I sat down at a diner with playwright Dan LeFranc to discuss his play Sixty Miles To Silver Lake while it was in a design workshop several months before its current production at Soho Rep. The production marks Dan's professional debut, the recent (2007) Brown grad will also have his play Bruise Easy premiere in Washington, D.C. with Catalyst. I had read several of Dan's plays, including Night Surf an apocalyptic comedy about a group of teenage girl surfers and In The Labyrinth a dense, multilayered play that two parts satire of contemporary life and one part nightmare of illegal immigration. I think Dan's writing represents a real original voice, and I find his plays frequently terrifying in the best possible way- they force you to rethink what theatre's about.
Q: How did you get into playwriting?
A: I came to theatre… through acting. I got into acting when I was in Middle School and I went to a High School that then began a performing arts school within my school and I was a musical theatre kid…. I think a lot of people started as musical theatre kids. So I started writing plays through that. I was interested in journalism and fiction. I mostly started writing fiction.
Q: Do you have a poetry background? I noticed there’s a lot of attention to line breaks, to caesura and things like that in your work?
A: No, not really. I wrote crappy digital poetry on my little crappy computer playing with like the color of the words…I didn’t start out as a poet like Sarah Ruhl did. For me the attention to the line [is about] the musicality.
Q: Does music drive you a lot as a writer?
A: I write a lot to …it gets me stirred up and puts me in a place…. I think I wrote [Sixty Miles To Silver Lake] to Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade at the end… I don’t know.
Q: Something Canadian.
A: Yeah, something Canadian [laughs].
Q: You recently graduated from Brown, studying under Paula Vogel. I feel like in my conversations with people in theatre these days there’s a lot of attention on to Vogel’s students, there’s this breakthrough group that all studied under one person. What did you get from studying under Paula? What was it like, how did it help you get to where you are artistically?
A: I’ve been really fortunate to have a few mentors. My undergraduate playwriting teacher was Naomi Iizuka. I really give her the credit for anything cool thing that’s happened to me, she’s the one. I grew up in Orange County, where there’s like zero theatre except for touring companies coming through the Ahmanson. The first play I saw was Starlight Express.
So I went to UC Santa Barbara, which is sorta like a huge party school and I wasn’t very happy there and it wasn’t what I was expecting or looking for but it ended up being a fine thing because senior year I met Naomi and she was my teacher and she was like the first working professional in the theatre I met. So I learned what it was actually like to have a career in the theatre. Because to me it was just people in books. Like Anne Bogart was someone you read about and this is someone who had worked with Anne Bogart and all the people I had read about. So I mean on that level she was super helpful.
She was also very much about getting into your voice, discovering what you have to say.
With Paula, she has a very different approach. She assumes you are already a writer. The way she articulates it to me, to everyone [is that] she’s not interested in accepting people into the program who are still struggling to find their voices.
So she’s more interested in sending back to you what you do. What you’re doing. Or who she believes you to be in dialogue with. Writers you’ve never heard of… In a way that’s like “I see a little Wedekind, I see a little Shepard, I see a little Howard Brenton” .
She doesn’t tell you how to write. She tells you what she sees in you and she has a very well polished pedagogy that she presents, a toolbox. She picks apart the elements of a play as she sees them. It’s not about what’s “good” or “right” it’s more about what kind of stories are you telling, what tools are you going to use.
Q: One thing I find interesting about your writing is this willingness to shift genre or trope or conventions immediately when necessary. With Sixty Miles, you’re watching this play about a father and a son and its very naturalistic and then all of a sudden they’re time traveling and we don’t know when we are in any given moment.
A: I feel very strongly about not playing with form for the sake of playing with form. I feel that it’s about “What do you need to tell this story in the best way possible?”.
Q: It seems like at Brown you learned the rules so you can deploy them, not so you know to obey them.
A: Yeah, exactly.
Q: I don’t think there’s a unified Vogel-student aesthetic, but I do think that there are aspects that several Brown writers share. One of them of course is the Impossible Stage Direction. Which I have to say In The Labyrinths is probably the impossibilist.
Q: Yeah. Anyway… What is it like to deal with those in a practical production way with Anne [Kauffman]? What issues are raised by staging the impossible?
A: Something like In The Labryinth, I wrote that play thinking very much about the stage life of the thing… whereas some of my earlier plays are like “Stage be damned! This is what I want” without really thinking entirely about how it would be done.
It may be expensive or improbably but it’s not impossible. The things that are improbable in the American Theatre are the things that I think are most crucial to its life. If you look at a play like In The Labyrinth. People are freaked out by it. People are freaked out by Origin Story too because it looks like a comic book and demands an attention to the visual from the very get go and that’s not how people are used to working.
I guess what I’m saying is I don’t see that sort of stuff as impossible, and it’s not “impossible” because I’ve seen it done. I don’t think it needs to be done with, like, Hollywood glitz, I’m actually more interested in it not being [done that way].
Q: So in Sixty Miles, now that you’re in this design workshop… I’m interested in what it’s like with you as a writer to work with a production team on how to visualize these things and make them happen?
A: I said to the designers that [the stage directions] are conversation starters. They’re invitations to collaborate, for collaboration. Maybe other writers are more prescriptive, I think people see them as prescriptive but they’re really there to get the imagination jump-started. I’m there to be like “let’s play”.
Anne wanted to do the re-write workshop before the design workshop and I said I wanted to do them at the same time. I felt the design process was really going to inform the rewrites of the play. I said this to the designers “We’re not going to know until we’re in the space and working this shit out, and I’m totally open to changing things around if its not going to read on stage.” It’s all about what is going to read in live space in real time.
