Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Amy Casey, Painter, interviewed by Geoff Graser

Amy Casey's website:

How has your work been shaped by your environment in Cleveland?

I’ve always been the kind of artist who doesn’t necessarily get an idea and do it. I absorb where I am and what I’m doing. I’ve been in Cleveland for about 10 years in a row right now. 15 years total. And I moved into part of the city called Tremont, sort of an artisty neighborhood, which is right where the steel industry used to be based. I think there’s one steel mill left, but the rest shut down.

My house, which shows up in a lot of my paintings, used to house the rotating boarders of steel mill workers. So it used to be very much a working class neighborhood. My work is filled with all the little houses and structures that are mostly from my neighborhood. Sometimes people who aren’t from my area say, these are “generic, little houses.” To me, they’re very specific. If you see a number on the house front, that’s because that’s the number that’s there on the house. I didn’t make it up. So I’m not nearly as creative and visionary as people may think—if somebody were to think that.

I was just thinking this morning that in some ways I’m taking my own city and running it through a blender of other things I’m thinking about and seeing what pops out. But I’m not like, “Now I’m going to make a re-mash of Cleveland.” That’s not how I think about the painting, but I could see how people might say that. So what I’m basically saying is that where I’m living is a huge, huge influence. I’m sure if I was living in the prairie my paintings would be completely different.

I think if I didn’t have connections to the things that I painted it would mean less to me. Even if I don’t know what they are, I have a familiarity. I’m very routine-oriented. I spend most of my days at a gallery where I work, so I take the bus or the train over to the gallery, and the things I see I’m interested in and a lot of times I take pictures. And then my own neighborhood. And then the place where I go quilt-making on the East side of Cleveland, they have a ton of older, industrial buildings that aren’t really making or storing anything anymore. And some of those places artists are moving in and trying to transform that area. So there’s a lot of really great, interesting buildings that when I look at them I just think I’d love to play with that and to see how I can fit that into my own little world.

Sometimes my paintings end up looking kind of fantastical and silly. Not silly, but not serious looking. But they come out of a very practical [place]. I’m a very practical sort of person. So, things are the way they are in my paintings for reasons stemming from previous paintings. It’s sort of like I’m building a little city. I’ve become really interested in the history of cities and city building and city planning and I’ve been reading all summer about city restoration. To me, the most interesting part about the book is just hearing about how cities sort of fell apart and different parts became abandoned and then there’s the urge to rebuild. Just thinking about the history of the city that you’re walking on and why things are the way they are interests me. You don’t really have any idea. I guess you can look into it, but mostly when you walk around Rochester you’re not thinking, “Oh, this is this way because of that.”

In my paintings, I can personally trace when my little universe started growing—like paintings I was doing 10 years ago and how that’s related to the little world I’m making now—so I can explore that history in my own work that maybe I don’t always know about in my actual cities.

How many paintings are you showing at this exhibit and how did you go about picking them?

This summer I was working on new works for the show. I think there’s six new pieces but there are 10 or 11 total. Two of them are etchings. So, because I made the new ones specifically with this project in mind, in that sense I had something to do with picking them, but ultimately the gallery that I work for in Chicago framed the works for me and I told them to use their discretion in trying to pick things they thought would go together and work with the theme of the show. So I had some control over it.

How did it come out?

I think it was fine. I’ve been making a lot of work lately and sending it out almost immediately. In some ways it’s just nice to see them collected and rested on the wall and not be like, “I have to finish something” and not going crazy and stressing out about it.

I’m a twiddler when I see my old work, and I always want to redo things. So it’s actually really great when my work is either bought or taken away from my grasp, because you gotta move on eventually. You have to just take your lumps and learn what you learn and make some new paintings instead of just being on one work for 10 years.

Although it worked for Albert Pinkham Ryder. He was a painter and would work on the same painting for years and years and years and people would want to buy the painting and he’d be like, “Oh, just a few more years.” The art museum in Cleveland has one of his paintings called “Death On a Pale Horse” and it’s kind of this weird figure on a horse, but it’s so thick and gnarly and you can just imagine all the different paintings that painting used to be and the history of the whole thing hiding underneath the surface. Although it’s a problem because when you do things like that it’s a difficult medium to hold up over time because you’re kind of torturing the paint and doing things that won’t always last. So I think for some of the pieces, conservation problems have popped up probably. So there’s even more downside to working on something for that long.

How does it feel now that your work is in pretty good demand?

Good, obviously. But since the work has been getting more and more detailed, it demands a lot more time. And I can look at something and say, I’m going to make a net out of a chain-linked fence and say this will take physically 20 hours just to make this fence part.

So, realistically, when you’re thinking about your deadlines and the amount of time you actually have to work you’re like: I have to have this chain-linked fence net, but I know it’s going to take me 20 hours. Sometimes that can be a little daunting and, honestly, a little depressing. I love making these things but time-wise it’s become a little stressful. So I’m trying to learn to say, “No” a little more to some things. I’m looking forward to some quiet time this winter, so, hopefully, I stay committed to that and don’t change my mind and do something else.

Unfortunately, I do thrive on beating deadlines and the adrenaline probably. And as much as I can’t stand it, in some ways I need it. It’s a back and forth kind of relationship—I guess what most people have in their stressful, frazzled lives.

On your Web site, it said that growing up you wanted to be a painter or writer. What made you go in the direction of painting? Do you still write?

I don’t write in any organized way. I’m not a good writer, but I grew up reading so much when I was a kid. That’s pretty much my major thing in life. Me and my twin would go to the library and get books and then we’d switch books and we’d each have these piles and piles of books. So reading was always way more a major part of my life than art ever was. I love drawing like every kid does, but my family was not an artsy family. My dad worked for the state and before that he owned bars and my mom was a secretary. So it’s not like they were taking us to art museums, not that people who work for the state or are secretaries can’t take their kids to art museums, but my parents weren’t that interested in art. So writing and reading were always a huge part of my life. At some point, I remember, I was a very little kid but I don’t know exactly how old I was. My sister would joke that I was “8” because every time I tell a story and I don’t know exactly when it happened I’m like, “I was 8.” Around that time, I remember thinking, “I could be an artist but that’s not very practical.”

Did you really think about that when you were that little?

In my experience, there’s so many books and [I thought] people must buy books, so, in my head, yeah. Now that I know some writers I know that publishing is this incredible mountain to climb, and even when you do publish it doesn’t really mean that paychecks are going to come flying through the door. But with my rudimentary understanding of life back then, I honestly, thought, “Art, that’s not practical but writing could pay the bills and you could have a life” [laughs].

For a while I was very interested and was trying to write. I was sort of dragged back into art almost against my will. I had a funny high school counselor who was just trying to go to lunch or get the hell out of there, I think he’s like, “Art, it starts with an ‘A’,” and he’s like, “‘You like art,’” and I’m like, “Everybody likes art,” and then I say “Okay, I guess so.”

So then I ended up in this art class and it was completely nuts and everyone was crazy and fighting and throwing and I think my art teacher just liked the fact that I actually did work. Instead of the chaos. But she really insisted that I apply to the School of the Performing Arts program that was in my high school—but no longer is; cut probably because of funding.

So I met a teacher/mentor who also twisted my arm and made me try all these different things. I was a very shy, reading, quiet, geek back then, and he sort of forced me to, not physically, but getting on me about trying all these new things. In Pennsylvania they have Governors Schools of Excellence where they pick a number of kids from around the state and they send them to a summer art camp, which also has been cut because of funding, and he entered me into that. But that started that scenario where I met other art geeks from around the state and you get together and talk about art. You’re 15, what the hell do you know? But I really started to see I could do this with my life. So that experience created this funny life and now it’s a tragedy that it’s [art camp] gone and art geeks are going to have to sit at home all summer and not meet each other and not get big dreams.

Can you take me back 10 years ago, it sounds like you weren’t doing these urban landscapes?

Back 10 years ago, I was focused more on the surface of the work. They were almost in my mind related to textiles, because I was making almost embroidery-like marks.
I’m a very twiddly-thumb bit person, which is why I do the paintings I do with the detail. So, the other interest I have is sewing and I like to make quilts. They’re not really standardized quilts. I’m sure a grandma would scoff at my quilts but I like to be working with my hands. I always imagine whenever I go into a fabric store they’re going to be like, “Uh, what are you doing?” Because I just make things up and do it the way it makes sense to me rather than follow any standard quilting practices. I’m doing a lot of little tiny things that take a really long time and eventually sort of pull it together. That’s just my nature.

I was taking from my surroundings, but it was a little more symbolic and a little more mysterious. It would be signs from places I would see in Chicago, but it wouldn’t be connected. It would be like, oh, that’s a sign on that building. They sort of created a little narrative and I used these little pig characters, one was a Christmas ornament that my mom gave me, and one was like a little drumstick character—not like a turkey drumstick but it used to hold a drum. I lost the drum. So it was always holding a little wand in the paintings. And then two piggy banks that I picked up in Chicago when I moved there and was looking in a thrift store for furniture. So they sort of became these little characters in this abstract landscape world, and they would recapture in a very personal way just little things that would happen in my life.

