Tina Satter by Katherine Cooper

Tina Satter speaks about formalism, her perverse sense of humour and the importance of family drama.

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Actors left to right: Elizabeth DeMent, Jess Barbagallo, Paul Pontrelli, and Jim Fletcher in Tina Satter’s House of Dance. All photos courtesy of THEY bklyn.

When I walk through the cement bowels of the Abrons Arts Center and into the rehearsal room where Tina Satter’s House of Dance premiered on October 23rd, it feels like home. I sense an immediate affinity for the ludicrous, absurd, and ridiculous. House of Dance chronicles the emotional and choreographic events of a one hour tap class in a dingy basement. Think: Glitter. Pink. Bandannas. Tap shoes. Hilarious puppet dance breaks abut poignant moments of silence. Operatic music breaks rub up against mundane cellphone vibrations. Actor, Jess Barbagallo whips out the most ridiculous bright pink monster suit you’ve ever seen from a backpack covered in middle-school-esque graffiti and then proclaims with complete sincerity, “I want to look and feel pro and awesome, you know.”

It feels like a queer version of Santa’s workshop.

Members of the cast and crew dart around the room adjusting sound levels, pieces of choreography, and angles of miniature top hats. This basement room houses these students of the ridiculous and Tina Satter is their leader. As I sit down to speak with her it becomes clear that while she is profoundly devoted to stupidness she is also a scholar of form.

It seems fitting that Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth plays in the background of the Williamsburg coffee shop where we sit and talk. Tina wears a neon insignia-ed lid that says “LA.” in rainbow letters. She is small and wired. Her gaze remains focused and unflinching. She often encourages her interlocutor with an affirmative “yeah!” or “riiiiight…” I’m struck by her combination of youthfulness and sagacity. Tina’s eyes twinkle with mischief and she has a laugh like a fat man. She takes play very seriously.

Katherine Cooper Could you set the scene for us of this show, House of Dance?

Tina Satter It’s a situation dramedy that’s set within a one-hour tap dance class in a small town in New England. It’s one of those faded schools that’s just hanging on. The teacher has been there for a while and he has this accompanist and this student comes into the room. It’s these dynamics of people who know a space really well and know each other really well but within this specific set-up. I wanted to look at the small ways these characters bounce off each other in this really small container—the hour that this tap dance class unfolds: trying to teach the class, trying to communicate with each other or avoiding communicating with each other.

KC And you grew up in New Hampshire, is that right?

TS Yes.

KC So is this based on a real place?

TS No, not really. One of my initial impulses for this piece was an interest in that weird liminal space of going to an after-school activity, like a dance class. It’s this lonely and exciting charged time in my young brain where you’re not home, and you’re not at school. It’s dusk which always feels poignant and sad to me no matter what day it was. And you’re having to talk to other people that you don’t really know because you have this class. But you also love being there because the lights are on, and it’s shiny, and you’re working on something. And you know it’s going to end. There’s something really specific about that time. Any sort of biographical thread that comes through is a real essential and diffuse abstract thread of memory. I didn’t have a small town dance studio. I’m just trying to take that feeling and figure out where can I set it in this New England small town.

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Jess Barbagallo, Jim Fletcher, Paul Pontrelli.

KC I agree with what you’re saying about that time of day. Because it’s the period of time when you’re following what you love. Presumably, later you’re with your family and you have to do certain things and when you’re at school, you have to do certain things. This time is sort of your time. And why tap?

TS The New York City Players has a really good relationship with Abrons Arts Center (Abrons is really awesome) and they wanted us to do the show there. I wasn’t super inspired by any of the theater spaces, but I’d always loved that shitty rehearsal room. And before anything else I was like, “Well, this looks like a shitty tap dance studio to me.” So the idea really came from those mirrors and that really crappy room. I was like, Oh my god. What if this whole thing could happen in here? Once we started trying it, the rhythm of the tap—I just liked that a lot. I’m drawn to the specific set-ups of things like hospitals, or football teams. So then I was like OK, it’s a tap dancing thing. There are shoes you wear for that, there’s a dynamic around that—

KC There’s a formalism.

TS Yes. There’s a formalism. That’s exactly what I’m always attracted to in these things. There’s this really tight aesthetic and intellectual and formal idea, and then you can go off from there.

