This week of ALU Summer Book Club we chat with author Kat Sandler of the irresistibly readable play Yaga (Playwrights Canada Press) about her take on the infamous Baba Yaga as “a villain and a protagonist,” how she loves creating complex female characters—especially older ones who are often invisible—and her approach to writing comedy.
All Lit Up: You’re quite a force in the theatre world staging something like 17 original plays in under a decade! And you wear many hats—artistic director, screenwriter, playwright—how does your directorial eye inform your writing? Kat Sandler: I always think of writing and directing as one job—to do so is to shepherd an “idea” (rather than a script or a show) from conception to production, so I never really take off either hat. When I’m writing I try to think ahead to what director-me will be staging, what the audience will be seeing/feeling at that moment, and write towards that. For instance, if there’s a very talk-y scene, I think, what could this use physically? A fight? A spill? A moment of physical tension?—and then try to write it in. When I’m directing, I can always use my writer brain to shift the script to help me give a moment more impact, or change a line because an actor ad-libbed something great, or is struggling with a word or a moment. ALU: What was your fascination with Baba Yaga? What made you write a play about her? KS: I’ve always been fascinated by stories, legends, and myths, and ultimately, the villains at the heart of them. Like many, I was raised on a steady diet of cookie-cutter fairy tales and prince-rescues-princess-from-wicked-witch narratives, so when I first came across Baba Yaga I was struck by three things: the imagery of her chicken hut and preferred method of travel/bone grinding (mortar and pestle), her ambiguous moral code, and the fact that she had a name. Witches are so often defined vaguely by colours, geography, or their protagonists (i.e., “White” or “of the West” or “the one from Hansel and Gretel”) but here was a witch powerful enough to be remembered for how she operated, how she lived, not just how she got shoved into an oven or poisoned an apple that one time. I thought that was cool. I also was fascinated by what was actually written about her; she’s usually described as old and ugly, and sometimes she kills people, but she helps them too, when she wants to. Across the globe she’s seen as everything from monster to a quest donor, wise woman to a goddess, trickster to saviour, and everything in between. To me, she’s a compelling, morally ambiguous, complex female character—a villain and a protagonist, an antishero who does what she wants in the woods and refuses to be defined or labelled as one thing. I loved the idea of updating her to a modern woman, and wanted to write something that came at the story of a female villain from her POV rather than a male-driven hero’s journey narrative. I wanted to re-envision her as a sexy, powerful academic who refuses to take shit from anyone. After all, historically what we call a witch is just someone society has decided it’s scared of, and what could be scarier than a powerful, sexual, brilliant older woman making and living by her own rules? ALU: The female characters in Yaga are surprising, full of complexities, and not always ethical. How do you create such dynamic characters? Where does your inspiration come from? KS: I spent much of my early career trying to write in a style that appealed primarily to straight me, modelling my work on violent and sexy male-driven television shows, trying to shy away from writing funny, powerful women because I thought it would intimidate audiences. Now, I really love creating complex female characters, especially older ones, because I think that subsect of society and culture is woefully unexplored. A mentor said once to me, “There’s a period of time in a woman’s life when you just become invisible—you’re not a mother, or a sexual object, so what are you, a crone?” That became a line in Yaga.My inspiration also comes from the incredible women in my life and in our industry. There are so many brilliant “older” female actors, who have such an epic wealth of experience, both professional and lived, and as I get older myself, I want to focus more on their (and my!) stories!Often inspiration will come from just coming across a cool historical or mythological figure and wanting to explore and hypothesize about their life. My play WILDWOMAN, which premieres in October at Soulpepper Theatre Co. in Toronto is all about Catherine de Medici’s struggle for power and legacy in the French court of the 1600s, and like Yaga, she’s a maligned character whose origin story I’m so excited to be able to play around with. ALU: Yaga was really entertaining to read, and we think it would be compelling to see on stage. (We’re there if a remount happens!) It’s funny and introspective and fun to see Baba Yaga in a modern light. What’s your take on reading a play versus seeing one performed? KS: I think reading a play is a window into the mind of the playwright, and seeing a play performed adds the element of a director’s vision being applied to the text. When reading, you see how the playwright intends the story to be communicated to an audience—the stage directions they include, the punctuation that dictates how the dialogue will actually flow (i.e., I’ll always include the note “Pace: Pick it up,” because I like my text to move fast). Once it’s onstage, you’re looking at so many different elements all signed off on by the director: costumes, light, set, casting, whereas when you’re reading, you’re filling in a lot of those blanks with your own imagination. With Yaga, I often wonder if readers or audiences click into the twist (of Anna being Carson!) sooner or later, because of the trick of having all the characters played by the same three actors. ALU: One of your older plays, Punch Up, is literally a comedy about writing comedy. What’s your general approach to comedy writing? Do you have any tips for budding writers?KS: My approach to comedy writing is extremely collaborative! I can write a joke, but often I won’t find the best version of it until I can hear it out loud, or see a moment played out onstage. I also can’t set out to write a joke, per se, I always set out to create a high stakes situation that is inherently difficult for the characters, that the comedy can kind of explode from. For instance, in Punch Up, an unfunny guy kidnaps a comedian to teach him how to be funny so he can prevent his crush from dying. There are lots of funny places to go with that setup. Then I’ll look closer for comedic beats, callbacks, and leave space to find physical comedy. It’s harder to try to be funny than to set yourself up for success with a situation/conflict/problem that is funny, and move outwards from that. The joy for me of writing and directing is that I get to find so much in rehearsal. In Punch Up, there’s a whole whoopee cushion sequence that we never could have found without being in the room for three hours just playing around to find the funniest versions of that bit.
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Kat Sandler is a playwright, director, screenwriter, and the artistic director of Theatre Brouhaha in Toronto. She has staged seventeen of her original plays in the last eight years, including Yaga and the concurrent double bill of The Party and The Candidate, where the same cast raced back and forth between two theatres to perform two simultaneous plays. Her play Mustard won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and BANG BANG was nominated for the same award. Kat is a graduate of the Queen’s University Drama Program and is based in Toronto.