THE HABITAT BLOG
Goings on of The Habitat Community
Freedom of Information Act, fragile male egos, and political redemption with writer/director Sarah Stites
What is the project you’re working on?
I am working on an untitled play – eventually it will have a title – about the former Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. He is now a congressman. I’ve been following his saga for many years and I have a lot of feelings about what’s currently happening with him. At the time I conceived of this project, he had just left office in disgrace after being essentially lost by his staff for six days – a really big deal when you’re the governor. You’re the head of state of a state. He had told them that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but actually, he was in Argentina on a tryst with his lover who he had met on a diplomatic mission.
How did this piece come to you?
I was really drawn to this story back in 2009 when it happened. I thought, oh my god, this is a truly theatrical story – this should be on a stage. I tried to make it into a musical for a long time because it has all these comic elements, all these moments that would make fun musical material. For example, his lover is Brazilian and they were in Argentina, and there’s lots of opportunities for fun musical numbers there. But the longer I spent with it, the more seriously I took the story – not that musicals aren’t a way to deal with serious issues, but I just couldn’t get into that headspace anymore. The longer I spent with it, the sadder the story seemed. And so that’s how I came to have it be what it is. There’s still a lot of music in the play, but I hope that it is somber and beautiful – some might say that it is melodramatic – we shall see.
What do you see as the future of this piece?
Over the last months with the Habitat, I’ve laid a good foundation for understanding how to move forward with the piece. I’m in a much different, much better spot than I was when I started the Playground, but I have so much work in front of me and I’m not sure how I’m gonna accomplish it in terms of needing resource. Forget paying human beings, which of course should be the goal. How the hell am I going to get rehearsal rooms and access to pianos and all of that stuff that you need to make a big devised project like this move forward?
So how is the material coming to you?
It’s a really broad range of things. I kind of think of myself as the writer/dramaturg of the piece. So much of the story and the dialogue is happening through improvisation in the room with the actors. I’m working with this actor named Louis Cornfeld who gets it. He has really transformed how I see the play. I’m also incorporating lots of FOIA’ed (Freedom of Information Act) material, emails from Sanford and his lover (which are essentially love letters). I’m also including Mark Sanford’s statement to the press, his wife’s statement to the press, newspaper articles, and then these long monologues. The monologues are the only thing that I’m building in complete isolation. And then of course the music. It’s got a lot of hymns and it will eventually have bible verses in it.
What are the themes in the piece that drew you to it?
It’s a play about what happens when the stories we tell ourselves about who we are don’t line up with reality. It’s about a man that was confronted over and over again with his own moral failings and just persisted in the belief that he is a great person. When I started writing this play, he was disgraced. He couldn’t confront reality and the world turned their back on him. And since that happened, he has been reelected. The public was like “okay. Yes. This man is good.” And so I don’t know what that means for the play but it surely means something for us. The play really transformed for me after Trump was elected and I thought, “how in God’s name did we not see this coming?” I should have known. I have been paying so much attention. So I’m not really sure how to grapple with the fact that the public has allowed Mark Sanford to be redeemed. But he definitely doesn’t get to be redeemed in my play.
How did you hear about the Habitat?
Katie and Caroline and I go way back. We were all unpaid interns together at NYTW and so we’ve worked together basically constantly in the intervening years. And so now I’m so delighted to be in the playground with them.
What have you gained?
Everything! I just can’t say enough about how valuable this has been. I can say with confidence that my piece would not exist if it weren’t for the Playground. I might be able to say that I still wouldn’t be making theatre if it weren’t for the Playground. It expanded what I saw as the range of possibilities for how to make a piece of theater. The Playground has honed my skills as a director by giving me the ability to watch other directors work in a peer-to-peer setting – something that almost never happens. It made my play a lot better because it’s so valuable to get feedback from people who have watched your process, who really trust each other, and who understand what’s helpful to you at that moment. And in terms of moral support, the Playground been completely invaluable. It’s a community of directors whose artistic visions I really really trust. I will cling to that for probably the rest of my life. It’s been so amazing.