She Calls Me Firefly, the new play by Teresa Lotz in which painful memories buzz through the air like insects seeking a lamp, gets its world premiere June 6-23, 2018, at Off-Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse. The drama charts the memories of Ken, a substance abuser whose relationship with his partner has been scuttled by memories of his troubled mother, past sexual abuse, present lack of purpose and, of course, the temptation of booze and pills.
Ludovica Villar-Hauser, founder of Parity Productions, which produces the staging with New Perspectives Theatre Company, directs the play, set in a dive bar in Kentucky, where Ken (played by Sean Hudock) has taken refuge. This gay bar in the middle of nowhere has just shuttered for the night, but barkeep Freddie (played by Paula Ewin), who has a secret of her own, allows Ken the chance to drink and spill the story of his twisty relationship with his mother, Veronica (played by Emily Batsford), and partner Levi (played by Daniel Burns).
Playwright Lotz fractures the timeline of Ken’s relationships with Veronica and Levi in a lean, compact play about the importance of assessing, processing and telling your story — even if it happens in a place of risk, like a bar — as a step toward healing. (The venue is somewhat site-specific: The Huron Club, a 60-seat cabaret/bar space within SoHo Playhouse, is the stand-in for Freddie’s Place, where the action takes place. Theatergoers sit at tables. A live band begins playing at 7 PM.)
Ken has been a character in the mind of the playwright for many years. Lotz told me, “I was about 12 years old and walking around my living room acting out stories I was writing. I kind of fell into Ken’s brain…or maybe he fell into mine? I was intrigued by him, and I found myself spending significant amounts of time inside of his world. The first long-form piece of writing I ever did about Ken was actually a thirty-some-page autobiographical suicide note by Ken himself called ‘How the Hell Did I Get Myself Into This?’ Parts of that are still in this play today.”
She can’t quite explain the attraction to Ken. “There has always been something very real and intoxicating about Ken’s pain, especially when I was a teenager and dealing with the angst that comes along with that. I found comfort in sliding into Ken’s mind. It was my escape from reality — and I continued to justify it, because it felt much healthier than drugs or alcohol or any of the other ways to zone out.”
In the days leading up to tech, Lotz talked candidly about her passion for plays and musicals, her background, her connection to depression and about the process of creating She Calls Me Firefly. Check out the Q&A below.
She Calls Me Firefly is performed on a 7:30 PM Wednesday-Saturday and Monday schedule at The Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse at 15 Vandam Street between Sixth Avenue and Varick.
Here’s how Parity Productions bills the play: “It’s Nickel Beer Night at Freddie’s Place. Ken has come to drown his sorrows, but no amount of alcohol can wash away the pain of his broken relationship with Levi, nor the dark and difficult secrets of his past. As you enter Freddie’s you will instantly be transported from New York City streets to a Kentucky dive bar. Pull up a stool, grab a drink, and find yourself immersed in the searing world of She Calls Me Firefly.”
The production team includes assistant director Judith Binus, dramaturg Melody Brooks, production design Meganne George, lighting design Deborah Constantine, original sound design Janie Bullard, production stage manager Carolina Arboleda, production assistant George Weinhouse, M.D., casting director Jamibeth Margolis.
Teresa Lotz writes music and words. Her work includes music for Red Emma & the Mad Monk by Alexis Roblan (Ars Nova Ant Fest 2017); music for A Surrealist Sort of View with book-writer/lyricist Sarah Rebell (Prospect Theater Company’s World Views 2017 Musical Theater Lab), Mommy’s Little Princess (reading at The Episcopal Actor’s Guild, The Barbour Award Finalist Readings); ThreeTimesFast (book and music) with bookwriter/lyricist Naomi Matlow (O’Neill Theater Festival Semi-Finalist) and more. Her work has been heard at Joe’s Pub, 54 Below, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Dixon Place, Metropolitan Room and the Duplex. She has had residencies with Goodspeed Opera House, Two River Theater Company, and Musical Theatre Factory. Lotz is a member of New Perspectives Theatre Company’s Women’s Work Lab, the Dramatists Guild, ASCAP and the League of Professional Theatre Women. She earned her MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from New York University.
