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August 15, 2018
Interview: Emerging Playwright Sarah Shear on Apocalypse Preparation, Female Empowerment, and the Gritty Reality of SCUM
Sarah Shear (L) with Adrian Abel Amador, Jay Cobian, and Aaron Mauck. Photo Credit: Marth Brows

“Four Nerds. One Apocalypse. Game Over.”

Such is the intriguingly ominous tagline of Scum, the latest grassroots production currently playing the Producer’s Club in Midtown Manhattan.

The enticing — if slightly sordid — new piece, which marks the official professional debut of its fierce young playwright Sarah Shear, follows a ragtag group of misfit adolescents – “as lovable as they are problematic” – through their preparation for an impending nuclear war. As the days pass in the bunker and Doomsday gets closer and closer, patience is tested, relationships come to a head, and the gang find themselves contemplating the things that truly matter in life, and if they’re valued as much as they should be.

Among the array of oddballs is Bekah, who unearths a new confidence in herself as a result of being the sole female within the group. And, as these stories often go, just as Bekah discovers newfound strength throughout her time spent in hiding, so too did her scribe (and portrayer!) throughout her journey spent writing such a powerful protagonist.

And oh, what a journey it has been! Now, following many a late-night living room session, an acclaimed public reading at the Chipped Cup in Harlem, and an outrageously successful Indigogo campaign, the play has finally arrived in Manhattan, and Shear simply couldn’t be more stoked.

Prior to her hotly-anticipated New York debut, we spoke with the fresh-faced trailblazer all about the power of female playwrights, the origins of her quirky protagonist, why now is the perfect time for Scum to premiere, and much, much more.

Scroll down to read through her thoughts — we bet you could use them as you prepare for the end!!

Sarah Shear

Can you talk a little bit about the creation of this piece? How did it originate? 

I started writing it in January of this year, just after the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists met to release their statement regarding the Doomsday Clock. It actually started off as an exercise for me as a writer just to get me thinking about, like, “What would it be like if I did have no choice, and I did have to survive a nuclear war?” It’s funny… my grandmother had a bomb shelter in her house in Pennsylvania. So, I’ve never had to really think about the answer [to “What would I do if I had to survive a nuclear war?”] because I would always say, “Well, I’d go to Pennsylvania and hang out in my grandmother’s bomb shelter.” My mom will meet me there… my aunts will be there… it’ll be totally fine.

But we very recently sold that house, and I had this sudden realization that [with that sell], we had lost our family bomb shelter.

On the night the statement was released, I was talking to three of my best friends and one of them posted the link, and they were all talking about their game plans, and what they’d put in their Go-Bags, etc., and I was like, [with the bomb shelter gone], should this ever happen, “I have no clue [as to] what I’m going to do.”

So, Scum was sort of a response to that [question]: “What if a family, a group of friends, etc. suddenly loses their sense of security? What are they going to do now?”

And it actually started off as a very light and fun piece, with all the characters coming into the bomb shelter and enjoying each other’s company. Then, I started adding layers and additional elements – what if the stakes were higher? What if they were all, deep down, really horrible people? – and it grew from there into a complete, full-length play…. all because of my own insecurities regarding my survival. (laughs).

Similarly, why is now the right time for Scum? What does it say about human relationships and emotions that makes it perfect for today’s audiences?

I’ll admit, as a young person, I’m not really well-versed in politics, and I don’t know that much about the concept of the world ending. I don’t even like to watch scary movies… like, I really don’t know.

But what I do know a lot about are human relationships and interactions. I wrote this play with very specific [attention] to the dynamics between men and women… I’d observe interactions between different people in my neighborhood, or in a coffee shop… and it definitely influenced the way these characters were written.

And in response to “Why now?” if we are indeed approaching some sort of catastrophic, end of the world scenario, as our headlines would lead us to believe, then we have to start thinking… start analyzing… start considering how we treat each other and how we talk to each other. What the play really boils down to at the end of the day is: “when we’re down to the wire do you want to surrounded by people who are good, or people who are just good enough?” It’s time to take stock and re-evaluate our interactions with each other. Especially now, when we’re seeing all these women come forward. It’s important.

And it’s important, in that same way, too, to be able to identify and understand what [behaviors] have become culturally normalized that really shouldn’t be anymore.

How do you feel your other work has influenced this piece? 

In general, with my plays, I like to emphasize giving a voice to the voiceless, and obviously, being a young woman, I feel the best place for me to start in terms of giving a voice to my characters is to look into my own experiences.

I’ve written a couple of plays about women in their 20s, sort of navigating through life, finding their way, and finding their sense of self. They come to the realization that once they are truly independent and the walls come crumbling down on her dreamy playtime fantasyland, they’ve really got to take action or face the consequences.

And Scum is sort of the culmination of that idea. Bekah [Scum’s protagonist] relies on everyone around her and is incredibly co-dependent, and then this catastrophe happens and she realizes in order to survive she has to learn to speak for herself.

Also, I tend to write comedies that seem funny and light, and then take a turn into darker territory. And that’s definitely the case in Scum, so it’s similar [to my other work] in that way, too. (laughs).

What power do you feel comes with creating your own work? What, in your opinion, does it afford you that performing another’s piece might not? 

Something I was very much interested in doing with this play was to convey the reality of the situation... the actual, realistic circumstances that a group of people awaiting the end of the world might face. 

[Scum is] an apocalypse story about apocalypse stories. We don’t get that. Ever. We never talk about the reality of all our favorite action heroes... we don’t talk about the reality of what they go through. 

