Sarah Saltwick is a playwriting graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin whose work will be introduced to Dallas audiences with her play She Creatures, opening Wednesday as the first show of the 2013 season for Nouveau 47 Theatre. The script was read last year in the group's Monday night Theatre Aprēsh series.
Saltwick's work has been produced at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference (Valdez, Alaska), Frontera Fest (Austin, Texas) and Moving Arts (Los Angeles, California). This production is directed by Tom Parr IV and Matthew Tomlanovich and features Hilary Couch, Ginger Goldman, Sherry Hopkins, Danielle Pickard and Ben Bryant.
The play deals with "unicorns, shapeshifters, a dragon, and a woman with a very important box," and explores the power of myth and the shaping of female identity. It's described as an Everyman story for every woman. . As we learned in our interview with her, it's also part of a trilogy.
TheaterJones: What got you into playwriting? But more importantly what kept you there?
Sarah Saltwick: I studied theater in college, but I also wrote a lot of short stories. Writing in different character voices was always something I was interested in. I found myself concerned with issues of who is speaking, where the story was coming form, who they're talking to, which was a great bridge into playwriting. Honestly, I love not performing. I still love all the magical creation of theater without the performance. Seeing all the things that could happen when you turn your words over to a production team made me realize "I want to keep doing this."
Do you have any philosophies about playwriting?
I like to ask "what's impossible?" And then push beyond that. I always think about "what's an image that's going to be surprising?" I think the theater is by necessity a metaphorical form. Your options are so wide and so exciting—audience members go into the theater expecting unexpected things. They are automatically willing to look at things in a nonliteral way, which allow them to see the potential of things to transform.
My brain doesn't work in the visual framing way. I am far more interested in the interaction with the words and the people. Playwright[s have] a huge responsibility because they control what you see when and the whole passage of time in the narrative.
Is the passage of time something you're concerned with in your work?
In theater, time can be so elastic. It's something that I'm thinking about in my work. How do we understand the passage of time on stage? In novels and films there are so many ways to show time, everybody's wearing coats—now you know it's winter. Or when they want time to go by, the author can simply write "years later…"
In She Creatures for example, the character of Pandora goes through so many things, but in the course of a day. Not our sense of time, but a mythic time. I have to decide "are we going back? Are we seeing things simultaneously?"
What are other decisions you have to make as a playwright?
You have to decide how you build the world from the early stages of language to the relationships that we see and the visual things that are talked about and represented. In school we talk about building the world verbally, visually and kinesthetically.
I could insist on scenes with 20 people in them, which might be annoying but those bodies on stage will change the world of the play. The same line with one person on stage versus 20 is a very different thing. Then you have to decide "how do the things in this world talk? How are they removed from the way the audience may speak?" Literal, touched and represented onstage.
Can you give me an example from She Creatures?
In She Creatures, there's a lot about the ocean that is not literally represented. So the play uses other devices to rely on the previous experiences of audience members with the specific aspects of the sea.
What was the impetus for She Creatures?
I participated in a 48-hour playwriting thing and we were given the ingredients: song, secret, transformation. And one of the characters for the piece showed up ready to go. I wrote what would become the middle piece of a trilogy. This character went on a journey and at the end of the play, this character had to transform back into a seal.
Trying to figure that out in rehearsal was hard and complicated. But what was incredible is that the four of us in the room believed we could turn a woman back into a seal. We believed it was possible and we believed we could create it.
I think there are some people who really got so much out of that transformative image. Then I wanted to make her some friends. I wrote a siren piece that was a lot about language and a piece about unicorns that dealt with the subject of purity. There was something about the mythical elements coming up against our own world and the short form really produced it well.
How did these pieces become the final product?
I got to see the reading of it and worked on it at UT. In the UT production, I started having to really deal with the question of why these stories? How do they add up to something? Individual scenes—I didn't know how to bring them together. It needed a way through it all. Honestly it wasn't until I was talking with Tom and Nouveau that it all started to come together.
Pandora used to be the first play. Tom asked me, "What would happen if she was our guide and she went between the plays?" I worked with that idea for a little bit and it made a lot of sense. I spent about a week in August with Tom, Hilary, Ginger and some other actors. I heard it out loud twice. This is the play that I wanted it to be with Pandora becoming an anchor. Then they "said let's produce it."
Now that this is on its feet, what's next?
I'd like to get some more work done. I'll graduate from UT this spring and I'd like to become more well-known and then I'd really love to teach people who don't believe they can write a play, so I could say "but you can, let's do it."
Or even education for someone who goes to the theater and thinks: "I don't get that." I have a few friends who come to theater and think they're doing it wrong, that they don't have the right credentials to enjoy it. I'd like to tell those people that it's not about viewing it a certain way, it's about what you see and what you imagine that's important.
Sometimes just knowing how theater is made or the history of it helps. I'm always really interested in comments and observations made by people who are fresh.
Anything else about She Creatures?
I'm really excited for people to see it. It's a strange play, but I think "oh well, I hope people will find some of themselves in it and some people they know and love." I hope that people are surprised. One of the underlying reasons people go to see art is that they'll be surprised and they'll discover things they already know. I hope people think "this is totally about me and totally surprising."