A fifth generation resident of New Orleans, Lisa D’Amour is now bringing the Crescent City to Broadway with Airline Highway. D’Amour’s plays include Anna Bella Eema, The Cataract, Cherokee and the Obie-winning Detroit, which was also a Pulitzer finalist in 2011. She also has an interdisciplinary company, PearlDamour, which has had work presented by HERE Arts Center, Walker Arts Center, the Whitney Museum and many more. Broadway.com chatted with D’Amour at MTC's Friedman Theatre, where Airline Highway, her play that explores a glittery jumble of outcasts arranging a “living funeral” for a former burlesque queen, opens on April 23.
What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write?
Two things: I write near a window, so I look out for a while to clear my head. Then I’ll do some free writing about the play. It’s kind of like a warm-up before diving into the scene I’m working on.
Do you write longhand or on a computer?
When I’m rewriting, I take a lot of notes by hand. When I’m writing, it’s almost all on the computer.
What time of day do you get your best work done?
Early in the morning—like 7am. If I can get up and not speak to anyone and have some coffee and sit down to write, that’s the best.
What writer inspires you?
What essential items do you like to have on hand when you write?
I like to have a candle. Coffee. Natural light is really important. I wear comfy, sloppy clothes and have protein snacks nearby.
Was there a specific event that sparked this play?
There wasn’t a specific event, but New Orleans is changing a lot—in some ways that are great. The city is booming, and there are a lot of new people moving in. New Orleans celebrates the death of its important people through parades and parties. As some of our elders that represent pre-Katrina and an older New Orleans are dying, there’s a real question about how we move on. That idea of how we carry the culture forward was in my mind when I was writing this play.
Where did the title come from?
The title is the name of the street that this motel is on. A lot of my titles lately have evoked place or landscape. For anyone who knows New Orleans, the name Airline Highway immediately evokes this intermediary place between the airport and New Orleans with a lot of hardscrabble, seedy businesses and motels. For people who aren’t in New Orleans, I think it suggests something about travel and motion that could be either internal or external.
Describe your muse.
I think in many ways my muse is New Orleans. My muse is the brass band music that happens in the streets and my connection to my ancestors who go back five generations in New Orleans. My muse has to do with history and celebrating that history in the present.
What should every play set in New Orleans have?
People gotta complain about the heat! They have to have some local food like Zapp’s potato chips. I also think there has to be people talking way too much and overlapping each other. People talk a lot in that town.
What play changed your life?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
There’re probably two: one is take money out of the equation. Don’t think about making money at all and be ready to be poor. That frees you from reaching for a false brass ring. The other thing is: Find your voice, figure out what you do best and just keep doing that thing. Even if you’re not meeting with success right away, stay true to what you think your voice is. Mac Wellman taught me that.
What’s the nitty gritty hard work of being a playwright no one ever told you?
The nitty gritty is that rewriting never ends. You are constantly having to step back, see your work in a new way and make difficult adjustments. Also, there’s the hustle for where your next production or paycheck will come from—whether that’s teaching or a day job or whatever. That never ends no matter how far advanced you get in your career. Also, there’s this feeling of constantly having to do this deep and rigorous creative work and constantly having to hustle to keep a roof over your head…forevah!
What’s the nicest thing somebody could say about you if you were to have a living funeral?
The nicest thing they could say about me is, “Through writing her plays, she brings people together and creates and caretakes communities.”
What your advice to aspiring playwrights?
Try producing your own work. Don’t wait around for a theater to produce it for you. Read and see as many plays as possible and look to other disciplines: go to museums, dance pieces, opera. Don’t stay stuck in the theater bubble because those other kinds of live performance are going to help you infuse your work with life.
What’s your favorite line in Airline Highway?