Actors Who Write (Part I)
Actors play a vital role in our play development programs—from Roundtables, to Playground, and of course all of our public readings. But we also are fortunate to have actors who are also playwrights themselves! Nikki Massoud and Reynaldo Piniella first came to The Lark as actors in Roundtables and festival readings, and this spring had their first Roundtables as playwrights! In this interview, we discuss the plays that Nikki and Reynaldo have been working on, what inspired them to start writing, how being an actor informs their playwriting process, and what they've learned from being in the driver's seat of their own play development processes. And, because Lark artists always have so many interesting things to say, we've actually broken this interview into two parts, so stay tuned for part two!
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer Haley: How did you first come to The Lark?
Reynaldo Piniella: I’ve been in probably over 50 readings at The Lark over the years. It’s a wonderful artistic home for me where I’ve met many amazing collaborators. I’ve been involved in all aspects of The Lark—from the cold-reading, play development work, to the playwriting groups that happen, to the more formal staged readings. I was also involved with The New Black Fest at The Lark and Noor Theatre. A month ago, I did my first reading as a playwright of my own work at The Lark. I give The Lark credit for fostering my creativity, helping me be a better storyteller and actually teaching me how to serve the writer more as an actor.
Nikki Massoud-Moghaddam: I think the first time I came to The Lark was to watch readings. I remember being told when I was in school that if you really identified with a company and really admired them, the thing to do was go and watch their work. Go and see whatever you can and pluck up the courage to meet people, and then maybe you’ll be enfolded by osmosis into the community. And that actually didn’t happen for me. I remember just being too shy to introduce myself. What ended up happening is that through Noor’s 48 Hour Festival, I met some of the people whose work I had watched at The Lark. Then I started doing cold readings, Playwrights’ Workshop, and I became part of the band. The osmosis wasn’t linear. I started as a very enthusiastic audience member and then similarly I had my first roundtable reading a little while ago.
JH: When did you start writing? Is it something the pandemic brought out in you, does it pre-date the pandemic, a little of both?
NMM: I had been in a program that trained us in directing and playwriting, but I had thought of those as tools that would help me in the room on a new play, and help me be more useful to a playwright. I had done journal writing and embarrassing fanfic writing, and the kind of writing that I wasn’t sharing with a larger in-person community. Then I had taken a writing class with Heather Raffo at CUNY that I loved. I think the pandemic, and specifically the summer of 2020, was really the catalyst. I was living with my family, outside Washington D.C. And I couldn’t protest because I was so worried about making my parents sick because my mom in particular is a cancer survivor, and we were very worried given that situation. I felt that I had to start writing.
RP: I’m so drawn to writing, to telling our stories. But, for a long time, I looked at writing as something that people who had MFA’s specialized in, so it wasn’t something that I could really do. But, ironically, I was teaching playwriting to incarcerated young men at Rikers Island. I was teaching playwriting to young men growing up on the Lower East Side through the City Lore program. I understood the healing properties of playwriting, the ways that it empowers young people and young minds, but it wasn’t until I suffered my own trauma that I realized I needed to write. My mom is a Black woman, and she voted for Trump twice. It was something I had such a hard time reconciling, and it’s something I talked about in therapy but it was still nagging me and gnawing on my mind and my spirit. So I just wrote a two-person play about me and my mom. And the play was terrible, but it allowed me to start to process those feelings that I was holding onto that were really holding me back.
What I realized was that underneath that play was a play about my family’s generational trauma, which is something I’m so interested in in communities of color. What are the traumas that we’re passing on that we’ve inherited through different world events that have brutalized and subjugated us throughout history? I wrote that play, not ever having taken a playwriting class before, but really learning from the writers at The Lark. I would sit in these notes sessions after we would read their plays, and I would see what questions they would ask, which feedback was helpful, what kind of writing I would respond to. I learned how to write through observation.
JH: Do you feel like there’s some sort of relationship between the storytelling you’re doing as an actor, and how that is manifesting in your writing, maybe how it informs how you’re writing characters, or how you’re world building?
NMM: I think on the one hand, being an actor can be a gift because you get to read a lot of incredible writing. You spend a lot of time immersed in really great storytelling. On the other hand, I have learned that there’s something so costly about working on material that is poorly written, or insensitively written, inaccurate, stereotyped, or shallow. Our time is precious. If I’m going to work on something, I want it to be worthwhile. It’s very loaded, but financially, I need the money because of the pandemic, so I have to make choices: do I misrepresent my community? Do I not pay my rent? Do I risk getting dropped by my agents? I feel that I want to give actors the gift of good writing. I want to give audiences the gift of good writing. I want that writing to exist in the world, and if there isn’t enough of it, then we have to make it.
RP: I love Nikki bringing up the audience and what they’re taking away from a play because pre-pandemic I often wondered why theaters were doing this play. Why, in this moment, do we need to see this? Who was this play for?
As an actor, a lot of the time, we work on material that is damaging to our psyche, that is hurtful to do eight times a week. I don’t want to do that to an actor, particularly in the time we’re living in. For all of the writing I’ve done, I’m always looking at the relationship between the wellbeing of both my actors and the audience at all times because I feel like, post-pandemic, we’re going to need stories that center healing. The interconnection that I feel as a writer and an actor is so key to who I am as an artist.
JH: Can you share a bit about the pieces you were working on in your roundtables?
