Lindsey Ferrentino is a critically acclaimed American playwright. After an extended, sold out off-Broadway run, her new play Ugly Lies The Bone comes to the National Theatre.
London Calling: Your father is a professional comic magician. Has his comedy and magic trickled into your plays?
Lindsey Ferrentino: Absolutely. Aside from growing up in comedy clubs, jokes and storytelling were a part of the fabric of my life. I grew up being fascinated by watching the audience watch his act because the act was always the same but the audience was always different. Knowing the ins and outs of the jokes and how the illusions worked but watching an audience fall for it every time, watching the relationship he had with the audience, it moved me.
LC: What is Ugly Lies The Bone about?
LF: It’s about an American female combat soldier named Jess who comes back to her Florida space centre hometown in 2011, right after the financial collapse and the housing crisis. The space shuttle program had just been cut in 2011 so the area was changing physically, economically and was spiralling downward. Jess comes home after suffering an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion in Afghanistan. She is trying to reintegrate into her civilian life while dealing with her chronic pain. She starts engaging with a virtual reality videogame pain management therapy, which is in currently being tested on veterans and people with chronic pain. The play is set half in the reality of her integrating into civilian life, and half in the virtual world she is using to treat her pain.
LC: What made you want to write about a female veteran?
LF: You just don’t hear the stories of female veterans. There are so many female soldiers who want their story to be told. I was struggling to find these stories in fictionalised media so a lot of my research came from talking to real people.
What is the role of a woman in society when you can ask her to go fight your wars? That feels symbolic and should carry over into how we treat women in everyday society. Asking women to compete with men in a war zone seems to me to be the ultimate test of equality.
LC: You wrote Ugly Lies The Bone in 2011, yet it feels like you created a portrait of the voters for Trump’s America. Does that ring true for you?
LF: I have a hard time with the phrase ‘Trump’s America’ because it’s just America. Trump tapped into the anger and frustration that was already there, specifically coming from these one-industry towns. Then the industry shuts down and the town’s economy collapses. Jobs that were once rich, fruitful and satisfying were suddenly gone. That is the type of town I grew up in. The space centre felt like the perfect microcosm metaphor for the play because this industry was about the future and making life better on earth. To take that dream away speaks to the state of the American dream. What does it mean for our culture when you take away people’s capacity to explore and look towards the sky, instead of just looking at each other?
The characters in the play don’t have money. They own their houses but only because houses are cheap. You can’t sell them. There are no jobs. The people are stuck there. This is what has happened in lots of towns across America and also in mining towns in England. It’s a complicated time to have this play on stage because it examines this problem but also humanises it.
LC: You’ve taken the play’s title from an Albert Einstein quote. What did it inspire in you?
LF: The quote is, ‘Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone. Beauty dies and fades away but ugly holds it’s on.’ I kept thinking about ugliness; what it means to feel ugly inside and out. One of the big questions in the play is how does your exterior represent or not represent your interior life? Does your interior life change when your exterior life feels so drastically different? Are you always the same person? Do you contain all of the people you’ve ever been? Or is there a point where you actually change and become another person?
Over the course of the play you should be making assumptions, not just about Jess, but about all the characters that are ultimately challenged and judged based on how they look. As an audience you come to find out who they really are, for better or worse.
LC: You’ve written this play with a female veteran at the heart of the narrative. Your next play features a protagonist with Downs Syndrome. Is the diversity of stories important to you?
LF: It’s the most important thing right now. Especially in times like Trump’s presidency, in times where you don’t feel your voice is represented in the national narrative, it is vital for writers to write their unrepresented individual stories. It is the most important task for a writer to tell stories you don’t normally hear, to have diversity of race, body type, class, and most importantly diversity of human experience. The only way to fight narcissism is with empathy and we need it now more than ever.
Ugly Lies The Bone opens at the National Theatre on 22 February. For more information and tickets, please see the website.