Putting the Pieces Together: An Interview with Playwright, Larissa FastHorse

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"Writing is like having a box of a million puzzle pieces then needing to figure out which thousand fit together to make one picture."

Each season Native Voices presents our First Look Series: Plays in Progress. For our first of the year we will be holding a public staged reading of Hunka by Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota Nation), a gritty, funny, and poignant story that explores notions of family, teen pregnancy, adoption, and responsibility. Not only is Larissa an accomplished playwright but also inspiring and generous in spirit. I had the opportunity to see Larissa's creativity in action during one of Native Voices' recent writing workshops and was excited to hear that we would be bringing one of her plays to our stage. So to help us peer a little bit into that artistic brain of hers, Larissa took some time out of her busy schedule to participate in a Q&A with us about her writing.

Read on to find some interesting tidbits about Larissa FastHorse as well as some nuggets of wisdom for aspiring writers!

Q: Tell us about your writing process – do you start with an outline? An idea? A drawing?
A: Every project is different for me. I am fortunate that I’ve written under commission a lot so my projects tend to have some initial impetus from the theatre company. Sometimes that is based on an artistic initiative or my research on their audience and what they may be interested in seeing, from there I do a ton of research and see if anything connects with me emotionally. I look for a particular point of view I can bring to it and go from there.

Q: Describe your ideal writing environment? What objects do you need with you when you write?
A: I like to believe that I could write in coffee houses and my home and the beach, and that is true in spurts. However, to keep up the volume of writing I am committed to, I have joined a shared writer’s office. I plug in my music and do super focused work on my computer. I get more done there in four hours than seven in a coffee house. For notes, I’m converting from handwritten notebooks to my ipad so I don’t have to haul so much stuff around, but I do miss paper and all of my lovely pens.

Q: What do you do when you hit a writer’s block, if any?
A: If the words aren’t coming to me at my computer, I take a walk around the block or do some yoga. I let my mind settle back into my body, then if it still isn’t coming to me, I trust that a lot of writing is just thinking about things. So I create space to really think and discover the problems my brain is trying to keep me from writing on the page.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Hunka? Where did the inspiration come from? Why did you want to tell this story?
A: Hunka is directly inspired by my experiences when I met my birth mother at the age of 21. It was all so much more complicated and strange than I imagined it would be. Later, everyone who heard the story said, 'You should write that'. That said, these characters have taken on their own lives and motivations that are completely different from reality or even what I wish really happened.

Q: Do you have a favorite character in Hunka? Which one was the most fulfilling to write for?
A: Kit. When I started this play it was my first one for grown-ups. I love writing teen voices, so Kit was my bridge from the family theatre world to people who can swear.

Q: You have been able to make a living as a playwright, which is no easy feat. What one or two pearls of wisdom can you offer for those who strive to do the same?
A: 1) You have to do this because you love it and don’t want to do anything else in the world. That keeps you working even when there are no paychecks coming in, which has been the case for me many times.

2) When I was a dancer I learned that I am not right for everyone. Some companies like tall dancers, some like strong jumpers, some like tiny women. My job was to listen clearly to what they needed, then determine if that is what I had to offer. If not, I moved on to the next company. That has been so valuable as a writer. I am not right for everyone, but by clearly listening to what people need, I can focus my time and energy on the best opportunities for me so that my chances of success go up considerably.

Q: Do you think you can speak somewhat about what it is like to be a Native American female playwright navigating the theatre world? What is it like to be able to speak through your specific experiences and lens? What are the challenges?
A: Yikes! My mind is going in a hundred directions right now. Honestly, I have nothing to complain about. I have been employed and funded by all kinds of companies and foundations for both Native and non-Native projects. I also know that the road I am walking on was built by so many Native artists that had to clear every rock by hard work and determination against challenges I can’t comprehend. For that I am so grateful and committed to do the most I can with what I was given.

The biggest challenge for me has been having the clarity and strength to own the cultural experience I have had. It has been a complicated, winding journey for me. Some people have tried to use that against me as a weakness, but I know that journey is uniquely mine and gives my characters a point of view that not everyone has had.

Q: What else are you working on at the moment?
A: I have commissions with Cornerstone Theatre Company, Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences and the Cherokee Historical Association in North Carolina. I am also in the Center Theater Group Writer’s Workshop. Hunka will be doing another reading with the Arizona Theatre Company in March, and then I hope to find a home for its first production.

Q: Laslty, there's a short moment in Hunka where your characters talk about superpowers. So, if you could have any superpower what would it be?
A: Empathy. If you can fully understand what someone else is feeling you know how to help them.

Thanks Larissa! :)

Don't forget to come watch the staged reading of Hunka on Sunday, February 12 @ 2:30 p.m. at The Autry, Wells Fargo Theatre. And stay after for the talkback to see Larissa FastHorse speak about her play live and in person, along with director Laurie Woolery, who is also the Associate Artistic Director at Cornerstone Theatre Company.


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