Mosaic’s Triple Launch: New Company, New Playwright Jay O. Sanders, and New Play, Unexplored Interior
Jay O. Sanders is an actor. After a long, varied, and busy career on stage, on TV, and in film, he would be hard-pressed to meet someone who hasn’t seen his work somewhere along the way.
Currently, though, Sanders is wearing an unaccustomed hat. His play Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth) is in previews at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (in its Lang Theatre), the inaugural production of Mosaic Theater Company.
I began our conversation by asking how an actor becomes a writer.
“First, you get a computer,” deadpanned Sanders, before responding less drolly. “It’s sort of the most natural thing in the world. It needs a shift of focus, the decision to do it, and the need to say something.”
A career spent exploring other people’s plays helps. “After forty years acting in some of the greatest literature of all time, and many great new playwrights, I’ve learned from the best.”
And an actor is practiced at taking something that exists on the page and bringing it to life. “As a result, I’ve not only written the play, I’ve continued to write, and to be very involved during the entire rehearsal process. I recognize that my job as architect is not just to make a blueprint, but to fit a piece into this plot of land.”
Although this project marks his debut as a professionally produced playwright, “I wrote another play in college. It started the same way.” That is, he began intending to write a part for himself. In both cases, he told me, the plays “revealed themselves” as larger than the solo pieces he first envisioned; crafting them as one-man shows was “the wrong choice. So I entered through the character, then expanded to look at the whole world of the play until the piece was much bigger.”
Sanders took me back to the decades-old genesis of this play, as the Rwandan genocide captured headlines in 1994. “I was cloistered, watching the news. My son, my only child, had been born five weeks earlier.”
The kernel that became the play was planted. “I embraced this as my world perspective was changing, as I became a parent. I felt an expanded responsibility to the world — to him, and beyond that. I found myself sorely lacking in hard-line specifics, in understanding of the world — not just politics, but history. It was a way for me to examine everything in my life: faith; spirituality; my relationship to death. I was trying to make the most personal connection possible between myself and this horrific event, which I really knew nothing about.”
That implies a rather large scope, which was part of the appeal to the ambitious Mosaic. And, the years of gestation notwithstanding (Sanders didn’t begin actually writing for ten years after the initial impulse), the script has been in flux.
“I arrived with a published script that was three acts, that had been done in concert readings. I’ve added back in things I’d taken out but wanted to explore further, things that have since gone back out. I arrived for a workshop in June with a 125-page script that I have worked, on paper or in my head, ever since. Now, it’s 95 pages and is much more sharply focused on a central character.”
That means that the script is 30 pages shorter, but Sanders says he’s cut even more than that, since he has also added material focused on that key character. “I’m following in the same direction I was headed, but this has allowed me the opportunity to go fully there; there are no cuts or changes I made that didn’t become clear as I went there. There was no pressure just to cut. I did know that I wanted to bring down the mass of the play and make it a two-act piece. Audiences seem to have more trouble with three-act plays these days.”
We commiserated together about the shortening of the attention span of the general audience, and Sanders admitted that he is not at all averse to spending a lot of time at a play. “I love changing the rhythm of life, the chance to loose yourself in another world. It’s like taking a vacation. You forget the clock. Time isn’t the point. I could easily have written a five or six hour version.”
But he wouldn’t do that, Sanders said, because of his awareness of the need to “construct something that invites in and fulfills an audience.” That’s another aspect of writing informed by his other career. The actor in him is, he said, always aware of the experience of the audience.
October 29 – November 29
Mosaic Theater Company of DC
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20 – $50
“I don’t even know how long the play is now — two hours and fifteen minutes, two and a half hours — but it’s still a big, substantial piece, an epic, and it’s important to me that it be epic. There’s a lot to absorb, though I’ve taken out stuff that’s too much to absorb for some people. There’s only so much people can take in. In my head, there are scenes, scenarios, understandings, connections, countless places to go.”
There followed a fascinating analogy. “I’ve come to liken myself to working for the NTSB. Because I’ve tasked myself with reconstructing all the available details from a major crash of humanity, with the goal of better understanding what happened, to help us avoid it happening again.”
Knowing that the genocides of the 1990s had been formative to the worldview of our U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, whose book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide is considered an essential text on the subject, I asked Sanders if he knew her book, and learned that Amb. Power was one of the earliest people he consulted. “She was very generous to me. She offered to introduce me to Romeo Dallaire.” Dallaire was the head of Canada’s contingent to the U.N. Peacekeeping Force and is a character in the play.
“I find her [Amb. Power] an extraordinary character on the world scene, and an important moral guard. (I’ve never used that term before.) She’s attempting to do things in this part of our world, which is to say dealing with recognizing and preventing genocide, and working with the government and at the U.N. in, I believe, an unprecedented way. And she has the intelligence and charisma that’s perfect for that sort of job. She’s a real humanist in the political scene.”
What has Sanders learned about himself after being on the other side of the table? “A lot. It’s easy, when you are an actor, to have an opinion about how the playwright conducts himself. ‘Why doesn’t he talk more, or not talk so much, when he’s in the room?’ Or whatever variation on that. Because I’m an actor, I wanted to be a resource in understanding the play and the material.”
But he also didn’t want to intrude too much on the process. “I stayed away a couple of mornings. But I always found myself useful, even to be asked something, if needed. But I’m learning my place in the room, when, for forty years, I had a different place. I think I bring a different kind of understanding because of understanding actor needs. People have said I’m flexible, but I think I’m [slight pause] ready: To make sizable cuts, turns, changes, in [a manner that] could look flippant, but is the result of eleven years of consideration. And forty years of acting. I can see when something is in the way and clear it, or if something is missing and do something about it.
