When I Skyped with Sarah Kosar, author of the darkly comic Hot Dog, I was caught off-guard by her sunny personality. After all, Hot Dog tackles one of the darkest issues that can haunt a family: elder abuse. In the play, two daughters struggle to balance caring for their mother with living their own lives. Onstage, the mother is called, “The Dog,” and wears the head of a dog costume. Thinking Cap Theatre will perform the U.S. premiere of Hot Dog on May 16 (click here for details).
It makes sense that the playwright who uses humor to guide us through darkness approaches her craft with energy and creativity. No bemoaning of starving playwrights or the dying theatre for her. She speaks passionately of the dozen or so projects she has in the works–solo and collaborative–and brags that in London, she could see a play every night of the week and still not see all of the new work coming out.
Kosar describes herself as an American playwright living in London. She grew up in Pennsylvania and received Bachelor’s Degrees in theatre and film from Pennsylvania State University. Hot Dog is now on the syllabus at PSU for advanced playwriting.
Kosar moved to London and completed her Masters at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her dissertation play, Egg, was a commended play featured in a showcase for the BBC International Playwriting Competition. Post-Hot Dog, she has finished a new play, Armadillo, and her next one, Spaghetti Ocean, is in the works.
What made you decide to attend graduate school in London?
I studied abroad and fell in love with it. I saw so many new pieces of writing. It was like, “Oh my gosh, new writing exists?” You write plays, and then they’re up. I feel like it’s a much different experience in America. It takes longer.
I had an internship that hired me on so I could stay longer. I stayed until August, and then decided on getting into a Masters program before I left the country. That was the promise I made to myself: Don’t get on the plane unless you have a way back.
What do you like about London?
You can see live actors in a new piece of writing for cheaper than going to the movies. I think that’s just unbelievable. I wanted to see the The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014 film) and it’s 17 pounds to go and see it, but then it’s only 10 pounds to go the National Theatre. I think that’s what I love the most: that I can go see a different play every night and still not see everything that’s on.
What made you want to write Hot Dog, a play about two daughters caring for their elderly mother?
We’re all going to have a part to play in that dynamic. We’re living longer. How are we going to take care of our parents today? Who’s going to take care of us when we’re their age? With us being busier, working longer into our lives, the sense of obligation is so difficult. What is the right thing to do? I feel like there is not a clear cut answer whatsoever. So, I got really excited about that idea: What are we really obligated to do as a daughter or as a mother? I was talking to my friends here (in London), and a lot of their families were putting their families in homes. In America, we tend to take care of them if it’s a small town (the play is set in the small town of Butler, PA), but maybe it’s different in the cities.
What does the metaphor of the dog costume mean to you and what gave you the idea for it?
I thought if we had a different lens to look at the issue, we might see things a bit more clearly. That’s when I came up with The Dog. When I was listing off the things we have to do take care of our parents, I was thinking, “This is a lot like a checklist for taking care of a child or a pet.” I thought it might be interesting to see a dog onstage.
What does it mean to me? That’s a good question. Because I feel like every day it means something different. It’s about how we see ourselves. Does the mother perceive herself as a dog, or is her daughter the one who sees her that way? I feel like in Hot Dog, sometimes you’re looking at Maryanne and you’re like, “Oh my God. You’re treating (your mother) like a dog. That’s why she’s a dog.” But other times, the dog is speaking like a dog, and you’re like, “Well…you kind of deserve it because you’re asking to be treated like a dog.” I feel like a lot times, you know, in life, sometimes we get things because we ask for them, even though they might not necessarily be something we want. A lot of people say you get the love you want. If I feel like I don’t deserve love, am I going to be loved badly? Yeah, I think the dog head is a question of who is choosing to be treated that way. How do we see ourselves, and how does that affect how others see us?
If there is one thing you could change about how the elderly are treated/stereotyped in American culture, what would it be?
I think sometimes it’s very easy to characterize or caricature old people. We see them as either mean and grumpy, or else we seem them as the fluffy Grandma, like, “I don’t know what’s going on! Oh my goodness, you kids these days.” What I think everyone needs to think about is: we’re all the same whether we’re old or young. I feel like sometimes we can lack a humanity for old people. We feel like they’re out of our culture now; they don’t really understand social media; they don’t know how to work computers; they’re no longer part of today. Whereas, they are today. I think sometimes people can just lack to see humanity in the old.
How did you push against stereotypes of the elderly in your portrayal of The Dog?
I wanted to make sure she was really smart. Sometimes people think the elderly don’t know how to work things anymore. They’re not smart anymore. They’re not all there anymore. Which, of course, can happen, but most of them are totally there. Age doesn’t change what’s in our minds or in our hearts. I just wanted to make The Dog really smart, really on it. Even though she might not be doing the best things, she knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s totally with it. She manipulates and escalates in all of the same ways Maryanne does despite the age difference, so she’s definitely on the same level. But it is always hard, because there is the stereotype of the grumpy old grandma, so I was trying to stay away from that while telling the story.
