INTERVIEW: Playwright Lisa Loomer

Playwright Lisa Loomer discusses her new play, Distracted, currently playing at American Theatre Company through February 28th.

Interview by Keith Ecker 

th_tn-500_loomerwm151222666 It’s hard to keep up with Lisa Loomer. The prolific playwright’s work has been produced around the globe in such countries as Germany, Mexico, Israel and Egypt. She’s the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a handful of awards. In addition, her plays The Waiting Room—which is about the effects of cosmetic body modification on women—and Living Out—a piece that explores the relationship between a Salvadoran nanny and the Anglo lawyer for whom she works—are both taught in women’s studies and Latino studies programs.

Always one to gain inspiration from personal experience, it is only natural that Loomer would incorporate this idea of busyness in a play. Her piece Distracted, which is receiving its Chicago premier at American Theatre Company, explores the themes of sensory and information overload in our society, and more specifically, Attention Deficit Disorder. The conduits for the story are a husband, wife and their fidgety 8-year-old son. It’s part of the ATC’s 25th season, which explores the identity of the American family.


ChicagoTheaterBlog: American Theatre Company’s 25th season focuses on the American family. How do you think Distracted fits into this theme?

Loomer: Well, I think it fits all too well. Aside from the increasing number of children diagnosed with ADD and the huge rise in the number of psychiatric drug prescriptions written for children, it’s about how we live right now—our world of screens, our fractured attention spans, our need for stimulation and the effects on the family.

CTB: Distracted premiered in 2007. A lot has happened in the U.S. since then, including the election of our first multi-racial president, the collapse of our economy and, of course, the health care debate. Do you think in light of these historical changes, the play has taken on new significance?

Loomer: I think the play is about a society in a mad rush to keep up. I heard it in the State of The Union speech the other night, “We must keep up with China, with India, we cannot be second.” We need our stimulants and other drugs, our ever-changing Windows, our quick cuts, our frenetic rap. They keep us going. And as we fall behind in the world, as we see ourselves as struggling, I think it makes us run even faster. In terms of health care, I’m afraid I do see the drug companies as preying on this need of ours to perform, to be the best.

CTB: Distracted deals with issues related to ADD. What is it about our contemporary culture that has destroyed our attention spans? Is it Facebook, Twitter, 24-hour news cycles, etc.?

Loomer: Well, first of all, let me say that I do not believe ADHD is simply a cultural phenomenon. Scientists have isolated genes that are involved in ADHD. It is quite real, and I would never minimize its impact on the people who have it or their teachers or families. Whether it is a “difference” or a “disorder” is a question that I pose in the play. And I believe that what is a “difference” in the context of one society might be a “disorder” or “dysfunction” in another. That said, I do think that Xboxes and Twitter and the barrage of 24-hour news, etc. has had an effect on our attention spans. It’s harder to sit still, to contemplate, to wait and to pay attention. And what is attention? For me it is the ability to be present with someone without judgment. And that’s even harder to do when you’re distracted.

CTB: What themes are pervasive throughout your work? Why do you feel you focus on these concepts? Is it a conscious effort?

Loomer: I tend to be moved to write when something bugs me. I seem to have written a lot about balance or the need for balance—the balance of masculine versus feminine, nature versus science, Anglo culture versus Latino culture, the powerful versus the powerless, life versus art. It wasn’t conscious, no. But after a while it became clear even to me.

CTB: Tell me about your writing process. Where do you get your ideas, and how do you flesh them out into a full piece?

Loomer: I tend to get ideas by what I see around me. I wrote Living Out when my son was little and I spent a lot of time in the park, listening to both nannies and moms. I wrote The Waiting Room when the dangers of breast implants were in the news and a friend also wanted me to do something on Chinese foot binding and my mother was dying of cancer. I’m writing now about Israel and Palestine because, well, I read the papers and because I get a dozen passionate e-mails everyday from both sides. Once I do have an idea or an impetus or I’m pissed off enough, a character will appear in my mind and start talking and taking action. And then other characters will appear and start to disagree and get in the way. Once I have a first draft, I will say, “Now what does this want to be about?” And I’ll start to shape.

CTB: You’ve done stand-up comedy. Do you still perform stand-up today? How has this influenced your playwriting?

Loomer: I did stand up, political mostly, for a very short time. Mostly, when I did comedy, it was one-person shows in the vein of Lilly Tomlin. I was an actress, and character comedy and working in political-comedy/performance groups was part of being an actress for me. If stand-up influenced me at all, it made me appreciate the value of cutting. Being an actress had a far greater impact on me as a playwright.

CTB: What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights who wish to see their work produced?

Loomer: Well, my advice is always write what you have to write, write what is yours to write and never write to please or be “popular.” Your job is to do your body of work—no one else’s. I can’t tell anyone how to get produced. But I believe that the more you allow your own voice, no matter how strange, and explore your own interests, no matter how controversial, the more satisfying it will be. I also advise living your life so you have something to write about, talking to everyone about everything and going to the theater.


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distracted is currently play at American Theatre Company through February 28th.

written by Lisa Loomer
directed by PJ Paparelli

January 28 – February 28 (ticket and show info)

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm

run-time: 2 hours, with one intermission

kid-friendly?: recommended for ages 14 and up

One Response

  1. […] Lisa Loomer directed by PJ Paparellil through February 28th (more […]

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