As live, in-person theatre returns to the greatest city in the world, we're spotlighting the NYC theatre artists who make it all happen. Today's spotlight is on Kate Cortesi, Brenda Withers, and Emily Zemba—three playwrights producing their own plays in rep at the New Ohio Theatre as part of The Pool: an initiative to create a playwright-led process of sustainable theatre.
What’s one aspect of being a playwright that might surprise people?
Cortesi: That maybe half of what I know about structuring a play I learned from pop songs. Pop structure. Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. Also, sonata form: A, A, B, A. I’m not a musician, though I spent my youth studying the violin pretty seriously, but so much of my writing, from character voices to play structure, pace, and rhythm, is “playing by ear.”
Withers: I think people might not know how much overlap there is between specialties. I know so many multi-hyphenate artists—actor-writers, director-designers, etc.—and I think that's a really natural part of our field. Rather than exist within a regimented structure, the collaboration necessary to make theater work inspires a lot of curiosity and cross-training. It's a very mobile art form—you start out one place and end up another. Or end up two places at once!
Zemba: Formatting. It’s all about formatting.
What was the last live production you worked on before the theatre shutdown?
Cortesi: My play Love was having its world premiere at the Marin Theatre Company when the play area shut down in March. We closed two days after we opened. I ended up feeling like one of the fortunate ones, not only because our show actually had six performances including previews, but because the theater sprung into action and spent two days video recording the play. So it was able to have a life after the theaters went dark.
Withers: I was in the middle of rehearsals for Kate Hamill’s Emma at the Guthrie when the shutdown hit. The ensemble stayed out there for a week on “hold” before we all realized it was going to be an extended pause.
Zemba: I was working as Lead Performance Coordinator for Joe’s Pub at the time of the shutdown, so it was definitely something fabulous on that gorgeous Joe’s Pub stage. I started rehearsals for this show (Superstitions with The Pool Plays) the first week of October—the same week that Joe’s Pub invited live audiences back into their space—and there is a beautiful synchronicity to that. We’re all making our way back.
What was your quarantine hobby?
Cortesi: YouTube taught me how to make icing flowers. I’ve become an ambitious cake decorator.
Withers: Walking, walking, walking, walking.
Zemba: Yoga With Adriene on YouTube. That became my hobby, and my life source.
What was your first show back?
Cortesi: This one! Is Edward Snowden Single? at The New Ohio Theatre. It feels like fate wanted this to be my first post-shut down live show, because the live audience is crucial to this play. As in, the actors literally can’t finish the show without interacting with the audience. Plus, there’s a ton of joking back-and-forth with the audience. We’re hoping every single person in the audience feels how vital their presence is, and enjoys the hell out of being there.
Withers: We premiered my play DINDIN at the Harbor this summer. The company had already decided to turn it into a film as part of our pandemic pivot, so we followed an unorthodox path: first we shot the movie, then we produced the play. I don’t know if that’s been done before, and it definitely enriched our experience of the live production. The film is currently in post-production and slated to be released in 2022.
Zemba: The first show I SAW was actually in May 2020! Zoetrope, a very cool distanced, interactive, immersive play performed inside a truck in a cool vacant lot. An Exquisite Corpse production. They’re one of the coolest companies out there right now, and have been major supporters of my work.
What show are you working on now?
Cortesi: Well, I write this from tech, so it’s safe to say I’m living and breathing this production, as well as the other two plays I’m producing in rep with my own as part of the The Pool. We are three playwrights stepping into the role of producers for one another, bringing to life our own three plays in rep for three weeks at The New Ohio. So in addition to being the playwright for Snowden, I’m producing The Ding Dongs by Brenda Withers and Superstitions by Emily Zemba. It’s a beast of a project but we’re having a blast. It’s such an honor to be a part of the return of live theater in New York, not just on behalf of my own play, but for two of my very favorite playwrights, as well.
Withers: I’m helping produce three shows with The Pool, including my play The Ding Dongs!
Zemba: Superstitions with The Pool, baby!
What would you tell people to encourage them to come see The Pool's plays?
Cortesi: If you want to wade through the grim horror of our times, read the news. If you want to distract yourself from all that with lighter fare, there’s plenty to stream on TV. If you want to feel righteous, go in on Twitter. But if you’d like something between and beyond those urges—something that blends the delight of live entertainment with the intimacy of honest soul-searching and the tough love of being a member of society right now—get yourself to the New Ohio this November. Let collective, live storytelling remind you you’re a human being who contains multitudes. Like all of us.
Withers: The Ding Dongs is funny, weird, and mercifully intermission-less. It also features two of my favorite actors on the planet, Jonathan Fielding and Robert Kropf. We’ve done something like thirty plays together, but it’s hard for people to see our company because our home base is off the beaten path. I’m excited to share the chemistry our history allows with a wider audience.
Zemba: This company of actors is truly brilliant. David Greenspan, Latoya Edwards, Celeste Arias, Nicholas Gorham, Iliana Guibert, Rebecca Jimenez, Ricardo Vázquez, Naren Weiss. Seriously. You won’t want to blink.
What’s a new or returning show you’re not involved with that you’re excited to see?
Cortesi: It’s super exciting that Passover, Dana H. and Is This A Room are all on Broadway—I can’t wait to see the next iterations of those theatrical wonders. I’m also super pumped to see Melisa Tien’s play at JACK, Best Life, later this week.
Withers: The Antelope Party directed by Jess Chayes for Dutch Kills!
Zemba: Puffy Hair by Zoë Geltman, directed by Julia Sirna-Fest at The Tank! It’s a one-woman existential stand-up performance with many weird, wonderful surprises.
What aspect of your job are you most excited to get back into?
Cortesi: Working with great actors in a real rehearsal process. For a playwright, there’s no better drug. (Please come check out mine, the incomparable Elise Kibler, Rebecca S’manga Frank, and Brian Miskell. They will astonish you.) Also: a live audience! There’s nothing like a group of people watching and listening together, thinking and feeling side-by-side. Doing it together is different from doing it solo on your couch. When the audience is live, we’re being brave together. The folks on stage and in the audience are practicing the bravery of being vulnerable.
Zemba: Being IN THE ROOM, a real room, with REAL PEOPLE, real live people. Theater is a social art form. It is not meant to be made in a void.
The 2021 edition of The Pool includes Is Edward Snowden Single? by Kate Cortesi and directed by Kate Bergstrom; The Ding Dongs, or What is the Penalty in Portugal? by Brenda Withers and directed by Daisy Walker; and Superstitions by Emily Zemba and directed by Jenna Worsham. The three plays run in rep from November 1-20 at New Ohio Theatre, located at 154 Christopher Street in Manhattan. Sliding scale tickets starting at $5 can be purchased at www.thepoolplays.org or by calling OvationTix at 212-352-3101. A $75 Pool Plays Pass includes reserved seating to all three productions.