Photo by Laura Rose
Yasin: Things disappear in war. Objects in museums vanish.
Shali: You care so much for these objects. What about the people?
Yasin: The objects are part of the people. They’re the deepest, hidden most secret part. They’re the best part and the most important part to protect.
Shali: You’re talking about love?
Yasin: Yes! I love them. I do.
Shali: And your statue? The one you care so much about. Did you send it to Baghdad?
Yasin: We sent a great many.
Shali: You said a great many people were concerned about it.
Yasin: We’re concerned about every artifact.
Shali: But you said it was special.
Yasin: They’re all …
Shali: Special to you.
Shali: Is that your secret?
That was an excerpt from the award-winning play, "Inana" by Michele Lowe.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Michele Lowe is a successful working playwright whose work has been produced in regional theaters throughout the country as well as on and off-Broadway. Writing musicals as well as dramas, she is a hard playwright to peg. Her plays are very different from one another in style as well as subject matter. But Michele brings to all her work an observant eye, an imaginative curiosity and a deep appreciation of the collaborative process. This combination has served her well. Her output is impressive in both quality and quantity.
In 2009, she had not one but two world premieres. "Inana" produced at the Denver Center Theater Company tells the story of an Iraqi museum curator and his attempt to protect his country’s art before the war.
Her second premier was "Victoria Musica" which debuted at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Victoria Musica gives us the tale of a music critic who begins to suspect that the recordings of a world-famous cellist are all frauds. Both plays opened to great critical acclaim. Michele Lowe was a finalist for the 2009 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for INANA which went on to win the 2010 Francesca Primus Prize. And, Michele was also a finalist for the 2010 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for "Inana" and for VICTORIA MUSICA. It was the first time in the award’s 33 year history that a playwright has been independently nominated for two plays in one season.
I saw "Inana" at the 2010 Contemporary American Theater festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia where it was directed by the festival's founder Ed Herendeen. I was eager to speak with Michele Lowe and caught up with her later that summer in New York City. I spoke her with in an apartment overlooking Broadway so you'll occasionally hear the sound of NYC traffic. I began our conversation with Inana. I asked Michele for a thumbnail sketch of the play and got an unexpected response.
Michele Lowe: "Inana" is the story of a curator from Mosul in Iraq, northern Iraq, who flees to London on the eve of the American invasion in 2003 and he takes with him four mysterious suitcases, his bride of four hours and, in the course of one night, they will or will not fall in love and save the world.
Jo Reed: Not to put too fine a point on it.
Michele Lowe: No. <laughter>
Jo Reed: And it's certainly a very political play, though it's not driven by politics. Politics is imbedded in it.
Michele Lowe: I've always had an interest in stolen art. I studied it in school, I think it happened that, when I read about the art that had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II, I became very interested in that and I was always looking for some place to put my passion for stolen art into a piece of work and I never found it. And then when we invaded Iraq, I found it and I wanted, at that time, I was commissioned by Denver Center Theater, I wanted to write a love story. I thought that it was time for me to look at that and here was the context that I could put a love story and my feelings about the invasion, which I thought was pretty botched. And the looting that ensued shortly after we went into Iraq was wholesale and horrible and it was a way for me to take what I wanted to do and put a place and a time and a love story around it. And what I wanted to do was say that this was not done right. We made a mistake. How we left everything open and did not protect the world's legacy, which happens to be partly in Iraq.
Jo Reed: How long, from the germ of the idea to seeing it mounted at its premiere?
Michele Lowe: I was commissioned by Denver in 2005. Actually, I was commissioned in 2006. It took me three months to write the first draft. I then sent it off to Denver and we talked about what would happen if we started to think about putting it into the Colorado New Play Summit. Since I think it was 2005, the Colorado New Play Summit has happened every February and it's where Denver Center Theater puts up four or five plays, they do readings, and, from that, they often choose what they will produce the next year so it's a terrific opportunity for writers. And they had started commissioning and they had commissioned me and I wrote "Inana." Starting in August, I was lucky enough to get a reading with Denver Center's permission at the Playwright Center in Minneapolis. We did a reading there of this Middle Eastern play with eight actors who were white and game and wonderful and I spent a weekend working on it there. And then it was accepted into the Hartford Stage's brand new festival, which I did in November of that year. And I started to cast in earnest for a production and then it was part of the Colorado New Play Summit in 2008. And we produced it in 2009. So it was a journey of some time and, like all things, you put your passion into, it just takes the time it's supposed to take.
