Actors Who Write (Part II)
We're continuing our conversation with some of The Lark's actors who write, Nikki Massoud, Reynaldo Piniella, and Kara Young, to talk about the experience of being a multi-hyphenate artist, and how that shapes their views of the theater field. In Part II of our Actors Who Write interview, we discuss the crucial and often deeply personal contributions actors make in the new play development process, the desire to have more ownership over one's own artistic work, and the ways that the field must change in order to be equitable, accessible, and inclusive. And, if you missed Part I of the interview, you can find it here!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer Haley: I’m wondering if you feel like there are any difficulties or challenges or perceptions to being a multi-hyphenate artist?
Reynaldo Piniella: I guess it's hard for me to call myself that yet because I feel like I haven’t written enough to claim that title. But at the same time, this business labels you as one thing, and it wants to restrict you in your creativity and your artistry. For me, I’m trying to unshackle myself from that to be like, no, I am an actor and I am a writer and you’re going to recognize me as both. I have certainly encountered people who have been condescending about actor-writers. I'm like, no, actually we’re storytellers. We’ve been the engines of new play development for a long time. And now we’re harnessing our skills that we’ve honed in these rooms to tell our own stories because we’re tired of just serving other people’s stories that don’t always serve our well-being as much as they should.
Kara Young: I'll piggyback off of that because both Reynaldo and I have been part of the playwriting process as the actor-collaborator for years, and we would be with the play for years before it gets to production. Interestingly, there’s some disconnect when you’re not the creator, the director, or the person who’s conceiving the project. Yet, there is so much that you add to the process as an actor before it gets that production. There’s very little respect around that. We do contribute tremendously. We have the power to create ourselves, so why not just put the pen to the paper?
JH: I wonder if we could say more about this insight that you have, specifically as actors who’ve worked within play development. What kind of insight did that lend to your own play development process, or the kinds of plays you want to be acting in now?
Nikki Massoud: I think there’s an interesting dilemma when you’re an actor who’s contributing ideas in that way because often in years of workshops, you provide so much. You get to know the character so well, or you get to know the structure or pacing so well. You often contribute things that are really personal. I think this is particularly complicated when you’re contributing cultural knowledge or family knowledge, but then you ultimately don’t originate the role in production. There are playwrights who acknowledge that contribution in some way, and there are playwrights who don’t. The financial compensation around it is really inconsistent, and I wonder if that’s something that is contributing towards this trend or movement of actors writing for themselves or for other actors. Maybe it’s wanting to put your ideas and energy towards something that you can really own in the end.
RP: I totally respond to that in terms of the ownership and the stake that we often feel in the new plays we develop as actors, even though, on paper in a contract, there’s no responsibility from the creators to honor that contribution we’ve made. I’ve been so empowered by the playwrights who are now getting producer credits on their productions--Antoinette Nwandu and Jeremy O. Harris--because ultimately that work is theirs, and they shouldn’t allow someone to misshape it or change it in a way that doesn’t reflect their artistic vision.
Something I’m re-examining as an actor are which play development processes I want to be a part of. Do they have my artistry and wellbeing at the chief of their concerns and responsibilities? Because for so long, I go into these rooms, I contribute everything, and then at the end of the day I don’t have anything to show for it besides opening my heart and mind to be taken advantage of. Being a writer now has reaffirmed for me how important it is to look out for the wellbeing of your artists.
JH: In this moment of “returning” to theater, which is a loaded term, I know, but I’m wondering, what is the theater that you want to see next season? What do you want to be a part of? What needs to be challenged or dismantled?
RP: My relationship with the American theater has been an abusive one, where I’ve been overworked and underpaid. Where my body has been damaged, where my feelings have been hurt, where I’ve gone to therapy during shows in order to prevent deep wounds and scars from developing. It’s a place that has paid me $50 for a 12-hour reading when their artistic director makes six figures.
So I think for me, the theater I want to return to honors the storytellers. Honors them not only in terms of pay, but respect. Honors them in terms of a holistic approach to theater making that is not just valuing our artistry, but our humanity. A theater that is actually interested in dismantling white supremacy instead of upholding it. A theater that’s interested in community and building community, and not just when it’s trendy or to help them write grant applications, but when it actually is trying to impact and change the hearts and minds of people. A theater that is in conversation with the current moment we’re living in as a country and as a civilization.
I’ve come close to leaving the theater many times, and I keep coming back because of the people in rooms like this. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Kara six times during the pandemic, and every time I work with her, I’m reminded of the possibilities of connection, of truly being heard, of truly trying to touch someone.
KY: I have a tough time believing that theater will be back in the capacity that it was. I also want to believe that we are smart enough to think about theater differently. I’m surprised that our expectations of theater coming back are about what it was, and not what it could be. I just wonder, could we have created differently in this journey of rest, that was a step further?
NMM: We use the word ‘inclusion’ a lot, but what does that actually mean? I think related to that conversation is the conversation around distributing resources in a way that’s inclusive, or hiring administrators or actors in a way that’s inclusive. How many Broadway houses are able to accommodate Disabled audience members, let alone Disabled actors properly, right now? How much money would it cost to make that possible? Are we having that conversation?
