British playwright Bryony Lavery begins to explain “Dirt,” her world premiere play at Studio Theatre, with a rat story.
Several years ago Lavery, best known for the U.K.-U.S. stage hit “Frozen” (a chilling portrait of a child murderer), took her niece to a film in New York City. Naturally, plenty of people bought big bags of popcorn. Just as naturally, Lavery says, a ripple of screams and frantically lifted feet indicated that a rat was scampering down the aisle.
“Why wouldn’t there be a rat?” the London-based Lavery said. “It’s like a restaurant for them.”
In “Dirt,” which deals with a young woman about to die and the toxins she (and we) encounter every day, restaurants are key. (So is a rat.) But that’s not the whole story of the show that opened Wednesday at Studio Theatre, the second installment in the company’s ambitious Lab Series, which offers world premiere productions for $20.
“I’m not sure writers ever tell the truth about this,” says Lavery, who has been writing plays since the 1970s. “If you say, ‘Where did it start?,’ there are always about 50 answers. And you never know where you really started.”
The answer for what brought her to Washington, though, is more direct. “David Muse,” Lavery says simply of her “Dirt” director (even though until recently her brother lived here).
Muse, now in his third full season as Studio’s artistic head, directed an acclaimed version of Lavery’s “Frozen” for the company in 2006. Although Lavery did not see the show, she says, “I was always hearing people talk about it in the oddest parts of the world. So, I thought he was probably worth working with.”
The writer and director first met briefly on the street in 2004 as “Frozen” was opening in New York. Last year they bumped into each other again during the U.S. run of Lavery’s acclaimed boxing drama “Beautiful Burnout.” When “Dirt” fell into Muse’s hands — he can’t recall exactly how — he called Lavery. He was pleased to hear that she didn’t think the play was quite right and that working on it through a Lab Series residency was appealing to her.
Lavery, sitting in one of Studio’s upstairs lobbies, talks about her plays not by saying “I wrote,” but “we made.” Over the past two years, Lavery has been working with the London troupe Frantic Assembly, “who hurl people off walls,” the playwright says. “That was a huge epiphany, just thinking, ‘I haven’t been using bodies enough.’ ”
Thus was born “Beautiful Burnout,” currently touring the U.K. in the production directed and choreographed by company directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. (Hoggett was nominated for a Tony Award this year for his choreography of the Broadway musical “Once.”) The same team also collaborated on “Stockholm,” a physical depiction of a romantic relationship claustrophobic enough to evoke the Stockholm syndrome.
Lavery also recently completed a submarine play called “Kursk” with a sound-design-
oriented company called Sound & Fury. “We made an entire submarine,” Lavery says of the show that has toured as far afield as Australia. “So when you’re in the submarine, and they [the characters] go under a Russian submarine and look up, and you can hear it — I can’t tell you how fabulous it is.”
“Dirt” had been in the works since 2005, when Lavery received a Sloane Foundation commission from the Manhattan Theatre Club. Sloane, inspired by an early success supporting David Auburn’s Pulitzer-winning “Proof,” commissions plays about science, but for Lavery progress was slow.
At one point she considered turning the project into a film.
Studio’s Lab residency gave Lavery a week with actors here in July before arriving to extensively reshape the script through rehearsals before the October opening. The show was already announced as part of the coming season, and for Lavery, the deadline was excellent pressure.
“It had to be made,” Lavery says. “That makes it very exciting, if slightly terrifying. So we had a lovely week.”
Muse estimates that the script has changed another 50 percent since summer and says that in early October, Lavery turned in “a significantly new second act.” That intensive progress, capped by production, is the program’s goal.
“We’ll commit to produce it before it’s done,” Muse says of the Lab Series approach, adding that last year’s inaugural production, Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” has already gone on to post-Studio success.
“The difference is that this lab commits to a production,” Lavery says. “And if you ask any playwright what they want, it’s a production.”
Another of the many starting points in “Dirt” is a frequent Lavery theme, mortality. Lavery’s adaptation of “Dracula” was recently published with Lisa Evans’s “Frankenstein.” Lavery tells of an exchange with Evans: “ ‘Your plays always have dead babies in them.’ She said, ‘It’s true. And yours always have dead bodies.’ It’s true. I’m always having people killed off in my plays. But that’s because I always think play-writing is hard. So you might as well tackle the hard stuff, the serious stuff, and investigate that.”
The “serious stuff” includes Lavery’s own one-two punch several years ago of illness and an injury abroad that left her on crutches. Lavery, now in her 60s, says, “I am coming to the reluctant conclusion that I may be mortal. And I’m still not convinced that I will die. But things like the body not being quite the strong thing — I think there’s something in there about that.”
Indeed, popular Washington actress Holly Twyford spends the second act on stage as what Muse calls a “dead presence.” Though Twyford and Lavery had never met, they consider “Dirt” a reunion, since one of Twyford’s earliest stage appearances was in Lavery’s “Her Aching Heart,” a cheeky lesbian romance that Lavery describes as pastiche, in the early 1990s.
“When I wrote that play, I thought that the worst thing that could happen to me was to have a broken heart,” Lavery says. “And then of course, life intervened, and got darker and harder.”
The complexities had already included a marriage that ended with Lavery’s coming out as gay. (Lavery now says, only slightly drolly, that she is celibate, married only to her work.) In the late 1990s, Lavery’s parents died a year apart, a marker that she says changed her writing.
“I lost people,” she explains. “And that somehow released me. It wasn’t presumptuous to try to do serious subjects.”
Making the play with the company at Studio is allowing Lavery to refine another interest, her nose for laughter in dark moments. Even though it deals graphically with decay, “Dirt” is shaping up to have funny bits, especially, Muse says, as the playwright responds to Twyford’s presence in the central role.
“It’s lovely,” Lavery says, “trying to work out how to move an audience and then give them the release valve where they know they can laugh. Bit of a tightrope.”
Through Nov. 11. Studio Theatre,
1501 14th St. NW, Washington, DC. 202-332-3300.