Interview with Hatchet Lady playwright Savannah Reich

Savannah headshot smallWalking Shadow first met Hatchet Lady playwright Savannah Reich through our 2015 Script Pitch Program, where we put out a call for 100-word proposals, and Savannah Reich's idea was selected by Walking Shadow's company members from a pool of 116 submissions. The quirky concept behind Hatchet Lady and the pointed cleverness of Savannah's writing caught our attention immediately.

Savannah Reich sat down with Hatchet Lady Assistant Director Sarah Lovell for an interview on Sunday, November 12.

 

Sarah Lovell: You're currently living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, But your hometown is Minneapolis, correct?

Savannah Reich: That’s right! Powderhorn Park born and raised.

Sarah Lovell: As someone who has recently moved up here, I’m astounded by how big the arts are in Minneapolis. Were you immediately drawn to theater and writing as a child?

Savannah Reich: Yes! It's a great theater town. My folks originally moved up there to work for the Guthrie as technicians. Another Minneapolis stereotype is that everyone is still friends with the people that they went to kindergarten with, and there is certainly some truth to that; a lot of the people who I made plays with in high school are now very cool working artists around town.

Now that I've lived some other places, I'm coming to appreciate more and more what a great theater scene Minneapolis has. It's very experimental for the Midwest, and people are truly committed to supporting each other and pushing their personal practices forward. There is a midwestern DIY work ethic that I think serves everybody well.

Sarah Lovell: Wow! So you really did grow up in the theater scene, with your parents working for the Guthrie. I’m sure that fueled your inspiration to begin writing.

Would you say that your first passion was to write for the stage? Or do you have other aspirations you’re working on?

Savannah Reich: I have been writing plays since I first started writing. Never really went very heavily into anything else. I would say that for me, writing is more of a way to approach theater making, rather than the end in itself, if that makes sense? In grad school we used to talk about this continuum of artists from a prose writer or poet over to a performance artist, and say that playwrights are somewhere in the middle.

I produce my own work often, I direct and perform and do a bunch of other things as a theater maker. So for me, the finished product is the production rather than the script. I think that is probably true of most playwrights. I do a lot of self producing because I like to be in the rehearsal room, rather than turning the play over to a director and actors. Rehearsal is the fun part! But in recent years I have had the opportunity to have my plays produced by other companies more often, which has been a really exciting and new collaborative relationship for me.

Sarah Lovell: It’s probably a little nerve-racking to give your play over to a theater to produce, I assume there has to be trust and faith in the company to respect your work. On the other hand, I think the opportunity to have your plays performed around the country is amazing. I have to admit though, the rehearsal process is the best part. Do you ever find yourself changing and redoing the script by what the actors or director try and play around with on stage?

Savannah Reich: Absolutely. I think it's crucial for a playwright to be in the rehearsal room for the first production of a show, because something that makes sense in your head might not actually work at all in practice. I also love creating changes based on opportunities rather than problems, like if I know an actor has a particular skill or impulse. I often think about how to write plays that invite a lot of collaboration from the actors and director, plays that leave room for each production to be quite different from the last.

Hatchet Lady was produced once before, by the Runaways Lab Theater in Chicago, and I was in the rehearsal room for that process. The director, Olivia Lilley, and I were very collaborative and made a lot of changes together. John [Heimbuch, the current director] and I talked about how it's actually good for me not to be in the rehearsal room for this production, because now I have already answered a lot of the questions left open in the script for myself, and it's important to give the current cast room to make those discoveries and choices together for the first time.

Sarah Lovell: It’ll certainly give you a sense of surprise as well, to be technically seeing the show for the first time.

One of the biggest themes in Hatchet Lady is feminism. Now feminism is in no way a new idea, but with our current political and social climate, it seems to be a hot topic. How influenced were you by the election cycle, and everything it brought with it, while writing this play?

Savannah Reich: I actually wrote this play in 2016, so it is a pre-Trump era play. But I certainly was influenced by the current political climate, or at least the ways in which the theater community is becoming increasingly politicized. I am seeing more and more plays that are radical in their themes, that take the writer or performers' identities and historical oppression into account, which is, I think we can all agree, a great thing.

There is a weird thing to being a female playwright at this moment in time, especially as someone who is pretty politicized as a human. I am seeing a lot of calls for plays by women, plays with a lot of female parts, theater groups created specifically to produce plays by women. Politically, I am very enthusiastic about this, but I have to admit that it makes me squirm in certain ways as well.

For one thing, I am a person of great privilege. I am an educated white American woman. I am angry about the ways that women have been and continue to be oppressed but I feel that the conversation needs to intersect with conversations on class and race in order to have any meaning for me.

There is this desire to produce plays by highly privileged female playwrights like myself and then pat ourselves on the back for being part of the revolution. Which just seems silly to me. In my life and value system, art is the one thing that requires no outside value, that doesn't have to stand for anything else or have any function. Art belongs to itself; its value is inherent.

That isn't to say I don't like political art, but I don't think political art's value should be measured in it's political efficacy. It is measured in artistic value.

So I think when I first began Hatchet Lady I felt like, I'm a feminist, I'm an artist, I should write a feminist play. And I knew that a lot of theater companies would be more interested in reading this kind of play than some of my other plays.

So when Walking Shadow put out a call for proposals, I sent in a one page description of this wild feminist musical about Carry Nation, and I said I was going to make her into a modern radical feminist hero, and I was going to connect it all to radical protest movements and the idea of property damage as a protest tactic.

But then when I sat down to write, that isn't what came out at all... I couldn't make myself do it. The play I ended up with is infinitely more twisted in on itself, more individual and strange, than the one I meant to write. And it's themes are much more personal than political, in the end.

I suppose female rage is both personal and political for me, though.

I remember this moment of being really stuck in the writing, and staying up really late with this draft that I was stuck on, and then being like, oh, I'm allowed to make it about my feelings...

John said an awesome thing to me the other day, which was "If you had written the play you were trying to write, we probably wouldn't have been as interested in producing it".

Sarah Lovell: I think you could say female rage comes from different angles, so the fact that this play portrays your feelings makes it so much more personal and in depth. It’s been a lot of fun to work with and watch the actors find themselves in their characters and within the play. We can all connect with the feminism aspect in this play, but we can all also connect with the frustration of life and trying to figure out what it is that we’re supposed to be doing.

Savannah Reich: Reading this back over, I hope it doesn't sound like I am saying that I think theaters shouldn't try to produce more plays by women; I definitely think they should. A lot of theaters have started to talk about it less and just do it more, which I think is amazing. Producing a season of all women without calling it "The Season of Women" and just saying, "Here are some great plays." I love when that happens.

Sarah Lovell: I think that’s when it really becomes equal. Sort of how Frances doesn’t understand why we have to label anything, that things just are what they are.

Savannah Reich: Yes. I feel worried about saying the wrong thing, because I want to throw all my support behind theaters trying to change the 20% statistic status quo. But to think of myself as a "feminist playwright" is definitely weird from inside the writing process. I hear this from a lot of writers of color as well. Of course I want to write about these things, because this has been my experience... but I feel weird about the way its received. But I also want theaters to continue to support women and people of color in general. But is my work feminist enough to be feminist art? What if it's art by a woman that isn't particularly feminist? Is that possible? I go to this confusing place whenever I try to think about it.

Sarah Lovell: Hatchet Lady is an extremely rock n’ roll heavy show, was adding music an idea from the beginning, or did it come later?

Savannah Reich: Yeah, I think this play was always a musical! It just seemed like a musical right from the start. Carry Nation is so punk. She smashed up storefronts to make a political statement! Punk! She was really wild and unafraid and she didn't seem to care who liked her or approved of what she was doing or show she was doing it, which I perceive as the true heart of punk ideals. Not always punk practice, but punk ideals.

There have been multiple punk and hardcore bands named "Carry Nation", by the way, so I'm not the only one who thinks this.

I thought of working with Luc right away, because I am obsessed with his music obviously, and I know from working with him before that the way he approaches songwriting is really thoughtful and theatrical. He has such a feel for the dramatic arc within a song.

Sarah Lovell: Carry Nation is absolutely punk rock, and the music seems to stem from the riot grrrl movement, which is incredibly fun, and in your face, much like Carry Nation—though I’m not sure about fun, but absolutely in your face. I think Luc and “The Hatchetations” have captured the feeling and themes surrounding the play perfectly within the music.

Savannah Reich: I am so excited to see the band. What a bunch of awesome musicians. Also, can we talk about how Maren Ward is in this play? I just feel very excited about that.

Sarah Lovell: Of course! Maren Ward is a beautiful force of nature, who is extremely captivating. Have you worked with Maren previously?

Savannah Reich: Yes! So Maren, as the co-artistic director of Bedlam Theater, was one of my first artistic heroes and mentors, and she is one of a handful of Bedlam people who taught me that theater belongs to us and can be anything we want it to be, and that we can make choices about the way we live our lives and make our art that are inherently politicized and rooted in our value system.

I started hanging around the Bedlam when I was a teenager, and they would have punk shows there and do these wild, messed up plays, and it really gave me the belief that I could be an artist ins exactly the way I wanted to be.

Sarah Lovell: This circles back to you being able to work with the people you knew while growing up. You must be incredibly excited to have her playing the lead character in your show then?

Savannah Reich: So excited. She is such an incredible performer, but I am particularly excited to see her as Carry, who sort of represents the idea of coming into your own as an artist and having the courage to speak your experience exactly as it is, even if it is weird and twisty and doesn't always make sense. She is the perfect person to play the Patron Saint of Making A Mess.

Sarah Lovell: It’s great to hear that she was a huge influence and now gets to be part of Hatchet Lady. Honestly though, everyone in this production is fantastic. They all bring so much to the show. It’s such fun.

Well Savannah, we’re extremely excited for you to see our production. Care to leave us with what you’re currently working on?

Savannah Reich: I'm on a writing retreat working on a new play right now! It's so far kind of about birds and the movie "Titanic" and destiny vs Free Will. We'll see where it goes.

 

Savannah Reich's works have been produced by Bedlam Theater, Box Wine Theater, All Terrain Theater (San Francisco), Anam Cara Theater (Asheville, NC), and Der Vorfuhreffekt (Philadelphia, PA). She also produces work with her company, Eternal Cult, and tours it to warehouses, art galleries, bars and basements across the country. 

 

Production History

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