Interview with Whales, Save Us! playwright, Elizabeth Leavitt

One of my favorite parts of my job as Literary Manager for RTC is the chance to get to converse with and get to know lesser-known playwrights. I recently had the chance to chat with Elizabeth Leavitt about Whales, Save Us! which opens later this week.

RTC: Name? 
EL: Elizabeth Leavitt

RTC: Hometown?
EL: Sacramento

RTC: Current Town?
EL:  Salt Lake City  

RTC: Tell us about Whales, Save Us!
EL: This is a play I wrote as my thesis for grad school. I worked on it with a lot of great help and support. 

RTC: What made you write Whales?
EL: There were two initial germs. #1 is a little watercolor I did. My aim was to develop a play visually. So painting a bit helped get me going. 

RTC: Tell me about that second "germ".
EL: It was based upon an experience I had hearing a speaker through a Western Fairs Association. 

RTC: Why the greek tragic form? Did you start out to write Whales this way, or did it evolve into this form?
EL:I knew I wanted a chorus. The three nuns from John Guare's, The House of Blue Leaves were a big inspiration. There's a company out of Cornwall called KneeHigh and they do these great choruses. If you notice - the Girl Scouts really act as one. #1 only asks questions. #2 only says statements, and #3 eats. I thought it was a worthwhile challenge. And I wanted big stakes - life or death. And no one does over dramatic like the Greeks.

RTC: In your mind, what is “The Big One”?
EL: Oh who knows...I'll leave the why up to audiences and actors.

RTC: What do the girl scouts represent to you?
EL: Odd morality and self-sufficiency. 

RTC: Why did you choose to use girl scouts, but put them in the 1970’s brownie uniforms?
EL: My goal was to have a very visual play. It was between three girl scouts or three ballerinas. I wanted young girls with a very unsentimental world view - and I wanted that communicated loud and clear. Rather than having them explain their bottom-line sensibility I felt the uniforms would say it all. The new Girl Scouts of America are so damned watered down I could just weep - so I looked to the past.

RTC: You managed to write a fair amount of swearing without using the actual swear words – what spurred this choice?
EL: I think half-swearing is very funny. 

RTC: What (to you) was the most exciting part of the original production?
EL: Well, I just die when an audience laughs. So that was exciting.

RTC: What would you like the Columbus audience to know about Whales?
EL: Guys, this is a great show.

RTC: Tell us a story from your childhood which explains who you are.
EL: When I was three, in preschool, we sang The 12 Days of Christmas and each kid was chosen to depict one of the days. I was desperate to be 7 Swans, 6 Geese, 11 Pipers -- anyway, long story short, I got stuck with 3 French Hens and I thought, "this is how the rest of my effing life is gonna be."

RTC: Who are your favorite playwrights?
EL: John Patrick Shanley and John Guare 

RTC: What kind of theatre really stimulates you?
EL: I love when someone says the truth and it costs them a whole hell of a lot.

RTC:Tell us about a play which deeply impacted you.
EL: Savage in Limbo. It really guts me in the best way. Let me include an excerpt to persuade you to it (please read the whole play some time): "As I have told you, this is the very drink that killed my mother. My father died of nothin at all, which is maybe the saddest thing a person can pass on from. But my mother, who was the only one ever stupid enough to love me, my mother died from this drink that Murk is making me now. I have always taken consolation where I could find it, even when it caused me grief." (April, Savage in Limbo - by John Patrick Shanley)

RTC: What made you want to be involved with the theatre?
EL: Quite truthfully, I don't always want to be in it. It can really get me down. I like it a lot though. There's no better feeling than watching your play and seeing it done well. It's pretty great, and I think you should try it some time. Just take care of your heart, if you can.

RTC: What else have you written?
EL: I wrote a play about The Creature from the Black Lagoon writing for Oprah's Book Club, a monologue play about a Romanian gymnast discovering Diet Dr. Pepper and a play that sounds very boring but is a crowd favorite (4 friends - coming of age [Sounds riveting, I know]).

RTC: What are you currently working on?
EL: At the moment I'm working on some narratives without words (animations, of all things). I'm taking a short break from plays because words are failing me. Or I'm failing words.

Raconteur likes to ask people the Inside the Actor’s Studio 10 questions, so here goes..
RTC:What is your favorite word?
EL: Hi

RTC: What is your least favorite word? 
EL: Actually
RTC: What turns you on? 
EL: Cleverness
RTC: What turns you off? 
EL: Self importance

RTC: What sound or noise do you love? 
EL: Syncopated clapping in 1960s girl group songs

RTC: What sound or noise do you hate? 
EL: That 'ping' before a flight attendant speaks.
RTC: What is your favorite curse word? 
EL: Fuck
RTC: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? 
EL: Graphic novelist

RTC: What profession would you not like to do? 
EL: Doctor

RTC: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? 
EL: I suppose I hope we wouldn't have to say anything, me and God.




Wait, Wait - You People Care What I Have To Say??

It's that time. Time for me to write my director's notes for the program.

I am firmly convinced that every person who has ever written their own bio for something has complained about how much they hate writing it. I certainly have and loads of people I know.

Somehow program notes seem about 15,000 times worse than a bio. When a write a bio people have a limited amount of surface details to judge me on. But with program notes I am expected to inspire, entertain, intrigue, or at least sound kinda smart. So really, is it any wonder I have "the fear"?
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It's All About Soul...

Music is a critical piece of my directing world - so much so that when I heard the director of 500 Days of Summer created a soundtrack for each day to provide to the actors just so they could get a feel for the emotional landscape of the scene I was sold. I sought out the movie (and I was pissed upon finding out the limited release did not include Ohio.)
So, it has been kinda weirding me out that I keep changing my effing mind about the music for this show! Originally I wanted all addiction/addictive substance related songs, then materialism, now it's become this odd mishmash... And I have become hellbent to find the curtain call song. I keep thinking it should be pop-y and upbeat, but nothing seems to fit because all the songs that really resonate are much more low key. C'est la vie.
Turns out I may have found it... And it is not at all what I expected: a cover of Gnarles Barkley's Crazy.... maybe I'm crazy? Yeah. Probably.
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"I like to think of any triple bypass rehearsal as a variation on the trust fall."

As a director, I feel one of the hardest things is choosing when to take the scripts out of your actor's hands. I'm not a parent, but I assume this struggle is similar to watching your child try to ride a bike without training wheels. Do you set the date early to force them to get the books out of their hands and therefore get really comfortable early on, or allow them to cling to the safety net until it is necessary to let go.

Option A means some fierce struggle, but in the end a really nice payoff. Option B gives your actors the comfort they need to explore their characters, until they suddenly have only a couple weeks to learn what it is they don't know... and "Oh crap! What do I do with my hands now that they are suddenly unencumbered??"

For this current show the decision was somewhat taken out of my hands - we have a cast member coming in late and I felt it was especially important for the cast to be very secure in their lines by the time our newbie joined us so she can assimilate as quickly and painlessly as possible. I selected a date halfway through the process and mentally braced myself for the idea that this might not be easy.

Tonight, was the first night off-book for Act One. I'm certain it was hell for my actors. All in all, I thought they did quite good. Yes, there were scenes I wanted to allow them to pick up their scripts, but I steeled myself against this with the knowledge that they now know what they don't know.

Did I make the right choice? I guess that still remains to be seen, but for now.. I think yes.