Joanna Lally spoke to American playwright Laura Jacqmin, whose play A Third has its world premiere in London at the Finborough this month.
A Friday morning, circa 10.30am Massachusetts time, 3.30 in the afternoon in the UK and Ireland. It is astounding how the effect a slight time difference can sometimes have on jolting perspective, making the ordinary surreal. I speak to Laura over the phone as she is preparing for a busy day across the Atlantic: she is just on the way to rehearsals of a new production of her play Dental Society Midwinter Meeting, which was picked as a top theatre choice by TimeOut Chicago and New City Stage in 2010, and will be revived at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this month. At the same time, Laura’s play A Third is being produced at the Finborough Theatre in West London – a popular venue for new writing.
Is this production part of a supposed wave of emerging American female writers collaborating with British theatre-makers? It seems as though Kevin Spacey’s tenure at The Old Vic, alongside other programmes focused on opening up a transatlantic stage, has brought a greater desire to cross-pollinate dramatic talents. Jacqmin has an impressive resume; she took part in the Old Vic New Voices exchange in 2012 and was also part of the Royal Court Theatre’s International Residency in 2011, so has already established some presence here. However, A Third will receive its world premiere in London as her first full UK production.
As she gathers herself together before rehearsal, Laura explains that her inspiration for A Third, which she also describes in her note to the play, came from reading an article by Dan Savage, in his weekly column ‘Savage Love’ where he responds to readers’ relationship dilemmas in stark agony aunt style. The play deals with the entangled boundaries of monogamous relationships, and how these might be challenged by a culture where, as she describes, we are always ‘dancing around the edge of satisfaction and dissatisfaction’ – both physically and emotionally.
The piece asks if a couple chooses to open up their relationship, and directly involve others in it, can they ever go back to just being two? It begins, Laura notes, by getting straight down to it. There are two couples: Allison and Paul, who ‘have got everything going for them’ but want to try for something more by introducing a third person into the bedroom, which then opens even further into a case of couple swapping with Jay and Mariella. A Third, then, is actually a quartet – Laura describes it to me as a ‘chamber-piece’ – about the relationships between these characters and what the effect of including others in your sex life can do to destabilise notions of monogamy. With A Third, she wanted to get away from writing that was ‘overly curated’. Instead, the play allows the actors to explore and interpret what she calls the micro-feelings of the story, and how these characters react to one another. It deals with bold subject matter; there is, you could argue, still a huge amount of taboo and discomfort about sex and open relationships in society, and as reflected on the stage. Despite theatre being a forum to explore sexuality and make desire fluid, it often confronts us with the limitations of our (the audience’s) seemingly liberal views, much like the complications faced by Paul and Allison in A Third.
Jacqmin is a staff writer for the Netflix series Gracie and Frankie, which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and follows their two characters whose husbands fall in love with one another and decide to get married. I ask her what it is like being a playwright in the US and if there is a considerable difference between her experience as a TV writer and as a writer for the stage. She tells me that in many ways she has been fortunate with many of her projects to date. Working in TV usually involves a large body of writers, with a good proportion of female voices in the room, which creates a sense of belonging. With playwriting, on the other hand, you are often working on your own and against a more staggering level of under-representation, but again Laura has found herself in the company of other female theatre professionals – the creative team she is working with right now in Williamstown is predominantly female.
Laura also explains that the two disciplines feed into one another. For one, the financial freedom from her wage as a TV writer gives her an opportunity to be more innovative in work that she produces for the stage – and more time to do so – for which she is incredibly grateful. In that States at least, I learn, there is a perception that ‘one play is meant to feed you for a year’. In reality, it doesn’t always pan out that way, particularly when gender parity means it is (statistically) more difficult to get your play picked up as a female playwright. Laura belongs to an LA-based collective of playwrights and producers called The Kilroys, who are currently leading an effort to combat the issue of under-representation in American Theatre. They have recently released The List 2015, their second annual survey of the best new plays by female and trans playwrights within the last 12 months. This year they contacted 321 influential theatre professionals (literary managers, directors, producers etc,) who nominated the top 3 to 5 plays they had come across, and then from these recommendations the top 7% was compiled: the 53 plays that received between 4 and 20 nominations. It is an excellent way to promote new work and create recognition amongst other writers and provide a list from which companies and producers can extract new work. The List, published by the Kilroys, shares a common aim with Tonic Theatre’s 100 Great Plays for Women [and 17%’s current project in development, The Directory]. These are the types of initiatives that find practical solutions to lack of representation in theatre, and there is work to be done on both sides of the pond. As Laura remarks during our conversation, it is invigorating to work with collectives of women who are support one another as artists and professionals.
Performances of A Third take place on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at The Finborough until 20 July. The production is directed by Josh Roche, presented by Fat Git Theatre and Corinne Salisbury. More info on the show and ticket booking, can be found here.