21 Questions with Ren Dara Santiago
AKIN takes out rising superstar playwright Ren Dara Santiago to happy hour out in New York. In these 21 questions we gain insight on Ren's professional, personal, and creative journey; with advice on what she sees as key to create honest true stories.
1. Did you start as a playwright? What got you started writing?
When I was a preteen, I was introduced to fanfiction.net. So I used to rewrite episodes, you’ll never know what my handle was! [Laughter] I think I always knew I wanted to tell stories, or didn’t like the ones that were out there and wanted to change them. I put that aside and went to a high school for visual art, but during my second or third year there I heard of MCC theatre youth company and I auditioned and got into the acting lab the first year.
What’s beautiful about MCC’s youth company is that they’re not trying to make superstar theater artist. They’re just trying to facilitate the growth of good people through theater. So, we’d write monologues about whatever we cared about; school, family, our dreams. And we got to perform them in a place where everyone was there to listen to us. Where we were freely teenagers who were treated with respect for our voice, and taken seriously by adults in a way no other space allowed. In my second year I was allowed to join playwriting; so I’ve been writing since I was 16/17.
2. Writing isn’t always glamorous. What made you stick with it? What makes you say, “Yes I Am a Writer!”?
The true, cliché answer, is that my biggest identifier as a person is Playwright. I am a playwright before I am a woman— no wait. I’m a sister, then I’m a playwright. Sister, playwright, woman, Filipino-Puerto Rican. I always need to write.
Even when I’m not writing a play, I’ll start writing something. I’ll start writing a random monologue, or even fan fiction again when I get writer’s block. There was a time I felt uninspired. I felt I wasn’t writing anything that really was contributing, but at that time I decided to treat writing like my real job. At the time I had three survival jobs and was exhausted. I pulled back and only had three shifts at one restaurant job. I’d wake up at seven in the morning, sit at my computer by eight in the morning and I would write until three in the afternoon. Even if I was just looking at it and rereading, typing out ideas. I wouldn’t leave the table or eat anything until 3 o’clock. Story telling really is endurance for me. Doesn’t and shouldn’t work for everyone.
3. How consciously do your ethnicity and race influence the seed of inspiration when you start a play?
That’s a good question, I think at anytime my stories come at the intersection of any kind of marginalization. Race if often the inspiration because I want the people I grew up with to see themselves on stage, or any media I’m putting out there, that’s really important to me. So even when I’m not specifying a specific race, I am specifying people of color in everything I’ve written. So far I haven’t been for white people; there will come a time I could, but there needs to be a specific reason.
4. Are you 1st, 2nd generation? Are you Immigrant? How do you think where you grew up influenced your perspective when you connect your ethnicity to your art?
My mother was born in the Philippines but came here when she was two, so her grasp on Tagalog was frozen in that two-year-old state. When she speaks Tagalog, they laugh at her because she sounds like a baby. My Dad… I think I’m 3rd generation Puerto Rican, because my dad was born in the Bronx or Brooklyn. My Grandmother, was either born here or born in Puerto Rico and came over really young, I don’t remember. My Great Grandmother is still alive. She came here at 18. And I think being mixed lends itself to a lot of this. I grew up in several different communities; for the early part of my childhood I grew up in a predominately lower class, multicultural part of the Bronx, at 6 we moved to a very upper middle class white neighborhood, and then when I was 11 I moved to Harlem. Trying to identify where I fit, I always felt like an alien, always felt like I was undercover, everywhere I went. I would have to be whatever I needed in order to be comfortable in the space. So, I could hide the parts of me that weren’t serving the moment. In my work I try to uncover what’s hidden, since I grew up hiding, too.
5. After the initial seed of inspiration, what is your starting process like?
So far, I’ve always started with scene one. Sometimes I’ve seen others start writing scenes that would end up in the middle of scene three or act two [sic]— maybe that’s not true. But I know I can’t start until I hear the people; to know exactly what they want, what they’re not saying, what their secrets are. As long as I know what their secret desires are I can start to build. And it’s from their relationship [that] I’m able to figure out why I need to share it, what makes it theatrical.
I’ve written things that were first drafts- me talking to myself, just wanting to hear someone say things I wanted to hear- and that’s not a play. So, it’s figuring out what I’m doing to transform a human being in that two hours I have. If it’s not changing me when I hear it, it’s not a play. It’s diary, it’s journal.
6. Peer reviews, workshops: how important are they to you personally and how important are they to your editing process?
My peers as writers, it’s often fulfilling [sic]. I believe it’s necessary for writers to be in a group with other writers because we’re all going to lend our perspective to the story. But the best writers’ groups aren’t always going to give a critique during feedback. They won’t ask after the plot or what it’s doing for them and what it’s not. The best peer review will talk about what they’re learning, what they’re excited about, or what they’re confused on.
