Larissa FastHorse is one of the playwrights participating in Center Stage’s Wright Now Play Later project, which kicks off today. I had a chance to chat with FastHorse last month, when she was in town participating in another one of Center Stage’s projects in support of new works and new writing, the Play Lab. The fall Play Lab featured Larissa’s work-in-progress, The Thanksgiving Play. In The Thanksgiving Play, a diverse group of four well-meaning people set out to “devise a politically correct school play that can somehow sensitively celebrate both Thanksgiving and Native American Month.” The results are both hilarious and poignant. The play hits on weighty issues such as privilege, representation and appropriation, but never loses its sense of humor as the enthusiastic group tries to achieve the impossible.
Patricia: I enjoyed watching the Center Stage Play Lab reading of your work-in-progress, The Thanksgiving Play. How did you come to have it presented as a staged reading here in Baltimore?
Larissa: I have gotten to know Artistic Director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, as a fellow member of the Board of Directors for Theater Communications Group. Then Center Stage commissioned me to write a piece for the My America, Too project. Through that process I got to know Gavin Witt, who runs Play Lab. He called me this year and asked if I had a comedy I wanted to workshop. It just so happened that I did.
Were you pleased with how the play was presented and received?
I am thrilled with the support I got from Center Stage, the actors and the audiences in Baltimore. It was my first time to the city and I didn’t know what to expect. The diversity of folks in the audience was great to see. We had such a variety of ages, races, politics and theater experience in the room for the readings. Lots of people stayed to share their thoughts, which is great. And having three audiences is a gift in the development of any play but especially a comedy. I can sit around giggling at my own jokes all day, but that doesn’t mean they play in a room.
When did you start writing the piece?
I first wrote this piece a year ago in Ireland of all places. Joe Haj at the Guthrie gave me the Joe Dowling Annamakerrig Fellowship to go to Tyronne Guthrie’s estate in Ireland and work on anything I wanted. The estate is a gorgeous country home that has been turned into a state run artist retreat. I came up with the concept for the play before I left and did a couple weeks of intense research in preparation. Once I got there I became concerned about writing such an “American” play because all the voices in my head were speaking with Irish accents. But once I acclimated and got to know some of the artists who are original Irish I discovered how many things we have in common as colonized people. I began to feel right at home and banged out the first draft in ten days.
Process-wise, do you make outlines or index cards to plot the action, or do you just see where an idea takes you?
I write very organically. When I am ready to write a new play I do a ton of reading, talking to people, going to museums and long walks until something grabs my interest enough that I want to spend the next three years thinking about it. Then I research like crazy for a set period of time. My parents instilled a love of reading and research in me at an early age so I can get stuck in research land forever if I don’t set a limit. During that time a world appears in my head. Then characters start to show up. Once they begin talking to each other I sit down and start typing. I don’t let myself stop until I get to the end of the play. When I start I rarely know what it’s about or how it will end. I call that my “puke draft.” I was given a wonderful piece of advice on my first play, “Start out with the goal of writing a bad play. You can fix bad but you can’t fix nothing.” That takes all of the pressure off. If your goal is bad, that’s a pretty easy target to hit. From there I start the long process of fixing it.
Is there a typical or average amount of time that it takes for you to work on a play, from concept to production-ready?
I’m fortunate that I’ve worked under commission most of my career so I have imposed deadlines and a time line to fulfill. I’ve had a commission turn around in eight months from start to production, and I have another one that’s been going for six years. So it really depends on the project and the requirements. For the plays I write on my own, I turn them around as fast as possible. My husband and I are both self-employed artists, so every week I spend on something that isn’t under commission is a week without a paycheck.
You said the Play Lab reading was using script draft 2.5 of The Thanksgiving Play. How many drafts do you typically end up writing before a play is complete?
