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JACQUES LAMARRE: Arts Advocate And A Playwright With A Never-Ending Imagination

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Playwright Jacques Lamarre Photo credit: Susan Holmes

 

bessy reyna BESSY REYNA/ CTLatinoNews.com

Playwright Jacques Lamarre has been an integral part of Connecticut’s cultural scene since he moved to Hartford in 1990. He has collaborated with Real Art Ways, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Hartford Symphony and others. Each one of his plays produced in Connecticut have resulted in sold out shows and many have been presented in other states. While his popularity as a playwright is well-known, his ability to attract new friends and his support of many artists was evident when over 100 people came to a reception in his honor when he left his job as director of communication and special projects at the Mark Twain House & Museum. While there, he brought nationally known playwrights to participate in the “Writers’ Weekend” he helped organize.

I met Jacques while he was working in Public Relations at the Hartford Stage. One night, as he was handing out Press tickets to reviewers, he introduced me to Geary Danihy, the President of Connecticut Critics’ Circle, and suggested that since “I was doing reviews and writing about the arts for Identidad Latina, I should find out how to  join that group.” That simple introduction has allowed me to meet a group of people  whose lives are intertwined with the theater, both in Connecticut and other areas, and publish reviews in many diverse media outlets.

I wanted to introduce our readers to this man who is always working behind-the-scenes, and has touched the lives of so many, in such a generous and quiet way.

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH JACQUES LAMARRE

 

BR: Tell us a bit about your upbringing, background.

JL: I am the fifth of ten children. Surprise – my family is Catholic! I was born in the Philadelphia area, but moved when I was a baby to Massachusetts, and then up to New Hampshire where my parents are still located. I went to college in Rhode Island and live in Connecticut, so I am pretty much a true New Englander. One surprising fact: I’m one-quarter Syrian.

BR: When did you become interested in the theater?

JL: My parents were subscribers to the American Stage Festival in Milford, N.H. My earliest memories of theatre was being brought to ASF’s Young Company productions for plays like Rumplestiltskin or Snow White. When I was probably twelve or so, I started volunteer ushering at the theatre, which led to my seeing plays regularly. I ended up having my first theatre job there and they produced my first two plays: Rapunzel and The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Sadly, the American Stage Festival went under.

BR: Your first play or concert you attended? Memories about it?

JL:The first grown-up play I have a distinct memory of seeing was an adaptation of Dracula starring a then-unknown Michael Gross. He would later become famous as the father on the sitcom Family Ties. I also remember seeing a play called Feathertop, which I now realize was based on a Nathaniel Hawthorn short story about a scarecrow come to life. My first big musical was seeing The Wiz in Boston starring Stephanie Mills who was WAY too old to be playing Dorothy. My first Broadway show was The Phantom of the Opera. It blew me away! I tried sitting through it many years later when it came to The Bushnell and I was thankful when the fire alarm went off.

BR: Favorite playwright? (aside from yourself of course)

JL: My favorite living playwright is probably David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize-winner for Rabbit Hole. He manages to nail humor and pathos in a way that I envy. My all-time favorite, and I owe this no doubt to Michael Wilson and my time at Hartford Stage, is Tennessee Williams. His characterizations, humor, queer sensibility, and poetry floor me every time.

BR: What inspires you to write and adapt books for the theater?

JL: I will be reading a book and suddenly I see it as a play. It’s not the best model for playwrights financially and legally as you have to secure the rights and give up a substantial share of your royalties, but a good story is a good story. I feel a great sense of trust and artistic partnership by working closely with the original author. It might be easier to work with dead ones, though.

BR:How do you select which book to adapt?

JL: I have adapted two books (I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti and Raging Skillet) into full-length plays. I’ve also written scripts based on a short story (The Clowns) and a personal essay (Born Fat). Generally, I am drawn to strong female characters, stories that are “relatable,” and things that I can visualize immediately on stage. I don’t generally go searching for the book or the story; they kind of find me, which is part of the magic.

BR: You have done `12 plays so far, where have these been produced?

JL: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti has been the most-produced work with productions in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut (twice), New Jersey, New York (twice), Ohio, and Florida (twice). My piece in Christmas on the Rocks has been in Connecticut, Virginia, and South Carolina. Born Fat has been done in Connecticut, Philadelphia, and New York City. TheaterWorks has generously allowed my work to appear on their stage three times and Seven Angels in Waterbury has done two of my plays. My work with drag performer Varla Jean Merman has been seen throughout the U.S., as well as in Mexico, England, and even at the Sydney Opera House. I’m really very lucky to have had this much good fortune so quickly.

BR: How involved are you with each production? 

JL: I am usually very involved in the first production of a play, most of which have started in Connecticut. With my full-time day job, I generally can’t get away for a length of time to be in rehearsal. I make myself available via phone and email for questions or rewrites; otherwise I show up and hope everything turns out okay!

BR: I am curious about Save the Robots: A Sci-Fi Musical Comedy, what inspired that one?

