Ugly Lies the Bone, a new play about the act of survival had workshop readings at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference on July 9 and 10.
Ugly Lies the Bone was written by Lindsey Ferrentino a New York-based playwright originally from Florida.
Ferrentino holds a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, an MFA in playwriting from Hunter College and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
“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.” Press notes state.
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.
With the use of virtual reality therapy, she seeks solace in an arctic landscape which soothes her burning skin as she desperately tries to restore her relationships, home, and all that was lost.
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 – an area whose landscape drastically changed physically and economically when NASA 's shuttle program ended.
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’m always interested in writing about where I come from, trying to find and define 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 rich characters. I grew up very much a member of the middle class, living paycheck to paycheck, and I think there isn’t any decision that goes into my life where money isn’t thought of at some point.
Whether you have it or don’t have enough – I think of money and pain as great universalizers.
I wouldn't really know how to write a world where economic circumstances don’t play a part. So 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 injuries.
I think 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 skills 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 and relationships for themselves?
When I was talking to my friend, a psychologist at a VA Center in Florida, she continually spoke about how the human body is actually conditioned to survive.
That human beings wanting things to be better – a molecular tendency towards regeneration. You know that your skin will heal. That your body will accept skin grafts.
This idea of regeneration is built into our chemical make-up. So how does this character find hope? I sort of take the play from there. 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 thirty plus 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 and time to hear it, make changes, and test what may not work.
The O’Neill has this huge literary support team that keep track of all your pages and revisions and so that your only job as a writer while you are here is to focus on being creative and productive.
I haven't even had to look at a printer since I've been here.
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 lens and try to stay as true to the given circumstances of the characters.
One of my most visceral memories as a child is watching the shuttle launch. 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 capacity to explore, what is next? What does the next dream for the country look like? I don't have an answer, but think the play is set among those questions.
Wendy Wasserstein told Paris Review in an interview that the process of writing plays is that everyone has an opinion. Do you agree?
LF: Yeah, I do agree that everyone has an opinion, but it’s a wonderful problem to have. When you are starting writing, it is often difficult to get people to read and care about your work. I try not to feel overwhelmed by differing opinions.It is a great gift to have people interested in what you are writing.
A dramaturg I work with Mark Bly said you have to think of opinions and notes from outsiders as gifts.
And you can choose to return the gift by incorporating those notes into the play,.
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 enviromentally 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 transcript the dialogue to learn how to write the speech cadence and vocabulary of a specific location - he 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.
Your experience of working with director GT Upchurch?
LF: This is the first time that I would be working with GT Upchurch. She has a fantastic positive energy in the room and is extremely grounded.
We met for coffee and 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 being?
LF: I went to undergrad at NYU for acting and realized fairly soon that I had no interest in being onstage... This is a really difficult question.
To build a career takes a long time. More patience than money. 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.
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.
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, you should be writing about magic?
LF: I have a magic play actually. 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 specifically 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 work – 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.