From the Desk of. . . Lisa Kenner

by Sara Israel

I love when this happens.  A couple of years ago, I was at a friend’s barbeque and fell into a conversation with a kind, friendly, smart stranger.  Her name happened to be Lisa Kenner.  And—well into our conversation—I learned that Lisa is a playwright.  At the time she was working hard on a new play.  I asked her if I could read it when she had a comfortable draft.

Months and months and months later—with lots of adorable “I’m getting there!” emails in between—Lisa sent me her play.  I really liked it for many reasons, first and foremost because it so clearly embodied Lisa’s voice and point of view.  And what a relief for me too, because when you spontaneously meet someone, and spontaneously like them, it’s always really, really great when it also comes to pass that you’re equally fond of the art they create.

With no further ado: Lisa Kenner’s workspace.  Not surprisingly, as elegant as the woman herself. . .

Me:  I’ll start with the standard bearer:  On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you clean up your desk space before taking that photo for me?

Lisa:  I used a little Windex.  And I cut some flowers from my rose bush and put them in a vase that belonged to my grandmother.  So if 10 is a high degree of clean-up, I would say 3.

Me: Okay, now, but I don’t see a computer on your desk!

Lisa:  How funny!  There is a computer on my desk—a Dell laptop—but I didn’t feature it prominently I suppose because this space is also my day-job space.  Also, I often write in a journal before sitting down at the computer.

Me:  Yes!  The journals.  Tell me more.

Lisa:  Yes, I always have a pile of journals. I first write in a journal because it just feels organic and even childlike.  It’s as if I have more freedom when I am writing long-hand.  It seems terribly old-fashioned now, but to me there is a difference between writing and typing.  So first, I do a lot of journaling and writing exercises.  Then I sit down and type into Final Draft and edit along the way.  Some of these ramblings go straight into an “Idea” file on my computer.  I even have a file called “Snippets,” which is just a bunch of stuff that could be a kernel of something down the road.  Because I have so many journals—lots of Moleskines!—I often take a few days a month and go through them with a highlighter to see what’s worth keeping. I would need a storage space if I didn’t do some streamlining now and then…

Me:  I do find it really interesting that you transfer—and organize—your journal thoughts into digital files.  There’s something more at work there beyond the wonderful pragmatism of organization.  And by the way, you’re the second playwright in this series to swear by Moleskines!  But what about the classic “Sketchbook” amongst your journal pile?

Lisa:  The sketchbook is something new I’m playing with.  The journals are small and sometimes I want to write in a larger space—and not stay “in between the lines.”  Last summer when I went to the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive, I met a costume designer/dramaturge who creates these beautiful look-books when she goes through a script, complete with color schemes and bits of inspiration from a variety of sources.  She encouraged playwrights to do the same and reminded us that a play is not just about words on a page, but also about color and texture and stage picture.  It’s helpful when looking for a new way in to a character.  It’s also is a great sensory reminder of your original inspiration for the play.

Me:  Speaking of sensory reminders and inspirations. . . Let’s talk about the photo you labeled “Inspirations & Reminders.”  What makes something worthy of reminder?  And what makes something worthy on inspiration?

Lisa:  I enjoy having items nearby that I can look to for quick inspiration.  A poem, a visual image, a photo of a family member or my dog.  A thought-provoking quote.  Maybe even a notice of something I’ve submitted to that I’m waiting to hear about.  Just to keep me focused and inspired.

Me:  And then you specifically called-out one image on that wall, calling it “Current Inspiration.”  How so?

Lisa:  It’s a Chagall painting called “Young Girl In Pursuit.”  I was an Art History major in college and so I often start with a visual image when I begin a play.  The play I am currently working on is called “Motherland” and it’s about a contemporary woman in her 30s who is having a tough time in her life.  She returns home after her mother’s death, which sparks an investigation of the immigrant women in her family history as a way to understand what issues she might have inherited.  To me, this image evokes a mother with her daughter literally caught up in her hair.  Or maybe the mother is carrying her daughter in her hair.  This image crystallizes for me what the play is about—literally carrying our children to a new place for a better life, but at the same time emotionally carrying them with us. . . for better or worse.

Me:  That sounds fantastic.  I can’t wait to read—and then see!—this play.  Can we double-back and return to your desk for a moment?  I want to ask you about the file box in your desk corner.  What’s your relationship with butterflies?

Lisa:  I like pretty file folders.  I’m kind of obsessed with them.  I always loved getting new school supplies growing up so whenever I start a new project, I pick out some new files for research.  The butterfly choice was unconscious, but thinking of it now, I was probably inspired by nature—and if we want to get metaphorical, the notion of ideas taking flight. . .

Me:  Oooh, I love a spontaneously produced metaphor!  And finally—because any time I see a Samuel French publication lying prominently on someone’s desk, I’ve gotta ask—What’s the story with the copy of Paula Vogel’s  “How I Learned To Drive?”

Lisa:  Ah yes!  I am actually re-reading it as an assignment—I’m about to begin a Creative Writing MFA with the low-residency program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.  So I have homework!  Which is really fun and I’m very excited about it.

Me:  Oh wow!  How did you decide to pursue this now?

Lisa:  I have wanted to get my MFA for a while now.  But with life and work it was becoming harder to figure out.  Last summer was the first time I had even heard of a low-residency program.  I met a bunch of Lesley MFA students at Kennedy Center and they are all fantastic writers and people.  Plus, I’m from Boston.  Plus the faculty is amazing, so it was a no-brainer!

Me:  That sounds perfect.  And you know you’re an adult when you’re excited about your homework.

Sara Israel is a writer and director living in Los Angeles.

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