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Interview with Kat Sandler

1. You’re quite a force in the theatre world, staging something like 17 original plays in under a decade! And you wear many hats — artistic director, screenwriter, playwright — how does your directorial eye inform your writing?

I always think of writing and directing as one job – to shepherd an idea (rather than a script or a show) from conception to production, so I never really take off either hat. When I’m writing I try to think ahead to what “director me” will be staging/what the audience will be seeing/feeling at that moment and write towards that. For instance, if there’s a very talk-y scene, I think, what could this use physically? A fight? A spill? A moment of physical tension? – and then try to write it in. When I’m directing, I can always use my writer brain to shift the script to help me give a moment more impact or change a line because an actor ad-libbed something great or is struggling with a word or a moment.

 I was struck by three things: the imagery of her chicken hut and preferred method of travel and bone grinding (mortar and pestle); her ambiguous moral code; and the fact that she had a name.

2. What was your fascination with Baba Yaga? What made you write a play about her?

I’ve always been fascinated by legends and myths, and the villains at the heart of them. I was raised on a steady diet of cookie-cutter fairy tales and prince-rescues-princess-from-wicked-witch narratives. So, when I first came across Baba Yaga, I was struck by three things: the imagery of her chicken hut and preferred method of travel and bone grinding (mortar and pestle); her ambiguous moral code; and the fact that she had a name. Witches are so often defined vaguely by colours, geography or their protagonists (i.e., “White” or “of the West” or “the one from Hansel and Gretel”) but here was a witch powerful enough to be remembered for how she operated, how she lived, not just how she got shoved into an oven or poisoned an apple that one time. I thought that was cool.

I also was fascinated by what was actually written about her; she’s usually described as old and ugly, and sometimes she kills people, but she helps them too, when she wants to.

Across the globe she’s seen as everything from monster to a quest donor, wise woman to a goddess, trickster to a saviour and everything in between. To me, she’s a compelling, morally ambiguous, complex female character – a villain and a protagonist, an antishero who does what she wants and refuses to be defined or labelled as one thing. I loved the idea of updating her to a modern woman, and wanted to write something that came at the story of a female villain from her POV, rather than a male-driven hero’s journey. I wanted to re-envision her as a sexy, powerful academic, who refuses to take shit from anyone. After all, historically what we call a witch is just someone society has decided it’s scared of, and what could be scarier than a powerful, sexual, brilliant older woman living by her own rules?

3. The female characters in Yaga are surprising, full of complexities, and not always ethical. How do you create such dynamic characters? Where does your inspiration come from?

I spent much of my early career trying to write in a style that appealed primarily to straight me, modelling my work on violent and sexy male-driven television shows, trying to shy away from writing funny, powerful women because I thought it would intimidate audiences. Now, I really love creating complex female characters, especially older ones, because I think that subsect of society and culture is woefully unexplored. A mentor said once to me, “There’s a period of time in a woman’s life when you just become invisible -you’re not a mother, or a sexual object, so what are you, a crone?”. That became a line in Yaga. My inspiration also comes from the incredible women in my life and in our industry. There are so many brilliant “older” female actors, who have such an epic wealth of experience, both professional and lived, and as I get older myself, I want to focus more on their (and my!) stories!