RP: My play, Black Doves, takes place in present-day Brooklyn, New York, and it’s about a young Black man who’s dealing with some mental health issues. He’s trying to find his footing as an artist, as a man who has inherited a world of trauma and the burden of always having to have the answers, but a family tragedy suddenly pauses his introspection and forces him to look outwards for the first time for the source of his healing. I really wanted to write a Black love story. I wanted to write a story about a black family who’s finding the answers to healing within each other, as opposed to always searching inward. It’s about actually reaching out and asking for help—from your mom, from your sister, from your brother, from your uncle.
It’s very influenced by Chekhov. I love Chekhov, but I don’t often get to work on it as a man of color. To be honest, I don’t get to audition for it. I wanted to just write a story that has all of those Chekhovian overtones of longing, of dreaming, of wanting, of love unrequited.
It’s also a play that’s very rooted in the conversation we’re having right now about theater and why we make it, and what the theater wants to be post-pandemic. Dre (the protagonist) is a playwright in the story, and he’s like, why do I do this? I focus so much on the business that I forgot about my art and my unique voice. His healing is linked to finding his unique voice and not blocking it off from the world, but letting it shine and reach out and touch people as much as it can.
NMM: My play is called Cut. I call it a biblical fever dream. It’s a retelling of the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah, which is really about an interracial relationship. So the play is about an interracial relationship. You have a relationship between an occupying soldier and a local sex worker. It’s dealing with colonialism, sex work, religion, and colorism. I think it’s fundamentally about how and why we are attracted to our oppressors, and how and why oppressors are attracted to people they consider inferior.
You talked about Chekhov—I was really interested in using verse, using an epic language. I am really interested in the complexity of language because I’m very aware that we’re all speaking English because of colonialism. We’re all making theater in English because of colonialism. I still speak Farsi, although I speak it with a ridiculous American accent, but I’m like, well, if the British Empire took my native language from me and gave me this language, then Shakespeare is as much mine as he is anyone’s.
JH: What was the experience like of being in a roundtable where you’re the playwright? What was it like working with actors and hearing your work out loud?
RP: What I loved about the roundtable experience is that Krista Williams really empowered me to choose the collaborators who were going to serve my process. I knew that every single person in that room was bought into me, my play, and the story I was trying to tell. I was able to invite outside people to watch and contribute to the post-reading conversation. It was great to see and hear the text, the bones of the play and the foundation. The conversation afterwards was so great and went on so long that Krista had to cut us off. It was honestly truly empowering for me because I felt like we’re now in the same group as these amazing playwrights who have come from The Lark. It makes me feel way more legitimate as a writer.
NMM: I find presenting work as a writer a million times scarier than presenting work as an actor. As an actor, you don’t have to take the same kind of responsibility. Someone else wrote the words. You only have to take responsibility if you don’t say the words convincingly. I think of being a writer as having someone x-raying your brain. The audience can see everything. It’s a mess in there. But if there was ever a place to do that as safely and as richly as possible, it’s The Lark. I was sweating bullets, but I was also thrilled.
The feedback afterwards was fantastic. Krista and I had conversations that were incredibly empowering. It’s so hard to find direction right now as a writer because there’s so many residencies and writers groups that have been canceled. Theaters have obligations to current seasons, current playwrights that they have to fulfill. It’s a really tricky time for new work. To know that there’s a place that is still keeping that creative energy flowing and keeping that work moving forward is so precious.
RP: I think anytime we can be in community right now is such a gift. For my roundtable, I just tried my best to focus on this moment. I’m bringing some of my favorite people together to work on a play, and for the next two hours, we’re going to have a great time. We’re not going to be worried about everything happening in the world. And that’s the gift of The Lark that keeps on giving because I know that every time I show up to The Lark, I’m going to see someone I know. We’re going to sit down around a table and listen and respond truthfully.
A funny thing that I realized as a writer with The Lark: when I was an actor and I was cold reading at The Lark, I would be so nervous because I would want to do a good job. I wanted the playwright to hear their words fully realized, but then I was the writer, and I was nervous about what everyone thought about my play. I realized we’re all feeling that same anxiety together. It’s that vulnerability of the new play development process. It was just reaffirming to me that it’s okay to feel like you want to vomit when you’re hearing your work for the first time because that’s actually part of the growth. Part of the process is getting past that.
JH: Was there something that you discovered in your respective roundtables about your play, about storytelling, about your process…?
RP: I keep coming back to that word ‘incubation.’ Sometimes in our business we focus so much on the product. I realized I need to revel and enjoy the development process more, and take the time I need in order to get the play where it needs to be. I appreciated the reminder from Krista that it doesn’t matter where your play is. It’s about what’s going to serve you. It’s a reminder that this is a story that I’ve deemed important and how can I tell it in the way that’s actually going to be of service, as opposed to just existing and not having the impact I want it to have?
NMM: Krista said something similar to me. She was like, “you know exactly what you need to do with this play. I think you know exactly what you’re doing.” There was something about her saying that that was so empowering. Coming to this as an actor feeling like someone who is used to taking direction, there’s something about someone saying, you’re the driver. You can drive.
The Lark's Roundtable program is on hiatus for the summer. During our regular season, we host 90 roundtables a year to our current Lark fellows and affiliated Lark artists. Although we don't accept script submissions, we post opportunities for writers on our website and blog. If you have specific questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.