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A Closer Look: Sarah Saltwick

Playwrights’ Corner
Sarah Saltwick

Take "A Closer Look" at the stories being told in this year's Playwrights' Week festival with this series of interviews, of the playwrights and by the playwrights! In this installation, Sylvia Khoury (Against the Hillside) talks with Sarah Saltwick (pictured left) about her new play, Europa.

SYLVIA KHOURY: To start, I'd like to ask where this play began. What was the original impulse? What was the first part of the play that you wrote? What did the first draft of this play focus on? How do you feel it has changed through progressive drafts? 

SARAH SALTWICK: I started writing this play several years ago as I was reading The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It's an incredible collection of essays. I was particularly moved by her writing about a man who violently robbed her in Nicaragua. She imagines who this man was. She's stayed deeply curious about him and this incident long after her face healed. Jamison writes about empathy that isn't sweet or necessarily kind but utterly human.  The first draft of the first act came almost all at once. I wrote it very quickly over a few days. It remained a one act play for about a year. I wrestled with the second act a lot, it's been different every draft. Each draft has been about taking away unnecessary moments and keeping the play in the present tense - what's happening between these people right now. How are they changing each other forever?

SK: I was particularly moved by getting to see the children that were so often referred to in the first act as young adults in the second act. Had you always wanted to have one child be a daughter and have another child be a son, and if so, why?

SS: Yes! I like seeing them as young adults too. It felt like the right way to continue yet transform everything from the first act. The gender breakdown of the kids has also been with Leslie having Bruce Jr and Alma have Louise. I knew I wanted an echo between Bruce Sr (who we never see) and Bruce Jr. Leslie admits to always wanting a girl, I think it's one of the things that draws her to Alma in the first place, her perfect looking daughter. 

SK: The title of your play refers to a story in Greek mythology in which a woman is assaulted by Zeus. What was it about this specific story that spoke to you? How do you feel it speaks to our generation? 

SS: I'm very curious about fairy tales and mythology. I started reading those kinds of stories when I was young and the tales stuck with me. I was always drawn to stories where people change shape, especially if they become animals. I think it was something I was intrigued and scared by. And as much as they are stories of transformation, they are also stories about power and punishment. Sometimes the punishment looks like a reward - you have a whole continent named after you and a moon! But it still comes out of this act of violence.

SK: I love how you used an everyday setting - a park bench by a playground - to house a play about significant trauma. How do you go about weaving a streak of violence through an ordinary (but not domestic) setting?

SS: I hope the surprise of the violence and trauma feels true to life. From the beginning I was interested in writing about moments where your past blindsides you. I was drawn to the park bench as a kid friendly and neutral space. Personally I love go to parks and it's one of the few places where it still feels believable to talk with a stranger. After I had done my second draft or so, I did go back and reread A Zoo Story to study exactly how Albee threads in danger and how he keeps Peter and Jerry locked together.  It's also terrifying to write something in such an open and simple space - nowhere to hide!

SK: How do feel that this play has helped you grow as a writer? Did you try anything new with this play? Did you abandon old habits? Did you find something new that you want to hold on to? 

SS: These are the longest scenes I've ever written! It was a great challenge to stay within one location, one conversation, and one set of characters. There's a little cheat at the end (which is one of the newest things in the play) but overall it felt very different to write something so contained. A lot of my other plays take a sideways view of the world. There's some element of metaphor or theatrical invention. But this play is straight on and close up. The more plays I write, the more I understand that every one has its own shape. My hope is not to fight it but enjoy the differences.