Featured Artist: Ally Lardner
In the words of Hamlet: "Worms, worms, worms"
Ally (she/her) is a fellow Boston College student (who also happens to be my roommate!) She is very involved in both BC Theater and the emotional support service "Lean on Me". I could say a million lovely things about this powerful woman, but why don't you just see what she has to say herself.
DECADENT: So, I want to start at the beginnings of your interest in theatre. What would you say it is that makes you an artist? Why you feel the need to be an actor, and director, and playwright? Take it from there.
ALLY: Okay, so you've referenced that I have done a bunch of different things within theater, like acting and directing. I feel like the answers a little bit different with each.
Because they're obviously, you know, aimed towards one goal: putting a piece of art onto the stage and having a live audience with you experiencing in that story. But the different roles that I've played, as in acting, directing, etc. feel like different fields entirely.
I started as many start out: acting in high school shows or whatever. I really only did theater in high school, because I wanted to be in a musical. I was afraid to speak in public, but I loved singing.
And so being on a stage felt like a way that I could talk where it was both real and not real, in a way. Because it was not really me. I was doing something as another person.
There is this feeling when acting of being so connected to an audience but so separate from yourself. Does that make sense?
ALLY: Especially in black box theater where the audience can be completely surrounding you, looking at you from all sides.
This is an amazing feeling of connection there. And a really amazing ability to be spontaneous, but also orderly. Every single thing that happens on a stage is so choreographed, but actors still have that freedom to be who they are in the moment. And it can be a little bit different each night, which is so amazing. And so, so scary.
I think actors are the least respected people in the theatre business when they should instead be respected the most because of that bravery, that ability to be so completely themselves and so true to themselves at every moment.
As far as directing goes, I'm directing my first fully staged thing this March. I've also done a bunch of staged readings and stuff. I see the intersection of theater with education happening in those because staged reading is more chill than a fully staged production. There is more of an opportunity to just explore the words and the connection that you as an actor can have with your director.
I did R.A.W. (Raunchy Asian Women) two years ago. It was for the Theater Department's "Critical Conversations in Partnership with Spaces". As nice as it was to be asked, "Hey, do you want to direct this thing?", you know, they were like, "We want to do a play about Asian women's sexuality. Who's an Asian woman we know?"
DECADENT: Right, right.
ALLY: But that was a really cool experience. That was my first time directing something all by myself. And I worked with a bunch of non-actors, because there are not a lot of Asian women in the BC Theater Department, other than me. So I brought in friends and other people who were like, "Yeah, I'd be interested in doing this."
It was not only an opportunity to facilitate conversations about race and representation on stage, but also educational. It was an experience I had never had before. I'd never actually never done that from that perspective. So I was able to learn together with my actors.
DECADENT: Very cool! Do you have any stories that you can share from that experience?
ALLY: Yeah! There was this one girl who I thought was really, really intelligent, really smart, really good, and I was really excited to cast her as the ending monologue, which is the most tender and intimate one. It's about an Asian woman who realizes that her boyfriend loves her for who we who she is, with her Asianness, but not because of her Asianness, not excluding her Asianness.
And she was like, "Wow, I didn't even realize it but this is the first time I've read a monologue, or played a character who is Asian."
And I resonated with that, because I feel like I've been on the stage numerous times, but I'm always just a person who happens to be Asian in a role that probably was written for a white person, right? That was a really cool experience: that this playwright understood what it's like to be me. And then to tell that story, to help an actor tell a story that really is about them in a more personal way than most other shows have offered.
DECADENT: That's awesome! I want to talk a little more about race and theater. There are so many plays that have been written by white people for a white cast and so when a person of color is given a role in a play like that, it can very often come across as a political statement, even if it is not explicitly intended as one. Obviously we still have a lot of work to do as we interrogate the arts and the ways in which they engage with the topic of race. Does it always have to be a political statement? It seems like, yes, those political statements should be made. And we need to embrace that. And we need to expand what that can mean. So I am curious to know: where do you see the future of race as a topic of conversation in theater specifically.
ALLY: Yes, I think so. That's something I've been thinking about a lot with this play that I'm doing called The History of Colors. One of the reasons I picked it was because it is about women of color but the play is not about their race. It's just about them existing as people.
Honestly I feel like a non-political play about people of color just existing and living and being full people is, in fact, really political.