I would walk to the bus, and I would walk by a tree with a little fence around it. So then the idea of little tiny fences around little tiny trees, things like that would appeal to me and I would just want to include them in my paintings somehow. They were just quick little stories about every day kind of things but I don’t know that they looked like every day kind of things because they were in this kind of weird other world.

I moved around that time, around 2003, I moved to the downtown area, or close to downtown, so I was painting a little more realistically, more space-oriented, not so much surface-oriented. I was including things I was seeing. And hoping not to be known as the “pig painter” for the rest of my life, I started mashing things together.

I was taking these figurines and then I would transpose them with other figurines to make these little grotesque blobby creatures, so they started showing up in the paintings. So for a while I became more interested in the life inside these little urban environments. Sometimes there’d be a fight between one of these little blobby creatures, which would be kind of mysterious in a little weird, dark alley and you’re like, “What the…?” I don’t know if I can even explain why I was doing those kind of paintings but you paint what you’re interested in I guess.

And around that time, it was 2004, I was at home for Christmas doing a puzzle with my mom and the news came on about the [tsunami] in the Indian Ocean. You’re sitting there with a jigsaw puzzle piece in your hand and you’re thinking 100,000 people just died. I have a couple friends in Thailand, so it was like, “Oh, my God.” They were fine; they’re more inland. So it became something I was just thinking about all the time. I became one of those Google news stalkers and it lasted for a long time, and I think that very much affected my work.

Not that I ever tried to illustrate disasters but they were on my mind because I was reading so much, and I think they start to seep into your work. I think one of the most obvious manifestations of that was sometime after the Indian Ocean tsunami—it wasn’t like a conscious [thought] like, “Now I’m going to illustrate the Indian Ocean disaster”—but I was also reading these interesting articles about someone who’d thrown out an artificial, man-made seed into the ocean and it started to take over the entire ocean floor. It was killing out the native plants. I don’t remember exactly the circumstances, but I remember reading that story and thinking: “Oops! What kind of mistake could start that?”

So what happened in my paintings was—and I also visited the Atlanta botanical gardens around that time and started gardening—all of that came together. And all of these weird, little alien plant forms started popping up in my work. Like: “Surprise, you didn’t expect this little creatures in your neighborhoods.” So at first it seemed kind of harmless, but I was curious. And the characters would be there and they’d try to fence them in, like, “Oh, we’ll keep them over there.” And then eventually these tentacle-creature-plant things started taking over entire areas and covering other buildings and taking out the neighborhood. You create this world and you have the guilt of God with none of the perks. So I thought, “How can I save these creatures? What am I gonna do now?” I kind of made a big mess, like that guy releasing the plant [in the ocean].

So, my inspiration was: Well, if I put their homes and things on stilts, at least for a while, it’ll keep them up. So my paintings kind of reflected that. I always now imagine when you see these structures and ropes and things that somewhere way, way below there’s evil plants just waiting to get their tentacles up there. Most people probably don’t think that when they look at my paintings but that’s also what I mean about being able to see the history of why things are the way they are and thinking about your own city that way. Why do we have highways here and not there? So I had them up there, and I became a practical sort of person, and I thought to myself: “These aren’t going to last forever, what was I thinking?” So then I had a big period of houses falling over and there was a lot of wreckage. At that point I was also very interested in how you plan things.

When you said you became a ‘practical person,’ did you mean in terms of focusing on what you were going to do with the painting? Or did something happen in your life at that time?

Things were happening in my life that were making me very anxious and thinking about consequences of actions. I think that was 2005.

Do you mind sharing any of that?

It’s personal stuff, but also Hurricane Katrina happened. To see people scramble to re-form their lives. Some of them obviously had plans and some of them obviously did not have plans. So I was thinking a lot about, “What do you do when now you’re up in the air and now you have to make that work?” When all your buildings fall down you have to think: “What are our resources and how are we going to prevent this from happening again?” So the idea of creating your landscape out of your vulnerabilities.

And making mistakes. That’s a big theme of my paintings. Both narratively, and also physically, because I often make mistakes. And because I work on white paper and I’m a pretty sloppy person. You’ll think you’re finished with a whole section and then “Whoops.” [laughs] So then you’re just like these people because suddenly you have this little disaster. And at first you’re kind of freaked out: “I want to take it back, I want to take it back.” And then you’re like, “I just have to make this work.” I have to find a way to incorporate that into the final piece. So a lot of times, even within my own paintings, you’re constantly reacting and that’s how growth happens and that’s how new developments happen. Because you’re kind of reacting to what’s going on. So I started tying in the houses to other objects and to each other, which eventually made an interesting network, almost a metaphor for how much we depend on each other to create this little civilization that everyone takes for granted.

Around 2000, Cleveland had been experiencing problems with foreclosure—even before it became a “buzzword” in the press and something everyone was talking about. I knew several people who had lost their houses. Everyone’s like [at that point], “Oh, you should buy a house. It’s so secure.” It doesn’t seem that secure to me, because my ability to pay for it in the future is really not that secure. So I don’t necessarily relate the idea of owning homes to security—obviously not in my paintings.

The trajectory of your work seems like you created this world and had a magnifying glass up close and are slowly pulling back.

I feel like I’m pulling back more and more. That’s what the housing crisis made me think of. A lot of times my work has been used for articles about the housing crisis, which is fine. I don’t mind if people look at my work through that lens.

So, a lot of times because my houses are interconnected with ropes and things, I think a lot about some place in Cleveland where one house would go to foreclosure and it would be boarded up and then eventually it would be like “do, do, do” [makes domino gesture] and all the other houses would follow. That was interesting to me in that these houses were tied together because I was realizing that even in my neighborhood, which is more close-knit than any other neighborhood I’ve ever lived in (sometimes I’ll be napping or still sleeping in the morning and someone will be walking by my house and I’ll hear someone be like, “Good morning, Amy Casey”), I know a lot of people but I don’t know the people really who live two doors down. Then you start to think about the people who you depend on to get up in the morning to take care of their property and take care of their business so they can keep the neighborhood going. You don’t even know these people. So it’s the idea of how isolated we are from even very close community but how much we depend on them. Looking at my work I could kind of see that—in that a lot of the houses are all tied together but there’s no direct way to get from house to house.

Actually, I started addressing some of that recently in trying to create bridges and connections in some ways to like “How can we help the citizens of these [paintings]?” And I can imagine some kind of citizenry. Some people think they’re abandoned cities, but to me there’s someone living there, and even if there isn’t, I almost imagine the little houses and buildings as their own citizens so that there’s something at stake. And if the whole thing falls apart it will be a tragedy, and it won’t just be like, “Well, that fake, non-citizen city fell apart finally.”

So I’m interested in trying to protect them and also I just get an idea or I see something. And the beauty of being an artist is that if you see something in your head and are like, “God, I would love to just see that,” you can do that. So, sometimes I’m following trains of thought. I don’t even know why the phrase, “A City of Walls,” came into my head, but I was just like: I’d love to see a city of walls. I don’t even really know what that means, but I’ve been trying to broach the topic.

One of the paintings at the show is a mini “City of Walls” with a kind of tiny neighborhood of houses, it’s not like a super urban center. I think, “Why are the walls there?” Are they there to protect them and keep them inside this area? They kind of end at random spots, so you’re not sure if at some point they had encircled things and if they had eventually changed to become almost completely pointless. I’m not really sure and I’m trying to figure those things out. So that’s one of the things I’m working on now is very much how to bring people together and how community works. I was doing one thing that didn’t end up in the show, but I was creating a little electricity plant for them with turbines. It’s also interesting because I’m in Provincetown (Amy was named a 2010 Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center summer resident, sponsored by the Ohio Arts Council) and that’s a big controversy there of whether to have them or not.

Do they have any there?

I don’t know. They really want to build them, but I think a lot of the people who have been there a long time don’t want to see it happen. I can see both sides, especially if that was your home and if somebody just suddenly wanted to put up something that maybe wasn’t your aesthetic. But with the things I’m interested in, I think they’re really cool looking. But not everybody’s me, nor should they be.

It seems like we have to figure out something, right? I mean, obviously our resources will only go so far. A lot of those issues are interesting to me even outside my painting, but also I think it’s probably reflected in some of the things I’m painting now. Just the idea of: What are your resources and how is this going to play out in the future? It seems like we don’t really have any grasp or we have no ability to think any more than a few years [in advance]. It’s like: “We still have it now so what’s the problem; why should we even worry about it?” I have nephews and I think what a shit world this is going to be, but maybe people just always think like that.

