Sarah Kosar is weird. Her words, not mine. The American playwright is just about to see her new work, Armadillo, premiere at The Yard from 30th May. Set in Kosar’s hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania, the story is laced with ‘weirdness’ – but not necessarily in the ways you’d expect.
Armadillo is about Sam, a woman who was abducted at 13-years-old. Her ordeal ended after one week when she was saved in Walmart by a man carrying a gun. For the grown-up Sam, guns become synonymous with her rescue and freedom. She’s a gun-owner, she marries a gun-owner and she flat-out loves her guns. The play starts, however, with the abduction of another 13-year-old and follows how Sam reacts to the news.
It’s a very different play to ‘Mumburger’, Kosar’s sticky, slippery, surrealistic play about eating your own mother (!) that was performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre in 2017. Yet it still, for the playwright, feels “very, very ME” and gives a distinctly Kosar-eye-view of life as we know it: “I don’t like to hold the mirror up to the world. I like to do a fun house mirror, because sometimes in a fun house you can see yourself more clearly.”
Sara Joyce, the play’s director, feels that the act of looking, and specifically voyeurism is key to understanding both production and play: “A lot of it is about the notion of looking-in and being either outside or inside.” Kosar, meanwhile, states that, “The core of it is about desire and fear, and about the knife’s edge of that as it flips over.”
The pair, who ping off each other like charged atoms, met as part of the Old Vic 12 scheme 2017/18 and started working together on another of Kosar’s plays, Our Name is Not John. It was the playwright’s idiosyncratic perception of the world that sparked the creative relationship between them. For Joyce, that self-professed ‘weirdness’ comes out in only “the most beautiful way”.
I met them at one of their favourite places, Jim’s Café in Clapton. Jim’s is a love letter to the classic American diner, the kind of place an English girl might finally discover what the hell a ‘malted’ is or, you know, get invited to Prom by a guy in a leather jacket. It’s the perfect setting for discussing a play that deliberately riffs on pop culture images of America and the attraction/repulsion of Americana as viewed through a British lens. It also perfectly reflects the humour and warmth of the pair who are such enjoyable company and easy to talk to the interview transcript (itself a shorter version of our full conversation) clocks in at just over one hour thirty minutes.
By a twist of fate, Joyce was sent Armadillo by Jay Miller, The Yard’s Artistic Director, without Kosar knowing and she still had to formally pitch to direct it despite their existing links. What made the director want to work on the play wasn’t the overarching politicised themes it seemingly deals with – namely, gun culture – but the nuanced characters filling the story. “I think that truly engaging work is about humanity and about relationships. The compelling thing for me about Sarah’s play is that it’s such an honest depiction of these specific relationships. These people are so who they are.”
Humanity, and how we relate to each other, is also what Kosar talks most about when describing Armadillo. “I was really interested in the idea of who and what we need to make ourselves feel protected. And who and what would make someone want to own a gun,” she begins explaining. “For me, that’s where everything always starts: who do I feel is closest to me but also furthest away… I’m anti-gun, but how do I understand why somebody wants to feel protected, especially a woman.”
These questions, for Kosar, are relevant to more than this single play. “Theatre is a church of empathy. We need to go in there and grapple with how we feel about people, pinpoint their emotions and their behaviours, rather than just confirm what we already know and feel.”
She references Bruce Norris’s Downstate – a play about convicted paedophiles – which recently played in the National Theatre’s Dorfman space, as having a profound impact on her while also epitomising this type of moral ambiguity. Joyce develops this idea further, stressing the importance of these uncomfortable encounters with characters and people you might otherwise prefer to ignore: “Taking the idea of gun culture in America, it’s much easier to sit back and judge. But it’s quite scary to try to understand it because then you have to enter it and try to understand the truth of it, the empathy and the humanity. And when you start to do that you start to unpick the problems with society as a whole.”
In this respect, what they’re interested in is getting behind the surface strangeness of a person – the stuff we might casually label ‘weird’ – to find the individual behind it. Likewise, escaping the confines of how an issue or person is ‘meant’ be represented onstage had also heavily informed the development process. “Where we’re at the moment is so binary,” says Kosar. “ It’s very: this is the right way to portray this and this is the wrong way to portray this. And this is something we wrestled with: it’s just about telling the truth and telling Sam’s story, it’s not about making her the Strong Female Character.”