But, it also depends because sometimes the things they’re confused on, if I wrote something about- and for- 1st and 2nd generation Filipinos? If you’re confused and you’re American— that was the hardest part of writing this (Eve Angel): no one in the room understood the secrets and codes I was putting in. Because I wrote it for people I hadn’t found yet.
7. You were part of Cherry Lane Theater’s Mentor Project under Lucy Thurber last year to present "The Siblings Play.” What was that like?
That was amazing! So that was the most helpful as a writer. With plays, you really need your ensemble. I mean, you definitely need your director. But actors. Once somebody understands what you’ve been saying- between the lines- and believes in it, gets up there and lives in it, [sic] there’s nothing like that feeling... I was able to find so many answers to all these questions I’d had in the play. I was also able to cut a lot of dialogue. I was using seven lines to say on the page what the actor could do with a just a look and one line. And I wished there was rehearsal time after we opened. Once the audience factors in, [sic] that’s when you fully understand what you’ve made. You really don’t know. It’s almost like painting in the dark. Once the audience comes in they turn the light on.
8. Having a mentor to responsibly guide you is different from having peers and colleagues. What is the relationship with your mentor like, how has that affected the way you approach writing? Is there anything you’ve caught yourself subconsciously doing that they've taught you?
Lucy’s been one of the most important people in my life. She’s become one of my best friends. I’ve known her since I was 16. She was my playwriting teacher at MCC youth company and that class literally saved my life, nfs. After I graduated from the company at 19, I wouldn’t have had any way in if not for her. She pushed me to the Atlantic Acting School and while I was there she founded the Middle Voice Theater Company and invited me in. That was 6 years ago. She was always there to help and guide me through my career and as an artist. She’s always been listening to what I’ve wanted, and what I didn’t know I needed and she’s opened doors I didn’t know were there for me to walk through. That’s just Lucy, that’s the teacher and friend that she is. She’s my family and all the time, I’m emulating Lucy. Even as a teacher (at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center), I’m emulating her.
9. Another program you were part of was Space at Ryder Farm, what was that like?
That was awesome, that was mentored by Adam Bock, another beautiful friend and writer I met through Lucy. The Greenhouse Residency at Space on Ryder Farm is amazing. You get to sit down with two-three working playwrights and one artistic director, Emily Simoness, who founded Space, and talk about your career. That’s it. It was always specific to the playwright, to make sure each of us was presenting ourselves as confidently in person as we do in our writing. He [Adam Bock] was all about how to treat writing as a business; to get to know the literary managers at theaters; to make your relationships personal and not needs-based; to send thank you after you meet with people. It goes a long way. It was a week-long, relaxing retreat in the woods, by a lake. We ate organic, fresh meals home-made by their resident chef, a compulsory three times a day. And dinner always became the longest hang, sitting with these advanced career artists, giving their time and energy to us- a gang of early-career artists, and really talking about real shit.
10. Being in a place meant for creative concentration must have been great! What advice would you offer to other writers who are thinking about applying and be part of these program effectively?
I think that you have to believe in your brilliance. Keep trying. Keep applying. People who don’t get it or need you to tell it a different way, it might just be that you’re not writing for them. That’s a big one. If no one’s getting your writing and you’re putting your honest all to it, you have specific people in mind. Always send something new, because something will land. But don’t change your work to fit an application
11. HALF-WAY MARK! How do you like your hot wings: mild, hot, bbq? Do you also eat the celery sticks?
I like it hot, sometimes bbq, but mostly hot. And I do eat the celery with blue cheese, even if I’m lactose. But what I really love is the double fried Korean wings!
12. I did peak at the interview you did with Space and you talked about Clubbed Thumb, which I know you’ve been working on a current play with. Clubbed Thumb, who are they, how have you been working with them?
Even that ties into mentors! I think playwrights really play into the system of finding mentors and being mentors to other people; it’s a real community. Playwrights don’t compete, I don’t think. Real playwrights, they’re honest when it's their time to take space, and when someone else is destined for it. All my opportunities have come from other playwrights. Clubbed Thumb happened because, I don’t know if it was my director Jenna Worsham or my mentor who invited Maria Striar and Michael Bulger, the people who run Clubbed Thumb, to see The Mentor Project, and "The Siblings Play" and that’s how they knew me [sic]. Yeah, it was Jenna, my director, also my best friend. Clubbed Thumb is amazing, if you don’t already know them, playwrights, go see their stuff because they really love the plays they choose. They’re a really dynamic, passionate, wicked company and Maria and Michael are good people so however you can get in that writer’s group, get in there. We met bi-monthly for 9 months and we heard 2 plays per meeting. They brought amazing snacks, Chloe Hayat, another writer in the group, baked the most bomb cookies. And we did the whole feedback thang and mostly wrote whole new plays or turned old ones into new ones or wrote two plays. I think they curate a really special gang for each group; we all lended [sic] ourselves to each other’s work in a beautiful, organic way.
