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.

Tuesdays With Annie: Tune In Next Week

Annie Paladino has something to say… next time.

So. here’s the story:

I was writing a new post about making theater in non-theater spaces. As you may or may not know, Time Sensitive performs in a non-theater space, an old church (now Sanctuary for the Arts) in which we built a stage shaped like a guitar. So I felt compelled to talk about it, as well as my other experiences with non-theater spaces (both as artist and audience).

So. I wrote.

And then I hated it.

Topmost reason being: this is the freaking THEATER PUB blog. What the hell am I doing, writing about theater in non-theater spaces (SUCH AS A BAR) as if it’s novel or as if I have some extremely unique experience. Bay Area theater absolutely ADORES non-theater spaces. There was even an excellent article in TBA magazine about it last year!

So. I scrapped it.

And instead, next week I will be bringing you an interview with Amy Sass, the writer and director of Time Sensitive (and Artistic Director of Ragged Wing Ensemble). And it’ll be the bomb diggity, I promise.

So. Until next week.

(And in the meanwhile — only two more weekends to catch Time Sensitive! That’s six more show, folks!)

(Belated) Tuesdays With Annie: STOP. COLLABORATE AND LISTEN.

Annie is very sorry that this post is not, in fact, appearing on Tuesday — she was too busy washing sunscreen out of her hair.

I got back last week from a whirlwind trip down and back up this looooooong state of California, to work on a solo performance in progress by Joshua Tree artist-in-residence Gedney Barclay. I came back exhausted, invigorated, awe-struck, inspired, existentially-minded, and, most of all, pondering the nature, value, and conditions of collaboration. Like with my last few posts, this week primarily I want to open dialogue and hear from you. So let me start with my own fragmented thoughts from the last few days:

Collaboration, by definition, requires at least two entities. I would also argue that the separate identities of these agents must be more salient than the collective identity of the group in collaboration. But surely this isn’t always true — what are the exceptions?

It’s pretty clear-cut that Gedney and I are separate entities. I am an actor-director-producer-SM based in San Francisco, who tends to work with several different companies; Gedney is a Philadelphia-based director-actor, who works primarily with her own company, No Face Performance Group.

But at the same time, there was a tiny fragment of our collaboration this weekend that felt less like a collaboration and more like a reuniting. Not to get too sappy about it (TOO LATE), but this piece marks our 20th collaboration as theater artists — the first of which was when we were both 9th graders. In the almost 12 years since then, we have had many actor/director collaborations, a few actor/actor collaborations (my Varya notably cockblocked Gedney’s Arya in a 12th grade production of The Cherry Orchard), and various other relationships, from director/dramaturg to actor/stage manager.

I don’t quite know how to explain the difference, but my instinct is that is has something to do with translation. In short, for Gedney and me, there’s no translating needed. Generally, in any artistic collaboration, you’ll spend some amount of time translating. Not that you’re speaking literally different languages (though sometimes that may be the case too!), but rather you have differing (or even contradictory) language to describe an emotion, a mood, an action, a meaning, or a style. Often due to culture, training, idiosyncratic imaginations, generational differences, or something more nebulous (ZEITGEIST??), these disconnects in communication can be agonizing, particularly when one or more parties fail to recognize what is happening. You’ll leave rehearsal in a huff, frustrated that your actors just CAN’T take direction/your director just CAN’T give intelligible directions/your assistant stage manager just CAN’T get that prop on stage at the right time.

And so in many ways, speaking the same language (so to…speak…ah shit) in a collaboration is GLORIOUS. It’s luxurious and feels effortless and is, frankly, just ridiculously efficient. I was able to give Gedney notes like “in this last text you have a tic, I think it’s lifting the left side of your mouth” or “don’t let the foot die,” and she could ask me questions like “is this folding too whiskey dick?” and we both understand each other 100%.

But at the same time, I’ve really come to value and appreciate these little acts of translation in collaborative relationships. Sometimes you have to resolve them almost by brute force, or sometimes you come to an elegant third option that you both understand, but most of the time, in my experience, the result is synergistic, a greater, more surprising, more original and interesting product that either of you would have arrived at alone. I frequently think about a particular scene from Cutting Ball’s production of Pelleas and Melisande (for which I was the Assistant Director), which was singled out by many reviews as a highlight of the show. The director had a very clear idea for the scene, but he handed it over to the choreographer first to work on. Her proposal was very different from his idea, and they each greatly preferred their own version of the scene. The final version, however, was a muddled cocktail of these two singular visions — not a clean synthesis, but almost a patchwork quilt of two very different styles and aesthetics. And it WORKED.