Bekah forgets to bring a razor with her... they don’t shower for days... we don’t show that stuff in movies. This is the nitty-gritty reality. It’s gross, and disgusting, and unheroic, and just so... scummy. And I wanted to say, “hey world! If we are preparing for nuclear war as the Bulletin of atomic scientists is telling us that we are, legs prepare to experience it as it actually will be.”

And it’s nice to be able to have control over the portrayal of that reality.... of that direction.... in writing my own piece. It’s very empowering for me to talk about things in my plays that aren’t really talked about in other plays or other media. It’s something you wouldn’t necessarily get if you were performing someone else’s piece.

In addition to writing the play, you’ve also taken on the role of Bekah, not only for this run, but for all the previous readings of this piece. Can you talk about acting in your own piece? Does it affect your performance? And how, if at all, does it change the way you see your work? 

The biggest thing it’s done for me is that it’s helped me to grow as a writer. Like, I’ve spent a lot of time with this girl. I’ve been writing her since January, I’ve been playing her since March, I’ve been reading her in all of the workshops and so on, so I’ve spent a lot of time with her and I’ve gotten to know her pretty well. And it’s so empowering to walk around in my everyday life, and have her [thought processes] in me, you know? I think about things now as she would. Like, [I’ll think], “Don’t be that way. Make sure you’re heard!” I can identify toxic relationships more clearly... it’s the whole nine yards.

She’s really [ingrained] in me... which of course, she is all the time, but as an actor, it adds a whole ‘nother layer that [goes beyond the page].  Living with her in that way affects how I see her, which, in turn, affects the way I write and develop her as a playwright.

In that same vein, what’s the best thing this experience has taught you? 

The best thing I’ve learned from working on this production and in creating and presenting another feminist superhero, is that there is no such thing as a feminist superhero. None of these women really have it together 100% of the time.

Even the women who we may consider to be our feminist superheroes... our ideas of strength... are the ones whispering to themselves, “I am Beyoncé,” before they walk into a room. Mindy Kaling — who I consider to be my feminist superhero — is likely the first one to admit, “Sometimes, I just need to eat McDonalds and cry.”

And that’s okay... but it’s not how these characters are portrayed in the movies... do you know what I mean?

So, with Scum, I wanted to write someone who the audience can look to and [reference] throughout their life journey to be like, “Oh look. She’s not perfect. But that’s real.”

In a world of uncertainty – like the one the characters in Scum face or the one some may say we’re facing today – how would you say the power of art helps, or can help, us to cope?

It gets people talking. It allows us to have a dialogue, and [for playwrights] to create a safe space for audience members to observe and analyze an issue, and then talk about it [as a means] of getting at the root of the issue. And that incites change.

On the other hand, you have these pieces that are pure fun and joy, that allow the viewer But you make something that someone has a [visceral reaction to]… it’s changing that one person’s life and making them feel better about everything. Art has the power to change the world in that way, too.

In terms of Scum, putting aside all the metaphors and thematic elements inside the play… just by putting on the show, we’ve created jobs for people. Our production team is made up of more than 50% women. I mean, I wrote a play and it’s getting produced in New York (laughs). We’re inciting change already! (laughs). There are so many layers and levels that go so beyond just the script itself, and I think that’s so powerful.

On the subject of finding your own success as a playwright, why would you encourage other budding writers to create? Why should those apprehensive young playwrights put pen to paper now?

As you know just looking at the news, people are yearning for change. And I always say “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Go out and do it yourself.

Listen... I don’t have solutions for problems. I don’t know how we can fix the world. All I know is that I can be the best that I can be from where I stand [in the world]. And if I speak up and people listen, then maybe that might make a small change, or eventually a bigger one. And honestly, in that sense, don’t we all have that power, in one way or another?

Like, find what works for you. Speaking solely for me, I’ll never change the world by running for office… you wouldn’t want me to. I can’t build anything, like, architecturally. The way that I can change the world is through art. And if you have that gift as well, you must share it. Don’t be shy. Now is the time.

Similarly, what advice do you have for an aspiring young playwright like yourself? 

Write every day – even if it’s just a little bit. It has to become like calisthenics… it’s training your brain to think creatively, [about] how to weave a story together. And I’ll admit it took me some time to actually understand what that meant, ‘cause obviously, you don’t – and can’t – have a full-length play at your fingertips every day, but I started carrying around a notebook last summer (‘cause I had a few months where I was really into poetry), and I would just write a daily short poem, or write a line about an observation that struck me that day. Every little bit helps. I continue it even now, because Scum will be over eventually, and I’ll have to have another notebook of observations to pull from for the next thing.

The other [piece of advice] is to use your resources. Like, use your living room. Use what you’ve got. Honestly, it’s been my dream to have a play with which I can invite all my friends to sit around the couch and just read it for the sake of reading it. That’s how Scum was born… we [initially] read it in my living room, draft after draft, every weekend for about two months. That’s where all the conversations were had… that’s where it developed.

It was initially a very different play, and then – subsequent to, and as a result of, these readings, I discovered all the wonderful voices and contributions coming from the women in the room, and so the focus shifted to give it a more female-centric theme. I ultimately had more confidence in the writing, too, and that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for [those sessions in] my living room. So, use what you’ve got. Use your friends. Use your living room. Nothing is ever too small.

Finally, to bring it back to the themes of the show, If you found yourself apocalyptic situation with the world ending and needing to take shelter immediately, what are three things you’d put in your Go-Bag and why?

Hmmm…. I would bring The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, because, duh (laughs), I’d bring a flashlight for light, and after my experience with this play, you can bet I’m bringing a watch with me! (laughs). And if you’re intrigued as to why I’m laughing, come see us before we close!!

Scum: A New Play, runs through August 18th at The Royal Theatre within the Producer’s Club (358 W. 44th Street).

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Written by: Matt Smith
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