Theater In Dialogue
Morgan Gould and Ren Dara Santiago with Kate Cortesi about the untimely closing of their plays due to you know what
Morgan Gould and Ren Dara Santiago commiserate with Kate Cortesi about the untimely closing of their plays due to you know what
From their respective quarantines over—what else?—Zoom, three playwrights complained about streaming, expressed gratitude for streaming, and wondered why actors love playing high so much.
Kate Cortesi’s Love had six performances at Marin Theatre Company before theaters closed down; Morgan Gould’s Nicole Clark is Having a Baby had five shows at Actors Theatre of Louisville; and Ren Dara Santiago’s The Siblings Play made it through a whopping nine previews at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Two of these were streamed for the ticket-buying public. One playwright declined to have her video broadcast.
Kate Cortesi (Rail): Hi, friends, how are we all feeling? I know I’ve started to crack.
Morgan Gould: I’m not doing great. Hi Ren, I’ve never met you. I’m Morgan. I’m so sorry about your show.
Ren Dara Santiago: Yeah, thank you. Did you have a cancelled show as well?
Gould: Yeah, I did. What a gift.
My play being cancelled feels like two decades ago, so that’s over. I’m sure the grief will come back, but right now that feels like a distant memory.
Rail: I just found the notes from my cast on opening night. A message in a bottle from a past life that was one month ago.
Gould: I just realized right now that my closing night is tonight.
Rail: Mine was five days ago if we got extended. Which we definitely would have.
Santiago: I felt grief the week of closing. The final week of streaming.
Gould: It sucks, it totally sucks. But also, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to give you perspective about your career.
What’s gonna happen to our field?
Rail: When I found out my show got pulled, I felt so sorry for myself. I made the global pandemic all about my play. I had worked so hard for that opportunity—
Rail: After so many “almosts,” someone said, “Yes, we’re doing your play,” and our show was good, the audience was in it, and then—never mind, it’s done. It was like, of course you would take this, Theater Gods. You’re testing my faith.
Gould: I definitely felt like the global pandemic was all about my play.
Rail: Right? But within 12 hours, I realized everyone’s show was canceled. I felt awful for everyone. And remember, Morgan? You were one of the few phone calls I took. And we were just like, “ahhhhwhatthefuck.” But there was something about knowing you were going through it, too, your grief for your show. Your actor felt like her big break was taken, too. This snatched away a real break from so many of us. But it was a real community moment for me, which eradicated my self-pity.
Rail: Not me, us, you know? Sorry, I think that’s Bernie.
Gould: It sure is.
Santiago: I felt the same thing. Super sad. I was like, is this just me? Is this just us? And then I realized: oh, no, wait, it’s everything. It’s everyone.
Gould: People were so sweet reaching out. There was a grace and kindness. It even feels like a privilege to be among the canceled.
Rail: Yeah, like when someone dies and we tribute them on social media. I feel like I got to live through my own Facebook funeral.
Gould: How do you feel about your video? How do you feel about streaming?
Rail: There is no future of theater in streaming. The idea that, oh this is going to evolve the medium; you can come out to the theater or do this convenient stay-at-home option. That feels patently false.
Gould: You’re not watching at home. You’re watching a photocopy.
Rail: But right now, the theater needs charity. I need charity. [Laughs ] My play needs love. So, it’s a way to tribute the fallen show and throw some cash at Marin Theatre. Streaming feels like a nice condolence card in a very sad, uncertain time. What about you, Ren? Have you developed a philosophy of streaming?
Santiago: The funniest thing is when I get live updates from people watching. They start texting while they’re watching—
Rail: I know exactly when they text you.
Santiago: [Laughs] Yeah. That part. But I’m like, I hope you paused the video. I hope you’re only texting me while it’s buffering.
Rail: No, your friends are tacky, they text during the play.
Santiago: I guess it’s fun to be there with them. But the buffering thing…
Rail: It’s theater and we’re talking about buffering. Buffering. What a word.
Santiago: I’m lucky that my play has some kind of function in watching it by yourself, in privacy. Because the play is about being trapped. But on the other hand, if you’re not experiencing it in the theater, you’re not learning how to be brave. You’re not learning how to reach out. You’re not learning how to take up space. Theater’s the only place that teaches you how to do those things.
Rail: I love that.
Santiago: It’s a conversation with you in the space. It’s never just the one-way dialogue. Which is different from how film is, because with film you know that, no matter what, the next thing is going to happen. It’s recorded. The next thing is inevitable.
Gould: Yeah. They captured mine, but I saw it and said, please don’t release this. In part because the terms were not favorable to the actors. Really not fair. And in part because the capture was just not what we made. It was a comedy with no audience! And we staged it in the round. So, I mean, filming it was like… They did everything they could, but it’s like that part of Aladdin where the genie’s like, I have rules. I can’t bring anyone back from the dead. Because when they come back, they’re like the zombie corpse of the person, and you think you want that, but trust me, you don’t.