Sometimes each of the characters in Hot Dog behave in really unsympathetic ways. How did you balance that with keeping the audience emotionally invested in the characters? How did you walk that line?
Yeah, I actually think that was one of the hardest lines in writing it and doing a lot of the rewrites. I was like, okay, they’re being really mean to each other. But I guess rather than being sympathetic, I wanted to be empathetic. No one is really out scot-free in the play. Everyone has a bad hand to play in it. I think as long as we understand why, hopefully we can get behind them.
Who needs to immediately buy their ticket to see Hot Dog?
I think anyone who is a mother or daughter needs to see this. We’ve all had these conversations as mothers and daughters. I think yeah, at the core of it, there’s that female relationship, and the obligation of it. There’s nothing that quite matches it like a mother and a daughter. I think everyone needs to see it just because we’re all going to be old one day. We can’t escape that. We all know that’s going to happen.
How has your writing changed/evolved since Egg?
I think it’s gotten a bit sharper. And I feel like I think a lot more about what I’m going to write before I actually write it. Now I’ve got a whiteboard by my bed, so every morning when I wake up, or in the middle of the night, I see all of my ideas, so I can plot things out before i start writing.
The community of writers I hang out with help me so much. What’s really great about writers is that we’re not competitive. We all have our own stories to tell. There’s this cliche of, “Oh, I’m really scared another writer is going to steal my idea.” But even if I’ve got the same idea as another playwright, the way I’m going to write it and the way she’s going to write it are going to be totally different. So it has been really exciting to be part of building that community of writers and have that outlet. I think all great ideas come from collaboration or discussion–and that’s where some of my best things have come from.
I’ve recently started a writing group called Playdate. Every month, eight writers and I get together and see a play, read a play, and read each other’s work. Some great things have already come from that.
Do you think writing groups can provide support for writers who have graduated from school and are trying to establish themselves?
Hugely, hugely. Like we say in the group, “Now we have other people who we are accountable to. We have to do 20 pages by the next time we meet. We have other people counting on us..” That way, can’t just say, “Well, I’m going to go on Netflix.” (The group) will know. To be a writer, you have to write. I like to call Sunday my Holy Sunday, where I just write. Whatever I’m working on, I give myself a limit. I have to work on this two more hours, five more hours. I have to stick to that routine to make it happen.
Who are your biggest influences?
One of my greatest mentors is Dr. Susan Russell from Penn State. She’s the person who first got me into playwriting. She said, “You should write a play.” And I said, “Okay….I’ll write a play about a single father who is taking his daughter to the gynecologist.” And then she was like, “You should keep writing plays.” And I was like,”All right.” She was a great, huge influence to me.
One of my favorite playwrights is Lucy Prebble. I love the way that she uses theatricality and metaphors, just brilliantly. And I love Sarah Kane. Sarah Kane made me believe in new writing. When I read Blasted I was like, “Oh my God,” this is HBO on the stage. I want to do this.” And that’s what I hope one day–that I can write something that has that sense of being on HBO or Netflix. She really opened things up, to see what was possible to actually put onstage. You think Arthur Miller, Tennesee Williams…but she was just, whoa.
And you know, my husband has been a great influence of mine. And he’s also actually my toughest critic. He’s really sweet and great, but you know, it’s really nice to have someone supportive and close to you who won’t just read your work and say, “Oh, it’s really great. I love it.” Because, you know, it can always be developed and always honed and made better. In our wedding vows, it was in there that he can’t write a play. He always jokes, he’s like, “Oh, here’s my play that’s just been hidden under my pillow until now, sorry.” Yeah, he’d never seen theatre before we started dating. What I love about him reading my work is that if it doesn’t make sense, he says, “I don’t get this.” And when I’m onto something, he says, “I love this. This is really good.”
I think just day-to-day life, too. As a writer, it’s so important to be alive and watching things and living in the world. I’ve got a day-job in recruitment at a creative tech company. I always say I would never want to give up my day job because that’s where I get so many of my ideas. How do people work? What do people want? It’s more clear when you’re out there living.
What are you working on now?
My husband and I have done an experiment called “We Eat Together.” I made up these rules that for thirty days, we had to eat together whether we were (physically) together or apart. If we were together, we would have to eat one portion of food and share it–one bowl, two forks. If we were apart, we could have whatever we wanted and however much we wanted, but we would have to Tweet a picture of us taking a bite. So we were looking at our relationship to food, and looking at being together, because being together was kind of a sacrifice. That was a bit of research for me.