The storyline, they note, doesn’t include rape or extreme violence of a conventional kind. Yet the abduction narrative and, to an extent, simply having a female protagonist meant they were concerned with conventional presentations of victimhood. “When we look at representations in our culture of ‘the oppressor’ and ‘the abused’ we never see the person’s story that it’s about,” Kosar argues, “It’s always about who harmed them, who figured it out, who found them: usually the men around them. There’s no representation of the women or [attempt at] following them through their pain.”
“This framework culture”, as Joyce calls it, is “equally terrifying” for the way it views men and categorises their behaviour. “We talk about it in rehearsals, how there’s three roles: a victim, an oppressor and the protector. And there’s this idea that once one of those roles is filled you have to occupy one of the other ones. So when we put the woman as the victim/survivor we don’t give her agency to be her own protector. Or to ever allow her to be her own oppressor.”
The director previously worked on Milly Thomas’s Dust, a play which some audience members and critics found difficult because of its directness in addressing suicide. She emphasises how there’s a “great responsibility” in how a character or a story is depicted on stage and it’s obvious, from how she speaks about it, that she’s considered this very deeply. Yet delivering a neatly boxed and labelled version of ‘an issue’ with ‘a message’ isn’t – thankfully – what motivates her. We return again to the idea of being truthful to the characters and their story:
“All I can do is follow the truth of that person, who they are and where they’re going… The truth is that no two people who go through the same thing have the same experience. It’s a terrible pressure, particularly on female artists creating female-led work that you also hold the responsibility for what you are saying politically.”
Freeing themselves from the pressure to serve up work on stage that’s easy to digest and easy to categorise isn’t just about demolishing existing rules about how a female director should direct, or how an issue should be shown, it’s also about creating meaningful art that audiences respond to on a visceral level. In Kosar’s words:
“I never want to write something where I know exactly what I want to say. I don’t want people to hear things and go: this is the thing. They need to feel it in their bodies, walk away with it and try to dissect how they feel later. It’s not simple, but that’s what theatre does. Theatre is live, theatre is supposed to be lived, theatre is supposed to be experienced. It’s not read, it’s not watched, it’s experienced.
She continues, “It’s about feeling in your bones and walking away with something. And that’s what Downstate did for me. I was walking around for about a week thinking, why do I really feel this in my shoulder?! This is me grappling with people that I might want to be friends with who have done terrible things.”
So if ‘Downstate’ is pain in your shoulder, I ask, how do you want people to feel Armadillo?
“The third toe on the left foot…” she starts off, laughing. “No, I think it’s going to sit in everyone’s body differently and people are going to come out feeling quite tense. I want people to breathe afterwards and I want them to remember that they breathed because this is how we experience pain: we forget that we’re in a body. I want people afterwards to go: WHOAH, I haven’t really taken a deep breath for a while, I understand how Sam must have been feeling for years.”
Joyce mentions that “one of the fascinating things” about working on the play is how “there are no references in culture for this storyline.” And that applies to more than whether Sam is confined to a typical ‘victim’ role. Circling back to the earlier point about Armadillo centring on “desire and fear”, Kosar points out how, “We don’t talk about our desires. I think we talk about the very clean, sanitised, allowable desires but I don’t think we all feel we can talk about the dark, uncomfortable things. This play is full of very private moments, the weird things people do in their homes they don’t even want their partners to realise.”
“I find it really interesting how much we don’t allow females to have fantasies,” joins in Joyce. To which Kosar replies: “If women shared what women’s fantasies really are, HOLY HELL!”
“Whatever you think about [the porn industry], we have not developed a world or a space for female fantasy to be accepted,” continues Joyce. “And the knock-on effect is this shaming of female fantasy so that it has to mean there’s something wrong with the woman, it can’t just mean: this exists. It has to be laden with the assumption something’s wrong with you.”
Increasingly, artists are exploring the darker side of female desire (from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag to Louise Orwin’s Oh Yes Oh No), but as Joyce and Kosar say, on the whole it still feels very limited. Or – and this is my take on it – that even what we know and show as so-called ‘deviant’ sexual desire comes in its own neatly packaged, highly recognisable format. The point, actually, comes back to watching multi-dimensional female characters behaving in messy, flawed, uncategorisable ways without immediately judging them. The weird ones, perhaps.
As Kosar says, “I think I am always going to side with the person that is a bit weird, that maybe I disagree with, that maybe I’m a bit ‘ugh’ about. I just feel that more interesting. I find it more human.”
Armadillo is on at The Yard Theatre until 22nd June. More info and tickets here.