Santiago: My roommates are both actors. One stopped getting paid for a show on Broadway two weeks into quarantine.
Gould: Just do the right thing! The actors are the fucking essential workers of the American theater. So, I said no. I have to believe that the slog—the 15 years it took to get me here—I have to believe this is not the end.
Rail: It’s not the end.
Gould: But if it is, I don’t want that stream to be the last thing people see. Because, Kate, I watched yours, and I was like, actually this stream is really good.
Rail: Thanks. It is, but I’m still so aware of what it didn’t capture. Mike [Donahue, director] and Steph [Cohen, set designer] made this beautiful formal creation with the set and the staging. A stunning, deceptively simple composition. The video didn’t convey any of that. The pools of light Scott Zielinksi created were sublime.
Gould: I only saw the stream, but my first thought was, “God, Mike is so lucky,” because the single gesture of the thing actually did translate. Whereas mine—in real life, the set was gorgeous—but on screen, it looked like a school play.
Rail: And there’s no audience! The laughs. The gasps. I mean, Penelope [the lead in Love] makes some very questionable decisions, and the audience gets so stressed. And that’s really powerful. To have 250 people that stressed out together.[Laughs] I loved hearing the audience in Ren’s capture.
Gould: Oh, you have an audience in yours?
Gould: That makes such a big difference.
Santiago: Well, the thing about New York is, we don’t believe anything we hear. The day before closing, we were packed.
Gould: I think mine would have been really different if I’d had an audience.
Rail: I want to switch topics to—not COVID.
I want to talk about what you come to the page to do. Craft-wise, theme-wise, what are you about?
Gould: Nicole Clark is both different and the same as my other work. It’s formally less challenging. And that’s not bad, I just mean it’s straightforward. It takes place in a room. It has four characters. It’s naturalism.
But it’s the same in that I like to have a conversation about women, I like to have a conversation about people who are poor but not sad. They’re not like, “We’re sad and poor and it’s hard.” I grew up poor, and people don’t talk like that.
Santiago: No. They don’t.
Gould: And I’m obviously always interested in talking about being fat. Being a fat woman specifically. Because I think that that’s essential to intersectional feminism, and it’s something we never see on stage.
Rail: For sure. How about you, Ren? There’s a lot of overlap, between what Morgan said and what I saw in Siblings Play.
Santiago: I love how you speak about representation. And people having the wrong idea because no one else is showing these characters. Like what it’s actually like if you live in it. I can’t wait to read it.
Gould: Same! I gotta read Siblings Play!
Santiago: All the people I started doing playwriting with are my closest friends now, 10 years later. And we’re all the one who was different on our block. The misfit in some way. Even if we blended really well, we knew we were looking at things differently. And then we found each other in a youth company and were able to talk about the shit we couldn’t talk about anywhere else.
I write about people of color. I try to always have mixed race characters because I am multi-racial. And complicated families. Typically working class.
Rail: Sure. And young. You write youth so well.
Santiago: Thanks. With Siblings Play, it’s what I grew up with, where you don’t know which bill you’re going to pay this week. And that’s the conversation: are we going to pay Con Ed or Time Warner? Making sure shit doesn’t get turned off.
So, my play’s about how that situation lends itself to poor boundaries and codependency. How you can also inherit the trauma of your relatives.
Gould: Literally, our plays are about the same thing. [Laughs] I’m sure they’re really different, but I’m like, that’s exactly what my play’s about.
Santiago: A lot of us write to feel like we’re not alone.
Rail: Ren, I found your play so refreshingly unsentimental. There’s hardship, but it’s not, like, loudly proud of itself for illustrating how hard hardship is. Which we see a fair bit of, right? Theater where the audience gets to go home feeling correct and sanctimonious because—I don’t know why. Because we see that oppressed people are people, I guess? But like, what kind of theater is that? Who is it for? To me that’s liberal catnip, and I guess I find it lazy and usually boring.
Santiago: It is. It’s really boring.
Gould: It’s what happens when you erase class.
Gould: I can always tell. As a poor person, I can tell when someone is being fake. I just know. You didn’t grow up poor if that’s how you’re writing that scene. Like, you’re kinda full of shit. You know what I’m talking about, Ren? Like when people have a really sad poor person?
Santiago: Yeah. It’s offensive 'cause it’s using people as a message.
Santiago: A lot of plays about race are speaking to rich White liberals in a way that’s just for that end. To teach them what’s right and what’s wrong.
Rail: At one point your sister character, I forget her name, she’s like, “God, when will it feel like we’re not on the edge of a cliff?” I thought your play really earned that line. Just one, late-night moment of her looking at her life with some distance and wishing for a damn break.
Santiago: But the next beat is the brother being like, “When I start making more, I want you to go back to school.” So, she has a moment where she’s looking at it, seeing it, but he doesn’t let her sit in it. Her awareness isn’t—he never answers the question. He moves on.
