Keeping Up With Kat – Artist Profile: Kat Sandler on her Dora Award Nominated “Mustard” & Upcoming Fringe Show “Bright Lights” (and pretty much #killingit in the Toronto Theatre scene)
Interview by Brittany Kay
What a true honor it was to sit down for a coffee with fast-paced, keeps-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, sassy and fierce Kat Sandler. We spoke about her 7 Dora nominations for Mustard, her upcoming Toronto Fringe show Bright Lights, and the inspiration you can find from your everyday.
Brittany Kay: I had the best time seeing Mustard.
Kat Sandler: Thanks dude. Yeah, it was the loveliest process. We really felt like a family.
BK: And you could definitely see that on stage.
KS: Thank you.
BK: What has been your journey getting to where you are now?
KS: Total journey? From the beginning? I started as an 8-year-old organizing my cousins into plays at the cottage and like a little tyrant, I would force the girls to be boys and vice versa and all of my family to kiss each other. It went really well. They got really good reviews from my extended family, who were probably drunk, let’s be honest.
KS: Then I went to a super academic high school, UTS, where they didn’t really have a drama program. We did get to do the Sears Drama Festival… Man, the people at that school were fucking smart. They kind of ruined me for regular people. The world mathlete winner was in that class. They’ve gone on to be crazy politicians. Our final grade 12 projects were like, make a rocket or a robot that will cure cancer and I was like, “I’d like to write, direct, produce, and star in a play.” Everyone was like, “A play? Why?” We rented out what was once called the Pour Alex, which is now Poutineville. It was a dilapidated old tiny theatre that we were way overcharged for probably because we went in and were like,“We have this money from our parents, maybe can we have this?” And they were like, “Yes, that will be $2000 a week,” and we were like, “Yes, that’s totally fair. Here’s our money.” We rented it for three days and it sold out and I was like, “Yes, now I’m a theatre wizard and I will go to Queens, I guess, and be a star.”
I thought I really wanted to act. I always wrote. I wrote fiction and short stories. I think I wrote one movie in grade 6 and one play that we did as a reading and I thought I was hot shit. (laughs)
When I went to Queens, I mostly acted and directed. The cool thing about Queens is that you kind of make your own program. It’s not a conservatory program so you can pick and choose the classes that you think will build you as an artist in the way that you want, if you want to be an artist. Then I had my own shitty company there, called 9 Lives, which I thought was so clever because my name is Kat. No one will ever come up with a better company name than 9 lives. (laughs) That was another one where they were like you have to do a directing scene for your final project and I was like, “Cool, can we just rent a theatre and I’ll do a full-on production of The Goat, or who is Sylvia? And then I graduated and I was like, “Fuck that, I’m going to be an actor. I think I want to be really famous and be an actor.” And then, basically, I didn’t do that great of a job at that. I worked a lot with Theatre Gargantua who I think are really amazing, which is crazy because I had no business doing physical theatre at all. I can move and I can sing so I think I just duped them for 4 years.
BK: How did Theatre Brouhaha come to be?
KS: In that after school time period, my really close friend Tom McGee (we were valedictorians together at Queens), and I spent a lot of time going to theatre. We thought it was great but it wasn’t really geared at our generation and yet at the same time, people keep saying, “Oh your generation doesn’t see enough theatre and that’s why it’s dying.” Why would we see it if you don’t market it to us and talk about subjects that don’t excite us as young people? This is when I was 22/23 and the weird thing about our generation is that we remember pre and post Internet, so there was all of this technology and pop culture that just wasn’t talked about as much.
We also live in this golden age of television content. There’s so much constant access to incredible stories, wonderful characters, beautiful story arcs, fast-paced high-stake plots. It’s an embarrassment of riches of art that we get to see for free or for 9.99 a month. It’s kind of ridiculous to expect people to come and see something live when you don’t have to. You have to give them the incentive to do that. And this is how Theatre Brouhaha came to be.
And what is Brouhaha? What is that? It’s kind of like a hot fun mess. It’s a commotion. It’s something that makes you sit up and take notice. I remember one reviewer that was like, “Theatre Brouhaha pretends to have the same mandate that every new theatre company does which is challenging the audience and creating something new,” but we really thought we were, which, of course, we weren’t. We weren’t re-inventing the wheel. I don’t want to go see a play, I want to have an experience. I want to go to an event. I want to go to a party. We always used to say that if we could make something appeal to my sister’s douchey ex-boyfriend, then that would probably be great because that guy does not want to go to theatre. I think that’s where Brouhaha started. The very first show we ever did was LOVESEXMONEY – those are things that we, as people, think about and it’s also a bang-on title. It was about this girl who was selling her virginity online. We rented out the Factory Theatre. I remember a tech being there and asking us, “What are you hoping to do here?” and we said, “We’d like to break even.” He just laughed, like a full on belly laugh at us for, like, a long time. We had a really smart producer, Taylor Graham, who sold it through Groupon around Valentines Day and we sold out.
