Deb Laufer Writes About What Terrifies Her Most
"So a big question of the play is: What do we want to know now that we can know? What do people deserve not to know? And there’s some information, once you know it, can’t be unknown. Who has the right to consent? If one sibling gets their genome traced then that’s really going to affect all the other siblings so. . . What do you know and how do you keep it to yourself if you need to? How do you protect people that don’t want to know?" -- Deb Zoe Laufer
The following are highlights from a conversation with New York playwright, Deb Zoe Laufer, about her play, 'Informed Consent.' To hear the full interview, click the link above or sign up for our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: What’s it like to know your work has been just off Broadway?
Deb Zoe Laufer: It was great. It’s terrifying because you could get spanked hard by The Times but instead they liked it so that’s always a relief. It could always go either way and favor smiled on me. You know, this play’s been a real struggle all the way through . . . it’s probably been the hardest journey of any play I’ve ever written . . . I finally got to direct it myself down in Florida with a cast that I was really in love with and I think I’ve sort of exorcised it for myself and found it in a new way. That was thrilling. It just opened less than a week ago.
Can you speak to the challenges more specifically?
Well, I was writing about a culture that’s not my own and I learned a lot. I learned I’ll be very careful in the future. At the same time it’s a play about medical ethics that I don’t think has been written about in quite that way. It was the first time Informed Consent was no longer about just physical injury. It was also about psychic and emotional injury. . . It’s a court case that’s taught in med schools and law schools all over the country. It’s really a landmark case, which I didn’t even realize when I started writing about it. I just knew I wanted to write about the genome and now the play is being taught in med schools all over the country. . . and I’m on medical ethics panels which is fascinating. . . but the fact that they’re teaching it because they said, for medical students, sometimes it’s hard for them to see their subjects as people. They’re very involved in the science and it’s a hard bridge for them to make, and reading the play or seeing the play has been a good way for them to recognize that there’s actually someone giving that blood. So I’m proud of that. That it’s served that purpose.
I’m picturing these medical students and immediately thinking of your lead character, Jillian. Can you describe her for us?
I looked at a lot of Ted Talks. . . and there are some really zealous scientists, a little fringy, who believe that if everyone gave their blood, and everyone agreed to be tested, that with all that information what we’re learning now about the genome, since progress is really moving forward exponentially, is that eventually we could become immortal. . . laughing. . . which is a little wacky. And then there are also scientists who say there is no such thing as race because it isn’t biological. So Jillian is this white woman who’s adopted these big ideas about science and what science can do, and she has blinders on in some ways about other people’s experience . . . I adore scientists, but I think that’s the danger of science, sometimes, of getting caught up in the numbers and the facts and losing the people . . . and so in her zealotry she abuses her privilege.
I gave her a personal story because I don’t find it particularly interesting to watch plays where there’s no moral ambiguity. I like to watch plays where there’s no good guys and bad guys where everybody’s just fighting the good fight and we have to wonder “Wait! Who’s right?” and our allegiances are constantly shifting.
And Marsha Norman had said to my class at Juilliard, “When you are stuck and you don’t know what to do with a character, write about the thing that terrifies you most.” So my grandmother had died of Alzheimer’s, so genetically, that’s the thing that terrifies me and my whole family. So I decided to give her Alzheimer’s. And you also have to turn up the heat as hot as you can. So at first I was like, okay, her grandmother died of Alzheimer’s and so she was looking for a cure and I thought no, that’s not hot enough. I was like okay, make it her mother, no that’s not hot enough. Okay, make it her mother died of early onset Alzheimer’s and she wonders if she has it. Then I thought no. . . make her know that she has it. Give her a 4 year old child who has not been tested who her husband does not want to be tested and she’s desperate to have her tested. And then the global, universal problem of informed consent also gets brought home to her family in a very personal level. She’s seeking information that will affect other people that she loves.
So a big question of the play is: What do we want to know now that we can know? What do people deserve not to know? And there’s some information, once you know it, can’t be unknown. Who has the right to consent? If one sibling gets their genome traced then that’s really going to affect all the other siblings so. . .What do you know and how do you keep it to yourself if you need to? How do you protect people that don’t want to know?
I’m wondering if you can speak to grief as a motivator, or maybe the cocktail of grief and fear?
Most of my plays are comedies. I would say this is the first play I’ve written that’s not really a comedy at heart, but I think even in comedy, in all my plays there’s a level of yearning and sadness. A real recognition of our mortality, which is something I grapple with daily. It’s an undercurrent in everything I write. Life is so short and we won’t be here forever and the choices we make about what we’re going to do with the time we have are so important.