I think we’re finally realizing, against our will now, that we won’t always be the superpower. I think we’re having our humbling now. And actually I think of it in terms of the entire span of history and during those Roman days when the shit was hitting the fan, or even other smaller civilizations that fell apart, that they were probably thinking like, “My God, how is life going to go on?” But it always seems to keep happening. Maybe this place won’t keep on, but something will.

I guess one of the theories about the Mayans—and I’m not a scholar, I’m just a dilettante reader—was that they eventually created a situation where they could no longer keep their city going because they were so badly managing resources. And you think that’s something real that really happened and it could happen again. But it’s impossible to feel connected on a day-to-day basis with that reality. So when I see wind turbines I think: God it’s so nice that somebody isn’t completely in denial of the fact that we need to find something that will actually keep coming—like wind. To me, it seems pretty renewable unless there’s something about wind currents I don’t know. Maybe we’ll use up all the wind and then that will be it—we’ll never have a good breezy day again.

Have any turbines entered your work?

A few really little ones. There’s one I did just since I’ve come to Provincetown. My fellow [resident] was looking at it and saying that it might be a recipe for disaster because I put little water towers there and they’re high above where the electrical turbines would be. If the water towers should leak on the electrical stuff (laughs), he has insinuated that that’s a plan for an interesting future but maybe not a really great one. So once again the idea of: We have this really great idea for how to fix things and it’s like, whoops, how are we going to deal with the aftermath of that really “great idea”?

On a daily basis, how much time do you put into your painting? Can you quantify it at all?

Well, summer has been different, but I almost know exactly how much I’ve been working this summer because I’ve been keeping track of my hours. It’s different for me right now because I’m at residency. I don’t have any duties. I can just do whatever I want to do. I’ve been working 16 hour days. Some of those hours are spent staring at things. I’m not trying to say that I spend that whole 16 hours chained to my desk painting. I guess at least 12 hours a day I’m making something this summer.

I was getting to the point where I would be tired and think I should go to sleep, but I’d feel guilty for sleeping. And that’s kind of when you know that you’ve taken it too far. It’s almost like a kind of anorexia but with sleep. If you start feeling guilty that you slept three hours in the past two days, that’s not a good place to be in mentally. Although, I will say that the things you think about and see and the way you look at life after sleep deprivation is different. It’s very, very different. And I’d never advocate it and it’s not a lifestyle. I used to keep my youthful vigor by sleeping a good 10 hours a day. Now if I get 6 it’s a really great day. And I’m a huge champion and fan of sleep.

When I’m in Cleveland I have my day-job at the gallery connected to the Cleveland Institute of Art. I am the assistant to the Director there. When the gallery is doing installations, then I work relatively later hours than most people do, I guess. And when the gallery is not doing installations, then I work in the office two times a week, so I have more time to work on my own work. But it can get pretty hairy if there’s an installation and I have to work and that’s my job, then at the same time you’re dealing deadlines it can get to the point where I have been, embarrassingly, at work weeping and falling apart because I wouldn’t have gotten sleep so much that I was physically starting to fall apart. Not literally falling apart, but physically just felt so bad and so mentally confused because I would go home and catch a nap and then I’d get up and work [on painting] until 7 in the morning and take a shower and go to work. You can’t really do that for a long period of time. Not that I would never sleep, but I’d get little bouts of three of four hours here and there. That’s rough. Sometimes I wonder what my paintings would be like if my life was different and I wasn’t going through these cycles of complete insanity.

It’s all self-imposed and it’s not anybody else’s fault. I’m not complaining, like, “Oh, poor artist worker, chained to her…” It’s just a reality that there are only so many hours in the day and there are for everybody and all the writers and all the moms and all the factory workers—they all have the same 24 hours to try and stuff everything you want to do and still have friends.

Which it’s different in Provincetown, although there’s a lot of really great artists and lovely people there, I don’t really know too many so I don’t have as many social debts. So I can indulge in those hours working with no interruption, which is nice. But once again, I wouldn’t want to do that forever. Who doesn’t love their friends? It’s always a big part of why anyone wants to go be in cities.

Could you talk a little about the difference between painting on paper versus on canvas? And why you’ve been choosing to work on paper?

I haven’t painted on canvas for a long time. It’s mostly a texture and absorption kind of thing. I work with acrylic paint, but with a lot of water and a mat medium because the acrylic paint can get quite shiny, which doesn’t really work with my subjects. So I use a mat medium to make it flat. Because I use the paint in more liquid form, you can prepare canvas to accept that type of flow but I don’t want to go through all that.

And personally, because I’m staring at things from a few inches away I like a really smooth texture and also the way that it feels for the brush to go along the surface. It’s a tactile thing. That’s why I don’t really work on canvas. The teeth of canvas and how it holds on the brush for making details. Lots of people who are way better than myself and even some who are not even perfectly my equal have done beautiful, detailed paintings on canvas. But, personally, it just doesn’t work with me.

I started printmaking I think in 2006. I worked with Zygote Press, which is a community print-making place in Cleveland. Every year they pull an artist who’s not a print-maker into their clutches and get you all hooked on the print-making junk [laughs] and then you’re stuck with these desires to go print-make.

I’m happy that’s part of my life now and that made me really interested in working with paper. And it seems that paper really sucks up the water media really well. Also, there’s some alteration you can do with paper: you can cut it, you can razor it. I try to never poke holes through it because people notice that, but if I make the small mistakes with acrylic paint I can kind of razorblade it off . And maybe if you really inspected the surface you would see that something had happened, but if you’re just looking at the painting I don’t think it would be too distracting.

So it’s also nice that it can be altered in that way. I’ve also started working with panel, although I don’t have any of those here [at RoCo exhibit] and that has a little less room when you make a mistake. You can kind of scrape things off but the surface is so delicate that it’s really obvious when you make any alterations at all, so in some ways I’m still really connected with working with paper so you can work back and forth a little bit more.

I’ve been working with clay-prepared panels, they’re called clay board, and I’m still kind of learning how to use them and how they work with the paint. It’s just when something gets absorbed really quickly when you’re painting, there’s usually not a lot of brushmarks. So if you’re a painter, technically speaking, and you want to make a field of blank washed color and you don’t want brushmarks, part of it is how you have your paint ready and how it’s on the brush so there’s no lines across it, but also if the paper doesn’t absorb it all at the same time you see lines and it just doesn’t look flat.

So those are just technical details of why you might want a surface to absorb something quickly. With panels I’m still really learning. It’s fun to try something different. And it seems probably to me like, “Oh, I’m doing all this experimenting,” but it seems like so pathetic—paper or panel, what’s the difference?—but in terms of someone actually working on it, physically it does feel different. And it looks different. It retains these little brushmarks because it doesn’t absorb, so if I make a line a lot of times you can still see the mark of the brush, which isn’t something that usually happens in my paintings on paper.

Maybe some people can [notice], but I don’t have a lot of evidence of brushwork in my painting. I don’t think people look at it and say, “Oh, look at those lovely brushmarks.” People are just usually like, “Are you fucking nuts?” [laughs] “How big are your brushes?” I use little tiny brushes for a lot of detail and sometimes they get blown out a little bit because I don’t take super-great care of them, which basically just means that the brush hair starts to separate. So I’m there with a razorblade cutting these individual little hairs off my brushes and if they’re too large then I’ll be there at like 3 in the morning and I’m obviously not going to buy a new brush. So I’m cutting off hairs until you get just the right amount where you can do a tiny, chain-linked fence, but if you cut off too many hairs it no longer will hold the paint very well. So it doesn’t really work so good and then you’re cutting down the next bunch into five hairs—but not four hairs or three hairs. There’s a limit, you know?

I use some stuff that cleans acrylic off brushes and it sort of works, but the brushes are really never the same once it dries on there. It’s sort of tragic.

I saw someone on a blog compare your work to “Beetlejuice.” Have you seen or heard that comparison?

No, I haven’t heard that, but that’s funny. The movie comes on cable a great deal—back when I was living at home and had cable. Well, I love Tim Burton’s aesthetic. Obviously, it’s appealing to me—that crazy, alternate world where everything’s all twisted. I don’t know that I’ve ever considered “Beetlejuice” while I’m working. Sometimes people draw parallels to Dr. Seuss. I love Dr. Seuss. Although once again I’ve never been like, “I’m very influenced by Dr. Seuss,” but it probably has influenced me.

Another interesting thing sometimes people bring up on blogs is Italo Calvino, who’s an Italian writer. I was never consciously trying to make invisible cities. He has this book Invisible Cities that I believe in some ways is alternate descriptions of Venice, but he’s describing all these fantastical cities and some of them are up in the air and some of them are tied together with strings. I love Italo Calvino. And reading his books are an incredible mind-bending experience. Just the way he works with words and narrative is pretty insane, and I kind of wonder what it’s like reading them in Italian, but my grasp of Italian is pretty weak.
I’ve been reading his work for a while, but I explained that the work sort of comes along with its own plan. And one thing sort of leads to another inside that little world. When I heard that Italo Calvino thing, I was like “Wow, that’s amazing,” because I never in any way tried to emulate that, but it is something I love. That didn’t necessarily feed into why things ended up being that way, but it’s interesting that it happened.

