Courting Ecstasy

Exploring the Landscapes of Playwright Lisa D'Amour

Lisa D'Amour as Oscar Snowden
photograph by Bret Brookshire
There must be a bar- room of people in Austin -- aged late 20s, sensibilities vaguely artistes, with plenty of time to think -- who have seen the sign and felt the spark. It's that big sign along Congress Avenue, the one for the appliance store, Oscar Snowden's Appliances, with the man in the baggy suit leaning against a giant O. His O. You can imagine a whole world inside that O -- an oviparous universe where nothing is impossible. The difference between the rest of us dreamers and Lisa D'Amour is that she didn't just share the fantasy over bong hits and Shiner Bock. She wrote a play about Oscar and his O, and brought them both to life herself, in a one-woman show last fall at Hyde Park Theatre.

Before each performance proper, D'Amour carried her dressing room onstage and talked with the audience. Free-associating, making small talk, explaining for the uninitiated who "the Big O" was in real life and how the Oscar Snowden in her piece is a creature of her imagination, she refashioned her slender good looks into a white-faced androgyne. Her eyebrows are thick black arches with a tingling menace at their point. Her bowtie is one cock past kilter. When "Oscar" speaks, the audience is pulled into the world of the O, guided by a soliloquizing player who talks like his creator meant him to, like "Dr. Seuss on acid." Aaron Tucker, who helped D'Amour on another show and has worked as a professional circus clown, found her performance especially righteous. "She was using clown tools instead of trying to be a clown," Tucker says. "Some of the best moments were the silent points, where she found some specific meaning in her gestures. You know what she's saying even when she's not talking."

Becoming "Oscar Snowden" jumpstarted the performer within D'Amour. She has always done some acting, but for the last few years she has been building a narrowly circulated though solid reputation as a dramatist, first with The Shape of Air, produced by the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, and then with My California, which D'Amour produced herself for FronteraFest '96. In My California, she used interlocking monologues to traverse three generations in a family of troubled (and troublemaking) women. The Shape of Air was more ambitious, with a cast approaching 20, including dancers, oracles, disembodied voices and terrific visions. This feminist bildungsroman came off like a good old-fashioned thriller, complete with a duel for a young runaway's soul. Besides using six or eight subplots, D'Amour immersed herself in the Noh theatre of Japan, lifting the main storyline and stylistics from
a traditional Noh drama, and engaging a translator to help put parts of her own dialogue into Japanese. All these elements together made for a frenzy when Tucker started making masks for the play. "There was a sort of magical element in some characters that others didn't have...," Tucker says. "Some characters needed to transform, to be
magical at one point and then be normal at another."

It's almost too much to take in, but that's part of the point. Hers is not a kitchen-sink type of drama, it's a build the house around your ears type. And instead of taking a break after Oscar Snowden, D'Amour took herself to New Orleans for a collaborative retreat with other play-world people (including Megan Monaghan from Austin), and to Seattle's Annex Theatre, where she performed Whore (d'oeuvres) Dilemma with theatre artist Wesley Middleton (their third collaboration) and rendezvoused with Frontera company member Daniel Alexander Jones, who was also appearing at the festival there. At least one onlooker was smitten, dubbing D'Amour "the Lucille Ball of the avant-garde."

Now Ms. D'Amour is returning to Austin for Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre's 1997 FronteraFest. "I'm trying to think," she says, stalling when I ask about her entry, "I don't know how much I want to reveal." She decides to give up two things: 1) the title, Dream of a West Texas Marsupial Girl -- "It's in the great tradition of Texas kangaroo plays," she deadpans. "I wanted to explore the genre in a new way." -- and 2) a list of the play's high points: "Thievery, beef jerky, and giant leaps of faith.... That's all I want to say."

Suspicious minds needn't fret. This woman's theatre waxes experimental without becoming distant or overly fond of its specialness. Her ambitions are practical even if they're unabashedly grand: "Creating a world for a play in which anything can happen... [to tell] a literal story, with a beginning and an end, but a story that happens in different ways because of the world." That's why her avant tendencies glide so smoothly through the performance. She's telling recognizable stories about love, and children, and following your bliss; these themes fall out, however, amidst prophetic birds and Japanese oracles, bouncing from a courtroom to a haunted wood, or lounging on the inner landscape of a vowel. Communicating isn't so much about what you say and how you say it; where you say it can make all the difference.