KC How would you define formalism in your work?

TS I tend to make stuff without any codification around it, but there is always this aesthetic center that it goes back to. I’m not a dancer and I don’t really have knowledge of dance elements, but I’m setting pace and movements to lines for this loose energy. Formalism always ends up popping up from the inside of what I’m doing as a way to ground it. So even if it is abstract or goofy, the thing that’s tying it together is its formalism.

KC You mentioned humor earlier. When I was in the audience last night, there were some really hilarious moments. I found myself laughing out loud during tech—

TS Yeah!

KC —It seemed to me that like all good humor, the humor last night came from a place of deep seriousness for the characters and maybe for you too. I wanted to hear you riff on humor a little bit. Your approach to it, who you think is really funny, what you find funny.

TS I feel like my personal humor is pretty dark and perverse. The older I get the more I think it comes from my Jewish dad. When I saw my first Woody Allen movie at 18 I was like, ”That’s my father!” We didn’t grow up with a particularly Jewish idiom or Jewish culture but seeing that, I was like, Oh my god. This fatalistic way of seeing the darkest things as the most hilarious things, is my Dad.” So that is the starting point. And then when Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm aired, my sister and I would call each other and be like, “Oh my God. This is Daddy!” And it is. In my work, I’ve often been interested in humor but I’ll undercut it a lot because I don’t want to make it too easy. But in House of Dance I’m trying to make the jokes play themselves out more. But it is all kind of sad and weird. I’ve become really obsessed with what is being set up in those Louis CK shows. I find them really incredible. Oh and Maria Bamford! Have you seen the show she films at her mom’s house?

KC I’ve actually never heard of her!

TS Oh my God! Such an amazing comedian! You have to see the Maria Bamford series—I think they’re all on the internet. The backstory is that in real life Bamford had a breakdown and then moved back into her parents’ house in the midwest. So she started making this show in her parents’ house—but I mean I think she’s in her late thirties at this point! And her mom’s like, “Are you gonna get a job?” But there’s a real gentleness. Her family loves her. There’s a real weirdness of that late thirties child living with her parents who love her but don’t really get how to deal with her breakdown, how to deal with the fact that she’s a comedian. She does all the voices in this very straight-forward way. And with Louis I just love how long and awkward he lets those things go. Half of those shows don’t have anything that’s a typical set-up laugh. He’s completely trying to scrape out the bottom and be like, “The bottom shit is funny.” Life is fucking sad and hard like 85 percent of the time but you get through it by still finding the perverse humor in it all. I think he captured that.

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Jim Fletcher, Elizabeth DeMent, Paul Pontrelli.

KC Could you name or think of a sad, hard, bottom-of-the-barrel moment in your life that you now can look back on and say was funny?

TS This is kind of a classic in my family. I was twelve and my sister was ten and my parents were like, “We’re getting divorced.” I was mad at my mom in a very misunderstood reactionary way, although it later came out of course that it was much, much more complicated than that and my dad had done some pretty bad stuff.

KC Where were you when they told you?

TS In the den of our house. And my sister was ten and said she was going to kill herself. And then my dad was like, “No, we can go to Benetton tomorrow and you can each pick out one thing that you want.” And I was like “Totally!” And all I got was a stupid sweatshirt with puff paint. I’ve always thought since, “I could have gotten anything at that moment and all I got was a puff paint sweatshirt.” And this version of total dysfunctional spoiling can basically be traced back to that very moment of, “I’m leaving but we can go to Benetton tomorrow and get one thing.” And that’s obviously pretty fucked up and hilarious. There are just so many things where you feel like your family is the darkest most fucked up group of people but then you’re like, laughing about it and aware of the edges of love. And just this summer I helped my parents, who still really do not have any sort of relationship to each other. My mom had to move out of her house that she lived in for 30 years. It was a huge job and this one day, there was no one else to help her, so my dad comes—he’s seventy three and he shows up and he has this huge cut in his leg. And my mom is like, tiny. I’m the only other person there helping, navigating the weirdest emotional landscape of my over-20-years estranged parents. And my dad kept saying, “This is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And my mom had saved tons and tons of shells that she didn’t want to throw out, and it was making my dad crazy because what were we going to do with them. It was just totally macabre. And then I look into a bottom of a box and I find this crumpled piece of paper and turns out it’s my original birth certificate! And it’s just totally crumpled up like a piece of trash. And then all three of us actually started laughing because at this point I’m the good fucking daughter there dealing with this whole move and I’m like, “Hey guys, is this…?” (Laughter) But it was kind of truly amazing. I think if you even tried to stage that you couldn’t. We were all just laughing. It was 90 degrees. And it was like—”This is where all this bullshit started! Thanks for that!” It was really funny. But I’m always interested in those kinds of things with groups of people. I think I’m a little too interested in them. They’re filled with so much fucking fucked up love. And I think I’m sort of obsessed with that fucked up love actually. God, stuff is funny though with families. It is.