I’m afraid to count drafts because I would get discouraged and quit. I’m also someone who’s never satisfied, so I will rewrite as long as the director and actors can handle it. I was asked once to send all of my plays and their drafts to an archive in a university. When I saw how many drafts were in the files I couldn’t do it. I ended up sending the first and last and maybe one random one in the middle. Since I don’t know what my plays are about when I start them, the first draft tends to be really short. Then I add in endless layers, draft after draft, as I learn more about the piece.
Since the Play Lab, you’ve moved on to Portland, OR to continue work on the play through a Table/Room/Stage Finishing Commission at Artists Repertory Theatre. Has the play undergone substantive changes since you received the feedback in Baltimore?
It was fantastic to have these two workshops back to back. In Baltimore, I did a lot of rewriting, but knowing I had another week and audience in Portland took the pressure off. There were scenes I wasn’t sure how to fix, and instead of making myself and the actors crazy with rewrites I wasn’t confident in, I focused on the ones that were coming easier. In Portland, I tackled all of those unsure places. In several of them I discovered that the fix was smaller than I originally thought, but I did layer in a lot of new character depth and one entirely new scene.
How do you know when a script is done?
The script is never done to me. When my first script was published I was horrified at the concept because it is so final. I calmed down by telling myself that this draft simply represents a moment in time. It can change in the future, but this is where the play is now.
I understand there was a recurring kind of conversation about your work that inspired you to write The Thanksgiving Play. Can you please describe what that was?
I’m gonna get myself fired from American theater for telling this story. The reality is that the number one reason that I’m given for my plays not getting produced is casting. My past plays have all had at least one Indigenous character in them, and theaters believe they can’t find actors for the parts. (We can debate about this for a long time, but this is what I am told, often after they have already passed.) I know that American audiences are hungry to learn more about Native American issues through art because otherwise they don’t learn about them in this country. So, I set a challenge for myself to write a play that deals with Native American issues and in a way that removes the excuse of casting difficulty from the equation. I wish this was not a necessary step to get Indigenous stories into the cannon, but this is where we are. However, I do like this play very much, and it is getting produced.
The Thanksgiving Play comedically highlights the perceived problems with using Native American writers and actors or even telling the stories of Indigenous people. Why are these perceptions false?
Due to the policies of intentional erasure of Indigenous peoples from this continent, many Americans are incredibly ignorant about the Indigenous people around them. Many Indigenous people live on reservations that are intentionally remote, and some of those that live in urban areas are justifiably wary of the dominant culture so they keep a low profile. Those factors and so many more, perpetuate the myth of the vanishing Indian. However, we’re still here. For example, I did a workshop with a theater company who warned me that they could only fly in one of my two Native characters, and they didn’t have local Native actors to play the other role. I agreed to the workshop without a Native actor, but requested that first they ask their community for Native actors and give them a chance. They discovered that one actor they had been working with for three years was Native American and one of the actors that had been cast as a Caucasian character in the play was also Native American. No one had ever asked the actors before because it had never come up because no Native roles had been in the season. That sort of thing happens all the time. Don’t make assumptions; ask and educate yourself.
What do well-meaning allies need to know to help avoid sensitivity-born paralysis?
Take some responsibility for your own ignorance and get educated. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s through mistakes that we learn. I hear this scenario far too often: “We produced a Native play/character once and a Native actor/patron got really upset so we haven’t done another one.” I then ask, “Have you ever had a white actor/patron get really upset?” “Of course.” “Did that make you stop producing all white plays/characters?” “No.”
I don’t know why well-meaning allies have this all-or-nothing response, but it has to end.
You’ve said that the last act of your plays takes place “on the drive home.” What do you hope audiences will be talking about as they’re making their way home from seeing The Thanksgiving Play?
I go to the theater to engage with the world. Otherwise I could stay home and watch TV. So as a playwright I want to encourage as much engagement as possible. My plays get into your head and make you think differently about yourself or something you thought you knew. They don’t give answers but ask questions. They are intentionally open for interpretation in parts. I won’t say what I specifically want you to be talking about after this play, but if you are talking or thinking, I hope you take that as the gift I intend it to be.
