Saturday, August 5, 2017

Dishing Up the Life of a Playwright with Jacques Lamarre of Raging Skillet at Connecticut's TheaterWorks

Dana Smith-Croll, George Salazar and Marilyn Sokol. {hoto" Lanny Nagler
By Lauren Yarger
Jacques Lamarre's newest play, Raging Skillet, is getting its world premiere, complete with some tasty treats for the audience, at TheaterWorks through Aug. 27.

Skillet is set as the book launch for the actual autobiography of Chef Rossi (Dana Smith-Croll), the popular "Jewish, lesbian punk-rock caterer" and has her preparing recipes in her kitchen, then feeding members of the audience (designed by Michael Schweikardt). She gets an assist from sous chef DJ Skillit (George Salazar) and her just-returned-from-the-dead, guilt-sprinkling mother (veteran comedian Marilyn Sokol.) Signed books are available at the theater.

The format savors the success of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, the playwright's hit gastronomic adaptation of Giulia Melucci's dating memoir, which has gone on to serve up helpings of freshly made pasta at numerous regional theaters following its premiere at TheaterWorks in 2012.

Because I know Jacques and have a professional relationship with him that might be seen as a conflict, I won't review the show. Instead, I sent him some questions. Below are his sizzling responses.

Raging Skillet (directed by John Simpkins) plays through Aug. 27 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $15-$65:

CT ARTS CONNECTION: Setting the premise as a book launch for Chef Rossi is different (but I know you are only trying to outdo my stellar launch for author Tessa Afshar at the Mark Twain House....)Tell us about how the conversation went when you pitched this idea. 

JL: Thanks to my time at The Mark Twain House and Museum, I have put on a number of book launches and have had the pleasure of hosting some exceptionally well-executed book celebrations by outside event planners. :-) We were looking for a mechanism where Chef Rossi could plausibly talk to the audience about her life while preparing and serving food. The book launch concept came out of conversation with the artistic team as a great way to solve the challenge of why she has to tell us her stories and why she would demo her kitchen creations.

CTAC: How did adapting an unpublished book for the stage differ from I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, which already had been published? 

JL: The actual adapting of an unpublished book vs. a published book was not in-and-of-itself different. Negotiating for the stage rights was quite different because Rossi does not have an agent and is with a small publisher. This made the process quicker and easier. As with I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, I vetted everything I wrote with the author directly and acted as a go-between with the director to balance story veracity with theatricality. Both Rossi and Giulia (the subject of Spaghetti) made very few changes were generous in their trust.

CTAC: You have a food prep theme going on here. Coincidence or did the success of the first inspire the second? Were you already a fan of Chef Rossi?

JL: I certainly think what set apart I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti was the gimmick of the food preparation. Suddenly, theater went from being just seeing and hearing to include tasting and smelling. That story was very intimate and set in a kitchen, the warm smells brought you closer to Giulia. With three actors and lots of sound, lights, and projections, Raging Skillet feels even more immersive for the audience. We all have a relationship with food which I think makes the stories more universal and personal at the same time. I am hoping that this is my last food play for a while. It creates a lot of challenges for the theater.

No, I was not a fan of Chef Rossi before I encountered her book. Now I'm the president of her fan club.

CTAC: What is the hardest aspect of working with authors who have shared some of their most intimate and difficult moments? It's one thing to write it on paper. It's another to see it come to life on stage.

JL: I love writing about women and I love that the women I am writing about in Spaghetti, Skillet and Born Fat are all alive! They have all been so forthcoming with stories that have not been featured in their respective books. I can't say that working with the subjects of the plays has been difficult in any way. They've all been delighted with the results. The bigger challenge is how to take someone's personal experiences and make them stage-worthy -- our lives don't normally have a dramatic arc. That's my job as the playwright to structure their lives into a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

CTAC: Chef Rossi isn't all that sympathetic a character, especially when it comes to her treatment of her mother (and she gets called out for this by Skillit). Tell us about the writing process of that aspect, especially since you have a very good relationship with your own mother. Is this addressed in the book (sorry, I haven't read it) or was that something you added?

JL: In the book, there are a lot of laughs at the mother's expense. Although she is oftentimes inadvertently funny, the play really needed a moment where Rossi gets called out on being "every parent's nightmare." In the book, Chef Rossi does come to a realization that her mother was an exceptional woman, but dramatically I wanted her to acknowledge the depth of sacrifice this seemingly crazy mother made for her daughter. Their difference in religious outlook (Orthodox vs. non-religious), language (Mom uses Yiddish, Rossi uses profanity), and philosophy.

