Friday, October 23, 2020

Somerville's Ally Sass: A Playwright Who Thrives in our "earthy, queer and very artful" city.


Interview with Doug Holder

I have always loved the theatre, and over the years I have interviewed a number of aspiring and  accomplished playwrights, actors, directors, etc.. So it was a pleasure to connect to Ally Sass, who despite the pandemic--keeps on keeping on.

Q:  You are originally from Cambridge, but you have lived in New York and now "The Paris of New England," Somerville, MA. As a writer, how has your Somerville experience stacked up?

A: I think Somerville is a really special part of Boston. It actually feels like the Cambridge I grew up in in the late 90s/early 2000s; earthy, queer, very artful. I live near Union Square and love everything the area has to offer. During my first year of grad school, I wrote late at night and as a form of procrastination, I would go to the Somerville Market basket and buy a few different exotic fruits. I don’t know why, but that became a highlight of my first year. I was excited to really explore the area now that I’m in my third year of school and not taking classes, but because of the Pandemic, a lot of the fun stuff has shut down. Finding community is harder right now, but I can still appreciate the liveliness of Somerville.

Q:  Do you feel it is still true that Boston is a tryout town, and a playwright has to go to Broadway to make a name for oneself?

A: Returning to Boston for my MFA in Playwriting, I was actually delighted to experience a really thriving theater scene. Through my awesome professors, I go to see a lot of shows in the area that really blew me away. I know plenty of Boston theater makers who are constantly working here, and feel no need to relocate. And because of the size, you can form community really quickly. That said, one can also take advantage of how close Boston is to New York. The theater scene in New York is of course much bigger, and one can certainly make a name for themselves in both cities. While having a play produced on Broadway is a fun goal to have, Broadway itself it really only one facet of the American theatre and can actually have some limitations in terms of what kind of work can be produced, how “marketable” it is, etc… Some of the best plays I’ve seen have been outside of that community.

Q: You will be on a Zoom conference for the Boston Playwright's Theatre that is based at Boston University. What is this about, and what will you talk about?

A:Yes, on November 24th I will be chatting on Zoom with BPT Artistic Director, Kate Snodgrass, as well as with my thesis director, Erica Terpening-Romeo, about my new play, Very Good Boys, and Other Myths. This is part of a series called “BPT Talks,” where each BU MFA Playwright is given an opportunity to discuss their thesis play, and also present a short excerpt from the play.

Very Good Boys and Other Myths is a story about a mother named Elaine, and her son, Avery. After Avery leaves his high school due to bullying, he takes refuge through online through World of Warcraft, Youtube, and the “incel” community. In attempt to get through to Avery, Elaine makes her own account on World of Warcraft, only to become fixated by the game herself and get lost in the realm that Avery finds himself in. The play then explodes into a modern, mythical journey deep into the underworld of a mother and her son. What starts as an exploration of various internet communities, becomes a surreal exploration of masculinity, gender, and the internet. This play is a continuation of an ongoing fixation I have with masculinity and all that it imposes on a society.

Q: In one of your plays--a pedestrian meatball sub is the smoking gun for conflict among a group of vegetarians. Do you find that the most banal of objects can seed a play for you?

A: Yes, that play was a lot of fun. That was The Cleanout, a one-act play about four vegan artists living together, who essentially implode as a community when someone finds a meatball sub in their fridge. That play stemmed from a prompt I was given to write a play where the central object is a refrigerator. Immediately, this story came out, which I guess was a response to a certain culture/elitism surrounding food that I observed while living in Brooklyn. The meatball sub of course was a metaphor for the the things that aren’t on-brand about us that we keep hidden away. I would say that every-day-objects can spark a lot of inspiration for me. They typically tap into something that I didn’t realize was on my mind, but once I start writing about them, I can’t stop.

Q: My brother Donald Holder is a Tony Award-- winning lighting designer--so I have to ask-- how important is lighting in your plays?

A: Lighting is crucial in any play! One of the best classes I took as an undergrad at the University of Vermont was “Fundamentals of Lighting” taught by John Forbes. We had to make a 10-minute performance just by lighting a certain object to music, and it was one of the coolest projects I had ever partaken in. So many components of technical theater must fuse together in the right way to make a play compelling. Lighting can set the tone in these inexpressible ways—it’s definitely the facet of technical theatre that I’m most interested in.

Q:You are working on your MFA at Boston University. Have you worked with Kate Snodgrass? How has the program fueled your growth as an artist?

A: Yes, I often refer to Kate Snodgrass at the Fairy Godmother of Boston theatre. Kate is amazing. She works endlessly to make this program run smoothly, to give us the opportunities that will help us grow as artists, and has some of the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen. Kate is extremely knowledgeable about the American theatre, and there are many artists in Boston who would say that they are very much indebted to Kate. I certainly feel that way. I have gained an immense amount of knowledge from this program, both artistically and professionally. The opportunities that Boston Playwright’s Theatre provides to graduate students, including our extensive in-class writing workshops, collaborations with professional actors, and most importantly, our third-year thesis productions, are unparalleled. What I consider to be the most impressive aspect of our playwriting program is that, while having only transitioned from an MA to a fully-funded MFA program in the past six years, it’s gained a level of national recognition and alumni success comparable to top MFA programs that have been around for decades. This program has helped me understand who I am, what I write and how I write.

Q: How has the pandemic affected you, and your work?

A: It’s been a bummer. But also weirdly a gift? First, the part of it that has been that hardest is that since this is the third year of our program, our thesis year, we were each set to have a full production run for two weeks; actors, set, costumes, director, everything. These shows of course had to be cancelled and rescheduled for next year (let’s pray). This was a major shock to all of our systems. Much of our schooling was preparing us for these productions in some way or another. We each have spent months sitting with these scripts, priming them for the stage. It’s also unnerving not know what the future looks like for theatre on the whole, but my guess and my hope is that it will be absolutely come back, and stronger than before. I know I personally have been deeply craving the opportunity to sit and absorb a live performance again. I will say though, the extra time to sit with my script has been really illuminating. I’ve had new, unexpected time to dive deep into the story in a way that only this precarious period could have evoked.

Q: Tell us a bit about new projects coming up.

A: Very Good Boys, and Other Myths, which was previously scheduled for January 2021, will happen sometime next year, 2021-2022. I will have a workshop of this production in this spring though, and I believe there will be a Zoom reading of the play, with actors. I’m also working on another play titled, Zygote, which dissects a modern Jewish-American family’s relationship to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’ve also begun writing a TV pilot. We will see where it all leads!

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