“I’m responsible for every change that happens. But I must say I’ve had excellent dramaturgical help from Ari [Roth, Founding Artistic Director of Mosaic] and Derek [Goldman, who is directing the play.] I’ve come to learn from and trust and appreciate them. They are very helpful in being fresh eyes to something I’ve been very deep in.”
It becomes clear quickly when talking to Sanders how engaged he is by the process of play-making. “I plan to stay [throughout the entire run.] I want to watch it grow. That is what I am fascinated with as an actor.”
Sanders told me that his ideal experience of theatre-going would be to see a dress rehearsal, a performance during the run, and a performance toward the end of the run. “I love to come to a dress rehearsal and see the rawness of it. I gain a whole new respect for the best artists, who understand how best to use that time. Some are still doing what they were doing on opening night; the best are noticeably deeper and richer. People say, ‘I’m coming to opening night.’ Why, unless you will come back? It’s a living, breathing thing that becomes more substantial, deeper, maybe even simpler. I love it. It’s why I do it. The accidents — if someone goes left one night instead of right, and you think, ‘Oh my God, that’s it!’ — the accidental discoveries you make with relaxation, when you’re worried not about doing it right, but just doing it. Titus [Andronicus] being a great example; it grew every time we went on stage,” mentioning the Shakespeare play in which he recently played the title role at New York’s Public Theatre.
“And I have to say, this cast of actors, as the other casts I’ve had — it’s partly the nature of the story — I’m telling you, people are so generous: with time, talent, emotions, questions, because I think everyone feels it’s something that needs to be said. That’s as large a compliment as I can imagine.” He paused as he considered the devotion of his actors to the project, and continued, with a touch of awe. “I started it. Now they are out there doing it.”
I couldn’t help asking Sanders, given his palpable commitment to, and enjoyment of, process whether he expects to feel a sense of completeness after this run. He paused and then said, “That’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about that. Yes. Getting it on — and I felt the same way for the readings, each one getting bigger and bigger — I had a sense of fulfillment. But I’m still open to where else the play might go, what else there is to be learned. You need to always go as far as you can. I’m happy with what we’re doing, but I am a great believer in process, and that continues. It would be interesting to ask that after it’s opened and closed and I’ve been away from it for a month.”
I asked about the play’s path to Mosaic. “I was looking for places that might be interested in the play. I met Derek and showed him the play. He was very interested in it, but didn’t have a place for it right then.” Goldman, in addition to directing around town, is Artistic Director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University.
“Derek and Ari are the rare kind of people who are really taken with this kind of work: socio-political/humanitarian. I mentioned it to Ari, who I’d read about. He read it, but thought it seemed pretty big for Theater J,” the company Roth led before forming Mosaic.
Sanders, aware of “everything that happened to Ari” subsequently (Roth was fired as Artistic Director of Theater J), had come down to “knock on doors in D.C. Ari said, ‘Sure, I’d love to meet with you.’ I had the published version of this play. I handed him that version: ‘No one has done this yet. I heard you are starting a new theater.’ I’d been having trouble because people are put off by doing an Africa play. They’ll say Ruined had been done in the last couple of years; they felt sort of done, as if there should be a quota of plays about Africa. But if a play says something worthwhile, why have a moratorium? Ari said, ‘I feel just the opposite: There hasn’t been the big Rwanda play yet.’ So he took the script.”
Roth was also able to watch a live-streamed 20-year commemoration event. That was a “Google+ Hangout, on-air, four-hour, two-way live stream” between the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Rwanda. The event took place on May 11, 2014, which was Mother’s Day, and chosen to accommodate time differences. It was noon in New York and six o’clock in Rwanda, and involved not only a reading of the play (with a cast led by Tony-winner Fritz Weaver), but responses from ten different countries that had logged in to watch, ending with a big candle-lighting ceremony. “It exists on YouTube.” (Watch it here.)
I asked whether Sanders had done his writing while continuing to work as an actor, or whether he took a break from performing to write. “One of my ways of shifting gears after a major role was to work on the play. So I was always working. I never felt let down, which you can feel many times after a play ends, because I was going to something else that was important. I was doing that [writing the play] along with three or four plays, acting in Shakespeare and Nelson.”
Nelson is Richard Nelson, whose quartet The Apple Family Plays featured Sanders in its original cast. Nelson is “a very close friend, and a great teacher, who always reminded me to write whatever you need to write in whatever form suits you. I’ve taken that very much to heart. In the published version, the preface is by Richard.”
Is Sanders looking for a New York production to follow-up this premiere? “I’d love to do it where I live. The Public Theatre is my home, but that’s obviously not the only place. And I’d also like to see it happen other places. There are not many plays with large African-American casts. Ari talked about, from the beginning of working on the play, developing it in a way to go out to other places.”
Sanders shrugged when I asked if there would be other plays coming from his pen, or, I guess I should say, his computer. “I hope so.” He added that an attractive aspect to writing (at least in the early stages) is that it doesn’t have the same schedule pressures that he can feel as an actor.
Sanders ended our chat by talking about how close to himself his writing feels. And his pride in his play, and its ambition, was clear.
“This play is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or read. There is no precedent for it. It’s not in the style of Shakespeare, or the Greeks, or naturalism.” He took those influences, he said, and now feels that “what’s resulted is completely original.”