Exclusive Interview: Coop writer & director Sam Max “the play comes out of a profound sense of isolation, particularly as a queer person”

Playwright Sam Max’s Coop, which they also direct, opened Off-Off-Broadway last week at the Paradise Factory in the East Village. Produced by a queer and femme led creative team, the impactful new play stars Latinx, transmasculine actor Lio Mehiel as Avery, a girl who has been isolated from the world and kept in a rigidly routine farm life by her parents. While she spends her days labouring on the farm, listening out for the bell that signals family mealtimes, Avery’s nights are spent on the porch conversing with her dead uncle. A crack in the fence brings disruption to life on the farm in the form of a moonshine delivery boy whom Avery pays to injure her parents. Coop was hailed by The Queer Review as ‘a powerful piece of theatre that sears itself into the mind like a bloodstained fever dream’. Take a read of the full ★★★★ review here.

Based in New York, Sam Max has been a resident artist at The Public Theater (Devised Theater Working Group), and Pipeline Theatre Company (PlayLab Writers Group) where Coop was initially developed. Their work has been presented at Under the Radar Festival, National Sawdust, the Museum of Sex and Joe’s Pub. The non-binary writer is a Chesley/Bumbalo Playwriting Award winner and was recently named a member of the Young & Hungry List, tracking “Hollywood’s Top 100 New Writers.” Their pilot, The Agenda, is currently in development with Zachary Quinto’s Before the Door production company.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann met with Sam Max in New York’s East Village last week to talk about what had inspired them to write Coop, how the play relates to the queer experience, directing their own work and the writers they most admire.

Sam Max’s Coop. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Before we talk about your current play Coop, let’s start with how you came to this place in your career as a writer.

Sam Max: “I went to school for acting in Indiana and I found during my last year there that I hated the lifestyle of waiting for people to tell me what was appropriate for me to work on. So I started generating work for myself to be in. My thesis show was this play that I wrote called Boychik and it was toying with inheriting ideas of gender in Judaism. I performed the work into a microphone and people were meant to colour in a colouring book I illustrated while I was performing the piece. I found that I really liked the process of writing and that it allowed me to be in control of images and composition. After I graduated I wrote my first play in two weeks during a lull of time, before I went abroad to teach, staying at my mom’s in Pittsburgh. Then when I moved to New York I had a few friends read it at this tiny theatre in the West Village. That became a way to introduce people to my work, and that experiment was also, in a roundabout way, the reason that I have representation. I took that experience as a sign from the universe to keep going, and I’ve been committed to writing while living here in New York over the past three years. I’ve written five plays in that time including Coop.”

When it comes to Coop, what were some of the things that sparked your imagination to write the play?

“The play comes out of a real profound sense of isolation, a feeling and an emotionality around isolation, particularly as a queer person. It’s a confluence of so many things that I like writing about; sexuality, and what it means to come of age, what it means to relate to each other as queer people and what it means build a community and to coexist. In a practical sense, a lot of the environment and the characters of the play come from an experience I had on this farm in Appalachia. I volunteered there over Spring Break when I was a freshman in college. It’s called Nazareth Farm and it’s a Catholic farm. I’m Jewish so I sort of just went for the experience. I’d heard that they don’t let you have technology while you’re there, so I was intrigued about that. The experience ended up being really whacky. We were building homes for people who needed renovations, which I have no skills in, but just the community around it was really interesting. There’s one person who knows the schedule and they ring the bell, and none of us knew what time it was ever, for the entire time I was there.”

So you didn’t even have a watch?

“No, we didn’t. So there’s no real sense of time besides the sun going up and down, which is something I tried to cultivate with the lighting designer in our production of Coop. We don’t really have any markers of time in Coop at all, beyond levels of darkness.”

In terms of the play’s setting it could be any time, or no time, no place. We know it’s a farm of course, and when the characters talk about the nearby town it’s quite mysterious and we get the sense Avery has never been outside the confines of the farm. There are a few clues like the Discman, but who knows that could be a relic rather than current technology. Clearly that was all intentional, you didn’t want to be specific about where or when the play is set?

“Well, something that we talked about as a production team was that isolation feels like you have this membrane around you, so we explored as a team the question of what it means for the membrane around this play to be really thick. We do get these key signposts like the cup that Sheila brings in, a Styrofoam cup with a red straw, and we get the CD player as you said, and there are some references to a certain era, but time and geographic location are never explicitly stated in the play.”

Going back to the queer aspects of the play you touched on, do you see Avery as a queer character?

“I don’t think I came to the play feeling very particular about the gender identity of this person, or their sexual expression. I didn’t have those feelings when I sat down to write the character, but as I was writing her I realized that she is a fabrication of me, so inevitably she has these grapplings with gender identity and gender roles and physical expression and all the complications around those things. As I became more aware that was who I was writing, Lio Mehiel, who plays Avery, became integrated into the workshop process. We weren’t creating the script together, but it was inspiring for me to watch someone like Lio, who’s transmasculine and gender nonconforming, work on the role and try to make sense of what was happening to this person on a farm, and how the environment of the play does feel very related to transness and gender fluidity. The confines that Avery is up against in the play are not so different from the confines that queer people are up against in general.”