We just kept trying to create theatre by putting audiences first. If I come up with an idea for a show and I can’t sell it to you in a sentence, just like the way you would with a TV log line then how can I expect people to come? Tell me what it’s about and why I shouldn’t go home and watch Breaking Bad because I know that shit is going to be amazing. What’s the hook? And once there’s the hook, what’s the image? What’s the situation? I guess since 2012, we’ve done 10 shows, and because we never really have any money, we don’t really have a responsibility to anyone but our audiences, and ourselves, which is hard and also awesome. It means we get to do exactly what we want and the only confines are how much time we have for rehearsal and everyone’s schedules.
BK: So how would you categorize what you do?
KS: I’m a playwright and director mainly and slowly moving to television. I’m making some TV moves maybe? Is that the cool way to say it? People keep saying why don’t you do TV? But you can’t just like do it. You have to know what you want there and go at it smart. For a while, I didn’t know what my voice was and now I know what it is and I know what I want to talk about and how I want to do it and what my style is. I think that’s what TV wants. They want original voices. You can go and be in a room and mimic someone’s style but to have your own is a bigger deal… I hope.
BK: What kind of stories do you want to tell?
KS: I mean, the same stories. I’m fascinated by people. I’m so inspired by actors. I have a list on my phone of just shit that I hear people say. Now people tell me too. They’re like, “I overheard this thing that I thought maybe you could use in a play.” Great, give it to me. I want it. For me, usually, I start with a situation. What’s something that is inherently interesting?
BK: Where else do you find inspiration for your work?
KS: TV. Film. Everywhere. The Internet. You can’t make up the shit that happens in real life. No writer could write Trump. Now they will, but you can’t make that guy up, it’s too good. The shit that he says is unreal. It’s such beautiful dialogue. And it’s real. It’s crazy. It’s totally nuts. It’s taking a moment in real life and then jotting it down and maybe using it for something later.
BK: What’s your process for writing? How do you keep motivated?
KS: If I don’t have a deadline, I won’t do it. I write to produce, usually. I don’t have pet projects that have been sitting in my life for 10 years. There’s a couple we can’t afford to do because there’s too many people. I’ll want to do a thing at a certain time, and then I’ll come up with the thing. The thing will be based around who’s available and what I’ve seen in the news.
I also never know the ending when I begin writing. It’s only when I get there. I almost don’t like knowing. I find that if I know, then the audience knows. If I know what happens, then I’m going to telegraph what happens. If I don’t, then I’m writing to get to what happens. It’s like when you can’t put down a good book because you’re like, “What the fuck happens in here?” My process is all over the place. It’s a brouhaha. And there’s usually whiskey involved.
BK: That’s the way to do it.
KS: The first script is always garbage. It’s just a diarrhea throwaway script and slap an ending on it and sometimes I don’t even write one. I just write ‘insert end’. Then I’ll read it with people and that’s where the process starts for me. The audience is so important to me. The first people who read it are the first audience you get and I think that actors are horribly underused. Everyone has an actor friend that wants to read a new script. Actors read more plays than everyone. They’re great at focusing on a character so that I can say, “Does it make sense when your character says that?” When I’m thinking about six characters, they are only thinking about one. I like more opinions and feedback. You can’t be precious and have hurt feelings, which, of course, we all do anyway. I think ultimately more brains are better as long as there is one brain at the end that says, “No, no, no, yes to that.”
Bright Lights in this year’s Fringe is about an alien abduction support group. I like writing and directing together because, for me, I’m never done working on the script. I don’t usually write a lot of stage directions because I know I’ll just figure it out. It’s such a collaborative process in the room with the actors, which is why casting is 98% of my job. Who do I want to be locked with in a room? Our group for the Fringe is the most punch-upy room I’ve ever been in. Everyone’s a writer. Everyone is funny. We talk about jokes, like where is the second beat of the joke? You definitely can’t overwork comedy but comedy is work. Which is so crazy. Comedy is way harder than drama. I also think there’s comedy in everything. It’s when we chose to let it out.
BK: Do you ever have a dramaturge?
KS: Tom McGee is my long lifetime dramaturge. He asks me important questions. Stories have to be a conversation. I know some people can do it in a vacuum and I can’t. I’m a social writer.
BK: So you’re nominated for 7 awards at the Doras for your play Mustard that just premiered at the Tarragon. Congrats lady! Very exciting! Talk to me about the creation of Mustard.
KS: Yeah, it’s fucking crazy. It’s nuts. I’m happy for everyone. I think I wanted to write a play about an imaginary friend for a long time because I had one. I was really fascinated by the idea of where they went when they go away. My father created this character for me as a child and one day, when I was hurt, I cried out for that character instead of him. My dad sent that friend away and I never saw him for a long time because my dad was jealous of his own creation. Where do they go when we don’t need them anymore?
When I was in the Tarragon unit, they wanted something that fit their mandate. I thought this play would fit because it’s about family and belonging and addiction. I thought it would work and I wrote it and they picked it.
BK: How do you feel about the Dora nominations?
