The difference between a play rehearsal and a slumber party has never seemed slighter than on a recent afternoon at Triskelion Arts in Williamsburg. In an upstairs room, writer-director Tina Satter and her Half Straddle corps ran lines from the semi-Chekhovian Seagull (Thinking of You), which begins performances at P.S.122’s Coil festival on January 9. Between scenes, the actors snacked on popcorn; tried on furry hats; made fun of each other’s acting techniques; broke into choruses of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”; and giggled, whispered, and toyed with each other’s hair.
Even the scripted lines seem to echo this girly, aimless air. “Rehearsal was weird today,” says Becca Blackwell, playing a character somewhat based somewhat on Anton Chekhov’s Trigorin. “Yes,” replies Susie Sokol as Arkadina, “I understood nothing, but I liked watching it.”
In plays such as Nurses in New England, which premiered at the Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory Festival in 2010, and In the Pony Palace/Football, which scored theatrical touchdowns at the Bushwick Starr in 2011, Satter has distinguished herself for creating all-female (or nearly all-female) universes, articulated in a fervid, frothy prose poetry that Satter, during a post-rehearsal chat at a nearby café, described as “coded girl speak.”
In Nurses, the medical professionals treat injuries sustained at a “tire swing ransack” and a “barncat tea party.” In Pony Palace, football maneuvers include the “lavender spiral” and the “sparrow glitter.” Vallejo Gantner, P.S.122’s artistic director, calls Satter’s writing “grandiose, humble, and hilarious.”
Like many New York playwrights of her generation, the 38-year-old Satter attended Mac Wellman’s MFA program at Brooklyn College, where Wellman once gave her an assignment to reduce a classic play to just five pages. Satter had just seen the 2008 Broadway version of Chekhov’s The Seagull and was struck by Nina’s line, “I love the lake the way a seagull does.” Satter recalls, “I was like, oh my god, this is really weird girl magic.” She found the play a mix of “humor, poignancy, sadness, and stupidness.”
So she shrunk it down, combining skeletal plot with her own language. A few years later, she attempted a full-length script, in which actors switch between Chekhov’s characters and their own personalities as they fret about their make-up, engage in complicated flirtation, and rehearse a nameless work. If story and setting seem less clear than in the original Seagull, Satter does occasionally hit on that distinctly Chekhovian atmosphere in which nothing happens and everything happens, all at once.
She found distinct analogies between Chekhov’s actor and writer characters and her own collaborators: “a group of people trying who love each other and hate each other and desire each other and have all this complicated stuff, but at the end of the day it’s about the art in a certain way.” In some ways, then, Chekhov’s Seagull becomes an excuse for Satter’s meditation on the joys, conflicts, and erotics of collaborative work.
Satter played field hockey in high school and throughout college, and the experience of being surrounded by women engaged in a likeminded pursuit obviously pleases her, even as she notes that men and performers who prefer not to identify as either male or female are always present in the room, too. In an e-mail a few days later, Satter tried to put her finger on the team spirit that informs the Half Straddle oeuvre: “a sometimes dysfunctional girl band, or best friends from junior high or intelligent ego-driven women and queers and gays hashing it out.”