I don’t have any answers here. I don’t know if one collaborative mode is inherently better than another. I don’t even know if I can coherently define “collaboration” without two dozen caveats. And all I’ve done here is ramble (per usual). So as always, I turn it over to you. I don’t even have a clear question in mind, but just want to hear thoughts, experiences, and musings. What is the nature of collaboration to you, in your experience? What value does collaboration offer for you, in your work? And under what conditions does collaboration occur, or what are the necessary conditions for fruitful collaboration?

Rehearsal photo from Via Negativa

Rehearsal photo from Via Negativa

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You still have time to catch her on stage in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive, and you can always find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Too Many Hats

Annie Paladino needs to organize her hat collection.

I’m one of those people that everyone tells you not to be. It says so right at the bottom of this post: “Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager.” I’m a wearer of many hats—and I refuse to specialize.

Particularly in the small/indie/fringe/DIY/experimental/whatever-you-want-to-call-it theater community, we all try on different hats from time to time. Some fit well but maybe we hate the weird feather sticking out of the top. Some are totally absurd and fall over our eyes and we trip and stub our toes. Sometimes we’ll find one that we love, and we add it to our permanent collection.

Well, I’ve got a large and very poorly compartmentalized permanent collection. I tend to have all hats readily available, so I can swap them out at a moment’s notice. And sometimes they all look the same in the dark, and I’ll later realize I’m wearing a different hat than I thought I had grabbed.

Before this admittedly awful metaphor gets away from me entirely, let’s talk about my current hat-crisis. Which is really just the latest iteration of one of the most reliably recurrent crisis of my career as a theater artist.

Annie wearing her Actor hat (also, an actual hat)

Annie wearing her Actor hat (also, an actual hat)

It concerns my two favorite (and most well-worn) hats: Actor and Stage Manager. As I’ve been telling anyone who will listen this week, it boils down to this: When I’m an actor, I love the rehearsal process. But as soon as it gets to tech week, I instantly wish I were stage managing. And the converse is true too: I don’t really like stage managing throughout a rehearsal process, but as soon as tech week hits, I’m in fucking heaven.

The unfortunate result of this is that as an actor in tech week, I can get…intense. What I absolutely love about stage managing is having control—I want all mistakes to be only my fault, and all solutions to be of my devising. And so I try my best to find little things that I can have some amount of control over. Trying to figure out a prop transition? Done. Need to eat a cupcake onstage in <20 seconds? Awesome—I’ll spend my morning off baking gluten-free, pink, spongy cupcakes. There’s going to be a weird butoh-esque makeup design? I am all OVER that shit. (And there’s another hat…)

Last night in the 30 minutes between our first full run with tech and our first preview, one of my Time Sensitive castmates suggested that what I’m really missing when I’m not stage managing is the thrill of solving unforeseen problems. She’s 100% right—I’d just never realized it so clearly before. I LOVE being presented with a problem, particularly a problem with no apparent solution, and one that must be solved NOW.

I know that there are lots of other hat-hoarders in the Bay Area, and I’ll turn it over to you (you know who you are) in the comments: do you have a hard time choosing between your favorites? Tales of hat-related existential angst? Have at it, dapper folks.

As for me, a little over a year ago, I made a conscious decision to step away from stage managing for awhile. I had been stage managing almost continuously for a couple years, and while I continued to enjoy it, I found myself deeply missing the artistic fulfillment of acting or directing. I am glad I made that decision, but reliably, every time tech week rolls around, you can find me looking longingly at the lightboard, or maybe quietly checking off my own personal preset list back stage (likely to the annoyance of the actual stage manager).

PS. Time Sensitive opens Thursday—check out www.raggedwing.org for tickets and more details.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. She doesn’t like wearing actual hats. Find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Let’s Get Physical (Or, Why I Haven’t Gone To The Gym In Two Months)

Annie Paladino continues to have feelings about her last two months in the Bay Area, and continues to need to talk about them.

Let me assuage your fears right off the bat: I’m not going to even TRY to define or even accurately describe “physical theater.” I know what it means to me but trust me when I say, you don’t want me to go there. At the very least, it would cause me to start using words like “phenomenological” and “corporeality” which I suspect would make this blog post slightly problematic. (Uh oh.)

But I would definitely say that the piece I’m currently rehearsing for, Time Sensitive, should be described as “physical theater”. And as I am in the middle of 14 straight days of rehearsals/previews leading up to opening night, the “physical” part of that phrase is rather salient to me right now. So I’m going to talk about it. But because I am, how shall I say, TIRED AS FUCK, it’s going to be in list format.

This will probably be enlightening and/or cause you to think I’m an uncoordinated idiot.


1. Multiple hours learning and perfecting a box step/uppercut combo (plus jazz hands). Important imagery to help get the jazz hands positioning right: “HOLD TWO LIMES IN YOUR ARMPITS AND JUICE THEM!”

