Lola Pierson, Playwright in Translation

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Published March 31, 2009

Playwright Lola Pierson is a staple of the Baltimore arts scene, the extended network of artists, writers, and bon-vivants of which internationally recognized Animal Collective is just one part. Last year Pierson produced a musical called “The Prettiest Place on Earth” with music by Alex Scally, half of Indie critical darling Beach House. Now she’s showing her latest production as part of the Little Monsters program at Access Theatre, the downtown venue that showcases rising playwrights and directors. The series, which opens tonight and runs through April 5, allows young, experimental playwrights and directors to present short plays in a well-known theatre. Pierson spoke with Interview about why her new play, “The Title Sounded Better in French,” might not actually sound better in French.

CARA PARKS: Could you tell me a little bit about the festival in which the play is being presented?

LOLA PIERSON: The name of the series is Little Monsters, and it seems that collectively it’s going to marry straight theatre and experimental theatre. It can be hard to do straight theatre in a compelling way now, and I think that experimental theatre scares people away. This festival is going to be really cool because it will be experimental theatre in a straight theatre context. CP: What do you mean by experimental theatre?

LP: It has an amorphous definition. The best way to explain is by contrast with straight theatre, in which one person writes a straightforward play with a narrative structure, characters, and a plot, and then the director casts people in it and directs it. Experimental theatre would be anything that breaks those guidelines.

CP: So is your play experimental or straight theatre?

LP: It’s smack in the middle. There are characters and stories, but it’s not a traditional plot or narrative.

CP: The Title Sounded Better in French is a collaboration.

LP: Yes, between me and Anna Fitzgerald. This is a play that has been 18 months in the making. I personally have a real struggle with where I think playwrights fit in a post-modern theatre context. The question that’s been floating around for the last decade is: What is the need for playwrights when most theatre is deconstructing old plays that we all already know so well. This play was really an attempt to address the idea of characters relating to the audience without a story.

CP: So what is the connection?

LP: I guess it sounds sort of corny, but we all ultimately really relate to the same emotions in the same way most of the time, so we don’t really need a lot of the story stuff, and the things that give us the context for the emotional response. The relationship between the audience and the playwright can exist without all that stuff. It’s almost like a meta-play that says, ‘You could be watching this play about failed relationships but instead we’re going to tell you about what that would be like, and you’re going to have a similar response to it.’ CP: So how did you come up with the title, The Title Sounded Better in French?

LP: We wrote it while we were in Europe. We both speak French and we decided we wanted to call it something in French. We couldn’t do that and still like ourselves. So we named it something in English, but it really did sound better in French. It was just too pretentious to get away with.

CP: How did you get involved with playwriting in the first place?

LP: I’ve been studying theatre formally since high school. I went to a performing arts high school, the Baltimore School for the Arts. I went to college and realized I hated acting, which is what I had been doing, and switched to playwriting. CP: You just had a big show in Baltimore, right? Do you think that that will help your reception in New York?

LP: Yeah. Two months ago my musical, “The Prettiest Place on Earth,” was produced at The Load of Fun Theatre and had music by Alex Scally, who’s in Beach House, and was directed by Donna Sellinger, who’s in Wham City, which is a local arts collective that does everything from theatre to the visual arts, and had Steve Strohmeier, from Arboretum, and Jenn Wasner, from Wye Oak.

CP: As a playwright, you are so plugged into the music scene. Are you part of an inter-disciplinary overlap that is representative of Baltimore as a creative place?

LP: I’m in a field that’s completely different. That’s why it was nice to do the musical, because when you do things with people who are a little bit famous it’s so much easier to get things done. They just post a message on their MySpace page and the show sells out every night. But Alex [Scally] and I were really happy with how the musical came out, so we’re going to be working together again, which would be really cool.

Little Monsters runs from March 31 through April 5 at Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, New York.