Talking about the where of a play, D'Amour isn't just splashing through the abstractions of writer-talk. She means the setting, and whether it's literal or dreamed, she looks to know the interior and, by knowing, to call the shots. Hers is a dazzling blend of pragmatics and imagination. She tells me over a cup of coffee, with a perfectly straight face, how she was attracted to the Oscar Snowden sign by "the shape's giant bounds," but she doesn't care if the words are obscured by the second installment of her two-muffin lunch. The setting for her next play is not only realistic, it's real: She's collaborating on a performance to be staged beneath a suspension bridge in Portland, Oregon. The story concerns the St. Johns area in southern Portland, a thriving bedroom community in the 1920s crowded with wool factories, shipyards, and warehouse operations. The Great Depression would end St. Johns' dream of boomtown fame, but D'Amour sets her play just before the bust, at the opening of a magnificent bridge in 1931. A young girl discovers a group of vaudeville street performers whose seemingly harmless antics are intertwined with city politics and the fate of thousands. Yes, it sounds as much like a David Copperfield show as theatre, and if you know that's a compliment, you're in the club.

Vicky Boone, artistic director for Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, who has worked on several shows with D'Amour, describes the playwright's style as "relaxed but risky... Lisa isn't afraid to get an enormous crush on something, some subject or idea. She manages a kind of total absorption into what she's doing." D'Amour shares a concentration on emotion and event that Boone sees happening across the nation. These people want to make "unique theatrical works and put them in untraditional venues," and believe that "theatre can be cheap and brilliant, all at once." For a good example, Oscar Snowden and the Magic O debuted in D'Amour's garage, with her roommates and a circle of friends looking on, then appeared in the Late Night Jams at last year's FronteraFest, before its fulfillment during a week-long, after-hours run at the theatre in November. The man with the O has now been seen at the Annex in Seattle and may soon show up at a bar in New Orleans, or perhaps at Austin's First Tuesday Downtown celebrations when they pick up in the spring.

While all this is taking shape, the unflagging, unflappable D'Amour will be busy dramaturging John Walch's Craving Gravy, opening in March at the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, and getting a new script of her own filed at the University's graduate playwriting program, where she's in her third and final year. She'll also find time to worry about what she isn't doing. "I thought I'd be a natural to write a children's play," D'Amour says, "but I tried it, and it didn't work." Last year, she sweated over a Twelfth-Night drama called Carnival Queen, aimed at younger audiences, but found her characters either sententiously pushing a message about race or veering off into pure fantasy. She sighs, says she drew a blank, and wonders if her "childlike lens" on the world is really meant for children.

Whatever the lens shows, it will, D'Amour figures, show up as a play. "Because of this certain kind of `poetical' quality to my shows, people tell me I should write poetry. But oh, the idea of trying to write a poem with a capital P is just daunting." As for prose, "it scares me. I haven't even tried it; it'd probably be all dialog."

Judging by her expatiations, D'Amour's fears, like her ambitions, are bound up with writing. She offers very little about her upper middle-class upbringing outside New Orleans, but she describes with relish a happening at the turn-of-the-century house her family owns in Covington, Louisiana. The house was built by a former governor in 1904, but its oak floors and bay windows have most recently served as the scene for an artists' retreat. For three days, the Boguefalaya River played host to theatre people talking about the possibilities for doing small-budget, large-minded shows in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. The weekend climaxed with an event rarely seen on the muddy banks of Louisiana bayous: a Sunday morning yoga session on the lawn, with a group member "hovering around whispering strange nothings in our ears."

D'Amour wants to make plays which approach the ecstasy that sneaks up on people, to create those strange nothings in her audience's ears. For a model, she recounts the New Year's Eve she just spent in New Orleans. She was at the Café Brazil on Esplanade Street, taking in the Cool Bone Brass Band and a white-boy funk group called Galactic. Midnight came and went with the appropriate toasts and hugs, but about 10 minutes after 12 the electricity went out on the entire block. After a stunned recoil and mass shuffling in the dark, Galactic's brass section and drummer started playing again. Before long, a trumpet cried out from the rear of the crowd. It was a member of Cool Bone, who led his cohorts to join Galactic into several hours of acoustic jamming in the dark. Lighters and candles provided sporadic mood lighting, and the place erupted into a bacchanal. People ended up in various stages of undress. Strangers shared drinks, sprayed champagne onto one another, and invented dances that incorporated fanning actions and blowing air at each other to make up for the defunct air conditioning system. "I've talked to a couple of people since then," D'Amour says, "about how I'd like to catch that, that abandonment, that release that happens. There's a kind of transport that can engulf you, something that I don't often get in the theatre.... But that's it. That's the thing." n

Dream of a West Texas Marsupial Girl will be performed Thursday, February 13, as part of FronteraFest '97 at Hyde Park Theatre. Lisa D'Amour will also host several Late Night Jams, Saturdays, 11pm, during the festival.
Brett Holloway-Reeves is a freelance writer living in Austin.

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