Last week, shortly after Ghost Bike wrapped up it’s Professional World Premiere at Buzz 22 Chicago, I had the opportunity to speak with Chicago-based playwright Laura Jacqmin. Read on to see what she had to say about her influences, writing for the stage versus writing for television, the changing media landscape, upcoming Netflix series Grace and Frankie (for which she is a writer) and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): It seems your most recent play, Ghost Bike, really drew on many different cultures, stories and backgrounds. Since it does draw on so many different things, who or what do you consider to be your influences? What kinds of works are you drawn to?
Laura Jacqmin (LJ): I think that one of the things that influenced some of my early work, things that I loved reading when I was very young, were fairy tales, actually. A play I’d done in Chicago a few years ago was a sort of deconstruction of these fairy tales, and the role of women in them and the role of men in them. That’s something that I think I’ve always been drawn to. I think that stylistically I love the super theatrical work. I love shows that need to be on a live stage — shows that aren’t super realistic, but instead use all the magic and stagecraft available to them to help tell the story, and the idea of the story would not be the same if it were not presented the way it is presented.
So, I think that Ghost Bike in particular, because we are working with all of these different myths across cultures — and because the play is essentially about a journey in the underworld — sort of draws on similar themes, looking at deconstructing those old stories and putting them in a modern context.
AD: It sounds really interesting. Had I known about it earlier, I would’ve gone to see it myself.
LJ: It was a blast. It’s a young Chicago company called Buzz 22 Chicago. I thought that every aspect with them — from development to production — was really wonderful.
AD: How did you get started doing what you’re doing? When did you realize that this is what you want to do?
LJ: I was very lucky. I grew up in Cleveland and my high school, Shaker Heights High School, has a really wonderful theatre program. One of the highlights of the program is a program called New Stages. They do it every year. It’s a student-written, directed, designed and acted festival of one-act plays. I think one of the very first plays I wrote was produced when I was a sophomore in high school. Because of that experience I got to do this two-year workshop at Dobama Theatre, which is still an active Cleveland theatre. One of the great things was that not only was I writing plays, but I was getting to see them produced. I was sort of learning from my mistakes — and sometimes doubling down on my mistakes — and then sort of being able to see the impact of and whether what I was doing was successful, whether what I was doing was working right away. I continued to study theatre as an undergrad at Yale, and I continued writing and directing plays. I was lucky. Nobody ever really got in my way. I knew that I wanted to write plays. I knew that I wanted to tell stories on stage, and I was just very lucky that these mechanisms were in place to assist me along the way.
AD: You also wrote for network television. You were a writer for ABC’s Lucky 7, which aired last season. That one I actually saw. So, how did you decide to make that leap from writing for the stage to writing for television? I’m guessing that there’s a bit of a difference there.
LJ: I had sort of reached a point in my career where I had come off of something like eight straight months of work. In 2012 I had been working on a project in London. I had a workshop of a play at O’Neill Theatre Center in the summer of 2012. Then, in the fall I had done this fellowship [the Faith Broome playwright-in-residence fellowship] at the University of Oklahoma, so I was there for a few months. I had a play at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. So, I’d been working from June straight until February, and then there was this drop off. It’s a pretty common thing, working in theatre. You’ll be working non-stop and then, all of a sudden, you’ve forgotten to build yourself a back-up for the next season, or you’ve forgotten to write something else for the next season. I love being in the room. I love working on projects, and in theatre you sometimes have to wait a really long time between projects. You’re lucky if you have one production a year. So, that’s maybe six weeks that you get to be in the room working on something. The rest of the time you’re mostly by yourself. It just so happens that I had written a play that year that my theatre agent really loved, and thought that the television department in my agency would love, and they did. I started going out for meetings and basically did a couple of weeks of meetings over a few months, and out of that came one job offer to go and work on Lucky 7. So, it sort of came along at the perfect time, when I was ready to be in a more collaborative environment.
