“We collaborate with a choreographer, a visual artist or a composer,” D’Amour explains. “The words I write are never the first thing that drive the performance.”
By 2003, PearlDamour had won an Obie Award for “Nita and Zita,” a show about vaudeville sisters that features interviews with their ghosts. D’Amour’s “16 Spells to Charm the Beast” (about a beast peeping at a housewife from across town) and “Red Death” (a fanciful update of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”) had been produced at the small but influential Clubbed Thumb, and were directed by Kauffman.
“It’s such a pleasure for me to see Lisa accepted by the mainstream, because we need Lisa D’Amour in our mainstream,” Kauffman says. “She has a wild imagination.”
By 2004, D’Amour figured her time to be in New York was then or never, so she settled in. In 2005, Katrina drowned New Orleans. D’Amour went back to help family and friends.
“Every story was in my family,” D’Amour says of the Katrina period. “The person who lost their whole house, the person who was under six feet of water, the person who only had two inches of water, the house across the lake where everyone evacuated to.”
She and Connelly have split time between New York and New Orleans ever since, though work sometimes flings them far afield. Connelly was on a job in Hawaii while D’Amour was helping the Woolly team tune up “Detroit.”
For Vreeke, the play’s action boils down to the series of barbecues and, in one couple’s case, a vicious battle with addiction. Several times, Vreeke says there is something about D’Amour’s writing that feels “primitive.”
“There’s no time to breathe,” Vreeke says. “Just about the time you feel the characters can settle down, she introduces an action or accident that changes everything.”
If “Detroit” is political at a remove, its title — and the ongoing struggles of the now-bankrupt Motor City — certainly cues the audience to see it as a timely fable.
“You’re constantly thinking about an American empire based on manufacturing, which has completely gone to waste,” Kauffman says. “You’re thinking that as you’re watching this play about barbecues.”
If D’Amour is creating more conventional plays now, she is also keeping busy with what she calls the “do-it-yourself” projects. PearlDamour is working on a piece about five different American towns named Milton, and on another piece to be performed in the Longwood Meadow at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.
“It’s crazy now, actually trying to manage both worlds,” D’Amour says. “I love the world of theater that doesn’t have the insane stakes that making money can bring. If you’re trying to do something that doesn’t cost much and people aren’t paying much for, there is something very freeing about that.”
But popularity has its upside, too.
“What was interesting to me about ‘Detroit’ was realizing that when you write something that’s in a little bit more of a recognizable world, speaking to a real-life moment, a political moment or an economic moment, your audience just totally expands,” she says. “That is really interesting to me, just in terms of getting ideas out into the world.”
And my, what big prizes she’s won.
“I felt serious already, but it was like the bar was immediately raised,” D’Amour says of the Duke event that gathered the 2013 class of 20 recipients in the fields of theater, jazz, contemporary dance and interdisciplinary projects. “To be honored for a body of work, and to realize that I HAVE a body of work, and then realizing that there’s tons of time to build on that. The energy and confidence that the award brings is as valuable as the money, in some ways — to keep working, and keep pushing toward the next experiment.”
“Detroit,” by Lisa D’Amour
Through Oct. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.