I find myself wondering why there are still so many early-career opportunities that are exclusively reserved for people under 30. I do think it’s true that many artists and theater workers under 30 need those resources, but I also think there are many, many new directors, playwrights, actors, who are parents, who have had other careers, who teach, who aren’t under 30. I don’t think you have to be 25 to be at the beginning of an exciting and valuable career. Is your perspective only valuable if, by the time you’re 35, you already have grants and a New York production and you’re mid-career? Given everything that’s going on in our country and in the world, I think we have to re-think that conversation.
I think fundamentally I want to come back to theater that feels worth our time, because our time is precious. I hope we’re willing to think more deeply about what we’re doing and ask the hard questions, and not, as you both have said, just go back to the default. We just had a near death experience. All of us. And that should be enough to motivate some new thinking.
KY: I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine about a white creative in a production that people negatively reacted to because they thought that this person should step down and offer their seat to a young person of color. The conversation started as one about artistic integrity but ultimately moved into a discussion about access. I worked at a talent agency years ago, and I noticed there weren’t many people of color that worked there. I was the only one at one point. The way that jobs would be distributed would be very in-house. Pretty much: nepotism. I feel like our access is different. It’s another conversation about making sure we are creating diverse, safe spaces and creating new pipelines for success.
One time, I went away to a theater retreat, and there were no Black male interns. This lack of diversity is an issue because the neighborhood next door is a predominantly Black neighborhood and it could be a direct reach-out to a community for the kids in the area to be a part of an institution like that and to create a direct pipeline of access to theatrical jobs. Especially when art education is being eliminated all over the nation's public educational systems, we need to actively set up more programs for success.
RP: For a long time, we’ve worked under this scarcity mindset: I can’t speak out, I can’t be an advocate because it means I'm going to lose jobs and opportunities. This mindset has enabled abusers to openly work for years, and even decades, at major institutions. I want to see the end of that culture. I want to root that out of all of our major institutions, because, to Kara’s point about pipeline, you’re seeing this pipeline being drained of talent, especially young, Black and brown people because they’re being used and abused. They’re being underpaid, or even having to pay for internships to even get an opportunity. And then, when they get in these rooms, they’re subjugated to abuse, racism, sexism, ableism. As someone who has actually suffered that abuse and not spoken out, I hope more people can actually be empowered to speak up so we can get these abusers out of our business. And also there’s a need to strengthen Actors’ Equity because for a long time, Equity has allowed these abusers to keep working in fear of losing Equity contracts.
KY: Say it loud for the people in the back! The truth of the matter is that there are so many Black actors who have been ”cancelled” (for lack of a better word) because of how they were treated. Those who have spoken up, were moved to the side and have lost incredible opportunities along the way, because they were ostracized from a community or an institution by standing up for themselves. That part breaks my heart because I feel like it’s the kind of thing that has been happening for way too long. You’re so on the money with that, Reynaldo. I’ve never been more empowered these days to speak my truth. I’m noticing that people still carry that very white, cis-, energy, saying “I’m the most powerful person in the room. You’re going to listen to me.” and I’m like, No.
JH: Do you have any advice for other multi-hyphenate artists, or artists who want to be multi-hyphenate artists?
NMM: Yup. First: ask for what you want. Seriously. Ask for what you want. Someone might say yes. And if they say no, then you’ve lost nothing. If you’re an actor interested in writing, chances are you have some relationships with playwrights, dramaturgs, and other potential mentors---reach out to them, invite them to readings, ask them for their thoughts. Second: don’t let anyone tell you there’s a fixed timeline. For any of this. Third: live your life—go to the concert, eat the ice cream, whatever---just being alive and present and having full relationships and experiences contributes to your art.
KY: I am honestly in the very beginning stages of calling myself that... I really don’t know if I'm even ready for that title. BUT: execute. no matter how " dumb" or "not right" it is... doing, is better than not doing, and then share. However you see fit.
RP: I would encourage anyone who wants to further explore their artistry to not wait for permission to do so. If you want to write, start today. It can just be a page for now but over time you’ll start to build good habits and learn where you still need to grow in order to fully realize the stories you want to tell. Don’t worry about it being “good.” Embrace the ugliness of the first draft and find collaborators who can help you polish and refine your work. And make sure to pay those collaborators for their time and talent!
Whether someone wants to direct, produce or design, they should find people whose work they admire and find ways to be in conversation with them. Learning through observation and osmosis has been a key to my artistic journey, and I’ve always been surprised how receptive people are to conversations about their artistic process. Find ways you can support the artists you talk to as well so you’re not just extracting information from them, but cultivating a relationship.
Lastly, I would say to do the work that is going to feed and sustain your spirit as opposed to seeking validation for your work. Don’t let this business diminish your creative flame or tell you that you can only do one thing. We need to see all of people’s gifts and you’re already more than enough.