Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Digital Couch: A Conversation with Renaissance Woman Emily C. A. Snyder

Photo by Lisa LaGrande.
Emily C. A. Snyder is no stranger to the stage, exploring and creating theater as an actor, singer, playwright, director and producer. She founded her own company, TURN TO FLESH PRODUCTIONS, dedicated to developing and producing new plays in heightened text. In February Snyder will be starring in TTF's new production, Juliet and Her Romeo, a re-examination of William Shakespeare's famous tragic romance, written by Snyder herself. She sat down with me on my digital couch recently to talk about her journey to this moment.

This interview has been edited for length.

Z: Emily, let's start with your writing background. How long have you been writing verse plays, and what drew you to that particular style of storytelling?
ECAS: It's funny: I started writing verse plays because the director I was collaborating with wouldn't let me write an opera!  That was in 2008, when I first started writing Cupid and PsycheThe themes of that story were so huge, they had to be in music or verse - and she chose verse.

Working in this heightened text, it felt like it burst me open at the seams.  Prior to that, I'd made a career of writing fairy tale and farces, but all of those prose plays remained fairly light.  Working in verse required me to bare parts of my soul in epic poetry that hadn't been open to me before.  It was the opportunity to work more truly, more rawly, more universally, to go into the dark in order to find the light. 

Because characters can speak in soliloquy, too, we have the opportunity to really delve into a person's psyche: thoughts that they'd never dare express out loud.  There's something intimate and exciting in that. 

Z: Ah, so you turned your arias into soliloquies! Neat trick. :)
ECAS: Haha!  Yes, basically arias become soliloquies!  And I definitely hear verse as spoken music: tempo, changing time signatures, etc.

Z: I know some of your playwriting has been original works, like your recent The Other, Other Woman, but you've also, as with this new production, taken your verse and wit to deconstructing (and reconstructing) some of Shakespeare's works (as you know, I was quite a fan of A Comedy of Heirors). This is your second crack at Romeo and Juliet, in fact. Tell me about your journey, what you were exploring in Romeo & Juliet Combative, and what you hope to explore with Juliet and Her Romeo.
ECAS: Let's start with this: writing an original piece is actually way easier than tackling Shakespeare.  But when the American Shakespeare Center put out a call for Shakespeare-adjacent plays, I know I wasn't the only one to comb his back catalogue for inspiration.  If you had asked me if rewriting one of his most famous plays ever was top on my list, though, I would have run screaming.  Playing off of Comedy of Errors (with A Comedy of Heirors) or The Merry Wives of Windsor (with my Merry Widows) is easier.  Errors and Merry Wives aren't some of his best work and most beautiful poetry.  Scholars and Shakespeareans generally agree that there's room for improvement.

However, with Juliet and Her Romeo (previously Romeo and Juliet Combative), I hadn't intended to rewrite his work at all.  At the time, I had a drama student who was working on Juliet's "Mask of Night" speech.  As we were working it, I invited her to try different scenarios, just to keep it fresh.  One of them was: "What if you're weapon-ready?  What if you're really not sure if this Montague's come to kill you?"  We played with it, and there were actually quite a few interesting things there.  So I brought it to your favorite place and mine, The Shakespeare Forum, where a fantastic actor stood up to be my Romeo and as we played with the scene - and the idea that the enmity between these houses is real, and visceral, there was something interesting there.  So he and I and a third friend all decided to explore Shakespeare's play, once a week for a few months in my living room.  

As we did so, my colleagues pointed out that I was fuming at a few places, saying: "I'm missing a scene here!"  And "These aren't the words I want to say!"  They laughed at me and reminded me that, in fact, I write in verse.  Why don't I write a scene or two?  Well, the beauty of Romeo and Juliet is that it's really tightly structured.  Change a single element, and other things start changing as well.  I wanted Benvolio, who was one of the original three, to be a woman as equally at home with fighting than any of the men.  This then sparked an idea of: what if Romeo and Juliet weren't the first star-crossed lovers in Verona?  What if Tybalt is so cruel to Benvolio at the top because they tried, and failed, to get to the altar the previous year?  Similarly, there didn't seem to be any reason to be coy about Mercutio's love for Romeo - or any reason why Romeo, the ultimate lover, shouldn't be textually bi- or pan-sexual.  In slimming down the cast, there was some interest in letting Juliet get the full brunt of a patriarchal society: we removed all her typical female allies, leaving her motherless, nurseless, and more reliant on Tybalt, even as we increased the danger in Paris, allowing him to be everything awful about a man searching for his trophy wife.

