People You Should Know ... Romana Soutus

When did you know you wanted to be an actor? When did you decide to start writing plays?

My first time performing was playing a frog in 2nd grade. I don’t remember anything about the play (besides the fact that my then-crush was the narrator, which I greatly appreciated), but to this day I remember this intense feeling that “I love this, I want to do this forever”. 

Writing plays was a whole other story – I was writing little plays for my cousins and I to perform whenever I visited my grandmother. I would write, direct, perform, all of it. It felt like the most natural way to ‘play’ for me. As I grew up I started learning about all the demarcations in theatre and thought, “no way I get to be a playwright and an actor”.  It wasn’t until I was on the Playwrights Retreat at La MaMa Umbria the summer after I graduated, and started writingHYENA that I realized that playwriting was something I needed to do just as much as performing.

Tell me about HYENA.  What compelled you to write the piece? What do you love most about the play?

HYENA is an 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.

While I was doing a workshop with Belarus Free Theatre they challenged us to write one page that could never be performed on a stage in our home country. I’m from Ukraine originally and I thought, “ooh, I’ve got tons of things I couldn’t say!” So I sat down and started writing and nothing really scary came out. None of it scared me to say. So I took a second and genuinely asked myself, “what are you really, genuinely, shaking-in-your-boots scared to tell people?” and HYENA was born.

I’ve invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears (sometimes very literally) into creating this piece, and there are a lot of highbrow reasons why I love it. But what I love most about the play is that I never actually talk about hyenas. There is no long monologue about how I’m like a hyena and there isn’t a hyena that we let loose in the theatre. I’m not talking about hyenas; I’m showing you the hyena.

What kind of writing inspires you?

Poetry really inspires me. When my partner and I first started dating they lent me a book of poetry by Richard Siken called Crush, and his writing is like a punch to the sternum. That’s what I look for in great text, imagery you can feel. I don’t want a description of a red dress; I want to feel the red dress on my own skin.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’m a huge fan of Anton Chekhov. His words demand a lot from his actors. In Three Sisters, Masha doesn’t talk about a chimney because the chimney is particularly interesting; she’s talking about it because it’s the only thing holding her back from kissing Vershinin. It’s the perfect challenge for an actor, make talk about a chimney become foreplay.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work as an actor thus far?

The person I would have to give that credit would be one of my mentors, the amazing dramaturge Morgan Jenness. I remember a very special afternoon when Morgan and I grabbed a coffee at Veselka in the spring of last year. I was asking for both professional and personal advice, and Morgan has this amazing way of asking the right questions to lead you right to your answer. Morgan helped me realize the important fact that theatre is really hard, “your goal has to be to read a play a day, or go see theatre every night, or write every afternoon. Theatre is hard and that’s the point.” I appreciate that advice every day. Every time I sit down to do my bookwork on a role or write a new scene I remember that the experience is hard, art is hard. You’re giving a huge piece of yourself and if it isn’t hard and scary then you’re not risking anything. It’s okay for it to be difficult, but you have to love it enough to face it ever day.

What else are you working on right now?

I’ve got several different projects that I’m juggling all at the same time.

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 Martyrsfor 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.

Posted 3 weeks ago by Zack Calhoon