The play also manages to convey a different kind of grief: a cultural grief or historical trauma. Can you describe the cultural element and what that was like to write about for you?
It’s based on a court case between a native tribe that lives in the Grand Canyon and Arizona State University. There are only about 650 tribe members left because they have the third highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. They’re really dying out. Even though they believe their blood was sacred and they had never given their blood for any reason because they believe they need to be buried with their blood to make it to the spirit world, they gave their blood for the study. It was a huge leap of faith, and part of their creation story is that they sprang from the Grand Canyon. . . It’s the only tribe in America whose first language is their tribal language, so the documents were very, very overly simplified and did not say what would be fully tested for. . . the scientist who took their blood studied a lot of things . . . but the thing that really devastated the tribe was she found their geographic origins to be from Eastern Asia and she published those findings and she talked about it and it directly contradicted their creation story that they sprang forth from the Grand Canyon and it was absolutely devastating to the tribe.
A lot of the play is about the stories we have. What are we at base? Are who we see when we look in the mirror? Are we our jobs? Are we what we create? Are we our stories? Are we our memories? Are we are DNA? If we’re our memories and our stories and if those things are taken away from us, then who are we? And so the tribe really feels that their story has been taken from them. They won the court case, which amounted to $750,000. So it was not the victory that they might have hoped for. One of the real tragedies of the case is that there was no real genetic link found but beyond that, they’re not going to go for medical help again because the trust is completely broken.
And in terms of your relationship in writing about the tribe, how would you do it differently in the future?
I would write about a completely fictional people. Because, really, perhaps it wasn’t my story to tell. At the time I feel like, the Native actresses who have played the role, she’s a power house, Arella. I adore that character, and she wants to save her daughter from diabetes. It’s really a lot about mothers and daughters and wanting to save future generations and seeing ourselves in our daughters. And the actresses who’ve played that part—for the most part—have told me that they don’t get to play a strong, intelligent, modern, Native woman on an American stage because we don’t allow for Native stories to be told enough. If at all. . .
About the Play:
With genomic breakthroughs happening at breakneck speed, we can learn more about what our futures may hold than ever before. But how much should we know? And who gets to decide? Inspired by a recent court case between a Native American tribe and an Arizona University, Informed Consent takes us into the personal and national debate about science versus belief, and whether our DNA is our destiny.
About the Playwright:
Deb’s play, Informed Consent, opened at the Duke on 42nd Street, a co-production of Primary Stages and Ensemble Studio Theatre, in August, 2015. An Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commission through EST, it first received productions at Cleveland Playhouse and Geva Theatre Center. Her works have also been produced at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Portland Stage, and eighty other theaters around the country, in Germany, Russia and Canada. End Days was awarded The ATCA Steinberg citation and appeared at Ensemble Studio Theatre through a Sloan Grant. It received a rolling work premiere through the National New Play Network, and went on to receive over 50 productions after that. Other plays include Leveling Up, Sirens, Out of Sterno, The Last Schwartz, Meta, The Three Sisters of Weehawken, Fortune, The Gulf of Westchester, Miniatures, and Random Acts. Deb is a recipient of the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and the Lilly Award and grants and commissions from The Edgerton Foundation, the NEA and NNPN. Her plays have been developed at PlayPenn, The Eugene O’Neill NPC, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ojai, The Missoula Colony, The Cherry Lane Alternative, The Dramatists Guild, New Georges, The Lark, Asolo Rep. and the Baltic Playwrights Conference. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School and a member of The Dramatists Guild.
About the Actors:
Salina Chatlain has been acting in live theatre for twenty-five years. She is currently on staff at the Montana Repertory Theatre, and has appeared in several productions with the Rep. She toured with the Rep’s Educational Outreach Tour, playing Eve on the first tour (and world premiere) of The Diaries of Adam and Eve. She also starred as the Witch in John Biguenet’s Broomstick, as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, and as Maudie Atkinson in the 2017 China tour of To Kill a Mockingbird. Other favorite roles include: Rabbit Hole, Boomtown, Wonder of the World, and ...without having ended..., a media-performance installation by UM professors Michael Murphy and Bernadette Sweeney. Salina received a BFA in acting from the University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance and studied as an Erasmus student at the Utrecht School of the Arts in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Matt McDaniel is a candidate for the MFA Acting program.