Jo Reed: Well, how does it work? How many drafts did you go through?
Michele Lowe: Oh, I killed off a lot of characters, I have to say. I Every time I did a new draft, somebody died in it and it was- it was just a matter of I researched and researched, I had mounds of research. Thank god for the internet. I never could have written this play had it not been for the internet because there was so little information about what it was like to live in Iraq during Saddam's era, all of those decades. But, little by little, as I worked on "Inana", more information was coming out. And so I had all this research and, when you have this much, you want to put it all in. You want to just get it all in there and, of course, it didn't belong in there. So, little by little, I was able to take some out and yet keep the heart of the play in there and really synthesize it down to its most important stories. And there is more than one story. It's a thriller, it's a love story, it's a story about art, it's a story about an impending invasion. And there's a lot of history in there. So I had to figure out a way to balance all of that, otherwise, the story that you want to tell never really gets told. It gets- it gets too vague. And so it took time to get it done.
Jo Reed: I'm really interested in this process because I would imagine the first time you actually hear it in the mouths of other people...
Michele Lowe: Oh, it was huge.
Jo Reed: You see it differently almost immediately.
Michele Lowe: Yes, and going and finally getting a cast that was Middle Eastern was a big jump in my learning curve as well. Our cast in Colorado at the Denver Center Theater for the production, we had cast members from Lebanon, from Saudi Arabia, from India, from Egypt and so I was learning a lot when I got all those people around the table. I've never been to Iraq. I've never been to the Middle East. I have many friends from the Middle East but to sit around the table and get their input into not only the politics but the language was invaluable to the process.
Jo Reed: And the director.
Michele Lowe: Oh, my director.
Jo Reed: How important is the director?
Michele Lowe: Michael Pressman was terrific. He had produced- rather, he had directed "Come Back Little Sheba" recently on Broadway and he wanted to do another play. He wanted to do a new play and I was introduced to him and we hit it off immediately. He really understood what I was trying to do with "Inana" and he understood the heart of it. And he and I had a terrific collaboration and started working right away before we even did the New Play Summit in 2008, we were working on it.
Jo Reed: "Inana", it was the first time I sat there in a preview. I would always sit and look at my plays and- and never think I got it quite right. But there were moments where I would cringe and say, "Oh, god, that- that doesn't work. I'll have to fix that at some point." And I don't always get- I don't always get around to fixing it. Something else comes up and I have to address that. So, when I did "Inana" in Denver, it was a very special experience for me because it was the first time where I sat through a preview and I thought, "Maybe, just maybe I got it right." And that was exquisite for me. That was just a feeling I'd never ever had before. And it was good for my soul.
Jo Reed: That's great. That really is. That's lovely when that happens.
Michele Lowe: It doesn't happen very often
Jo Reed: Okay. So now here's my second question because I'm just so fascinated by the process and how this works, it was also one of the plays in Shepherdstown, the Contemporary American Theater Festival...
Michele Lowe: Right.
Jo Reed: ...in Shepherdstown and it was its second run. Did the play change a lot from Denver to Shepherdstown?
Michele Lowe: One of the great things that happened after it premiered in Denver was that I got to meet one of my heroes. Donny George was the former head of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. And I met him for the first time after reading and studying him for years. It was like meeting your super hero, the one person in the world you wanna meet. I finally got to meet him and he read the play. And we went to lunch and we spent three hours together and it was hugely informative. And it was wonderful for me, too, because he was able to tell me that I got it right and that is something that any author who deals with history and contemporary politics wants to hear. And, through Donny, I was able to make some changes in the names of the characters, that the names that I had chosen weren't exactly right for these characters. And so one of the biggest changes was that I had to change the name of my lead character. He was Darius in Colorado and, in Shepherdstown, he became Yasin and that was one of the biggest changes.
