The March Interview: Lindsey Ferrentino

Lindsey Ferrentino Photograph: Mark Douet

Lindsey Ferrentino has had a busy few years, and the future appears to be even more jam packed for this 28 year old Florida native. Her breakout play, “Ugly Lies The Bone”, currently running in the Lyttelton, at the National Theatre, has had a lengthy journey prior to crossing the Atlantic for its British premiere. 

“It wasn't the first play that I'd written, but it was the first that had gotten attention. Over the past three years it has gone through our countries play development process which is much more extensive than you have here. It's one of the big cultural differences between our theatres. It had gone through the prestigious play development centres you have to apply to back home, which help you get attention so you then get the attention of theatres”. The American process certainly extends the journey of a new play, and Ferrentino explains how hers journeyed to O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, Premier Stages of New Jersey, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, before finally coming to the attention of the Roundabout Theatre Company. “I developed it at Yale when I was I was in school and then Roundabout put it in their reading series; that was it, from there they chose it to be produced.” 

The Roundabout’s production was very well reviewed, Ferrentino felt it “did everything [she]needed it to do in [her] career”. “I thought the play was ‘done’; it was published and had gone on to have several regional productions across the country. Then I got a call out of the blue last April from Ben Powers (Associate Artistic Director at the National Theatre) saying they wanted to produce “Ugly Lies The Bone” at the Lyttelton. He called me directly, my agents didn't even know about it. I thought it was a prank phone call!” Power talked through the reasons why they loved the play, and what they thought the play was doing and at the end of the call, Lindsey found herself saying “Wait, is this an offer?” The play had come to the National via their readers circle, a play reading group that reads and reports back on plays from all over the world just to keep tabs on what's happening. However, they had never produced a play emerging from the circle before. “My play very fortunately ended up in the pile of a man named Nick Sidi who is also a dramaturg, producer and actor. He had really advocated the play, so it bounced its way up and up, and eventually they programmed it.” There was a substantial contrast between its opening in the U.K., and its debut in the States. At Roundabout, it had premiered in a 60 seat black box theatre, developing slowly and gaining momentum with awards and smaller productions, whereas the National had never heard it out loud, let alone seen a production, when they programmed it for the Lyttelton. Ferrentino explained a strange coincidence with the programming. “Years ago, I had seen August Osage County in [The Lyttelton], which was the first American play I saw in London. It is so funny now that my play is in the same space.” 

“Ugly Lies The Bone” revolves around a female war veteran returning to Cape Canaveral, Florida to build a new life for herself. This small town is where Ferrentino was born and raised, a part of what is known as the Florida Space Coast; a series of towns that are sort of popped up to support NASA and the space shuttle industry. “It was a very technologically advanced area, populated with rocket scientists, an exciting place to grow up. Our house was so close to NASA it would shake when the rockets would go off.” It was the shutting down of the space programme in 2011 which prompted her response in the form of “Ugly Lies The Bone”. Ferrentino explains, “The ripple effect of that economically, and the identity of the town just suddenly shifted. There was suddenly huge unemployment, everybody that could left, and this industry town was devastated. So I wanted to write a play about that, and then my best friend became a psychologist at a veteran centre in the area. One day we were talking about veterans coming back and looking for a way to start their lives over, and I felt this paralleled what the town was also trying to do. The play sort of came from those two places.” Whilst reflecting on whether there are themes which dominate her writing, Lindsey knows she has a tendency to find a political subject, which she explores through a character’s perspective.  She calls it the “uninspected, personal story”, and feels she is inclined to write about what a teacher once referred to as the ‘dispossessed’. “Sometimes that means disabled, so I have a few plays that feature disabled female protagonists. Usually my plays are female driven stories, but not always. I write a lot about class, class mobility, unrequited love and the search for home.”

Ugly Lies The Bone

The first draft of “Ugly Lies The Bone” was written over a summer and subsequently worked on and developed in production, but the production at the National seemed to happen quickly for Lindsey. “We did a workshop after they programmed it; once we had our director, and knew who the designer was. I came over to London over the summer and we read it out loud and talked through the play line by line. This was pre-casting, and we figured out what things wouldn't necessarily make sense to a London audience, like would I need to explain more about the space programme.”

“There were some funny little translation things like the phrase “trimming the Christmas tree”, which to me means decorating  the Christmas tree, and in rehearsals here in London, they were physically cutting the tree with scissors!” It was the cultural differences within the play which interested Ferrentino the most. “A really interesting discussion for me was about our definitions culturally of what middle class means in America, compared to here. Back home there's this idea of total upward mobility, that you should be upper class and that you can get there. Whereas it's sort of a point of pride and quite a posh thing to be middle class here, a very comfortable thing and something that you can be quite proud of. I thought that was really fascinating.” These subtleties were interesting to discuss during our interview, and we went on to reference the differences in our physical landscapes. Lindsey went on to talk about the casual life of a Floridian, how if “you can't wear it to the beach, you basically don't wear it”, and of course, the most obvious difference was that the London cast had to learn the accent of the dialogue; “figuring out what is a neutral American accent, with a bit of southern in there too. You can hear it on certain words. I went back and recorded my friends saying a bunch of words, one of the actors hired his own dialect coach, and the National has a wonderful speech and voice team that were also on the production in rehearsals and run throughs. There are just certain things in the play that ring louder in our American zeitgeist than they do to a British ear.”