Part of the mission of Parity Productions is to fill at least 50 percent of the creative roles of its productions — playwrights, directors and designers — with women and/or TGNC artists.
The production is a partner of NYC Pride.
Here’s my chat with playwright Teresa Lotz.
What drew you to write about the intersection of substance abuse and childhood sexual abuse? Were these the primary subjects of the play from the beginning or did the nature/content of the play change?
Teresa Lotz: Substance abuse has been a part of it from the beginning. It’s a subject I’m passionate about, but I try not to psychoanalyze why. Mental health, trauma, addiction, unhealthy vs. healthy relationships, power dynamics within relationships — these are all themes I tend to move toward in my work. From the beginning, I knew that Ken had an abusive relationship with his mother. I did not understand the full nature of this relationship until a playwriting professor in grad school (circa 2012) encouraged me to dig deeper. In early drafts of the play, before I understood the depths of the abuse, there was a scene where the ghost of Veronica crawled into bed with Ken and Levi. Understandably, my professor thought that was very loaded.
What was your research process like? Did you talk to professionals about survivors of abuse? What did you learn that informs the play?
Teresa Lotz: Growing up, I read everything I could find on mental health, specifically bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I was desperately trying to “figure out Ken.” I have been in and out of therapy since age 16 with a lovely tri-fecta of binge-eating disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. I am sharing all of this because I’m a huge proponent for increased transparency about mental health — erasing the stigma and normalizing therapy. A big part of that and being a writer is being honest about my own experience and also talking to as many people with expertise and lived experience as possible!
I also got lucky when I married a psychotherapist! This is the most convenient research method by far. My wife, Jessica, has read every single draft of this play that has ever existed. And that is not an understatement! One of the many things I love about Jessica is that she never hesitates to call me out or offer her muse-like wisdom!
Why do you set the play in Kentucky? Freddie’s Place is described as a dive bar in remote Kentucky. What about that region informs the play?
Teresa Lotz: Ken lives in Morgantown, West Virginia — which I got to first visit when my best friend from high school decided to go there for college! It’s a quaint college town, and I felt immediately at home in some strange way. I’m from Maryland myself, which is not quite south or north (depends on who you ask!). Finding a country dive bar is certainly not as farfetched in my hometown as it is in New York City! I thought about and did some google mapping about where Ken might end up if he were to drive for a couple hours. A tiny town not too far over the Kentucky border was where he ended up!
More recently, I’ve learned more about the extremity of the opioid epidemic currently being experienced so many people in the United States. And I realized that this setting is even more right than I had originally expected. So many people are being crippled by addiction, and so many eyes are still closed. On a societal level, we still blame addiction on a moral failing, when it’s so often a symptom of a bigger problem. In my work, I want to invoke some of the empathy I experience learning about this painful subject.
The play’s dialogue is fairly spare, its action fluid. I’m guessing it runs less than 90 minutes. I’m curious about how the development stages of the play led you to the production draft. Was it “fatter” as a first draft and then you edited, or are your plays usually this sinewy?
Teresa Lotz: Many people have told me that they hear a lot of music in my plays within the dialogue. I am so flattered when that observation is made about my work, especially since I consider myself primarily to be a composer. Overall, I think of writing a play or musical as a “shaving down” to the most essential layers. Or chipping away at a diamond. There’s nothing I dislike more than stray word or an over explanation. I will continuously tweak and hammer and shave a script until someone stops me.
The runtime for She Calls Me Firefly is between 60-70 minutes depending on how much acting is happening in those long silences throughout the script. I am all about the silent interaction. One of my favorite moments throughout the rehearsal process has been when Sean Hudock, who is playing Ken says, “Hold on, I’m acting!” when his silent beats get cut short. It makes me laugh every time.
I tend to be an incredibly trusting collaborator. I trust the actors, directors, and designers implicitly. So much of a play is what your collaborators bring to it. There is so much that a lighting change can imply that I can’t with words alone. I like to lean into that as much as possible. I want all of my collaborators to be able to pour as much of their soul into this work as I do — and part of that involves complete trust.
There have been many times where a collaborator has said something that didn’t make sense to me at the time, but then suddenly rings so true it makes everything else make sense! Instead of being surprised by this, now, I accept it as part of my process, and I consider myself very fortunate to have such wonderful collaborators in the room for this play.
