Sarah Steele: Strong Social Misfit
New York theatre thrives on stories about misfits. Girls in green and men behind a mask have tugged at our hearts and reminded us that being different is perfectly fine… and makes for a great night out!
But Stephen Karam's new play Speech & Debate, the inaugural production in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Theatre directed by Jason Moore, doesn't need blockbuster effects to emphasize the significant role of The Outsider.
Sarah Steele – opposite Gideon Glick, Jason Fuchs and Susan Blackwell – embodies Diwata, an ambitious and dorky theatre-obsessed girl in Salem, Oregon longing for her turn in the spotlight. Finding it difficult to be cast in shows, Diwata uses her personal podcasts and school's budding speech and debate team to showcase her skills. But beyond her nerdy grin, Diwata and her new friends Solomon (Fuchs) and Howie (Glick) find themselves entangled in a web of keeping secrets and profound trust.
After seeing the show last week, BroadwayWorld.com's own News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, found a moment to talk with Sarah Steele about her character and this deeply enjoyable and powerfully current new play...
Eugene Lovendusky: Thanks for taking a moment to chat BroadwayWorld.com and congratulations on your very well-reviewed opening night.
Sarah Steele: Thank you very much!
Eugene: How does it feel bring such creative and new material to the Roundabout's inaugural Black Box production?
Sarah: Oh, it's so wonderful! And the Roundabout has been so amazing. I'm just so happy to have the opportunity to work with all these people. They have been so welcoming and sweet.
Eugene: In a nutshell, describe Diwata and how she fits into the scheme of things.
Sarah: Diwata is, I think, a really creative and talented girl who does not belong in Salem, Oregon. She fancies herself very artistically-advanced. She feels very deeply about her artistic work and the only outlet she has for drama is her school plays; and I think this is something that a lot of creative high school students feel! There's so much time and energy and anxiety that goes into school plays. And she does not get cast… ever… But even when she was an extra in The Crucible, she did a character analysis, wrote a back-story, did a bunch of research and really gave it her all. She really is fearless and puts her all into everything she does. One of the things that I truly admire the most about the character is that she honestly does not care what people think about her. She does what she wants. She lives intensely and if people don't like it, that's their problem.
Eugene: On what levels do you identify with
Sarah: When I was a little younger, I really did love musical theatre in the same hopeless dorky way that she does. I was obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar and I used to reenact it in my room when no one was home. Portraying this character has really given me an opportunity to get in touch with that side of myself, which I haven't been for a few years. And I do know what it's like to be different from people around you and not fit into the prototypical mold of what America sort of thinks a girl "should be." I think that Diwata does not fit that mold. She's loud, she's a huge personality, she's imposing. I don't know if I'm the same thing in that sense, but what gives me the joy in playing her is the total rejection of needing to fit in. It's so inspiring.
Eugene: This is a rather comedic – but intense – play. Tell me about the director Jason Moore and how you guys approached this play.
Sarah: One thing that I loved – since it was such a small group – we really had time in the first week of the rehearsal process to sit down as a group and just talk. Talk about high school and what we identify with in the play; things that have happened to us and all of our high school experiences that we could bring to this. And to talk about what everyone knows in each specific scene. I think the ultimate goal is that when we're off-stage, we know everything our character is thinking. Hopefully when we are on-stage, our thoughts are our character's thoughts because we really know that much about them. An example I love: Diwata auditioned for the school play by doing a big number from Once Upon A Mattress. I went home and my boyfriend plunked out the notes for me, and I had to learn and prepare that song just so I could learn and know how that feels. I've never had that kind of detail in a rehearsal process. Jason Moore is absolutely unbelievable.
Eugene: It certainly sounds like a great process. You were talking about how every moment you're in the play, you're thinking what the character would be thinking… that's just a tip-of-the-hat to how good Stephen Karam's script is... so current and truthful! How does it feel to be delivering such heavy subject-matter? Namely sex scandals, pregnancy and coming out… is it scary?
