By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant
Born and raised in Detroit shortly after the infamous 12th Street Riots, Barbara Lhota is not afraid to confront issues of identity in her plays. Girl Found is a charged character study about damage and survival set fittingly in present-day Detroit, where past conflicts shine a light on contemporary strife. In her own words, “what people perceive as truth is flexible when what they desire – approval, safety, love – is on the line.”
Girl Found is populated with fierce female characters so it’s not surprising that Barbara is also an Artistic Associate with Babes with Blades Theatre Company. While her plays range in style Barbara manages to balance the dark and often cruel word that her characters inhabit with moments of hope and the possibility for redemption. We are excited to bring Girl Found to life as part of the Dionysos Cup Festival (July 9 – 19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center) and have asked Barbara to share her thoughts on writing, life, and theater:
AA: How did you get your start playwriting?
BL: I was an actor and in speech throughout high school and college. I realized at some point that I was pretty shy when it comes down to it. It was hard for me to risk as an actor. Somehow writing the story felt more natural to my personality and I was more willing to take those risks in the story-telling.
AA: Are there particular storytellers that have influenced you?
BL: Theresa Rebeck, who I went to school with at Brandeis and convinced me that that was the place to apply, was and is a big influence. I’m influenced by documentaries in general and Ira Glass from This American Life. I’m intrigued by true life stories that have rich, vulnerable, flawed characters. Arthur Miller is also a big influence on my work. Arthur Miller wrote eloquently about regular people: lives and conflicted choices with ramifications that resonate from the personal to world tragedy. All My Sons breaks my heart and is a perfectly structured, timeless play. I remember the big tobacco families like R. J. Reynolds repeating the business mantra “cigarettes don’t cause cancer” while watching their family members, faithful smokers, die and I thought, it’s still all so relevant.
AA: When you aren’t writing, how do you spend time?
BL: I watch a lot of documentaries. I see a lot of theater. I also work as a market research manager in a corporate environment. I listen to a ton of podcasts…Invisibilia, Radio Lab, This American Life. Snap Judgment…etc. I think they are heavily influential because they tend to be true life stories and stories about human behavior.
AA: Speaking of true life, why did you choose Detroit as the setting for Girl Found?
BL: I grew up in Detroit. I watched a lot of false hope for the city. I also experienced the slow decay of the buildings and the beauty of hope.
AA: Were there any real events or people who inspired you?
BL: The documentary The Imposter. Frédéric Bourdin was a clever French imposter who pretended to be a missing boy from Texas. Bourdin was nearly 15 years older than the missing boy and did not look a bit like the kid but the family believed him. It’s just fascinating and strange. Anyone he didn’t fool stayed quiet. It reminds me of the old children’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I have always been interested in that story.
AA: Are there specific challenges when writing about real events?
BL: One of the challenges I find with true life stories, particularly when they are strange, is that folks say that couldn’t happen when it did, it does. I love working with true life events because they give you a framework to riff off of.
AA: What were some other challenges unique to this process?
BL: The fact that I have created a character who speaks in monologues to a disembodied voice has some challenges for staging and the actors. It’s particularly suited to this process because I can test how well it works and play with it without the fear of critical opprobrium.
AA: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given as a writer or artist in general?
BL: Follow your own instincts.
AA: This is the second year in a row that the Dionysos Cup features all female playwrights, is this significant?
BL: I think it’s wonderful to be among such talent. I’m glad women playwrights are starting to be recognized more. I feel like our stories can sometimes be less linear and I wonder if that structure has been less familiar in the past. As that structure becomes more familiar and the decision-makers/producers are more mixed gender, I think women’s stories will continue to move center stage.
AA: So what do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
My ultimate goal is to have audiences walk away from the play asking themselves questions: “Why did this family believe this?” “What makes us vulnerable to seeing what we want to see?” “What would make a young woman want to manipulate others when her only gain is purely emotional?” Hopefully their responses are complex and varied.
2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.
This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; and The Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.
The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.