5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Liza Lentini

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Liza Lentini has, according to her bio, written more plays than two Shakespeares-or two Ayckbourns-or maybe three of each, or maybe both combined. The founder of Elephant Ensemble Theater, a company that brings theater to children in hospitals, is being feted by Manhattan Repertory Theatre with an event called Lizafest!

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Running June 24 through June 28, the festival will feature nine of Lentini’s early works, including her first play and a series of one-acts about murderous women in history. Liza ain’t foolin’, y’all.

For tickets, call 646-329-6588 or visit www.lizafest.com.

And now, five questions Liza Lentini has never been asked. And a bonus question.

1) What’s the most perceptive question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
Each and every time someone asks me to sum up, in just a few sentences, what my play is about, it’s the most perceptive question they can ask. If you can boil the story of your play down to a sentence or two, you officially own that world. It’s not always easy, but essential to your process.

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2) What’s the most idiotic question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
Oh, that’s easy: “You write plays? Well, why don’t you write a play about me?” People of all walks of life — including absolute strangers — have been asking me this question for over 20 years. It’s a query I never seem to have an answer for, and one that, somehow, never goes out of style.

3) What’s the weirdest question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
I always find it very weird when people ask me if the play they’ve just seen is based on my own life. It doesn’t seem to matter if the story takes place on the moon or if the main character is a gun-wielding prostitute with a parasitic twin, this question always arises.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way and should take it as a compliment, as though I’m creating a reality out of something so truly surreal that it seems so obviously from my own life’s history.

For the record, every word a playwright conceives is based on the fabric of our own being. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lived the lives our characters have lived. I’ve written nearly 100 plays — that would be an awful lot of lives!!! And trust me, I’m just not that interesting.

4) Manhattan Rep is producing nine of your plays in five days in LIZAFEST!-how were the plays chosen? And how on earth is it that you’ve written more than 100 in all?
When Ken Wolf approached me about doing a festival of my plays, we sat down together and went over the week’s structure (a full-length here, grouped one-acts there, two shows a night, etc.) In choosing the plays I knew I wanted to pick scripts that were incredibly fun, but also collectively reflective of a specific period of my career. I chose my early works, and inadvertently have discovered a newfound inspiration in being forced back to that exciting time when I was new to my craft and to New York City.

As for all the plays I’ve written…all I can say is I’ve always been a prolific writer, and I use every play as an opportunity to try something new. Not all of my plays are perfect, mind you, but they are inarguably brave. As a result, I’ve developed my own method of playwriting, which I’m actually writing a book about now.

5) You’re also creative director of Elephant Ensemble Theater. Can you talk a little bit about that company-how you started it, what its mission is, and how your work as a playwright fits in?
Elephant Ensemble Theater brings free professional productions to children in New York City hospitals. I believe whole-heartedly in volunteerism, and in sharing your gifts. I’d wanted to do something like this for so many years, and finally one day, in the fall of 2006, I just stopped thinking about it and jumped right in. I had no start up money, and so I cashed in my pension. The minute I saw the smiles on those kids’ faces, I knew it was the greatest investment I’d ever made.

I hadn’t intended to write and direct all of the plays at first, but as they say, sometimes restriction — in this case, financial — breeds opportunity. I had never written a children’s play before, and had so much fun doing it. The plays are specifically written for our hospital audience, but we believe that the themes of family, friendship and the power of hope are universal.

6) Looking at your bio, you’re also a journalist! Can you talk a little bit about your work as a reporter? What are the intersections of your work as a playwright and reporter? And also, when do you sleep?
I firmly believe in the power of words, and strive to bring attention to topics which are sometimes overlooked, such as a rare brain disorder in children or the plight of teachers and administration wrestling with religion in the classroom. I collect my facts and then seek to unearth the real story of the people involved.

After writing plays for so long, even my 5,000 word features felt like a cakewalk. We sometimes take for granted how tough it is to write a play. A play has to be a living, breathing thing that can resuscitate itself in the most restrictive of circumstances. Playwrights are word architects, they’re structuralists. If you can write a well-structured play, you can write anything.

As for sleep, I need my minimum 8 hours a night. I’ve been blessed (and cursed) with laser beam focus, so I make the very most of every waking minute.