Playwright Deborah Laufer loves to tell stories. “I think what theater does,” she told CityBeat recently, “is bring people together to contemplate what it means to be human at this point in time. It’s a place to ask all the big questions. And it affords me the opportunity to research and learn about all the things that excite and confuse me.”
Her several plays have been very in-the-moment pieces, especially her much-produced 2008 award-winner End Days, a comedy about a fractured post-9/11 family seeking moral guidance from gurus, including Stephen Hawking, Jesus and an Elvis impersonator. (It was staged locally by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati in 2011.) That quality is certainly true of her newest work, Leveling Up, about to receive its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. (It’s worth noting that this will be the 67th new play to debut at the Playhouse.)
Laufer’s script is about three post-college guys in failure-to-launch lives, spending most of their days in a dark basement in Las Vegas, obsessively immersed in virtual worlds. A girlfriend questions their isolation from reality, but before long she too is caught up in a life simulation game — with her boyfriend’s buddy, crossing unclear boundaries of appropriate behavior. When the National Security Agency recruits the story’s uber-geek to use his gaming skills to fly drones into real war zones, the moral ambiguities become distressingly blurred.
In the world of video gaming, “leveling up” means to rise to the next stage of character development and powers. Laufer uses this as a metaphor for the lives of the young adults she is portraying, people who have yet to “level up” their own existence. She describes her play as an exploration of humanity and maturity, one that will speak to multiple generations, whether they’re personally involved in gaming or the parents or grandparents of people who are. Achieving potential and success in life are challenges every generation must face. According to the Playhouse’s artistic director, Blake Robison, Laufer “has an ear for how people really speak.
I asked where Laufer came up with the idea for Leveling Up. “We’re really living during a sea change,” she told me. “The Internet has made the world smaller than it’s ever been and introduced us to many alternate realities. We can meet or reunite with people we would never have had contact with at any other time. So I knew I wanted to write about gamers. Once I started researching virtual worlds and learning about virtual economies and the new trend toward hiring gamers to operate remote drones, my greatest problem was deciding which play to write.”
(During her research she learned about a virtual kingdom, an electronic construct, that sold for $650,000.)
Laufer confessed that she’s not much into gaming personally, but she has “consultants at home” (i.e., teenagers) “who were happy to vet my output.”
But the world of gaming really served as a window into the lives of young adults. “I have a lot of love and concern for this new generation,” she said, “who are emerging from school and an over-extended childhood into a bleak job market. I can understand how gaming and virtual reality are a welcome escape from real life.”
She adds, “I love plays where couples leave the theater arguing, argue in the car riding home and continue arguing at breakfast the next day. I want to raise a lot of questions. I hope audiences laugh a lot, fall in love with the characters and really care about what happens to them. I hope they want to learn more about all the things I crammed into the play in the little time allowed.”
Leveling Up was workshopped at the O’Neill Theatre Center in 2011, a summer hothouse for the National Playwrights Conference that nurtures plays in development. There, Laufer was able to see it with different actors and directors as she wrote and rewrote. A sign of the esteem her work is given is that the Playhouse engaged Wendy Goldberg, artistic director at the O’Neill, to stage the show’s world premiere in the Shelterhouse Theatre. (Goldberg, in fact, brought Laufer’s play to Robison’s attention for his first season as the Playhouse’s new artistic director.)
Laufer is excited to have her play receive its debut in Cincinnati. “The Playhouse is a gorgeous theater that does a lot of varied, compelling works and has a dedication to doing new plays. What more could I want?”
We talked about being a woman and a playwright, seen by many as an uphill battle. She mentioned that just 11 percent of the plays produced in New York City are by women. (Laufer lives in Westchester County, just outside the city.) The odds are slightly better nationwide, she says, but still only 17 percent. She’s had more than 60 productions of her plays (mostly End Days) around the country — and just one in New York City.
She’s grateful for the career she’s having. “My plays are taking me to places I would never have had the chance to go — into tiny theaters and a few epic ones. I’d love to be produced in my backyard and get to invite my friends to come, but I wouldn’t give up my regional life for anything.” Another of her plays, Sirens, received its world premiere at the highly esteemed Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2010. It’s full of contemporary life — Facebook and a smart phone are key elements of a story about a man stranded on an island in the Mediterranean where he meets a “real” mythological siren.
Laufer’s imagination, grounded in today’s world, certainly means that her plays will find more and more productions. We’re lucky to have one of them getting its start right here in our own backyard.
LEVELING UP, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, can be seen in previews this weekend. The production officially opens Feb. 14 and continues through March 10.