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!

Check out" !

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Ron A. Kalman author of the new poetry collection "Appearance of the Sun"

Ron A. Kalman, author of his first poetry collection "Appearance of the Sun" ( Main Street Rag Publishing) will be released in the coming months but can be pre-ordered now. Kalman is a graduate of Emerson College (MFA), a Somerville Bagel Bard, and has been published in numerous publication including Somerville's Ibbetson Street magazine, and the Lyrical Somerville in the Somerville Times.

Interview with John Wisiewski

What was it like growing up in Budapest, Ron?

It’s true that my family is from Budapest, but I wasn’t actually born there. My parents fled Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. During that year, there was a period when the borders were loosely guarded, and my parents trudged across the fields from communist controlled Hungary to Austria.

They settled in Israel, and that’s where I was born, though I don’t have any memories of that. My first memory, perhaps appropriately, is of being on a boat as we were heading to Paris. We lived in a house in the suburbs. It had a fenced in yard with lots of fruit trees, and I attended kindergarten where, as I recall, there wasn’t much playtime. I vaguely remember sitting behind a desk and studying trigonometry.

It was only a few years later that we were on the move again, this time via an ocean liner headed for the United States. One morning, my mother dragged me up on deck so I wouldn’t miss seeing the Statue of Liberty as we arrived in New York. The statue didn’t impress me much. But I was only six years old so what did I know?

We stayed in New York just long enough so that I could taste a real New York hot dog from a real New York street vendor. Then we boarded a plane and headed out to Boulder CO where my father was a physics professor at the university. There I attended first grade. Fortunately, there was a girl in my class who spoke French, and I shadowed her for the first couple months until she got sick of me. But by then I’d more or less figured out what was what and managed to survive on my own.

The following year we moved to the Boston area and that pretty much ended our global roving. Still, we continued to move from house to house and from school district to school district. I counted that by the time I reached 7th grade I’d attended 6 different schools. And, if my experiences instilled in me nothing else, it was that being observant was more than just a useful skill. It amounted to something of a survival tactic.

When did you begin writing?

I wrote my first poem in 7th grade for an assignment, and I’m happy to report it was a big hit with both my teacher and my mother. But that pretty much ended my poetry writing for the next fifteen years. I liked reading novels much more than poetry, and in high school I started writing short stories.

After college I had no real plans and bounced around for a few years until, finally, I decided it would be a good idea to write a novel. There was nothing that I’d done up till then that would have led anyone to think I’d be successful. And, in fact, I spent a wretched year living in a moldy basement apartment in Brighton failing to put together anything even remotely coherent.

Right about then, just when I’d pretty much packed it in as far as writing was concerned, I happened to move to Harvard Square and a buddy of mine convinced me I should sign up for a poetry writing class. And Voila! I instantly felt a confidence using the poetic form that had eluded me the previous year.

What may inspire you to write?

I don’t think that’s a constant, though I do have an aesthetic I sometimes like to follow. My poems tend to be autobiographical and outside the academic mainstream. When I was working on the novel, I’d hoped to write something that captured the immediacy and vibrancy of everyday experiences similar to what I’d found in Tropic of Cancer. When I started writing poetry, I was delighted to discover a similar type of thing going on in Frank O’Hara’s I do this I do that poems. So, when I started working on the poems that would become my chapbook Appearance of the Sun, many of the poems were based on whatever was happening at the moment.

. You have done translations as well as poetry. Could you tell us about this.

I started doing translations quite by accident. One day, my father showed me a book that used a short poem by the famous Hungarian poet Attila József as an epigraph, and I thought the translation had completely lost the essential feel of the original. So naturally, I had to try my hand at it. Since my Hungarian is not very good, I do the translations with my father and, over the years, we’ve accumulated a small bunch of translations of József’s work.

Perhaps more interesting is that my translations are very different from my own writing. József’s poems are strictly metered and rhymed. I do the translations, and I try to adhere to the original form as much as possible. People who look at my translations first are often surprised that my own writing looks quite different.

Could you tell us about you latest chapbook just published?

I’ve already alluded to it. It’s called Appearance of the Sun, and it’s being put out by Main Street Rag Publishing. It should be out maybe in January or February of 2021.

The collection contains poems I wrote when I first started writing poetry, and it owes much to the novel I had wanted to write before that. Some of the characters in the longer poems are characters I had wanted to put into the novel. And as for the shorter poems, I wanted for them to have an episodic feel to them even while maintaining the integrity of each poem as a separate entity. I was going for something that might approach an extended narrative in the life of the narrator.

6. You have moved to Boston later in Life. Do the people of Boston inspire you to write?

Yes, of course. I would have never written Appearance of the Sun if I hadn’t fallen in with a great group of friends and acquaintances when I moved to Harvard Square. I lived in a big apartment complex right on Mass. Ave., and I was friends with a bunch of people in the building. Every Friday night, one of them would hold a political/literary gathering in his apartment that would go on well into the early morning hours. Add to that that if I went out of for a walk, I was just as likely as not to bump into someone I knew and end up in an hour-long discussion about Nietzsche or the Beats or politics.

This all changed when rent control was abolished. Rents, of course, started to rise precipitously and that’s when I and just about everyone I knew moved out of Cambridge. And Harvard Square itself has become a shadow of its former self. Gone are most of the things I thought made it such an interesting place, the artists, the eateries, the movie theaters and countless bookstores.

. Any future plans and projects, Ron?

Thanks for the question. What writer wouldn’t want people to be interested in what he or she is working on? And I do have projects lying about in my drawer, some being closer to completion than others. But I think talking about them might be bad luck. It might take away my impetus to actually finish them.

And, John, I’d just like to add that I much appreciate the effort you put into doing this interview with me. It’s been a great experience.

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