Tuesdays With Annie: An Interview With Amy Sass

For her last article, Annie Paladino brings you an interview with Amy Sass, the writer/director of Time Sensitive. It’s meaty, and well worth the read.

Going into our final weekend of performances for Time Sensitive, I’m nursing a growing twinge of panic about leaving this particular group of artists, as well as the larger Bay Area theater community (I pack everything into a U-Haul and drive up to Seattle on May 31st). And so I’m cherishing this interview as a sort of good-bye, a personal dissertation that I can hang on to in a few months when I find myself in an entirely new artistic community (in my soon-to-be-purchased 100 pairs of rainboots, I assume). I wish I could do this for every artist I’ve worked with and been inspired by since I moved to San Francisco nearly 4 years ago.

Shh, Annie. Enough aimless ramblings about feelings I don’t quite understand. Get to the interview.

Okay, Annie. But one last shamelss plug: Time Sensitive has 3 more performances. This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm. Read the interview and come. These performances WILL sell out though, so get your tickets NOW.

Interview commencing in 3…2…1…

When did Time Sensitive first begin?

Amy Sass: The ideas for the script have been percolating for a few years, now, initially inspired by my own struggles with Insomnia, fertility and work load. But then branching out to look at the pace of life that surrounds me from a larger perspective, the melting of the ice caps, and all the toys and gadgets and fast food etc. that increase productivity but create an addiction to access and instantaneousness.

How long was the rehearsal process? What are some advantages to this method of play making?

Amy Sass: About 4 months. It was wonderful. Originally I wanted to have the script finished by the first rehearsal, but that didn’t happen. What did happen then was that I had the opportunity to include my actors in my process. It was a much more rough and raw way of working then I had imagined but it was super fun to bring in hot-off-the-press versions of scenes and put them immediately on their feet. Which led to lots of discussions about theme and character and plot that inspired me as I furiously wrote the next batch. Also a long rehearsal period…if you consider 4 months long…which some people don’t…allows the ensemble to become super strong. Each individual’s skills grow, the connection grows and soon you’ve got this powerhouse of a group on stage making impossible things happen. The collaborative potential sky rockets.

From the writers perspective, when you walked in to first creative development, what did you know? What did you not know? Did you know you would be writing 4 separate story lines?

Amy Sass: I knew I needed to write something that would offer a certain amount of roles. I try to create enough challenges and opportunities to showcase both the individuals and the ensemble work as a whole- physically and vocally. I knew there would be a Clockwork Kid. I knew there would be a Clockmaker. The image of the Ouroborus became important as a concept. I knew there would be Ice. I knew there would be Monks. But beyond that…not much else. Then one day Bill started writing himself. This lone guy at the top of the tallest tower. And so the geography of the city started to become clear…we were dealing with Up and Down. We were dealing with status and verticality. We were also dealing with a city with no perimeter, a landscape of endless urbanization…so once I had Bill, the geography and the value system fell into place. I had the guy at the top. So naturally I had to figure out who lived at the bottom. Hence Roach and Penny.

What were some of the challenges facing you at the start of the process? How did you resolve them?

Amy Sass: This script had to be written very fast. It took me 2 months to write it but it was a writing marathon. Good thing I live with an actor so we can read things immediately after they are written and I know right away what lands and what doesn’t. One thing that helped was that my Dramaturge, Adam Sussman, recommended the book “A Sideways Look At Time” by Jay Griffiths. This book was a tremendous Ah Ha for me. The lexicon of the play was derived from this book. Also we did not have a space for this performance. It took all through December to secure Sanctuary for the Arts. That was a big challenge for me in that I’d prefer to write specifically for a venue. And this venue ended up being very very different from what I had imagined for the script. However, I was blessed with excellent designers and so Erik LaDue (set designer) did an enormous job transforming the space and creating a set that pierced the womblike room so that we could do some very dynamic staging. And clever Linda Baumgardner created lighting magic with very few resources.

Talk a little about the role of the ensemble in creating the story. How much of the final product was script and direction, and how much came from the ensemble?

Amy Sass: I’m a director and a writer and a visual artist. I think in choreography and images. So stage picture is a huge way that I convey story. The writing on the page is based on what I see in my head choreographically. So for me it is all linked. The actors also bring their own skills, which influences the evolution of the piece. The chant of Da Pachem would not be in the show at all if it wasn’t for DiLecia Childress, whose grandfather used to sing it to her as a child. And Liz Wand just happens to have the musical skills to arrange it and teach it. The Ice Monks would not be chanting the history of the eons if it wasn’t for the science minds in the group like actors: Phil Wharten, Soren Santos and Ice Designer, Carter Brooks who helped me figure out which eons and epochs to use. And the audience seating would not be arranged the way it was if it wasn’t for actor, Tony Agresti, who had a vision and the vision worked. Also I should say that any artist (actor, designer, dramaturge etc) working with Ragged Wing finds that everyone is asked to have a directorial eye at some point. In rehearsals I’m going to be asking whoever is sitting around: What does this staging say to you? Which is more effective: up on the plat or down on the floor? Come look at this. What do you see? Why is this not working? If you’ve got a particular skill in our group, you will most likely find yourself becoming a coach of some sort in the process whether its with choreography, singing, contact acrobatics…etc. If you’re a writer, I’m going to say- Take a look at this section. So I bear the responsibility for the script and the direction and the rehearsal culture. But each show is so specific to those that participated in creating it. And when I use the word Ensemble, I also include myself in that word too. We are deeply collaborative and part of that means fostering strong leaders across the board.

