Ginger Lazarus is the Boston-local playwright for Burning, a hot new play with multiple 2013 Boston My Theatre Award nominations for its Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production. Also a professor of playwriting and screenwriting at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Ginger is a smart, provocative, and engaging playwright with several successes in Boston and across the country. In her interview, she talks about Burning, the play’s many re-drafts, the crazy mix of writers who she’d invite to dinner, and her newest work.
Ginger, thank you so much for participating in our Nominee Interview Series. Can you tell us about Burning? How did you develop the play? What is the plot? What is the play’s production history?
Burning started as a project with Queer Soup, a wonderful fringe company I have worked with several times. Jess Martin, one of the QS members, suggested that we write a pair of queer-themed one-acts together, and I put forth this idea of writing a lesbian version of Cyrano de Bergerac. So that’s how I conceived the character of Cy and the story of her unspoken love for Rose. Cy appeared in my mind as someone gifted with words, and also very tough and hardened by adversity. And thus her military background emerged, and that raised the specter of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” which fits absolutely with the theme of silence and truths unspoken.
The story takes place three years after Cy’s discharge from the Army. She runs a general store in a remote town near an Army base, and stirs up controversy by blogging about abuses and corruption in the military. Before she can confess her secret admiration of Rose, Rose sets her sights on Cole, a soldier on the base. Cole, who has “trouble talking,” seeks Cy’s help, and Cy takes on the thorny task of ghost-writing Cole and Rose’s courtship. At the same time, she confronts ghosts from her Army past, going toe-to-toe with her former commander in a dangerous hunt for the truth.
The very first version of Burning was a one-act. After the initial staged reading, two things happened: 1) I realized it had to be expanded to full length, and 2) Kate Snodgrass of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre expressed interest, and committed to help develop the play. Three years and many drafts and readings later, it was finally ready for the stage.
Mal Malme, also a member of Queer Soup, read the part of Cy from the very beginning, and was completely integral to the play’s development. It was such a thrill and an honor to finally see her bring this character to life on stage.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? How is theatre a part of your life? What is your training or background?
I’m a life-long denizen of the Boston area. I got involved in theater at a tender age, acting in musicals and plays all through school, and I began writing stories even earlier. I wrote my first play during my senior year of high school and found it to be the ultimate thrill. My path took me to study Theater and Women’s Studies at Wesleyan, and then on to a Masters in Playwriting at BU.
I’ve worked in publishing and as a freelance writer. Right now, I teach playwriting and screenwriting at U Mass Boston as my “day job.” And I’m married, and a mom to two energetic young children. Somehow, I manage.
Why is Burning an important play right now? Why should we continue to watch and discuss the play?
While it’s encouraging that our society, in general, is moving toward much greater acceptance of LGBT folks, and that serious issues like military sexual assault and homophobia are receiving some long-overdue attention, these problems aren’t disappearing any time soon. In my research, I read and heard about horrible, horrible crimes and the absolutely staggering impunity with which the military leadership managed to cover them up and evade responsibility. There’s still a lot of truth that needs to be brought to light.
That being said, it was never my intention to convey some one-sided, military-bashing point of view. Cy was an outstanding soldier who served proudly, and would have gone on serving if certain horrible things hadn’t happened. That’s what makes the injustice and abuse even more devastating: it often wrecks the careers, or the lives, of dedicated service members who love their jobs and believe deeply in what they are doing. The military is home, family, and way of life to a lot of people. I hope this play sparks some dialogue about the place of the military in our society and how we can make it live up to its own ideals.
What changes have you made to the play since its concept? Why did you make these changes? What is the hardest part about editing?
The play started out sounding more like a romantic comedy, which made the tragic ending rather jarring. I had to pull back a lot of the humor to make it work…though not all, because some of the humor, especially Cy’s zinging wit, really serves the play. Finding the right balance between humor and pathos was hard. Also hard was figuring out the right details for Cy’s backstory. That was important because this past tragedy is what motivates Cy and shapes her feelings toward Rose. The scenes with Colonel Dulac, Cy’s former commander, probably got rewritten more than any others. Even though his actions are horrible, I worked hard on making him less of a stereotypical, finger-tenting villain and more of a real person who does what he thinks is the right thing. He represents the Army in the play, so it was important to show that he and Cy once had a good relationship, that she once trusted him, and that he did what he did partly because he valued her abilities as a soldier. That makes the betrayal all the more painful.
Why did you choose to base this story on the classic Cyrano de Bergerac? What were some challenges about basing it on a classic story? What were some of the benefits?