Rail: It’s too hard a question. It’s too painful.
Santiago: Right, when you’re in that situation, you can’t look at it for too long.
Rail: And Jenna [Worsham, director] kept the play funny. Loud and front-footed. That’s a great antidote to sentimentality and preciousness.
Santiago: That’s so funny because the two brothers, they’re young. The actors are young, so they go for every fuckin’ laugh. They want to play high so much. They just do it up, so Jenna had to actually kill the jokes and bring it back down.
Rail: God, why do actors love playing high? They love it.
Santiago: Yeah, what is that? That shit was funny. That was a funny realization, how hard—uh, what do you call it? Playing an external. How hard playing an external can make a scene.
Rail: 'Cause when you’re drunk, you’re trying to seem not drunk. The actors who do it right, their drunk character is actually trying to seem sober.
Gould: Kate, my boyfriend and I watched your drunk scene, and we were like, Clea [Alsip] is amazing at acting drunk. Literally one of the best drunk acting scenes I’ve ever seen. Writing, directing, acting fully came together.
Rail: Thanks for noticing. It’s a fun scene. The texts she’s sending, in the production they’re like five feet tall on a huge screen overhead. Like MoMA installation art. [Laughs ] Video didn’t capture that either.
Gould: Tell us about Love.
Rail: It started in 2018, after seven months of living with a very dominant MeToo narrative. I’m grateful for that narrative, it’s yielded some justice and some truth-telling. And a genuine shift in the culture, I think. But I also felt, if we go through this movement only by purging a few monsters, we’ve missed it. We have to go through this with good men, too. The ones who we actually want in our families or at work. It’s not all about banishment to the Harvey Weinstein Island. I wanted to take this reckoning into relationships that are based on love.
Gould: Which is so hard for people to grapple with.
Rail: And I knew it would be hard, but it’s even harder than I thought. I mean, the number of reviewers who said something like, “Penelope believes she loves Otis”…
Gould: No. She loves Otis.
Rail: Exactly. But they can’t take the play at its word. It’s that unsettling to think an intelligent woman could love a man who committed MeToo sins. Those men are supposed to be canceled, period. Bye-bye, no one misses you.
Gould: Your play is really unsafe if you’d like to have a simple narrative that evil men are evil and nice men are nice and we can easily identify who they are. The truth is we all have to grapple with the people who are in between. That’s most people.
Santiago: You’re teaching people how to actually love well and have conversations that aren’t easy.
Rail: It’s complicated, but there is so much love in the play. The air in the room felt extraordinary, actually. Very loving and very dangerous. So, what are you dreaming about now? Where is your imagination roving?
Gould: I… don’t have one.
I can’t tell, it’s a bunch of things. I went really hard in grad school for two years. I wrote six plays in two years. So, I can’t tell if it’s the pandemic or just exhaustion. Probably both. There’s also the end of the campaigns for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, which I still feel great grief about. I just feel sad. And writing is not the answer to how I feel.
Santiago: I’m trying to picture how the audiences’ minds will be different after this. I think people will be tired of social media, right? We’ve lost the individual in such a profound way. So, I’m looking forward to having an audience that knows how they feel and knows who they are. And has agency in the conversation, just by being more alive. Being honest and true to who they are because quarantine made them face down their bullshit.
Rail: That optimism is shocking, Ren. And, like, super beautiful. People are bumping into their mortality; they’re in a more primal state of being. Everyone wants a fucking hug. I mean, what would you give to sit next to your friend at a bar and feel their body shaking with laughter a couple inches from you?
Gould: I want a fucking iced coffee from a goddamn barista so bad.
Rail: Listen to us. We’re trapped in the third act of Our Town.
Gould: I don’t want to make my own coffee anymore!
Rail: I’m looking forward to an audience that feels grateful to be in the theater. They’re glad that they get to sit near someone explaining the play too loud. [Laughs] “Why is that funny?”
Gould: “What did he say?”
Rail: “He said, ‘Mother, you’re a fucking cunt.’”
Rail: Whenever that is. We’ll see.
Gould: Who knows.
Santiago: Who knows, right?
Love by Kate Cortesi, directed by Mike Donahue was scheduled to run March 5 to 29 at the Marin Theatre Company. Its final performance was March 11.
Nicole Clark is Having a Baby, written and directed by Morgan Gould, was scheduled to run March 6 through April 12 at the 44th Humana Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Its final performance was March 11.
The Siblings Play by Ren Dara Santiago, directed by Jenna Worsham was scheduled to run March 4 to April 5 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Its final live performance was March 14.
IN DIALOGUE was created by Emily DeVoti in October 2001 as a monthly column for playwrights to engage with other playwrights. Since then, nearly 200 playwrights have been profiled. This will be her last In Dialogue column and last issue as Theater Editor of The Rail.