The National has since gone on to commission another play from Ferrentino, and she has been “mind blown by […] their total trust in me as a writer. It's unbelievable and unparalleled. This all happened not because of the reviews, or anything that had happened before; it was just because they liked the play.” We move on to the difficulties a playwright has in handing over their work to a cast and a director, and she explains how with “Ugly Lies The Bone” this was especially challenging and taught her a lot. “This play has had ten productions and two years of development so I don't have questions about it anymore in the same way as I would a new play. You always have some questions come up, nothing is ever done, but certainly this has been different. I felt I was a few steps ahead just because I've seen it done over and over again, so I have a certain set of rhythms in my head. The learning process has been that just because certain actors rhythms don't exactly match those in my head, it doesn't mean it's wrong, it's just different. I wouldn't have that on any other production. I think as a long term goal, for my life I would like to direct my own plays. It's not something I want to do in the next five years, but I would love a hand at doing that.”

Going on to explain what led Lindsey to a career as a playwright, we delve into family history, education and landmark moments. With a colourful background of familial characters, it's unsurprising that she ultimately became a writer. “My dad’s a comic, so I feel like I grew up in comedy clubs watching him perform, knowing the “ins and outs” of his act, and watching the audience fall for it over and over again. I was fascinated by that. My dad is the only one making a Iiving in the Arts, but my mum is a very sensitive, I would say artistic person, though she would never agree, and I have cousins who play guitar and an uncle who is also a comedian. My great grandfather was a film producer, so it wasn't out of the norm, but wasn't the norm either to do this, but no-one else is a writer.” Ferrentino then went on to explain a historical connection further back within her family which in my view without question secured her chosen career path. 

“I got into writing because I found out I was connected to W.H. Auden. My grandfather’s first cousin was Auden’s life partner, Chester Kallman and they were together for many, many years, and wrote his opera librettos together. So, Chester Kallman would also be in my ‘artistic family’. When I found out that connection, I reached out to writers and artists who knew them, trying to understand their relationship. I was obsessed with that post World War II scene in New York, which is what led me into beat poetry. I was really very interested in that in the beginning.” In reaching out to a number of writers, and researching this historical connection, she found herself writing to Edward Albee, a huge influence on her decision to pursue a life as a playwright. “Albee had written W.H. Auden a letter when he was thinking he was a poet but thinking maybe he was also a playwright saying ‘Can I just meet you, I'm such a huge fan and can we meet and talk about writing’. I wrote Albee a similar sort of letter, so he invited me over to his house and we spent the day talking about writing. He invited me to live in his barn in Montag, which he runs as an artist residency, so I got to be an Edward Albee fellow right after I graduated NYU.” 

Combining that with having written screenplays in high school, and being forced to enter a playwrighting contest, somehow this new adventure in the U.K becomes less of a surprise, although Ferrentino wouldn't agree I’m sure.  After winning the contest, culminating in her first play being produced at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, she went to NYU as an acting major for three years, and took playwrighting courses in addition, when possible. This included time spent in London through a partnership between NYU and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2008. 

Lindsey Ferrentino

As our conversation concludes, we come to talk about favourite plays and writers. Having had her connection to Auden lead to something of a mentoring figure in Edward Albee, Lindsey’s favourite play is “Counting the Ways and Listening”, by Albee. The work is made up of two one Act pieces that are paired together. “They're so strange and bizarre and funny and sad, just all the things that you want a play to be; but the form of both plays is so original. I've never seen either of them performed. There's also references to W.H. Auden in the play which I found when I was in my Auden phase, when I met Albee, so when I read it I felt these weird fireworks going off in my brain, like this intersection of like Auden, and Albee and playwriting, and what I want to do. I was so excited and it was so profound that I found these references and I had these theories of why he'd chosen this line from Auden’s poem.” There is so much passion in what she has to say about this play, and of course when finally able to meet with Albee, was desperate to ask why the Auden references were there. Albee’s response?? ‘Oh, are there? I don't remember, how interesting.’ This realisation of a lifetime spent writing had a significant impact on Ferrentino. “I was asking about this 30 to 40 years after he had written that play, so of course he doesn't remember why or that it's even in there, but what it says about how much you're going to produce over your lifetime, and how your interests are going to change, how what you're writing about is going to change in the entirety of your life amazed me.”

Of her own plays, Lindsey is most proud of a play that Roundabout is doing next season called ‘Amy and the Orphans’. It was written for an actress who has Downs Syndrome, Jamie Brewer. “My aunt had Down's syndrome and she passed away, but I wanted to write about my family’s relationship with her, so I contacted an agent who only represents actors with different disabilities and she put me in touch with Jamie Brewer. She is this wonderful woman who was the first woman with Down's syndrome to walk in fashion week. She does her own stunt work, has her own TV show and really wanted to do theatre, but felt like there were no roles for her. So I wrote her the title role in this play. That is something I feel most proud of, having gotten to collaborate with her, first in workshops and a reading that she did, and a production of it up at Yale, and now we're going to Roundabout. 

As I said, Lindsey Ferrentino has another busy year ahead of her. She has commissions to finish whilst still in London, and is then moving on to write a screenplay for David O’Russell. “It's my first big movie that I'm writing, and I couldn't be more excited to be working with him. In our first meeting he quoted ‘It's A Wonderful Life’ and ‘Our Town’, which are two landmark pieces of art for me, and the fact that he brought them up in our first meeting, I felt like ‘I can write for this person, we’re on the same wavelength.’” Once that's done, she is back at Roundabout in January for ‘Amy and the Orphans’ and once that project is in previews, will start rehearsals for yet another play. One can only imagine where this young playwright will find herself in another year! 

“Ugly Lies The Bone” is playing at the Lyttelton until 6th June.