I'd say for Romeo and Juliet Combative, since I was loathe to rewrite Shakespeare entirely (Romeo and Juliet was the first play of his I'd read, the first play of his I saw, and the first lines of his I'd memorized!), about 50% of his text remained, augmented by my own verse.  Some of the feedback we got from that staged reading, however, was that people actually wanted more new verse. They wanted to explore this all-too-familiar world through new eyes more thoroughly.

Some of your critique, Zelda, also informed this rewrite.  It was a relief to just let Mercutio love Romeo, and for them to have had a long standing relationship.  However, since (spoiler alert) Mercutio doesn't get his happily ever after in either version, that leaves LGBTQIA+ audience members in an all-too-familiar alone place.  In Juliet and Her Romeo, I had the opportunity to rectify this a little bit, by bringing back the character of the female Prince Escalus, and giving her a relationship with our female spiritually-minded Laurence.  I'm eager to see how that love story plays in this version.

I'd also say, thematically, there's been a shift in this revision from Shakespeare's characters who are doomed, "fated," who positively leap towards death, and our version of the characters who are older, more political, more aware of the stakes, and who - although surrounded by death on a daily basis - are fighting tooth and nail to live.

Z: One of the things I most admire about you as an artist is how you are continually working, tinkering, striving, and I'm excited to see these new developments. I have to ask if, in all of this, you were tempted to stray beyond the canon plot and sneak our characters into a happy ending? Or are these characters, even as determined as they are to live, still doomed?
ECAS: First: you've got me blushing over here.

Second: have you been breaking into my laptop?

Third: I can confirm, without a shadow of a doubt, that some people live, and that some people die.  Not everyone who dies in the Shakespeare dies in the Snyder; not everyone who survives Shakespeare, survives Snyder.  There are changes.

I will also confirm that no, neither Romeo nor Juliet actively pursue suicide.  And I'd like to take a second on this:

I'm blessed as a person that I've never suffered from suicidal ideation.  However, this has given me a blindspot when it comes to epic work which, when you start looking at Shakespeare or Greek tragedies, is just chock-full of suicide as a plot device.  Fortunately - and particularly in my last two shows, The Table Round and The Other, Other Woman - I had colleagues gently open my eyes a bit when I started to fall into the: "Well, just kill me now!" language, in order to heighten the dramatic action.  That's irresponsible storytelling.  That's glamorizing something that's should be taken seriously.  In my role as a teacher, many moons ago, I had one student commit suicide, and many more dealt with cases of self-harm and suicide attempts.  This is real.  And it's devastating. 

That said, I think you and I both saw Megan Greener's brilliant turn as Hamlet with Hamlet Isn't Dead last year.  She so passionately embodied the grief over losing someone that leads you to wild actions, the way that grief left unresolved or unfelt or unspoken can cause further damage to the living.  I think seeing that interpretation of Hamlet informed quite a bit of Juliet and Her Romeo.  I think - I hope - it's responsible storytelling to let people's choices lead to their own tragedies (or the tragedies of those they say they love).  For the beauty of a tragedy can only lie in showing the audience what not to do.  We'll make the mistakes of trying to control other people's lives and loves, we'll make the mistake of acting out of bitterness or fear, we'll make the mistakes that you can watch - and then you go home, and hug someone you forgot to love more tightly.

Z: I'd like to hear you talk (read you write? digital couches are confusing) a bit about your ever-juggling of hats. Anyone who knows you knows what a prolific writer and producer you are, to say nothing of your playful yet heartfelt directing style. In both runs at this play, you've finally reclaimed the role of performer, and ingenue at that. What has this journey been like for you as an actor?  
ECAS: Great question.  It's been a long journey to reclaim being a performer, actually.  Looking back, honestly I began my professional career wearing all four hats: writer, director, producer, performer - mostly because some adults didn't want to sort out a summer camp production, and were insane enough to let me, a teenager, do so for three years running.  There was a blissful naivete in that, however.  The sense of: "I've got a barn!"  As well as, y'know, hundreds of non-judgemental children's eyes who just wanted to be entertained.  There's a freedom in that.

Unfortunately, right around that same time with my developing body as well as a few other societal factors, I started getting the message loud and clear from casting directors that my plus-sized body was considered unf*ckable, and therefore uncastable.  In Shakespeare, I was fortunate enough to land Queens and Countesses.  Outside of Shakespeare, I got sexless mothers.  For a long stretch in there, I kept booking women with no first name, other than "Mrs." or "Lady."  I was playing women three times my own age - and it was frankly disheartening.  Watching the ingenues, though, I felt for them.  I mean: most of those roles are the equivalent of human handbags.  Your sole job is to swoon after the male lead, passively.  I tended to play the disapproving aunt.
It was easier, then, to simply switch to this side of the table.  To provide opportunities in my casting and in my writing, to other women and those underrepresented on the stage.  To write the roles I wish existed.  To cast the way I wish I'd been cast.

