Theatre That Exceeds Gender
by Claude Christensen
A woman with the ability to generate new body parts quickly becomes pregnant, without intercourse. Another laments having a second heart instead of a uterus. A transgender man is given unused male reproductive apparatus and simply makes it his own.
These are just a few of the transformative events in Lisa Langford’s new play, The Art of Longing. Cleveland Public Theatre will produce the world premiere of the play at the James Levin Theatre October 26 through November 18.
Lisa enjoys reimagining ideas of gender. An African-American playwright, her pieces have often grappled with contemporary notions of African-American identity, and she finds interesting similarities between the two social constructs of gender and race.
“Gender is a social construct, not unlike race.” she says. “What does it mean when those constructs are slippery?”
51, and gregariously chatty, Lisa teaches theatre part-time at the University of Akron Theatre Department. She lives near Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, and writes and performs at the Doboma Playwright’s GYM and other Cleveland theatre organizations. A longtime writer in the greeting card industry (currently as a contract writer for American Greetings), Lisa has lived in cities from New York and Boston to Buffalo and Kansas City.
Lisa’s playwriting career has been a rather circuitous journey, but it began in ‘88 when she graduated from Harvard with a degree in modern European history.
“If I had known what life was going to be, I would have studied something I really enjoyed,” she says.
But it was there that she had the chance to pursue her passion for theatre with Bob Brustein at the American Repertory Theatre.
“We got a chance to study with really, really cool people,” says Lisa,”but we [still] only got a certificate.”
Lisa felt she had the training to be a serious playwright and actor, but she didn’t have the degree.
Years later, writing for greeting cards and feeling a need to fill a creative void, Lisa returned to theatre. It started small: at lunch, instead of worrying about the last thing her boss said to her, she would read Hedda Gabler. But her desire to write and perform only grew. And in 2013, it lead her to the NEOMFA creative writing program.
While studying at CSU in the NEOMFA program, Lisa found herself pushed to do new, unusual and interesting things.
Mike Geither, one of her most influential professors, introduced Lisa to a perspective on playwriting that encouraged taking chances, that stressed the importance of making something new over creating work that was easy to consume.
“He doesn’t like sentimental theatre, or theatre that is predictable. He likes people who take chances, who break rules, who transgress,” says Lisa.
Eric Schmiedl was another of her professors. Lisa feels Schmiedl writes theatre about communities and individuals coming together in a way that is both convincing and beautiful.
“He is a wonderful playwright with a big heart…kind and generous, he can make you think it’s possible to write any play, any story.”
Also influential in Lisa’s NEOMFA career was playwright Mac Wellman, who has a knack for encouraging his students reconsider their own biases about what can and can’t happen in theatre. All of these professors gave Lisa the confidence to pursue her own writing and see it succeed.
“They made me fearless,” says Lisa. “When you’re worried about what is the right thing to do, you can often miss what is most interesting, or essential.”
After graduating from the NEOMFA program in 2016, Lisa is working on getting more of her plays published. Along with The Art of Longing, Lisa is working on a play titled How Blood Go that she shared with the public in the 2017 Cleveland Public Theatre’s Entry Point series. It delves into the relationship between the African American population and the medical industry using Lisa’s own relative as the starting point. Another of her plays investigates the continuing racial dimensions of servitude as reflected in the future of robotics.
In her plays, Lisa enjoys stretching the limits of what is possible. For Lisa, theatre has the ability, more than mediums like film or tv, to do the truly unbelievable.
“Theatre is impossible,” says Lisa. “A bunch of people are standing in front of you putting on a show. You’ve got to suspend your disbelief and believe in what they’re doing. And if you can believe that, why can’t you believe that a woman can grow a new foot, or have a new baby in two seconds, or fly?”
Which is why Lisa believes it’s important that aspiring playwrights write unconstrained by fears of what is and isn’t possible, or what others might think. Lisa’s best advice is, just like the iconic Nike slogan or Shia LaBeouf’s motivational speech, to “Just do it.”
And Lisa has done “it.” Her upcoming play, The Art of Longing, pushes through the limits of what is possible, especially when it comes to gender. In her play, gender is rendered a fluid, sometimes voluntary, and oddly inconsequential construct that matters less, in the end, than strong emotions like love.
Because, as Lisa puts it, “What’s the one thing that really matters before you leave this planet? Is it your genitals? How other people perceive you? Or is it who you love?”
The Art of Longing
By Lisa Langford. Directed by Jimmie Woody
October 26 through November 18
7:00pm, Thu/Fri/Sat/Mon, James Levin Theatre
6415 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland
Tickets $12-30 at cptonline.org
Claude Christensen got his biggest stage role in college, playing a potted plant that shook its fronds during a lesbian sex scene.
[Featured photo of Lisa Langford courtesy of Lisa Langford)
Artwork by Sean Higgins