Monday Sep 20

MarjaLewisRyan Marja-Lewis Ryan was homegrown and housebroken in Brooklyn, New York. She received an honors BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where she studied at The Atlantic Theatre Company's Acting School.  She wrote, produced and starred in the 2010 festival hit The Four-Faced Liar (currently available anywhere you can find movies).  Her film won some things like the HBO Audience Award for Best First Feature and the Roger Walker-Dack Award for Emerging Artists, but Ryan continues to lose things like her keys and her wallet.  She has produced and performed in regional theater on both coasts and has tried stand up, but suffered from what was later deemed a pretty major anxiety attack.  She prefers the privacy of her at-home office, which she shares with a litter box and occasionally two cats.  She is currently penning her second feature, which she promises to be funny, has a short stuck in post, which she assures you is not, and a play in preproduction, which you can read on this site and decide for yourself.  (While Ryan hates when people thank God in their bios, she would like to thank whomever is responsible for sending her the muse which has inspired her to write and love with all of her heart.)

Marja-Lewis Ryan interview, with Joshua Fardon

How did you start writing and how did this play come into being?
I went to the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School at NYU. David Mamet, who started that company, came and taught a master class. In it they picked six people – three scenes went up in front of him. And mine was one of them. And then he gave us notes. So I was shitting in my pants.

What was the scene?
It was from Women in Motion by Donald Marguiles. It’s a great scene between two women, it's wicked, fast, dry humor. Totally my shtick. So I go out there, we do our scene and I breathe for the first time in ten minutes. It's time for notes and David Mamet starts with my scene partner. He gives her a lot of notes – and then he turns to me and says, “I think you're sitting on a lot of joy.” That's all he said to me. We didn't get to do the scene again. We sat back down and then there was a Q&A afterward. I was too embarrassed to ask anything, but there was this one girl in my class who asked David Mamet why he didn't write more roles for women. He looked at her and said, “Why don't you?” And I was like, why don't I? If all we do is bitch about the lack of roles for women our age that are actually good, then there won't be any. So I started to write. That's the first time I wrote anything, my senior year of college. I wrote a one-act play that I adapted into a full-length play that I adapted into a movie. And that's the first movie I made, The Four Faced Liar. So that's how I started writing.
Then, one of the executive producers on the film - her girlfriend called me. She's a struggling actor and she's really good and she's done a lot of theater. She said, “you really write the way I speak and I was wondering if you could write me something.” I always have a docket of loglines of unwritten material – and I happened to have this one logline: a forty year old suburban woman comes out of the closet. That's all I really knew about it, but I knew I wanted to make it a play. So, I said, “yeah, I think maybe I can do something for you.” So I wrote it with this woman's voice in my head and with all the restrictions that make something a play and not a movie.

What are those restrictions?
Well, one of my favorite things about writing plays is trying to figure out how it all happens in the kitchen. I know not all playwrights abide by that. But one of my favorite plays is Brighton Beach Memoirs. The fact that all of this drama happens inside a house is an unbelievable accomplishment to me. But when you're a kid like the lead character, that's all you have; that's your whole world. So I wanted to make this play about this woman's whole world being in the kitchen and having that symbolize something. And the one scene that she has outside of the kitchen is the scene she has with the already-out gay character. I was playing with the symbolism of the whole world existing in the kitchen except for this one person who can take you out. In a movie, it doesn't work like that. I had to struggle to get the Four Faced Liar characters out of their apartment and out of the classroom and out of their jobs because you need the movement, you need the imagery.

Which medium do you prefer?
I think I prefer writing for theater because I'm much more interested in character development than I am in plot development.

What appealed to you about the idea of a married forty year old suburban mother coming of the closet?
I had just written a movie about my peers – four twenty-somethings in New York City, in college, gay. So I wanted to write something that wasn't me. But I also wanted to stay somewhere within my comfort zone so that I didn't fall flat on my face. So Mary's struggle is a struggle I can relate to in some ways, though not on the same scale.

The thing that Sam says about the knot in the throat – how it feels to hold onto a painful secret - it seems like everyone has experienced that, whether it's about sexuality, or ambition or unrequited love. Which gives the play crossover appeal.
Just after The Four Faced Liar got released, I had the opportunity to go into meetings with crazy big people. The one question that came up repeatedly was “what kind of work do you want to do for the rest of your life?” The first time someone asked me that, I answered it so truthfully that I shocked myself. I said, “I just want to write dark comedies for women that don't ostracize a male audience.” And then I kept saying it and I kept getting this positive response from all these guys. And I think that's what I'm trying to do. I think that being who I am in the world, for whatever reason, call it God or Mother Earth or fate, I think my personality sort of straddles the fence of man/woman – and I feel like I should use that to the best of my abilities.

Someone in Mary's position would have a huge amount of anger, but it seems like you've steered us more towards her sadness.
She does have some moments of anger. But in real life, when you're alone, it's very rare to be screaming in the house by yourself. But it's not so rare to be mopey or sitting in bed and crying. And when you're in front of people, the natural thing to do when you're not feeling quite right is to calm down. People are full of censors. I wanted to keep it as real as possible. In the same vein, this is a work in progress.  There's one scene in which Mary's by herself onstage and I would like to look at that – even though I love how it is was played at a reading.

I really like that scene.
It's one of my least favorite reading moments and one my favorite watching moments.

There's often a huge difference between theater that reads well and theater that plays well.
One thing I learned from doing that film, though, is you never want to leave it up to someone else to fix something if you can fix it yourself. You don't want to leave a mediocre scene in your play and be like, “Oh, but a good actor could pull that off or a good director will fix that.” You don't know who your actors will be and who your director is going to be. So, fix as much as you can fix. That scene was starred, as in “fix this,” for me since before the first reading of the play.

In that scene she’s alone, but even when she's talking to other people, she seems alone.
I did a staged reading over the summer – and the big note that I got was that nobody liked her. And I was like “fuck. I really fucked this up.” Everyone felt really bad for her husband and was not on her side at all. But ultimately, it was a really minor adjustment. I think in the earlier draft, it wasn't clear that she had been thinking about this, or that something had been very wrong before this day began. I made minor changes – like, when anyone leaves the room, the stage directions now say “she breathes” or “she slumps over the sink” or “she collects herself.” Without those beats, those moments, if she's just moving from one person to the next, it’s easy for us to lose her. So those little moments really help.

She also comes across as being very brave. Henry says at one point, "Of course we’re unhappy. We have kids and money and food on the table."  They've accepted unhappiness and made it part of their lives.  The big question is why and how long can you stay miserable and fight who you are in order to be of society's idea of who you should be?
It's sort of a shame that I live in Los Angeles and I'm going to do the play here, because I wonder how different the reaction would be if I put it up somewhere where it isn't the norm to chase your dreams.

You might have a very mixed reaction.
But I think passionately mixed.

Right, because it's a really good play.

All Connotation Press plays are presented online to the reading public. All performance rights, including professional, amateur, television and the rights of translation into foreign languages are strictly reserved. If you are interested in seeking performance rights to a specific work contact the Drama Editor, Joshua Fardon.

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