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Interview with Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino

Interview with Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod speaks with Lindsey Ferrentino, playwright of our upcoming Roundabout Undergroud production Ugly Lies the Bone.

TED SOD: Where are you from? Where were you educated? When did you decide to become a playwright and why?

LINDSEY FERRENTINO: I'm from a small town along Florida's space coast...I'm a bit of a perpetual student. I moved to New York when I was 17 to attend NYU as an acting major. I knew about a week after having to participate in tap classes and tai chi that I had no interest in pursuing a career in acting, but I stayed on and took as many playwriting classes as possible. I studied abroad in London with the Writer's Guild of Great Britain, worked at a talent agency briefly, and went to graduate school at Hunter College, where I got my MFA in playwriting under Tina Howe and Mark Bly. After graduating, I was admitted to the Yale School of Drama where I am currently enrolled in the final year of my second MFA in playwriting. People are usually curious as to why I would choose a second MFA, but I think that as a writer, you are always looking for opportunities to just keep writing and developing new work - higher education has been a very special, safe space to be able to do just that... explore my voice, develop plays with wonderfully supportive actors, and get the scripts into somewhat decent shape before releasing them from my hands.

Growing up, I was constantly writing - short stories, poems, excessively lengthy apology notes to my parents, advice columns to my peers on how to write apology notes to your parents and therefore get more pets. I'd write plays for my male cousins to perform in my living room, despite their complaints that I was only doing it so that they would play dress up. Through this though, I never realized that playwrights were people who were alive, writing about contemporaneity. In high school, I somehow convinced my parents to buy me Final Draft. The deal was that if I actually finished a screenplay, I wouldn't have to pay them back for the scriptwriting software. For a broke high school student, this was a real motivator... and I don't think I've ever worked harder on anything in my life. After finishing, I pretentiously considered myself a screenwriter, letting a high school playwriting contest deadline pass without entering. My creative writing teacher pulled me out of my science class into the hallway and scolded me. When I told her I didn't have a play, she informed me that I would go home and write one...or else fail. I coyly wrote a play about a playwright who can't think of anything to write. This little one-act went on to win the national competition and was produced at The Kennedy Center the summer after I graduated high school. I had absolutely nothing to do with the production but showed up with my mom opening night. The audience laughed, in unison, at lines I hadn't even realized were funny. That feeling of moving a group of people simultaneously, at having been the cause of a collective experience, was something I knew I'd spend the rest of my life trying to achieve again.


TS: What inspired you to write Ugly Lies the Bone? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how?

This is an incredibly personal play for me. I grew up in a small town along Florida's space coast - this was an area that always prided itself in a belief in the future, in being forward thinking. I grew up under a literal banner that said "Welcome to Merritt Island - where dreams are launched." I went away to college around the same time as NASA's layoffs and the space shuttle program shutting down and came home to an area whose landscape drastically changed both physically and economically. Around the same time, my childhood best friend became a psychologist at a Veterans Affairs center in our town, and the play grew from noticing a parallel between soldiers looking for a way to start over and the town itself looking for this same thing.

My most visceral memories from childhood involve watching shuttle launches from my roof, rockets that literally shook my house. Schools would stop, cars would pull off the highway, whether you were in a bank or a grocery store - everyone would pause their life for a brief moment, stand together, and silently look at the sky. I think the loss of this dream -- which feels like a very American dream, the American frontier spirit, etc. - comes at a great cost. It has a ripple out effect on how we interact with each other. If you take away that communal hope, that capacity to explore, what is next? What does the next dream for our country look like? I don't have an answer, but I think the play is set among those questions.

In general, I try to approach writing plays in the same way I would a love letter. Ugly Lies the Boneis a love letter to Florida. My hometown. My childhood spent on the beach, watching those launches. My VA psychologist friend's patients whose stories I grew to know intimately. The play is for someone I was in love with at the time of writing and trying to understand. By love letter I mean a place where you can share some memories, tell a bad joke. Love letters are hopefully written with honesty and where you try, with all the words that you have, to be vulnerable and let the other person know that they're seen.

Ugly Lies the Bone VR Demo 012

Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino (left) and director Patricia McGregor (second from left) with the cast.


TS: I know you did an extraordinary amount of research on the world of the play. Will you give us a sense of the kind of research you had to do in order to write it and how you went about doing it?

So many ideas in the play were inspired by casual phone conversations with my VA psychologist friend throughout her first year practicing. I did some interviews, read as much as I could get my hands on, and transcribed documentaries to feel the diction and rhythms. However, with the more research I did, I began noticing a real discrepancy between the media's depiction of a returning soldier narrative and the ones I was seeing and hearing about in my daily life. The media at the time was focused on returning soldier suicide, which is a very real problem, but what I found in talking with veterans was a ferocious will to live, despite severe injuries. The worst thing you can say to a returning soldier is, "I can't really imagine what you've gone through." It shuts down our capacity for empathy. I think the more interesting question to me was - what world are we bringing our soldiers home to? How will they recreate a life for themselves?

The friend I mentioned earlier was talking to me continually about how the human body is conditioned to survive. That human beings want things to be better on a deeper level than we even realize - a molecular tendency towards regeneration. That your skin will heal. That your body will accept skin grafts...regeneration is built into our chemical make-up. So the question of the play then became where does my protagonist, Jess, find hope? Who can really see her when her exterior has been so drastically compromised? And how do we as a nation search for that new beginning again?


TS: What was the most challenging part of writing your play? What part was the most fun?

LF: In the beginning, I was getting a bit caught up in thinking of Jess's injuries first. I was asking myself - how do you write or get inside a character who looks like this? Of course, the obvious answer is that you'd write her just like you would any other... since she is as unfamiliar with her change in physicality as you are. When I realized that it was okay for her to want simple things (love, friendship, job security, family) it alleviated any unnecessary pressure I was putting on myself to have this character represent some sort of hero's journey. She was just a person, with flaws, up against an obstacle. That became a lot easier to write.

I feel like a good writing day is when you're sitting alone at your desk, typing a lot of terrible pages to hopefully get out a few decent ones, and then suddenly something clicks... and you write a line that makes you laugh or surprises you. Maybe you're not sure where that line came from because it's darker or sadder or funnier than you think you are, but suddenly you are conversing with a part of yourself you weren't aware existed. You almost look around and say, "Can I really write that?" or better yet "Did I just write that?" Those moments are beautiful and rare, and I got to have a few of them in this play.


TS: Ugly Lies the Bone has had two workshop productions, at The Bloomington Playwrights Project and Fordham University. Can you tell us what you learned about the play from those earlier incarnations?

LF: I'm in a unique position, having seen two workshop productions of this play before getting into rehearsals for the world premiere production at Roundabout. This rarely happens and is a strange privilege. Because I wasn't able to be in the rehearsal room for either of those productions, I avoided making big script changes, especially because I knew I had the Roundabout process coming. However, I learned a huge amount about the way in which this play moves and sounds on its feet. I was in conversations with two other directors and design teams, which has made me far more articulate and vocal in the Roundabout design process. I'm able to explain what I saw working and not working, other areas of the play I'd like to highlight, etc. Also, the productions brought about a keener sense of practical troubleshooting. For example, because Jess is injured and moves with a walker, this presents a certain challenge to the set designer, who has to achieve scene transitions quickly, but with a character who cannot move quickly between scenes. To alert the designer ahead of time to the particular challenges that an actor will be facing was helpful... and something that you wouldn't normally discover until late in the process.


Ugly Lies the Bone begins previews September 10 at our Black Box Theatre. All tickets to Roundabout Underground are general admission for only $25. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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