Both Levi and Ken are artists in the making. What role does “art” play in the lives of these two characters? Were they artists from the first draft?
Teresa Lotz: Levi was always an artist — the kind of abstract artist that draws “black globs,” as Ken calls them. Levi sees the world in terms of art, and I think one of the biggest things Levi brings to Ken is a positive and renewed love for art. Levi thinks everyone is an artist in a way, and I happen to agree.
The first scene that I wrote for She Calls Me Firefly is the one in which Veronica is drawing her self-portrait, and young Ken comments on how she can draw what she feels. So it’s always been part of Veronica, too.
I imagine Ken’s mom and Levi to both be truly talented artists, and though Ken would never admit to being a good artist, I certainly think he has it in him. This is not in the play, but the Ken in my head is actually an actor/singer and his future includes moving to New York, acting in some Off-Off-Broadway plays, getting some cats, and being happily committed to the person he loves! Not too far from what my life is now!
How important is the idea of “hope” in your plays? Do you tend to write toward hope or does it depend on the play?
Teresa Lotz: If we cannot hope, how can we live? I’m an eternal optimist — which I recognize is huge evidence of my privilege but, also — I’m not complaining! Overall from day to day, I’m pretty happy, and I think that’s because I have hope and faith. All of my work does have the search for meaning in it, and to me, the two are very connected. ThreeTimesFast is a musical I’m working on with the amazing Naomi Matlow. We are co-writing the book. She writes lyrics, and I write music. It’s about a 15-year-old girl who is diagnosed with OCD and how she and her family are affected by this. It’s a very personal story for both of us, and it is very much about hope. I also see this in much of my other work.
The idea of “trust” is a bright thread in the play, particularly as it relates to the character of barkeep Freddie, who is seemingly a surrogate mother to Ken, who cannot trust anything or anyone. Was “trust” on your mind as you wrote the play?
Teresa Lotz: It actually wasn’t, but I appreciate that observation! I think trust is a big thing with addiction. There’s a huge level of distrust — an element of not trusting yourself, and others not trusting you. Not trusting yourself or not believing in yourself is something many of us can relate to.
How aware of themes are you when writing a play or musical?
Teresa Lotz: I have noticed that people collect themes. Certain words come up over and over that are connected somewhere deep down to our own baggage/trauma/etc. The writing process and production process is a constant discovering of what these themes are, and parsing them down to the most essential words.
What was the major challenge of writing She Calls Me Firefly, and what did director Ludovica Villar-Hauser bring to the table?
Teresa Lotz: The “collage” nature of the script, with several different intersecting realities, time periods, and plots has time and again proved to me the most difficult part of this show. It feels like putting together a very complicated puzzle. The order of scenes, the timeline, the exact moments expressed, all of these things have changed throughout this process, and sometimes it feels like we’re in quicksand, because each small discovery seems to send the whole script into a spiral. Ultimately, that’s part of the process!
Ludovica is the most empathic director I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. She has a unique ability to stare into a character’s soul and bring them to life in the most emotionally real way. Ludovica says frequently that she believes in Ken and believes that he is strong and that one day, he will be happy. She believes in Ken as if he were a real person — and that’s exactly how I feel about him. There is a lot of trust between us.
Ludovica has been so supportive of my work since we met back in 2011, and she directed the first public reading of the play in 2012 at NYU. I wholeheartedly believe that she is the best director for this piece, and it would not be the show it is today if it weren’t for her trust, support, love, and willingness to engage with the difficult elements of this script. I am eternally grateful to Ludovica and love her like family.
What have you learned in recent rehearsals?
Teresa Lotz: I’m responding to these questions on the day of our last rehearsal before tech week. Over the course of the past few hours, the last five pages of the play changed yet again. We had a frozen script, but a final spark of dramaturgical brilliance on behalf of Melody (the dramaturg) and Meganne (the set designer) pushed me to consider re-shaping the final build and ending.
I feel horribly about this since I promised the poor actors no more script changes. It’s hard to let go, but I feel strongly that the rewrite (as of literally hours ago) is the best ending for the play. It is the most right I’ve ever felt about it, and I believe that the entire team feels that too. Sean told me that the ending felt really right to him as well — and that warmed my heart since he’s been on this journey with me now for over three years and I truly feel he knows Ken as well if not better than I do!
