It’s hard enough to find your voice when creating a solo show, but Laura Zam went further — she’s settled on about thirty. In Married Sex, Zam takes interviews with a wide variety of people on body, intimacy, and relationships and folds it all up in her own story. It’s a lot of moving pieces, but Zam’s up for it — she specializes in one-person plays, in addition to writing, performing, and teaching (with a focus on post-trauma work in groups including war veterans, sexual abuse survivors, and more).
Married Sex has been growing since Theater J offered Zam a commission last year as part of their Locally Grown Festival, and she had the opportunity to do a showing at Theater J this past spring. She is cheerful and confident when we sit down together at the Tent, having gotten a few Fringe performances under her belt (staged, appropriately, in the Bedroom).
“Assembling the show was a long process,” she says. “Finding the right stories to tell, and getting the right through-line. The first version of my play was much more just about my own healing journey. But audiences at Theater J didn’t seem to respond to that. There was an expectation that my show was going to provide some further insight into relationships. So I listened to that, and I’ve written that aspect into the play. There are a lot more stories now. I think it’s coming together.”
Some change and fluidity is part of the fun of doing a show like this over time. It can be hard, Zam says, to quantify any changes to Married Sex that may be on the table once the summer is over. “I’m not sure right now to what extent I want to revise the piece,” she says. “But I see some things that I’ll change. And the reviews are helpful too. I’m using the reviews to check against certain changes that I’ve been thinking of making.”
Not every writer would want, or be able, to perform their own writing. I ask Zam about how these two skills coexist for her, and about how she rehearses.
“Even when I’m about to perform something, I feel like I approach a text first as a writer,” she says. “Then, when I go through the text again, I approach it as an actor, to see if those words make sense in my mouth.”
Then more rehearsals bring more layers, she explains. “The next time through it, I’m a musician — I’m interested in what the rhythms are. And then I’m a painter, since I’ve made a sketch of something that feels like it needs to get painted in, like putting muscle to the bone. Eventually, I come in and do a clean-up process where I feel like I’m all kinds of artists at once.”
It takes some hard work, then, to tell all of the stories in the show from multiple points of view. “I feel like things are tightening up nicely now. Playing multiple characters is dependent on a kind of virtuosity that I’m always trying to achieve. There’s some harmony among the characters thematically, but they are all in conflict in important ways, too. So, it’s getting there. Taking on big tasks and making them work takes time.”
Also on team Zam: Shirley Serotsky, Theater J’s Associate Artistic Director, who directs this production of Married Sex.
“Shirley is great. She definitely brings a skill set that I don’t have. I’ll write something, but then I’ll have no idea what to do with my body onstage. So she helps me. Then my mind opens up, and the acting kicks in. But for a little while there’s a disconnect between me the writer and me the actor. That’s when having a director is especially helpful — helping to translate the text to the actor.”
Through that process, Zam hones in on specific emotional qualities of the show — and anticipates how audiences will absorb them.
“Much of the surprise and the delight for me comes in feeling when those emotional moments might come for audience members. And that’s very gratifying, because that’s a thing I crave as an audience member too. I want to be moved, I want things to hit me in the gut. So I try to provide that myself. That’s my goal.”
by Laura Zam
at Fort Fringe – Bedroom
612 L Street NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
It’s never completely clear in advance how audiences will or won’t respond. Zam mentions a particularly vocal audience member at a recent performance. “They were having audible reactions to the play in a few places that surprised me. Those moments are interesting and meaningful to me now in a new way. It’s just another way or getting and reading feedback.”
Performing your own writing is as challenging as it is exciting, says Zam. “It can be an involved process to get the story right on paper, so once that happens, it’s hard to know where I’ll be in my acting process. But when I get it finalized to the point where it works, it’s magic to me. That complete realization of a vision, feeling clear about the rhythm and musicality, the text and the story, all the ideas, even the choreography of movement onstage… It takes a while to get a show like this to gel, but when it does, it feels totally complete.”
I ask her whether she has any other solo shows in the works. Maybe not right now, she says — this play has been pretty massive, so it may not be the moment to rush into something new. Right now she’s interested in turning Married Sex, in some form, into a memoir. “I’ve been playing around with that form for a few years. I’ve already started turning the play into some sample chapters, and I’m working on proposals.”
It’s a good next step, that much is clear. “It gives me confidence to go forward in this new direction,” she says, smiling. “I like the lifestyle. I do love the theatre, but the lifestyle of just sitting and writing? There’s nothing better than that.”