KC It really is. I mean there’s a reason why there’s a whole genre called “family drama” right?

TS This play I made, where I actually auditioned Erin [Markey], who I now work with regularly, it was based on me, my mom and my sister. Erin played my little sister and Emily Davis, who I also work with all the time now, played me. I really theatricalized it, but the best scenes were the ones I didn’t invent. In real life my sister threw a giant five foot tall teddy bear down the stairs without looking and my mom almost fell into the basement and died. And people were like, “Where did you come up with that scene?” And I’m like, “That one actually happened.” Or my mom yelling at us to go pick up sticks and we’d be like, “Why? Sticks are supposed to be outside mom.” And she’d be like, “Just goddamn help me!” Those are the scenes in that play that people are like, “How did you think of that?” and I’m like, “Those are the real ones.”

KC The truth is always stranger. So speaking of you auditioning Erin. You have such a talented cast in this show. What is the single most important quality in an actor that you want to perform in your plays and work with?

TS It’s that sense of presence, the way an actor can be themselves in this super grounded way but then also bring that energy to the stage. Jim Fletcher literally embodies that. Or someone like Jess or a lot of the people I usually work with. Becca Blackwell—I mean, another awesome example. I think they’re able to stand there onstage and just innately have that kind of charm as a human, but they’re also able to channel it in these intangible ways in front of an audience. I’m not usually interested in whether or not they’re doing a good job as the character. It’s more about the weird personal spin they put on it. Liz DeMent is fascinating in that way to me. She’s a highly skilled dancer. She didn’t have theater training the way a lot of people did. She channels something so raw. Even when she looks at someone, I’m super interested in that. She’s a good example of someone I wanted to be in it just because of this quality she had. It’s not like I saw her play Viola in Twelfth Night. I saw her be super weird as herself. What happens when you put that onstage with other people and they’re saying kind of emotional or weird stuff to each other? Or not saying anything? So then I guess it’s a formalism of the person too, where they become an object a tiny bit, now that I think about it.

KC You have a commitment in your work, and especially in this play, to silence. Do you agree? And where does that come from? Why?

TS I like when dialogue hangs in the air or when people look at each other. I like super small gestures. You can’t see those if people are talking too much. I want space in there. There are those moments where Jim fixes Jess’s headband or somebody goes to the mirror—they need to be there. It’s hitting the energy of this room that I’ve always envisioned. Those small moments of silence when something has ended, however it’s ended, and it sways into this other moment, where it’s not super stylized and it’s each individual’s own personal time. Because I’m trying to be more realistic in this play and see if momentum can keep flowing forward, I wanted to use the moments of silence more actively. I just did a workshop with some undergrads at Reed College where I got my MA in Liberal Studies and also studied playwrighting. And I just said to them: “Put in pauses. Slow everything down.” It was really amazing to see them apply that as a practice. Even when it didn’t work, it was this really weird microcosm. I mean obviously there are [Harold] Pinter’s pauses and then there’s Maxwell’s use of that. But we were just shoving them in. They had not even tried something like that. It was really basic and generative.

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Jess Barbagallo.

KC I feel like a lot of work that I’m very attracted to right now. Your work, or Annie Baker’s work—

TS Yeah! Annie Baker.

KC —There’s that attention to human action and silence. Is that because that’s the gift that the theater can give in some ways?

TS I think Annie Baker has masterfully created that energy in silence. And actually I saw The Flick right when I was working on a very early draft of this.

