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
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.