Tina Satter never takes a break. The founder and artistic director of the Obie-winning Brooklyn ensemble Half Straddle has been producing and directing her plays in New York since the company’s inception in 2008 earning an Obie and being named one of Time Out New York’s “Off-Off Broadway Innovators to Watch” in the process. If the company has a house style, its a signature mix of theatre, performance art, music and video, although the most significant unifying feature of Half Straddle’s work is the unmistakable presence of Satter’s voice itself. Her work has been presented around the world in addition to becoming a downtown theatre staple.
We caught up with Tina in advance of Half Straddle’s upcoming production of her theatrical song-cycle Ghost Rings at American Realness to talk about the show, ensemble work, Mac Wellman, sisterhood and more.
Let’s start off with a little backstory. How did you start writing plays?
Satter: I started writing plays when I lived in Portland, Oregon in my late twenties, in a period of time when I briefly tried to be an actor, but was not very good. I was cast in this very cool company that’s still in Portland called Imago Theatre. I had been in the world, so I had attended theatre, and I had been in this [extracurricular] company in high school, but it wasn’t something that I at all took seriously, like, “I am going to make theatre.”
So I see [Imago] writing and directing some of their own work… And the two people who ran that company were very into the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman and Richard Maxwell, who was then sort of a newer playwright. So I learned about these particular artists from them, and they then became very intriguing to me. I would see videos and started reading Foreman’s book and some of Richard Maxwell’s plays and I was like, “as art this is interesting to me.” As a way of processing what’s going on, making this live stuff that’s script based, this was very exciting to me. And right about then I started graduate school at Reed College; it sort of dovetailed that I started taking theatre classes. I took a directing class, and I wanted to write my own thing for my thesis.
So, then I was “in it” in this weirdly naive way. And it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t write what I would direct, or vice versa.
It was your thing, so why wouldn’t you do all of it.
Satter: Absolutely. And I had the typical push back early on from a professor at Reed who said, “you don’t want to do that, it’s too close to the bone.” But I was really confused because I felt I knew exactly how it should look. And feel.
So then how did that lead to you studying at Brooklyn College, where I assume you did not get that same pushback?
Satter: No, no. At some time in Portland I heard of Mac Wellman, the amazing, amazing sage and playwright who runs the Brooklyn College program. After I left Portland, I moved to New York, and I had one friend in New York from Portland who was an intern for Richard Foreman. And he would tell me what I needed to see—it was mostly downtown work, that would throw beer cans at you, and throw chicken wings at the audience. It was really cool. It was this little circuit of things that were mostly downtown, and I kept seeing Brooklyn College in people’s bios. And Young Jean Lee was just starting—this was a couple years into her career—and she was at, or had attended, Brooklyn College. So I applied.