You know when you are speaking with an honest to goodness theatre person when they speak so lovingly about the process. Exploration. Failure. To the die-hard thespian, these are things to live for.
Marja-Lewis Ryan is all about failure but not in the way that most might think. The Brooklyn born writer has seen her share of success with the 2010 comedy The Four-Faced Liar on screen and the 2011 dramedy Dysnomia on stage. For her latest effort, this comedic writer is testing the waters of drama in her new play One In The Chamber.
I had a chance to Skype with Ryan about films, plays, and her directorial debut; clearly she is more than ready to sink or swim. For in an industry that values its practitioners in direct correlation with their achievements or failures, Marja holds steadfast to a very old school philosophy. For Marja, it’s all part of the process.
Marja-Lewis Ryan: I’m a filmmaker by profession but I’m a theatre-maker by trade. To be able to go back and do what you love and workshop stuff… to have an audience that will come and give you feedback... that’s the beauty of theatre: instant gratification.
MC: The crappy thing about theatre though is that it’s all a dream. You’re up for eight weeks and then it’s gone.
MLR: I kinda like that because you can fail big and I’m all about failing big.
MC: I read somewhere that you try to humiliate yourself three times a day.
MLR: At least.
MC: What’s that about?
MLR: I just like to bring myself back down to earth as often as humanly possible. I can float away pretty easily. It’s good to fall on your face at least as often as you succeed.
MC: Humility is important. OK, so let me be facetious.
MLR: Go for it.
MC: You tell a story about David Mamet in a few articles I read. Someone in your class asked, “Why don’t you write more roles for women?" And he said, “Why don’t you?” Well, my question for him would be, “You are the one with the platform. Why not use it to create great parts, great opportunities for women?” What do you say to people who say [I don’t write women because] that’s just not my voice?
MLR: I know that when I see straight filmmakers make gay movies, I always want to know: why did you tell this story? But that’s unfair for all the reasons that it is obviously unfair. I think there are great reasons to write outside of our realm of understanding. But at the same time, I do think there is value in telling your own story. I think for me, when [Mamet] said that he meant, “Why do you think I can do it better? You go do it.” He has written roles for women, some pretty amazing ones. But overall he writes very male-centric voices most likely because he’s a dude.
In the same way when I hear characters I hear them as female because I am a woman and I hear my own voice first. I think that’s a nice starting place: write what you know.
MC: Tell me about your latest project. You usually write comedies but this one is a drama.
MLR: That’s kind of what I was saying about theatre. I know that film is perfect because of the ability to go back and watch it but I think theatre is perfect too because… I really am a comedy writer. I’ve never even tried to write a drama. So the idea that only 600 people will come to see it is very appealing to me. There is a possibility that I don’t know what I’m doing. We’re about to find out I guess.
As far as the content of the play - I read this article about children as perpetrators and victims of gun violence. Whenever I hear these horrific events, I always think about the kids’ moms but I never think, “I wonder if he had a sister?” I don’t think about who else was involved. So I became interested in exploring the epicness of a loss like that. It’s this huge thing that affects so many people and I wondered what it would look like it I put them all under the same roof.
MC: Because one reads the blurb and you automatically think about Sandy Hook.
MLR: Sure. I can absolutely understand that and I have my own opinion about guns and gun control but it’s always more interesting to defend the other side. It’s creatively fulfilling and challenging for me to see all sides of the argument. That’s the beauty of being an artist and not a politician.
MC: You create a space [for the discussion].
MLR: Exactly. It’s like… you don’t have to agree with them. That’s not the point. The point is these opinions exist and these people are whole people beyond that one opinion.
And honestly, this is a lot less heavy; I am always trying first and foremost to create meaty roles for women.
You know that test? That feminist movie test?
MC: The Bechdel Test?
MLR: Yes. Well, probably eighty-five percent of this play is two women sitting on stage talking about non-relationship issues. I mean, they talk about their sons and their brothers but they don’t talk about romantic relationships. The whole show is watching two women basically say to one another, “I need something from you and you’re not giving it to me.” It’s just cool to be able to make that.
MC: It’s what we’re supposed to do [as artists], provoke the conversation. Sometimes you take sides, sometimes you don’t.
MLR: My Mom is an artist and author of children’s books and so I talk to her a lot as I’m writing and she asked me early on, “What do you want the audience to take away?” But I don’t play that game. You can take away whatever you take away… or not.
MC: Does your mom have a strong influence on your work?
MLR: Oh yes.
MC: What age group does she write for?
MLR: Eight year olds. So part of her is permanently eight. She’s literally the funniest human on the planet. I can’t describe her as well as she exists in this world but trust me, she is hysterically funny.
MC: Tell me a little about the overlap in the two mediums that you work in. Is there much overlap in you careers as screenwriter versus playwright?
MLR: Well, sometimes I get called into meetings at production companies who specifically seek out playwrights because we are character driven dialogue writers. In terms of going the other way, the thing that has helped the most is fundraising. That’s the huge advantage of the exposure that you get from film.
MC: Last question. How do you negotiate being the director of the play, as the playwright of the play?
MLR: This is the first time I have directed anything and I can’t imagine doing it again.
MC: Doesn’t [directing] give you a level of control over your [own] material?
MLR: MaybebutI am not a visual person so it’s very hard to explain what I want unless I see it. My actors are amazing and great and fun and they will play and they will fail with me. I think my ability to fail so boldly lets them fail, which is really helpful in the discovery part of rehearsals. It’s hard to find nuance when people are afraid. In terms of control, I like to produce to control but I don’t like to direct to control. But see? I figured all that out in this tiny little room with six amazing people and that’s my whole point. That’s why I love theatre and that’s why I’m so proud of this show.
One in the Chamber can be seen at the Lounge Theatre on Theatre Row in Hollywood, now through August 17th.