There definitely was a switch about two to three years ago, though - concurrent with #MeToo - that made me want to make the leap back into performance.  I don't remember the exact circumstances, but I remember exclaiming one day: "I'm tired of telling stories through other people's bodies."

Right around that time, Kate Hamill was performing to acclaim in several of her own plays.  Lin-Manuel Miranda was wrapping up his run in Hamilton.  A few other actor-writer friends of mine were touring bravely in their own shows.  The leap to reclaiming "actor" in my plays seemed possible.  At that time, I was also writing Merry Widows and - when I write, I act out all the roles; it's pretty amusing to watch - but as I was writing, I realized that Alice Ford was sitting comfortably in me.  We got an invitation to perform a staged reading of Merry Widows at the Sheen Center, and I decided to see whether the world would implode if I took on the role.  We did; the world didn't; and that opened up Juliet.

Which, by the way, if you were wondering: is scary as hell.

Scary, because even rewritten, Juliet is iconic.  She's someone to be loved.  She's the ultimate figure of romance.  She's that waifish girl in white atop the balcony, and it's really hard some days to shove down those voices through the years who have told me that I was essentially unlovable.  The trick, of course, is Just To Do The Job.  But this is where I hit a learning curve a few weeks ago when the promotional photos came back and I had to look at myself as Juliet.  I'll be honest.  I closed my laptop, jumped in the shower, and cried.  Deprogramming what the industry has told you is rough work, indeed.  And it's possible I'll fail in this show.  But that is the beauty of theatre.  Who's Hamlet?  He's everyone.  He's you.  Go ahead and take him out for a walk.  Try him on.  You can't break the character.  Juliet and this world is the same.  The last iteration we did is different from this one.  The next one will reveal something new.  I don't have to be the best (said the perfectionist to herself); I just have to be as honest as I can be right here, right now.

But as for juggling all the hats, practically speaking, there are some mundane safety nets that I've tried to put in place!  I produce during the day.  (I'm also memorizing lines during the day, during breaks from producing.)  This show was largely written already, so it's been about revising scenes and then making sure there are no major plot holes.  That gets done on weekends.  Then evenings and rehearsals are, as much as I can, Just About Being An Actor.  We definitely made sure to have a larger team, particularly hiring fight and intimacy directors since this whole play has turned the dial up on both intimacy and violence.  I cannot recommend getting professionals - particularly intimacy directors - enough.  The protocols we're learning, the consent-based rehearsal room means everything - particularly in something as charged as Juliet and Her Romeo.  So yeah: rule number one to multiple hat wearing - get yourself a collaborative team and then trust them.

Z: Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your process, and about this project. I hesitate to ask, since you have so much on your plate, but really it's what we must ask:  What else are you working on? What's next for Emily C. A. Snyder?
ECAS: Hahah.  Just running TURN TO FLESH PRODUCTIONS.  We've got a full season lined up, with our new residency at Frigid New York, including the return of Beyond the Ingenue - new short plays written specifically for womxn performers, inspired by legends and classical work - and then a full production of Chris Rivera's Our Own Odyssey in October at the Kraine Theatre, a reimagining of the Odyssey about a queer Latinex youth navigating the modern cyclops and Circes of New York.  For myself, I'm taking a little break after Juliet!  Phew!


Emily C. A. Snyder may be found online at, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Emily C. A. Snyder and Oliver Shirley as Juliet and Romeo. Photo by
Lisa LaGrande.

Turn To Flesh Productions's Juliet and Her Romeo 
written by Emily C. A. Snyder with verse from William Shakespeare
directed by Elizabeth Ruelas
runs February 6, 2020-February 16, 2020
at the Kraine Theater
85 East 4th Street, NYC
Tickets available here.

Oliver Shirley as Romeo
Emily C. A. Snyder as Juliet
Paul Battiato as Capulet
Andre Sguerra as Tybalt
Austin Nguyen as Mercutio
Jordan Goodsell as Paris
Lauren Cafrelli as Benvolio
Anna Lewein as Laurence (Lori)
Madison McKenzie Scott as Prince Escalus

Production Team:
Intimacy Directors: Brooke M. Haney and RheAnn Mennefield
Fight Director: Lauren Cafrelli and Andre Sguerra
Casting Director: Regina Russell
Stage Manager: Jessica Newman
Lead Producer: Chris Rivera
Production Assistant: Theodor M. Gabriel
Photographer/Social Media: Lisa LaGrande
Social Media: Becca Musser
Community Associate: Julianne Lavallee

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