CTAC: Talk about the life of a playwright. You are working on one project, like this world premiere, but also dealing with other productions of Spaghetti and others of your works. How do you balance it all? How do you turn on the creativity for one project and turn off thoughts that might be coming for another?

JL: When I am working on multiple projects at once, it is not so difficult for me to hop creatively from the world of one play to the world of another. The challenge comes when the business of being a playwright conflicts with my day job as a marketing-events person or the competing time requirements for various productions occur. It can be overwhelming being the creative person and the business person, but fortunately I have been able to wear both hats.

CTAC: Are you acting as producer for the shows or does someone else handle that aspect of the business for you? Are you contacted by word of mouth or do you do a lot of submitting of the plays to theaters?

JL: I produce my own plays very infrequently. It is A LOT of work to wrangle directors, actors, venues, sets, props, etc. It ends up requiring me to take money out of my pocket or beg friends for the money. Despite my successes, I have not been able to land an agent, so I do have to hustle my own work. Fortunately, good reviews and word of mouth has landed my work at a variety of theaters. I'm really blessed in that regard.

CTAC: You are a local celebrity. Does that help or hurt when trying to find homes for your plays?

JL: It's so hard to answer this without sounding fat-headed! My relationship with TheaterWorks has been instrumental in my establishment as a professional playwright. I've got a great relationship with Seven Angels in Waterbury, as well. I am not sure if it is in the future to have my work on other Connecticut stages. I certainly hope so, but that isn't my choice.

CTAC: What advice do you have for a playwright just starting out?

JL: See a lot of plays and read a lot of plays. After years of doing both, I started to see how important structure and character are on stage. After you've seen and read enough, you can tell when a play goes off the rails, where it sinks, and where it soars.

CTAC: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned along the path to being a playwright?

JL: Like it or not, EVERYONE is going to have an opinion on your work. The girlfriend of the subject of Raging Skillet was giving me tips on how I could make the play better. An actor friend was telling me how I could improve it. Directors, actors, staff and critics, of course, will share how you can fix it (if, indeed, it is fixable). It may not need fixing. You have to develop the openness to see this feedback as a gift instead of an attack. It generally comes from a generous place and you have to receive it generously, even if you disagree and have no intention of taking the advice. This has been difficult for me and is something I am working on accepting graciously!
CTAC: What's next?

JL: I have two biographical plays in the works that are based on noteworthy female singers at pivotal junctures in their lives. One is a play with two songs; the other is a non-traditional approach to a musical. I'm excited about both. A theater up in Boston and I are in discussions on a new commission that may be surrounding my personal struggles with anxiety. I've got some plays that I have already written that I am working to get produced. As always, I have more than I can handle!

More About Jacques:

JACQUES LAMARRE is an award-winning playwright living in Manchester, CT. His play I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti premiered at TheaterWorks in 2012. The comedy went on to have subsequent productions at George Street Playhouse, Asolo Repertory, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Seven Angels, Florida Repertory, Half Moon, Hangar Theatre. Stoneham Theatre and Penobscott Playhouse. 

He is one of eight playwrights who wrote Christmas on the Rocks for TheaterWorks, with subsequent productions at Richmond Triangle Players (VA) and Warehouse Theatre (SC). Born Fat, another comedy, was workshopped at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and premiered at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT. It was subsequently remounted for the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York, garnering an award for Outstanding Solo Show. 

Other MITF productions include writing the book for Save the Robots - A Sci-Fi Musical Comedy and Emerson Theatre Collaborative’s production of Gray Matters (nominated for Outstanding Playwriting). His newest comedy My Vhite House Christmas Spashial vith Melania (Live from Trump Tower) received a readings at HartBeat Ensemble and a workshop at Seattle’s Jewel Box Theatre. 

He was commissioned in 2014 by the Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation to celebrate their 50th anniversary with Ned and Sunny, which starred Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker. Other productions and readings include: Jacques Lamarre Has Gone Too Far (Hole in the Wall Theatre), Stool (New York 15 Minute Play Festival, Top Ten Finalist), The Rub (Floating Theatre), Pierce (Herstory Theatre Company), Colonel Sellers: Reanimator (Mark Twain House and Museum, Little Theatre of Manchester), among others. 

Jacques has co-written 13comedy-cabaret shows for drag performer Varla Jean Merman (including 2017’s Bad Heroine), as well as the screenplay for Varla Jean and The Mushroomheads. Jacques works for BuzzEngine Marketing & Events with prior stints at The Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford Stage, American Stage Festival, Yale Repertory Theatre, and TheaterWorks Hartford.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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