13. "Eve Angel": I was able to attend the reading. Stellar writing and stellar performances by the actors. Did you have a hand in choosing the cast?
I knew I wanted to work with Edison Mata Diaz, because he was that character, he was that young honest kinda guy. I knew I wanted JP Moraga, goddess! I had a lot of woman in mind, but I also was really excited working with Jessica Prudencio, the director. I wanted her to work with actors and actresses she was excited to work with in the room; as Filipinos I wanted it to be both our dream projects; it was so perfect. We literally started rehearsal 10:30 that morning and while the play did go into so many different scopes, to work in a room full of Filipinos who understood the subtext, we didn’t have to explain too much.
14. What is interesting is how it (Eve Angel) tackled current political events affecting the country of the Philippines, and even internationally. What made you want to write about Duterte?
I was trying to figure out what I hold on to as a Filipina: what is the part of me I have inherited from the island? [Answer:] It was strong revolutionary women throughout our history. At first, this was excruciating because I was so alone in this narrative, I struggled to let that bring me confidence instead of fear. But you have to let people in. I wrote "Eve Angel” by thinking about gods, wanting to preserve Filipino mythology, to find them again. So, coupled with resurrecting our gods, I wanted to create new mythical gods from modern Filipina women.
During the rehearsal process I’ve learned even more about how complicated the drug issue is in the Philippines. In seeing it through the media, and my initial research of it, it bore a strange likeness to police violence towards black men, black boys, black women and girls here. How we present people of color in the media; we criminalize and villainize our victims; there’s the parallel. From our media’s portrayals of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, I thought it was a cleanse on poverty. In Duterte’s unapologetic address of these killings, we have Trump directly mirrored there. So initially, I thought they were just trying to kill poor people, but in Davao the drug cartels there are considered by Filipinos to be more akin to the cartels we see being portrayed in Mexico and South America; a ruthless reputation; one dissimilar to drug affiliates in the US. Jesca (the director of Eve Angel) said a woman was happy drug dealers were being killed in her neighborhood because one of them had raped her daughter. So there’s so much to consider. By presenting such a story here (in the U.S.), there are the parallels you can see. Where if I presented it in the Philippines, there would be more nuances I’d have to consider.
15. When it comes to being able to experience your work like that in a reading, do you hit the ground running after, or do you have a cool down process? Do you think there are benefits to either?
I give myself a cool off time. I begin enriching my cultural experiences as part as my job as a writer. So, taking time to read a book, and see a movie. Indulged in listening to music or podcasts by myself, is all part of the writing; it was Adam who suggested that’s part of the job. I try to be intuitive with what I’m watching or reading, making sure it will be something to inspire me. I thought, “Sorry to Bother You” was going to do it, but it was way into it’s own thing! [Laughter] I also got to see “Angels in America”, which definitely has the same kind of bigness.
16. You also get on stage yourself, right? Is that another passion of yours as well?
I’m very particular about it. If I can be confident I can tell the story in a full and unique way I will do it. There are certain intersections in terms of my experience that will tell me I can do a role; like New Yorker plays or plays for people of color. If there’s a moment a character has that allows me to do what I like to do, writer or actor: change the world for someone.
17. Two crafts so connected yet also so different, how do you balance?
You know what, my friend just said I was a method writer, I like that, like I have to sense-memory the character’s emotions to justify their dialogue. I do events a lot like open mics or festivals where I write something that is meant for me to tell the story, where I can write a monologue... Honestly, I’ve had to choose before and I chose writing.
18. What do you feel like you get out of acting that you’ve found yourself incorporating when you write a play? You know, even with writers who don’t do plays, reading to an audience is just as much a learning experience and an editing tool.
Yeah, a lot. I was told my plays are hard to read. Things make sense when they’re seen. There are often times [sic] there are things they (the actors) are meant to find organically. I’ll set up lines that don’t flow on the page, but make sense out loud. I think that’s from acting. I want there to be that natural question of “are we on the same page?” So when they are, it’s like, the audience gets there with them. There are parts of the play in bold brackets a whole page of dialogue or a half-page monologue that will say “don’t say it, just read it.”
19. We're almost near the end! What are you having as a second drink?
Ahh [laughter] I’m stick with this, rum right?
