Lindsey Ferrentino on Survival Instinct and Bringing Virtual Reality to the Stage in Ugly Lies the Bone

Lindsey Ferrentino chats with Playbill.com about her play Ugly Lies the Bone.

Lindsey Ferrentino (playwright), Jill Rafson (dramaturg) and GT Upchurch (director) on opening night
Lindsey Ferrentino (playwright), Jill Rafson (dramaturg) and GT Upchurch (director) on opening night

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Ugly Lies the Bone is about virtual reality therapy that addresses new forms of pain management. It is a new play about the act of survival and the search for home. The play had workshop readings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference July 9-10.

Ugly Lies the Bone was written by Ferrentino a New York-based playwright originally from Florida where some of her plays are set.The play is the winner of the 2014 Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward Drama Award and was chosen for 2014 reading series in Roundabout Underground, Premiere Stages, The Florida Studio Theater and The Great Plains Theater Conference. Ferrentino is a Kendeda playwright with The Alliance Theater and has had worked developed at Atlantic Theater Company, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and The Kennedy Center, among others. She holds a BFA from NYU, an MFA in playwriting from Hunter, and is currently pursuing a second master's degree in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama.

Here's how the show is billed: "Jess returns from war severely burned, only to find her Floridian hometown in a state of decay. With the use of virtual reality video game therapy, she desperately tries to restore her relationships, her home, and all that was lost."

Ferrentino spoke with Playbill.com to share her insights on Ugly Lies the Bone workshop readings, playwriting and theatre. What is Ugly Lies the Bones about?
Lindsey Ferrentino: Ugly Lies the Bone is about female soldier Jess returning from war, severely burned, to her Floridian hometown, also in a state of decay after the closing of NASA's shuttle program. Jess uses virtual reality video game therapy to treat her body and reintegrate into civilian life.

Until now, pain management has not improved since World War II, but this virtual reality therapy is currently being developed to treat returning soldiers with severe burns. The actual game itself is called "Snowworld" and opens up the possibility for a non-drug based treatment of chronic pain.

Is this play autobiographical? Or is it personal?
LF: This is an incredibly personal play for me. I grew up in a small town along Florida's space coast — This was an area that always prided itself in a belief in the future, in being forward thinking. I grew up under a literal banner that said "Welcome to Merritt Island — where dreams are launched." I went away to college around the same time as NASA's layoffs and the space shuttle program shutting down and came home to an area whose landscape drastically changed both physically and economically. Around the same time, my childhood best friend became a psychologist at a VA center in our town and the play grew from noticing a parallel between soldiers looking for a way to start over and the town itself looking for this same thing. I also have questions about personal relationships in my life that I'm working out in this play. Sarah Ruhl, a current mentor at Yale, once described this kind of writing to me as "looking at the sun without burning your eyes." In general, I'm always interested in writing about where I come from, trying to find, define and redefine home.

The characters are trapped by the economic status. Did you find it challenging creating characters like that?
LF: I think I might find it more challenging to write affluent characters. I grew up very much a member of the middle class, living paycheck to paycheck. There hasn't been a single decision in my life where money wasn't thought of at some point. Whether you have it or don't have enough — this need for money ties directly into the fight for survival that we've been talking about. I wouldn't really know how to write a world where economic circumstances don't play a part. I've certainly never lived there.

This play is also about the act of survival. Can you elaborate?
LF: The media places a good deal of attention on returning soldier suicide and that is a very real problem, but it wasn't the narrative I found in talking with veterans. What I found moving was this will to live, despite severe injuries. The worst thing you can say to a returning soldier is, "I can't really imagine what you've gone through." It shuts down our capacity for empathy. I think the more interesting question to me was — what world are we bringing our soldiers home to? How will they recreate a life for themselves? The friend I mentioned earlier is always talking about how the human body is actually conditioned to survive. That human beings want things to be better on a deeper level than we even realize — a molecular tendency towards regeneration. That your skin will heal. That your body will accept skin grafts... Regeneration is built into our chemical make-up. So the question of the play then became where does my protagonist find hope? Who can really see her when her exterior has been so drastically compromised? And how do we as a nation search for that new beginning again?