Jo Reed: How important is the set?
Michele Lowe: One of the great things about Shepherdstown, too, was I was not able to achieve, visually, the ending that I had seen in my head when I wrote "Inana." And because of the stage constraints in Denver, we had a beautiful ending. It was just great. It was just lovely for its situation. But what ended up happening, when Ed Herendeen and I met to discuss the production in Shepherdstown...
Jo Reed: And he also directed "Inana" in Shepherdstown.
Michele Lowe: Correct. He was wonderful in asking me, "Is there anything you want me to pay attention to that maybe you couldn't achieve that you- when you went back to- to look at it again," 'cause I did go back after two weeks, after the premiere, I went back to see it again in Denver, "Is there something else that- that maybe you saw or wanted to try?" And I said, "Yes. Is there any way that we could look at the ending a little bit differently physically?" At the end of "Inana," the two characters, in their minds, go back to Iraq from London and we did this beautifully through light and sound in Denver but I wanted to make it more of a statement, a more physical statement. And what happened in Shepherdstown was exactly how I had seen it which was they literally go back to Iraq, the stage splits in half and physically it is a dramatic change. And it was something that I didn't know that was gonna happen. They were very excited when I went to Shepherdstown and said, "There’s a big thing gonna happen at the end of the play. We won't tell you what it is but wait 'til you see it." So I saw it opening night and I was thrilled. I was just thrilled because it was so dramatic and it was exactly what I had hoped for. So that was a big change for me, too, to see what I had imagined on written actually happen. And it worked. You're thrilled when it works.
Jo Reed: I'm always struck in theater by how many pieces there are, what collaboration it is. I mean, it's the vision certainly of you as the playwright but then it's the vision of the director that has to be...
Michele Lowe: Oh, sure.
Jo Reed: ...married to the vision of the designer...
Michele Lowe: Sure. Oh, yes.
Jo Reed: ...which- and god forbid we forget the actors.
Michele Lowe: With this show, the costume designers, for example, were very- I- I spoke to Shepherdstown's costume designer, to the CITF costume designer at length about how western the costumes should be, how Middle Eastern. That was very important to realizing the show. Speaking about the art that's portrayed on stage, we see the statue of Inana and just how much Donny George was also very, very wonderful about looking at the statue that we had used in Denver and giving me some more pointers when we do it again, which we did in Shepherdstown, what changes we could make on the statue of Inana. So the sound design, too, was very, very important to me. How we used music, sound effects. A lot of "Inana" happens in flashback and how we could use sound to indicate flashbacks and make it as smooth as possible was really important. And the lighting, for the same reason, was very, very important going in and out of the flashback scenes, realizing the end. These were all people that were very, very involved. I mean, you're always involved with- with the- the designers whenever you do a play, a new play in particular but these people were really, really important to "Inana" in both Denver and in Shepherdstown and I was very close to all of them.
Jo Reed: Now, there is "Victoria Musica".
Michele Lowe: Yes.
Jo Reed: Were you working on these simultaneously?
Michele Lowe: Yes, I was. I actually. Yeah, it got a little crazy there, it got a little crazy but it worked. As I said, it usually takes me three months to write a first draft and I came home and wrote "Victoria Musica" in two and a half months. Uhm.. I had written a draft and the year before and Ed Stern at Cincinnati Playhouse was very keen on doing it but I needed to do another draft of it and I landed from Denver and had to do that next draft and get it ready for production, which was in September. It was an incredible year, 2009, for me just because, to have two world premieres was just the most thrilling year for me. It- it just was incredible. It was hard- it was hard but it was an embarrassment of riches as well.
Jo Reed: Well, tell us a little bit about "Victoria Musica".
