Laura Jacqmin spent “a solid ten years” (2006 to 2016) in Chicago as a playwright. During that time she developed an admirably eclectic body of work ranging from comedy (Dental Society Midwinter Meeting, about DDS dysfunction at a convention); docudrama (Dead Pile, about exposing conditions in a meatpacking plant); and searing intimate tragicomedy (Look, We Are Breathing, a twist on the dead-kid-grief-porn genre in which the deceased teenage boy at the center of the story, whom we meet through flashbacks, is actually a real jerk).
I talked to Jacqmin, whose work I’ve followed for well over a decade, last week right as We Broke Up, her first feature film (cowritten with her high school friend, Jeff Rosenberg, who also directs), was opening. Now based out of Los Angeles, the native of Shaker Heights, Ohio (also the setting of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere) moved to Chicago right after earning her MFA in playwriting at Ohio University. In town, Jacqmin’s work was performed at several companies, including Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory series.
For a few years, she was moving between Los Angeles and Chicago as she began building her resume as a screenwriter, beginning with the short-lived ABC series Lucky 7 in 2013. She’s also written for Grace and Frankie on Netflix and Get Shorty on Epix, as well as several video game projects. Currently, she’s a writer and consulting producer on Joe Exotic, a limited series on Peacock starring SNL‘s Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as the title character, made famous by Netflix’s Tiger King docuseries. (The Peacock series is based on the Wondery podcast of the same name hosted and reported by Robert Moor.)
“What I thought I’d be able to do for my entire career was go out [to LA]–you know, because typically a staffing contract on a television show is generally between 20 to 28 weeks for a normal-length series, which is like eight to thirteen episodes. And then I’d be able to go back to Chicago and to a beautiful cheap apartment and make theater,” says Jacqmin.
It worked for a while: after Lucky 7 was canceled (“We had the honor of being the first canceled fall drama that season,” Jacqmin notes with a laugh), she came back to Chicago for Buzz22’s 2014 production of Ghost Bike, her gender-reversed take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as We’re Going to be Fine, a seemingly prescient piece about an office worker dealing with a mass plague that Jacqmin developed with director Dexter Bullard for DePaul’s Theatre School in 2015.
“I love Chicago so much that it took me from fall and winter 2012 until spring 2016 to fully sort of make the move and say [to my partner], I think if we’re going to do this, we need to actually put our stuff in storage in Chicago and give up our apartment and actually, you know, commit to LA,” says Jacqmin.
Jacqmin was one of several women playwrights from Chicago who made that westward move around the same time, including Caitlin Montanye Parrish (Supergirl, The Red Line); Tanya Saracho (creator and showrunner for Vida on Starz); Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick, Shirley); and Marisa Wegrzyn (The Mentalist, Goliath). Like Jacqmin, their presence on Chicago stages has been limited by the demands of Hollywood.
“TV is not the sort of job where you get any time off,” Jacqmin notes. “There is no such thing as a sick day. There is no such thing as a vacation day. Maybe sick days will change a little bit after the pandemic has sort of waned. But when you’re on, you’re on for a contract of however many weeks and that’s your whole life.”
It’s true that while Jacqmin has been produced frequently in Chicago and elsewhere (her plaudits include winning the 2008 Wendy Wasserstein Prize for an emerging woman playwright for And when we awoke there was light and light), she, like most playwrights in the U.S., can’t count on stagework to provide a living. (Like a lot of writers, she’s done several teaching residencies along the way.)
But she also notes that Chicago provided her with opportunities that she doesn’t think would have been as easily attainable in New York; she initially self-produced Dental Society Midwinter Meeting in 2010 at Chicago Dramatists, then run by the late Russ Tutterow.
“They charged me $900 a week [rent], including everything, which was unheard of,” she says. The show did well enough that she and director Megan Schuchman were able to remount it in 2011 at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater.
Jacqmin says, “I still miss Chicago so much–that spirit of just being able to make stuff.” She adds, “And it’s amazing how the scene has changed in so many good ways for new work. When I was first there, there really was not an infrastructure for developing new plays in Chicago.” (Chicago Dramatists being a notable exception as a company that for decades was wholly dedicated to nurturing new work, as opposed to companies where the new work was primarily developed by writers already connected to the ensemble.)
But We Broke Up gave Jacqmin an experience closer to what she had as a working Chicago playwright, rather than just being another voice in the television writers room. The movie stars Aya Cash (You’re the Worst) and William Jackson Harper (The Good Place) as Lori and Doug, a couple of ten years’ duration breaking up days before her sister’s wedding. (In the first moments, Doug asks Lori to marry him, and she promptly vomits.)
Rosenberg (who worked as an assistant director on The Good Place, which is where the connection to Harper came from) reached out to Jacqmin back in 2012, when she was first starting to send some scripts around LA looking for screenwriting gigs.
“He was like, ‘Hey, you want to, you know, meet up and get dinner? It’s been five years or something since we’ve seen each other.’ And so we went to an Umami Burger in Hollywood and he was like, ‘I have an idea for this movie. Do you want to write it together?’ And I said yes. He said, ‘Do you want to know what it’s about?’ And I said, ‘I don’t care. I want to do it,'” says Jacqmin, adding, “I was so hungry at that point for collaboration and to just not be writing plays that were not going to get produced.”
The screenplay is a relative rarity: a romantic comedy written together by a man and a woman. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of my favorite rom-coms,” says Jacqmin. “I love that movie. I’ve watched it so many times. And what I love the most is there’s a scene late in the movie where Sarah–who has sort of been the villain of the movie–there’s this sort of tearful scene between the two of them where she says, ‘Your experience of our relationship is not the same as mine.'”
Jacqmin and Rosenberg tapped into their longtime friendship to build out the story of Lori and Doug from the perspectives of both characters. “I was so, so serious in high school,” she says. “And Jeff was the funny guy who knew that he wanted to make movies.” That dynamic plays out in the bittersweet tone with dashes of comic absurdity (the story is mostly set at a camp dedicated to Paul Bunyan, for starters) threaded throughout We Broke Up.
But it took a long time from that initial meeting in 2012 to getting the green light to shoot the film (which was done on location in just 15 days in February 2019, right before the COVID shutdown).
“The feature film world is as slow as the theater world,” notes Jacqmin. “I think maybe it’s a little bit slower where you’re going in fits and starts. There’s forward movement. You’re talking about casting, you’re talking about funding with the tax incentive thing. My god, we did so many budgets. Like we did a budget for Nevada. We did a budget for Iceland. You’re just trying to figure out ‘Where can we get money from? How can we put this together? How can we make it happen?'”
But being on set for the film has given Jacqmin another goal. “I wrote a feature last year that I would like to direct myself and one never knows if these things are gonna come together . . . but it’s something that I’m actively pursuing.”
As for returning to theater, that too depends on the project. “I love theater so much. I think for all of the playwrights who sort of come out [to LA], it’s our first love. It’s always going to be our first love. I think I just reached a point where it just became too difficult.”
And Jacqmin (a cofounder of the Kilroys, dedicated to emphasizing gender parity in theater by uplifting work by women, trans, and nonbinary playwrights) is conscious of how much the demand for new voices also requires supporting those who have been traditionally marginalized. “I would not say no to jumping into [theater] again, but I am sort of at the place where I’ve stopped pursuing it as much. I don’t need to be centering my voice, to be perfectly honest. I had a great degree of success in Chicago theater. I’m forever going to be grateful, but also there are so many underrepresented voices out there and I’m like, yeah, produce their plays.” v