What do you hope to accomplish from the O'Neill workshop process?
LF: The play had quite have a few readings before coming to the O'Neill, but none of those readings gave me more than a single day of rehearsal. And the O'Neill is 30+ hours of working closely with designers, a director, a dramaturg, and of course — fantastic actors. This opportunity for total collaboration doesn't usually happen unless you are rehearsing for a production and there is a looming opening night. Here, you can relax into the script, have that space, time, safety and support to make changes, and test what may not work. The O'Neill has this huge literary team that keep track of all pages and revisions — so your only job as a writer is to focus on being creative and productive. I didn't have to look at a printer the entire time I was there. The play changed a good deal... in hopefully subtle, but significant ways.

Any psychological truth audience will get from Ugly Lies the Bone?
LF: I certainly hopes so. Pain is a great equalizer and certainly everyone has dealt with pain management — whether it is physical or emotional.

Is the physical disruption of the protagonist in your play a metaphor for the loss of the American Dream?
LF: If that is what you are reading into it... I tend to write plays set amidst a political landscape, but from a side angle, and hopefully from an extremely personal point of view and try to stay as true to the given circumstances of the characters. I will say, my most visceral memories from childhood involve watching shuttle launches from my roof, rockets that literally shook my house. Schools would stop, cars would pull off the highway, whether you were in a bank or a grocery store — everyone would pause their life for a brief moment, stand together, and silently look at the sky. I think the loss of this dream, which feels like a very American dream, the American frontier spirit, etc. — comes at a great cost. It has a ripple out effect on how we interact with each other. If you take away that communal hope, that capacity to explore, what is next? What does the next dream for our country look like? I don't have an answer, but think the play is set among those questions.

Wendy Wasserstein told the Paris Review in an interview that the process of writing plays is that everyone has an opinion. Do you agree?
LF: Yes, I do agree that everyone has an opinion, but it's a wonderful problem to have. When you start writing, it is often difficult to get people to read and care about your work. And so it is a great gift to have people interested in what you are writing. In fact, a wonderful dramaturg I love to work with — Mark Bly — said you have to think of opinions from outsiders as gifts. And you can choose to return the gift by incorporating those notes into the play, but that you shouldn't ever let differing opinions overwhelm you.

Can you discuss your writing routine?
LF: The first draft is always the most difficult for me. Once I have the draft then I become a bit like a rabid dog constantly going through the play. I like to write notes on a hardcopy, put the changes in the computer and reprint... It's not the most environmentally friendly way of working... I write out of sequence so that I'm leading with the moments that mean the most to me. Location is very important to me. I tend to watch a lot of documentaries and transcribe the dialogue to learn rhythm, speech cadence and the vocabulary of a specific location — the setting for the play.

How do you tackle exposition in your writing?
LF: it is better to have the whole story when you start so that you can just drop off the exposition as subtly as possible. That's a lot easier said than done. I think that's what the whole rewriting process becomes about. Hiding the exposition. Delivering it more artfully. Dropping bread crumbs that feel insignificant and then suddenly take you somewhere.

Tell me about your experience of working with director GT Upchurch.
LF: This is the first time that I worked with GT Upchurch. She had a fantastic positive energy in the room and is extremely grounded. We just clicked. I always like to work with a director who I feel is after the same world that I'm after — both theatrically and emotionally, that sees the same things I do in the actors.

If you hadn't been a playwright, what would you have been?
LF: This is a really difficult question. If you can do something else and be happy, you probably should, but I think I've always known I would be in the performing arts in some capacity. I come from a background of performers. My dad is a comic magician, I have a lot of musicians in my family, an uncle who is a comedian... I came up knowing that to build a career takes a long time. More patience than money... I don't know. Maybe in another life I would have been an archaeologist — I have a fantasy about being someone who gets to travel and dig up bones, learn about other civilizations, and be outdoors.

Your dad is a magician. Should you be writing about magic?
LF: I have a magic play actually — titled Magic Man. That is one of my first plays I sent out into the world. It is about a family in the south side of Chicago and a child who conjures an imaginary magician friend to help him navigate the dangers of this world. David Mamet said his characters always ask rhetorical questions. Is there anything that provokes anger or rhetorical question in your play?
LF: I guess right now, (and this will probably change because I'm only 25) but I find I'm writing characters who are asking– where do I belong in the world? I don't necessarily write about young people, but I am asking — how do you step up into the next phase of your life? How do you live in the present while dealing with the past? There is a Welsh word that sort of encapsulates my current plays — hiraeth — which means a desire for all the lost places of your past, a yearning, a nostalgia, a homesickness for a home that doesn't exist anymore. This is what I'm personally trying to sort out in my life and it certainly trickles down onto the page.