Deborah Zoe Laufer gets a lot of ideas for her plays by listening to National Public Radio. That is certainly the case with Rooted, receiving its Florida premiere at FAU Theatre Lab, beginning this Saturday, Feb. 3.
“I was listening to Radio Lab and there was a scientist, Monica Gagliano, on, talking about plant consciousness,” the idea that plants have innate intelligence, the ability to learn and remember. “And I was fascinated by the experiments she’d been doing, so I just went down the rabbit hole,” says Laufer, whose The Three Sisters of Weehawken and Be Here Now had previously been produced at Theatre Lab.
“I watched dozens and dozens of videos of her talking about her experiments. I got her book and read it. And I had the same impulse I frequently have, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to tell everyone about this.’ Everyone has to know these things about plants that I never knew before.”
To spread the word on plant consciousness, Laufer wrote Rooted, the tale of 60-ish and single Emery, who spends her time in a homemade treehouse in a tiny town in upstate New York, a fictional version of where Laufer grew up. There Emery blogs about her experiments with plants, which go viral and attract crowds of people who see Emery as a messiah. Emery finds the attention annoying, but her sister Hazel sees it as a way to cash in and escape town for the first time in her life.
The messiah theme also came to Laufer from a radio broadcast, “I heard that there was a guru in India who predicted that the messiah was coming. He would be an Indian man living in London who would make a great public appearance – a great splash – on late night television in the United States.
“So this Indian man living in London – an economist, very brilliant and charismatic – went on the Colbert Show and all the followers went, ‘Finally, there he is,’ and they stated making pilgrimages to his flat in London. They just decided he was the messiah, and he couldn’t get them to stop. And I was so intrigued by that idea that it became a real germ of my play also.”
And then there is Luanne, whom Emery uncharacteristically invites up into the treehouse. Those who saw Be Here Now four seasons ago will probably recall Luanne, who appears in both plays, the first two-thirds of what Laufer has called a potential trilogy.
“It had never occurred to me that I was writing a trilogy,” says Laufer, until the artistic director of Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park – which commissioned the first two plays – put the idea in her head. At the moment, she is not sure which one of several ideas will become that third play, but she knows it will again concern states of consciousness.
Further linking Be Here Now and Rooted are their identical casts at Theatre Lab – Elizabeth Dimon (Emery), Laura Turnbull (Hazel) and Gretchen Porro (Luanne). “I just love these actresses,” says Laufer. “I would work with them all the time if I could.”
She is working closely with them, for in addition to writing Rooted, Laufer is directing the Theatre Lab production. “I’ve found that I love directing a play before I have it published. Because I really find out what’s unnecessary in the play, what needs clarification,” Laufer says. “And ‘Rooted’ is probably going to be published this year.
“Another reason why it’s good to direct it, because now I see what challenges I’m giving another director and I can appreciate how difficult some things are,” she adds. “(The cast) must be tired of me saying, ‘Who wrote this?’”
In addition to exploring new subjects, writing plays is “an opportunity to see the world in a new way. It’s an opportunity for me, when I’m creating it to step into the shoes of people I don’t understand or know,” says Laufer. “I think theater is a great empathy builder. You actually get to know someone you wouldn’t know in real life.
“I’m just fascinated by people whose brains work differently than mine. I would say in every one of my plays there’s someone whose brain just works very, very differently than mine does. There are people who are on the spectrum in most of my plays. I have a real love for that way of seeing the world.”
Rooted was written before the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but Laufer feels that the crowd below Emery’s treehouse reflects that day’s mob mentality. “This play is so much more potent since the insurrection, because we know now how group thought can catch on fire. History rewrites your plays, in ways you could never imagine,” she says. “The way the cult members respond to each other’s ideas and how it spreads, it’s not fiction.”
Laufer the director worries that Laufer the playwright has stuffed her play with too many diverse topics. “I was trying to cram 20 different ideas into this play. I thought I had to get rid of some of them, but somehow I found a way that they all live in there still.
“I think it will be very entertaining,” Laufer says of Rooted. “I think the audience’ll laugh a good deal. And maybe they’ll be deeply moved at the end.”
ROOTED, Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, FAU Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. From Sat., Feb. 3 through Sun., Feb. 18. $35-$45. 561-297-6124.