Winter People Shines a Light on a Different Side of the Hamptons
Laura Neill (GRS’19) focuses on the working class, not summer celebrities
Laura Neill grew up in Southampton, on eastern Long Island, but no, she doesn’t know the Kardashians or any of the other fabulously rich and famous people who descend on the Hamptons each summer. Neill’s family—her father is a Stony Brook University psychology professor, her mother a fiction writer—lives in the Southampton hamlet of North Sea, but not in a $14 million McMansion like the Kardashians rented for $300,000 in summer 2014 for a reality TV show.
This Southampton—the Hampton that interests Neill (GRS’19) as an artist and an MFA candidate in playwriting—is the year-round community of academics, teachers, librarians, pharmacists, firefighters, restaurant workers, and landscapers who live in the shadows of the McMansions. They are white, African American, Latinx, and members of the Shinnecock tribe, who live on a reservation in Southampton. Some are immigrants, documented as well as undocumented, who look after the homes, and sometimes the children, of the summer crowds.
This is the world that Neill re-creates in her latest play, Winter People, running at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through December 16.
It’s March and a Hamptons mansion is burning. Who’s to blame? Five families—white, black, Latinx, and Shinnecock—protect their own. Racial tensions rise. Long-held secrets are revealed. Fights break out. Relationships splinter.
Neill wanted to use double casting for Winter People: 5 actors to play all 14 of the play’s characters. She won a graduate arts research grant from the BU Arts Initiative and the associate provost for graduate affairs last year to study double casting by seeing plays in Chicago, Washington, and New York that used that technique.
BU Today talked with Neill, who has a bachelor’s in English from Dartmouth and master’s in education from Brown, about the town behind Winter People, how she began writing plays, and her secret for breaking through writer’s block.
BU Today: What was your inspiration for Winter People?
Neill: I had seen too many plays about McMansions and rich, dysfunctional families. It goes all the way back to Eugene O’Neill. We’ve had enough of those stories. I decided I wanted to burn that mansion down.
The idea had been simmering in my mind for a long time. Going to Dartmouth and Brown—those are very privileged, exclusive places—when I would say where I’m from, the reaction was, ‘Oh, my friend who is a prince has a house out there.’ There was the idea of needing to respond to that, to show that there are people who live on this island year-round, that this island does not belong to the people who physically own it.
There are no summer people in the play. It’s only people who live on the island year-round. I came up with the term winter people.
I think of Long Island as a microcosm of our country right now, with all of the issues and all of the turmoil and the hatred—and all of the beauty—embodied in this small beach town I’ve created in this play, which is born from, but is not exactly, the town I grew up in. It’s based on Southampton and North Sea, but the play is slightly outside of reality in the sense that the town is every town.
What was it like growing up in North Sea?
It’s mostly residential. There’s one deli, one farmstand, a couple of bars, a couple of restaurants. Lots of pickup trucks, a couple of potato fields, and a lot of oak forest.
Living in North Sea, you’re in such proximity to this mass of wealth and all these people in the society pages. But I don’t know a single person in the society pages. The different worlds are overlaid on each other, rather than talking to each other.
The town library occupies a central role in Winter People. Was the public library important to you as a kid?
I practically grew up at the library. It was a place of wonder for me, partly because of the YA collection—I was a bookworm—partly because of the wonderful people who worked there, and partly because it offered practically everything I liked for free. Free books, you know. Is there anything more magical? I was and still am in awe of libraries. Free books, DVDs, classes, a couple of games, sometimes even snacks. I could walk there from school while I was waiting for my folks to get out of work. And in a town where everything else was all about ‘posh or not,’ the library was a warm constant, and a space that I could actually claim ownership of.
Winter People is your 15th full-length play since you started writing plays as a sophomore at Dartmouth. That was less than 10 years ago.
I’m working on number 16, Just Cause, a horror comedy commissioned by the Speakeasy Stage Company.
You’re very prolific.
Yes, I’m prolific. Some people say too prolific.
Do you feel compelled to write?
Absolutely. I am not a nice person if I don’t write, so I do. I don’t know if joy is the right word…it’s a compulsion. It’s also when I am letting my brain do what it does best. It also relieves stress, even though writing is a very stressful process and it’s difficult.
Did you start writing when you were a kid?
Yes, I started writing poetry in childhood. This sounds so pretentious. I wrote a novel in middle school and another one in high school. They’re not very good. I found playwriting in college.
Did your parents encourage you?
My mother is a writer. She was one of my early inspirations. She’s someone who always told me: ‘Yes, you can do this.’ I’m very grateful for that. She’s currently working on a 700-page novel.
In your plays, you deal with all kinds of contemporary issues—income inequality, racism, gender, sexual assault.
I don’t write plays that don’t engage with our world, because what’s the point? I think something can entertain and engage and provoke at the same time. I never want to underestimate my audience or their intelligence. There is our terrible, messy, beautiful universe—how do we deal with it, why are we here, how do we get through this life, how do we support each other?
How did you come to write Faking It, your first play?
I went on a foreign study for acting to the London Academy of Music and Art freshman summer. It was amazing. While I was in London, I saw 40 plays. You can see theater on the cheap in London. I came back to campus and this idea of writing dialogue was in my mind. That ran headlong into a huge issue that Dartmouth was facing—is facing—which is sexual assault. I realized, wow, 70 or 80 percent of my female friends have been assaulted or coerced into sex of some kind. That’s a high number.
I knew this was a play I wanted to produce immediately. It was written for this moment. It’s structurally a mess.
Do you ever get blocked as a writer?
Oh, everyone gets blocked. I have a whole workshop on it. It’s called “the joy of getting stuck.” What I believe is that when you get writer’s block, that’s actually a gift. It’s your mind telling you that you have not found the joy in your subject. You have not made this engaging for you. Sometimes you haven’t found the right structure, the right elements, to toss in the cauldron and make it bubble. That’s one of the reasons I like to explore structurally. I think the structure of every play should reflect the content.
What did you learn about double casting from the travel you were able to do with the BU graduate arts research grant?
What I learned is that double casting is only valuable if you embrace it. You do that by honoring your audience’s intelligence. They know that these different characters are played by the same person. Seeing someone transform into a different person—the audience will always laugh. I was interested in playing off that engaged energy. I see you, audience.
Winter People, written by Laura Neill (GRS’19), directed by Avital Shira (CFA’20), and produced as a BU New Play Initiative by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre, runs at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., through December 16. Find times and prices here.
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