You wear many hats in the production. How do you negotiate your writer brain with your directors brain with your artists visual brain? i.e. How do you manage your hats?

Amy Sass: There are lots of hats. The more I do it, the more the hats start to look like one hat. Meaning that I’m getting better at weaving my different brains together. The most challenging part is moving from one mode to the next since it takes me a while to get in the flow for each thing. For instance, even before the script is really done, the poster image has to be in progress. Or the script was finished yesterday and I’m already meeting with designers before I’ve gotten a chance to even really think like a director and prepare. Or I’m casting while I’m still writing. So I wish I had a little bit more time/space in between finishing one thing before moving onto the next. Even so, I do feel like the way things overlap has forced me to trust my gut and make bold decisions based on instinct. Which is scary but in some ways is best.

The stage/audience set-up is unusual — kind of a combo thrust/lane-style seating arrangement. What was the hardest thing about directing for this set-up? What was the most unexpected benefit?

Amy Sass: The most challenging aspect was sight lines. Most things that are tried and true on a proscenium stage or even on a thrust, just didn’t work in terms of sight lines. For instance, two people standing next to each other having a conversation was not possible. Diagonals were not possible. The interesting thing was that things that do not work in a traditional configuration, worked great with this one. For instance one person standing directly behind another person worked really well for 99% of the seats in the house. Because of this configuration, scenes that usually take 20 minutes to block ended up taking a full 2 hours or more. This was difficult in terms of time management. However, the results are really worth it. The set just pierces through the audience creating gorgeously sculptural scenes. The thing became a whole landscape (city street and glacier) and the performers, when positioned properly, gain so much power just by the force of dynamic spatial relationship.

As we’ve mentioned, this was (by most standards) a somewhat extended rehearsal process. Did you learn anything new or surprising about your own script throughout the rehearsal process?

Amy Sass: Oh yes. I’m accustomed to starting official rehearsals with a completed script, so only having it 1/3 complete was a source of stress. However, the way the process rolled forward with the company deeply involved and playing with the writing…this fluidity created character trajectories that I just did not see coming. That playfulness and interaction allowed me to be more brave as a writer. Once the script was a final working draft, it was very interesting to try to figure out how each plot point informed the next one. And the purpose of the choral sections, the clocks, the ice monks became much more clear once we started putting it on its feet. The most challenging part of the work was creating the order of scenes which took 3 full days.

A LOT of this script is extremely musical and rhythmic. Dnd the way you directed us in the text was essentially a process of learning a musical score. Personally I’ve worked this way before, but it’s not very common, I feel. A really big/vague question: why do you write/direct this way? Have you worked other ways and rejected them?

Amy Sass: As a young artist, I grew up as a part of a very intense theater ensemble, working with professional theater artists who valued rhythm, music and the power of the greek chorus. A lot of my early training was steeped in action as rhythm and words as music. We also trained in naturalism and did our fair share of ‘straight plays’… but it was the avant garde work that was especially chilling to me and much of that had strong rhythmic storytelling components and visual design elements. It’s funny, because I’m not a musician, but there is a music to how I write and direct.  I’m very particular about the rhythmic timing of action and visuals on stage. So a certain musicality is inherent in my taste and artistic value system.

Something you said in rehearsal really stood out to me at the time, and I wrote it down. “Theater isn’t about being authentic, theater is about being repeatable.” Can you explain this a little bit, especially in the context of the process for Time Sensitive?

Amy Sass: Our primary goal as theater artists is to communicate. This means knowing your craft inside and out. Know where you are standing and why. Know when you are breathing and why that adds to the delivery of the moment. Know who is behind you on stage and what that sensory connection is. Authenticity is important, sure, but the practice really comes in being able to find it each time and to hit your marks so the delivery is solid, a known factor and not in and out based on your personal emotions that night. For me, it’s about scene partner reliability. Just like in acrobatics, no one wants to do a double flip with a partner who can’t base you dependably, who changes things night to night based on how they feel. Acting is the same. Some people think that if they are ‘feeling it’, then the audience is too. Not always the case. Sometimes, when an actor is feeling it, then he/she does all the work and there’s nothing left for the audience to do. What I’m saying is that the audience is primary. It has to be what works for them and what communicates, since that’s our job. Sometimes that will mean the audience and actor will get to feel it at the same moment, but not always. And truly, it’s easy to change from night to night. It’s more of a challenge to hold the paradox of hitting those marks while still keeping it fresh and connecting to the present moment. That creates dynamic tension and effort which is very compelling. For TS, the work is so musical, so dependent on the large group operating as one mind. Lots of moving parts. You need to have a sense of everyone all the time. Precision is a big element of virtuosity. And lastly, I will say that the most important thing to feel is connection. To your partners, to the audience, to the air and your feet on the ground, to your own body and to the physical sensations in the space. Everything else will flow from that.

Your favorite line in the play?

Amy Sass: Steak. Steak. Heat it up. Steak!

Special thanks to David Stein for several of the first interview questions here.

Annie Paladino is a Bay Area (soon to be Seattle-based!) actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You can find her on Twitter @anniepaladino. She loves you all and has started what seems like an endless string of tearful goodbyes. Be warned, you’re next.