What was it like having your work used by Neko Case for “Middle Cyclone”?

I had my work in an issue of New American Paintings in 2007 and she was in a bookstore and saw it and she contacted the gallery in Chicago. She was just book shopping. That’s the beauty of being in something that’s all over the country because then it doesn’t really matter that you live in Cleveland. Not that there’s anything wrong with living in Cleveland but people who are far away have a hard time—without their binoculars—seeing what you’re doing in your part of the world. She’s so super-sweet and kind and awesome. I just saw her play with New Pornographers on their tour in Boston. So I took the ferry over to go to the show and say hello and I got to meet Carl and a few other people.

Had you met her before?

We’ve met a few times. Whenever she plays in Cleveland we try to go out. We’ve eaten some Hungarian dessert together. She’s very generous with her Hungarian desserts and she’s a really, really great person.

In terms of Middle Cyclone, it seems like your art just made perfect sense.

Yeah, I think that was a happy serendipity based on some of the things she’s interested in. It all just kind of made sense.

Do you feel that connection?

I do. Well, we’re not like “high-five” best friends or anything [laughs] but she makes a lot of sense to me.

I read you’re from Erie, PA, and I’ve been there once. It’s different from Cleveland, right?

In some ways it’s a tiny version of Cleveland. It’s obviously a bit greener, not environmentally speaking but physically, than in Cleveland. There are parts of Cleveland that are lovely, fresh with trees and parks, but I don’t live in that part of Cleveland, so I don’t always think about it.

Geoff Graser was a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist in a not-too-distant past life. He lives in Rochester, has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College, and likes his popcorn burnt.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mike Governale, Illustrator & Activist, interviewed by Geoff Graser

Mike Governale is an illustrator and graphic designer whose map of an imagined Rochester subway system led to his founding of Reconnect Rochester (, a group advocating for a city streetcar line and improved urban transportation network. It also led to my purchase of his 6x6 piece at RoCo (Rochester Contemporary Art Center) and this interview.

What is Reconnect Rochester?

Reconnect Rochester has sort of become my mission as of late. I started this
whole thing with the Rochester subway poster, as just a fun graphic design experiment after stumbling upon the Rochester subway story.

Then I started as a way to sell the poster, and I started blogging—writing about urban redevelopment, transportation, and social issues relative to the city of Rochester and the region. This past winter, I wrote an article about streetcars and how they’re getting popular across the country. I started thinking about downtown Rochester, and I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could bring back our streetcars, even on a small scale, and reconnect the neighborhoods around downtown and all of the great assets: the museum row area, Park Avenue, up Lake Ave., to the University of Rochester?” The possibilities were endless, so I wrote a little blog article about the benefits and feasibility of such a thing and what’s going on in other cities and regions across the country.

The Obama administration is changing the way the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) distributes funding. It’s not so much based on easing congestion and focusing on time of a trip, now it’s focused on mobility, fuel efficiency, and quality of life in urban areas. So, projects like streetcars and transit-oriented development are really surging and resonating with people.

It started resonating with me. I introduced myself to some people at the Rochester Community Design Center a year ago when I started, just as a way to see if I could do some volunteer work and to listen in on things going on in the city. I was looking for opportunities to write about some of these things and get more people interested. I found out there were so many things to write about, and I got so much feedback from people visiting my site and giving me compliments: “Keep up the great work!” and asking, “How can I get involved?” At this point, I said to myself, “I have a platform here that’s pretty valuable.”

So I started a group called Reconnect Rochester with the intent of advocating for a streetcar circulator or even just a heritage streetcar line up and down Main Street. The response was pretty overwhelming. Right now I’ve got a group of 15 to 20 people, at least 12 very active members, that started back in February/March. We’re just getting going and establishing some goals, realizing that it’s really difficult to come out of the woodwork and start advocating for a streetcar line. In fact, it’s pretty impossible because it’s not just a streetcar line. It’s linked to everything else. It’s linked to the transit system that we already have. It’s linked to jobs. It’s linked to the economic state of the city. It’s linked to all of these other social considerations.

We realized that what we’re best suited to do is engage the public and get ordinary people who might not be thinking about transportation or reinvigorating the streetscape in Rochester talking, getting them to come out and participate in events, and spreading the word about some of the things that Rochester can do.

We’ve got some members from the Rochester Rail Transit Committee on board. We’re meeting with Rochester Community Design Center about a greater goal, which is to get the city working on a master vision for transportation. One of the things I’ve discovered is that the city itself doesn’t have a comprehensive transportation plan. So we find ourselves in a position where individual projects are recommended: the bus terminal, a bike plan, even the fast ferry. All of these things are great and worth discussion, but they really are connected. Or they really should be.

I think the city really needs to work with the county, the surrounding suburbs, and all the way up to the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and start figuring out how we want Rochester to look for the next 20 to 40 years and not just for the next year out. The only plans that we have are a year to five years out. Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) puts out a plan every year. Genesee Transportation Council takes a look at the next five years of projects and they allocate funding. But the federal government is really interested in regions that have a greater plan. They want to invest in those types of plans and not just one-off projects.

So this recent uproar at the bus terminal on Mortimer Street was another opportunity for me to get the word out and get people talking about transportation. I spoke at City Hall about the need for a transportation plan, and I made it clear that I’m not for or against the bus terminal, but what I see is that it may be drawing a lot of ire from the public because they see it as another expensive project that tax money is paying for. And the need for it, and its future, is really unclear because we don’t have that long-range plan.

I’m coming from Long Island originally. I came to Rochester to go to school at R.I.T., where I met my wife. When I graduated in 1999, I said to myself, “I could move back to Long Island and get lost in 10 million people”—New York is a great city, and I go back there all the time—“Rochester is more my speed.” It was also a great middle-ground for me and my wife, she’s from Syracuse. There’s so much going on in Rochester and it’s so easy to get from Point A to Point B. The saying goes that “You can get anywhere in 20 minutes,” and it really is true. So, transportation in Rochester is really about quality of life, giving people the option of leaving their cars in the garage, and connecting the assets that downtown and our outer suburbs have to offer.

How does the development of transportation relate to the arts community?

I think great cities are built by artists and visionaries. Art comes in many forms. For me, artists are creative and have the ability to see things before they become reality. And that’s really all I’m doing with the Rochester Subway map. Most of those lines didn’t exist. It was just one line. But I said to myself, “Well, what would the system look like today if it were still around?”

I did a little research, and I found out that there were proposals, so I said this is fodder for me to work and brought them into the modern day. I looked at subway maps from around the world and how they function and how they’re designed. I looked at the Washington, D.C., metro map and the Paris map, and the New York City MTA map, and decided on something that fits the scale of Rochester and something I thought would get people today excited about this dream of the subway in Rochester. It’s never going to become reality. Rochester’s never going to become New York, but Rochester is unique in its own way.
One of the things that makes Rochester unique is our artistic population. You see that by walking up University and Park Ave. The city has embraced that a little bit with projects like the Art Walk, and I think there’s so much more that we can do to tap into that creativity.

As I mentioned before, the Rochester Community Design Center is another great resource for visionaries. Those are architects and designers working on their own time and with their own resources and taking the initiative to basically go street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood and take a pencil to paper and say, “This is what we got, what could this be?” And they engage the public and shape the dialogue using their own creativity and skills to develop plans for all these neighborhoods, which I think is great. We need to get more people who have those skills to use them.

When First Fridays began, they had a bus run between the galleries. How do you think a streetcar might work for an event like First Friday?

The East End is one of the areas where the streetcar would obviously be beneficial. Me and my wife come down to First Fridays every once in a while. I don’t remember the shuttle bus, but that’s a great idea.

Going back before that, the city had experimented with the idea of a shuttle that connects the High Falls area with the East End and some parking facilities in between. It was called the EZ-Rider. It was a bus that was painted yellow and blue and it was free and ran for about a year. I think what happened was that it was operating on a grant that ran out. For whatever reason, they didn’t continue it. It may have become a haven for vagrants and may have been considered noisy and smelly because it was a diesel bus. That’s one of the things I hope the city is looking at while they’re conducting the downtown circulator study because I don’t want the errors of the past to resurface.

I envision a streetcar line that would connect various neighborhoods. Not just the spots like East End and Park Avenue, but really around the entire city, connecting High Falls and West Main Street; the 19th Ward, University of Rochester and back around to Main Street; Upper Monroe and back around to Park Avenue and the art gallery and museum district. And then look at the possibility in the future of connecting it to the airport and to the Amtrak station.

