La MaMa Blogs: 6 Questions for Romana Soutus

Hyena written and performed by Romana Soutus and directed by Rachel Levens comes to The Club @ La MaMa - March 18 - 27, 2016.  Romana took time out from rehearsals to answer our 6 Questions about the show, the postcard and a lot more!

1. Your solo show HYENA opens at La MaMa on March 18th.  Where did the title come from?

I started conceiving the piece while I was in La MaMa Umbria, and while doing a workshop with Roberto Varea this image of a woman growling at an audience came into my head. That image stuck with me for a couple of days, almost relentlessly. All of a sudden, it just kind of hit me "HYENA", that's the title. It just felt right. 

In no part in the show do I actually talk about hyenas, which is in part why I love the title even more. 

2. What are some specific challenges of doing a solo show?

HYENA is incredibly interactive. The audience is my scene partner. We're constantly in rehearsal going "okay, well, this is the part when we find out how the audience reacts to this!" There are parts of the show that I'll technically will have never done until we open. That being said, I won't have that sensation of ever feeling "ready". And even when I've done the show 3 or 4 times, I still won't feel prepared because each audience is different and I need to respect that. 

That excites me because I know that each experience with an audience is going to be unique and special. 

3. We love your postcard for Hyena - how did it come about?

I met our visual designer Paola Pagano through the La MaMa Junior Committee. We were both chairs of the end-of-year Cartel Dance Party together and after the meeting when we first met, we just decided to go out for a drink together. I had to run to a rehearsal of a workshop of HYENA, so the meeting ran little short. We started talking about the play and she asked me to send it to her. When we next saw each other at the Dance Cartel party, Paola took me aside and said "I'm doing the visual design for your show. I have to". I think she nailed it!

4. What was the last good book you read?

I'm currently reading "The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis". It's 733 pages of really beautiful and delicate writing that also seems to be incredibly violent. That juxtaposition totally excites me (clearly). Each short story inspires me. "She shakes hands with a great many people until someone breaks her wrist", who doesn't want to write a whole play based on that one sentence??

5. If you could go on a vacation tomorrow, anywhere in the world - where would you go?

I finished Patti Smith's "M Train" recently, and the way she described Tangier really interested me. I've had this impulse to go to Morocco my whole life, so going to this artist Mecca would be the best vacation for me right now.

6. What does working at La MaMa mean to you?

HYENA is a born and bred La MaMa piece. I was at the La MaMa Umbria Director's Symposium when the first spark of the idea came to me, I started writing it with Catherine Fillioux on the Playwright Retreat, I did the workshops in the Great Jones rehearsal studios and La MaMa staff gave me input and direction, and now, here I am, performing it in the Club! La MaMa is home. I love walking into the office and seeing everybody. I call half the people in that office "mom". 

Working at La MaMa means being part of a family. And my artist family is amazing. 

People You Should Know . . . Rachel Levens

RACHEL LEVENS (Director) is a graduate of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA where she received her BFA in Theater with an emphasis in Original Works. Rachel is a new play director, divisor, dramaturg, and teaching artist. In New York she directed Madigan and the Magic Box written and performed by Lindsey Leonard (Dixon Place) and served as an assistant director on various premiere productions including Selma ’65 by Catherine Filloux (La MaMa) and16 Words or less by Peggy Stafford (Clubbed Thumb). In Seattle she assistant directed with The Satori Group onreWilding and This Land is Always Known. Rachel served as the dramaturg for the literature performance piecePhiladelphia and Other Stories by writer Paul Rome and composer Roarke Menzies (The Bushwick Starr) and was the assistant dramaturg on the world premiere of Stuck (Washington Ensemble Theater). Currently, Rachel volunteers as a supporting artist at CO/LAB Theater Group.  

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

I knew I wanted to be a director while I was studying for my BFA. I don’t think there was particular moment when I knew, but I do feel gradually it just clicked. Directing allowed me to take all my seemingly disparate interests in dramaturgy, applied theatre, performance art, clown, and interdisciplinary arts into one role. I could apply everything I loved about all those other art forms and apply them to my work as a director.  

I wanted to have agency with the work I was creating. I am interested in developing, directing new plays and devising because I want to create communal and relevant experiences for an audience.

I also I love plays, playwrights, rehearsals, and collaboration. And, as a director you get the unique opportunity to be trusted with a playwright's words and create a concept with other artists in order to bring the characters and world to life. 

Tell me about HYENA.  What was the most challenging part of mounting this production? 

HYENA is an interactive solo performance that follows that trajectory of Hy as she examines her public and private self.

The most challenging part of mounting HYENA is that the play is interactive. In rehearsals you don't have an audience to interact with and that leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions and unknown factors about certain moments in the play. 

But, living in these unknowns is exciting because it means every show and audience member is going to have a different experience.

What do you love most about the play?

I love HYENA because the spoken text and stage directions are poetic. It allows me freedom to interpret the action of the play and create a unique vocabulary around the action of play.

What kind of writing inspires you?

I am inspired by writing that asks me to confront society and myself. When I read something I want my worldview to change be a more empathetic, knowledgeable, and understanding person. 

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work as a director thus far?

Visual art and going to museums has the biggest influence on my work as a director. I think the two mediums have a lot of similarities because both explore space, time, lines, color, shape and perspective. 

Visual art allows me to ground a production in a metaphorical way. It allows me to have something that tangible that helps me communicate how I see, think, and feel about the play.

What else are you working on right now?

I am a supporting artist at CO/LAB Theater Group. CO/LAB whose mission is to “provide individuals with developmental disabilities theater arts opportunities.” We have our performances at the PIT on June 11 and 12 at 1pm.

I am directing The Expulsion By: Mary Decarlo, which will have its premiere in the Thespis Theatre Festival on July 15-18. 

Posted by Zack Calhoon

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

I Interview Playwrights Part 816: Romana Soutus

Hometown: Kyiv, Ukraine

Current Town: Brooklyn, New York

Q:  Tell me about Hyena.

A:  HYENA is 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 and indulging in that.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  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 Martyrs for 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.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was young my parents took me to a huge retrospective of Picasso’s work. The way the exhibition was curated was going in reverse chronological order; so you walked into the big hall and saw Picasso’s mature, older work. As you walked through you’d see a technique or a phase he had perfected and move backwards and see what it took for him to get there. My mom remembers that at the time that I was the only kid there that was actually really engaged with the art. In the last room you saw all of Picasso’s college sketches and, to this day, I have this vivid memory of seeing a sketch and thinking to myself “I want to do that”. I begged my mom to give me my allowance early, ran to the gift shop, bought a pencil and a sketchbook and sat in front of that piece and tried to re-create it myself. I knew at that moment that this otherworldly thing that Picasso could evoke even in his college sketches was something I wanted to create in the world too. Luckily for me I found an artistic medium that allows me to do that. I get to go and create this otherworldly thing not only with the stroke of a pencil but with my whole body and soul.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  In The Theater and its Double the mad genius Antonin Artaud wrote “[l]et the dead poets make way for others”. Like most young theatre artists who studied theatre in college, I read Artaud and wanted to start a theatrical revolution. Over time, I believe my revolutionary streak has subsided a little, but the sentiment behind that essay and those words still ring true to me. 

I’ve noticed this trend of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I see artists of all generations, including my own, making the same kind of theatre today that I saw in old video recordings I watched in the La MaMa Archives from the ‘70s. I’ve seen too many productions of Twelfth Night and, to be perfectly honest, not a single one has shed a new light or given me new insight that I didn’t get from reading the play alone in my apartment. 

Yes, young theatre artists need to know and respect their history. We should know it better than the people who had the opportunity to live it. But as young artists, it is our responsibility to change the way stories are told. I want to be a part of a community where we’re all challenging each other to be better than what came before. We’ll fail countless times. I’m frustrated with the fact that we’re all afraid of failing, including myself. 

 

 

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Ellen Stewart, beyond a doubt. Although Ellen passed almost 5 years ago, her spirit is embedded in everything. The people, the walls, and the air you breathe when you walk into any one of the spaces. She created a home for artists. She gave them space and time in order to grow and mature in an environment where they were supported. Ellen took risks with young weirdos and misfits who didn’t fit in anywhere else and gave them a room to create some of the most revolutionary art of the last century.

HYENA is a homegrown La MaMa production and I am incredibly lucky that I have become a part of the family. I got the inspiration and started writing the piece while I was at La MaMa Umbria, I did my workshops in the Great Jones rehearsal studios and got feedback from La MaMa staff and artists and now I’m performing the piece at the Club. No place in New York feels more like home than when I walk into the office, and I thank Ellen for that. If Ellen Stewart hadn’t created such a magical place, countless artists wouldn’t be where they are today. That is an amazing gift that an incredibly generous theatre artist gave us all.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love theatre that challenges me. It’s a pretty broad thing to say, but genuinely challenging shows are few and far between. I don’t want to be comfortable in a theatre. If I wanted to be safe and cozy I’d rather stay at home, drink a nice cup of decaf coffee and watch Netflix till 1am while playing with my roommate’s cats and cuddling with my partner. 

When I get to the theatre I want all of my values questioned! I took a chance by leaving my house and going into a new space with new people I don’t know. I want to go on this journey and I want to go to the dark depths with the actors. Theatre is special; it’s intimate and vulnerable in a way that I feel no other art can really mimic. Theatre that respects that and goes full throttle excites me.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  If there is a story that you wish was being told, you’re the one to tell it. Also, that thing, that you think no one else feels that makes you blush and worried; write about that, that’s the good stuff.

Q:  Plug your upcoming projects:

A:  La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club will present the World Premiere of HYENA, directed by Rachel Levens for a limited engagement March 18-27 at The Club at La MaMa (74A East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) with performances on Friday and Saturday at 10pm and Sunday at 6pm. Tickets ($18/$13 students & seniors) are available online at www.lamama.org