a big, raucous physical comedy that’s political and feminist. You could call it a superhero feminist farce, that’s one of Sean’s great phrases.
JW: I feel like we’re starting to see more superheroes who are women. But I can’t think of any who are mothers.
LRK: There is one. There’s a new Spiderwoman comic that has two issues, and she’s a new mom. And it’s great. I found it when I was in the middle of working on this play, and it was so great to see an actual graphic artist depicting, you know, she gets sent to some interstellar OB-GYN, and she’s sitting there and gets attacked and she has to destroy everyone while trying to fill out the paperwork.
JW: Of course being a parent changes your life, but has it also changed the way you approach your writing?
LRK: It has made me so much more efficient with the time available to me. I think when your time is more limited, you make decisions more effectively. In theatre, like a lot of the arts, we can kind of be muddy in terms of what’s work time, what’s social time. Once you actually have to get home and put someone to bed, you’re like, no, we’re going to be done at 6 and I have to go home. In a way, it’s helped me really value my time being an artist, and also realize when that door has to close.
JW: You write also for young audiences. Do you approach writing for young audiences in any different way than you approach writing for adults?
LRK: I really don’t. I think kids are the greatest audience, because they have such a high bullshit meter. They won’t tolerate anything not important. I’ve written three shows for kids at this point, and they’ve made me such a better writer of grown-up plays too. Kids are really tuned into what’s going on. With a grown-up play, you can be a little not clear for ten minutes and people will stay with you, but kids just check out.
One of my shows is called The Light Princess, and it’s a musical about a princess who’s cursed to have no gravity. And what’s beautiful about the show is, she has to float for 60 of 70 minutes of the play. When we did it at A.R.T. in Cambridge, we got to work with their whole graduate school, so there was a chorus of people flying her, literally, through the show. My director, Allegra Libonati, is a genius of making kids’ shows. They always do a run halfway through the process, for kids. It was her check- in with the audience. She hated notes from any of the grown-ups at A.R.T. But she really cared, and we did this run, but one of the lifts wasn’t working. The whole point of the show is for her to break this curse and get her gravity back before she turns 16. And we were doing this run, and halfway through, they just mark it. They don’t actually pick her up. And the little girl sitting next to me says to her dad, “the show’s over! She got her gravity back!” It’s like, wow, they are paying so much attention! Now that I have a three-and-a-half-year-old, I can see it too, they are working so hard to learn the world and zoom in on those details.
There’s this great idea in children’s theatre that I try to bring to my adult theatre too, of “suddenlys.” Kids are really tuned-in to surprise. When something is sudden – it could be a new character, or a light shift, or a surprising sound – I think that’s what keeps us awake in the theatre. So I think shows for kids are shorter and have maybe slightly simpler plots, but I actually think that the heart of my shows is very similar. When I was in graduate school, I was accused of writing children’s theatre for adults, which I’ve taken as a compliment.
JW: We mentioned Toni Morrison, and you’ve mentioned several other playwrights who’ve been important in your career, but who are writers who inspire you?
LRK: I’m always very inspired by Tony Kushner. I think he’s one of the only writers that is theatrical, funny, political, and personal – all of those things. There’s such a fear in the arts right now that there isn’t enough money, and a lot of playwrights are doing things like write a four-character play, write a two-character play. There’s this pressure on us to keep getting smaller and more producible. And I grew up on musicals, and ballet recitals, and 18 people on stage, so for me that’s always a little confusing. Theatre is supposed to be theatrical. You can do it with two people – The Magician’s Daughter actually is a two-character play, that was my challenge to myself, to make something theatrical with two people – but I love Angels in America because of that.
JW: Angels has such a big scope. It’s not just a big cast – if you do parts 1 and 2, it’s like 6 or 7 hours long.
LRK: Yeah, it’s like two naps. But, I love Tony Kushner, I love Suzan Lori Parks. I love Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel, partly because they were my mentors and also because of their work. Naomi Iizuka is another one. Irene Fornés – I got to take a class with her once.
JW: The plays we’ve seen have come from different inspirations, but is there a typical way that a play comes to life for you? How do you decide when something is a play?
LRK: That’s a great question. I think every play can be kind of different. When I teach, which I do sometimes, I talk about that: that plays come to you in different ways. Sometimes it’s a character, like Galactic Girl, I met her before I met the whole play. With The Magician’s Daughter, I had just seen The Tempest at A.R.T. and it was this big, crazy production of it. Penn & Teller did the magic, and Pilobolus did the movement, Tom Waits wrote the music. It was big and spectacular. And the woman playing Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, which is kind of not a part I’d thought that much about before, was just a super fierce young woman. There was something about that and I thought, oh, who is she? And then I had also been to see Venus in Fur, which is a very theatrical two-person play, and I was like, oh, no, it’s possible, now I have to try it!
