My Theatre

06 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Kat Sandler

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Theatre Brouhaha Artistic Director Kat Sandler wrote three different plays that are nominated for MyTheatre Awards this year. Tarragon’s imaginary friend comedy MustardOutstanding Production, Actor (Anand Rajaram), Supporting Actress (Sarah Dodd) & Ensemble; thought-provoking alien abduction allegory Bright Lights at the Toronto Fringe- Outstanding Production, Outstanding New Work & Ensemble; and wacky TV/theatre hybrid Late Night produced with ZoomerLive- Outstanding Actress (Kat Letwin), Supporting Actor (Michael Musi) & Lighting/Sound Design (Sam Sholdice).

She writes plays faster than I pee”  – Michael Musi

We last talked to you as part of the 2012 Nominee Interview Series. What’s new?
I guess the biggest thing is that I’ve started playing around in TV, which is really really fun. E1 is starting to help develop the play Rock. We’re writing a pilot for that for CFC. They’re kind of teaching us how to write TV as we develop this pilot, so that world is, fucking awesome! I really like it. It kind of plays to all the things that I love about storytelling. But it is a lot of “hurry up and wait”. So that’s TV.

And I just finished [writing and directing] a show at Queens, which was an amazing, super fun, crazy experience that was impossible at times but I learned a lot.

I don’t know, I won a Dora, that was really fun. And Punch Up was just published, which is really cool and crazy. I didn’t think I would think it was this cool but, when I actually got the book and got to hold it in my hands, it felt really neat. It’s a thing that I can put on a shelf that has my name on it, that isn’t just me writing my name and putting it in a frame and putting it on the shelf – not that I do that–

Let’s start with Mustard, which is nominated for Outstanding Production at the MyTheatre Awards. How did the experience of developing something through Tarragon differ from your usual process?
Time. We just had a lot more time. I wrote that in 2014, around the same time that I wrote Punch Up, and it was developed from then right until we opened in 2016.

Then the process of previews kind of blew my mind. I’d never had previews before. That was seven full days of still being able to change the script but, we were sold out for every preview, so having a full audience, to know where the laughs are. I think one night the only laugh was the arthritis joke, and I was like, “okay well my career’s over, Richard Rose is going to kill me”.

And having a really dedicated infrastructure set up for you. Tarragon really is like a family, and there are subscribers which are like a family, which is really crazy. So time. Time and attention.

Was it difficult to give up directing duties?
Yes, of course. But I learned a lot, and Ashlie [Corcoran], I think is a great director. And she was very very generous. She really let me be very involved; I was at almost every rehearsal, poor girl. But it was nice to step outside and be able to see it more as a script and less as a production. There was, I think, a lot to be learned. I hadn’t done that since Dirty Girls, which is a play that we did in the 2009 Fringe, that I wrote, didn’t direct, and starred in. I played a character named Slut. [laughs] Yeah, that was a great one.

Are you planning to revisit the Mustard script before the remount in January?
I’d really like to. We’ve done a few remounts and I don’t change [the shows] that much because I kind of don’t want to fuck with stuff but, I feel like with Mustard, there’s a little bit left to be done. Specifically the two dudes, I want to change their trajectory a little bit – “the two dudes”, [Tony] Nappo and [Julian] Richings. I’m excited to go back into Mustard. Working on Mustard kind of feels like coming home, a little bit. Actually, I don’t know, I haven’t started yet. I probably won’t start until somebody makes me.

That production is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble, Actor (Anand Rajaram) and Supporting Actress (Sarah Dodd). How did those performers fit in with your original conceptions of the characters?
They fit in beautifully. I mean, Nappo and Julian Richings, we talked about that before it even was selected for the season. They came in and did a workshop as part of the playwrights unit. I was super involved in the casting; they let me sit in on everything.

I think they brought it to life beautifully. And it was a really lovely room to work in, really funny. There was one day that our Assistant Director [Joel Bernbaum] brought his baby in, for the monologue that Mustard does at the beginning to a baby – he just lent us his baby. Anand held the baby and did the whole monologue to the baby and all of us were just like, “mleauh”, like just weeping. It wasn’t a magical play but there was magic in it and, in the process, I think we connected with something and with each other and it made the process of working on it really beautiful. I hate that I even said that but that’s true [laughs]

You won a Dora for that script. How has that had an impact on your career moving forward?
Um, people write “award-winning” a lot more now. Honestly, I don’t know; I had a lot of stuff set up for after the Doras anyway that I’ve been doing. They congratulate me in TV but they don’t really care. I think it mostly affects the way that we joke in Brouhaha, because we used to always be in rehearsal and say something stupid and be like “You get a Dora! You get a Dora! You get a Dora!” Then we got a Dora and it was like, “um, we can’t really make that joke as effectively anymore”.

I was legitimately, genuinely shocked, by that win. Like, I had my feet up. I was ready to applaud for someone else. I was being a real bitch about it. I was like, “Okay Jordan [Tannahill].”