One of the things that I was able to do was put visuals to this idea, designing a map that clearly shows the routes and how they engage with the existing bus routes, but also getting into Photoshop and having a little fun superimposing streetcars from other cities in the Rochester landscape. So that’s where my graphic design experience really helps me because I think the public becomes engaged when you attach a visual to a story. It’s one thing to talk about these things and put them in writing, but when people can see stuff with their own eyes. And, sure, it’s not exactly like riding in a streetcar and experiencing it, but just looking at a photo simulation gets peoples’ imaginations going. And when you get more than one imagination going that’s when the exciting stuff starts to happen.

What sparked your inspiration and interest in public transportation? Does it have to do with growing up around the public transportation in New York City?

Absolutely. Long Island is very suburban. It’s a lot like a giant Henrietta or Greece, so as a kid we pretty much drove everywhere. But, into my teenage years when my parents started giving me a little bit of freedom I would actually get on the Long Island Railroad and take that into Penn Station. Or sometimes I would get off in Queens and transfer to the subway in Jamaica and I’d ride around and it was a magical thing for me as a kid. I was a geeky kid. I was into maps and drawing, and a little bit of an introvert, but when I was riding around on the subway and popping out in different spots it was like the city was mine. It’s freedom, really.

Going back decades, the American Dream has been two cars and a house. The perception is that the car gives you freedom, hitting the open road and driving across the country. But for me now, and I think more so with younger people today, not having a car is freedom. It’s almost flipped from where we were 15, 20 years ago. Being able to live in a place where you don’t have to spend a quarter of your income on a car is freedom. Being able to hop on a bus or a train and get to a different neighborhood or city without having to worry about mapping your way there, or traffic, or driving yourself, that’s freedom.

I often take the bus from my house in Irondequoit, even though we have two cars and are that suburban family. But, on days when I can take the bus it’s really that feeling of freedom where I can spend that 15 minutes working on something or looking out the window and walking around.

Growing up on Long Island forced me to have an outside perspective about Rochester’s transportation situation. So, I do have that experience coming from a different place. I also like to travel. I go to Toronto. Seattle. I have not yet been to Portland, but that’s on my short list now. Looking at how other cities do things is important because Rochester is never going to be New York, a much smaller version of New York maybe, but there are other solutions that I’m willing to tap into for inspiration.

I went to R.I.T. for illustration and graphic design, so this isn’t my area of expertise. It’s what I’m interested in. I live in Irondequoit, but I work downtown. And when my wife and I have a chance to play we come downtown.

And I’m constantly looking at all of the potential that the area has. I’m an artist, a bit of a dreamer, but I think there are realities that could be realized by dreaming up the possibilities. I’m excited by the possibilities of Reconnect Rochester and drawing the public into this conversation because I think there are a lot of great ideas and I’m just scratching the surface. In the long run I want to make sure that the city is looking at all modes of transportation and not just buses.

Why do you think better transportation would help artists and creative people stay here?

I think it’s really pretty simple; at least in my simple mind. In our auto-driven society, we’re all so “siloed” from each other. We drive from home to work. We drive from work to lunch. It’s very anti-social and it doesn’t do anything for our street life, or streetscapes. Once we start giving people options that don’t involve automobiles that’s when you start seeing more people out on the street, walking to go shopping or to work, or just hanging out in public squares or public parks. People start interacting with each other, ideas start spreading, the city starts encouraging public art. All kinds of exciting things happen when you get people out of the car.

That type of environment where you have shops open to the street, and mixed-use development with apartments above those shops, that’s what attracts artists, that’s what attracts young people, that’s what’s going to keep college students who are going to our schools from graduating and high-tailing it out of here for home or for cities like Austin, TX, or Portland, OR, or even cities you wouldn’t think of like Charlotte, NC. All these cities are making investments in public transportation and bringing their streets to life and this is where people are going. So that’s a reality the city has to face whether they know how to face it or not.

We do have pockets of city life but they’re not really connected. How important is the revitalization of Main Street, perhaps with a streetcar, in connecting these areas?

The streetcar may seem like a 'pie in the sky' vision", but I think there’s also validity to using light rail in some form to connect the East Side and the West Side of the city. Right now they’re pretty disjointed because you only have a handful of physical connections: Main Street, Broad Street, and some roadway bridges. But I think once you start moving pedestrians back and forth it becomes a little different ballgame.

There’s a perception that there’s a lack of parking and it’s hard to get around. But really come down and look around at all the open spaces that are paved over and striped for parking. There’s parking garages. I just don’t think the lack of parking is the problem. I think it’s the lack of connectivity and “walkability.”

Another project that’s been talked about is the possibility of filling in the Inner Loop, which I think would be great if we could restore a little bit of the street grid that connected the outlying neighborhoods to downtown and promote “walkability.” I think that’s part of the city’s master plan.

Another project is re-watering the old Broad Street canal bed that at a later time was the subway. That’s an interesting idea, but, again, I think it all needs to be tied together. We need to be looking at how we’re going to be bringing people between these areas and how we encourage businesses and what types of businesses should be there. I think if the arts community is inspired by all of this they’ll start drawing up their own ideas and help inspire the public.

What arguments have you heard against the streetcar idea?

I’ve heard all the arguments: The city isn’t large enough to support it; the streetcar system went away 60-70 years ago for a reason; the operational costs. And all of these things are valid to a certain extent, but I think when you go to cities that are similar make-ups to ours, like Cincinnati, OH, or even smaller towns like Kenosha, WI, who are using streetcars for very specific functions in new residential developments, you start to learn that this is one tool in a toolbox of transportation tools we can use. Streetcars are one thing, but it’s also buses and bikes. Do we maybe take a section of Park Avenue or Main Street and just close it off to traffic all together? Make it a pedestrian plaza? A streetcar is just one idea and it should fit into an even bigger idea.

As far as the funding goes, what’ I’ve learned from reading about other cities and how they’ve implemented similar systems is that the government is willing to pitch in a certain percentage toward the capital costs, basically the building of the streetcar line, but the municipality has to have a plan for how the rest of it is going to be funded.

The common argument against civic projects like this is: “Don’t raise my taxes.” Especially in New York state. I’m a homeowner and pay a lot of taxes, but when you start to weigh the expenditure with the possible economic benefits in the long run, streetcars are a pretty permanent fixture and they attract a lot of different people to them and the businesses that start popping up along those lines.

I would say to a skeptic: Do a little reading. Maybe take a trip to Toronto and ride their streetcar line. If you’re on the West Coast take a look at Portland or Seattle. Ride the thing. It’s a completely different experience than riding the bus. Maybe talk to some business owners along the route and get their viewpoint, too. From what I’ve read and experienced, once these systems start being implemented they are loved, and heavily utilized, and spur the kind of development that Rochester’s in desperate need of right now. Like I said, this is one idea that shouldn’t be considered by itself, but the positives are just too strong to ignore.

Could you talk a little more about the Mortimer Street bus terminal plan and how you feel about it?

The bus terminal, I learned, was sort of in the minds of our regional planners and RGRTA for several decades. And, recently it was part of the Renaissance Square project.

So you’ve got Main Street. Then Clinton intersects it North and South. And then one block North of Main you’ve got Mortimer Street [at Clinton]. So there’s this one city block between Mortimer St. and Main St. where it looks pretty run down. There are some small shops, but for the most part it’s very underutilized and tired looking. So the city was looking at razing that block or at least half of that block and developing it. Actually, the county was looking at this in partnership with the city, and MCC, and RGRTA. I think it was a year or two ago that Renaissance Square was killed because not all the funding was in place for the different parts. The theater ended up being Phase Two or Three and public support died. For one reason or another, the project just sort of fizzled out.

RGRTA announced that the bus terminal part of the plan would move forward. They were going to pursue a bus terminal on Mortimer Street and they said they’ve looked at various locations for a downtown terminal, one of them being Midtown Plaza, one of them being on Franklin Street, adjacent to the Sibley building, and another one being the Amtrak station, but they decided to go with the Mortimer Street location because of its proximity to Main and Clinton and the size of the lot gave them the area to fit, I think, 24 or 26 bus bays all in that one spot.

So, I didn’t really come out publicly against the bus terminal, but in my mind I’m thinking it’s probably not the best solution for the city at this time because of the sheer scale of it. The price tag is said to be $52 million and that’s going to be federally funded. But I think the city needs to be looking at transportation on a wider scale, not just a central bus-only terminal, which is really what it is right now. I’m interested in how the bike master-plan would work into that area, how the inner-city rail terminal works into the plan. When the high-speed rail does come to Rochester, and it will—even if that may be 50 years out—I think it’s important that the Amtrak station, No. 1, gets redesigned and built, and No. 2, gets reconnected to all the regions around Rochester. Right now it’s pretty isolated.