Sarah: To a certain extent it is scary… I think that's also why it's so exciting. I really believe this play is important – these are issues that people don't talk about. Certainly they never talked about this type of thing at my high school. That's what makes it so hard for kids. But it is something that people do go through. Kids dealing with these really adult-problems. I'm making big, generalized statements – but our culture doesn't acknowledge these things. Sex does lead to pregnancy! Kids don't always have an outlet or someone they can talk to about it.
Eugene: I'm glad you're touching on that point, because I think it's safe to say that almost every kid today has a blog or uses instant messenger and knows what it's like to be involved with online drama and "keeping it between friends." A part of me wonders if there are parents leaving the theatre thinking to themselves: "Is that what our kids are up to?" Discuss the role of technology and keeping secrets in this show…
Sarah: [laughs] One thing is funny because my grandparents are going to come see the show and my mom was concerned that they wouldn't understand, because so much of it is Internet-based. Our generation specifically really relates to it, because we were the first people to discover the Internet and most of us can maybe navigate the Internet better than our parents can. All this information you could ever possibly know is right at our fingertips, not to mention the fact you can meet anyone!
Sarah: You can go to these chat-lines. It's not hard… it's really easy. Another thing the show makes clear is not talking about these issues is what leads kids to go on the Internet and find out the information themselves. And then they come across people like Mr. Healy wanting to meet them in the park. That's what leads to these kind of more-dangerous things. They're not allowed to talk about it at school and they maybe feel uncomfortable talking about it with their parents. But instead of them not knowing about it, now we have these gadgets and we can learn about it and not tell our parents and get ourselves into potentially dangerous situations.
Eugene: On top of being intense, this show is actually very funny too. And you get to sing! I'll admit, I was bobbing my foot along with it… very catchy! Is it fun finding your groove? What part of the show do you look forward to the most?
Sarah: From the very first time I got the script for this before I did the reading, I grabbed my little brother and took him up to my room and said: "You need to listen to this song called 'Hold It In'!" because I just thought it was hilarious! That might be one of my most favorite parts of the show. When I throw the glitter and then come out as Mary Warren… [laughs] Funny story: That costume change I do in a closet, so I had never seen myself in that costume. I put it on and come right out on-stage. One day in rehearsal for some reason the costumer had a mirror in the theatre and I came on for "Hold It In" and I started singing and broke-down laughing! I'd never seen myself in it… it was killing me! [laughs] Again, as ridiculous as that song is, I totally believe Diwata would write it! Love that!
Eugene: You're balancing classes at Columbia right now, right?
Sarah: I am. I'm taking a pretty light load. I'm doing well. Gideon and Jason are both in school too, so we find time between shows to get work done, and during the day. I really like Columbia. Unlike high school, I don't feel any pressure to get straight-As. I just like learning.
Eugene: Speaking about Gideon… this isn't the first time you've performed on stage with him, is it?
Sarah: [laughs] Yes, that's true. We were in this hip-hop group in Philadelphia when we were 11 or 12. It was so funny. We were two of the only white kids from the suburbs in this big hip-hop group, and we learned all these crazy dances and songs. We bonded a lot during that. It's been a huge influence on both of us actually. It's like Speech & Debate in a way – we worked with these kids in schools who would write plays. And our musical director would write hip-hop songs through them, and we'd visit the schools and perform their play for them. It was great, an amazing company, called "The Rainbow Company."
Eugene: To wrap-up, what do you hope audiences take away when they see Speech & Debate?
Sarah: What makes me happy about the show, and what I hope people take away from it is: "Just be yourself." I know that's supremely corny, but I really think that just being honest with yourself and being honest with everyone around you is the best way to live. In high school, people are sometimes encouraged to be like everyone else. What's so great about this show is that these kids are weird and different and over-achievers. They know what they want and they're going after it. They're weird and they don't deny it. That's what makes it special.
Eugene: Thank you very much! I really hope people swing by The Black Box Theatre and catch this one-of-a-kind show.
Sarah: Thanks, Eugene! Bye.
Speech & Debate performs in the Black Box Theatre at Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre box office (111 West 46th Street): Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8PM with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30PM and Sunday evenings at 7PM. For tickets ($20) call 212-719-1300 or visit www.roundaboutunderground.com.