KS: I feel great. I think it’s interesting that people have been saying that this is my first professional production. Okay… but when you start charging people money for your stuff, that’s kind of when you are a professional. I think that independent and professional theatre doesn’t need to be so far a part in terms of the way people look at them. I think that creating that animosity between the two worlds is kind of unnecessary. In truth, out of the twelve plays that I’ve written, Mustard is only the third that has been eligible for the Doras. Either we were too rushed to get our shit together to invite Dora jurors or couldn’t afford to pay the fee to apply to TAPA. A lot of people don’t know that you pay to have those people come. You pay for your TAPA membership, which is totally valid. It’s funny because last year at the Doras they made a joke about how their independent jurors had to see one billion plays and only half were written by Kat Sandler, and I was like and none of them were eligible.
It’s really nice to get a nod. What’s amazing about these Doras, is that so many people in the indie community are nominated, which is really awesome and all for incredibly deserving work. So yeah, of course it feels nice to get to go as a nominee and not as a presenter.
BK: What are you going to wear?
KS: I’m coming straight from rehearsal. If it’s going to be this hot, I will probably wear a whisper of a dress so that I’m not gross and sweaty. So glamorous. I’ll wear the smallest amount that I can decently get away with.
BK: Flawless. Talk to me about your team involved with Mustard.
KS: Anand Rajaram and Sarah Dodd are both nominated in their category for best actor and actress. We were so lucky with the cast. They were so incredible. Ashlie (Corcoran) (nominated for direction) gave me a lot of control and choice in the casting. It was really easy to work with her and she was super flexible and so creative and totally brilliant. I thought that way about the cast too. You throw in our two clowns (Tony Nappo and Julian Richings) and Paolo (Santalucia) bearing his bum all over the place, it just all worked magically. Michael Gianfrancesco is nominated for both set and costume design. The set was so beautiful. I couldn’t handle it. In truth, in my entire Toronto career, no one’s ever put that much money into a set, because I wouldn’t put that money into a set. For Mustard to be cool and imaginary, the house had to be so real. He did such an incredible job and it was just tacky enough.
BK: What are you most looking forward to at the Doras?
KS: I think it’s the feeling of the community being there. You know so many people and for all its bitchiness at times, the Toronto theatre community really loves itself and each other. We really are truly supportive when someone does something good or when they’re trying to do something good. What’s also nice is you get to see everyone dressed up and not in rehearsal clothes. It’s nice to not be in booty shorts and a disgusting t-shirt with Cheetos dust falling all over the place. Everyone is drinking and happy to be there.
BK: Tell me more about your fringe show Bright Lights opening this week.
KS: Bright Lights is about an alien abduction support group that accuses their leader of being an alien. As we’ve been working on it I’ve realized it’s kind of a comment on the absurdity of law and justice and how we view it as a society. My whole family consists of lawyers and judges out west. When we fight as a family, the arguments are so ridiculous. You can’t come into that house and not get torn apart. I think that a lot of that worked its way in and because we have such hilarious, funny people it’s really coming off the page. I wanted to work with this crew of people since I started doing Fringe. I saw Morro and Jasp and was like, “Holy shit. They’re so funny.” Peter and Chris are amazing with their sketch and improv and Colin and I are buddies from way back.
It’s totally ridiculous but always about something and always with heart.
We all love Fringe so much. We feel comfortable there. It’s given us so much. My career started at Fringe with Help Yourself. It’s like the Doras. The fringe tent is Theatre Christmas!
BK: Any advice for emerging artists?
KS: Just do it. Always. Just fucking do it. You won’t know if you’re any good at it or what to do until you do it. That was our whole thing with Theatre Brouhaha. We’re just going to do plays until someone takes notice or we just shouldn’t do them anymore. Also, listen and ask for help. The worst thing that could happen is someone can say no.
Rapid Fire Question Round:
Favourite movie: Princess Bride
Favourite book: Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes
Favourite food: Charcuterie
Favourite play: I don’t know if I can choose.
Favourite musical: My cool answer would be Book of Mormon but the little kid that ran around in her living room would say: Les Miserables.
Favourite place in Toronto: All of Toronto, Toronto is my jam. Maybe not the dark gross alleys, but the ones with graffiti are good. I like Cabbagetown.
Favourite place that you write: I write in the Dark Horse in the east end, but I’ll write anywhere that has coffee or where there are people.
Advice that you live by: Make opportunities don’t take opportunities.
Written By: Kat Sandler
Company: Theatre Brouhaha
Director: Kat Sandler
Cast: Amy Lee, Heather Marie Annis, Chris Wilson, Peter Carlone, and Colin Munch.
Dramaturg: Tom McGee
What: From Kat Sandler, Theatre Brouhaha, and the creative minds behind the Fringe smash hits Punch Up, Morro and Jasp, Peter n’ Chris, and Shakey-Shake & Friends comes a new dark comedy about survival, trust, and an alien abduction support group thrown into chaos by the suggestion that someone in their midst may not be as human as they seem.
Where: Tarragon Theatre Mainspace
buy tickets June 29th at 10:30 PM
buy tickets July 1st at 8:45 PM
buy tickets July 3rd at 3:30 PM
buy tickets July 5th at 6:30 PM
buy tickets July 6th at 12:00 PM
buy tickets July 8th at 6:00 PM
buy tickets July 9th at 11:30 PM