So I’m worried that in 20 years this Mortimer Street terminal is going to be a dinosaur, another antique building. And I’m worried how it affects the city’s master plan, which is a good piece of work. Again, it doesn’t focus on transportation but it looks at how all the different neighborhoods in the city could realize their potential and what areas of the city should be residential, mixed use, and commercial.

Originally, I think Clinton Avenue and St. Paul were designated to be residential and mixed-use corridors all the way from Main St. up to the train station. And now with this 24-bay bus terminal plopped right in the center, I’m wondering how that affects the master plan.

What’s your first answer when someone reading this interview or your blog says, “What can I do to help?”

I would say just start asking questions of your neighbors to get a feel of whether “I’m the only one that sees this problem.” Next, I would start asking questions of your officials, of city council and representatives in the county and state, and reach out to people like me and if you don’t know where to go I’ll try to help you find an outlet for what ends up being activism in some form. I mean, at this point, I don’t even really know what I’m doing. But what I did was I found an outlet to reach out to people through my Web site, and I found out there were a lot of people who were thinking of the same exact things. I feel like I have a lot of support and a team that can actually start affecting change, which is a powerful feeling that I’ve never felt before.

Geoff Graser was a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist in a not-too-distant past life. He lives in Rochester, has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College, and likes his popcorn burnt.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lori Marra, playwright, interviewed by Geoff Graser

Lori Marra is a Rochester playwright on the rise. Her play “Three American Women: A Trilogy” is being performed off-Broadway in New York City as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival from July 13 to August 1. For more details, see the attached press release. Her play “Mystic Castle” about serial killer Arthur Shawcross won top honors in Geva Theatre’s 2010 Regional Writers Showcase, and will be performed this fall at Geva.

What inspired your play on Arthur Shawcross?

It’s a pretty easy question for me. I remember sitting here and watching on TV that Arthur Shawcross had died in prison. And what a lot of people don’t know is that Arthur Shawcross murdered two children in my hometown, Watertown, NY, long before he came here as the prostitute killer. So this guy for me was really the Boogeyman. Because nobody knew who he [the killer] was. I was 9 or 10, the age of those kids that were killed, and there was this huge manhunt. They find the guy and they lock Shawcross up but that have no physical evidence. This is long before the kind of forensics we have now, and because they had no evidence there was a plea bargain. Unbeknownst to anybody, he got out.

I will never forget the day that I was sitting here, and I had now I’d moved to Rochester years later, and everybody knew about the Genesee River killer and they say they’ve got this guy and I just can’t tell you what that did to me to hear Arthur Shawcross. It just ooged me out in ways I can’t even express. There were curfews up there [Watertown] and people were scared to death, so I was very interested in a bizarre way that the Genesee River killer was Arthur Shawcross.

After he’s locked up here, he starts this whole thing with his artwork. I don’t know if a lot of people remember this but he started doing artwork and putting it out on eBay. There was this huge backlash in the community about this. So when he passed away, I just became very compelled. Before I even put pen to the paper, I did about six months of really intense research on this guy. I listened to tapes of his arrests and interrogations, I read all the books on him, I just wanted to figure out who this horrific guy was who had always bothered me.

I learned all about him and I knew there was a play in it but I just had to figure out what was the theme and what was the conflict. I wrote it as this reporter who’s been transplanted from Watertown to Rochester and kind of goes through the same thing [as me] when he all of a sudden hears about this guy. The only reason Shawcross lets him interview him is because they’re from the same hometown. That’s how we get launched into the play.

Was Shawcross forthcoming in his interrogations after his arrest?

He was kind of deadbeat. What perplexed me is that people would ask him a question and he was so normal in his response. People would ask him a question and he would answer it, very much like what you and I are doing right now. You’d never realize that this guy had done what he had done, which was unbelievable stuff.

I did a lot of the research, but when I started to write it Lisa [Lori’s partner] had a client in the Caribbean so I went with her and wrote the whole play in two and a half weeks. And most of the first act I wrote there in Caribbean because I just didn’t really want to write it around here. I know that sounds crazy, but I just wanted to write it and then go off to the beach and have a Mojito.

How did the reading of the Arthur Shawcross play at Geva come about?

I think you have to have persistence. In any field. And certainly in this one. I think this is my sixth year submitting to Geva Regional Playwrights Forum. I’ve since thanked Jean Ryon, who is the head of that program. And I was lucky to thank her in person. Of the six years that I submitted, every year she wrote something on my manuscript. For three years, my work had made it to the semifinals, or the last cut, and she would always write that on there. It was just two or three lines but it always kept me going. I always say it’s like the Babe Ruth theory, you have to have tons of strikeouts to get hits. I’ve submitted literally all over the world and I just keep submitting. A lot of times you never hear anything.

What was the reading process at Geva like?

The whole Regional Playwrights program is really for the writer. And Jean makes it really explicit to the cast that this is for the writer to learn more about the piece. It’s a workshop basically. I went in for the full day and they could ask me questions and I could ask them questions.

In Arthur Miller’s Time Bends, his autobiography, he writes about playwriting being really interesting because as a writer you tend to be alone, but when the play goes into production it becomes the most collaborative thing there is. It’s this dichotomy of worlds. The play is in your head then all of a sudden when somebody says I’m going to produce it, it becomes this collaborative thing.

Jean was great at eliciting from the audience how not be prescriptive: “We’re not going to tell Lori how to rewrite the play. I want you to go for more of how it affected you and what your feelings are.” With that, I got tremendous feedback. I already know some ways I’m going to change it, enhance it, move some stuff around. I love to hear what the audience has to say.

Some people didn’t like the language. It was very explicit. Other people wondered about the ending. It was kind of left up in the air. I got some feedback about the character John, who is the reporter, and what the emphasis of him is in the play. Where he ends up is a little ambiguous. Some people were not really comfortable with his wife. They thought she wasn’t a likeable character so I thought that was interesting.

Got lots of feedback that it ooged people out. It explores the fine line between Arthur Shawcross and who we all really are. And that line was really blurred during the interview with Arthur Shawcross. And I think that really disturbed some people. It’s a disturbing play, it’s a disturbing thought process. Just to see this moral monster up there almost looking like he could be a buddy to this guy, I think it was disconcerting to a lot of people. So a lot of people were left feeling uncomfortable but very riveted by it.

What did you study in college?

I studied business management and philosophy. About 12 or 13 years out of college I decided that I really decided I wanted to get my graduate degree in philosophy. Boy, it was a tough road. I did all the steps I needed to take and got my master’s in philosophy from the U of R with kind of a concentration in Stoic Ethics.

When did you start writing?

I started seriously writing plays in 1998 and 1999. I’ve always been a writer, with poetry and short stories. I decided to take a class at Writers & Books. I’ve always been a real theater junkie since I was about 15 or 16. Then I took my first class, and I was just hooked. I always like telling the story and immersing yourself in the story and letting it come out. I joke about it in my bio, but it’s really kind of true: I have a lot of voices in my head. I animate all the animals [my pets] all the time. They have characters and certain things they’re doing.

I loved what Angela Lansbury said this year at the Tony’s this year about “learning your craft.” I love taking the thing that I kind of like to do and you have a passion about it, but there’s a craft. Taking a deep dive into the skill. So from 98-99 to 03-04, I took every class at Writers and Books that I could. I also read all these books and did hands-on work in these books that I would read.

I also had a really great mentor in my friend Don [Last Name], a playwright in Canada. He coached me and mentored me and gave me some great methodology and worksheets. So I just sort of formed the craft. And I got serious about it in 1999 and still doing it now. You can always get better.

I just recently had a friend tell me who saw the Shawcross piece. “You did all this research about Shawcross but you didn’t put any of the heinous stuff, the real heinous stuff in the play. If you’re going to have people empathize with your protagonist, you gotta go there.” He was very candid about it. He said, “You did not go there.” I think, even though it’s hard, you have to allow yourself to go there with the security that you can bring yourself back. I thought that was one of the best pieces of advice.

When I saw Joyce Carol Oates come to Rochester she said, and I’ve always carried it with me, “Write under a pseudonym, even though you’re not going to publish. When you write your first page, write under a pseudonym. And then you’ll pretend in your mind that nobody knows you and you’ll write the truth.” Then she said, “Even if you go to publish it later under your own name, in the middle of that writing process use a totally fake name and pretend you’re a different person and you’ll write more authentically and won’t worry about the people you know.” Because she says, “They’re going to creep in there.” I love that piece of advice.

What was your first production?

My very first production was a one act in 2006 in Guernsey [England] for a group called the Guernsey Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Club. It’s amateur but it’s still an adjudicated theater. They usually bring in someone from Great Britain [to adjudicate]. You have to have somebody from GADOC submit you [Don submitted Lori] and subsequently you become a member. That was my very first full production on stage. It was “No Smoking,” a comedy about a guy who’s trying to quit smoking.

How did the Off-Broadway plays come about?

