Q: Describe Laura Pedersen in two or three sentences.
A: If you were casting for an only child who is left-handed, from a contentious broken home, and raised during a terrible recession, with all the stereotypical characteristics that individual might have acquired, I’m probably a good fit. Otherwise, I prefer Rollerblading to ice skating because the rinks are crowded and you mostly go in a circle.
Q: You are best-known as a novelist and memoirist. What made you decide to give plays a try? How did you go about getting your first play, A Dozen Perfect Moments, produced? What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights?
A: I’ve always loved the theater. My dad took me to see Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan at Buffalo’s Studio Arena and also to watch Robert Goulet in Camelot and Yul Brynner in The King and I at Shea’s. Buffalo has always had a terrific arts scene. All four years of high school I was the assistant director and prompter for the musical. It’s always been a big deal for locals that Michael Bennett, the creator of A Chorus Line, was from Buffalo— “I thought about killing myself, but then I realized to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant."
Submitting to play festivals worked for me. The theater is there, everything is organized, they advertise, and so all I had to worry about was the play. Preparing for the Festival creates a wonderful workshop experience and also an opportunity to invite potential backers. We’re hoping to eventually transfer The Brightness of Heaven to Off Broadway.
Q: How does it feel to actually see lines you wrote being performed on stage?
A: It was odd to hear the dialogue spoken at first. I’ve written for comedians so I’m used to playing lines in my head and then hearing them from the stage, but this was different. I’m surprised by what gets the biggest laugh from the audience and also by some of the interesting choices the actors make. I usually know how a comedian will deliver jokes. If I have to stand up and do comedy I can make it work but I will NEVER get on stage and act. Do you hear that women in the play—if you’re sick on opening night tear up my number!
Q: Tell us a bit about The Brightness of Heaven.
A: The play considers the choices we make in deciding how to approach our lives—whether to go to college, get married, have children, move away, and so forth. The sticky part can be if you or your parents have signed up for a strict program, such as Catholicism, which already has a set of rules to live by. However, it can be easier to have a set of guidelines in place since choices are often hard and carry great responsibility. I think the same can be said of democracy in that the more freedom we want, the more responsibility we have as individuals, and that’s harder than just allowing a group of people to run things.
Q: You have had experience writing about Buffalo's history and culture in prose with your nonfiction books Buffalo Gal and Buffalo Unbound --- what were the challenges of bringing 1970s Buffalo to life as a play?
A: Buffalo is the second largest city in New York State, and had over 300,000 people living there in the 1970s, so I don’t want to generalize. There was an enormous ethnic mix and despite the large working class, a group of people who lived well, having made enormous fortunes from Prohibition and industrialization. I took a slice of lower middle class Irish Catholic life that would be familiar to almost all who ever lived there. The area was 75% Catholic when I was growing up.
Q: What do your Buffalo friends think of the play?
A: My Buffalo friends are excited to see the play. They’ve had similar experiences to the ones that will be on the stage, for better or worse. They’re also happy that someone is writing about the Rust Belt in the 1970s since they’ve seen lots of 1960s documentation along with plenty of entertainment set in California and would like to watch their experiences reflected for a change. Not many movies and TV shows, even today, feature heavy snow removal equipment and certainly not ski masks, unless there’s a murder.
Q: The Brightness of Heaven explores a number of issues that can create turmoil among family members, including religion, sexuality and opposing views on abortion. Is the play autobiographical? Did you know families who were coming to terms with these issues when you lived in Buffalo?
A: There was a church every few blocks and nuns coming around every corner. The fact that I was an only child with divorced parents made me an alien in my neighborhood. It was largely Irish Catholic and Polish Catholic with a few Jewish families thrown into the mix. My best friend Mary Pyne was the youngest of nine children and I spent much of my time at her house trying to avoid head injuries from all the roughhousing. Down the street from Mary’s house the Rudewiczes had sixteen kids. No one even knew how many were inside the Gunderman home. It was impossible to get a count.
Q: A character in The Brightness of Heaven is proudly "out," much to the dismay of his mother and aunt. At the same time several other characters do not share the same religious convictions as fellow family members. What advice do you have for teens or 20 somethings who may be facing the same situation, be it sexuality or religious attitudes --- or both?
A: A lot of folk are going through the same thing and I think it’s important to reach out for support and compare notes. When it comes to sexuality there’s the It Gets Better Project online where people offer video testimonials about their experiences. With regard to religion, there are groups organized around whatever you’re for or against, even if it’s nothing at all. Explore, connect, experience.
Q: What made you decide you had to write The Brightness of Heaven? Did you envision the story as a play from the start, or did you first plan to write a novel?
A: I’ve always wanted this particular story to be a play. I think it requires the immediacy of the stage and the veracity of live performance. You can’t hit the pause button or fast forward. You can’t step away from the characters and their feelings.
Q: Viewers/readers may or may not know that you are a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. How has your faith informed your work as a writer?
A: Being born and raised Unitarian Universalist was the icing on the alien cake during my childhood. As if my not having siblings and the divorce didn’t make things bizarre enough I constantly heard “What’s that?” Being UU has given me the freedom to think and dismantle the world like a giant clock to try and determine how it works. I rarely heard the word “No” growing up. There was a certain amount of “You did what?”
Q: A play does not come to life without a great cast and crew. Can you give us a brief introduction to the gang?
A: The cast and crew are superb. There’s no weak link. And I owe all that to our director, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, and her accomplished assistant director, Judy Binus. In addition to how well the roles are cast, the group works incredibly well as a family, which I find amazing since we’re like the United Nations offstage—we have a Southerner, an Austrian, an Australian, a Spanish-British concoction, and a Canadian. Ages range from about twenty to seventy. The crew contains some wonderfully talented young women and I’m thrilled that they’re able to find training opportunities which may not have been available to the distaff half twenty or thirty years ago.
Q: Please share what you are working on now.
A: I’m finishing a one-act play called Living Arrangements. It’s a comedy about relationships in modern times where the Internet and Madison Avenue seem to be constantly telling everyone that they can do better, resulting in much dissatisfaction all around.
ABOUT THE BRIGHTNESS OF HEAVEN
Manhattan Repertory Theatre, in association with DeVida Jenkins on behalf
of the Villar-Hauser Theatre Development Fund present:
The Brightness of Heaven by Laura Pedersen
Heaven is billed as being a magnificent place. However, entrance to Heaven is conditional upon having lived a “good life.” But what happens when so much emphasis is placed on the afterlife that the current one becomes a prison, and young people start to feel that their choices are being limited by parents wielding a rulebook that came from a supernatural source. The Kilgannon family struggles to stay together as their views on how to conduct their lives diverge. Is it worth destroying your closest relationships over something you can’t even be sure of?
Manhattan Repertory Theatre
303 West 42nd Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY
Thursday, November 1 @ 9pm
Friday, November 2 @ 9pm
Saturday, November 3 @ 3pm
Tickets can be reserved by emailing MRTreserve@gmail.com. More information: http://manhattanrep.com/
Laura Pedersen, who lives in Manhattan, was a columnist for The New York Times and is the author of several best-selling books including Beginner’s Luck, Buffalo Gal and most recently, Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws. Her previous play, A Dozen Perfect Moments, was performed at the 2012 Midtown International Theatre Festival. In 1994 President Clinton honored Pedersen as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. Pedersen has appeared on shows such as CNN, Oprah, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Primetime and David Letterman.
Additional information about The Brightness of Heaven and Laura Pedersen can also be found at: