To playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, the underlying subject of her work remains the same regardless of the political moment: what it means to be human.
Laufer, who's based in New York City, is in Missoula this week to attend the Colony, a six-day playwrights' gathering hosted by the Montana Repertory Theatre. During the Colony, the writers participated in a public forum on the topic, "What do we write now? What are the priorities?"
For her part, Laufer said, "All of my writing, really, asks a very broad question of, what does it mean to be human right now? What does it mean to be a human living in 2017? It doesn't change depending on the political climate. It's still the same question, it's just got very different answers."
A corresponding through-line in Laufer's work is her interest in science and technology. "They so directly influence who we are as people," she said.
In her play "Leveling Up," she used the premise of top young gamer recruited by the U.S. military to fly drones to examine the pains of growing up in the modern world that was funny and sad. "Informed Consent" visits the confluence of genetic research and race. "End Days" is set in post-9/11 era, involving religious fanaticism, an alleged impending apocalypse and a teenage goth.
"Every one of my plays is influenced by what's happening on the front page or the 20th page," she said.
On Friday, she'll present a staged reading of a new work, "Be Here Now," that was commissioned by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. It will premiere in February or March, and later she plans to direct a production herself for Theatre Lab, a resident company at Florida State University.
The play, which takes its name from the mindfulness slogan in a nod to our age of distraction, takes place in a small fulfillment center in upstate New York. Bari, a middle-aged woman, helps ship fake Himalayan objects that in reality are produced in China, like they're "pretending to be spiritual and special, but they're really mass-produced garbage," Laufer said. Product aside, the fulfillment center workers share the same worries with white-collar employees in the modern U.S. economy: Will they eventually be replaced by robots or another form of automation? If they lose their jobs, will they lose meaning and their way?
She's talked into going on a date with Mike, an artist who's chosen raw material is as raw as it gets: garbage. Mike also has Geschwind syndrome, in which the temporal lobe of the brain is affected by tumors and epilepsy. Some people with the syndrome have described their seizures as "ecstatic religious experiences," Laufer said. She found the concept fascinating, including interviews with some people who "had the tumor removed, and they missed their seizures. It was one of the most profound experiences of their lives," she said. That notion provided an undercurrent for one of the play's central questions: Do they want to live on after losing something so central to their experience? she said.
Mike's vocation — which is an entire genre of art, it's worth noting — contrasts with the missing pieces in Bari's life: making the most of what you have; that things other people might consider garbage are beautiful to someone else; the importance of "seeing promise and beauty in what seems like a bad situation," she said.
Laufer hopes that Bari will ultimately be played a woman in her 50s or 60s. She said women in that age bracket are under-represented on stage. While they comprise an increasing portion of the population, there's a lack of strong roles, which she hopes to remedy.
At Missoula's staged reading, Bari will be played by local Rep veteran Salina Chatlain. Viewers may recognize her from the one-woman play "Broomstick" in 2014. Mike will be played by Jeff Medley, who's won many "best actor" polls and recently turned in an excellent performance in the contemporary play "Constellations," a production by indie troupe BetweenTheLines at the Roxy Theater.
Laufer is one of the Colony's greatest success stories, according to Greg Johnson, the director of the Rep.
Before she attended the second Colony in 1996, Laufer was focused on an acting career in Los Angeles. A friend had moved to Missoula and told her about the writers' colony, which was founded by Johnson, Michael Murphy and Marsha Norman, a faculty member at Juilliard School.
Laufer had only written one play, and she submitted it "on a lark." She didn't even know Norman, an award-winning playwright, was involved.
"The second day, she told me I was a playwright," Laufer said. "It was big news to me. She invited me to Juilliard on the fourth day."
Since then, her work has been produced around the country, accumulating great reviews and numerous awards. Locally, the Rep has produced "Leveling Up" and "End Days."
This week marks the fifth time Laufer has attended the Colony since that first round. Two of those were as a student, and the last three as a teacher. Her current visit was paid for by the Dramatist Guild Fund’s Traveling Masters program.
"I've always loved the people who are involved," she said. "There's a real hunger for self-expression about the world and a real desire for community — a writing community."
Six days immersed with like-minded artists is a welcome change from the solitary workdays playwrights often put in.
"It's lonely being a playwright. If you're not in rehearsal, it's very lonely," she said. "Being with a group of people who are passionate about theater and in very different stages of their writing careers, it's life-saving, really.
"Every playwright I know is hungry for the opportunity to spend time with other writers. I think it's important for everybody. It takes courage to sit down by yourself in a room and write. Being with other people who are fighting the good fight as well, it gives you courage."