Laura Lundgren Smith: Interview with a Playwright
A playwright since 1999, Laura Lundgren Smith‘s plays have had over 200 award-winning productions all around the world. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Theatre and English and a Master of Arts in Theatre from Texas A&M University at Commerce. She was awarded an Arts Council of Ireland Commissions Grant in 2004 for playwriting.
In 2007, her play Seamless was chosen by Dallas’ Kitchen Dog Theatre to be part of their renowned New Works Festival. In 2011, she won the Stage West Texas Playwriting Competition. Her work has been published by Salmon Publishing in Ireland and Playscripts, Inc. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her husband Ben and daughter India.
Playscripts sat down with Laura to discuss her journey to becoming a successful playwright and all about her award-winning work.
What is your first theatrical memory?
Laura Lundgren Smith: Living in a small town, I didn’t actually experience live theatre until I was in the eighth grade. We were studying a unit on theatre in my TAG class, and as part of that we took a field trip to the Dallas Theatre Center. The production was Of Mice and Men, and I was absolutely entranced. I loved movies, but the immediacy of theatre had such an impact on me. I will never forget it.
Each of your plays is connected to a historical era of the past. What draws you to the past?
I think the past informs the future. In looking back, we can see how we arrived where we are, and how prepared we are for what’s ahead. The present is still fluid, and I think harder to capture for that reason. But the past is fixed, and we can examine it from every angle. I also think the lessons from the past sometimes have to be relearned. We don’t always get it the first time, or the lessons lose their impact over time.
I believe it’s good to keep revisiting them and looking at them with new eyes. I agree with George Santayana when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” From an educational standpoint, I think younger students today don’t get more than a paragraph or two in a history book about some of the major events in human history.
I find it so difficult to accept that high school students know so little about the Holocaust, one of the greatest tragedies in modern times.
So, I try to write about important historical events. I also try to write as many characters as I can that are around the ages of high school students. I’ve found teenagers really engage in the history then, and when that happens, I feel that I’ve done my job.
What is your research process when writing a new play?
I really enjoy the research process. I begin by finding as many books on my topic as I can, and I just start reading and taking notes. I also enjoy finding period photographs and other artifacts online and elsewhere because those things become touchstones for me when I’m writing. Although I write historical fiction, I want the historical skeleton of any play to be absolutely as accurate as possible. I usually spend several months doing my research before I ever begin writing.
What are the ideas or concepts that connect your plays?
In each of my plays, one or more of the characters is driven by a secret. Dealing with these secrets creates a thread of choices and consequences that runs throughout each script. Our lives are made up of choices, both good and bad, and the consequences that arise from those choices. There is also a theme of justice and injustice in my plays. So many of my characters seek justice, and rise up against authority to obtain it, and that takes courage and compassion, so those things are there too. My characters are often trying to improve the human condition, and failing, or going about it unjustly themselves, while other characters are oppressive or outright evil. The struggle between authority and the oppressed, between justice and injustice, and between good and evil, is often at the center of my work.
When and how did you begin writing for the high school theatre world?
I had written a few short plays in high school and college, but as I writer I focused more on my poetry. After I obtained my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in theatre, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I loved writing. And I had many friends who were high school theatre teachers, and they were running into issues with drama publishers who wouldn’t let them cut scripts to fit the UIL forty-minute time limit, and UIL rules were restrictive in that (understandably) those directors couldn’t do much creatively beyond what was in the stage directions.
So I thought, I’ll just write a play specifically for UIL, written for high school age kids, written for the forty minute limit, with the educational benefit of historical fiction, and just let the directors have as much creative freedom for staging as possible. I approached a friend who was a poetry publisher, Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Publishing in Ireland. They had published a couple of plays, and I wrote a proposal explaining things about UIL and that market, and she agreed to publish my play if it was worthy. So Sending Down the Sparrows was published in 2000 and was first produced by Jayna Shull at Paris High School. And it just grew from there.
Why are you passionate about writing for young actors?
I love writing for young actors because they have so much energy and passion for what they are doing. I find that younger actors really take the material and run with it. There is no hesitation and no worry about what’s come before with another production or other actors. They make it their own, and they really engage in the story and connect with the history. They take ownership of the story and totally commit to the characters. I’ve found that they also really throw themselves into research for the play, which is great. Also, I think that since I create characters close to the ages of the student actors, they can relate to the roles. I’ve had several young actors say they identify with roles in my plays because in a different place and time those characters could easily be them.
All four of your plays have received a lot of productions. Dark Road, in particular, has been produced a lot. Why do you think artists and audiences connect to this story so deeply?
When I was writing Dark Road, I had no idea how timely it would be. I think we as Americans are experiencing a relatively dark time, in terms of how divided we are as a nation, and how there seems to be this growing resentment against immigrants and other minority groups. How the issue of white supremacy seems to be making unfortunate inroads into our national conscience again.
All of these things have raised questions in people’s minds about where they stand, and I think we have some very hard questions to answer about the direction the country is headed. We have important choices to make. Dark Road has gotten a strong response, in part because it illustrates what happens when not only a government makes bad choices, but what happens when we as individuals make bad choices, when we don’t speak up, when we allow others to be treated as less than equal.
As Daimler says, “Evil isn’t something that swallows you up. It’s a choice you make, every day, in every small way.” I’m heartened that Dark Road has had such a strong response. I hope this means that people are paying attention to what’s happening and want to stage the play to show what can happen if we aren’t careful.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your playwriting career so far?
Definitely engaging with the kids who do my shows. It just wasn’t in my personality to teach, and I highly respect all those who do. But I hope that I teach in a way, through my plays. When I talk to kids and they are so excited to tell these stories, and feel so strongly about the messages in them, there is nothing more rewarding.
I love being able to get kids to feel passionately about history and ultimately about the human stories inside that history.
One of my favorite things last year was when a school doing Sending Down the Sparrows took their cast to visit with a group of special needs students. Friends were made that day, and the cast learned something important about others and also about themselves. If my plays can do that, then I couldn’t ask for more.