2. Excitingly rainbow bruise, obtained while attempting a two-person, slow-motion backflip.

3. Three days of complete inability to walk down stairs after a six-hour Saturday rehearsal consisting entirely of crouching and standing rhythmically

4. Among the many physical challenges posed by this process and my character in particular, wearing high heels is at the top of the list.

5. Despite not having been to the gym in at least two months, I am more in shape than I was when rehearsals started.

6. I was punched in the mouth. Or rather, I sprinted into my castmate’s outstretched fist during a moment of intense choreography.

7. On one page of my script, gestures and movements are noted by letter (A, B, C…) with a key on the opposite page – it goes all the way to Z.

8. It’s a regular occurrence for someone to fall off the stage.

9. On a whim, I ordered three jars of Tiger Balm from Amazon last week. It’s already coming in handy.

10. According to my boyfriend, a few nights ago in my sleep I exclaimed, “Use the full crash pad!”

Until next Tuesday, folks. And if you’re wondering about point #10…you’ll just have to come see the show to find out.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. Time Sensitive opens April 18th, and runs through May 18th — find out all about it at http://raggedwing.org/show/show_detail/28. You can find Annie on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Processing Process

Annie Paladino is leaving the Bay Area in two months and her last local theater project is about to open. Unsurprisingly, she’s got a lot of feelings, and she wants to talk about them. 

I want to talk about process. Actually, I want YOU to talk about process. But I’ll get things started, okay?

Let me backtrack: Hi, I’m Annie. You may (not) remember me from last year, when I wrote a lot of nonsense about performing for the first time in the Bay One Acts festival. Well, I’m back. For the month of April, you can find me here every Tuesday. For the next couple weeks, I’ll probably be talking about Time Sensitive, for which I’m currently about to head into tech week. Or, honestly, whatever else I’m thinking about.

Oh and another thing: I’m moving away from the Bay in June. So, the subtext of all this is likely to be: SAYONARA, I SHALL MISS THEE, LET ME LEAVE YOU WITH THESE PARTING WORDS OF WISDOM (AND/OR FOLLY).

Anyway…back to process.

Artistic process is one of those things that, unless you’ve been inside it, is a total and complete unknown. In the theater community, we all have a general sense of what a rehearsal process “looks” like. The timeframe may vary slightly, but things are actually surprisingly standardized. Casting, first read through, table work (an obtuse way of saying “script analysis,” basically), blocking (move there, sit here, jump on the couch over there), then a couple deeply traumatizing “stumble-throughs” (does anyone even attempt “run-throughs” anymore?) before ambling into tech week, at which point all anyone wants to do is tap dance on stage or make lewd jokes over headset (what, you don’t?).

But to anyone outside our community, the process of getting a play ready for performance is nothing short of a mystery. This was made very clear to me recently when I was talking about Time Sensitive to a coworker at my day job. I told her that we had started rehearsals in early January but the show didn’t open until mid-April, adding, “so obviously it’s a very long rehearsal process, which is nice.” She was surprised, and remarked that, for all she knew, that was a totally standard amount of time to rehearse a play. I further described how we started with only a few rehearsals a week, building up to more and more frequent rehearsals each month, with built-in weeks off to rest and recharge. And again, if I hadn’t implied that this was somewhat unusual, she wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

I wondered about this a few weeks ago after going to see Mugwumpin’s The Great Big Also at Z Space, an experimental piece with a longer-than-usual and atypically-structured rehearsal process. As an audience member, I personally knew this going in, and could clearly envision what this process was like. Most of the rest of the audience likely did not have that knowledge. And so the thought occurred to me — are our experiences markedly different?

So here are the questions, for you, dear readers (reader?). Primarily: why do we adopt an atypical rehearsal structure and/or timeline? Is it to produce a deeper and richer end result? Is it for the artists’ sake (and I mean that sincerely, without any condescension)? And secondly: if you are a theater artist, what are your feelings on process? Maybe you had an amazing non-traditional or extended rehearsal process. Maybe you are a director and you have your process down to a science. Maybe you wish you could work on a play for a year; maybe you wish you could start rehearsing a new project every three weeks.

As for the process I’m current in the middle of, we’re nearing the final stretch of what has been somewhat of a marathon. But I’m sitting at home tonight, not in rehearsal. Even though next Sunday is our first day of tech. In fact, I have (almost) this whole week off; it’s the last of those built-in breaks I mentioned. I’m of two minds about it: on the one hand, I’m ecstatic about the sleep (SLEEP, GUYS!!!), but on the other hand, I’m so anxious to keep working and start tech that I can’t truly relax.

So here I sit, spending way too much time having so many FEELINGS about theater. Help a gal out. Hit me in the comments.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You can see her on stage (eating a SERIOUS cupcake) in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive starting April 18th (more info here). You can find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.