Michele Lowe: Sure. I'm always very interested in themes of identity and this is the story of a music critic who works in London for a magazine very much like Gramophone and he wakes up one morning to find out that Victoria Wedlin, a very famous cellist, has died and this cellist I've created is on par with Yo-Yo Ma. Everyone in the world loves this woman except for him. And so he's encouraged by his editor to go back and listen to all 27 of her recordings that she put out on Sony. Because she was ill for 12 years, she had not been seen in the public eye but had only been heard. And he goes back and listens to Victoria on these 12 CDs and, when he's finished, he decides that she was a fraud and that all of these CDs were manipulated and faked. He doesn't know how but, in his gut, this is what he believes. And so this is the story of how he risks everything, including his life, loses his job, his health, to find out whether he's right or he's wrong. And the parallel story that runs is the story of Victoria and her husband and what happened 15 years before that influenced what she did with her career and these recordings. So I had to learn a lot about cello music, boy.
Jo Reed: Again...
Michele Lowe: So I was in Iraq, I was in London a lot in 2009, all in my head, and learning a lot about cellos.
Jo Reed: What drew you to this?
Michele Lowe: Because I'm interested in questions of identity. It seemed that the years before, there had been all these people out there, from Bernie Madoff to James Frey, Joyce Hatto, all of these- these people who had come forward with these false identities and had- had created these other people that they said were themselves and expected us to believe them at their word, that we would trust that these were these people. Why wouldn't we believe that Bernie Madoff was a really great guy and a wonderful investor? And why wouldn't we think that James Frey had created something that he said was true and yet had borrowed and- and was really fiction. And Joyce Hatto, who was a pianist who had created all of these uh... these recordings that she had manipulated or her husband, rather, had manipulated. I was really interested in those people that feel that they have to hide behind or create other identities and who we were as part of their audience, what role we played in their creation. And so I really, really, I had a really good time creating these other characters and putting forth a story that that I believe was really also I think people have done this through centuries. I think that we've always been around people that were even beyond chameleons, they were creating other selves. It just seemed that, in the last couple of years, that there were just a lot of them.
Jo Reed: So different from "Inana".
Michele Lowe: Yes, so different from "Inana". Less political, but nevertheless from my head.
Jo Reed: Clearly art interests you.
Michele Lowe: Yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. I don't uh... I- I am not a painter, I am not an illustrator, I cannot draw. In fact, there's a line in a play of mine, "Map of Heaven," there’s a line that one of the characters says, he says, "My people look like wolves." When he draws, his people look like wolves and that's me. I cannot draw at all. And my artistic vision is only in words. And so it's something that really, really fascinates me because I can't do it. <laughs> I just can't do it. I have no vision for what any piece of art of mine would look like. So I create people who do have artistic vision. Again, "Map of Heaven", the leading lady is an artist. She makes maps of places that don't exist. So, for me, it's a way to pretend, maybe, to say, "Oh, my goodness," if I was gonna be an artist, if I was gonna be a musician, I've always loved the cello. I think it's so sexy and I think its sound is so rich and so beautiful. So if I were going to play an instrument, I would play the cello. And if I was going to be a painter, I would paint maps of places that don't exist. So, for me, this is my way it's not even a fantasy. I guess it's my own reinvention of myself but I'm not putting myself out there, I'm putting myself in my plays. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Your plays have been produced all around the country.
Jo Reed: You really are wedded to regional theater, I think, in a very profound way. Talk about that. How do you move? How do you get your plays produced in so many different parts of the United States? Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Florida, Colorado.
Michele Lowe: I like the regions. I mean, yes, I love New York and I love to be produced in New York. There's something about the regions that most artists I think would tell you that's a little more forgiving, that audience people- audience members come in and they wanna like your show. They don't come in with an axe to grind. They really want to listen and they're also very well educated. The theaters that are doing new plays like Denver Center, like City Theater in Pittsburgh, like Florida Stage, like Hartford Stage, those theaters are really amassing playwrights but they're really pulling together new plays and they're telling their audience, "Look, it's really important that we look at the classics but it's even more important that we add to the American theater canon and they pull in playwrights like myself who are doing new work and introduce me to their audience. Very often, I will come in and do a reading of a play before it's produced. That happened in Denver. I did a play reading of "Good On Paper" before it was commissioned and, from that, I established a relationship with Denver Center. Florida Stage has produced two of my plays. City Theater, also two of my plays. North Coast Rep out in California. So these theaters tend to bring me in. They tend to welcome me in a way that's really, really lovely and these audiences are really smart and I really like them and it's really nice to go back. For example, I go back to Denver now, I'm- I'm starting to recognize people in the audience who have been with me for five years as my work has evolved and it's wonderful. I like working in the regions.