JL: I was approached about helping to rewrite the book to a musical based on the New Wave-Punk-Pop sounds of a New York band called Hagatha. Save the Robots was the name of an after-hours, downtown club back in the early 80s. The story is pretty basic: a narcissistic scientist is making robots out of plant matter in secret to avoid detection by a lingerie-clad scientist, a dominatrix, a corporate drone, and a carnivorous race of space aliens. That old story! The show has been in development for years, but we are inching towards a full production in the near future. We had a great workshop of the show in New York last year.

BR: Was it difficult writing the short play for Christmas on the Rocks, produced by Theater Works in which Charlie Brown, the lovely innocent boy from Peanuts who is your principal character, and then shifting to a punk-rock, Jewish lesbian caterer with a foul mouth in Raging Skillet

JL: I take each play as its own creation, so it’s not really hard. My assignment for Christmas on the Rocks was to imagine a scenario of Charlie Brown as an adult on Christmas Eve. It allowed me to go in many different directions while keeping in the spirit of the Peanuts world. In adapting Raging Skillet, I also had to stay true to this punk rock rebel character while telling the story that she maps out in her memoirs. I think both pieces have tartness and sweetness in common, although it may be hard to see at first blush as Merry Christmas, Blockhead is so simple and Raging Skillet has lots of bells and whistles.

BR:What’s the big deal with you and food? This is your second play which includes food, how many are there?

JL: Just to look at me – I’m over 200 pounds! Of course you can tell I think food is a big deal!  Food is something we all have in common. I use it as a storytelling device and it has a terrific novelty, but ultimately I think it brings two senses into the play (taste and smell) that we don’t normally use in the theatre. I adore the smell of cooking and there is something comforting about being enveloped in the aroma. One patron complained as a vegan that the smell of bacon was making her gag, but what do you want – THERE’S BACON ON THE POSTER! Aside from Spaghetti and Skillet, my play Born Fat examines one woman’s struggles with her weight and love of food, but there is no on-stage cooking. I’m not planning on writing any more foodie plays, but who knows. I see these three plays more as a trilogy about three strong women who have interesting uses and relationships with food.

BE: What was the response from the audience Raging Skillet and Spaghetti how they respond to having food cooked on stage and offered to them during the performance?

JL: The experience is different with both plays. In Spaghetti, the cooking is way more integral to the storytelling. Each boyfriend is presented along with a course in a meal that includes pasta and sauce made from scratch. Patrons could pay an up-charge to enjoy the pasta, a salad, antipasto, wine, and bread, so they got a story served as a meal. With Skillet, as Rossi is a caterer, we wanted her to be prepping hors d’oeuvres and, if you are sitting in the right place in the theatre at any given time, you get to sample some of her “White Trash Jewish” treats like Snickers & Potato Chip Casserole, chocolate-dipped bacon, or Manischewitz Spritzers. I am surprised how many people in the Skillet audience turn away the food while others are practically climbing over other audience members to get at it.

BR: Raging Skillet has more “curse” words than most plays I’ve ever seen. Has that been a problem with the audiences? 

JL: Yes, for some. This play is unusual for me as I don’t normally have this much cursing, but she’s a chef and a punk rock rebel – she’s going to swear. I have sat through plays that have way more cursing, but I think the fact that it is a woman swearing makes it seem edgier than it is. I think of plays like Topdog/Underdog where there is simulated masturbation and urination onstage or Take Me Out when you have a stage full of naked men showering and I wonder how my dozen-plus f-bombs get people so riled up. We actually cut some swears, so I think there are maybe 20 over the course of 90 minutes. I should go back and count. 

BR: Are you the cook in your house?

JL: We both like to cook, but my husband cooks more than I do. When I get home from work, I usually like to be lazy. He loves to try all sorts of different things while I’m more apt to follow a recipe.

BR: Since you moved to Hartford in 1990 you have been a big presence in the cultural scene, from theaters to Real Art Ways, to the Mark Twain House, and so many others, you are like fireworks illuminating the sky with the arts. Is your present job arts-related?  

JL: I currently work at BuzzEngine Marketing & Events. Much of what we do involves planning shows of sorts – big traveling LEGO experiences or monthly arts performances at Glastonbury’s Shops at Somerset Square, for example. I also do a lot of copywriting, so my job touches on much of my experience in the arts field. I keep my hand in the Hartford arts community through volunteerism and making sure I am out supporting the organizations that I love. This year alone, I was on the Hartford Stage gala committee, emceed fundraisers for HartBeat Ensemble and TheaterWorks, and this weekend I’m appearing at Sea Tea Improv’s Comedy Theatre.

BR: When do you find time to write?

JL: I usually write after work or on weekends, if time and energy allow. My best writing happens when I am on vacation, which makes my husband a bit crazy. I just need solitude and time to crank things out. I wrote the first draft of Raging Skillet while on vacation in Anguilla. Everyone was out at the beach and I was happy as a clam writing in my room.

 BR:   Your next project?

JL: I just came back from vacation to Missouri and Arkansas. I was down South when the rioting in Charlottesville occurred and it has inspired me immediately to write a new play called Red State Road Trip. I want to confront my own feelings about the Religion-Patriotism-Guns-Racism intersection that is killing our nation. I am also researching a new piece I want to write on Edith Piaf.

BR: What do you do for fun?

JL: Answer questions for one of my favorite people.

BR: THANKS! Go write!

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