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The title of Audra Lord’s second full-length play, Fugue, holds a clever double meaning. Primarily, it’s a reference to the “fugue state,” the rare phenomenon where a person has temporary amnesia brought on by psychological or physical trauma. In the play, the central characters have all forgotten a traumatic event and need to decide whether or not they want to remember. The other meaning comes from the musical term “fugue,” a composition technique where two or more voices overlap into a cacophonous sort of repetition; Lord also wanted to organize the play into a few spoken word fugues, wherein the dialogue occasionally takes on that musical quality. Regardless of the title’s wordplay, the inspiration came from Lord’s fascination with the idea of memory. The A.V. Club spoke to the Detroit-area playwright about Fugue before its debut performance by the New Theatre Project at Ypsi’s Mix Studio Theater on Dec. 2.
The A.V. Club: What made you interested in becoming a playwright?
Audra Lord: Well, I was an actor, and I guess I still am an actor. For many years, most of my life, I’ve been involved on stage in some capacity or another. And one day, I was working on a play with several friends, all women, and we were complaining about not having another project to do together. We had just gone to see a friend who was in an original play and it was really, really bad, and afterwards, we had a great conversation and got all fired up and said, “You know what? We can do better than this.” And so the next day, I wrote a play. So it started as a means to an end.
AVC: And you’ve written several plays since then.
AL: It’s been quite a few. I have two full-length plays, two or three pretty sizable one-act plays, and everything else is 15- to 20-minute shorts.
AVC: What drew you to use that word, “fugue,” as a title?
AL: I really started writing the play with the desire to explore memory just in general. I didn’t want to write something that’s an Alzheimer’s play, because that sort of thing has been done, and I don’t necessarily feel a connection to Alzheimer’s as an idea or as a way of exploring memory. I wanted to explore memory in a way that hasn’t necessarily been done to death. I have a really terrible long-term memory. I have a pretty good short-term memory, but I have this feeling that I perpetually am living in the present. So I wanted to explore what it would be like for this group of people who just live in the present and they don’t have a past. I think “fugue” popped in my head first as a psychological term for the fugue state disorder, which is where you lose all memory of a particular chunk of time in your life. It’s generally something that’s temporary, and it may be brought on by something that’s traumatic or a physical trauma or accident or something. Fugue, the musical term, came into it later as a means of structurally shaping the play.
AVC: Why did you like the idea of it organized like a musical fugue?
AL: I went to a conference a couple summers ago in Omaha, and we saw a lot of exciting readings. And in particular, Erik Ehn premièred a little reading about the college campus shootings in Virginia. And it was this really beautiful environmental theater piece that had actors in every corner of the room all speaking together, and they all had their own monologues, but they were all doing this at the same time. Erik was conducting it, and the audience milled around the room and listened to all of it or various things. The feel of that stayed with me. It was an exciting sound, and there was something about it that was very musical. I wanted to put some of that into this play and have these sort of spoken-word fugues with all of the voices of the characters blending together. Sometimes they connect, sometimes they’re saying completely different things. The musicality of language was very important to this piece.
AVC: One of the character’s names is Princess Stephanie. Where did that name come from?
AL: [Laughs.] Princess Stephanie is a complicated character. She’s actually based on a real person in my life who is a male-to-female transsexual rock star, so she has a rather theatrical name to go with that persona. I don’t know if she necessarily wants to be trotted out as the example, but actually, she’d probably be flattered by it: Her name is Stephanie Loveless, and she’s from Ferndale, and she’s been referred to in print as “the princess of Ferndale.” But the character is very loosely based on her. They’re both rock musicians, and they’re both male-to-female transsexuals. And they share a name.
AVC: You’ve handed the play over to the actors and the director at the New Theatre Project. What is your role currently?
AL: I think the playwright in rehearsal is more of a consultant. At this point, it’s their show. I’m here to do minor rewrites. I show up occasionally to answer questions—that’s really it. I like working with them because there’s such a wonderful sense of respect for everyone. It’s a real partnership. It’s not like them saying, “This is our play now!” But we’re really working on it together. The bulk of the work is being done by them now, and that’s what I prefer. I’m not a control freak as a playwright. You have to be able to trust in your baby and let it go and let other people take over.
AVC: There have been some staged readings of Fugue prior to this performance. How did those go?
AL: Everything went pretty well. It’s had four types of pre-production. It had a couple public table readings at the New Theatre Project, and both were very well received. One of them was a more fully realized staged reading at the Performance Network as part of their Fireside Festival, and that was extremely helpful to me. That was the first time I’d ever seen the play up on its feet, and it helped me fix a lot of little transitions. There was a concert reading at the Actors’ Theatre in Grand Rapids. And there was a workshop production at the Renegade Festival in Lansing this summer. I think what I learned from watching all of those different versions by different people is how to filter feedback and how to determine what works and what doesn’t work. When something consistently works no matter what the situation is, you know it’s great.
AVC: Did you make any significant changes along the way, or was it largely where it is now?
AL: I don’t think it stayed where it is. It became tighter and cleaner—I would call it “gentle reshaping.” I’m somebody who tends to write very quickly and spend a lot of time tweaking. Before it even goes into its first reading, it’s had a lot of stuff done to it. A lot of sessions of people in my living room reading stuff out loud for me.
AVC: What has your relationship to the New Theatre Project been?
AL: This is my first season of involvement with them. It’s a good relationship. I’m really happy with them. I love the way they work. There’s a great atmosphere of mutual respect, there’s a tremendous talent pool, and there’s a willingness to create and improvise and explore.