Sandi Johnson interview, with Kathleen Dennehy
This soapy, arch romp play is a wonderfully stylized, noir-ish tribute to the heightened Joan Crawford-shoulder pad, rapid fire dialogue Chandler movies of the thirties and forties. It’s so fun. Who or what inspired you the most to write this play? Plays, movies, stars, books?
I love The Thin Man movies, and rewatch them every few years, and love the modern gumshoe detective novels that take a page from the early noir mysteries. I also saw a stage production years ago of Irma Vep, and you could tell that Charles Ludlum just had so much fun writing and imagining it. And a few of the productions that the Adobe theater company did in the 90’s had that sense of fun.
The ‘reality’ of the play seems already deliciously distorted by page 2. Martin says it is raining outside and Louise, despite having a wet umbrella, has a different reality. At first they appear to be twins, then they spar like a married couple with issues. What’s your intention there? Quirky character development or a fun way to prepare the audience for all perceptions to be called into question?
I wanted to get across early that they have secrets, and nothing’s what it first appears to be. Hopefully before too long you figure out that they’re siblings pretending to be married.
Priscilla is a celebrity stylist/columnist? Is that commentary on modern celebrity culture? Which I love- a mashup of the social civility of now versus the social civility of mid- 20th century. Or did you have another intention?
Her desire to be famous, and obsession with fame, was definitely inspired by the whole industries of people today who revolve their lives around maintaining proximity to celebrities… but there’s also a long history of gossip columnists in old Hollywood, who seem to have been a little more respected in those early days.
I love how the women are strong, unapologetically conniving Amazonian bitch-goddesses, diabolically and deliciously out for themselves. As in the seduction quote, “I try not to regret anything.” It’s such a liberating sentence and concept. Care to expound? Are you making a commentary about feminism? Or were you just having a writer’s ball writing this?
I do love ballsy women, but I was mostly just having a lot of campy fun, and really writing for actors.
I enjoy that everyone is pretending to be someone else. Were you envisioning the actors playing two distinctly different characters - their actual selves and their covers? That could make for a seriously enjoyable challenge for actors and a lot of fun for the audience.
Yes, almost like a Scooby Doo mystery, where everyone has another identity, and they all come clean at the end.
Did you start out as an actor? It feels like you write fun tantalizing characters and dialogue that actors just want to sink their teeth into.
No, absolutely not – I have the worst stage fright in the world. But I do love actors, and this is really an actors’ play. We’ve done a few readings of it in various incarnations at the Monday night writers group that you run, and when great actors take the parts and really go wild and ham it up, it’s the best fun to watch.
I love the line “Nobody be a hero and nobody gets hurt.” It’s so completely modern and solipsistic in its thinking. Also Jane seems to embody or represent modern young American women. Amoral, unashamed and not concerned at all with what anyone, even her mother, thinks of her. Are you commenting on Mean Girls/Kardashian Reality culture or did I have too much tea?
You might have had too much tea J I’ve struggled with Jane. Everyone else’s voice came pretty easily to me, but she was a mystery for a long time. Where everyone else seemed to be caught in this slightly British, old-fashioned netherworld, she almost seemed American, and more modern to me. Eventually I liked the idea of a teenage bad girl, not worrying about what anyone thinks of her, and having known her whole life that she had to fend for herself and being fine with that.
Okay. Hotel is a super fun read. I could see the entire play in my mind’s eye. I especially enjoyed the additional theatrical flair of the fluidity of character/time/place- a director and design team will have a field day with blurring all those lines. Was that your intention?
Yes. I think if the space and design is as much in that spirit of fun and farce as the actors, and really embraces the campy vampy nature of the play, it will just lift it to another level.
Please tell me how you came to write plays.
I studied theatre (and English) at Smith College, where I got a dual Bachelor’s degree.
Follow up question! Answer to last question is too vague! Did you start writing plays at Smith? How did your dual major result in you writing plays!!! Writers you love? Plays/productions that changed your life?
Such a hard question. When I was in my high school marching band, our band leader would take us into New York City to see a show once a year. The show that made me realize I wanted to work in theater was A Chorus Line, and then the next year we saw Les Miserables, which is an all-time favorite. I was lucky enough to work on Mathew Warchus’ production of True West with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switching roles every night, which is still one of the most inspiring & amazing things I’ve ever seen.
I also was working as an Assistant Dramaturg at New York Theatre Workshop when Rent was first produced and it was so vibrant and alive and so captured that time in New York – I watched the previews almost every night and breathed the energy of the show. When Jonathan Larsen died, it rocked everyone to the core, and really made everyone in that theater feel like a community who had shared something important. The Lincoln Center production of Arcadia is one I’ll never forget. Alan Cumming in Cabaret. I spent a summer at New York Stage & Film (and a year working for the company), and that’s another place where you just realized what a community and family the theatre can be.
I also was lucky enough to be a writer in residence one summer at the Labyrinth Intensive, and that was a very similar experience… And I love everything Stephen Adly Guirgis writes. John Patrick Shanley is another constant source of inspiration (and lately I’m finding his Facebook musings/poems a daily beauty). Closer, by Patrick Marber; August Osage County, by Tracy Letts. The recent Phylicia Rashad-directed performance of A Raisin in the Sun, which I’d never seen performed – and the incredible mastery of that play, which Lorraine Hansberry wrote at such a young age, is kind of awe-striking. Crave, by Sarah Kane.
The talent and encouragement of everyone at your Monday Night Writers Group gave me a creative boost at a time when I really needed it. And as much as anything else, I’ve been inspired by the language, mythology and general amazing-ness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… and anything and everything that Joss Wheedon does.
'Also, I'm very inspired by the playwright, Winter Miller, especially her play "In Darfur".
What are you writing now?
I’m in a dry spell/pause right now, and writing outlines and v.o. scripts for my day job in reality TV, but hope to find my next project soon.