Playwrights’ Center Core Writer Larissa FastHorse is in town this week, doing research for her History Theatre commission about the Dakota War of 1862 with the help of research assistant Sequoia Hauck. We asked Larissa some questions:
Last year you came out to the PWC to work on your bitingly funny The Thanksgiving Play. What was that workshop like for you?
It was a productive workshop that moved the play forward a great deal. We defined so much that had been unknown in that week. I love Twin Cities actors and got to work with several of my favorites who gave their all to the work! We also changed the production casting of one of the characters based on the gifts of one of the workshop actors. We saw the character in a whole new light.
Can you tell us a bit about your commission from History Theatre about the Dakota War of 1862? How are you approaching this topic?
The company has been working with various writers on this topic for several commissions but they had not found the right fit yet. As a Lakota person, who considers the Dakota family, I have always wanted to write a play that explores that difficult topic. My mother’s family is from New Ulm, Minnesota, so I have grown up with hearing many sides of that time in history.
When I work with the history of any Native population, I always start by going to the community and asking them what story they want told on their land. I start with interviews and oral history then go to written history so that I am reading with the oral history as my context instead of the other way around. We are taking a longer development process with this piece because the theater wants to be sure they are doing the best they can for the local Native community. Which is really remarkable considering what a small theater company they are. Much larger budget companies around the country do not put this much time and effort into telling these stories.
What does humor help you to do in your plays?
Humor is essential to my work. Even my darkest plays have very dark humor. Many of the subjects I am writing about are quite dark and need a release valve or it’s just torture. Additionally, my goal is to change the way people think after they leave the theater, so humor is an excellent way to unite an audience and let them approach a new thought from a familiar and welcome place, laughter.
What is your favorite place to write?
Anywhere but my apartment! I become the world’s best housekeeper. I have a lovely office at Cornerstone Theater Company and that works really well for me, packing a lunch and going to work.
How do you write about political or social issues without becoming didactic?
I approach politics and social issues though character over plot or ideas. I humanize characters that have very different ideas or issues and present them in a realistic way that is relatable and approachable for the audience. One human’s deep beliefs and passionate actions are interesting. A pamphlet telling people what to do and think is dull.
Your play Urban Rez is an immersive theater experience. How do you approach writing an immersive play? What makes an immersive theater piece successful?
Man, I could write a book on developing that one play. Fortunately, we have the funding to turn it into a touring production so we get to do it all again starting in Arizona at ASU Gammage.
For the original, I spent three years with Cornerstone Theater Company and director Michael John Garcés doing community story circles so we had an ample amount of material. And you need a TON of material to do an immersive play. It was five plays at once with other large elements woven in. The hardest part was actually figuring out how to put things on paper. How do we write and read the script? How do you make a scene chart? How does the SM diagram the blocking? How do we write out and call the cues? How do designers track all this paper the same way so we are speaking the same language in meetings? It was incredible how much time we spent designing papers.
For us the success of Urban Rez was so many things that had nothing to do with us. There were many community elements that we did not curate but trusted to stand on their own and they did. But that is really the heart of what we strove to do for the whole production, take away the rules of theater. We worked hard to strip away any expectations of what was going to happen or how people should engage with the art and each other. Each audience made their own “rules” of engagement and it was amazing. The different ways people engaged with the work, the community pieces, and each other was inspiring and always different. If I could spread that trust in the audience to all of theater, I would feel like I had done a huge service to the world.
What do you do when you’re stuck on something you’re writing?
Usually take a walk or do yoga. I trust that being stuck means my brain is trying to figure something out so I get into my body and leave my brain alone so that it can work out whatever the problem is.
What were you like as a kid?
I have no idea. Which is bad because I’m writing an autobiographical play right now. I just went into a serious writer doubt crisis. Thanks.
What is the most thrilling artistic experience you’ve had recently?
One I went to or one I had as an artist in my work? I guess I can’t pick one from my own work because I get to have so many. I mean my life is literally one tear-inducing, breath-taking, I-can’t-believe-I-get-to-do-this artistic moment after another.
I was quite thrilled recently by Jeanne Sakata’s We Hold These Truths at Pasadena Playhouse. I tend to be disappointed by much of the theater I see, but that piece took me completely by surprise.
What do you wish someone would have told you about playwriting that you had to learn the hard way?
How to say no. I’m still terrible at it. We come from this field of scarcity thinking that tells us to take any opportunity. Fortunately I have an amazing agent and manager who both keep me on track to build the career I want and be the kind of artist I want to be. Just this fall I had committed to several workshops that they encouraged me to cancel because I need to stay home and write. I felt horrible telling people that I had made a mistake and over-extended myself, but as soon as I did it a weight of stress lifted off my shoulders. Being busy and being successful aren’t the same thing.