Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
Based in New York, playwright and director Tina Satter is a Fellow-in-Residence who begins her one-year residency in Philadelphia in July 2021. She spoke to us about her plans for the residency, how her athletic career influenced her approach to theater, and how the pandemic may have given her more freedom in her practice. This interview was transcribed from an audio recording and edited for length and clarity.
Satter’s experimental theater productions reflect diverse textual, formal, and aesthetic influences to illuminate the stories of female and queer characters. As artistic director of Half Straddle, an Obie Award-winning theater company based in Brooklyn, Satter has created ten original full-length plays, which have toured nationally and internationally. Her most recent work, Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, earned a spot on The New York Times’ "Best Theater of 2019” list, has toured internationally, and will begin a run on Broadway later this year.
When you start a new piece or a project, where do you typically begin?
We often begin by trying to understand the ending of something. I’m pretty obsessed with getting down on the page what I’m making, what it will look like and what the language might be there, if there’s language, or what it might sound or feel like. That sometimes changes once the rest of the piece gets figured out. But usually, quite early on, this anchors me to understand what I’m working towards, sort of essentially. Even if that changes, whatever I had there is usually a helpful way to get going.
So that’s one answer, and then another one: it’s a small idea that I’m interested in, whether it’s how to figure out a relationship between two people, or if there’s a larger scenario that I’m interested in, like a tap dance classroom or a sports team. I then find a way into making the project around a larger idea.
How has the pandemic changed the way you think about making theater work, and how do you expect your work might change moving forward?
It’s very logistical. I had work lined up in actual theaters and rehearsal rooms. That didn’t happen, and so I ended up just writing a lot more by myself at home. That’s always part of my practice. I write things, and then I get into a room with other people and rehearse and make them.
But the writing I was doing on projects this time, I just wrote them not knowing necessarily who would be in them or where they would happen. Normally, that’s a big part of my practice with theater work I make. I usually know the actors who are going to be in it and write to them, or I design roles for who those performance collaborators will be. And usually, at this point, I almost always know where a piece is going to first happen physically. That’s actually a big part of what I’ve made usually. It’s going to sit in this room. What does that mean? So, the biggest change is just sort of writing without knowing those elements, which is quite interesting and different.
For me to have written this way, where I’m writing something just to write a piece, not knowing who may perform roles, is so different that I think maybe I’ll have more freedom in my practice moving forward.
For whom do you make your work?
Really, it’s myself and the people who are going to be making it with me. The kind of work I make requires these other people to be in a very vulnerable and intimate process of live performance, so I think it then becomes about making it for and with them.
The audience is there because that’s how I can have live theater, and their energy is going to come to this piece. They will be there to watch something and give it their live heartbeat and brain wave energy in a room. That’s necessary for what I make when I make live performance. But I don’t really worry or think about them that much.
A friend and longtime collaborator, Jess Barbagallo, once called this out about me when I gave that kind of answer. He said, “I think it’s because you were an athlete on these sports teams.” When you’re on the field, you just think about the game you’re playing with your teammates. If you thought for a second, The person on the sideline might like when I do my pass this way, you’d be dead in the water. Me and my collaborators, what are we making on this stage here? That’s sort of the main concern.
What are you looking forward to most about your residency here in Philadelphia?
Very much getting to know the city more. I’ve only had little stints there doing work for several days at a time over the past several years. But it seems fantastic, and I’ve heard it’s fantastic, so just getting to be in Philly and really taking in what that city is.
And then I have a few good friends there, so I’m truly looking forward to spending time with some of these friends and some people I don’t actually know as well, and now I’ll finally get to, I think, have coffees with them. The people and getting to know the city are definitely what I feel truly so excited about.
How do you think or hope your practice might evolve during your residency here?
I think and hope just that new people, who I can’t even know who they might be yet, will inform and maybe be a part of what I make. What that might mean literally is that I’ll be in early stages of several pieces and that new collaborators or the new energy of actors and other people are part of an early process of work. That seems really exciting to me.
I love the people I’ve gotten to work with in New York and hope to continue to do that. But when I thought about that question, like, oh wow, there could be these new collaborators or early participants in work that are in Philly, that seems really, really cool and exciting and something I feel very lucky to hopefully get to take advantage of.
What music are you listening to? Which books are on your bedside table?
I have a book on my bedside table that’s called My Meteorite by Harry Dodge. Harry Dodge is an amazing artist, and he’s also partners with Maggie Nelson. Maggie Nelson’s last book, The Argonauts, excerpted some of Harry Dodge’s writing. Maggie Nelson’s book was incredible, and then Harry Dodge’s text that Maggie collaged into her work was super, super cool. And it seems that Harry Dodge now has a whole book of what that writing was, which is a kind of a memoir-y reconsideration of family. Harry Dodge was adopted, and he’s a queer trans man. It’s sort of a beautiful exploration of a midlife reckoning, specifically with Harry’s finding his birth mother at a certain point in his life. So far, it’s just kind of heavy. I haven’t gotten that far. I really like it, but I’m not reading the same way I was, and it’s kind of heady. It almost reminds me of Henry James, who I love. I have to really read each sentence a couple of times, even though it’s kind of just personal memoir.
My good friend Sanae Yamada is in two bands. One’s called Moon Duo, and then she has a solo project called Vive la Void. She’s this really cool musician, and she did the score and sound design for the last show I made, Is This A Room. So I’m really into her obviously. This past year, she’s been experimenting with these drone sounds. I have just been listening to those a lot when I’m trying to write or get in a mood. They’re so evocative. I haven’t been just sitting around listening to music, but when I’ve been working or in my office, I’ve been listening to Sanae’s really cool drones. They just set such a mood.
What ethical consideration most influences the decisions that you make as an artist?
Everyone I’m working with on the project, their time and voice is honored. I think it’s something I’ve always worked to do, and there’s plenty I’m sure I have not done correctly at all. I feel like I’ve gotten even better at this. It’s just being very aware, especially as an artist, what one’s time means—that you’re personally involved in this, and that your voice is heard, and just that you’re respected in that way.
And then the other piece of that—it’s a little bit complicated because of how economically depleted theater as a field is, at every level basically except for Broadway—is that everyone involved gets paid as well as they can within whatever is possible. We’re very candid about what the pay is. It’s not something like, “Can you do this for free?” or to ask someone to do a project and not mention money, and then they have to ask. Just being really clear, because I just think those are the teeny bit of things I can control in a project.
What is your biggest motivator as an artist, and what is your biggest fear as an artist?
My biggest motivator is always trying to make something that I want to see or something I'm trying to figure out, and to continue to try to show things that aren't seen as much on stage, smaller or queer things, just the things that don't often get treated dramatically or treated as big stories. I love seeing those, and so I'm just always trying to make more of the things that don't get as much attention, on stage or other mediums.
I can’t really think of my biggest fear. I mean, I'm completely wracked with anxiety and self-doubt. You know, utterly. I definitely don’t want people to think I'm like, “Woohoo! Everything is amazing!” But maybe it's so existentially big, I can't put my finger on it.