A Conversation with Kristen Lazarian
By Jeff Wood
What was the impetus for writing Push? Which element did you start with? Character? Story? Structure?
I was channel surfing and came across a cheesy talk show that dealt with women who had hired decoys to see if their husbands would cheat. Immediately, I went to this place of wanting to know—who does this? And what happens if things go too far? Then what? Who is culpable? I also had interest in how we, as human beings, tend to create the circumstances we most fear. I think I often start a play with questions and in writing the play, I try to answer those questions. But ultimately, I'm probably just raising more questions. But that's okay. I like that. So, I start with a question, then comes character and story. Structure comes last typically.
On that note, Push is structurally unique. Without giving anything away, how much of your work is based on manipulation of structure? How did you come to this form for your story?
I like to think about the architecture of the play. To be able to play with time and space and symbols, for me, is the joy of playwriting, over say screenwriting. I want to engage an audience with questions—back to questions—and I think this is one way to do it. I want people to put together a puzzle and try to figure it out as it's unfolding. For me, as a playwright, the dialogue, the natural rhythms of language, come easily. I put the sweat into structure. The thing is—the structure has to be organic to the story. It can't be gratuitous or gimmicky. It has to make sense for that play.
I am very much influenced by Ayckbourn and Stoppard. Both are playwrights that I would consider master architects. I just saw the revival of Stoppard's Arcadia on Broadway. The play moves through two time periods, 200 hundred years apart, but there's a turtle that stays on the table through both time periods. It's so simple and yet so powerfully symbolic. That's structural genius.
As for Push, I wrote the whole story first. By that I mean I wrote the play in a very linear way and then I asked—how is this story better served by mixing some things up here? I knew there had to be a big reveal at the end of act one but I wasn't sure how to get there. I made note cards for every scene and literally moved them around until I found the right way to get my reveal. I broke the scenes in half and realized that by doing this, I was setting up the audience to make a lot of their own assumptions, which I liked. It is, in some respects, a play about twisted assumptions. So the structure serves the play.
Also, I understand you are working on an adaption of Push for the screen. In what ways have you had to re-approach the work in order to fit the expectations of a movie-going audience? In particular have you had to tweak it in order to fit the expectations of any particular genre?
Well, the structure remains essentially the same as the play. So this is tricky. The way it's structured is like a house of cards. You change or add a scene in the first half and it has to correlate in the second half. And at the same time, the screenplay has to have more movement and scope. I would call Push a dark comedy but you also have to do a little work while you watch and this is something that is not typically expected of the movie-going audience. So it better be very entertaining for people to go on that journey with you.
I think the main issue is that there is a lot more room for ambiguity in the theatre. Not so much with movies. People take a movie much more literally than a play. So some of those questions that I love to let hang there—now they have to be answered. That's been the hardest part. But it doesn't feel compromised. The changes that have been made feel right for this format. I think the movie version is a little sexier than the play. But we'll see!
On an overall note, what is it like being a playwright in Los Angeles? Are you tight with many other playwrights? Do you feel a sense of "community?" If yes, what kind of community? If no, why not?
I've been in Los Angeles for about 17 years. Shortly after I came here, I wrote a play called Love Like Blue that I wanted to develop so I sought out theatres that specifically did development. I was able to get a few readings and workshops. From that, I met a lot of people and found many great resources so I've felt connected to the theatre community in L.A. And there is a community. There is a circuit of small theatres, many doing wonderful work. I've been produced here many times so I would say this is my theatre home.
If there is any difference at all, what is the contrast between the New York (or East Coast) playwright and the Los Angeles (or West Coast) playwright, in your opinion?
Early on I found it to be frustrating that people were not doing theatre in Los Angeles for the sake of doing good theatre. Everything was a showcase. Theatre was just a tool to get noticed, a stepping stone to a TV pilot.
But I think that has changed. There is good theatre being done here by people who love working in the theatre. But also, I am older now and I don't fault anyone for wanting to make a living at their craft. Most of us have to support our theatre habit by doing film and television. Look how much better TV has become with all the great series on HBO and Showtime. And it doesn't hurt to be in Hollywood and have access to so much talent.
