Theater Around The Bay: An Interview With Katharine Sherman

t. gondii presents the lovesickness circus opens tonight! If you’re not excited yet, we hope this interview with playwright Katharine Sherman does the trick!


Who are you, in a 100 words or less?

KS: I am a writer dazzled by the musicality of language; I like my theater to make a mess. My work is blurry when it comes to genre, I write in verse but not one that makes sense, I’m interested in structure as story and art that calls into question the nature of reality. Right now I’m working on a first draft of a young adult novel and a play based on Ovid that may or may not have dancing. I’m part of a new company making multi-disciplinary performance work in the Twin Cities, check us out –

Any influences or inspiration you find particularly impactful, in regards to your work as a whole and this piece specifically?

KS: I’m an avid reader of mythology, and I’m always interested in adaptation and reimagining – in new spins on old stories where the interpretation and the original are kind of sitting side by side at the same time – even though they’re not – as if, by adapting, you’re creating the tension between the adaptation and the original. This piece specifically was inspired by a natural phenomenon in the animal kingdom.

So… what is this play about? And what’s the meaning behind the intriguing title?

KS: The play is about a cat, a rat, and a parasite. But it’s also about connection and depression and drunkenness and despair. It’s tricky to describe! Go see it!

How did you and Rem Myers, the director, get connected, and how’d he convince you Theater Pub was a good place for this piece?

KS: I met Rem in 2014 at the Cutting Ball Theater! We’ve worked together on two readings for Risk is this…, a new play reading series at Cutting Ball, and one of those plays, ONDINE, was just there in January. We’ve got a good shorthand! And I thought Theater Pub sounded like a great venue! I feel like this play is actually perfect for a different kind of venue.

Is having a show done in a bar exciting for you? Terrifying? Mixed? Why?

KS: It’s exciting! I think being in a bar raises the stakes of the performance in a way but also gives it a sense of freedom, paradoxically? Honestly I have no idea! I’ve done shows in bars before though and it always seems like it’s a blast!

Did you have to do any revisions or retooling of the piece to fit these unusual circumstances?

KS: I didn’t, actually! But I feel like it can definitely work – it’s a casual, flippant weirdo of a show with a bunch of direct address and finger puppets.

How involved do you tend to be once a show goes into rehearsal? How involved do you plan to be in this process?

KS: I’m in Minneapolis, so my contributions so far have been changing a few words and getting texts of awesome actors in animal ears from Rem!

Any history around this play? Past productions or development?

KS: Nope, this is the first!

What are you top three pieces of advice to other playwrights looking to get work done in the Bay Area?

KS: Be nice, be yourself, have fun. Go see your friends’ shows. Be in awe of your collaborators and want to make your work better for them. Take walks.

Any shout-outs to other theater/performance stuff going on in the Bay Area?

KS: A Dreamplay opens at Cutting Ball on May 20th – directed by Rob Melrose, in a new translation by Paul Walsh. Don’t miss that one, it’s going to be amazing! Also, go see my friend Kenny in The Heir Apparent at the Aurora! And this is a posthumous plug but Rem and Andrew Saito just finished Stegosaurus (or) Three Cheers for Climate Change with the Faultline Theater, and I wanted to shout out that I love that show (so I hope you got to see it)!

Don’t miss Katharine Sherman’s t. gondii presents the lovesickness circus, opening tonight at Theater Pub!

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Hearing Voices

Marissa Skudlarek, listening.

At the end of September 2013, when the San Francisco Olympians Festival issued a Request for Proposals for its 2014 season, I proposed writing a short play about “a dryad and a druid.” (2014, Year 5 of the festival, focuses on monsters and other supernatural creatures, including dryads.) My proposal got selected – and then I didn’t write a word of the play. At each Olympians writers’ meeting, I had exactly zero pages to share. Months went by. An entire year went by.

Sure, I had excuses. 2014 was a busy year for me! I spent the first eight months of it self-producing a full-length play, and just when that ended, I had a health crisis! But I also know that when writers feel inspired, they’ll find the time to put some words down on paper, to write a page of dialogue in advance of a writers’ meeting. Even if what they write is the epitome of a shitty first draft, even if they are having a busy year, they can usually write something.

As the 2014 Festival ticked ever closer, I started meeting up with friends for writing sessions in cafés, thinking their company would inspire me. But mostly, I’d tootle around on Facebook, watching my computer’s battery power diminish, and feel guilty and powerless. Meanwhile, my busy-bee friends tap-tap-tapped away at their keyboards. In these café sessions, I did some desultory pre-writing – copying factoids from Wikipedia’s entries on dryads and druids, jotting down stray thoughts about what the characters and plot should be like. But I couldn’t seem to make the leap and actually start writing my play.

The real problem, you see, was that I couldn’t hear my characters’ voices, and that is lethal for a playwright. How should a dryad and a druid, meeting in the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula sometime in the third century B.C., speak? Nothing felt right. I didn’t want them to talk like denizens of the 21st century, but I didn’t want their language to sound affected and faux-archaic, either. I thought their speech should have a certain elevated quality, to reflect the fact that one was a servant of the gods and the other was a divine spirit, but I also wanted the play to be funny and lively. So yes, I could tell you what I wanted and (especially) what I didn’t want. I could take notes and make outlines. But if I couldn’t hear how my characters spoke, if I couldn’t come up with a single line of dialogue that felt right, I couldn’t write this play.

Non-writers may think it sounds odd when writers say “I need to hear my characters’ voices” or “My character just did something that surprised me.” After all, these characters don’t exist outside of my head, so how can I hear their voices as if they were external to me? How can a personage I’ve invented go on to surprise me? I don’t know, but I can tell you that it’s real. In the first full-length play I ever wrote, a character who had hitherto been rather vague and boring (he mainly existed so that other characters would have someone to talk to) suddenly burst out with “I was going to make a new translation of Ovid!” I don’t know where that line came from – at the time, I hadn’t read any Ovid. But as soon as I wrote it – or rather, as soon as I heard the character say it – everything seemed to snap into place. I knew who this character was, now: a frustrated classics scholar. I knew his secret passion, the cherished goal that he had put on hold. He’d told me so himself. And his love of Ovid went on to influence the future direction of his character and of the play.

In modern times, someone who “hears voices” might get diagnosed with schizophrenia or another mental illness; in the olden days, people who “heard voices” were thought to be communicating with ghosts or spirits. This month, when we celebrate all things spooky and mystical, I think it’s worth celebrating those moments when our characters’ voices haunt us. These fictional personages exist only in our imaginations, yet we hear them speaking to us – and it does feel magical.

This past weekend was make-or-break for my Dryads play; I’d promised to send my director a draft by Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon, still not having written a single word of dialogue, I took a long walk from my home in the Inner Sunset all the way to the Mission District. When I have a problem to solve in my writing, walking often helps me work it out, but not this time. I went to the café where Stuart Bousel was diligently working on his own Olympians play and confessed the quandary I was in.

“Why are you so wedded to your original idea?” he said. “Just write what you want.”

I took several deep breaths and started letting my mind wander down other paths. Was there a different dryad-themed play I could write – one that spoke to me more, one whose voices shouted insistently in my head? There was. Five minutes later, I’d opened up a new document on my computer and was writing a title, a cast list, and the first lines of dialogue. I heard the characters’ voices, and the words came easily. They’re a modern-day suburban husband and wife, discussing what to do about their daughter. This little girl has a problem, you see: she thinks she’s a tree spirit. In a way, she hears voices, too.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See her new, NEW play, The Dryad of Suburbia, on November 5 at EXIT Theatre, as part of the first night of the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival.