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Lindsey Ferrentino Headshot
Lindsey Ferrentino, playwright. Photo by Tess Mayer for The Interval:

Q. Once you have an idea, how do you proceed? Do you take notes? Do you outline? Do you plunge right in?

A. I do a lot of thinking. Which sounds like an excuse not to be writing, but I have to be mulling something over and taking notes for a bit of time before I’d know where to begin. I never outline. And I usually start with some line of dialogue I can’t get out of my head. Though, the act of starting, for me, is always the hardest part. I don’t like staring at a blank page. So copious note-taking helps to avoid that and trick my brain into thinking I’m further along than I actually am. 

Q. Do you have a routine? A regular time when you write?

A. Unfortunately no, not right now. Currently, I don’t even have a permanent home. I’ve been between different states and also countries for various projects, so the last year has been about learning how to be adaptable, whether it’s writing from coffee shops, hotel rooms, airport lounges, planes, asking for a desk at a theatre, before rehearsals, etc. I’m looking forward to a time that’s a bit more settled and I have a single desk again, but it has made me more aware that the routines I used to think I needed to be able to work just weren’t true and that it’s possible to be adaptable.

Q. When you begin a first draft, do you write straight through? Do you write in order? What’s your process?

A. I never write in sequence, but at some point, even before I’ve finished the play, I’ll get an image or a sense of what the ending should be and write that, out of order, so that I have a marker of where I’m headed. Through all the rewriting I do, the beginning and ending almost never change. I try to write straight through as much as I can, but I also want to live with it a little bit so that every play really empties me out and contains, possibly, all the thoughts I’ve been thinking since I wrote the last play. I like to have a sort of emptied out feeling by the end of a good draft.

Q. Once you’re at work, are there other art forms you go to for continued inspiration?

A. It’s hard for me to take in much of anything when I’m actually writing. I read whatever news I have to in order to stay relevant but avoid basically anything else during periods of high productivity. I can’t go to the theatre, watch TV, read novels, watch movies—basically everything that inspired me to become a writer in the first place. The only thing I seem to have energy for during that time is low-brow comedy, nothing with much story, plot, or characters. Which perhaps, doesn’t say much for my taste. BUT. During periods of low productivity, when I’m trying to get re-inspired, and refill up that well, I take in as much as I can and have a sort of limitless appetite for art galleries, movies, plays, novels, etc. I don’t know why exactly that is, but I can’t write and take things in at the same time.

Q. What aspect of the craft is most difficult for you?

A. Plot. And outlining. I can’t fathom how people outline before they write, arbitrarily create story without letting the characters and dialogue lead. I’ve done that, for the sheer curiosity of how that works, but my outlines always change once I’m into the script anyway.

Q. What do you do when you get stuck?

A. Find a good dramaturg. Or a trusted reader. Or a friend just to talk about the play with. A lot of writers are very precious about not talking about their work until it’s done, which I really respect and admire, but not me. I’ll talk about my ideas to anyone willing to listen. I find that creating a dialogue with anyone, an actor, writer, director, a family member who has absolutely nothing to do with theatre and can give an outside perspective, that’s the most useful. I also will generally—at the point I’m stuck—realize I need to hear the draft in progress out loud. I learn so much from that so I gather actors into my living room or agent’s office for a read.

Q. Do you have any thoughts or advice about dialogue?

A. Transcribe real conversations. If you’re shy about secretly recording real conversations (either in public or of people you know) documentary footage can work too. Even if not a single line from the transcriptions makes it into the play, I think of it like an athletic exercise to get my fingers literally moving on my keyboard in the right rhythm. My most recent play is entirely made up of large group scenes and without transcribing some of those, I wouldn’t have known where to begin to get that level of loud, boisterous overlapping.

Q. Do you have any particular principles or practices about character or character development?

A. Characters/character development is the area I take for granted. That tends to be what comes most natural to me so I try to trust that and let everything about the play build from there. But, as I’m writing more, I’m trying to find ways to challenge that ease of which characters are at my fingertips and think - what’s the most unexpected moment for that character I can imagine? And really push myself out of my comfort zone. For example, if I’ve written a character who is gruff and largely unlikeable, try to find a moment of tenderness for them, and visa versa. I think it’s about pushing the characters that seem to come naturally to the extremes.

Q. How extensively do you rewrite, and is that mostly before or during rehearsal?

A. Rewriting is the entire process for me. It’s everything. I hate first drafts when you’re unsure of yourself and figuring everything out. I don’t find that openness inspiring or satisfying in anyway. Even if it’s vague, even if it’s poorly written, even if it’s underdeveloped and makes no sense, I’d rather start with something that I can print, something that I can hold, something that I can mark up with a pen, carry in my backpack, take out, spill coffee on, spread out on my floor, and essentially just live with for a while. I despise the stage when the play is this ephemeral thing that’s being figured out. I like to work in concrete pages. I like getting notes that are specific and not theoretical. So yeah… after I’ve thought about it for a long time, I have to just get it out so that I can start actually working. I’ll do countless drafts of rewriting, so many that I don’t even bother saving each as a separate draft. It’s just constantly evolving.

Q. What’s the most important craft advice you can give?

A. Try to go deep, but also go wide, when it comes to choosing a subject. I think the depth comes from trying to know yourself and be able to write about your life experience, and the width is from being a responsible citizen in the world and not only navel gazing, picking your head up and looking side to side too. Writing roles for people that we don’t see onstage everyday is the most important/challenging/exciting/thrilling thing for me, and why I’m a writer, but I’m still always finding ways to personalize those stories. Getting in touch with my own empathy, personalizing and understanding stories and people I thought had nothing to do with me . . . that’s why I write. And I think also trying to keep in touch with your personal mission of why you want to write is very important when starting a new play.

LINDSEY FERRENTINO’s plays have been/are currently being produced by National Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Playwrights Horizons, The Royal Court, and La Jolla Playhouse. She’s being awarded The Arc’s prize for Entertainment Industry Excellence, for her work for disability inclusion.

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