I have a good college friend down in New York who’s one of the founding members of Abingdon Theater, and I was down visiting him. Lisa was doing the 5 Borough bike ride. I was going to take my scripts. I found this one theater called the American Theater, which is like “Off-Off Broadway.”

And I went up to the third floor of this building on West 57th, and I walked in and practically ran into this gentleman and said “I’m looking for James Jennings, the creative director.” He said, “I’m James Jennings.” I said, “I’m Lori Marra, a playwright from Rochester and I’ve got some scripts for you.” He said, “Well great, I’ll take ’em.” So he took ’em. I got a call and he said, “These two I didn’t like but this one I like and I’m looking for a director who might produce it.” Sure enough he called me a few months later and said “I’ve got this director who I think will produce this one act.”

It was a very, very off-off Brodway theater. A small theater that’s an incubator. And he hooked me up with this director who was willing to do it, his name was Vincent Scott. So Vincent directed it and just did this beautiful job of that piece, which is “Hold Up At the Continental Garage.” I had written it as a full length with three one-acts in it, and just to kind of give you a perspective of where I was in my learning curve, I had done several of the one acts like “No Smoking” and “Indaba,” and I remember Paula [playwriting teacher from Writers and Books] saying to me, “If you can write three one acts then you can write a full length.” So I thought: “I’m going to make this easy on myself, I’m going to trick my mind. And I’m going to write a trilogy that will hold together as a full length but will really be three one acts. And that’s how I kind of segued into now where I only write full lengths.

I remember the first time I saw it, I couldn’t go down for the opening on a Wednesday and I got down there on a Friday. My sister and my brother-in-law came down with me and Donna Lynne Champlin (she’s kind of the Broadway person from Rochester and I’ve known her mom for years). I was sitting between them and the lights came up at the end, and I just remember looking at them and they said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I can’t believe I wrote that play.” It was the first time that I had New York caliber actors, an incredible director who did this beautiful interpretation of this piece and I was like “Wow, this is really what the collaboration thing is all about.”

What’s “Hold Up at the Continental Garage” about?

It’s a story about an African-American woman and she’s stuck at this garage and trying to get home. I just finished reading the Iliad and The Odyssey that summer, and I really wanted to think about what it would be like for a modern-day journey of someone who needed to get home like Ulysses did. I had sort of this bizarre set of circumstances in a garage where I was watching this guy at Monro Muffler garage waiting for his car repair and he was sketching this woman. So the whole thing became this woman who’s stuck at the garage and this young guy behind the desk who’s not really a car mechanic but he’s working there and he’s really a would-be artist and he starts sketching her. And this whole interaction that they play out.

The show went up, and I was really worried because it was predominantly an African-American audience. And Vincent my director is African-American and he said “I’m going to introduce you as the writer but I want to wait ’til after it’s over. I’m like, “Great , I totally trust you.” I was nervous. I was really nervous. And the lights come up and there’s kind of this hush and he introduces me and you could just tell for this one moment they were kind of like, “That’s a white woman.”

But all these people descended on stage and started shaking my hand. And I’ll never forget this very tall African American guy dressed in a suit, with his son, comes across the stage looking very stern and I’m thinking, “Okay, I’m really going to get nailed here and he just shakes my hand, gives me this huge hug and says, “That was the most real play I’ve ever seen.” And I just hugged this guy and tears are in my eyes and I’m just crying and I’m saying, “Thank you so much because I did a lot of research.”

Vincent called me a year later and he said there’s this Midtown Festival and he said it’s more Off-Broadway and it’s more for agents and directors. He said, “I would love to direct the piece and see if we could get some press and get someone interested in it.” So he’s the one that submitted all the paperwork for it and he’s the one that really believed in it enough to get it to Off-Broadway. He said he wanted to do the full trilogy. The second piece is about a woman from India, who is American, but is kind of fighting the mores from India. And the third piece is this three-page monologue, a chatty kind of rant from this Taiwanese woman who’s this store clerk. So that’s how we got to Off-Broadway as opposed to “Off-Off Broadway.” Pretty much Vincent.

I just put up on my Facebook, “If you want to see something new and original Off-Broadway is the place to be.” Because Broadway is so scared right now because the economy and where it is. It’s all remakes. They’re not doing a lot of new works right now.

A beautiful, little side-story out of this: The June Havoc Theatre [where her play is currently playing in the Midtown International Festival in New York] is part of Abingdon Theatre, which is an off-Broadway venue that’s really been built up over the last 20 years. It’s considered a very reputable incubator for American playwrights. One of the founding members is one of my best friends from college. That’s where I stay when I go to New York. I never really send my stuff there because I don’t have an agent. They’ll take some unsolicited stuff, but he came to this [“Hold Up at the Continental Garage”], and he said, “I want to see more of your work.” Midtown International Festival moves around each year, so Vincent called me up and he said “Were at this theater I know a little bit about. I’ve been wanting to get in there for directing for years, but I’ve never been able to. It’s called Abingdon.” I’m like, “What?”

I hung up with him and I called Sam [college friend] and said, “You’ll never believe this. My show is running in your theater.”

I’ve had this little blog up on my web page about the making of “Three American Women.” The blog starts with me and Sam meeting in college, working on the college newspaper, and our friendship through the years and how we’ve always stayed in touch via theater and how he went to New York and started this new theater, and I stayed in Rochester. It’s just this serendipitous thing. So I’m staying with him the whole time I’m down there and he’s thrilled to have me in his theater. We’re kind of hoping that maybe it’ll open some venues there [New York City], too. It was total coincidence. We’re both so tickled.

How did the idea of bus trips to your plays in New York start?

I knew I had to go down there to see it a few times and I think people expressed interest. There had been a couple of readings of “Hold Up at the Continental Garage” here, so we just had a lot of friends who had interest and said we love going to New York.

Lisa’s parents’ retirement job was doing bus tours. And they did them all over the country and even in other countries, like in Europe. So they really knew what it was and it was pretty easy for them. We talked to them and they said “Here’s the bus company we used” so it was pretty easy and it all came together. I think the beautiful part of it was that I think we probably had 30 people on the bus, but another 32 people came on their own, especially since it was in the dead of winter.

And these bus trips, I’m not kidding ya’, they’re better than the shows [laughs]. So, some of my friends got together and they did two things that were really hysterical. First of all, they were singing Broadway stuff the whole way down and then they created their own play for me on the bus. What happened was I had to go down early to meet the cast, and my sister was going the night before, so I ended up not being able to go on the bus (I came home on it but I couldn’t go down). So they just created this total party atmosphere all the way to New York. It was a riot. They gave me the little piece that they wrote on the bus, they all signed it and I still have it. That’s how it began.

Again, I just love these people. Every one of those people who came has helped me in some sort of way. So I said to Lisa, I’m going to talk to James Jennings, the producer, and he let us, imagine this, have the theater in the middle of Manhattan, and have an after-party there. Just take the theater at no charge. He said, “You’re friends are here. They’re coming, they’re packing the house. I’m selling a ton of tickets. You just do whatever you want.”

So Lisa and I arranged it. We bought a bunch of wine and got all kinds of hors d’oeuvres. And after the show was over we had a big talk-back with the cast and me and then we had a bunch of friends and they had everything ready behind the stage and we had this huge party. And we just partied down in Manhattan from like 9:30 until after midnight. The bus driver waited for us and then we all went back to the hotel. We just made a party of the whole event. And [pause for effect] I believe that people love to party. It was a party on the bus; it was a party after the show; it was a party on the way home. We rented the movie the Producers and we had it running on the bus all the way home.

From a playwright’s perspective, what are your thoughts and observations about the theater scene in Rochester?

Let me go macro and then I’ll go micro. I think that Rochester is incredibly rich with the arts and I think that if we could harness that richness we would go so much further in our tourism than we could ever do with a lot of the stuff that we pump money into. I’m the first person who really enjoys sports. I love sports. I’m an avid soccer fan. I have so many friends who are avid runners, Ironman people. I love the Red Wings.

What I see is, though, a potential here in the arts, and also theater, to really create. It’s where I think we have world class. We have the NFL of the arts here. We’re probably never going to have the Buffalo Bills, but we do have the world-class quality of the arts here and I think if we can embrace that and find a way to market it, then I think people would come here from out of town, much like they do for Glimmer Glass, much like they do for Niagara-on-the-Lake. I really believe that. I give lectures here sometimes at RIT, and I tell young people moving here that you could go anywhere on any given night in Rochester, NY, and see incredibly high quality artistic stuff for free. If you want to find it.

I just was fortunate enough to be named Italian American Woman of the Year in Arts [by The Italian-American Community Center in Rochester] and one of the first things I said was, “What a great city to be a playwright in.” Because if you want to find it, we are surrounded by the arts here. I would just hate to see us lose that over time. I wish we could stop all the bickering on whether there’s a Renaissance Square or not and just say, “Let’s all get together and create the tourist attraction that we really have here.” We could put Glimmer Glass to shame. Glimmer Glass is just opera. I think they’ve started to cultivate that in things like the jazz festival and I think if we could even go further with the visual arts and the performing arts we have got this incredible oyster here. And we just don’t know how to break open the shell.