Jo Reed: It sounds like you're able to develop more of a relationship with not just the theater company but with the audiences themselves.
Michele Lowe: I think so, yes.
Jo Reed: Itself.
Michele Lowe: I think so. I have relationships here in New York with Primary Stages, and various producers, commercial producers here in town and the relationships that I have uh... outside of New York in the regions is- they're very important to me and I love working there. I don't mind schlepping, either. I enjoy it.
Jo Reed: Now, you've had work produced on Broadway.
Michele Lowe: Yes and off Broadway, yes.
Jo Reed: Is it not better/worse but just...
Michele Lowe: It's different.
Jo Reed: Different. Can you talk about the differences?
Michele Lowe: Sure, it's different. Well, New York audiences, people will tell you, are very different. There's more at stake, obviously, when you're on Broadway. There's money. You also have to generate your own audience when it's a commercial production. The lovely thing about being in a regional theater is you have a subscription base and so you have an audience every night. When you go on Broadway, you have to generate that audience every night. You have to do it with advertising and press and the variables are such that you really don't know what you have until you're up and going.
Jo Reed: Do you think regional theater is sometimes overlooked as almost a cradle for contemporary playwrights?
Michele Lowe: I don't think it's overlooked. I think more and more regional theaters are hoping to move their productions. I think that they also would like a piece of New York. We all would like a piece of New York, I mean, it's in- it's in our DNA to want that. I think that many regional theaters are still hoping that, when they do have a big success, that the show will come to New York in some manner. I think there's a lot of great new plays being done out there. I think most- I can't say most- I think many, many new plays that you do see in New York now are being brought from the regions or at least the writers are being brought from the regions in a big way.
Jo Reed: You have a degree in journalism.
Michele Lowe: I do.
Jo Reed: From Northwestern.
Michele Lowe: I graduated from Medill, went to Northwestern, I went to J school and I actually started off in the business, in the advertising business many, many years ago. So I was not a reporter, I was in the advertising business but I think, deep down, I always wanted to be a reporter. I just didn't have the guts to do it and I was just talking to another friend of mine last night, actually, another playwright and we were both saying that one of the things that we loved to do is interview people as well as do the research if the play calls for research. And more and more, my plays do call for research. And, if I wasn't a playwright, I would probably have been a reporter. I would have gotten around to doing that because I love to talk to people and find out what's in their head and I need these people in order to give my work an authenticity that's necessary to the play.
Jo Reed: And how did you move to playwriting?
Michele Lowe: How did I get into- right. I was in advertising business uhm.. for a number of years and I always wanted to write theater and had done it on the side. And I started getting these flyers from Playwrights Horizons Theater School and I would look at them longingly and think, "Oh, if I only could have the time to do something like that." But when I was in the advertising business, you work seven days a week. The big line was, "If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday." I mean, you really worked hard. You really worked. And there was no time for anything else in my life. And I finally got to a point where I didn't want to continue in the business. I was being groomed for a big job and I didn't want the big job. I didn't want to continue on. What I really wanted to do at that stage was learn my craft, learn the craft of being a playwright. And so I cut a very good deal with the agency that I was working for and I worked Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I ran a big piece of business as a associate creative director and writer and Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, I went to Playwrights Horizons Theater School. I wrote, I locked myself up at my apartment and I learned to be a playwright. And eventually I stopped working in the advertising business and here I am.
Jo Reed: What was the first piece of yours that you saw on a stage?