AD: You mention it’s a more collaborative atmosphere writing for television, whereas writing for the stage can often be much more solitary. Are there any other significant differences apart from that when it comes to writing for television versus when you’re writing for the stage?
LJ: The really cool thing about writing for television is that you know it’s going to get done. Sometimes, when you’re writing a play in a room by yourself, maybe it’ll get a reading, maybe it’ll get a workshop. If you’re lucky, it’ll make it to production. You’ve got that clock running when you’re writing for television, so you know that production is starting, crews are being hired, actors are being hired. All of these people are being employed to make something, so you have to make it. You have to finish it, which is sort of great. I love the writer room atmosphere. You have all the writers sitting in a room all day, talking about the story and what’s going to happen with the characters, what they’re going to do, who they’re going to fall in love with, who they’re going to betray. All this great stuff. You have this wealth of intelligence and knowledge in the other writers, where if you’re struggling with a plot line, somebody else might have an idea. Sometimes it takes eight, nine, ten people to fix the plot, to fix the story, to see where the holes are and where you can make it stronger. I love that. Everyone cares so much about the story and you’re all working together to tell it.
One of the most important things it taught me was the difference between story and execution. I think that sometimes, as playwrights, we’re taught to be very protective of our work. The phrase ‘director-proof your plays’ is sort of tossed around a lot, and there’s this element of if you’re not careful somebody might mess up your work. I think that one of the things that the TV show taught me last year was that a whole room full of people can come up with a story, and then the individual writer who is writing those episodes — there’s so much room inside of that story for how you’re going to shape a scene, or what somebody’s going to say when they come into a room, or what they’re going to say just before they leave, so I think that it’s made me more open to collaboration, more open to hearing peoples’ responses to the story.
AD: It does seem like where TV and film are concerned — but especially TV — that the landscape has been changing over the past few years, particularly as more of these set-top devices and streaming services — like Netflix — crop up. I assume that allows for more creativity and experimentation on the part of the writers, more ability to take risks on the part of the writers, and more ability to take risks on the part of companies like Netflix.
LJ: I think that’s the hope, and I think that for a lot of people that’s proving true. The limitations of working on a network show means that every stage of an episode of television is passing through a lot of hands. Sometimes that means you find issues you didn’t know were issues, or you find brilliant solutions that come out of that. Other times that means that you get stuck in a quagmire, because you have a difference of opinion. Sometimes it can be great for process, sometimes it can be damaging. I think one of the great things about these sort of disruptive influences, of which Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and all of these non-traditional studios are a part, and who are now financing scripted shows, is that you’re going to make the whole order. They’re not going to cancel you. With Lucky 7 we got pulled after the second episode, because our numbers just weren’t high enough. So, I think that the more models all of our industries can come up with to sort of disrupt industry norms, I think all of it is going to be instructive, all of it is going to be useful.
AD: Yeah. Even when we’re talking about different industries, I suppose there are similarities. If, for instance, you have multiple cable companies or telephone companies from which to choose, that abundance of choice is going to push each to do better, is going to push each to think outside the box. If, however, you have a monopoly, the company that has the market cornered will realize that they’re it — that there’s no place else to go — and get comfortable in their position, get comfortable with the status quo, and ultimately will probably have less incentive to try. We see that all the time, and it ends up being a bad thing for all involved, including, quite often, the company.
LJ: And I think that we’re even experiencing that in the Chicago theatre scene right now, where theatre producers are really having to think hard about who their audience is, how they’re going to get in an untraditional audience, how they’re going to get people in the seats every night. Of course, theatre doesn’t have the benefit of having Swiffer or Clorox financing the work that they do, but I think the issue of getting the audience, getting the eyes on the story has always been a problem, and has just become a somewhat more pronounced problem in the last few years.
AD: Are there differences in terms of writing for a network and writing for Netflix?