Do you think it’s a marketing thing? Could you get a little specific about harnessing the arts?

I think it’s a little bit of everybody coming together. If we’re going to put money into building Frontier Field, we ought to put money into building the arts.

I’m not saying I know where to put that money, I’m just saying we need to put that level and caliber of money into it. I don’t think that the city would necessarily put up the money to build a GEVA Theater. With Blackfriars Theatre, we did it ourselves. The board members renovated and rebuilt that theater. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a city that says, much like we do with the stadiums, “We’re going to build theaters.” Wouldn’t that be a renaissance? To have the city say, “We’ll build the theater, if you bring the cast.” Much like they do with the sports teams.

I know what we want to do with Blackfriars and how we want to cultivate that, but I think it’s something where the city, the county, and these art forms have to come together and say, “We’re committed to this.” I think once there’s commitment and belief about where you’re going, then anything can happen. I’d like to see more money into the infrastructures and just cultivating the elements that people need. I think it’s true with anything in life and I see it all the time in the arts: if we’re sitting here struggling to figure out how to keep the doors open it takes away from the energies you need for the production, the craft, the thing itself.

Theater ROCS is sort of this consortium of theaters and I think they’re trying, but we’re all the theaters. I think you need to go beyond that and say as a community, “We’re going to support this and get the word out.” I wish I had a better game plan, and if I were being paid to do that for the city then I would, but right now I’m focusing on Blackfriars because that’s where I am.

And your own work, right?

Yes, but it is interesting to me because there’s people here who believe in theater. There’s been people who’ve been lovely enough to sponsor and help me because they believe in the arts. I think it’s here. I think it’s viable. I think we got a long way to go.

There has to be this energy. And then there has to be a crystal-clear vision of where we’re going. Once we have that crystal-clear vision we have to overtly state the steps to get to that vision. I think that’s what’s missing here because it’s become too much of a political hotbed.

If you look at Rochester and you ask, “What is Rochester now?” You gotta ask it and it’s hard to do. But throw out Kodak, throw out Xerox. We’re not those companies anymore. What are we? You know what we’re cultivating: health care. We’ve got Strong [Memorial Hospital]. We’re getting this health care niche here, there’s no question about it. The other one is the arts. We could so easily be health care and arts and that’s going to take the place of Kodak and Xerox. But the arts thing is definitely lacking this sort of focal point.

My eye has been on New York but I want to stay tapped into Rochester.

Is there any temptation to move to New York City to be more in the mix?

We’ve talked about it quite a bit. We probably won’t move to New York, but we’re certainly looking at ways, if everything lines up, for me to spend more time in New York. I’d love to be closer to New York. Do I think it’s essential to make it? No. But I think there’s a certain point that if you’re going to cross the line that you need to just spend more time there. Of the 31 days in July for this show, I’ll probably spend at least 11 of them in New York. So, yeah, I’ve thought about it. I think it’s that balance thing again. How much more do you have to be there? If something were to really hit and we were to get an agent then we’d probably talk really seriously about where I am in life and how I would make more time to be down there.

I told her [Lisa] if I get the Pulitzer or a Tony, we can have a nice, little flat in Manhattan, but we can still live here if you want [laughs]. I don’t think we’re going to move there immediately.

How do you balance your day job and your night job?

I have to give an incredible nod and thank you to my partner [Lisa]. This is hard to balance. My day job has a lot of responsibility to it. I’m a manager of world-wide training for a corporation. I have a staff, I have people who rely on me and report to me. I love them all dearly, they’re great people. And they all know that I have this completely full-fledged second career.

A rejection letter will come in, I just got one today from a theater, and I’ll read it and Lisa will look at it and she’ll take it and throw it on the table and say “Well, clearly they don’t know a Pulitzer Prize winner when they’re reading it. And I think that’s how I balance it. There’s a person here who believes in me and when you have that person who really believes in you, then the balance becomes so much easier. I balance it by having a lot of people, I can’t tell you the number of people that came to New York to support this. So I balance it by sort of drawing this energy from people who realize how hard this is for me and they help me just make it happen.

I have two or three people in the background, Lisa being one of them, who are just helping me get the word out there. They’re making sure the posters are printed, they’re helping with the programs.

I think the second part of it is that I just can’t not write these plays. They’re just in my head and they’re coming out so you just do it and you find a way to make it work. Sometimes it isn’t in balance. Sometimes I’m way off. I remember I was watching PBS one night, and I saw this really cool thing about the timekeeper at Windsor Castle. So I wanted to do this piece. It just popped into my head. And I had to do it while it was there. First, I did all this research on the physics of time. I just read all these books on the physics of time, and I just created this story about this guy who gets this second chance because of something that happens with the physics of time.

I would get up at 4 a.m. We couldn’t go to the Caribbean, I was in the middle of my job, and I would get up every morning and write these scenes and I would just write them and write them. I was tired when I went to work, I was tired when I came home and our life was out of balance. So I think there’s times when you need to be out of balance and as long as you come back to center, you’re okay. So I think that’s the trick of it if you can’t just abandoned it all. You need to allow yourself to go out of balance and you need people around you to help you get back into balance.

It doesn’t sound like you feel like you have to write every day?

That’s absolutely true. I would write every day, but…And, I think this is hard for artists to realize: when you’re a nobody, like me, there is no agent out there. I would love to get to that point in my career where I’ve got the agent. I think there is a point in your career if you can “make it,” so to speak, where you can write every day. But I think the vast majority—and I’m talking 98 percent of us who are working to get there—do not have that luxury.

I think there’s money to be made in teaching people how to do this because you just have to persevere. There is no agent out there, so you become your own agent, you become your marketing person. You have to write the letters, you have to write the treatments, you have to get all that crap together, when all you really want to do is be writing. I’m telling you, if I had the luxury, I would be writing every day. We just don’t have the luxury yet.

I think people who worry about not writing every day just need to set it aside. I can’t write today because I’m sending this letter. I think that’s the key: just staying “It.”

Who are your favorite playwrights?

I love Sarah Ruhl. Love her. Love her. I’ve seen everything I can of her’s. She’s up for a Tony for the first time this year. I think she’s out of Princeton. Just a fantastic, edgy, young playwright. I just discovered her work through a friend and then Geva last season comes and does a production of one of her premier pieces called “The Clean House.” It was fantastic to see it. God bless Geva for doing that because it’s hard to find Sarah Ruhl. Then Lisa and I traveled to Asheville, NC, because I wanted to check out the theater scene there and they’re doing “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” It’s Sarah Ruhl. Fantastic piece. I’m just all over Sarah Ruhl.

I was fortunate enough just on a bizarre fluke to get into a master’s class in Manhattan with Lynn Nottage, who just won the Pulitzer for “Ruined.” I just finished reading “Ruined” and went on to a couple others. She’s out of Yale, teaches at Yale.

I love Alan Ayckbourn. He took the confines of the stage, particularly with “House and Garden,” to take two plays and run them at the same time continuously and have them meld together and have them produced on two stages I think takes the art form to this unbelievable level. He started it out in England. Geva did it with Next Stage and it was one of the most fantastic theater experiences. The two shows run at the same time and both the characters are in the same play. Part of it is in the house and part of it is in the garden. He stretched it a little bit with some of his earlier plays, the boundaries of the physical stage, but nothing as superlative as “House and Garden.”

I love Arthur Miller, as I’m sure everybody does. I’ve been reading a little more of him lately. Those are probably at the top of my list right now.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I’m starting to research and work on two other pieces right now and what I find I’m going to be doing in August is going back to my roots, so I always go back to one of my original mentors, Don, and I go back to the worksheets we did and I go back to my books and I quietly sit. I just can’t emphasize enough about the craft. I always go back to Aristotle’s Poetics. I think he really had the formula there for great drama. And I always read it. I love philosophy and I love Aristotle and that’s where I draw my center.

When I actually have the luxury of sitting there and writing and working on the piece, that is where I’m just absolutely happy.

I remember some of the beautiful things we learned in our class at Writer’s and Books, Paula [Marchese, teacher] saying “try to incorporate an object, no sentence can be there unless it moves the action forward, there has to be tension.” I still have all the notes from our classes and I have these four or five books that I love. I just always bring that up before I start a play, because I think I’m going to forget something. When I’m immersed it in it, I love to be totally immersed in it.

I love the New York thing, but I’ll be glad to get out of producing and back to writing. You gotta put butts in the seat and that’s a whole different thing than writing the play.

Geoff Graser was a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist in a not-too-distant past life. He lives in Rochester, has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College, and likes his popcorn burnt.