Inside the Process: Ren Dara Santiago and Joint Stock Theater
In a recent workshop session here at The Lark, playwright (and Playwrights’ Week alum!) Ren Dara Santiago took the collaborative model of theater making to the next level by using her time in the studio to explore a Joint Stock method of writing for her new play-in-process, The Gods Play. This style, employed by London’s Joint Stock Theater Company in the 1970s and ‘80s, is characterized by a period of experimentation and research with actors, after which the playwright goes off to write the thing. We interviewed Ren to take a deep dive into what she learned about her play through the use of the process. Check out what she had to say below!
OLIVIA GEORGE: So, to start, could you tell us about what made you interested in Joint Stock theater to begin with? Are there certain plays or writers you would identify as influences on your decision to explore the method in your own work?
REN DARA SANTIAGO: I respected the process as soon as I heard about it. Lucy Thurber was referencing this style to explain a workshop we were going to do with a group it was our hope to connect with and support. This was back in 2012. A pack of us, Lucy’s family and comrades were invited to a community upstate and with the intention of sharing stories and generating a piece that reflected their power and experiences. We broke into groups with a few of the children living in this community. Before coming, each of us chose text from a selection of James Baldwin’s writings as the avenue to identify individual experiences as points of connection. It was a great way to make a space that allowed others to share their experiences, especially ones that allowed them to release implicit stress, guilt, or pain.
When I make something, I’m always thinking: How can I make you feel in conversation with a piece? How do I make something you’ll feel inspired and supported by? How can I share our potential? How do I highlight how much we perpetuate love for community? When we work together, we can boost each other; we can accentuate agency within human experiences; we can build, dissolve, and ascend by amplifying our experiences and the reasons we live and strive.
There’s a Jackie Sibblies Drury article on AmericanTheatre.org that says:
Drury describes her approach to writing as akin to throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. “It’s lots and lots of pages of notes, and short exchanges of text and some stage directions and some impressionistic gathering of things,” she explained. She’ll write enough to get 40 to 60 minutes worth of material to bring to a workshop. That part is key for her: hearing actors read the words and gathering feedback. It is only through rehearsal, she said, that “somehow you find a simple and direct but nuanced way of explaining something that you’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate.
Honestly, that’s what I think The Lark is all about, and I figured I'd marry this in-process attitude with my love of being a platform for others, and we got that joint-stock session! The plan was to have my composer come in from day one, as well. And share the project with all my collaborators. I also want to incorporate the artistic and design team from the jump, because they inform so much of the way the story gets told. I want them all to play, too…
OG: Why was The Gods Play, a piece exploring religion and the cosmos, the story you thought this style of writing would be the right fit for?
RDS: Spirituality is personal. It’s personal in a way that can be politicized, but in it’s actualization, can only exist inside of a person. Sometimes there aren’t words for it. Sometimes there’s a song, a movement, a moment where sunlight bleeds through and you remember something ancient. I wrote this play to amplify a human’s given gifts. I can’t do that by myself. Like, no way. It’s about everybody, I can only see what I can see, you know? I gotta earn the name of this play… My dad was in love with the way of worship in Rasta culture. He told me that I and I meant I and Jah, and that meant God was everyone, inside everyone who believed. Treating people with respect is a given. But living is funny- it took me a long time to get to a place where I valued my place in the world. Writing did that for me. I wanna write things that make space for that, that give room for honoring the Gods inside people.
OG: The way you set up the room at the top of your workshop was so beautiful. First of all, you brought pizza. But, beyond that, you also asked each actor to talk a little bit about what their relationship to religion was as they were growing up. How did having those stories in the room as the play was read have an effect on the way you heard or received it?
RDS: I mean actors are so good, you know. And they come into readings just ready to serve the text. And because this process is more about my text serving my artists, I wanted to engage their history and their spirits. Letting them lead the room allowed me to be more in service of their perspectives... The play is in a real skeletal form, so they really make it what it is, you know?
OG: Finally, in lieu of a feedback session after the table reading of your play, you opted to lead the actors through a writing exercise. Can you talk a little about how that influenced your writing process going forward?
RDS: I think ‘cause the play is in it’s infancy, and the goal is that the actors are charging us into the play's final form, they gonna gradually dissolve all the walls… I wanted to integrate that shared ownership from Day One. It was really nice. So, we came back the following week and threw the actor’s written pieces in. And then they led us through my writing exercise at the end… We spent the last hour on step two, which was all about giving and sharing what skills and traits we love about ourselves. And naturally, we couldn’t stop adding to each other’s lists. Reading all the hidden strengths we gleaned off each other. It was awesome. It feels like courage. I’m so grateful for the humans that came through. It was kismet for real. It’s a play, but it’s also a community. So, we all had to choose each other. Thank you and mad love to Alexander Lambie, Analisa Velez, Gerard Anthony Minaya, Javon Q. Minter, Kai Heath, Manny Rivera, and Starr Kirkland. I honor and respect them so much. I’m so excited to continue this work.
Thank you to Ren Dara Santiago for giving us on an inside look at THE GODS PLAY. To check out more of Ren's work, get tickets to the upcoming production of her new work THE SIBLINGS PLAY, running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City, March 4 - April 5, 2020. Get tickets!