One of Toronto’s fastest-rising writing talents, Kat Sandler is so good that her TWO My Theatre Award nominations are for her second-most-famous work of the year after Fringe’s Best New Play-winner Help Yourself.
Nominated for both Best New Work and Best Designer in the 2012 My Theatre Awards for Delicacy, the whip-smart playwright joined our series to talk about her process, inspirations, and growing success.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
It was in kindergarten. My mom was giving birth to my little sister, so I stayed at school and got to watch a puppet show of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. My dad showed up halfway into the puppet show to take me to see my new-born baby sister, and I threw a tantrum because I wanted to stay and watch the show. It was either that, or my father took me to see Cats when I was really little, and I got scared (obviously I was confused by the incredibly realistic costumes) and threw a tantrum until he carried me out of the theatre. I guess all my early theatre memories involve tantrums.
What writers have always inspired you?
A lot of fantasy and fiction writers inspire me. I like people who create full worlds like George R. R. Martin, Piers Anthony (who wrote the incredibly sarcastic Xanth series, which is probably responsible for my love of bad puns). Playwrights like George F. Walker, Daniel MacIvor, Larry Tremblay, Colleen Murphy – who are hilarious with an edge but often whimsical. I think whimsy is underrated in theatre writing. And of course David Mamet and Edward Albee for their pacing and incredible speed of dialogue. Martin MacDonough because he’s fearless and utterly hilarious. Mel Brooks because he goes for the cheap laughs. I love a cheap laugh.
You’ve had major recent success as a writer. Would you consider yourself primarily a writer or do you act and direct too?
I would say writer/director. I’ve directed every show that I’ve written that’s been produced in Toronto, with the exception of Dirty Girls. I do act as well, and have worked with Theatre Gargantua doing physical theatre for almost every year since I graduated from Queens, where I also did a lot of performing. I love all three, but I find writing/directing the most gratifying. You get to see an idea through from inception to production. That’s pretty neat. Although sometimes it’s nice to wear just the director hat and really get to mine someone else’s text for meaning and production value and play with concept. When I write something, I tend to go easy on the stage directions, etc., because I already see what it looks like in my head. That’s one nice thing about just directing, you get to build the image as you read. It’ll be interesting when I start letting go of my own scripts to see how someone else would interpret them, but I’m learning that right now, at this level of the business, if you have something that you like, that’s half-decent, you hold onto it until you’ve exploited all its value for your own use.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Hah! The first play was an adaptation of a children’s book in grade six called There’s More Than One Way To Count To Ten. It was about jungle animals and counting. I also directed my classmates in the production. I was a bit of a terror. I had a huge crush on the guy that played King Lion. Everyone did.
What do you think is the best thing you’ve ever written?
I really liked Delicacy. We basically went into rehearsal with a first draft because we found a slot we could produce something in the fall, and the script ended up getting workshopped with the actors, and a few mentors and other industry professionals and ended up being this really neat character study and examination of relationships. It felt a lot more grown up than some of my other plays. It was also so neat to see how quickly something can change when you have good people working on it.
Tell us about your smash Fringe hit Help Yourself. Where did the idea for that play come from?
Daniel Pagett (the co-creator) and I were talking about what a modern-day demon would look like. He had some idea for a story where a demon came to town and kind of fed off people’s bad instincts. I said a modern-day demon would probably look like a lawyer, which is what Donny, the central character of Help Yourself, kind of ended up sounding like. I’ve been a part of the Fringe for a while now, and I thought I had a good idea of plays that worked well – small cast, high stakes, something on a time limit in real time. We thought that would be neat – someone has to convince someone else to do something bad, but on a strict time limit, an hour, which is usually how long Fringe plays are. The rest of it kind of fell into place after that.
What about Delicacy?
Delicacy came out of a fight I had with someone I was in a relationship with. I was venting and it ended up on the page. Never date a writer. But I guess more than that it came out of listening to my friends talk about their relationships, and what scared them, and it became an exploration of things that scared me too. Monogamy is tricky, and relationships are hard. I wanted to follow a “what if” and see what happens at the end of the fairy tale.
Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
I HATE editing. That’s why I have an incredible dramaturge, Tom McGee, who knows my writing and my process inside and out. I’ll throw something down and he’ll read it at various stages in the process. I’m very good at beginning things, which is why I have a million started plays on my hard drive, but we use the phrase “slapping an ending on” a lot. Once we have a complete script, we can really go back in and fix it and make it shine. Tom’s amazing at asking hard questions and giving me tough love about scripts. He’s the first one to say, “this joke is stupid”, or “I see where you’re going, but this is unnecessary”. We have a spectacular working relationship. Then, once we have a decent working draft, we’ll bring actors in to read the script and get their feedback. We ply them with wine and pasta, usually. Actors are a great source to draw on because they’ve read more plays than most people. It makes such a difference to hear things out loud, especially since my writing relies so much on speed for comedy. Then we’ll go back and make edits, and maybe do another reading. Basically, I write very quickly, but the scripts go through layer upon layer of public opinion before they ever make it to the stage. We’ve been really lucky to get to do two remounts in the last little while – LOVESEXMONEY at Next Stage, and a mini-tour of Help Yourself. Then the scripts are really benefiting from time away from them, and a fresh edit, and some really brutal nips and tucks. But I have a short attention span – I always want to be doing the next thing. Delicacy had a private reading with a few friends, then a more public reading, then one more staged reading with the cast for a few industry professionals, which really helped us iron out some of the bigger issues.