The audacity to have stories about people of color existing and not make it be about discrimination, harassment, racism, death. I think that that's so so important. And I don't think people are quite getting that.
Theater is very white dominated, upper class, liberal, whatever...that tends to describe the people who have access to do all these unpaid fellowships and unpaid acting things, hire special coaches, etc. But those people are kind of missing the point by saying, "Okay, well, we're gonna do this show that's about, like, the 'black experience in slavery'". And sure, it is of course, absolutely necessary.
But there should also be a lot more stories that are about people of color existing. People of color existing in a space meant for them.
DECADENT: Right, and I think that requires that all people in theater go back and deconstruct what theater has meant and what it has done. I watched this TED talk once about how theater is essential to democracy. For example, ancient Greek theater, while it had religious roots, was also very political, and ultimately it was essential to the functioning of democracy in ancient Greece. Which brings me back to what you were saying: that it really is necessary to bring all aspects of society into theaters, and that theater can help us understand the society that we're in.
So from the side of like the audience, and obviously, since you're an actor, you know how to get in other people's heads, what do you want audiences to take away from the work that you've done? Because I'm sure that you've had to think about that a lot. And just as a side note, I don't know if you want to get into this more, are you ever frustrated by the way that your audience reacts to your work?
ALLY: Oh, yeah. Okay. It's kind of weird, because I think my answer is pretty specific to college theater, where you have shows that all of your friends come to, everyone you know in the department, everyone who you want to impress in the department, or people who might cast you in future shows? Right? So there are some shows where it feels so charged because you know that everyone who's anyone in Boston College theater (whatever that means) is going to be there watching it. And then there are also shows where everyone's grandma's coming.
So, story: during a performance of Murder on the Nile, for this one Thursday night crowd, the female actress was doing her whole thing: building up to the gun moment and getting hysterical and obviously very upset. All that infidelity stuff... And the audience just started laughing at her! This was the best I'd ever seen this actress perform that part. Absolutely electric! Just losing her mind! And they were laughing?! They were laughing as the guy, you know, fell down with a gunshot. As a stage manager, I was just like, "Well, that's kind of silly", but I really felt for the actors who were giving it their all in a very serious, charged moment and then were just being laughed at.
DECADENT: Yikes! I kind of wonder if that was the audience's discomfort. Everyone was like, "Whoa, this is too intense. I don't want to have to feel these feelings. So I'm just going to laugh it off". Yeah?
ALLY: Yeah...but I really miss having a live audience, because they always react a little bit differently. And at least if your show is any good, I think.
DECADENT: And that is a great segue into pandemic plays. And your great debut as a playwright. Can we just talk a little about the play you wrote?
ALLY: Yeah! it's funny because I was in a playwriting class last spring, with a really famous Boston playwright, Melinda Lopez. And I had been working on a play with her. It was really, really new and really different and scary. Ultimately I just wrote myself into a place where I was like, "I can't go any further with this, because it's scaring me so much".
DECADENT: Can you just explain what made you fearful? What was that emotion coming from?
ALLY: Disclaimer, I still haven't finished that play. But it was this feeling that I know what I want this play to be. I know what I want to happen. I know, the way I want the audience to feel. I think I know the plot details. If I can just sit down and let it be bad first, before I can let it be good. I sometimes sit down and I'm like, "Okay, I'm gonna finish my play!" And then I can't because it's just so scary. Because I know that it could be really good.
DECADENT: And you just you want to give it the time to ripen so that you make that really good thing. But you also know that things are always bad first. Always have to get worse before it gets better. There's always a point when I'm drawing where it just looks so awful. And I usually just give up at that point. But if I keep at it, the drawing usually turns into something I love. It is scary though.
But I want to talk about Driving Lessens. And what that experience was like for you.
ALLY: Yeah. So I stopped writing that other play, and I started writing Driving Lessens. It was honestly just stream of consciousness.
I drove to my high school one day in May 2020 and just had a mental breakdown, quietly, in my car, in my old high school parking spot. And then as I was driving home, I started talking to myself. And that became the dialogue for the first draft.
It was based on my and my neighbor's relationship during high school. It felt like reliving a past life. It really came so organically. The first draft came in like a week. And then I worked on it a bit. Eventually I sent it to Melinda Lopez and she was like, "Ally, this is really good". And I realized that if Melinda Lopez said that there was something of worth in it, I would have to continue working on it.