I’m now working on Spaghetti Ocean. It is about a girl named Rachel who wants to get fat. She feels that she lacks presence in the world. She’s petite and small and people just walk right past her. She doesn’t have a space, I guess. So she can’t grow, but she can expand.Because our culture is so bent on skinny, skinny, skinny. Don’t eat this, don’t eat that. I want to look at what does it mean if a woman wants to get fat. Rachel works in a food factory. She’s not cooking food; she’s constructing it. She’s just dialing in sugar on sugar on fat on fat. It’s a look at what it means to make food.
I also have a commission from Little Pieces of Gold to write a short play that will premiere in June at the Park Theatre in London. The theme is social media, and I’m looking at how we die digitally. If I died today, all my most important digital things–my passwords, my accounts, my finances–what if my husband Sam doesn’t have the passwords? What is my presence on the Internet? And if I was to die, how would I die digitally? Or would he try to keep me alive, in some sense?
I saw that you wrote a radio play called Hashtag in 2013. Is social media in theatre an interest of yours?
So, I was with the Hampstead Theatre. I was one of their associate writers, and I teamed up with Roundhouse Radio and wrote Hashtag. Radio plays are really interesting because they do not exist in America. They asked me to write a radio play and I was like, “Hmm what’s that?” In America, you only hear little Bible stories on the radio sometimes if you’re driving in the country.
So Hashtag is about students, 12 to 16-year-olds, and they acted it out as part of their term with Roundhouse. They played teenagers pretending to be celebs on Twitter. They were interacting with each other on Twitter as these celebrities, but were themselves at school. So let’s say Michelle over there, she’s Beyonce on her Twitter account, and I’m Britney Spears. How does that relationship translate to the physical world? Because I am obviously not Britney Spears, even though I would love to be.
So I guess yeah, I really am interested in social media and tech and kind of how that all works together. It’s been explored a little bit in theatre, but I think we need to find a way to kind of incorporate the theatricality of social media instead of just (having a character say), “Oh I talked to him on Twitter.” How can we see the theatricality in that type of communication? So I’m interested in that and I’ve been trying to play with that for the Little Pieces of Gold play.
For you, why plays and not another genre?
I think it all starts with my childhood. I always thought it was going to be something else, and then it slowly led into writing. First of all, I was going to be a Spice Girl, I loved the Spice Girls, that’s where the thought started that I had to get over here. Then I thought I was going to be a singer/songwriter. Then I thought I was going to be an actor. That’s what I went to my undergrad for, acting. And then I began to realize I wanted to tell stories rather than be in them. I got into it that way, I guess.
My husband likes to call me a liar, but I tell him, “I’m a dramatist!” Every story I tell, he’s like, “Ok, so the real story is…” and I say, “I’m a dramatist. Come on.” So that’s how I got into it. I just started writing things, and eventually had that feeling of being able to sit in your pajamas and write a story that you’re really excited about, and then put it onstage, and to be able to make people laugh. It’s just the most amazing feeling. I kind of got addicted to that.
I think the immediacy of it is what makes it so exciting. As a playwright, I can draft something, get it onstage in front of people, have it run through, and get immediate feedback and know what they think of it, rather than the way it is for fiction, nonfiction, or even screenwriting. You know, all of that stuff takes a lot more time. They are a bit of a solo experience, while theatre is such a collective community. You can see exactly when they’re not laughing where they should be, where they’re laughing where they should be crying, and where they’re just bored.
Sometimes it’s a lot easier to tell a story onscreen with the effects and everything, but there’s so much you can do with live human beings onstage that you can’t do with any other medium. To really make people feel something right there and then. I love–I love the whole visceral aspect of theatre. I’m really excited to be working with Thinking Cap. Just because, they’re all about the visceral. It’s really exciting to see that. You’re never going to be bored watching something like that.
Last question: I’m crazy about your stop-motion video, “Caution: Flammable When Hott.” Can you tell me a little about it?
Yeah! It’s about an unlikely match, and what happens when you fall in love with somebody that maybe you shouldn’t. And that bear gave that paper maybe just a little bit too much love, and things got a little hot and heavy unfortunately.
I think I was just literally bored one night and was playing with that bear and there was that paper on the ground. I started playing around with it, and it just went from there. I guess that’s what I do with my free time! I started to think, oh, maybe this could be something. There were a lot of times where the paper accidentally moved. I shot that video maybe four or five times, which is a total nightmare. The first night I was just sort of playing, and then I took a couple of weeks to actually plan it all out, and film it, and accidentally burn the floor. I’m so glad you liked that. That’s great.
Sarah Kosar will be attending the premiere of her play Hot Dog Thinking Cap Theatre on May 15th. Buy your tickets here!