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.


banner_distracted6

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

Congress passes $12.5 million increase for the arts

Yesterday, Congress passed a $12.5 million funding increase as part of the FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  President Obama is scheduled to sign this bill into law by October 31, which concludes National Arts and Humanities Month. The nation’s two federal grant-making cultural agencies will now each have budgets of $167.5 million, their highest funding levels in 16 years. As so many state and local governments have had to cut arts budgets across the country, this well-timed federal appropriations increase for the arts is a welcome infusion of funds.


FY09 vs. FY10 Difference

NEA

$155 million  raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase

NEH

$155 million – raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase!!


The FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 2996) was passed in the House by a vote of 247­­-178 and in the Senate by a vote of 72-28.  Please play your part and send a quick e-mail to your members of Congress at the Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center and let them know how much the arts will benefit from this funding increase.

Congress approves NEA funds increase – for now…

Great news via the NEA:

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $15 million increase for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for FY 2010.  Currently funded at $155 million, this increase would bring both agencies’ budgets to $170 million

Thanks to the arts leadership of House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Congressional Arts Caucus co-chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY), this House-approved funding increase for the NEA exceeds President Obama’s budget request by $8.7 million and is the highest proposed appropriation for the NEA since its $176 million peak in FY 1992. On June 25, corresponding legislation in the Senate Appropriations Committee set NEA and NEH funding at only $161.3 million each.

We must now put pressure on the Senate to match the funding level set in the House of Representatives.  Please take two minutes to visit Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center to send a letter to your Senators.

 

Aside: Thanks to all of my readers for helping increase arts funding.  We all know from experience that any child, when introduced to the arts, becomes a smarter child. 

Meanwhile, at the arts fundraising headquarters…

Meanwhile, at the arts fundraising office

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cats would love to take your donation for the National Endowment for the Arts.  (or to your favorite arts group).  Give now or the kitties will be vewwy, vewwy sad…..  😉

Michelle Obama – Arts Warrior!

I’m excited to report that, during her second New York City visit, first lady Michelle Obama spent her time emphasizing the crucial role the arts play in our society, reopening part of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday and later addressing the crowd at a glittering ballet gala – where she was greeted with enthusiastic ovations from audiences that included prominent figures in politics, the arts, entertainment and fashion.

She stressed the importance of giving young people better access to the arts:

“The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it,” she said at the museum. “Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.”

michelle Obama and Caroline Kennedy at Metropolitan Museum of Art“The president and I want to ensure that all children have access to great works of art,” she told a crowd that included students from four New York City public schools that focus on the arts. “We want all children who believe in their talent to see a way to create a future for themselves in the arts community, either as a hobby or as a profession.”

Mrs. Obama also she reminded the audience that her husband, President Barack Obama, had included an additional $50 million (yeah!) for the National Endowment for the Arts in his economic stimulus package.

It was hardly the first time Michelle surprised the art world with her involvement, and it’s looking as if it’ll be far from the last. She and the president have gone to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to watch the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. They attended the reopening of the newly renovated Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. She’s been spotted at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, for a Welcome to Washington event that included performances by the Washington Ballet, the Arena Stage, the Washington National Opera, and other groups.

Mrs. Obama spoke in the newly renovated Charles Engelhard Court, a striking room filled with sunlight, in front of the Greek Revival-style facade of an early 19th-century bank branch that was originally on Wall Street. She wore a bright purple Isaac Mizrahi sheath and coat.  To the amusement of a crowd that included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Vogue editor Anna Wintour, former model Iman and designer Ralph Lauren, Mrs. Obama was reminded by museum president Emily Rafferty that she and the president had their first date in a museum. (aside: how cool is that?!?)

“Thank you for reminding me,” Mrs. Obama said. “You know, after 20-some-odd years of knowing a guy, you forget that your first date was at a museum. But it was, and it was obviously wonderful; it worked.”

Michelle ObamaMichelle also met with arts luminaries in the gallery in the Egyptian wing named for Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled as pharaoh. “We thought it would be appropriate,” says Emily Rafferty.

After meeting with a group of arts leaders, the first lady changed into evening clothes and headed to American Ballet Theatre’s spring gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, a highlight of the city’s social calendar. Among the glitterati: Actresses Sigourney Weaver, Kim Raver, and Rosemary Harris; New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, opera singer Renee Fleming, and Wintour, who pronounced the evening “wonderful _ wonderful for the ballet, wonderful for the arts.”

The crowd rose in enthusiastic applause _ one man shouted, “Brava!” _ as Mrs. Obama, dressed in a black Alaia dress and Thakoon jacket, was introduced by Caroline Kennedy, whose mother, Jackie Kennedy, was a longtime supporter of the arts.

“My husband and I believe strongly that arts education is essential for building innovative thinkers who will be our nation’s leaders for tomorrow,” the first lady said, before introducing a multiracial cast of ballet students from ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, who leaped and pirouetted their way to a huge ovation.

FYI: parts of this story are from http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-05-19/obamas-new-arts-czar/ 

Senate Cuts Arts from stimulus bill… :-(

Americans for the Arts sent out this news, which is even more disappointing considering the list of senators who voted to cut arts funding (I have bolded those names):

Yesterday afternoon the U.S. Senate, during their consideration of the economic recovery bill, approved an egregious amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that stated “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.”  Unfortunately, the amendment passed by a wide vote margin of 73-24, and surprisingly included support from many high profile Senators including Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and several other Democratic and Republican Senators.

If the Coburn amendment language is included in the final conference version of this legislation, many arts groups – including some in Chicago –  will be prevented from receiving economic recovery funds from any portion of this specific stimulus bill.  It is clear that there is still much work to be done in the Senate and in the media about the role that nonprofit arts organizations and artists play in the nation’s economy and workforce.

Americans for the Arts has offered a few plans of action:

  1. Easily contact your senator, telling them of your opposition to the Coburn Amendment, using this customized message .
  2. Click here to customize an opinion editorial to your local media, which supplies you with easy-to-use talking points.

To my readers – I strongly recommend that you join the Arts Action Fund today — it’s free and simple.

Save the Date – IAA annual meeting on Tuesday, Feb 24th

The Illinois Arts Alliance will host its annual Members’ Meeting and Reception on Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 3 pm at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

The Members’ Meeting is an opportunity to network with other arts professionals and supporters and discuss issues of importance to the arts community in Illinois.
Ben CameronBen Cameron (pictured to the right), a nationally renowned speaker, former theater professional, and arts activist, will touch on the concepts of change, transition, and renewal and their meaning for the arts in an engaging keynote address.
Currently, Cameron manages a $17 million grant program for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, but he also has experience as an artist and arts administrator. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2006, he served as executive director of Theatre Communications Group from 1998 to 2006 and director of the theater program of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1990 to 1992.