Every play has been different, though. For me, part of being an artist is staying very awake, and listening to the world around us. I’m just starting a play right now for Sean called Spa Gods. It’s about a fertility goddess who retires when Trump gets elected. It’s really looking at her desire to stop making people and take a break. And her assistant sends her to a spa to relax and hopefully change her mind, and then all of these gods and people come to see her and try to convince her not to end the planet. That came in some ways out of the election and also out of being interested in older women and sexuality and fertility on stage. Right now I’m really interested in comedy, where we can experience laughing and joy.
JW: This might be the right time to explore that two-person play. So, we’re going to do a scene from The Magician’s Daughter, which is the first scene in the play. But we’re not going to talk too much about it, because we want you to come back tomorrow and hear the whole thing.
[Excerpt from The Magician’s Daughter]
JW: Did you ever want to be a magician?
LRK: No. But I had a dream when I was a little girl that a woman found me and was like, “I’m your real mother. But I couldn’t raise you, so I gave you to a magician who needed an assistant.”
JW: And that stuck with you. Of course it would.
LRK: Couple that with the fact that my parents are psychiatrists and it’s all over.
JW: This is also not your only play that takes inspiration from Shakespeare. What about Shakespeare has interested you?
LRK: In this play I was really interested in how young women are treated in his plays, but also in life, that we’ve become very comfortable with. Watching that production of The Tempest, I just felt like Prospero was horrible to Miranda, and that’s not something we talk about. There are these stories that are so engrained in our cultural psyche, and I think it’s a really great moment to say “here are things that are beautiful and valuable about them, and here are things that maybe we should look at in them and in ourselves.”
JW: I read an interview with you around the time of a project you were doing called The Weird. And in that interview, you said something like “we have to tilt reality in order to see it better sometimes.” Can you talk about that?
LRK: You started out asking about why I love theatre, and that’s one of the reasons I do. It’s very hard to actually look exactly at what’s going on most of the time. And something that’s so inspiring to me about theatre is that you can go in and a window opens into a world that’s like our world but not exactly our world, and that’s actually often a good place to look at things that are challenging or things we hope to change. The play that I said that in reference to was, I wrote this 20-minute play called “Letters from the Coven.” It’s a series of monologues from young women who’ve just started witch school, but it’s really not what they thought it was going to be at all. So it’s this series of sort of distressed letters home. And that play is about the way that women treat each other.
When I studied with Paula, we would talk about that idea of making the ordinary extraordinary to help us see it. In The Magician’s Daughter, there is this great theatrical feat of the play, which I don’t want to spoil too much about, because hopefully you guys will come back tomorrow and in January to see it in the flesh. But father-daughter relationships are wonderful, and horrible, and everything in between. And at least for me, in my own father-daughter relationship, the only way to do justice to it was to create this theatrical circle that could sort of show all the different sides of that.
Audience member: What will happen between tomorrow night and January?
LRK: In the play? I ask because I just bought a house, so I have to move.
Actually, between tonight and tomorrow, I have some rewrites to do that we learned about today in rehearsal. And then tomorrow night we’ll hear the play. We’re in one of my favorite parts now, where you know there’s a production and everything’s about to go from blueprint to 3D, which is one of the most exciting parts of playwriting. As playwrights, we’re like architects, creating these blueprints. And readings are one thing – they’re so helpful, but they’re not actually what we’re intending. So in the next month, I’ll probably continue to do some rewrites and tweaks, based on what we learn tomorrow. Our amazing director Shelley [Butler], who’s here, will keep working with our designers to make sure we have the right props and set and everything to create the show on. And there’s some magic in the show, so we’re going to keep figuring out how the magic works. It’s not the longest rehearsal process, so I think we’re setting ourselves up to succeed by getting as many ducks in a row as we can, while knowing in theatre, something inevitably breaks and one duck won’t come, and then we’ll have to think up a new plan.
JW: And there’s also the magic in the rehearsal room. Your experiences so far of the play have been sitting around a table or sitting at music stands, and once people have to walk and talk at the same time, that can make a big difference.
LRK: Yeah, that’s also where you learn if something is overwritten or underwritten. Sometimes someone will be say, “I’m gonna leave,” and they walk out and you realize, oh, they can just go. They don’t need to say that. Or other times, there’s something that is expressed in the stage directions and everyone got it in the reading but it doesn’t make sense without the stage direction. And my stage directions tend to be very funny and deep and involved and personal, so I have needed to put some of that actually in the writing.