As Her Many Worlds Turn : Lisa Loomer is a playwright who also writes for (gasp!) TV sitcoms. And then there’s the Latina thing. So, how does it all work together? Very well, thanks.
It’s another semi-sweaty afternoon in a Mark Taper Forum rehearsal room. Two actresses seated on hospital gurneys are running through the final scene of Lisa Loomer’s “The Waiting Room,” which opens at the Music Center theater this week. Two other actresses are waiting in the offstage area, hidden by screens.
The playwright is seated at a table. There are also stage managers and assistants nearby. Yet what’s striking is that all of these people are women. In fact, of the 10 folks in the room, director David Schweizer is the only man.
A female-to-male ratio like this shouldn’t be as remarkable as it is, but it’s almost unheard of in a place like this. And while current rhetoric might suggest that Loomer, who is a Latina, stands out on the Taper writer roster because of her ethnic identity, it’s really the fact that she’s a woman that makes her presence so unusual.
This, after all, is the mainstream American regional theater, where for all the attention that’s been paid in recent years to matters of ethnic diversity, little has been done about gender equality. In fact, the situation for female playwrights is no better now than it was a decade or more ago.
Case in point: “The Waiting Room” is the only play written by a woman that will be at the Taper this season or next. And while Los Angeles may see the occasional touring production of a work by a female writer--such as Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig,” currently at the Doolittle--the Taper remains the city’s most prominent producer of new works and thus highly influential.
Loomer’s “The Waiting Room” is a much-needed exception to the norm. Developed and previously staged at the Taper’s New Works festival, the script brings together three women from three different centuries and cultures in the waiting room of a contemporary doctor’s office. It tackles such provocative issues as society’s changing ideals of female beauty and the inadequacies of women’s health care, albeit with humor.
“She deals in one play with a woman who has breast cancer from bad implants, a woman who can barely walk from her feet being bound and a woman who has been so severely corseted that all of her inner organs have been crushed,” says Taper producing director Robert Egan, who shepherded the script into New Works. “And it’s a comedy.”
The mix of controversy with lightness is a Loomer trademark. “Lisa has the ability to merge a zany irreverent comedic sensibility with serious issues about being a woman in today’s world,” Egan says.
A playwright who’s had works staged at such prestigious theaters as South Coast Repertory, the Kennedy Center, the Public Theater, the American Place Theater and more, Loomer has also penned film scripts, TV movies and miniseries and worked for TV producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s series “Hearts Afire” and the upcoming Bloodworth-Thomason show “Women of the House.”
“Lisa is always on the cutting edge of social change and whatever is going on in the country, but never in any kind of politically correct way,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. “She’ll have a unique viewpoint. Her sense of humor is quirky. She’s also very pro-female.”
Yet even with the steady TV gig, from which she is on leave, Loomer returns to the stage. That’s because the theater affords her a forum in which to address topical issues in a way that TV won’t allow. “It’s creative freedom,” Loomer says. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”
As one of the few playwrights who does continue to work in the theater even with a healthy screenwriting career, Loomer’s used to fielding skepticism. “Before they get to know me, people in television expect me to be serious and intellectual because I’m in theater,” she says. “And people in theater are wary of my being a laugh whore.”
N ew York’s INTAR (International Art Relations) has long been one of the most fertile training grounds for Latino theater artists. It was there, in a lab led by playwright Maria Irene Fornes in 1985, that Loomer first began writing plays.
“She certainly taught us how to contact our imaginations and free our minds,” says Loomer of Fornes, who also teaches at L.A.'s Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop-Festival. “In working with her, I began to distinguish between what’s clever and what’s humor. Clever is more from the head; humor is more from the whole being, the character,” Loomer continues. “Clever wasn’t what I was after. It wasn’t that I simply intended to be funny, but that comedy was a way to get at something else.”
The distinction is central to Loomer’s spirit and style, which is often whimsical, but seldom frivolous. In fact, the matters at the heart of “The Waiting Room” are some of the most grave--literally, life-and-death--that she’s ever dealt with, although she does it with wit and irony.
“It’s about perceptions of beauty that are perpetrated by a male-driven industry--the irony being that when you suffer the physical repercussions it’s another male industry that tries to take care of you,” Egan says.
One of the play’s most controversial touch-points is breast cancer, the disease that felled Loomer’s own mother. “A lot of what drove me in this play has to do with her fight and the need for freedom of choice in health care,” the playwright says.
“If you get sick in America, you will be exposed to the therapies that the medical Establishment supports,” Loomer continues. “And from the research I’ve done, there is a connection between medical Establishment interests and the interests of big business that has to do with the lack of access to (alternative) therapies.”
Loomer’s other plays--including “Bocon!,” “Looking for Angels,” “Cuts” and “Chain of Life"--have been seen in Germany and Mexico, as well as in a variety of venues in New York.
Loomer, who lives in Sherman Oaks, has been represented locally by a 1991 Odyssey Theatre Ensemble staging of “Accelerando,” a quirky romantic pas de deux between a bassoonist and a ballet dancer recovering from a broken foot. Her only brush with the L.A. majors prior to “The Waiting Room,” though, was when her first full-length play, “Birds,” premiered in 1986 on the second stage at South Coast Repertory Theatre. (Loomer had also taken part in the inaugural year of the Hispanic Playwrights Project there during the previous summer, where the script was workshopped.)
Set partly in Mexico during the late 1960s and early 1970s and partly in 1980s L.A., “Birds” traces three decades in the life of the Vasquez family, a fictional clan whose experiences have some parallels with those of Loomer’s own family.
L oomer, who is of mixed Spanish and Romanian ancestry, was born and raised in New York, although her family moved to Mexico when she was in her late teens. She stayed in the United States for school, spending summers and making other visits to see her parents in Mexico.
