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Interview: Tina Satter – Girlhood, Adolescence and Framing Intangible Moments

Tina Satter is a Brooklyn-based writer and director who makes plays, performances and videos. She is Artistic Director of the theater and performance ensemble Half Straddle, whose work has been presented nationally and internationally. Honors include a Doris Duke Impact Artist Award (2014), an Obie Award (2013) and being named “Off-Off Broadway Innovators to Watch” by Time Out New York (2011). Her most recent show, Ancient Lives, premiered at The Kitchen in January 2015.

I spoke on the phone with Tina in October. We discussed Tina’s path to performance, the founding of Half Straddle and how Tina makes these shows that seem to capture the feeling and the essence of girlhood.

Eleanor Bishop: Could tell me about your history as a theater artist and how you got started?

Tina Satter: I was not someone who studied theater in any serious way as an undergraduate in college, I was an English major. A couple of years out of school, I was living in Portland, Oregon, figuring out what to do with my life and I took an acting class. I got cast in a play with this company called the Imago theater and they were really into The Wooster Group, Richard Maxwell and Richard Foreman, but I had never heard of any of those people before! So I came to this moment where I didn’t have any sort of traditional theater, but was introduced to the work of these artists and was really into it.

That company would often write and direct these original shows, and although I quickly realised I wasn’t a very good actor and didn’t pursue it in any way after that, I was like, “oh, this idea of making your own work is really interesting to me”. I’d never even conceived of myself as someone in the theater world in that way. After that I went to graduate school at Reed College and directed a play and wrote a thesis on Maria Irene Fornés. She became another seminal influence to me as an incredible playwright and also someone who’s directing the work. I ultimately moved to New York City and went to the playwriting MFA program at Brooklyn College where I studied with Mac Wellman. And there I was kinda like, “alright, I’m doing this, I’m being a playwright, and director!” I met Jess Barbagello, who’s a really central collaborator of mine now. And once I was meeting Jess and other people at grad school, I was just in this downtown theater community in New York and then the rest of it kinda goes from there.

EB: How did Half Straddle begin? What was the impetus?

TS: I didn’t know but Jess was already this well regarded performer at the point I met them in grad school in 2007. I had not been in the city and I didn’t go to NYU or anything, so I didn’t know the whole world of this place. Jess had such an intriguing way of speaking in class that I asked them to be the actor in a proposal I was going to give to the Incubator Art Project’s short form series.

The incubator is no longer there but they had this amazing developmental program, for developing work over four months. I wanted to edit some video and Jess was like, “my friend Chris Giarmo could do that”, so that’s where Chris Giarmo who is now the Half Straddle composer came on board. I wanted to make like a mini musical for the 10 minute showing and Jess was like, “well Chris can also do music”, and so Chris helped me make this musical. I had met randomly, Julia Sirna-Frest, who performed in the piece and then Julia bought a friend named Eliza Bent who also performed.

It’s our own self-involved mythologising of course, but this mini musical we made and showed at short form, I still think it may have been the best thing we ever made. It was this incredibly special thing where it was so weird and crazy and Jess played this werewolf. It was just one of those nights where it was like “oh my god, we’re kinda onto something!”

Then the incubator invited us to make that into a more full performance in their next season. We were jokingly calling ourselves Half Straddle, from a way that Jess was one time standing, it looked like they were doing a half straddle. That piece was called A Knockout Blow.

There was never ever this firm moment of, “I’m making a company, how do I do it?”, it kept very organically developing. I wanted to apply for another slot in the next season at Incubator so I said to the others “I’m going to call this thing Half Straddle, I’m just going to say this is our company. Are you guys in on that?”, and they were. We made our second show there, called Family.

EB: That’s so exciting.

TS: Yeah, sometimes it’s a little hard to explain to people. I didn’t even really know what I was doing at almost all these stages. At that point it had a really natural, kind of helpfully, innocent vibe that is impossible to maintain but was good at that point in time.

EB: I love, as I’m sure you do too, the history of downtown theater. I worked on The Builders Association book that’s just come out and it’s always the same story. It’s always just organic and who is around. I don’t think it can work any other way.

TS: It has to have this very self-selecting moment in time thing.

EB: What would you say is the process of creating a Half Straddle work?

TS: I get ideas from people in the company and often Jess. Our play Football, or in the Pony Palace started because Jess said, “You should make a play about us, and we’re all a team and I wanna be the quarterback.” I loved that because I’d always wanted to write a sports play. So an outside prompt from someone close to me is often an instigating factor. And then I will write a script. We start in the room with a firm script, we don’t generate text in an improvisatory way. But it is a very dynamic rehearsal room, after what I learn in a day’s rehearsal I may go and make revisions or cuts, and it may change over the course of a development period, but we’re always working from a firm document that I have generated.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Featuring Erin Markey. Photo credit: Jacques Tiziou.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Featuring Erin Markey. Photo credit: Jacques Tiziou.

Since there are all of these people in the company, I’m often writing, crafting parts to known actors. Even if they’re a guest, I am still writing for them. We’ve worked with some very exciting people like Pete Simpson, Lucy Taylor, Susie Sokol. They were people that I specifically asked, and then I tailored the part to them, knowing that they were going to perform it. I’ve only auditioned two or three people ever, one of which was Erin Markey who has now become a major person I work with. It’s really funny when I think I actually auditioned her – I just saw her do something amazing and asked her to read.

In the room itself, we have our shorthand. The majority of us have worked together for so long and we just know each other, which is good and bad of course. I’ve never sat in on a Wooster Group rehearsal, which I actually would love to do, but I’ve had a number of good friends be there so I have some sense that it’s similar in terms of the way people are all weighing in at a given moment. Like I’ll often say to Chris [Giarmo, sound designer], “did that look good to you?” and I’ll be taking information from him that’s not at all about sound design. Jess is often an outside and inside ear. There’s a very dynamic current in the room which is sometimes a bit chaotic. I’m synthesising all that information in my addled brain to then make my decisions as the director. Then we usually have this original score and music from Chris so time is spent in the process to generate whatever music and sound goes into the piece. Most shows start with a very specific aesthetic sensibility, so I work closely with the designers. Seagull had this color palette and then we spent a lot of time figuring out things like nail color and other little, kind of inane details but they felt like they built up the world of that play.

EB: What I’ve always found really fascinating about your work is the way you deal with adolescence and girlhood. To me that’s always felt really political because those are typically topics that have not been deemed high art, or important or worthy. Is it political for you?

TS: It is political. It can’t not be. It is still something that is not valued as a meaningful space for drama, or as a way we could consider what it is to be human in a theatrical context. It’s given a weird short shrift or thought of as a ‘girl’ play, or something inherently light or goofy, or it’s ‘Valley Girl’. I very organically come to that space though, it’s not like I am asking, “how I can make something that will do the most political activity?” When I set out to do this, these landscapes of adolescence and girlhood, and queerness within that, all felt like very inspiring to me, to delve into. As I started to show the work and it started to be contextualised by people around me and critics, I started to realise how it’s operating. It is first driven from an artistic impulse that is personal. But I truly think that the personal is political and there’s no way to separate that out.

Ancient Lives. Featuring Lucy Taylor, Emily Davis, Eliza Bent. Photo Credit: Paula Court.

Ancient Lives. Featuring Lucy Taylor, Emily Davis, Eliza Bent. Photo Credit: Paula Court.

EB: I had a fascinating experience watching Ancient Lives where I felt very excited by the politics of it on an intellectual level but at the same time I had such an emotional response to it. I said to my friend afterwards, “that was just what it was to be a teenage girl, and it still is, because all of that is still with me”. And they said, “how, how, how? what moments.. did you go off with all your friends in the woods?”, And I said, “no, it’s not the content, it’s the tone”. I couldn’t even explain what it was.

TS: That’s so incredible for me to hear. It is moving to me, because you’re then like my secret dream person! That play was made in my heart to elicit exactly what you just said. I can’t complain we’re not getting commissions and opportunities to get our work out there, but sometimes I still feel like we’re operating from a less seen space with a kind of work that is trying to elicit something hard to articulate. In particular I drew from these late eighties movies that operated in that way for me. If you break down Heathers, I didn’t live anything like Heathers. But I actually found something really moving in parts of that movie, and funny and deeply sad.

I love when I can see work that feels like this, and I never feel like I get to. So I’m always trying to keep shoving it out there. And no matter what, when I go to make something, that’s what I always end up being interested in teasing out. It operating on those couple of levels is really incredible to hear. I think Ancient Lives in particular did have some weird stratifying nature to both the formal thing and then how the content operated in it. But I’m always trying to frame those intangible moments and it’s very hard for me to even give language myself to how you frame something that is intangible dramatically, I think many people that I like, that you probably like to, are always trying to do that.

EB: How do you get that in there? I don’t know how you do that. Do you know?

TS: I’m never ever interested in traditional plot, although I was trying in Ancient Lives to have a little more plot in there, cos I was like, “What? Can we do that?” But since I’m not focused on traditional plot, I’m super focused on these minute dramatic stakes. And the plays are really directed in these tiny ways. It’s always little tiny physical details like how they are directed to touch each other in a certain moment, layering in the cinematic music that we use in Ancient Lives in just the right way. There’s no psychology ever in the directing, it’s always a formal idea. I totally hear the rhythm of the voices, where they look. If we’re not having to set up the typical stakes that we think we normally see in theater, then meaning is made in all these other small ways. I would see another girl touch another girl on the subway on her arm, so there’s a move like that in Seagull. I saw that and thought it was the coolest thing to see, like these two girls touching each other in this really specific way. I layer in these gestures, like a weird elbow touch, or a turn there, or a hair touch, not because it’s what you would do in that moment but because they are highly directed. I feel like certain people like myself, and maybe you, that’s the kind of stuff that when we move through the world, does have meaning for us. And when you put typical adolescent girl gesture onstage with this other language, this text language, something happens where you are intangibly picking up meaning but not in the expected theatrical place of language telling us stuff.

EB: A lot of people talk about the value of seeing yourself represented on stage, and I think that the value of straight representation can be limiting, because it’s strictly around content. When I saw Ancient Lives, I felt like I was being represented but in an experiential way, not in the way that is traditionally talked about with identity politics.

TS: Right. If we just put some girl onstage who has some interests like you, and is from…are you from Australia?

EB: I’m from New Zealand

TS: Ok, some cool New Zealand girl, that would never work, you wouldn’t be like, “oh that’s me”, right? You’re too smart for that right? A more defracted inner heartbeat is more moving to me, and I think for other people too.

EB: I think it also has to do with the acting style that you’re employing. Richard Maxwell was here [at Carnegie Mellon] last week and he was talking about using neutrality to get to an emotional place, to give the audience room to fill in their own emotions.

TS: I would say straight up that Rich’s work was very influential on me. For my first couple of years of making work, I hadn’t even seen his work, I had just read about it. Neutrality makes so much sense to me theatrically as a space for allowing this actual human being in front of you, the actor, to draw back and then more fill out this moment. As a human watching that live, paradoxically, it’s actually more charged and intriguing for me. When I made my third piece, Football, I started to try to direct more towards neutrality, to see what would happen. I was really working a more radical version of neutrality than we had in the first two shows. It felt to me the only way to get to what I actually wanted the play to feel like for the audience.

EB: And so what are you working on right now?

TS: The next show show I have is at New York Live Arts in April 2016, and it’s called Ghost Rings. It’s a piece we’ve been working on from the side over the past couple years, and we did a brief performing garage residency on it in 2014. I had developed this text at a silent writing retreat about these two sisters having these weird dark fantastical conversations and I showed it to Chris Giarmo. In our shows there’s always original music and it’s often for non-singers, which is super exciting and I love, but Chris has always said that in our musical writing collaboration, he wanted to try stuff with really good singers, just to push the work there in one project. So we decided to start with this Ghost Rings text as that, and we to work with Erin Markey who is one of the people I’ve regularly worked with and who does have a more classically trained, full singing voice. Kristen Sieh is the other performer in it and she has a really beautiful voice. It will be a rock show song cycle, and I’m playing the drums in it, which I’m learning how to play right now…I think it’s going to be ok. I can always replace myself!

It doesn’t delve very specifically into ideas of mental illness and losing people close to you, but that’s some of what’s inspiring what I’m writing. It sounds a little bit specific, like I’m making some play about those things, but I do have something like that happening in my own life. I sound like one of those people where I always read these things and I’m like ‘really?’, but…I can’t stop, when I go to write, I can’t stop bringing this uber personal stuff into it on this project so I just decided to go there.

One of the girls sets an intention that she’s pregnant with the other girl’s baby. I was going to make this play not set in adolescence but I couldn’t also not do that. It’s about those friends you have when you’re fifteen, maybe one in particular, and you’re so close with them that in the good moments, there’s almost nothing more special. You’re more in tune with them than you will ever be with another human. It’s heightened because of the weird adolescence thing but it’s actually a deeply romantic relationship even if it’s not sexually romantic, so why isn’t that who you go into the future and have a child with? As she looks back at this relationship that hasn’t lasted she wonders, what if they had stayed in that vein and just moved into the future together?

Ghost Rings will perform at New York Live Arts from April 24 – 30, 2016.

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Eleanor Bishop makes socially engaged performance experiences that seek to untangle complex systems of oppression through active participation by audiences. Her pieces often blend found text, documentary interviews and live camera, and play with the performative structures we know as 'theater', 'seminar', or 'debate'. She embraces that her work sits neither easily in performance, art, or activism and she often partners with organisations and institutions to create deep, long term collaborations for her projects. She has worked as an assistant director for The Builders Association, Big Art Group and as a directing intern at The Wooster Group. Originally from Aotearoa-New Zealand, she received her BA in Theater (Honors) at Victoria University of Wellington and recently completed her MFA in Directing at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama in Pittsburgh, PA, USA where she studied as a John Wells Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar. Prior to coming to the United States, she worked in New Zealand as a freelance director, and co-director of acclaimed New Zealand theater company The PlayGround Collective, whose work across site-specific, new writing and participatory forms toured to arts festivals and venues nationally.

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