Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Arun Lakra

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Arun Lakra

Arun Lakra may have one of the most unique work weeks in the country; his days are divided between his ophthalmology practice and his life as an acclaimed playwright. The hugely positive response to his newest play, Sequence (Playwrights Canada Press), isn't making it any easier for him to balance his schedule: it scooped the 2013 Betty Mitchell Award for Outstanding New Play, the 2013 Calgary Theatre Critics Award for Best New Script, the 2013 Woodward/Newman Drama Award and the 2011 Alberta Playwriting Competition, keeping Arun plenty busy.

Today we speak with Arun about the new play, and he tells us about his relationship with the concept of luck, what Sequence has in common with DNA and why the the Fibonacci sequence fascinated him while working on this project.

Open Book:

Tell us about your play, Sequence.

Arun Lakra:

Sequence is science thriller in which two stories intertwine. In one thread, Time Magazine’s Luckiest Man Alive has bet on the Super Bowl coin toss 19 years in a row. And won every time. Today, he is about to risk 880 million dollars on the 20th, until he fortuitously meets a young woman who claims to have figured out his mathematical secret. Simultaneously (or so it seems), a blind professor is paid a mysterious late night visit by a student in a wheelchair, who, on his Genetics final examination, somehow got all 150 questions wrong… a 1 in 5 quintillion chance. In this play, God, Einstein, Darwin, stem cell research, Fibonacci numbers, miniskirts, and football, all spiral together. And the question is asked... In our lives, in our universe, and even in our stories, does order matter?

OB:

Luck and chance feature largely in Sequence. What led you to be interested in these themes?

AL:

Quite possibly, elements of this play may have been rooted in a stack of rejection letters. I started to formulate a theory (self-defense mechanism) that in some spheres, events proceeded in a fairly linear fashion. If you wanted to be a doctor, you went to med school, you studied hard, you didn’t kill anyone, and usually, you emerged a doctor. However, in other worlds — for example, in the arts — it seemed things weren’t quite so linear, so predictable. Hard work, talent, training, and perseverance were all necessary, but not sufficient. There was one other critical yet nebulous ingredient… luck. While, of course, there is an element of luck in everyone’s life, my theory is this is more pronounced in the world of the arts. Submissions, auditions, rejections, reviews. Writers especially, and artists of any kind, seem to be at the mercy of lady luck. And I started to wonder… what exactly is luck? Is it simply “statistics taken personally” as some have said? Or is there more to luck than mere mathematics and probability? Got me thinking…

OB:

Both Theo and Dr. Guzman are confronted by people who challenge them. How did you handle the two intersecting storylines during the writing process?

AL:

I have always been drawn to stories where the form reflects its content. So I started with a vague and somewhat pretentious idea… to see if I could create something where the form of the play could somehow resemble a double helix of DNA, and where that structure would be intrinsic and integral to the underlying theme.

I ended up writing the early drafts in two separate threads, with the hope (fantasy) that when the time came to integrate the two, it would work in a “chocolate/peanut butter” kind of way, as opposed to the dreaded “cold fusion” kind of way. I actually didn’t know if it was going to work. I remember the night I brought the two threads together, cutting and pasting like a mad literary scientist, hoping the whole experiment wouldn’t end with blood on the walls.

OB:

Do you have any writing rituals or talismans that are a part of your process? And when you hit rough patches while writing, do you have any go-to techniques?

AL:

Caffeine. Advil.

OB:

You have an unusual background for a playwright, as a practicing ophthalmologist. How does your other work impact your writing?

AL:

I like to think that the medical background makes me a better writer and the creative side makes me a better doctor. (And that the balance of the two makes me a less cranky person.) Perhaps it’s the nature of material that I gravitate towards, but I find it takes a great deal of analytic, almost scientific brainpower to write.

I divide my work week into the medical practice days and the creative days. In theory, this gives me the luxury of dedicated time to write. However, real life isn’t quite so black and white, and not infrequently, my worlds collide and time vaporizes — which I quite regularly use as an excuse for lack of productivity.

OB:

What were you reading and watching while you worked on this project? Do you find your reading and writing influence each other?

AL:

As I did research for this play, I ended up getting drawn to the intersection of math, nature, and spirituality. For example, the Fibonacci sequence. At face value, this is simply a mathematical sequence of numbers. However, upon closer examination, this sequence is at the core of our natural universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic. At the risk of revealing my true geekiness, I found this idea to be very exciting, and I tried to incorporate this, dramatically, in Sequence.

Also, Stephen Hawking had given a lecture entitled, “Does God Play Dice?” which explored the nexus of science and spirituality. I found his perspective fascinating and relevant to what I was trying to write.

On a theatrical level, I spent a lot of time with Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, and David Auburn’s Proof. And on screen, anything Sorkin. I am a sucker for smart characters who think and talk quickly.

OB:

What are you working on now?

AL:

I have three different plays I’m working on, in various stages of development. I also have a supernatural thriller screenplay in development.

Arun Lakra is a writer, doctor and father. As a writer, Arun has produced a book on laser eye surgery, a supernatural thriller screenplay, a song to protest the demotion of Pluto, a heartfelt ballad about puke, a line of misunderstood T-shirts and his share of illegible prescriptions. Sequence is his second stage play. His first play received rave reviews for balancing a wobbly table in his basement. Arun lives in Calgary with his wife and kids and divides his work week between his creative endeavours and his ophthalmology practice.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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