Like the set roles Avery is expected to conform to on the farm by her parents.

“Yes, her parents have very particular expectations for her which is a common experience for all of us.”

Did you work with any of the other actors in a workshop setting?

“Lio Mehiel who plays Avery and Elizabeth Kenny who plays Mother are the only two from the cast who have been with the play since its very early stages. I started writing it in the summer of 2018 and then I finished the first draft of it that I felt great about a year later. Lio and I were both in LA and they were like ‘I really love this play, how are you considering producing it?’ I was hesitant at first, because I’ve been trained to field the opportunities and be sort of entrepreneur about every endeavor. But at the end of the day, no opportunity was going to come along for this weird play where I could direct the production on my own terms. Lio gave me an opportunity to create it outside an institution, where I wouldn’t be told, ‘oh, the second act needs to be a lot funnier’ or ‘people need to leave the venue feeling a lot better about what they saw.’ So it was a profound experience to create it in this way.”

Have you directed your own work before?

“No, I haven’t formally. I’m interested in making stories from multiple perspectives. I’m a writer mainly, but I have another piece called Twin Size Beds that I am the writer and performer of. There is a director named Caitlin O’Connell who’s outside of it, giving me feedback and helping me orchestrate the larger picture, but in many ways I have found that as a writer my collaboration style is to be someone who is directing from within. I’m also a designer, so I’m also designing from within. It asks a lot of generosity from collaborators because I think so laterally. When I sit down to write a script I’m thinking about how it looks, the flavour of the atmosphere, what the textures are, and so I think for a scenic designer that’s coming in we have a very special relationship where there’s a lot of fighting, really positive and productive fighting, because I see it so rigidly. But the thing that I want and ask of collaborators is that they are fighting really, really hard against my rigid understanding of what the play is because that’s how we elevate it. I don’t really have time or reception for collaborators who aren’t willing to try wrecking my vision in a way. Like positively wreck me! Put forward your own opinions and make me listen to them. Luckily my set designer Emona Stoykova is very brilliant.”

So in terms of the atmosphere and the look of the production it’s very impressive; the set, the lighting, the sound design, all those elements. Did they all end up being pretty different in the finished production to how they were when you first envisioned them?

“Totally. I think that just in terms of budgetary constraints we had to come up creatively against those logistical things. I feel really quite proud of the production design. As I’m watching it I can’t really conceive of any other way that it could’ve happened on this scale of production. Of course it’s an amalgamation of all of our ideas around the piece. Looking at it, it feels cohesive and communicative. It’s maybe a more spare vision of the script than I initially imagined, but I think there’s something profound in the tension between how lush and illustrative the text is and how barren the visual aesthetic of the piece is.”

In terms of the lighting, one thing that I really liked was the headlights going across the stage. That works really well.

“Yeah, Krista Smith is the amazing lighting designer and we worked really hard on it.”

The sound design is quite sparse as well, but very effective. There’s also little in the way of music, so when we do hear it it’s impactful.

“The only two songs we hear are Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere and at the end there’s a longer composition during the final sequence that feels very cinematic in its scoring. We sort of became obsessed with the idea that those were the only two pieces of music we would hear, because Avery doesn’t hear any music in her life. She hears her mother humming, but she doesn’t hear any manufactured, produced sound. It’s interesting that you say that the sound is sparse because the whole play is actually underscored. It’s very subtly done. There’s only one scene that happens in silence and it’s a very crucial scene to the play. But beyond that, it is totally scored all the way through, our sound designer, Michael Costagliola is very good. You don’t notice it, but it’s making you feel something.”

That makes a lot of sense because I couldn’t pinpoint when the sound was coming in and ending, I was just thinking ‘this sound design is great’ and then getting lost in the play. Who are the writers you’ve been inspired by or just admire; perhaps those who’ve been directly influential on Coop even?

“María Irene Fornés is someone I always come back to. I think her work was so ahead of its time and the way in which she sort of refuses to explain her work I think is really admirable. I don’t know if a contemporary artist can really get away with that, with not having to explain ourselves, because I think that our ecosystem is so threatened by the illusion of a scarcity model. Our hands are sort of forced to make people understand what we’re doing in grant applications and mission statements. I look up so much to artists who don’t really feel the need to do that, especially on stage. Just in terms of theatrical people that I look up to, there’s Pina Bausch and Caryl Churchill as well. Jackie Sibblies Drury, her work is extraordinarily profound. Also Agnes Borinsky is a mind I love, Tina Satter, Aya Ogawa, Nazareth Hassan, Jacob Perkins, Clare Barron.”

You mention Pina Bausch and your direction of Coop is quite choreographed isn’t it, especially because there’s that repetition in the piece. And what about the cast, they’re all excellent in the play, tell us about collaborating with them and communicating your vision for Coop to them.