After Mustard you did Bright Lights, which is your Outstanding New Work nomination this year. Tell us about the genesis of that show.
I have a been a huge fan of Amy [Lee] & Heather [Marie Annis] and Peter [Carlone] & Chris [Wilson] for as long as we’ve been doing Fringe, because they’re kind of always our Fringe buddies, and we were like “What would happen if we all did a Fringe together?” We would always joke about it at every Fringe and then I was like, “Well, let’s just do it”.

Fringe asked us to be a fundraiser show. They were like, “Do you want to do Late Night?”- because [that script] had won the 24 hour [playwriting contest] that Fringe runs- and I was like “Nah, there’s a lot of people in that, instead let’s do a new one, and I’ll do it with Morro & Jasp and Peter n’ Chris“. Then somehow Colin [Munch] got involved, because he’s such a leech, then it was basically the same number of people who were in Late Night.

So we had a couple hang-outs to try to figure out what would be the best setting or characters for these guys- one [idea] was a family band, one was superheroes and their assistants. We spent a really long time in my living room eating and drinking, having ideas we thought were great and then none of them were great at all. Then I remember being like “Okay. That’s all garbage. What we really need is something super simple that we can do at the Fringe that only has chairs. What has chairs? Okay, a support group. What’s a support group that we haven’t seen?” So I literally googled weird support groups, and one that came up was alien abduction. Then I went deeply down that rabbit hole for like half a day. And I called Tom [McGee, dramaturge/producer] and I was like “I think we should do this; I think it would be a metaphor. That would be really cool but we can’t fuck it up, we have to make it subtle” Then I think we made it too subtle [laughs].

What percentage of people would you say got the metaphor?
50-50, maybe? I would say 75% of women; more women got it. But, I would say, around that time, more women were looking for it. I really wanted to write something about Jian Ghomeshi- it’s not about Jian Ghomeshi, but the stuff surrounding that – but it felt sloppy to just write that and this was a ridiculous and silly and comedic way for me to explore that theme while still talking about aliens and making Chris Wilson look like a douche.

If you were to remount it, would you make it a little less subtle?
I think so, yeah. I’d also make it longer. Because I liked that script. It’s a good Jenga script – I’ve come up with this phrase to describe TV writing, like, everything fits together and everything happens causally. What I like about Bright Lights is, it’s short, it’s fast, it’s quick n dirty, but even the crazy ridiculous shit that happens leads logically from the shit that happens before it. I know what [each of the characters] wants and I know why they’re saying and doing the things that they’re doing. I like it. It’s a short, sharp little burst of weird comedy.

There are a thousand different ways to interpret what actually happens in Bright Lights – what are some of the most interesting interpretations that you heard, and is there one theory that’s the most common?
I honestly can’t remember all of the weird ones. I think the people that got it, got it.

The one that I heard most often was that [Ross], Colin’s character, actually assaulted Heather’s character [Zoe] in real life, and that’s something that makes sense to read into it. I’m really bad at picking answers; I’m really resistant to it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m really lazy or because I don’t want there to be one [correct answer]. It’s a huge theme in all my writing. Even in TV, they’re like “you need to make this more explicit” and I’m like “oh but I want people to choose”. I think not writing message plays was so drummed into me that I’ll be like “I’ll just write a play that’s kind of about a lot of stuff and you can just pick what you want to think about when you leave, but I know that I want you to think.” I know I don’t want you to be like, “Oh I’ll just go have a beer”. I want you to be like, “I’m going to have a beer, and think. And talk.”

You wrote the characters specifically for those actors. How did both their offstage personalities and their onstage personas factor into the roles you gave them?
Oh, lots. We did a short workshop so we shifted stuff to be more in their voice. I think Heather probably had the most [distance] from the character she most often plays. Something that drove me so crazy through this whole process was people asking me, “What’s it like working with comedians? How do they act?” and I’m like “They act like actors because they’re all actors!” They’re all brilliant performers and brilliant creators and writers, and I feel like this is weird that this is a question. How did they differ from actors? They didn’t. They’re just funny.

We took in-room jokes, like we make fun of Chris for being ridiculous, so that part of Chris made it into Wayne. And Colin, he gets a freakout in every play that I do, so I started with the freakout. I was like, “Why is he freaking out? Okay, because someone accused him of being an alien”.

They all bring so much to anything they do. We rehearsed the ending in a park. We lost [our rehearsal] space that day and we didn’t have another space booked, so we were like “Let’s go to the park and we’ll just yell about aliens in front of all these people.” We do that a lot at Brouhaha. We rehearse in weird fucking places. Free places.

What were some of the most interesting ways that the play changed when you got it on its feet?
The ending changed about a hundred times, as usual. I feel like I never get the ending down until, like, opening. And even then sometimes I’m like, “Eh, that wasn’t right.” And it got shorter. That show started with a big interview-cut thing like [Retreat], then all of that stuff got worked into their characters throughout.