Your characters feel very honest. Do you draw at all from real life?
ALL THE TIME. I have pages of notes stored on my iPhone of things I’ve stolen from people’s lives. The best is when someone comes up to me with a great anecdote or new story that they think I should put in a play. There’s aspects of my friends and people I meet in every character I write. I love using news tidbits as jumping-off points for stories, or inserted into stories to elicit a certain response.
What sort of research goes into your writing?
None if I can help it. Although I’m getting into some bigger things that will definitely require research. Our Fringe play is based around the history of prohibition in Canada, and I’m writing a play about the creators of the Obedience Experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment. That will probably require quite a bit of time in the library.
What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page 1 and work through?
I just start. I usually have an idea, even something as simple as “Man and a bear, talking to each other”, or a few characters, or a concept, and I’ll just go from there. I like to figure out who everyone is by listening to them talk, and hearing what they have to say. I discover everything through dialogue. That’s definitely my strength. However, it does mean I end up having to cut a lot of exposition from the finished script. Sometimes I have a rough flow for how everything is going to go, but I rarely have an ending. But because I have such a short attention span, I’m usually working on two or three things at a time, going back and forth between them, so when I come back to them I’m excited about the story again.
How do you approach casting your work? Are you ever able to find actors who fit perfectly with what you had in your head while writing?
I was taught early on that casting is 99% of direction and I believe it. We have big audition calls when we have time, because we do so many readings that it’s nice to build up a roster of people whose work we admire. It’s a treat if someone perfectly fits my brain-image of a character, but more often than no I’d rather see someone do the work, and watch my idea of the character shift and grow into the person the actor has created. That’s much more interesting for both of us. Every actor teaches the writer something about the character, and because all of these actors are originating the part, many things they say or suggest will end up in the script.
How prescriptive or vague are you with stage directions; is each play re-imagined a bit in the rehearsal process?
I only write the important ones in. If there’s a fight, that needs to be written in (although it always goes differently than I imagine. I didn’t see the head-butt in Delicacy coming). Everything else gets created in the room. As a director, I like people to move around a lot, especially since my writing can get very verbose and conversational. I like to give the actors business. I almost always have a bar onstage, or write in something to eat. How a character eats and drinks says a lot to me about who they are.
Tell us about the My Theatre Award-nominated set design for Delicacy.
We wanted to create a believable downtown Toronto home, something that was both sterile and hilariously pretentious. Of course, all of our set designs have to be affordable, and that whole set I think came in under $500. That being said, we recycle quite a few set pieces at Brouhaha, most of which live in my living room until we need them for a show. To be honest, I think what pulled it all together was painting the floor white. Who has a white floor? The main canvas we created by leaving a canvas up in Trinity Bellwoods on Nuit Blanche with a bunch of Sharpie markers attached to it. People lined up to write and graffiti on it. Then we just used a bunch of painters tape to tape out an interesting modern art-esque design, and spray painted the whole thing white. We went through a lot of white paint. Everything else we bought at IKEA. I love IKEA. We used spaghetti and cereal jars as candleholders. We had the cast bring in every white book they owned, and little knick knacks and trinkets to complete the look. It’s pretty incredible what independent theatre companies can do on a budget.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
My favorite moment of any of my scripts is when an audience is unsure of whether or not to laugh. When Colby announces she was raped, in a general line of hilarious questioning, the crowd goes quiet for a full minute. I love to play with people’s expectations of what should happen next.
How did your company Theatre Brouhaha come into existence?
Tom McGee and I had spent a lot of time whining in bars about the kind of theatre experience we wanted as young people. We put together a sorry little application for Summerworks and formed a company for the purposes of that application, and decided we could probably try to make a go of producing our own work. We wanted to create original, accessible, fast-paced theatre for what we started calling “The HBO Generation”, theatre that “you could bring your boyfriend to” as one audience member recently put it. We produced our first independent show, LOVESEXMONEY, at the Factory Studio Theatre in 2011. It was terrifying. I remember someone laughing at the fact that we hoped to break even, financially. I think a lot of our success comes from being unabashedly commercial. I love projection and fabric as much as anyone who studied theatre, but we’re interested in putting bums in seats, and how we’re trying to do that is with entertaining concepts and speedy dialogue.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
A site-specific Fringe show in July.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thanks so much for the nominations. So nice to see so many other talented people nominated too!