“Usually people have their youth (in Mexico before coming to the United States), but I had a lot of late teen and early 20s major life experiences there instead,” says Loomer, who refuses to give her age but is around 40. “It’s an odd thing in my writing because they did go that way instead of coming this way.”
The time spent in Mexico gave her a unique perspective. “Maybe part of the reason I’m not as linear, logical or naturalistic as some is that I did spend a lot of time in a culture that was not driven by linear expectations, where the boundaries between life and death, between the literal and the fanciful, are a lot looser.”
After graduating from Brandeis, Loomer started her theater career as an actress and comic, but soon became frustrated with the limited repertoire of roles for women and especially Latinas. She turned, as actors frequently do, to writing monologues for herself, which led to several one-woman shows that she performed in the early 1980s in New York.
Her forte was an array of comedic personas, long before the multi-character monologue format became as popular as it is now. Loomer also began honing her stand-up skills with a group called Legal Action, then the in-house group for Manhattan’s West Bank Cafe.
Both pursuits proved grist for the mill once Loomer wended her way to INTAR and Fornes in 1985. Since then, Loomer has done better than most women in terms of getting her work staged, perhaps partly because she’s come into her own during a period in which the theater has paid particular attention to ethnic representation.
“The climate has changed significantly and the theater climate has eased a bit,” says playwright-screenwriter Jose Rivera. “There’s a strong desire among people who run theaters to place before their audiences populations that are part of this country that they might otherwise not see.”
Yet those same people have done next to nothing about the underrepresentation of female writers. “What’s been hard for us recently is choosing and balancing a season with all of the constituencies that we try to serve,” says the Taper’s Egan of the dearth of female playwrights produced on the Taper main stage. “We can do better in that area, I’m not going to deny that. We just have to be more vigilant.”
Loomer may be the lucky one at the Taper this year, but she’s aware that her position is singular. “I am passionate in support that there be more venues for women, but I can’t tell you that I’ve experienced prejudice,” she says.
And even the comparatively fortunate Loomer knows the idiosyncrasies of the mostly male workplace. “I know that if I’m sitting in a room and there is a male producer, a male director, a male dramaturge and a couple of other men, they will be a little more at ease with each other because they’re used to dealing with each other,” she says.
T here’s as much difference be tween theater and film as be tween the centuries to which the women of “The Waiting Room” belong. Yet Loomer has found ways to adjust her working process for each medium.
“I approach theater completely differently from TV,” she says. “I wait and one scene comes to me, then another, then a character. I don’t write linearly. In television and film, you are required to do a story outline, which means that you know what will happen before the characters really come alive.”
It’s an accommodation that she’s learned to make, although it hasn’t always been that easy. The trick, she says, is to get to know which tasks from each discipline are compatible. “There are some things that you can do at the same time,” she says. “I can punch up a television script at the same time as I’m doing first-draft playwriting. But I find it hard to do a real original television script or a movie and a play at the same time.”
The collaborative process is also different in TV than it is in theater, and the way the small-screen game is played tends to throw into relief the peculiarities of being a woman in what’s still mostly a man’s realm. “I’ve had the experience of being the only woman on a staff and that’s absolutely wild. Comedy in television is kind of an aggressive game, especially as played by men.”
Call it sitcom machismo. “Where if you were in a room of male businessmen, they might be talking about how much money they made or where they vacationed, in a room of comics, they’ve got those jokes going loud and fast,” Loomer says. “That’s their way of being men and comics at the same time.
“It’s not my nature. I’m not that kind of funny. But the upside of it was that these guys are funny and they’re fun to be in a room with.”
Both those guys and Loomer, however, have to remember that there are limits. "(Loomer) has a good set of brakes on her,” Bloodworth-Thomason says. “She knows just how daring to be. She has the guts to do more, but she also has the good sense to work within the framework and she can adapt herself to any medium.
“She’s not a snob about television,” Bloodworth-Thomason continues. “Lisa understands that having her writing shown on a small box in someone’s living room doesn’t diminish that work.”
L oomer is at least realistic about the pluses and minuses of working on sitcoms. “It’s fairly formulaic, although there are people who take chances,” Loomer says. “I don’t know that it changes the world, but sometimes there’s one little thought that many, many people hear.
“Once on ‘Hearts Afire’ we had a story about a senator, played by Rita Moreno,” Loomer continues. “She didn’t have a Latin name, but people got to see the juxtaposition of ‘Latin woman’ and ‘senator’ and that to me was very satisfying.”
Both Loomer and Rivera--author of “Marisol,” “The Promise” and other plays and the creator-writer-producer of the 1991 NBC series “Eerie, Indiana"--have carved out careers as television writers apart from shows with any significant Latino content. Yet neither has been able to parlay that track record into realizing the goal they share of bringing a Latino-oriented show to prime-time network television.
“This Latino silence on TV is a paradox,” Rivera says. “There’s a sincere desire on the part of the networks to make a Latino show a reality, and there’s certainly no lack of rhetoric. On the other hand, it’s still hard to get any show on television, let alone a Latino show.”
“The concern is that if it’s too particular to the Latin culture, the Anglo culture won’t find a door in,” Loomer says. “I think that if you show what is particular about a culture, chances are it will also be what is human about the people of that culture.”
Yet until the TV industry comes to agree with Loomer on this and other issues of concern to her, the playwright will continue to turn to the stage. “There are some very controversial issues in ‘The Waiting Room,’ ” she says. “I don’t think these issues will be dealt with on television, and sometimes even the movies steer away. The theater does offer that freedom to deal with issues that aren’t talked about on television and film."*
‘The Waiting Room’
Address: Mark Taper Forum, L.A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave.
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