Playwright Laura Neill on ‘Winter People’ (part 2)

Winter People cast members Lyndsay Allyn Cox and Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos (Photo: Kalman Zabarsky)

Part two of my conversation with Winter People playwright Laura Neill about her play, collaboration, and the challenges along the way.

I love what you said about collaboration, about the end result belonging to the whole team of artists behind it. At what point in your process is it useful to pull others in? Are there times when collaboration/feedback is less useful, and you’d rather be left to your own devices?

I like to barrel through the first draft on my own and just get the thing out there. But beyond that I like to hear it out loud and get responses to key questions right away—there’s so much great information in actors’ choices! I like to use a modified Liz Lerman model for feedback at the beginning, where we start with things that stick out to listeners and then progress to a few key questions.

I think I work best when I have time alone followed by collab time followed by time alone followed by collab time, all in relatively quick succession… I need total quiet to write, so stepping back and internalizing things is important in between rehearsals. But I need that connection and collaboration to see what’s working and what isn’t!

How do you know when it’s done? Is it a gut feeling, or…?

Well, I rarely use the word “done.” But in terms of how I knew I had written the last scene of the play—how I realized that that was the ending—it was a gut feeling. And I guess it usually is with all my plays. At a certain point, you can’t be intellectual about an ending—it has to feel right. With Winter People, though, it was an absolute certainty as soon as I wrote it. It was a moment of, right, I’ve been subconsciously building toward this the whole play and this is how it has to end (I can’t say more than that without giving some things away).

Playwright Laura Neill

How do you keep track of things/keep the threads of your story line “on the path?” Do you storyboard? With so many families and characters—not to mention the double- and triple- casting in ‘Winter People’—did it get confusing?

The funny thing is, I knew pretty much immediately who everyone was. I think it’s because I’m so familiar with Long Island, that the characters came from a place I know well. I also chose each character to represent a very specific part of the island, a piece that the island couldn’t exist without. So the cast was what it needed to be to express the place. My plays usually have fewer characters, but I also tend to create a structure for each play that matches its content, helps the play tell the story it needs to tell. I guess it doesn’t hurt that the play I wrote before this—DIVAS, a commission for OperaHub–involved writing for nine characters, so I got used to keeping track of a large number of foci at once.

That sounds very intense! What has been the most challenging part of the development process for ‘Winter People’?

I think the biggest challenge has been parsing through what’s reality and what’s fiction, and what is important to represent and what I am just automatically moved to include because it’s what’s “real.” All of the characters are fictional, of course, but it’s been a new experience for me writing a piece that is SO personal about a world I know so well, collaborating with a team that doesn’t know the island. I had to figure out, wait, do I want this scene to be set in a diner just because there’s a real diner where scenes like this happen? And is that a good reason? Or do I need to have an additional structural justification? What are the things about the island that my audience doesn’t need to know?


Winter People runs at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through Dec. 16.  Tickets