Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
This past week, I got a chance to catch up with Brooklyn native (and frequent Young Playwrights Inc. program participant), Tori Lassman. She is one of the winners of the 2012 National Playwriting Competition. This is my third interview in a series of eight that will introduce each of our winners to you, leading up to the Young Playwrights Conference. Tori’s play, The Barn, is an intensely atmospheric play that weaves a story about a young man caught in the middle of a manhunt for a mysterious serial killer.
Tori, how would you describe your writing style?
Hmm. Not quite stream-of-consciousness because I have never been trained to do that, and I don’t know how you start to do that, but I’m not even sure. I like a lot of writing styles that aren’t as definite, I like when things could mean two different things and you don’t really need to have a certain idea…
Who are your influences?
Beckett. Foreman. Brecht. Jean Genet. Um, Albee. Ionesco. Sarah Kane. I like Tennessee Williams, and it goes on. That’s the main bulk of it.
The bulk of that list, there are a lot of absurdists. Would you say that your writing is absurdist in any way?
I would like to think it is, but I don’t know if it actually is.
Well, can you pick maybe one or two of these writers and talk a little bit more specifically about what it is that you are drawn to in their writing?
Okay, so for… Beckett, it would be the character names—that is one thing I really like about him; the circular dialogue, and since he was writing post-World War II it is interesting to see a lot of the ideas he is bringing out that are really influential to me. How he is thought provoking without putting it in your face.
What ideas of his do you find influential?
Nihilism and essentialism, and that the characters are in very strange situations that don’t really make any sense, but they make a lot of sense…I like that he doesn’t get specific in time periods or exact locations. They are very [vague about] where they actually are and I like that.
And what about Richard Foreman?
I like the absurdity he uses and, well, same as Beckett his dialogue is really absurd, but he almost pushes that. I love the chorus effects that he uses—they are influential to me…and [the way he constructs] characters.
You’ve seen Foreman’s work?
I have only seen one play of his: Idiot Savant, and Pearls for Pigs I saw on videotape. And both of those I loved. And he got lots of things from Brecht, like shining the lights on the audience, which I also really like.
Why do you like to do that to your audience?
Well, the whole idea of them shining the lights on the audience is putting them in a place where they are thinking about what’s happening and not just watching it, you are literally put on the spot. I think you should be changed every time you see a play in some way.
Can you describe an experience that you have had—either with making theater or going to see a performance—that helped make you who you are as a writer?
One very recent experience is seeing Sleep No More. Which I had always wanted to see…I have seen absurdist plays but you are sitting in the audience, I had never seen one to that extent, so that was really influential and wanting to learn that structure more and how to do that…I feel like you would have to spend a lot of money to actually follow the story, because every time you go you are going to have a different [experience]— every audience member sees something else. I went with [a friend] and we separated and we had totally different stories.
In what ways is The Barn similar to some of the other plays you have written and in what ways might it be something new for you?
So, I have never written a play that long, usually I write 10 minute or maybe 20 minute [plays], and this is a one-act…I never followed a story structure before—that was the first time I tried doing that, otherwise I just think of an idea and it would be mostly monologue form or whatever it wouldn’t really be a systematic structure, so that was different for me. Some of the themes, and the atmosphere, are similar [to other plays I have written]—a kind of sinister feeling.
So when people ask you about the story of The Barn, what do you tell them?
It’s about a town in fear of a serial killer, and under control of an army, and a mysterious place that these people are trying to find…There are two stories going on at once: the story of the General trying to find the barn, and the story of Avo, a young man who has just lost his father, who finds [the truth about the killer] through Saginaw, a recluse alcoholic with a past.
You have a long history with playwriting and with Young Playwrights Inc. Can you talk a little bit about when you started writing plays and why you keep writing plays?
The first play I wrote was in seventh grade, because in my acting class we needed to write one. And I heard about Young Playwrights [Inc.] through my teacher… so put that play in for the city-wide competition and I [won] that… which I was surprised about. And from that I found out about the Urban Retreat program, which led to the Advanced Playwriting Workshop—so from seventh grade through 11th grade I’ve been taking playwriting with Young Playwrights Inc. It’s great. I am writing a play for school now but I haven’t written anything as long as The Barn.
But you also, even before 7th grade and this acting class, you went to see theater when you were younger—
Yes, I have always seen theater or just gone to museums and kind of been interested in things like that without knowing names or whatever, like especially from my father—I used to think Brecht was my grandfather because my father lied to me and I had never seen a picture of my grandfather before. He has a picture of him in his office, and I asked, “Who is this?” and he said, “Oh, your grandpa,” so I was like “Oh, I guess it is.” And he looks like very similar to [my dad] so that is why I believed him I guess.
Your dad admires Brecht too, then?
Yeah, a lot…My dad is a prop master for theater and then television so that also has influenced me a lot.
Nice, and Brecht is now your honorary grandfather. It is great to get to talk with you and I look forward to seeing you soon.
Tori Lassman will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2013 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 9-17. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2013 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager