Tina Satter Talks Half Straddle and Ghost Rings

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Tina Satter Talks Half Straddle and <i>Ghost Rings</i>

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.

Paste: 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.

Paste: 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.

Paste: 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.

Paste: He’s known for a pretty unique approach to teaching. Did you jibe with that immediately?

Satter: Yes, totally. Because I wasn’t coming from this deeply formed classical theatre training or even classical writing training. Someone who went to Brooklyn College with me had gotten in with a piece of fiction that Mac had responded to. And he’s not like, wacky and doing weird stuff. He’s actually very grounded. He’s very hands off; “find your way of doing things.” He’s not saying “make it weird just to be weird.” But he has a contrarian nature towards regular plays and life being spit back out in a way that’s actually deeply fake, but that we’ve been shown a million times…

Paste: And been told it’s real, until you say, “okay, if that’s real, then what is this?”

Satter: Right. So I completely got into the vibrations—and then read Mac’s plays, which I hadn’t really read until I got there. And the people in that class, most of those people were already working in New York. And not even just as writers. Half of them were actors, or performers, or working at other companies. So this model of making your own stuff was just “the model.” And that intuitively clicked with my nascent art-making brain at that point.

Paste: Not to dwell on Mac, but here’s a quote from him from a New York Times profile that I’d like to bounce off you. “Pick something you’re a little afraid of. Pick something that scares you. Plays that are covered in fur, for instance.” That kind of playwriting koan, or mantra; how did that inform Half Straddle’s creation and early productions?

Satter: When you read that quote, that’s why I respond to Mac. Because as soon as he says, “plays that are covered in fur,” I never questioned what that means. You know what I mean? And maybe you don’t either. But some people would be, like, “what’s that?” There’s a million plays covered in fur. And they’re the best plays. There’s this thing about Mac that’s a mixture of “anything is possible,” but also “do the thing.” Which means, doing something with constraints around it. So, in the early Half Straddle work, my directing was always very instinctual. I had this sense of what I wanted it to be like, and I think sitting around the workshop table in Mac Wellman’s classroom, and seeing the work I was seeing, and reading Richard Maxwell, I guess it was kind of… Yes, don’t make it weird for weird’s sake, find out what your play is—ostensibly its not a plot driven story but it could be. Annie Baker was in school with me then, so it ranged from Young Jean Lee to Annie Baker to Thomas Bradshaw. So I wasn’t taking these principals but I think you were absorbing this sense of: make what you want to make, how you want to make it, set up the rules of how you want to make it. There’s a rigor. You’re not just, like, slapping something around. You don’t want these kids to think, “you can just make anything,” you want to figure out the rules of your project.

Paste: But you are creating those rules yourself.

Satter: Yeah. But know them. And you may not know them until after your play is done, but there is a framework, and there is a logic, and that’s what I’ve gleaned from Mac.

Paste: So, at Half Straddle—which is your company and does your plays—but you’ve got this murderer’s row of collaborators. Chris Giarmo and Erin Markey, etc. How did you guys find each other?

Satter: It was a gradual thing. I started grad school with a person named Jess Barbagallo, and Jess is sort of the true origin story, in a way, because Jess had gone to ETW, the Experimental Theatre Wing, as an undergraduate at NYU. I didn’t know Jess was an actor and I asked them to read this thing I was going to workshop, and we really hit an artistic vibe. Jess’ best friend from NYU was the composer and performer Chris Giarmo, and they at that point had worked a lot with this company Big Dance Theatre. The two other women who were in it originally I totally met randomly—Julia Sirna-Frest, who then brought her friend Eliza Bent. But then we reached out to get people like Erin Markey, it was because Chris knew them from this world of downtown artists. So I went to see Erin Markey do a performance where she pulled this scroll—she did a knockoff of Carolee Schneemann where she pulled this scroll out of her vagina but she sang the Lollipop Guild song instead of a feminist manifesto. And I was like, “yep.”

It took a couple years, but then we made a show called Family that had nine people in it, which is big for us, and that sort of solidified things. Since then we’ve brought in a lot of actors from Elevator Repair Service and New York City Players, and other people who come in to work on various shows. So that’s been exciting, too.

Paste: I notice that in looking through the company, there’s you-as-playwright-as-director-as-actor, and then there’s actor-as-designer-as-musician. Everyone’s apparently doing everything. That can be a tricky collaborative line to walk, especially when it’s a theatre company that synonymous with your name and your plays. How do you guys make it work?

Satter: That has been the interesting thing to figure out. It’s all happened totally organically. In a really early interview I remember [saying] that I was like a “stupid dictator.” I know exactly what I want, but I might not know how to do it. So Jess is almost always functioning as a dramaturge—but their an actor. And then Chris Giarmo has almost solely been a musician, but then he’s creating music live, so he becomes a performer. When we had to replace a roll in House of Dance he did become an actor. I’m not normally an actor, but I’m performing in Ghost Rings. So navigating that requires total trust, total communication, and moments about ego and credit that just have to be dealt with really transparently. We’ve not always done it perfectly, but we’ve done it pretty well. I used to think we were the most fucked-up, horrible company, and I was a bad leader, but meeting people in more established companies and hearing stories—this is always shit that you’re going to be negotiating. It’s like a family dynamic, which has a lot of loaded negative stuff. But inherently it’s pretty unconditional. A “this is how it’s going to be you tell me what you can take and not take” situation.

Paste: Speaking of family dynamic, let’s talk about Ghost Rings. The New York Times said it was “fantastical, odd, and sometimes so tender it’s raw.” At this point it’s defied easy categorization, which I assume is—not necessarily the goal—but part of the deal. It’s been called a pop-concert, and a song-cycle-play, or an alternative musical. What do you feel it is?

Satter: We put some of those words on it, because, you know, you have to. I think we showed it in some form as early as 2012. Because I’m working with Chris, there’s always original music in my shows. Original score. Original songs. Nothing we’ve done has been a traditional musical; it’s often made for non-singers. I write all the lyrics (and have no idea what I’m doing). And then he writes the songs. We wanted to push it to a more truly virtuosic place.

The concept is it’s me talking about a band I had with my sister when we were little, a make believe band, and then our relationship now. Juxtaposed with this relationship I imagined between these two women moving through adolescence until one announces that she’s pregnant with the other’s baby. It’s mostly songs, and they’re like these pop-y, rock-y songs. We had a commission to do it, and it premiered at New York Live Arts in April 2016. I had to think about how to truly frame it, and I’m like, “no, I want to make a rock concert. I don’t want to have to push a narrative through it.” And I’d seen some recent things that were these song cycles.

Paste: What kind of things?
Satter: Well I’d seen Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet. And, I have to say for the record, we’d been calling our piece Ghost Rings, [laughs] and I’m friends with Dave, so I was like “Dave.” It’s an incredible piece, and ultimately very different from ours. Then I started looking at a lot of riot grrrl shows. “What does a rock concert really look like?” Clinically trying to look at the one’s I was interested in to see what was coming through. Everything from Mike Kelley’s Destroy All Monsters to Florence and the Machine.

Paste: This sounds awesome.

Satter: [laughs] And I learned to play drums for it. So we’re up there, these four people as a band making music, and then there are these interstitial sections.

Paste: And those include puppetry.

Satter: There are these spirit animals. All along these two women would interact with these spirit animals. And I envisioned the spirit animals as these mean girls who didn’t necessarily give the best advice to their human counterparts. I’m not inclined towards puppets. I don’t have any prior relationship with puppets. But then I started to thing there had to be objects, and then I just wanted to have them made. I was like, “I don’t want their mouths to move.” I asked this awesome woman who made puppets for the Pee Wee Herman show to make this life-sized seal and this life-sized deer. And then very subtly and sneakily by the time the show opened the actors were manipulating them. They’re puppets. But they’re really rad puppets.

Paste: Puppets are rad.

Satter: The actors were worried about being trained as real puppeteers. But it’s more like a kid playing with a toy. That became interesting to me. If these adolescent girls realize they have these figures next to them, there’s a really cool energy to not totally knowing what you’re doing with them that I love.

Paste: To what extent is this a departure from your earlier plays? Sisterhood as a theme seems to crop up quite a bit. Definitely in Away Uniform and Seagull.

Satter: I was just talking about this with someone. Mac says, “you make the same play over and over,” in a way that’s really exciting, I think. The first thing I made with Jess and Julia and Eliza was called The Knockout Blow and it was all these songs, mostly. At one point I was like, “oh, Ghost Rings is The Knockout Blow.” It was so weird. Jess had not transitioned yet, so it really felt like girls in a basement. Ghost Rings is in part about my sister and I’s band when we were six and seven in my parent’s basement. But, with the exception of me on drums, there’s this virtuosity. We’re making a record. We pressed an album that’s coming out, that’s mastered from a bunch of the live recordings of the show at New York Live Arts. But, yeah: it’s a little more epic, in that scope.

Every time I make a show I have this thing that ends up happening—I’m not this solipsistic— but it’s like, “oh, the girls in Family made Seagull.” You know what I mean?

Paste: Totally. And it feels like that’s a thing — certainly in visual art — that the idea of revisiting the same themes in a different way… Even when you’re painting the same beach or soup can you’re not actually doing that. That’s very native to visual art.

Satter: Which, I would say that’s the most influential on me. Even over theatre. And the sisterhood thing… When I think about what first informed me when I first started writing plays, it was drew from that closeness I had with my sister. And that coded language you have with a sibling. And I continue to draw on it, subconsciously. I feel like I, as a human, and my feminist and art side, came from being next to my sister for so much of my life.

