With its mentor project, the Cherry Lane Theatre pairs emerging playwrights with established mentors to celebrate new work from new artists. Kicking off this year’s series, Ren Dara Santiago presents The Siblings Play, a touching portrayal of three siblings fighting to protect each other from the demons left behind by their increasingly absentee parents.
Mentored by Lucy Thurber, Santiago’s play explores the love that binds these siblings together even as circumstance threatens to tear them apart. We talked to both of them about the play and the process of writing in the mentor project.
What inspired you to tell this story and work on this project?
Ren Dara Santiago: I wanted to talk about love, loyalty, and how I use that to protect the people I love.
Lucy Thurber: I believe in Ren's voice as a writer. A play gets to a point where you can't see it unless you put it up on its feet. The Siblings Play needed to be done for Ren to work on it.
How did the mentor/mentee relationship impact and evolve the play?
Lucy Thurber: Hopefully, I have been helpful in supporting Ren in her process of writing, re-writing and hearing her own play.
Ren Dara Santiago: For me, I love and trust Lucy more than anybody. She sees things in me before I can, she's always been able to see through my walls, and that's what I needed for this play. To protect what's important to these characters, they have all these walls that I built for them to make it through. It's part of what makes them, and Lucy and Jenna [Worsham, the director] were the ones who helped me step back and see what I built.
Did you ever disagree on an aspect of the play/process? What is that aspect of the mentor/mentee relationship like, and how did you come to a conclusion?
Ren Dara Santiago: Lucy wanted me to learn how to write the play I wanted to write. And she kicked my ass when I needed it and I'm so lucky I have Lucy and Jenna. Last week there were two days in a row where I brought a new ending and it wasn't it. I was so frustrated with myself. I didn't want to disappoint them. I was scared that I wasn't trying hard enough. And Lucy asked me why I couldn't write this ending. She asked me what the final moment looked like. And she told me to write to that and then Jenna took me outside and told me it was time. And they showed me that I was holding on as tight as these characters were and it was time to let go. It was so hard. It was as hard for me to write as it is for them to get there.
Lucy Thurber: I don't feel we ever disagreed. Ren worked really hard to write and listen and find the ending of her play. I worked hard to support her in that. I pushed when I felt she needed it and I left her alone when it seemed like she needed a moment to figure out what she wanted to do.
Did working on The Siblings Play with each other illuminate any new aspects of playwriting or the writing process for you?
Ren Dara Santiago: I realized the joy in wanting to write lines the actors need to say. These actors are so good, it's so amazing to have these people I've been with so long on the page really feeling and fighting and I want every line to be the only thing they can say next for their characters. I want them to want to need to get there every night and I never knew that until now.
Ren, your play is about the relationships between three siblings - but also about their relationship with their absent father, whose role in their lives seems to be gradually increasing since he left (though we only see him in flashbacks). Can you talk about how you developed this relationship in the story?
Ren Dara Santiago: His presence is so strong because Marie doesn't want to process the feeling of abandonment. It's funny to show two sides of neglect. I'm hoping it shows that the absence makes the neglect more prevalent, as opposed to the neglect of Lenora, who's present, and that line "it's like he was never really there," applies to both. You can be there and gone. And trying to romanticize and find excuses for the one who chooses to leave you behind - they do that so the absence doesn't eat them alive. The fear is the answer is you aren't loved.
The absence of their parents redefines the three siblings’ relationships in many ways. How did you develop and define their relationships to each other?
Ren Dara Santiago: The build into this makeshift family and their inability to open up to anybody but each other was always there, like if they can't even trust the people that brought them into this world, how can they ever trust a stranger? It's like they're the only things that make sense, the only reason they were born in this family, the only reason they are suffering is so that they can love and heal each other. I want to convey how disgusting and undeserving it feels to ask for love when you are abandoned or neglected. This was the only way I could make people feel exactly like they feel asking for love. By making it a sin.
The most fun part of this play is that every secret lie and betrayal they commit is holding on so strongly to how much they love each other. Fiercely in order to compensate for the missing. I liked realizing I wrote a play about very good liars, how that is learned as a means to protect or survive.
For each of you, what was the most important part of working on the play? What are you hoping audiences take away from it?
Ren Dara Santiago: Finding the end, finding the answer to what they're fighting so hard for and how to love someone selflessly. This play is about the curses we create for ourselves when we're in pain. It's about how to save someone. When you fight so hard to never let go, the answer for these people is saving yourself.
Lucy Thurber: I think Ren is the real deal. I think she is a young writer with vision and a lot to say about where she came from and about where she is going. For me the most important thing about The Siblings Play was that Ren found her ending, that she feels empowered to write her next play and that the theater community is introduced to her voice. I feel successful and I adore Ren.
Performances of The Siblings Play continue through March 4.