With that being said, what I’ve learned most recently through this process is that I shouldn’t freeze a script until we’ve seen a full run in the room with the full team present. It’s a tough balance working on a new and living, breathing script with actors and a director. I want the actors to feel like they know the script and how can they know it if I keep changing it?
Ultimately, the play comes first, and if I didn’t think the changes recommended by the team were right, I wouldn’t have made them. Everyone in this process wants the play to be the best it can possibly be. Because of that, I am the luckiest playwright!
What exposure to theater did you have when you were a child? And where did you grow up?
Teresa Lotz: I grew up in a suburban corner of Baltimore, Maryland, and my family loves theater. When I turned 16, instead of having a big party like all my friends did, I came to New York City for the first time to see musicals with my mom and grandmom, Baba. I was in every school and community theater play and musical I could get myself into, and I started music-directing for community theater shows when I was a teenager. It was my whole life.
One time, one of my mentors noticed that I had involved myself in everything I could. I was stretching myself very thin. He was my high school music teacher, Shane Jensen, and he encouraged me to really think about what my priorities were, and to focus my time on the things that would get me closer to my goals. I took that to heart, and I prioritized only the things that would ultimately make me a better theater writer and eventually land me in New York City, where I could do this professionally. I’m working towards that and I’m proud of where I am now.
There is a certain hypertheatrical lyricism to the structure of She Calls Me Firefly. Does it feel, for lack of a better word, “musical” to you?
Teresa Lotz: Aw, see, thanks! That’s what I was talking about earlier — I have been writing music and stories my whole life, but my greatest focus has always been on writing music. I play piano and violin and sing, and my other projects are primarily musicals (in which I’m writing the music). I think of everything very musically — including my daily life. I hear music in the strangest things and think of conversations in terms of what instruments people would be if they were instruments. Ken is a cello, if you were wondering!!
Are there music elements to the production?
Teresa Lotz: Of course! At Freddie’s Place (the bar), there’s live music every night. Every night we’ve got real live musicians playing during pre-show before Freddie (the bartender in the play) closes up. It is once Freddie has closed the bar that the show begins. There’s also music throughout the play in moments where it makes sense — Freddie’s Place music, gay club music, etc.
The production has a site-specific nature: it’s being performed in a working bar in Manhattan. Was that always your plan, or can future producers create their own worlds? Are audience members going to be sitting at tables, at a bar, and/or traditional theater seats?
Teresa Lotz: Future producers can and should create in their own worlds, but it makes so much sense to me to have this play be as immersive as it can be. During the workshop, we turned New Perspectives Studio into a bar. This time, we don’t have to turn it into a bar, because the Huron Club already is a bar. Audience members are sitting at tables. There are times when audience members are literally sharing the table with the ghost of Ken’s mom or with Ken. The action is totally up in your face, and that’s the point.
Do you identify as a composer, lyricist, librettist and playwright? Is one role more prominent than another?
Teresa Lotz: I usually say that I write words and music — rather than defining the book/lyrics/plays/etc. As I’ve mentioned, I think I am a composer first, then the rest. I have only been writing plays the past seven years or so, while I’ve been writing music and musical theatre since I was 10! I do feel like they both influence everything I do.
Does She Calls Me Firefly represent a departure from what you usually write?
Teresa Lotz: Not at all! My other play which was developed with New Perspectives Theater Company’s Woman’s Work Lab, Mommy’s Little Princess, is a comedy, but there are a lot of similar themes — especially parent issues and relationship/power dynamics! The Awakening, a musical adaptation of the novella by the same title by Kate Chopin, is a musical I’m working on with bookwriter/lyricist Sarah Rebell, and suicide and depression are two of the biggest themes in the show. My musical Mistress, which I’m writing alone at the moment, is about Zona, a barista/writer who decides to work part-time as a dominatrix and it really doesn’t go the way she planned. Basically, the weirder the better. I want to challenge audiences as much as I can, and I like to challenge myself as a writer to dig deep, even when it hurts. Again, let’s not psychoanalyze this!!