Paste: The show premiered at New York Live Arts and is now moving diagonally across Manhattan. Is there a perceptible difference between a Midtown versus a Downtown audience, or a Brooklyn audience?

Satter: Hm. I don’t want to go overboard here.

Paste: Go overboard.

Satter: I think there is, but its dependent on… Well, New York Live Arts was a different audience for us. A different kind of space. There were more people, because that’s theatre with a subscriber base. American Realness, which is a really cool festival, with mostly amazing dance. It’s a little more within our wheelhouse, but it is these dance-makers. Choreographers, and stuff. But that will vibrate a little more with our downtown world, I think.

Paste: You’ve expressed a specific interest in feminist and queer dynamics. How does Ghost Rings play into that as a mission, or…

Satter: I mean, it could probably be a “mission.” But the work has always been in that space. That space I’m trying to mine. But I never, ever, ever, top-down, ever try and put it on a piece. But I’m glad that it’s in there, and it becomes politicized content, which I’m glad about and especially glad about now.

Paste: Yep.

Satter: At first there were just going to be two girls who were sisters. But then I was really interested in teasing out that feeling you have when you are an adolescent girl that that friend — that you are so in tune with that person — what if that was who you had your family with? What if that was who you had babies with? It’s kind of dumb. That’s family, but then you had a baby.

Paste: But not necessarily in a remotely incestuous way.

Satter: No, at that point they were just friends. I thought, “are people going to think this is about incest?” But the play opens with me saying that my sister and I thought, when we grew up, that we’d live next to each other and each have our own little babies. So it winds together: romance, even within a family…?

Paste: That makes sense.

Satter: Yeah. [laughs] But, between two women, I’m deeply into the politics of whoever wants to have babies together—I don’t want to see onstage just a heteronormative thing. It’s a live theatre space. Why wouldn’t we have a girl say to a girl, “I’m having your baby,” have the girl be, like, “wow, why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Why does that conversation have to be a man and a woman on a park bench? But it’s playful, and pretty weird. It became what I was meditating on. The sister stuff was a pretty late addition to it.

And the songs, they don’t really clarify anything. Maybe emotionally. I’m interested in emotional landscapes and emotional trajectory, and the impressionistic versions of that. Music is what’s most perfect for that, because a song gives you a feeling. And then the story is told song by song. And live band dynamics, that becomes a fabric of the plot to me. Having to look at each other.

Paste: And that’s a very riot grrrl and a very punk rock thing; how it’s coming together in the moment is part of the narrative that you’re watching when you’re watching a concert. It is a story. The story of how we watched this concert.

Satter: Totally, totally. That’s why it’s so cool to watch live music. It’s so live. And my theatre shows that are not this are highly, highly directed. Often down to, like, eyeball movement. With Ghost Rings, being in it was a huge step towards not being able to control it as much. Can we make something that’s moment to moment? If they can’t hear their monitor they’re going to ask for more in the monitor. I can’t say that gesture. That’s cool, I love seeing what it takes to make a concert.

Paste: And there’s a transparency to that which has a big effect on the audience.

Satter: And in our piece we’re still figuring that out. Do we say “thank you” after songs?

Paste: Lately, you’ve been teaching more, and running these generative workshops. Will there be more of that?

Satter: Yes. I really, really like doing it. It started when we had the commission to make House of Dance with New York City Players, somehow they had a grant they’d gotten for the project, and were like, “you have to do a workshop.” I thought, “how do we get to what we do?” I made a totally abbreviated version of how we make something: gesture work, writing from this biographical place but not worrying about it too much. I made this series of exercises. And I loved the energy I got from working with these people. Then we thought, “why not just do them?” They also always feel vaguely experimental. I’m going to go do some at some schools, some colleges. So much of them is about not being precious about what you make. It’s kind of exciting, and always feels like a mini camp. We’ve bonded by the end of it. It’s given me an energy that’s harder to find, if I’m being honest, in the actual making of the work sometimes.

Paste: What’s next for you?

Satter: We’re doing a one-off showing [on January 13th], of this really new piece-in-progress called All My Spaces, which is going to be in collaboration with this painter named Heidi Hahn. She makes really cool paintings. It’s currently slated for early 2019 at this place called The Kitchen. So that’s our next big show. In the meantime, in March, [at the Kitchen]... I’ve curated this lecture series. When I started in April, I wanted to talk about performance and discourse around performance. Now it feels like it has to be a little more than that. Jess Barbagallo’s going to be the keynote speaker over three nights. Eileen Myles. Sarah Schulman. Claudia Rankine. Then, like, teens from the Bronx, and these little girls I know. We’ll show some aspects of rehearsal, and the place will be built like an installation. Brandon Jacob-Jenkins is another exciting person who’s going to be speaking at it. I want to keep making stuff, but this instinct to make a platform is a new instinct I’ve had.

Ghost Rings runs January 8th-10th at American Realness.