You’ve noted that, even growing up in South Dakota, the only specific Native American history you learned at school was in a single Native American month. And that, as a ballet dancer, you were sort of steeped in white American culture. How did you become so connected with your Native American ancestry?
In South Dakota, Native Americans, specifically my Lakota people, are everywhere. I was fortunate that my parents provided strong Lakota role models through my childhood. I continue to seek out teachers as an adult. I had very little formal education about Indigenous people, but I did have a lot of one on one education and continue to seek out educational opportunities.
You’ve been a delegate to the United Nations in Geneva; you’re a sought-after commentator on diversity and Native American representation; and you’ve been dubbed a “theater activist” by NPR’s John Horn. Was there an event or epiphany that radicalized you or is this all just a natural consequence of being a Native American female playwright?
Ha. People often ask me if I’m a “political playwright.” I don’t have a choice. By virtue of being a Native American female in theater, I can write about dogs and cats and people see it as a political statement because my point of view isn’t seen as coming from the dominant culture even though I grew up in the very white world of ballet. However, I have embraced that perceived voice as a unique way I can contribute to the world. American theater has been so good to me, and I am constantly amazed at the encouragement I am given to ask harder questions and tackle difficult subjects. It’s an honor to be given these opportunities. I take the responsibility to be a bridge and make real life difference in the world through art very seriously.
Through the course of your writing career, have you seen progress in the theater or film/TV world in regard to the inclusion of Indigenous people in the narrative?
Yes. There are more and more Indigenous writers, directors and actors gaining visibility in that world. However, American theater is rocking by comparison. So many Indigenous playwrights are commissioned and being produced in the next few years. It’s such an exciting time!
What’s next for The Thanksgiving Play?
I’m not allowed to give specifics yet, but there is a production scheduled next season and another one is possible. Hopefully these are the first of many! I’m also doing another workshop of it early next year as a Core Writer at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.
What’s next for you?
Yikes, I can’t remember half the time. To finish out this year I’ve got a one act commission that’s being produced by The Eagle Project in New York City. I’m workshopping What Would Crazy Horse Do? with Lisa Peterson for a May production with Kansas City Rep. I’ve got a rewrite due for Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis and a new commission for AlterTheatre. I’m also directing and dramaturging for Perseverance Theater Company. In my spare time, there’s exciting work for my consulting company, Indigenous Direction.
Where can readers learn more about you and you work?
www.hoganhorsestudio.com. I try to keep the calendar page up to date, and people can always contact me through the site.
Thanks so much for coming to the reading and giving me the opportunity to talk about such a new work! Pilamaya.
Larissa FastHorse is an award-winning playwright, director, choreographer, and performer based in Santa Monica. Larissa was awarded the NEA Distinguished New Play Development Grant, Joe Dowling Annamaghkerrig Fellowship, AATE Distinguished Play Award, Inge Residency, Sundance/Ford Foundation Fellowship, Aurand Harris Fellowship, and numerous Ford and NEA Grants. Larissa’s produced plays include Urban Rez, Landless, Average Family, Teaching Disco Squaredancing to Our Elders: a Class Presentation, and Cherokee Family Reunion. She has written commissions for Cornerstone Theatre Company, Artists Rep Portland, Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, AlterTheater, Kennedy Center TYA, Native Voices at the Autry and Mountainside Theatre. She developed plays with Kansas City Rep, Artist Rep Portland, Arizona Theater Company, the Center Theatre Group Writer’s Workshop, and Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor. She is a current a member of the Playwrights’ Center Core Writers, Playwright’s Union, Director’s Lab West 2015, Theatre Communications Group board of directors and is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and Sicangu Lakota Nation.
See Your Stories Made Into Theater: Center Stage’s ‘Wright Now Play Later’ Starts TODAY by Patricia Mitchell.