Parker Lemal-Brown ’18 is a sociology major and Francophone Studies minor. They started writing plays during the spring of their sophomore year, and their one-act play, “Gesundheit,” was recently selected for the upcoming Maine Playwrights Festival. Lemal-Brown is also co-president of Bowdoin Slam Poets Society and regularly performs their original poetry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How often do you produce new work?
A: I wrote “Rose and Psyche” sophomore spring, and then I started conceptualizing a musical over that summer, which I ended up scrapping the next year. I took Playwriting junior fall, which is when I wrote “Gesundheit,” and then worked on a full-length play called “Black Rock.” After my junior fall, I got an idea for a full-length play that I did research on when I was abroad. I also write screenplays and television scripts in my spare time. Since this year I’ve written two plays, the one for the 2018 Bowdoin One Act Festival and currently finishing up the full-length play I started last year. Not every single thing I write is produced—I have a lot of half-finished projects.
Q: What inspires your work?
A: Sometimes it’s an image that I really want to see on stage, that I think would be really cool. A lot of times it comes from other people telling me about their experiences. It’s hard to share certain experiences with people and to have them really fully understand it, and I think writing and storytelling is a really powerful way of getting people to empathize. For example, [my play] “Recur” is about women in computer science, and that came from my roommate who’s a [computer science] major. I think those are the plays that I like writing the most, the ones where I can hear different people’s stories and they all have this similar thread. Even if the characters are fictional, they have a lot of universal qualities, and people can recognize themselves in them.
Q: In what ways has being at Bowdoin influenced your growth as an artist?
A: Honestly, I almost went to Barnard College in New York City, and I still think to this day if I had, I would not be writing. There’s something about Bowdoin being a very small campus. It’s pretty isolated, and there’s a lot of supportive people. Sometimes I felt very alone trying to write things in my spare time because it wasn’t part of a club, it wasn’t part of a classroom, and these weren’t things that would be recognized on their own. But this campus really can be a playground for trying out new things—there’s such low risk for putting yourself out there, and such great support for whatever people do. I think the culture and that encouragement in a low-stakes environment can be really great for creativity. The frustration that you’re alone, or that you’re the only person doing something, kind of drives you.
Q: Have you been able to work closely with professors and other students?
A: Definitely. Sarah Bay-Cheng, the head of the theater department—I met her for the first time my sophomore spring, and I feel very lucky to be able to closely collaborate with her. She was the one who encouraged me to apply to the Maine Playwrights Festival. She’s read every single draft of basically all of my writing since sophomore year, and she’s the only person who can really tell me where I’ve been and where I’m going. That in itself is worth the price of tuition, having somebody who really can see how you’re developing. Every time I go to her office, I leave with like six more books, six more authors to read, playwrights to explore.
Q: Can you tell me about each of the plays you’ve written or are writing? What influenced them and what are they about?
A: I’ll talk about the three plays happening this semester. The first one, “Gesundheit,” is basically about a man who chooses to go to his deathbed, and we’re not really sure why. He has a physical therapist next to him, and one of his daughters comes home and is trying to get him not to die. This play was inspired a lot by David Ives’ “The Death of Trotsky,” which is really absurd and really morbid. [For] my other one-act, “Straw Man,” I got inspiration from my brother. He’s the kind of person who just has to get into a debate, and that kind of interaction was the inspiration for this—a brother and sister waiting for their dad to show up for dinner, and conversations that happen from that. It’s only seven minutes, so it will be interesting to see how that comes out on stage, in terms of the timing. And then, “Recur,” which is the big play, is very different in tone. The idea came from my roommate, who’s a comp-sci major. We decided we wanted to talk about the idea of recursion, which is a function in computer science, and that became this discussion about things like microaggressions and the insecurities that women face in STEM fields. The play came out of interviews with 20 Bowdoin faculty and students, as well as women in other fields and at other colleges. It’s about this student Ada who is in her first technical interview and has to solve an algorithm. And as she’s solving it, we continually flash back to how she got into that room and basically see her evolution as a college student from her first year to her last year and the relationship she’s developed with her own mother and her mentor. It’s this idea of the expectations adults have for students, how we kind of see ourselves and this moment when you get your first chance to really define yourself in the world and the obstacles to doing that. It’s not like a typical play with really long monologues. It’s not in a living room. It’s written almost like a screenplay but meant to be seen on stage.
Q: How do you feel about your play “Gesundheit” being selected for the Maine Playwrights Festival?
A: I was very surprised, honestly. I’m really interested to see where it goes because it’s one of the pieces that I did for fun, but having other people read it, they put a lot of their own value into it, and I’m really excited to see what happens as more people get involved in the piece. And now I can go back and revise it a year later with a director, with a cast, with a dramaturg. I’m really excited to see it become something different, something deeper than maybe I had thought of the first time. It’s just exciting to feel like I’m actually jumping into a professional world and remembering that theater and playwriting is a communal activity at its core even though sometimes it can feel like writing a novel, alone.
Q: Finally, what is the personal significance of your work? What feelings or experiences does it draw from?
A: I think for as long as I can remember I’ve used fiction as a lens to process my own life. I’ve noticed a lot of my patterns in my work or things that I keep coming around to, like things that I’m really afraid of, relationships that I keep coming back to. I find that the idea of memory is really interesting to me, and it’s come up in a screenplay I started. It’s coming up in this play. It’s rooted in my own fear of losing memory, or the wish that I could control time in a different way. Sometimes it’s really helpful to be like, “Here’s the worst version of myself” in a room with somebody and kind of get beat up by other people. It keeps my own ego in check, seeing this character grow and learn lessons.