And then, yeah, I um... I wrote it.
Then, one of the first weeks of school last semester, I heard through my friend who's in a student theater group, that their plans for the fall semester had fallen apart. They were like, "We just need like a quick, easy, fast thing, so we can say that we did something but not have to work on it too hard". So I texted my other friend and asked whether they might want to do my play. She read it in a night and asked the next day whether she could direct it.
It just kind of all came together after that. It was incredible. A very fast, easy process. I was stage managing Twelfth Night, so I really wasn't there for quite a lot of that.
DECADENT: Are you glad that you weren't there?
ALLY: Yes. I came in during the second half of the process and was like, "Wow, you guys have the bones and you've done something really cool that feels authentic to me without being exactly what I had imagined."
It was a Zoom reading and the actors were incredible. They were so natural and brave. Brave because it's a play about really awful embarrassing high school things. I wrote in a lot of these awkward silences. It's so hard to do silences in theatre, especially on Zoom where you're just staring at yourself. But they were so great.
DECADENT: Yes! About the silence: that was definitely a part that I appreciated. I like silences in theater. It's always very uncomfortable. Because you're in a room full of people. And then it's quiet. And everyone's like, "They forgot a line!" I mean, honestly, it works really well over Zoom. It still makes you uncomfortable, because now we interpret silences over Zoom as though someone's internet's not working, or that they muted themselves or something. So it still has a meaning for us, it's just a very different meaning from that of a silence on stage. I think that discomfort of theater brings us all the way back to the political things that theater can do. It makes you uncomfortable. It makes the actors uncomfortable. It makes the audience uncomfortable. And that is very powerful.
That brings me to another question: the future of theater. What do you think the pandemic is going to change about theater? Haha, I kind of feel like everyone's going to come out with a play like No Exit where they're like, "I was stuck in my apartment and hell is other people". But what have we learned about theater in the past year? I mean, who ever would have thought that Zoom theater would be a thing, right?
ALLY: My first instinct to this question is, "Wow, I can't wait for theater to go back to the way it was. I can't wait for live audiences or being able to hug my crewmates. And that feeling of a packed house, I cannot wait for that". Unfortunately, there is a huge reckoning coming for all these smaller theaters that have no way of keeping themselves afloat unlike the big, bloated, companies like Broadway and all those things that are super well funded, but don't produce what I would call "art".
DECADENT: Right? They give the people what they want, but not the things that make them uncomfortable.
ALLY: Yeah, that's the difference between entertainment and art.
So, Zoom theater. I think people have been able to do cool things with it. Driving Lessens, for example. I thought it worked well for Zoom theater. But I don't know, there's something that doesn't feel quite "theater" about it for me. I feel like there's something that is really lost in the actor's experience when they are in front of a screen rather than onstage.
In terms of other changes within theater, I think, like we talked about earlier, equity and accessibility are needed. It's so expensive to see theater. And that is a huge turnoff for a lot of people. But it's also so expensive to produce theater. So where do we make up the deficit? It probably means we need more funding. But I think it also means embracing the value of things like staged readings that are super low cost, where it is less about the spectacle and more about storytelling, right?
DECADENT: Yeah, we just need more theater in general.
ALLY: We need more good theater, which is rare, very rare.
DECADENT: Ah, yes. Okay, so what about being in Boston, and you can, of course, talk about pre-pandemic, being in Boston, but what about Boston has changed the way that you view theater or helped you along your life path towards a career in theater?
ALLY: Yeah, there's a lot of great theater in Boston. And I've seen a bit, although not as much as I would have wanted to. In terms of like making a career in theater, Boston has made me realize that I don't want to start out in here. It's very cliquey. Theater is already a cliquey community. And when it comes to Boston theaters, everyone knows each other. It has allowed me to make some nice connections that maybe I can make a move on. But it's also kind of hometown-y to me at this point.
DECADENT: That makes a lot of sense. Boston gets a lot smaller, the better you get to know it. Okay, so I want to get a little more philosophical, if you'll excuse me, haha. I guess I want to know what performing for other people, in terms of theater, means for you and what attracts you to theater as an artform?
ALLY: I have two answers. As I mentioned before, I do different things in theater: there's being onstage and then there's being behind the scenes.