In either place, there is a lot of small Equity waiver theatre being done. The main difference is that when you break through in NYC, you go to Off Broadway or Broadway. When you break through in L.A., it's into film and television. But there seems to be a fairly fluid interchange between New York and L.A. in all categories of theatre making. I think it's all blending together these days. Movies are becoming big musicals, Kieffer Sutherland is doing a play, and rock bands get their own productions. It's an interesting time. I guess it's really good if you can be flexible as a writer. I see a lot of opportunity on both coasts.
You have written screenplays in the past. What is the difference between writing plays and writing screenplays for you? Do you have differing approaches? Or do all your stories come from the same place?
I've heard people say that your medium chooses you. I think that is true for writing. I would struggle to write a novel. And every screenplay I have written (on spec) has been based on a play I have written first. If I have an idea, I first think of it in terms of being a play. I do have an idea now that I think is better suited as a screenplay. I know that I could write it as a play but it would be cumbersome. I'm becoming more efficient with my screenwriting, more comfortable with that medium the more I do it. It's not as easy to play with structure for the reasons I talked about before. But there is some comfort in formula.
I had an experience with one of my plays once where one of the actresses would change her performance every night. It was terrifying to watch her on stage. I never knew who she was going to be playing. I said to the director—this is when I want to do a film so that the scene is set and printed and will be the same every time I watch it! But then again, the joy of writing for theatre is that you are the top of the pyramid. Lines cannot be changed without your approval. You own your work. And you get to live the experience as the actors and audience are living it. That's exciting.
The films I've worked on for Hay House have been a wonderful experience because I've worked so closely with the director (Michael Goorjian) to develop the stories and to be a part of the process all the way through. And that material is so rich with metaphysical and spiritual overtones that we can play with form. We're doing a film series called Everyday Magic. They're in production now. I can't wait to see how it turns out.
You are working on launching your own website. How do you plan to use the internet? Do you think that writers need to actively promote yourself in the digital age? Or should they let their writing speak for itself?
The writing can speak for itself but as a playwright people have to be able to find you. I remember back in the day, you'd get the Dramatist Sourcebook and blindly send off your plays to theatres. Now you can go through, check theatres on the internet, and see if you are a good fit. Think of how much postage has been saved!
It's the same in reverse. Many people producing plays are not scouring through catalogues. They are Googling – play for 2 women and 2 men. How amazing that you don't need to be in that catalogue anymore. You don't need to hand over 80% of the cost of the play to a publisher. Now you can have your plays printed on demand and you get the 80% and you get to market and control where your play goes. I think play publishing is going to go the way of music publishing. As for production requests, I'd pass those on to my agent. But even so, you could do that yourself, too. I know a lot of playwrights who have been produced and where never even told about it by their publisher/licenser. The publisher didn't even know! At least this way the potential producer comes to you first. So my website is my grand experiment. I'll let you know how it goes!
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received? From whom? How has it influenced you?
I can't really say this one thing helped me—but I do know that through the years—and I've been writing plays for over 20 years now—the idea that you must write boldly has always resonated with me. For example, I saw God of Carnage and there is a moment when one of the characters throws up violently on stage. That is a bold moment for a writer because the impetus is to take her off stage to throw up or to somehow sweeten it by making her throw up behind the couch. But in God of Carnage she just pukes all over someone's coffee table. That's writing boldly. It's so surprising and true and funny and it makes everyone in the audience squirm. It's incredible.
When I've been in writing groups, I find that writers will have their characters discuss this great thing that happened—and I always think—well, why isn't that the scene? Why are they talking about that great action or situation? Make that the scene! You have to be brave when you write. You can't write around things. So much of re-writing is figuring out what you've written around – that's where you'll find your play.
I also like what David Mamet said in an interview. He said that all good drama is based on a lie. I like that. I find that to be true of my plays—someone is lying and trying to get away with it on some level.
If you could choose exactly how your work will be received and remembered, what would that be??
Wow, that's a good question. I love writing complicated, smart women who end up in difficult situations. I would have said, a long time ago, that I'm interested in how men and women negotiate a need to be powerful and autonomous with a need to be connected. But that sounds heady now. I think at the end of the day, I'm writing mostly about love. I'd like to be remembered for that.