20. Before we go, what advice would you give young artist, in all mediums or specifically to writers you want to share?
Find your community, I think that’s one across the board everyone will agree with. Find people who will bring you up, who are never jealous, that are honest with you. Find those people. Also find the roots of why you are who you are. Always stick close to that. I think a great thing [for] when you have writers block [is to] think about who you want to be writing for; who doesn’t have a story; who needs a story; who do you want to save with your writing; what do you want to preserve with your writing?
21. Lastly, anything new besides the projects or programs we talked about here? What do we need to look out for from you? Or a nice mysterious just wait and see! And where can we follow you?
I’m @rendsanti on all social media platforms. I have a new play exchange. I’m a founding member of Middle Voice at Rattlestick, so you can find me around Rattlestick Playwrights Theater often enough. And coming up- all of it is in process- or there’s no dates set, but I am working on a web series, and the Mixed Kids meets, public intimacy we’re gonna work on together for AKIN. But das itt. Oh, I’ve got a new play in a reading series with New Light Theater Project. It’s called GOD PLAY and it’s at IRT on Tuesday, October 9th. Dunno what time but look out. Oh, and I’m applying to Yale, so good vibes!
Excerpt from "The Siblings Play" by Ren Dara Santiago Performed by Ruthie Ofrasio
MARIE in darkness. She sounds just like those kids who do their poetry on the train and are lucky if they get a dollar. Just listen, you don’t have to watch her. She won’t believe you see her, anyway.
I never been lonely. In my whole life,
On any hot/cold Harlem night
I always had my brother.
Past our young father and young mother,
Who never reached to one another.
I was born so they could build some grace, but made so we could raise each other.
What did brother do before I came to be?
Before I bonded us as siblings and he was but a boy,
Was he more himself before me
Or did it take a sister to know joy?
Like on those nights when the lights couldn’t turn on,
Made sure our sight still wasn’t gone
My brother was my happiness
My moms was never home
And pops was never sober
We was together, but alone...
But when they tried to reach
When hate and love danced cheek to cheek...
Back then when pops was like a hero, in cargo shorts and hair in dreads
When he told us horror stories while he tucked us in our beds
I couldn’t hear the demons in what took away dad’s reason
Loving dad could numb the stinging when moms left for “busy season”
I let my brother carry me and battle all the bad decisions
Cuz door slams echoed in my head like otherworldly premonitions
While dad was sucked into a haze that sent him to a quiet world,
That set me off and shut my eyes while unseen monstrous life unfurled
And I didn’t think how it’s not fair, with all my brother had to bear
How while he wrapped himself around me he bore the scars of our surroundings
He put lights against the dark things
But in shadow hid those markings
So I didn’t know what was happening to me
How he protected me from the darkness embarking on a haunting
On our eyelids and eardrums their cries would ring out
And compress me and big brother would hear ‘em
The demons were screaming
In the walls we could hear ‘em
Claiming our name as theirs and taking all meaning.
Before we was just swallowed by the demons;
Here Came You.
Here came you in love and laughter filled our stomachs and our mouths.
Here came you and we all stretched to feed your needs and not our doubts
Here came you so we could try to be a family again
Like we never was
Like we forgot we never was
Cuz here came you.
You are the star that never dies
Cuz really you’re a planet
Inside constellations in the sky
Life is bigger with you in it.
And while I took from you
You took from Lee, not me.
Til our big bro was drowning for the sake of family
Big bro with all that strange small joy
And all the smiles he used to listen
While all the wants of that young boy
Were stifled while we kissed him.
Our big bro who saved us from the monsters and the quiet
Our big bro who gave us food when moms was on her diets
When dad was locked up in his room and praying to a dream
Big brother come to keep our souls from fraying at the seam
But all the threads he’d gave to us, pulled he from his own heart
And before we knew what we had done, big brother fell apart.
He left the house and took all smiles so I was strong for you.
He left and you and I took care of dad like he used to.
He left and we forgave him all before we understood
That this hot/cold house was made to bleed out everything that made him good.
And then dad met someone. You learned to lie to me and moms
To keep our hearts from breaking, you sowed shields from your own lungs.
And just before it got too much, she pushed him out the house.
Dad left and disappeared like the family that we never was
So, we had left Only Mother who’s pain rained down us from above,
She made sure that house was freezing but we was never cold enough
We still bled out goodness til our souls set fire with our love
A good that brought our big bro back every week when moms was out
A good that filled our hearts with lead and sealed out any doubts
A good that brought us through to where our story starts today
My brother is nineteen fighting a home where he can’t stay
My mother is like forty-five and keeps her company at bay
My father is about the same but since he left he’s stayed away
And you are but a child to me, no matter what you say.
My life was made for my brothers at the end of every day.