BWW Interviews: Laura Pedersen, Playwright for BRIGHTNESS OF HEAVEN
Brightness of Heaven, a new play by acclaimed author, Laura Pedersen is now onstage at Cherry Lane Studio Theatre through December 14th. Directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, the play is about family and faith and moving forward. The Kilgannons are as typical an Irish family one would expect to find in 1974 Buffalo. But the world outside is changing fast, the generation gap is widening, and the future is up for grabs. The play addresses women's rights and gay rights and how liberal thinking affected those who grew up in the church, the Catholic Church. Forty years later, it is still a timely, Front-page issue. Broadwayworld.com had an opportunity to interview Pedersen about this significant theatrical piece and her fascinating career.
Pedersen began her career as the youngest person, at age 20, to become a partner in a Wall Street trading firm. Glamour magazine named her one of ten "Outstanding Young Working Women" in 1990. Her first book, Play Money (1991), about being the youngest trader on the floor of the American Stock Exchange, became a bestseller, and she appeared on CNN, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and many others. In 1994, President Clinton honored Ms. Pedersen as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. She was a columnist for The New York Times from 1995 to 2002, and the host of her own television show on the Oxygen Channel from 1999-2002. She is the author of many best-selling and award-winning books, including the Hallie Palmer Series, Going Away Party and The Sweetest Hours. Her first children's book, Unplugged: Ella Gets Her Family Back, was published in 2012 and became a Mom's Choice Awards Gold recipient. While Pedersen has authored several successful one-act plays, The Brightness of Heaven is Pedersen's first full-length play. It was the finalist in the Maxim Mazumder New Play Competition, a finalist in the Ashland New Plays Festival, and a finalist in The Hudson Valley Writers' Center New Play Reading Series.
We asked Pedersen about her earliest memories of the theater and performing arts. She commented, "I was taken to see shows at Studio Arena Theater and Shea's in Buffalo, NY, including Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Camelot, The King and I, and a magic show by Harry Blackstone Jr. Buffalo often gets a bad rap for its weather and economy, but it's always had a tremendous performing arts community and that tradition continues today. So a big shout-out for Buffalo. Also, it was possible to experience dance, poetry, drama, musicals, and concerts at reasonable prices so working class families like mine could go. Additionally, there was Shakespeare in the Park."
Pedersen also said, "Stories were an important part of my childhood, whether in a book, on the stage, or just listening to a good raconteur. There wasn't much on TV when I was growing up in Buffalo aside from bowling and the 700 Club, so people entertained each other by organizing polka dances and variety shows."
Pedersen's dynamic career has taken her from the business world to a being a successful writer and also a writer for the theater. She spoke about these extraordinary accomplishments. "I always wanted to write stories. I worked from the time I was 11 -- shoveling driveways, babysitting, grooming dogs, cooking at restaurants. But once I learned I was good at probability I started counting cards while playing blackjack for a living and decided it'd be easier to try to make some money in the stock market and become my own patron of the arts. Every year I renew my own grant without having to submit a proposal. Sometimes I meet with the dogs to discuss works in progress."
Pedersen acknowledges those mentors who have promoted her interests. "Almost all of my teachers were mentors. My parents worked full time and all sorts of weird hours. I was a wild child and dozens of teachers gave me books to read, took me places, and I think tried to keep an eye on me. I still see many of them and I'm pretty sure they're relieved."
We asked Pedersen about some of the artists and writings she admires. "A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is fabulous for so many reasons. It was produced on Broadway when Hansberry was 29 and she died at the age of 34. We lost so much." She also said, "When Lettice and Lovage was on Broadway in 1990 I went to see it ten times just to watch the fabulous cast -- Dame Maggie Smith, Margaret Tyzack, and Paxton Whitehead. I most admire Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, since 2002. She has brought back terrific shows that were long forgotten, in addition to being a talented director and a big supporter of plays written by women."
Pedersen shared some of her insights about her play. " The Brightness of Heaven is about what was happening socially and culturally when I was growing up in the 1970s. I think it's interesting to look at how much things have changed, but at the same time it makes us realize we have a ways to go. This is my fifth time working with director Ludovica Villar-Hauser so clearly I think the world of her talent, creativity, and people skills. Our cast is amazing and you'd recognize most of them from one place or another. Our Dad has even played the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. It's supposed to be a musical family and they do some wonderful singing. I'm always surprised by how they find new meaning or humor in different lines and expressions. To me it's like watching a magic trick."
We asked Pedersen about some of her future plans. "I'd love for The Brightness of Heaven to play in Western New York since that's where it takes place. I have a book coming out in April called LIFE IN NEW YORK: How I learned to love Squeegee Men, Token Suckers, Trash Twisters and Subway Sharks."
We also wanted to know if Pedersen had anything else that she would like Broadwayworld.com readers to know. "Yes! I had a celebrity encounter yesterday! I was at the box office buying a ticket for the play Indian Ink starring Rosemary Harris when I heard a mellifluous, unmistakable voice speaking right next to me, giving detailed subway directions to the theater into a cell phone. Turns out that Grande Dame Harris is also a knowledgeable straphanger. And yes, she speaks that elegantly offstage, even when just giving instructions for riding the N/R trains. I was sorry when the directions finally came to an end and had to keep myself from applauding."
Brightness of Heaven is being performed at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in New York City. Presented by the VH Theatrical Development Foundation, this is a strictly limited Off-Broadway engagement through December 14th. Tickets are now on sale at www.TheBrightnessofHeaven.com.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laura Pedersen