Q: So all three of the shows of yours that I know deal very heavily with adolescence and teen sports. Is there something that draws you back to that well?
A: Every play I start to write I’m like “I’m not going to write about teenagers” or “It’s going to be about [only] adult figures”… I don’t know, I think it’s a deep well. For so long I felt that where I came from was really uninteresting. Like, my life experience wasn’t really worth talking about.
It was really Naomi who told me to start writing about myself more instead of trying to be clever or smart. I didn’t really integrate that advice until I started going to Brown because I realized there was a lot there and I started really getting into it. Now I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of it and I’m starting now to push away from it and try to find different territory that’s dangerous. I now find myself comfortable there. It’s time to find something else that makes me uncomfortable.
It’s easy for me to start writing teenagers; it’s becoming easy to write those kinds of characters. I’m trying to find new characters. One of the plays I’m working on now- well, it’s about California again which is another thing I’m trying to get away from- but I’m trying to write a play with a mother as the center of the play. I’ve written a lot about offstage mothers. I was raised by my mom. She’s very much a part of my life, but that kind of character is kept offstage, I tend to approach [mothers] in a kind of roundabout way. But now I want that character, or a character like her to talk. A lot. I’m curious to see what happens when I zero in on a mother character. It’s very hard and very scary.
Q: I want to give you an opportunity to talk about Sixty Miles To Silver Lake. Where did it come from? It seems very different from your other plays; it’s just two people in a car.
A: - A lot of my experience is with father figures. I had several step-parents. A lot of my memories of my dad are of him picking me up after soccer games or after school and going to his home on the weekends once a month or every two months depending on what was going on. I think those car rides were a really big part of my adolescence.
I wanted to write a play about a father. A father figure. How do you tell a father/son story in California? And to me it had to take place in a car. To me, that’s “dad-space”. Also, I spent a lot of time around my dad and in cars right before I wrote the play and I had that experience when you’re with your parents for an extended period of time where it’s like… you’re all ages simultaneously with them. You find yourself behaving like you did when you’re 12. And they’re behaving like they were when you were 12.
So I wanted to see how one might approach all of that in a play.
I knew I wanted to write about a father and a son in a car, driving to his house after a soccer game. But my challenge was how do you make that interesting? I try to- I don’t know, in a way, like dare myself, how do you write with one hand tied behind your back? What other stops do you have to pull out to accomplish that?
I was thinking a lot about Paula’s breakdown of plot forms, and about Caryl Churchill’s Blue/Heart. [Paula] talks about different plot forms. So a “Syllogistic” plot form is like in real time. Euripides or something. There’s no break in the action. It begins and ends as a real time event. I mean, Euripides is weird to accommodate that, people are offstage for like two minutes and it turns out they’ve climbed a mountain and had an adventure, but you know what I mean.
There’s another form “Synthetic Fragment” where all times are happening on stage sort of simultaneously. God’s Ear has a little of that. The husband is on a different plane of time than the wife etc. So I was interested in building a real-time syllogistic play that takes the exact amount of time as the drive to Silver Lake while the [Synthetic Fragment] thing was happening within it.
Q: So you’ve been out of grad school almost two years. There’s been a lot of hoopla about how the American Theatre treats its new writers. What has your experience been being a New Writer in the American Theatre? How has it been so far?
A: I’ve been very fortunate. Really, really fortunate. I don’t think I have much right to complain. There are things that frustrate me, but I don’t think I can complain given all the great opportunities working with amazing people I’ve had. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the system is broken. Because it’s pretty broken…I don’t get the whole writer in need of help thing. That attitude that’s really pervasive. Like we’re bringing in this crack team to help you create this piece of art? There’s an assumption that writers don’t know what they’re doing that’s very frustrating.
I think that’s starting to change… because a lot of people are banging their heads against it. Development is frustrating. But I’ve got this production, I’ve got a production in DC of Bruise Easy with Catalyst. They’re really cool. Do you have a more specific question?
Q: No no, I just write a lot about this stuff on my blog and look in to these issues and also as a director and producer there’s a very fine line between trying to figure a play out with a writer in ways that will probably inevitably lead to rewrites because questions arise, things don’t work, there are problems to solve. There’s a fine line between that and assembling a crack team of experts to help you write your play because you don’t know how to write it. The line is way fuzzier than I think anyone would like to think.
A: Well, there’s no system to talk about art.
A: Or to think you can codify it is naïve. Or at least disingenuous.
Q: Yeah, I think we want to codify it so we know what’s right and what’s wrong.
A: Yeah, but then it’d be commercial and capitalistic in a way that’s antithetical to art.
Q: Yeah, I agree, but we have this psychological need to know the right way to do something through this system, to protect ourselves and be like “well, you can’t be offended because we played by these rules”.
Q: It’s like the Liz Lehrman thing. It’s a codified system that only has so much use.
A: Yeah, it can be very restrictive. It’s useful for starting a conversation but you have to let go of those rules. There are so many brilliant amazing people in the American Theatre, including on the development end of things but it’s hard to remember that brilliant people can articulate something about your play that sounds really great and is perceptive but it’s also form their point of view and ultimately you’ve got to know what you believe to be true and false about your work. They’re telling you what they see and it’s convincing. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s hard to know who to listen to and how to not doubt yourself, particularly when you’re a young, [unproven] writer, people are less willing to trust you, to go with you because they don’t know what you’re doing.
Q: How have you found working with P73?
A: I love them. I met them a little while ago. They were doing this kind of this residency at Yale, they started this thing where they bring in a little group of writers to go to New Haven and they invited me to work on whatever I wanted to last summer… P73 read this play when it was a lot rougher than it is now and had a lot more crazy elements and that they were wanting to do it with like that weird shit going on was really encouraging.