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Interview: Liz Duffy Adams Shares Her Inspirations & Writing Process for DOG ACT at Main Street Theatre

Dog Act comes to Main Street Theatre in Houston, TX

Interview: Liz Duffy Adams Shares Her Inspirations & Writing Process for DOG ACT at Main Street Theatre
Nathan Wilson, Trey Morgan Lewis
Photo by Pin Lim/Forest Photography

The joy in talking to artists is getting a sense of all the knowledge and passion built up in their minds waiting to burst out. When talking to Liz Duffy Adams ahead of Dog Act's opening at Main Street Theatre, it was clear how thoughtful she is about her work and the theatrical process.

A big question immediately springs to mind: How'd you come up with the premise for Dog Act?

Well, I know that you are also a playwright, so I'm not telling you anything you don't know. There are always many different sparks to starting a play, especially for me with Dog Act. Part of it is that I grew up reading science fiction and thinking about futuristic scenarios. So that was something that's just a pleasure to me. And also, I was spending time on a barrier island, just a few miles from a nuclear power plant. Anti-nuclear activists in the 70s put a sign up before the bridge to the island. It said "no evacuation possible." And that sign was up for decades. But the concept, the idea, was very present to me, the sense of potential disaster. And I was writing Dog Act there.

Another element was the idea of the sort of the sacrificial God. It's in so many cultures, who dies and is reborn. So it's the idea of how culture is carried forward and protected by artists. Also, I am always interested in the way history cycles because I like to sort of cycle around the present moment and look at the present through that sort of oblique angle.

Why you were on a barrier island near a nuclear power plant?

It's near where I grew up, on the north shore of Massachusetts. And so my sisters and I had this little cottage on that island. When I wrote Dog Act, I was there alone about half the time. It's both a beautiful and a moody place to be writing.

Are you able to give voice to what has made your plays so successful, to the point where all these theaters keep producing your work?

I started out studying acting and then working in experimental productions and classical theater. I ultimately couldn't make it as a performer, but it was my training as a playwright. I think I write parts that actors want to play because I give them what they need, and I know how to give them what they want. In a way, I'm writing parts that I would want to play. It's this sort of language, storytelling, and character-driven nature of my work, even as you know, the heart is the humanity of it. And I think that's attractive to actors, and hence to directors and audience.

That makes complete sense. I think that's actually really good advice to like, give to a younger playwright. Try to think about the actors.

Oh, yes, the actors are your primary collaborators, I always tell young playwrights, "Give the actors what they need and give them something exciting to do."

How do you know when to let go of a play, you know, to stop revising and rewriting and say, "I'm done! I'm not changing anything else."

Somebody once said, "a play is never finished, it's only abandoned."

For me, it's when the actors and the director really, really need you to stop making any changes and you're about to open up. Also, it's when you're lucky enough that it's getting published. That also really puts us period on it.

But I'm somebody that writes very intensely. My first drafts are very good deep dives, usually relatively close to the final draft. I know a lot of writers are like "revising is writing." And for me, writing is writing, and revising is tinkering and making it better, but the bulk of my work is done in the process of the first draft. That's just the way that I work.

So I usually don't have a lot of trouble letting go in the end. I very much embrace the idea that no, there's no such thing as a perfect play, all plays are flawed. I embrace that.

Whenever I submit a play, an hour later I'm like, "Oh, no. Can I get my play back?"

Well, you know, once after a play of mine had premiered, like six months later, I literally woke up at three in the morning and scrambled for a notebook because I suddenly realized what was wrong with the play and I really did rewrite it. You know, it sort of took seeing it that many times and then sleeping on it for six months, apparently, for me to understand what was wrong.

Have you dabbled in film novels, television, any of those other worlds?

Well, I have dabbled. I wrote maybe three TV pilots. I also have written two drawer novels. You know, like the first one was definitely a novel that went back into the drawer. And the second one is my COVID novel because when COVID hit I lost two world premieres. The theaters had just all closed and who knew when they were going to reopen, and I just couldn't bring myself to write another play at that moment. So I started writing a novel and I'm still revising that. It's really fun to stretch in that direction. It's a real pleasure, I have to say and I don't know if it'll end up being something that's publishable.

Why focus on playwriting?

Well, you know, I fell in love with the theater as a teenager, as we so often do, and I'm very stubborn. All I wanted from the age of, I guess, 15 was to find a place for myself to belong in that world of the theater, and that's where my heart is.

It's absurd and obscure, and an increasingly fringe art form. But for me, it's just where my heart is.

I love it.

Dog Act opens on March 26 and runs until April 16. Visit for tickets.

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