LJ: I don’t know yet. The job with Netflix starts in a couple of weeks, so I’ll have a better sense of that a few months into the process. But, I think that to a person with a nominal amount of experience in television — more experience as a watcher of television than a writer of television, thus far — I think that, right now, there is more room in network comedy to push the envelope. I think that network drama has gotten a little bit difficult. I think that what everybody has seen in the last few years is network television’s attempt to take cable space, and do the big anti-heroes and the very complex plots and hostage dramas. I think that some of them have been very successful, some of them have been less successful.
AD: I don’t know how much you can say about the show, but can you share a bit about what Grace and Frankie is going to be about?
LJ: Sure. The only stuff on the web is just what the initial Press Release says. The show writer is Marta Kauffman, the creator of Friends, a very funny woman. The show stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and it’s basically about these two 70-year-old women — two very different women — who don’t like each other very much, but whose husbands have been business partners for years. Their husbands announce they’re leaving them because they’re gay, and that that they have been having an affair for the past 20 years. Now that they can get married, that’s what they want to do. It’s basically about these two 70-year-old women sort of starting their lives over, at a time when they sort of thought that they have everything figured out. I love it. I’m a huge advocate for diversity at my own work, and I think that’s diversity not just in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of body size and in terms of age. I think it’s rare — besides Golden Girls — that we would have this kind of story available. I’m really excited about it.
AD: I was just discussing this very thing with someone — the value of having a wide age range represented within the workplace. I think that it’s important to have shows that, first and foremost, feature different age groups, but more than that also appeal to different age groups. Shows that appeal to age groups other than that coveted 18-to-39-year-old demographic that a lot of networks have historically attempted to appeal to, at times seemingly ignoring everyone else.
LJ: Some of my favorite shows of all-time are big, diverse ensemble shows. I love Battlestar Gallactica. I love Parks & Rec. I love Friday Night Lights. I think that one of the real joys of those shows is seeing Katee Sackhoff doing these incredible scenes with Edward James Olmos. I love to have television that I can talk about with my grandparents and my parents. That’s important to me. I think that one of the great things — you know I haven’t met all of the writers for Grace and Frankie yet — but the writers for Lucky 7 were such a diverse group from all different walks of life. David Zabel, the producer of that show, cared so much about diversity and his hiring practices sort of prove that out. Our room was more than half women. Both of our writers assistants were women of color. On background casting you’re seeing a really wide cross-section of life there. That’s important to me. That’s something that I want to see reflected in the television that I watch. It’s something I write in my own plays.
AD: It’s something that, hopefully, we will see even more. It certainly is something we’re already seeing a lot more of. You only need to look back a few years — certainly two or three decades. It’s not that long ago that you can go back and see shows that don’t as accurately reflect most people’s lives. So I think that the increase is a good thing. Is there anything else that you want to touch on?
LJ: I’m sort of excited to be jumping back into television. I feel really firmly that Chicago is my home. It sort of came about through happenstance in the past year that I was working in television for about six months, then I got to three theatre projects right in a row. Now I’m heading back and I hope that can sort of be the professional model that I can work off of for a few years — that I get to go and write some television, then I get to come back and do Chicago theatre. It’s a huge priority for me, and so I’m just thrilled that I get to try it again. I get to do another go-around.
Laura Jacqmin is a Chicago-based playwright, originally from Cleveland. She’s the winner of the Wasserstein Prize, an NEA Art Works Grant, the Kennedy Center David Mark Cohen Award, two MacDowell Fellowships, an Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Grant, and was a finalist for the Heideman Award, the Laurents/Hatcher Prize, the BBC International Playwriting Competition, and the Princess Grace Award. Her play Dental Society Midwinter Meeting was named one of New City Stage’s Top Five Plays of 2010, as well as TimeOut Chicago’s Honorable Mentions: Best Theater of 2010. In 2013, she was a staff writer on Lucky 7 (ABC). She received her BA from Yale University, and earned an MFA in Playwriting from Ohio University.