“It’s a real family that we have. They all have extremely different working styles and so it was a really interesting and I think enlivening and a difficult experience. As a director I’m coming to terms with how to communicate my writing, and also how to communicate my writing to actors with different styles. Often I’m not in a position where I have to explain bit by bit every single element. The practicalities of communicating every moment of the script is not something I think about when I’m writing and I don’t think I should have to. I think it would get in the way of how the music and the rhythm of the piece is constructed. So I’m coming to terms with how to communicate my working style while also learning about their working styles and we’re all trying to meet each other. And so it takes a ton of generosity I think, because there are actors in the cast who have had a lot of experience with work that is rigorous to perform. I think the balance we’re striking now is that there’s a really specific framework in place, it’s that choreographic thing, there’s a real blueprint to the piece and also it has to be matched by a really grounded emotionality that lets the audience trust the people who are inside that blueprint. Because if it’s only a formal investigation, it’s hard to listen to. And if it’s only emotional, then we sacrifice some of the technicality and the rigor and the demands of the piece. So it has to be both of those things, so we are trying to find that all together.”

In terms of the narrative, it’s relatively straight forward isn’t it, but I think a lot of what makes it really compelling is the form. What are you exploring structurally with Coop?

“For this play specifically, and I guess with all of my work, I feel interested in form as a storytelling device particularly in terms of how different narratives are asking different things of a dramatic structure. I really feel daily like I want to resist the sort of age-old, well-trodden ideas about storytelling; there’s a linear quality to storytelling usually and there’s a really specific arc and we have this three act structure. I feel in my writing practice the thing that brings me a lot of delight and the thing that brings me a lot of challenge is how to make a play form around the particular psychology of a piece. I guess that’s just expressionism, that’s not a new idea, to make the aesthetic and the form of a piece echo a central voice’s interior life. It’s something that I want to keep stretching the boundaries of. I have this other play Pidor and the Wolf and the structure is based on the scaffolding of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It’s about this young man thinking about authorship a lot. And there are so many meta levels of that play, as there are in Coop as well. So I guess I feel obsessed with how to make structure feel emotionally authentic to what’s happening. Especially in America, I think that there is this bizarre precedent that imagines that really good plays must happen around a couch and the question becomes how smart or shocking or clever can you be with a play around a couch? We have a real history of American kitchen sink drama and Coop I think is actually looking really hard at kitchen sink drama; there’s a literal kitchen sink on stage and we’re thinking about how to fracture that idea and how to make it feel very American without having to use these precedents that are arbitrary and don’t, in my mind, help the storyteller.”

For a moment I thought you were going to say ‘in America we have a bizarre President…’

“We do have a bizarre President! And a series of bizarre precedents.”

Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage/Wild. Strand Releasing.

Is there an LGBTQ+ play, film, book, artwork or piece of music that particularly resonates with you and why?

“Right now I like the work of Maggie Nelson and Brian Blanchfield, and I found out recently they are friends. I’m reading Brian Blanchfield’s collection of essays called Proxies and it’s become really important for me artistically. I love this movie I saw recently called Sauvage, or Wild is the English title. I had a really astounding experience with it and as soon as I finished it I thought ‘oh, I want to watch it again.’ I’ve seen a few movies recently that felt like they were about queerness in really oblique ways and I kind of like that, when it doesn’t feel really heavy-handed. Like with Horse Girl that just screened at Sundance, and it’s on Netflix now, about this woman who thinks she’s being abducted in her sleep. For me, it felt very much about queerness. I don’t know if that was the intention of the writer/director in any way, but it’s a great, a bizarre watch! I was actually just at Sundance and I saw Zola by Janicza Bravo.”

That’s based on the twitter thread isn’t it?

“Yes, it is incredible! I loved Janicza’s movie Lemon, oh my God it’s so good. I think she’s incredible and I feel so excited that she’s made something like Zola that feels like it’s mainstream and people are going to be widely interested in it, but it still holds her really thoughtful and oddball artistic voice, it’s really amazing and delicious.”

Do you have any interest in going into film or TV yourself?

“Yes, the amount of visual attention that goes into a film is really exciting for me. Figuring out how to transfer visual attention over from my theatrical work and how to apply it to the medium of film and TV is exciting. For me TV and film demand that you use what the medium is good at, how to use what a particular structure of viewing can be good at to tell a narrative. There are cool documentarians who are doing that now like Kirsten Johnson, she’s just made a film that I haven’t seen yet called Dick Johnson is Dead about her father and she’s sort of conflating fictional narrative filmmaking with documentary, it’s just really exciting.”

I think Honeyland does that to some degree too. And I love Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson which everyone should seek out if they’ve seen.

“Absolutely, she’s brilliant.”

Sam Max’s Coop runs at Paradise Factory, 64 E 4th Street, New York, NY 10003 from February 27th until March 14th. Monday – Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 3pm and 8pm. No show March 9th. General Admission: $25. Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/coop-tickets-88674456687

Sam Max’s Coop runs at Paradise Factory New York February 27th – March 14th 2020

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