KC It’s interesting that both your piece and that piece have that kind of intense presence that happens with silence onstage but also have the presence of cellphones and technology—which can be distracting and make so much noise.

TS I’m really obsessed with putting weird cell phones in shows. And that makes me think of the Reed students too—just helping them theatricalize moments where you don’t have to be jabbering at someone. When you’re young and you’re learning acting you think it should be really big. We were talking about how silent moments are actually realistic. You move away from someone because you are embarrassed or it was awkward or you didn’t know what to say yet. So even though it was fakely applied, it could be this realistic thing.

KC Last night in the room it felt like there was this joyful chaos. How do you cultivate that? Because it also felt like it was in the spirit of collaboration.

TS Last night we were on a really good note. I feel like our rooms feel pretty good and pretty fun—an average Half Straddle room. So many of the people in that room have worked together so there’s a total short hand. I also think this piece is pretty ridiculous so while we take working on those moments really seriously, it’s also like, “This is so dumb right now!” We’re saying things like, “Let’s see if we can make the fur hair blow more.” We all have a common knowledge that theater is really fucking stupid but we love it. And believe it really is transcendent. And because we’re not trying to make well-made plays there’s room in there for total playfulness. We can also speak really candidly to each other. Like there might be a moment where Jess is like, “I don’t know what you want from me Tina.” Or Chris [the sound designer] and I might come to a point where I’m like, “I thought two weeks ago I asked for this?” And he’s like, “No Tina, two weeks ago you asked for this!” We have a way because we’ve all worked together a lot. There’s a looseness to it when it’s fun. I personally think theater is really really dumb! (laughter)

KC Why is it dumb?

TS It’s just silly! You’re going to come in and pretend! But it can be used to call up the beautiful ridiculousness of life. Because everything in life is kind of stupid, but we’re going to take the pursuit of it seriously. You wouldn’t even move forward if you didn’t take it seriously. I think the other part of that for me is having played sports for so long, which I took super seriously. It’s that perfect thing of like, “We’re not going to save the world but fuck we have to win!” I think there’s a similar thing that could be applied to why we work so hard at theater.

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Jim Fletcher.

KC So zooming out a little bit. Who would you name as your artistic and literary heroes vs your artistic influences?

TS That’s a good delineation. Influence and hero. Reading Unbalancing Acts by Richard Foreman was very seminal and so probably an influence at first. Having not much theater background, his ideas of what theater could be and the opposite impulse and the antidramatic, it made sense to my brain. My sister is a visual artist. She introduced me to her practice. She was influential. And reading Richard Maxwell’s plays. Those fall into the influences category. Seeing that form was very interesting to me. The artist Mike Kelly too. So then, heros. I really really love the work of Sarah Michelson. I’m just going to say she’s a hero because I think that shit is so beautiful and big and important. I do think Chris Kraus, the writer, would be a hero. That’s straight up hero. I really do love the The Wooster Group’s House/Lights. It was really important to me. Just for a sense of feeling and emotion. Did that influence me? I think that’s hero. I think the rigor of the way they work to the end of making a piece is inspiring. I really do love Elevator Repair Service and John Collins. I love their work. There’s something super incredible and beautiful and weird that they capture. When I see Gatz—I think every moment is charged.

KC Jim was in that show right?

TS Jim was Gatz. Gatsby. Lately I’m re-obsessed with Raymond Pettibon. After I saw the show he has right now at the David Zwirner Gallery last week, I was like, if I had to have one thing that I held with me for the rest of my life, it would be this. It made me feel that despite how hard being in the world is right now, being alive, still trying to make things is actually really important. That might sound naïve. I am always grappling with myself to figure out if I think that it’s indulgent for me to think that art is as important as I think it is and I’m always like, “No! It is not indulgent. It is necessary.”

House of Dance will be performed at Abrons Arts Center through Saturday November 9th.

Katherine Cooper is a Brooklyn-based writer, director and performer with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Her body of work ranges from theoretical writing to performance installation to lip sync videos. Katherine’s written work has been developed by the (Non) States of Queer Theory Symposium at Brown University, The Helix Queer Performance Network, and The La Mama Theater Blog. She is a regular online contributor to BOMB.

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