The first play award-winning playwright Liz Duffy Adams remembers ever seeing was a production of The Twelfth Night at The North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass., when she was 15 years old.
After the show, she waited until all of her classmates were back on the buses before venturing onto the stage alone. That’s when it hit her: I belong here, she thought to herself, and I will find my way to belong in this world.
Not long after that night, she found her way to belong. At 18, Adams moved to New York City, where she attended New York University's renowned Stella Adler Studio of Acting before transferring to the Experimental Theater Wing. For a time, she tried to be a regular actor, going to auditions and getting an agent, but it turned out to be a bad fit for her.
“It felt like my entire life was about asking permission to be an artist,” she says, “so I decided to write a play and send it to one theater.”
That play was accepted and performed by the now-defunct One Dream Theatre in Tribeca. Actress Edie Falco, a member of that company at the time, was the one who chose it and starred in it.
“So the world was saying ‘no’ to me as an actor but ‘yes’ to me as a playwright,” Adams says.
To date, Adams’ works have been widely produced and regularly praised for their epic, mythic character. Of special note is her facility with language, which is rich, evocative and spiced with an unforced, sophisticated humor that doesn’t undermine the gravity of the subject matter.
Her most produced play is Or, a neo-restoration comedy about the 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn—the first woman to make a living as a playwright in the English language. Her second most produced play, Dog Act, is what brought her to Lehigh University as the current Theodore U. Horger ’61 Endowed Artist-in-Residence for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Adams became the university’s third Artist-in-Residence when three members of Lehigh University’s theatre department realized they each had a connection to her work.
Professor Pam Pepper discovered Dog Act when she was involved in a script-sharing program with an organization in New York called the New Dramatists. Assistant Professor and scenographer Will Lowry had assisted with the set painting for the New York premiere of Dog Act through his Flux Theatre Ensemble, where he is a creative partner. And, finally, Assistant Professor and scenic designer Mellie Katakalos has known Adams for nearly 18 years, ever since her former theatre company, San Francisco-based Crowded Fire, decided to produce one of her plays.
“When I interviewed here at Lehigh,” Katakalos says, “I told Pam Pepper I had designed (Adams’) The Listener, and she said, ‘I love The Listener!’ So, there was an immediate affinity for her here. Then, when Will joined the faculty, I said she has to come here.”
Dog Act—performed at Lehigh University last fall—is a comedy that Adams describes as “a post-apocalyptic vaudeville.” The play follows Zetta Stone, a traveling performer, and her companion Dog, a young man undergoing a voluntary “species demotion,” as they walk through the apocalyptic wilderness of the former northeastern United States. They are heading toward a gig in China, if they can find it.
“Liz is a master with language,” Pepper says. “I can’t read her plays without my imagination just going wild.”
I love that there’s a continuity going back to that teenage experience of The Twelfth Night,” she says. “Somehow, we still have theatre despite all this new technology—and that is wonderful.
As an example of that mastery, here’s an excerpt from the script of Dog Act, where Zetta and Dog are discussing what “China” is like:
“All around, buildings tall, old and old, gold stone higher than you can see, shimmer-shammyin’ in the tender old sun … And this is because in the very center of China, there a very particular building. Stone. Old stone. Big around as would take half a day to walk. Door guarded by two vasty-big beasts, monster-osities of the old times, last of their kind.”
What Zetta is describing is not a building in China, but the New York Public Library in Manhattan, with its two large, regal lion sculptures on either side of the steps leading to the front entrance.
“Liz pulls from so many sources, too,” Pepper says. “She’s a ‘vasty’ beast of knowledge.”
Adams’ theatrical style is the natural amalgam of her twin predilections of the classical and experimental that she’s harbored from the very beginning of her career. She says it could be described as “heightened naturalism.”
“That’s what Shakespeare is,” Adams says. “We’re moved because it’s real, but it’s so much bigger than sitting in a coffee shop, for instance.”
It’s a style that’s moved Mellie Katakalos ever since her first experience designing Adams’ The Train Play in 2001.
“I think what her plays are ultimately about is what it feels like to be alive and to be human,” Katakalos says. “You explore basic feelings through these heightened worlds, where things are possible in those worlds, but not in ours, but tied to the consequences of the world we live in now.”
Lehigh University students will have the opportunity to see how a real playwright like Adams operates when she teaches an Introduction to Playwriting course in the spring of 2019 as part of her tenure as Artist-in-Residence.
During that time, Adams will also be working on a new play she is writing for Lehigh that will be performed in fall 2019. With the tentative title of The Broken Machine, it deals with the theme of climate chaos and was inspired by the recent devastating fires in California. The story follows the plight of four people—and a somewhat mythical being—fleeing the fires in the wilderness.
Adams, along with Lehigh’s theatre department and some graduating seniors, had their first reading of the play this past fall.
“This is the first draft,” Adams says. “I got to hear it, and we got to talk about it, which is very exciting—and I feel it’s off to a very strong start.”
In addition to the intellectual, visual and aural charms of her plays, the core of Adams’ work is still the ancient art of actors getting up on a stage in front of an audience, in the same room, live together, telling a story.
Adams always wanted to belong to that ancient art and world, with all its superstitions and traditions. And though her aesthetic is fairly fixed, and her plays share some common themes, she frequently sets formal challenges for herself so that she can write a different kind of play each time.
“I love that there’s a continuity going back to that teenage experience of The Twelfth Night,” she says. “Somehow, we still have theatre despite all this new technology—and that is wonderful.”