Any time I work with Simon Fon, the fight always gets a little bit more involved [laughs]. I was like, “I want to do a show with a machete”. We didn’t know what anything was and then I found a way to justify every cool weapon that Simon had never used. He just brought us a giant bag of crazy old weapons. He laid out 50 knives and swords and weird things. But I start from that place- I want to have a fight with old weapons, or I want someone to have a crossbow, so how can I justify that in a way that makes sense? And who do I know that can help me with that?  Then, Simon will say something about crossbow use, and I’ll be like, “oh that’s cool, that should be a line”. We really shouldn’t have had that crossbow [laughs].

Did you have a favorite moment in that production?
I really like Wayne’s stupid Starbucks monologue. Because it’s so dumb. And Chris never said all the words, so maybe it’s my favourite because I’m remembering a version of it that never existed in front of other humans. He never said the right words. But that was written really really early, before I really knew what the play was about, and that somehow made it all the way to the end.

Some of Peter’s one-liners were awesome. I liked every time they all talked. I liked the whole thing.

Then you directed Late Night, which you updated from a script you’d written for the Fringe 24-hour playwriting contest. Did you ever expect to see that script produced?
I did, because I approach the 24-hour playwriting contest like I approach anything. I write the play really fast but I have a lot of ideas percolating before that. Late Night was kind of the precursor to Bright Light. I was thinking a lot about women. I write so many plays for men, or that have much better male parts, but I think, even in the first draft of Late Night, there were good ideas. It was obviously a garbage draft- I spent a lot of those 24 hours just thinking. That’s what I really need, is for doors to be shut. They give you three things to include in the play, and even just having those three things shut so many doors that I was able to see through a little bit. Of the 24 hours, I probably spent most of those hours just thinking. 

Executive Producer Moses Znaimer, when he picked it up, he asked you to highlight an arc that wasn’t necessarily a key component of the original script. How do you navigate a request like that while staying true to the original intentions of the piece?
It’s difficult to update any script, but I think you just look for the parts that make sense for that. Marty wasn’t as big a character in the Fringe draft, but it did make sense to try to put another plotline in, on top of the sexism one that was in there. It’s like network notes. You just try to listen to the client, Moses was the client, and you try to find a way to put what they would like to see more of in a way that you would also like to see more of it. You try to find the fun, and I think that we did that. 

Kat Letwin and Michael Musi are nominated this year for their work on that show. Tell us a little bit about working with them and how they helped to shape their characters.
Well, they’re both idiots, so that’s basically… I mean, I’ve worked with both of them before, so I kind of know how much of, specifically, Kat’s lines are going to change, and how much I can throw Michael Musi onstage and get a laugh for just him. I think Mike Musi is one of literally the only people I could just send onto any stage and he would just blink and smile awkwardly and people would laugh.

And Kat’s lines are really just suggestions. She comes up with so many things. I think I’m the most mean to Kat in rehearsal because I know she’ll just bounce back from it. She’ll just keep changing, keep changing, keep changing keep changing until I’m like, “no, that one from three days ago was funnier. We both know it was funnier. Just leave it now. That’s good”. But it‘s such a total fucking honour to get to work with people who know how you work and you know how they work, so showing up to work is always just a conversation about how to make it better – it’s not about ego, it’s not about what’s going to happen, it’s about in this moment, how do we make this half-page great?

What were you hoping audiences would take away from that show?
I think we were trying to highlight stuff that has been going on in the industry and has been for years and years and years. But what I was most surprised at was, I have never done something that had that multimedia element, and I was actually really happy with how it worked out. I just saw the film version of it and it looks really cool, because he filmed it as a piece of content for TV. Watching that and then watching the play are such different experiences because he’s changed it- he’s put all the commercial parts in black and white, and put a cool filter on them, so it feels shaky like you’re a documentary crew watching it. So I think [what I wanted audience to take away] was specifically how TV and theatre can interact. Not projection, not film, but how two things that I love [can interact]. I’m obsessed with television, and I feel like at Brouhaha we’ve been talking about that since we started. HBO- they’re such inspirations for the way that we work and the way that we want to stage things and the type of scripts and the subject matter- so it was really cool to be able to combine those two things in one show. People kept being like “it’s immersive” and we were like, “it’s not really immersive, it’s like maybe semi-immersive for us” but I’d guess I’d like to live in a world where all those things can co-exist comfortably, where we can make theatre that wants to incorporate television specifically and not just projected images, rather than looking down our noses at TV. I remember someone early on saying “her stuff’s really cinematic but not in a good way” and it’s like, “well, I’m taking that as a compliment. That’s a positive word, I’m taking it”. 

So you’re working on TV stuff now, then doing the Mustard remount. Any idea what’s next?
I want to write a movie. It’s a family-drama-thriller called Elora. Then I really want to write a simple comedy. And I want to work with all the Brouhaha guys but I don’t know if I can put 15 people in a play [laughs].

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
No. You’re the best.

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