Michele Lowe: The first piece I saw, I wrote a play, I'd done pieces of- of things showcases, et cetera, like, et cetera, et cetera, through Playwrights Horizons Theater School which, by the way, was absorbed into TISCH. It's now part of NYU TISCH. The first play that I wrote was a play called, "Hit the Lights." I was commissioned by Bob Moss, who was the founder of Playwrights Horizons, to write a children's play for the Hangar Theater and I said, "Bob, you're crazy. There's no way I can write a children's play." I mean, my language tends to be a little provocative and he said, "I know, I know, just- just try it. Try it." And on the back of a brown paper bag, walking down the street, I outlined a play called "Hit the Lights." And I knew the kids liked music but I didn't have time to find a composer or musicians, we were going to do this quick so I wrote it in verse. I wrote this play, "Hit the Lights" in verse. We produced it at the Hangar Theater and I got very nervous during the production because all the kids, when we did it, were so quiet. And Bob said, "No, no, no. That's a good thing when they're quiet. That means they're listening." And I said, "Oh, okay." A year later, I decided I was gonna find a composer after all and it was a fairy tale, it was a fable that I had written, and I put music to it. Kept it in verse, wrote some songs with a composer and had the audacity to send it to the National Music Theater Conference run by Paulette Haupt at the O'Neill. And, by some craziness that I never really imagined, they accepted it and I was part of the National Music Theater Conference with "Hit the Lights", this 35-minute children's piece, got tremendous support around it. Started a relationship with Paulette Haupt that continues to this day. She's a tremendous, tremendous mentor of mine, just a wonderful person in my life, just has been great and subsequently, a couple of years ago, commissioned me to write another piece that I did with Scott Richards that was done in New York. And "Hit the Lights" was the first play that I got to see with a A-list cast at the O'Neill. It was a workshop and it got me my agent and it started me off.
Jo Reed: Do you listen to music while you work?
Michele Lowe: I do, very frequently I do.
Jo Reed: What do you listen to?
Michele Lowe: Everything that could possibly have to do with what I'm working on. For example, when I was working on "Inana", I was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music and anything I could get my hands on. I would call friends and say, "Send me stuff." Music is a very, very big part of my life and has only gotten more important in my life. And music is very important to it and what's fun about that is a sound designer, a good sound designer like Lindsey Jones, who I worked with on "Inana", the first thing he'll say to me, "Okay, what do you got? What were you listening to? What's in your head?" And we'll never, ever use what's in my head but he'll get a sense of what the music is of the play, not just of the language of the play but the music of the play and then he takes that and just brings his own sense to that and it's just so thrilling for me to hear his vision. I never have thought about directing my own work for that very reason. I wanna hear someone else's thoughts. I wanna see someone else's vision. It's like when you're in the room and you hear an actor do a line that you never heard that way in your head but it's so much better and you think, "My goodness, that's fantastic. Can we keep that? Can we do that? Let's do it like that." That was exciting. That was different from what I imagined" and I'm always thinking, "Somebody else can make what I do so much better." I'm- I'm just the beginning uof what I'm doing. I'm just the start and, for me, the real exciting part is- is working with such good people who bring so much of themselves to it that it grows and it becomes even more special than what I dreamed.
Jo Reed: Michele Lowe, thank you so much.
Michele Lowe: Thank you. This is fun.
Jo Reed: That was playwright Michele Lowe. Michele Lowe's latest play, "The Break," is a new musical written with composer Scott Davenport Richards. "The Break" is about to begin a 3 week workshop at the Signature Theater’s its part of Signature's 21/24 program, the "American Musical Voices Project: Next Generation." The public will be able to catch two performances at the Signature Theater in Arlington Virginia on Sept 1 and 2.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the national Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
The music was written and performed by guitarist Jorge Hernandez used courtesy of Mr. Hernandez.
Excerpt from "Inana" used courtesy of Michele Lowe and the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, veteran and author Richard Currey discusses Tim O'Brien's novel and Big Read selection, The Things They Carried.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Michele Lowe discusses the process that moved her award-winning play Inana from page to stage. [32:07]