Liz Duffy Adams, whose brilliant and unusual work with language on Dog Act won her the 2005 Glickman Award, will soon return to the Bay Area from New York to oversee the world premiere her newest play, The Listener, a PF Producing Partnership Initiative with Crowded Fire. Ms. Adams is also an experienced teacher and a favorite among her students. Her class will focus on utilizing the Tao Te Ching as springboard for work on a play – new or in progress—a process she has practiced for years. “It’s not a spiritual journey,” says Ms. Adams, “but a practical one.”
PF asked Ms. Adams more about how the Tao te Ching influences her work:
PF: You're coming into town for the premiere of your play The Listener. Can you talk about the development of this piece?
LDA: I began it in spring 2005 after having been thinking about it for a while. I was asked to write a 10-minute play for a PlayGround benefit, and I figured I could use that deadline to create a sketch for the longer play and begin to think about it. I wrote it at the Djerassi Artists Retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains where I had a month’s residency. Out away from anything else at Djerassi there’s a beautiful ramshackle old barn, looks like it’s ready to fall down. When you go inside though you see that supporting the old wood is a newer framework of metal, and a poured concrete floor. It’s a strangely powerful space to enter, almost like a rough raw cathedral with light glinting through the cracks. Anyway, that influenced the idea of Listener’s house. I finished the full length version at home in New York, had a reading at New Dramatists, then a workshop at Portland Center Stage’s JAW/West festival in summer 2006, which Kent Nicholson came up and directed.
PF: Your class in the New Play Institute is on the Tao of Playwriting. How did you begin to use the Tao in your work?
LDA: A few years ago in the Strand bookstore in NY I opened a copy of the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao te Ching—I’d read an earlier translation years earlier and it had left me cold—and was transported. I’ve reread it a hundred times since and it always has the same effect. I forget about it for periods of time but I always bring it with me when I travel—as a kind of totem—so I have it with me at writers retreats and residencies, and at one of them I began reading a page aloud to myself every morning before starting to write. I found two things invariably happen: I am struck—as though learning it for the first time—with something true and profound and practical and liberating about the process I’m about to engage with, and I’m shifted subtly and instantly into a receptive state of mind to do the work. It never fails. I’ve used other books to consciously influence myself in the moment of writing (Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium) but for me the Tao te Ching is the most uniquely transformative on multiple levels. And though that particular way of using it won’t work for everyone, or not with this particular book, through the practice of using it that way and associating its meaning with the work of writing, I’ve learned some possibly useful things about playwriting and the creative act that I hope I can share.
PF: Who are the playwrights who have most influenced your work? Who among your peers are you most excited about?
LDA: I’m never too sure about the word influence; it feels presumptuous to claim it and maybe it’s not really for me to say. But the one playwright I’ve been most inspired by and studied most—taken as a sort of mentor, however egregiously ineptly—is Shakespeare: the most radical experimental playwright of all time. I studied Shakespeare intensively for years as a young actor and that was the beginning of my playwright’s training, though I didn’t know it then. And I’ve been inspired by Chekhov, Beckett, Behn, Churchill, Mac Wellman. There are so many exciting people writing now I could fill a page with names but some who spring to mind are Anne Washburn, Lisa D’Amour, Young Jean Lee, Gordon Dahlquist, Glen Berger, David Grimm, and Bay Area regulars Marcus Gardley, Christine Evans, and Dominic Orlando. And there are a lot of non-playwrights that inspire me: science fiction writers (Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh, Samuel R. Delaney), comic book writers (Neil Gaiman, Walt Kelly, Joss Whedon), novelists (Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter), lyricists (Elvis Costello, Cole Porter), artists (most recently Takashi Murakami), composers (Beethoven, baby!), non-fiction writers (Alan Weisman: The World Without Us)… on and on. And just life. People talking. That’s plenty inspiring.
PF: What's up next for you?
LDA: Working on a pirate musical for Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis; a musical version of The Listener; a new play about Aphra Behn (called Or,); and messing around with a couple of non-theatrical projects.