I fell in love with CDB in high school. I think what I and many other people find captivating is the story of unrequited love—a person who feels unlovable for some reason, who would rather help someone else court the object of their affections than risk revealing themselves. It’s tragic and painful and terribly relatable…how many people have loved someone out of their reach?
You always invite comparison by basing your story on a classic, so that can be scary. Right from the beginning, I swore an oath of disloyalty to the original: I resolved to take what worked and change whatever I needed to in order to tell this new story. I think the play really succeeded in that regard. Obviously it retains a lot of the Cyrano plot, but it goes in new directions too. It’s more like a dialogue or dance between the two. I wouldn’t call it an adaptation. More like a reimagining.
Tell us about your other works. Are they also based on classic stories? How do you develop the stories or concepts for the plays?
Burning is in many ways a profound departure from my other works. My last three full-length plays were much more farcical and absurdist. Talking embryos and things like that. Humor (usually absurdist, black humor) was my main lens as a playwright for a while; I guess that might be shifting now. Either way, I generally start with a whimsical premise of some kind—“what if this crazy thing happens?”—and go from there.
I do have a couple other plays that are in dialogue with iconic stories or classic works. I wrote a one-act called Mary that re-imagined the Annunciation with a modern-day feminist law student as the chosen vessel. She has some objections.
If you could have breakfast with any famous writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you talk about? Who would pay?
Only one? I’d like to get Anton Chekhov, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, and Paula Vogel together, and then sit back and listen. I would totally pick up the tab for that.
What advice would you give to developing playwrights? Directors who direct new plays?
To playwrights: all the learning happens in production, so make that happen as much as you can. Self-producing is actually a great option, if you have the stomach and the resources for it. Next to doing the actual writing, finding good collaborators is your most important task. To directors: what will make you a good collaborator is your commitment to understanding and realizing the playwright’s vision. Your feedback on the play and your ability to translate it into three dimensions are immensely valuable to the process; still, always keep your ears open to what the playwright wants to say.
How involved were you in the productions of Burning? Would you say this is common for you? Why do you choose this level of participation?
My experience with Burning at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre is pretty close to what I would consider the ideal process for play development. I’d bring in a draft, Kate would round up a bunch of terrific actors, we’d read through it, and I’d go away with a ton of feedback to write the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat. I kept revising right through the rehearsal process, bringing in new versions, working through them, and sometimes going back and rewriting once again. It’s exhausting, but that’s how it gets done. I wouldn’t choose to do it any other way, especially for the first production of a play. I can’t possibly finish it until I see it on its feet and get input from the director and actors. I was blessed with an amazing team for Burning; Steve Bogart, the director, is a friend and a great collaborator. The actors were all wonderful and generous and open to working with evolving material.
Is there anything on which you’re currently working? Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
I’m writing a new play now. It’s still in the very rough stages. A drama, though much less political than Burning. It’s about a housekeeper who goes to work for a family after the wife/mother dies.
What is one thing that you hope to change about the theatre with your works? How are you developing a new canon or collection of American plays and theatre?
I would be happy if my work just gets more people excited about going to the theater to see locally grown plays, and helps to raise levels of support for new work in general.
You’ve done an amazing job on Burning. How do you choose to treat yourself for your successes and accomplishments?
Oh, I have a strong Puritan streak in me. It’s always right back to the grindstone! Actually, one of the great rewards of Burning has been the enduring friendships from the process, and also the new connections I’ve made with folks who were drawn in and deeply moved by the play. Seems like I’ve been having a lot of great conversations over coffee, lunch, or drinks lately. It’s a treat to spend time with my wonderful theater community.
If you could describe yourself in one word, what word would you choose?
I can’t! I’m far too verbose and wishy-washy for this question. Maybe “verbose.” Or “wishy-washy.” Or something that means both of those at the same time.
What are some of your favourite stories? Why do you choose these stories? Do you have particular medium to which you are drawn more than others (TV, film, plays, novels, non-fiction)?
I love all media, in theory. In practice, I go to a lot of plays because I love plays and because it’s my job to see them; everything else I have sorely neglected since I had children. (Except kids’ books and movies. I saw Frozen for the second time tonight.) I love TV with strong characters and great storytelling . . . I think Firefly was the last series I got all the way through. I gravitate toward sci-fi and fantasy; imaginary worlds captivate me. Paradoxically, I’m also gripped by intense realism and stories about actual or historically based struggle. Novels like The Kite Runner and non-fiction like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I’m eternally shattered by what we humans inflict on each other and moved by how some manage to survive even the worst of it.
Do you have anything else that you wish to share with our readers?
I’m honored by the nominations Burning has received and grateful for the attention that My Entertainment World is bringing to the wonderful Boston theater scene!