Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 816: Romana Soutus



Romana Soutus

Hometown: Kyiv, Ukraine

Current Town: Brooklyn, New York

Q:  Tell me about Hyena.

A:  HYENA is interactive one-woman show about the beast within. The protagonist, Hy, examines questions of intimacy, femininity and vulnerability as she attempts to find ways to navigate the painful world in which we live while toeing the line between her public and private self. In short, HYENA is about everything we don’t want to talk about and indulging in that.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I’m really focusing on writing my next play, Martyrs, about female saints and shame. It’s kind of like HYENA’s sister. Where as HYENA is very much about indulging in every dark thing you’ve ever wanted to do, Martyrs is about what happens when you reject every instinct you’ve ever had in order to become pure.

I really like to let my plays marinate; it took me a year and a half to write HYENA and I’ve only been working on Martyrs for about half that time. After HYENA cools down my amazing director Rachel Levens and I are going to start revving up for staged readings and workshops for Martyrs.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was young my parents took me to a huge retrospective of Picasso’s work. The way the exhibition was curated was going in reverse chronological order; so you walked into the big hall and saw Picasso’s mature, older work. As you walked through you’d see a technique or a phase he had perfected and move backwards and see what it took for him to get there. My mom remembers that at the time that I was the only kid there that was actually really engaged with the art. In the last room you saw all of Picasso’s college sketches and, to this day, I have this vivid memory of seeing a sketch and thinking to myself “I want to do that”. I begged my mom to give me my allowance early, ran to the gift shop, bought a pencil and a sketchbook and sat in front of that piece and tried to re-create it myself. I knew at that moment that this otherworldly thing that Picasso could evoke even in his college sketches was something I wanted to create in the world too. Luckily for me I found an artistic medium that allows me to do that. I get to go and create this otherworldly thing not only with the stroke of a pencil but with my whole body and soul.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  In The Theater and its Double the mad genius Antonin Artaud wrote “[l]et the dead poets make way for others”. Like most young theatre artists who studied theatre in college, I read Artaud and wanted to start a theatrical revolution. Over time, I believe my revolutionary streak has subsided a little, but the sentiment behind that essay and those words still ring true to me.

I’ve noticed this trend of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I see artists of all generations, including my own, making the same kind of theatre today that I saw in old video recordings I watched in the La MaMa Archives from the ‘70s. I’ve seen too many productions of Twelfth Night and, to be perfectly honest, not a single one has shed a new light or given me new insight that I didn’t get from reading the play alone in my apartment.

Yes, young theatre artists need to know and respect their history. We should know it better than the people who had the opportunity to live it. But as young artists, it is our responsibility to change the way stories are told. I want to be a part of a community where we’re all challenging each other to be better than what came before. We’ll fail countless times. I’m frustrated with the fact that we’re all afraid of failing, including myself.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Ellen Stewart, beyond a doubt. Although Ellen passed almost 5 years ago, her spirit is embedded in everything. The people, the walls, and the air you breathe when you walk into any one of the spaces. She created a home for artists. She gave them space and time in order to grow and mature in an environment where they were supported. Ellen took risks with young weirdos and misfits who didn’t fit in anywhere else and gave them a room to create some of the most revolutionary art of the last century.

HYENA is a homegrown La MaMa production and I am incredibly lucky that I have become a part of the family. I got the inspiration and started writing the piece while I was at La MaMa Umbria, I did my workshops in the Great Jones rehearsal studios and got feedback from La MaMa staff and artists and now I’m performing the piece at the Club. No place in New York feels more like home than when I walk into the office, and I thank Ellen for that. If Ellen Stewart hadn’t created such a magical place, countless artists wouldn’t be where they are today. That is an amazing gift that an incredibly generous theatre artist gave us all.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love theatre that challenges me. It’s a pretty broad thing to say, but genuinely challenging shows are few and far between. I don’t want to be comfortable in a theatre. If I wanted to be safe and cozy I’d rather stay at home, drink a nice cup of decaf coffee and watch Netflix till 1am while playing with my roommate’s cats and cuddling with my partner.

When I get to the theatre I want all of my values questioned! I took a chance by leaving my house and going into a new space with new people I don’t know. I want to go on this journey and I want to go to the dark depths with the actors. Theatre is special; it’s intimate and vulnerable in a way that I feel no other art can really mimic. Theatre that respects that and goes full throttle excites me.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  If there is a story that you wish was being told, you’re the one to tell it. Also, that thing, that you think no one else feels that makes you blush and worried; write about that, that’s the good stuff.

Q:  Plug your upcoming projects:

A:  La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club will present the World Premiere of HYENA, directed by Rachel Levens for a limited engagement March 18-27 at The Club at La MaMa (74A East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) with performances on Friday and Saturday at 10pm and Sunday at 6pm. Tickets ($18/$13 students & seniors) are available online at www.lamama.org

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