Ohio – North by David Todd
Lisa Beth Allen is a Cleveland-based playwright, teacher, theatre artist, and Guild member. Her plays include the full-length Have a Heart, the one-act Gorged, the musical Jenna and the Troublemaker, and the young audience piece Just Like Me. These and other works have been presented at Walnut Street Theatre, South Coast Repertory, and Metta Theatre, among others. Lisa received the Kennedy Center ACTF Jean Kennedy Smith Award and won the Mandel Jewish Community Center’s Dorothy Silver Playwriting Competition. She’s also published nonfiction in Think and The Dramatist.
In 2005, Lisa suffered a traumatic brain injury, which left her struggling to relearn both mind and body functions even as she took on new challenges such as earning an MFA in playwriting at the University of New Orleans. Twelve years into her recovery, she’s back to her old magnanimous tricks like responding to my offer to interview her. I was glad to get this chance to catch up with her.
David Todd: You’ve worked in multiple genres over the years. How do you handle the shifts between them?
Lisa Beth Allen: Regardless of form, the driving force behind my process is exploring answers to questions in life that just won’t let go [of me]. I tend to blur the lines of form, peppering dramas with bits of singing or other music-making. My TYA plays not only speak to kids, but to the adults I imagine might accompany them. I think my writing reflects the wonder and chaos of everyday life, regardless of the genre.
David Todd: Are there particular ideas you carry through these works?
LBA: I’m drawn to exploring what makes us tick as humans. Why, with a nearly infinite field of possibilities, do we make the choices we make? The other thing I seem preoccupied with is inappropriateness and acting “out of character.” I love to write recognizable characters set into familiar contexts in which a line is unexpectedly crossed. What events make “the best of us” behave antisocially?
David Todd: What challenges do you face as a playwright?
LBA: After two accidents that left me with a disability—no longer able to act, direct, or teach—I had to reinvent myself. My big challenge hasn’t been getting work read [or] selected for development and grants. Full productions are more elusive. It’s a strange thing to be an established theatre artist, but an emerging playwright. I’m not a hot young talent coming out of a top-tier program. [And] because of my disability, I’m not always able to be out there meeting directors and producers socially. Slowly, I’m making new connections wherever possible. It’s humbling.
David Todd: How has the experience of dealing with your injury impacted your writing?
LBA: When I began to write again, my characters were more complicated, filled with contradiction. Having to face the accident and all the losses that it brought helped me develop a greater capacity for uncertainty. Clear-cut resolutions frustrated me. Two years into my MFA program, my eventual thesis play Have a Heart won the Jean Kennedy Smith Award for excellence in exploring the experience of living with a disability. The funny thing is, in my mind, the play was not about disability. (My professor submitted it without telling me.) [However,] this latest draft of Have a Heart is very much an intentional exploration of disability. The play explores the emotional and psychological detritus we all carry.
David Todd: What have you been doing recently and what do you have in the works?
LBA: My play Solomon’s Blade had its world premiere a little over a year ago and is currently under consideration for its second production. I just completed a new draft of Have a Heart, [which is] pretty darned close to ready for production. In the research phase, I have a collection of one-acts called Tiny Mammoth about nature, science, and evolution. I’m also delving into creative nonfiction with a memoir about disability and reinvention.