Meet the Playwright: Lavinia Roberts
Most of your plays seem to be set in the netherworld (or at least a world outside our own). Why this choice? How does this drive the characters/action of the play?
Fantastical worlds are ripe with possibility. There is an element of the unknown and the unexpected in these worlds. I use archetypes and symbolism from mythology and folklore from around the world that speak to and explore the nature of the subconscious mind.
You describe yourself as both a playwright and a director. Which gives you the most fulfillment? Do you direct work that you did not write and, if so, how do you keep yourself from re-writing?
I am deeply nurtured by the process of storytelling.
I am a lover of aesthetics, of beauty. Directing engenders me to create and explore with other creative collaborators in the material world. Collaboration and community are vital to my creative practice and growth as a person. I am very open to and appreciate working with other directors, especially on untried, new work. It’s exciting to see their artistic voice emerge and their take on the world of the play.
When I have directed another playwright’s work, I do critically deconstruct and reflect on my feelings about how the work was rendered, but I also remain true to the world and the intentions of the playwright. Respect is a vital part of love and I love any play I work with, nurturing the world of the play and helping it be the fullest, most alive version that I and the other members of the project’s creative team can render with our combined talents.
In addition you create masks, puppets and costumes. Did you receive formal training in these creative arts or did this come about through the necessity of wanting to use these in your productions?
I have always loved indigenous artwork and literature. Even as a young child, I was interested in masks and rituals. I love the intersection of spirituality, movement, shared communal experience, and storytelling, that is an inherent component of many religious practices.
Growing up, my family was always into the arts. My mother is a visual artist, working predominately in stained glass. My sisters and I were really allowed to be creative and play with an abundance of art materials.
I studied fine art during my undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas. During my graduate studies at New York University, I took a mask making course with Ralph Lee. His course was really inspiring to me. Since then, I have learned more about constructing masks and puppets while creating them for live performances and films.
Settings such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and assorted Greek myths must require an amount of research. How important is it that you get all the facts correct and supply enough background to make this believable to an audience, especially one well versed in the topic? Because it’s a play do you feel there is a bit of leeway here that will benefit the whole piece?
Yes, I want to know as much as possible about the world I am entering into, although I often am writing about topics I have a good deal of previous knowledge about, like Greek mythology. Research is an intrinsic part of the writing process. I want to respect the history and culture that the play is inspired from. So while the history and culture must be accurately depicted, the character’s dialogue and story arc can be open to creative interpretation.
Is it important that a play have a moral or a message, thoughts to take away after the audience leaves the theater or is it better to just tell a good tale?
My plays are about an emotional and spiritual journey. This exploration of immaterial life still contains action and other elements of a good tale.
Sometimes the creative process often begins with a question or feeling I couldn’t explore any other way than through the world of the play. My intention isn’t to didactically argue my own beliefs, but to share a question or human experience with a community. I am deeply appreciative of the mental space and time of audiences. It’s such a generous gift.
Sometimes a creative process begins with an evocative image. A particular moment that strongly resonates with me, that an entire world and it’s inhabitants and their journeys are built around.
All plays promote a particular world view. How the work is rendered and the intentions of the playwright contains the morals of the creator. I am a humanist, so I hope my work explores unsentimentally human experiences such as grief and the effects of violence with a compassion and love for humanity.
Who are your favorite playwrights, past and present and why?
Most of the defining literature from my youth came in the form of prose. I grew up reading a good deal of authors such as Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Jane Yolen, Philip Pullman, and Ursula K LeGuin. These fantastic worlds really excited me and nurtured me as a young person. I’ve always loved stories with elements of magic. Most of the books I own are anthologies of folk tales, myths, and fairy tales from around the world. I am very interested in the elements of ritual and religion alive today in contemporary performance.
I appreciate the work of William Inge, because he grew up very close to my hometown of Parsons, Kansas and also writes with tenderness and understanding about the working class. I enjoy the dry wit and outrageous plots of P.G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, and Oscar Wilde. I think their animating storylines, fanciful characters, and love of language inspires the over twenty-five children’s plays I’ve published.
As I’ve matured, I have craved a female perspective and grown tired of always having to disassociate from my perspective or forgive poorly rendered female characters in an otherwise strong play. Lynn Nottage, Annie Baker, and Sarah Ruhl are some playwrights whose work resonates with me.