Dallas writer ponders the dangers of intimacy
Four creatures, two cages and a bed.
by Janielle Kastner sweet peafinally premiering at Theater of the Second Thought after 16 months, has the simple, symmetrical structure of a fully formed piece at the concept stage. Conceived during a silent writers retreat in the hills outside San Antonio, the image of a couple came to Kastner’s mind during a writing exercise.
“I thought it was going to be a poem,” she recalled in a phone interview, “two people intertwined on a bed, as close as they physically could be. But the bed was breaking under them. Then , we were told, “There is someone in the room who cannot speak.
“I realized there were two birds in cages on either side of the bed that desperately wanted to be together. each other, they could finally have some intimacy, and two other creatures who are as close as they can be but can’t understand what’s happening to them and what’s going on in each other’s hearts and minds.
The recently married Kastner, 30, is an actor, playwright and podcaster from Dallas. His latest effort was postponed from last year due to the pandemic. Here is our interview with her, edited for space and clarity.
How has the silence of the retreat affected you?
There were no words, not even gestures allowed. I realized that I didn’t often let myself exist and take up space. I use language to buy the right to exist and convince others that I deserve to be in the room with them. So what came out of me was a lot of thinking about what it means to exist and take up space and how complicated it is with a partner, especially a partner that you want intimacy with total.
We talk about boundaries so much, but I kept thinking, “How do you communicate what you want and need to someone else?” One of the main jobs in our life is simply figuring out what we want. … I was also making a lot of meaningful eye contact with the animals. A turtle looked me straight in the eye.
What is the play about?
A lot of it is about wanting your partner to be too many things at once, and how impossible that is. There’s this great quote about how what we ask of a partner now, we asked of the whole village. I want you to be my family, but I also want to find you sexy. I want to know everything about you and be fully known to you. But I also want you to be mysterious and excite me.
It just escaped me. I had a solid draft in 10 days, which was weird. It usually takes me years to figure out what my piece is, what I’m talking about.
You originally wrote for other “characters” as well.
Ever since I was a kid, I was a little too empathetic. I believed that all inanimate objects had feelings. I have had co-dependency with all objects and people since the day I was born.
A playwright friend told me that you get a magical thing in your play for free that you don’t have to explain. I had two: the birds and this series of objects that I will forever mourn, objects that stood out in the room — a tiara and a knife that cut someone. They would talk to us. And every person I’ve sent the part to has told me that you have an amazing game on your hands once you cut out the inanimate objects. I was devastated.
sweet pea developed during an informal reading with theater friends and two more readings at Stage West and the Dallas Theater Center. What did you understand in the process?
A woman stood up and said she came because she saw there was a bird on the poster. “I have about 12 birds, and here is everything you misunderstood. Do you want to come and see my birds? So I changed a lot on the birds.
Now there’s a really tricky moment around consent and a tricky question of non-consensual intimacy. My intention was for it to be incredibly complicated and less about the actual breach of consent and more about how each of them feels about the idea. Because I was writing this piece at a very particular moment in the MeToo movement when we had developed this language for predators. We had developed this language for monsters. We had this language for rapists.
But we didn’t yet have a language for what I and especially my friends had been through, which were times of violation in romantic contexts with partners who really cared about us, or times of complete dissociation, where no consent had not been violated.
People were very upset that she hadn’t forgiven him as they would have liked or were convinced that if only she had spoken sooner. I had created an awkward situation. I managed to create an uncomfortable situation. But what I did unsuccessfully was leave a lot of room for people to go further and cling to a moral that I didn’t want.
For the readings, you had stage directions that the audience of a full production wouldn’t hear.
I’m really good at stage directions that tell you what’s really going on, what everyone’s really thinking, versus what they’re saying. In the context of a reading, they are funny. But I was afraid the play wouldn’t translate without them. It was a very smart crutch. But can the hidden world of the play live without being literally spoken? We learned that we could pull off some of the trickier ones.
In the room, I mourn the fact that I really love someone, and that I really want to know and understand them, and that they really want to know and understand you, and that you are both ready to make it work – that even all of these things aren’t enough. Which for me is one of the great tragedies.
“I would like to consume you whole and I would like to be consumed whole.” It would be better and less anxious. However, there is no way to be consumed without killing your core life force. The reason I feel like I have a chance to stand next to someone and say “I choose you and I’d like to try with you” is that I think I’ve learned beauty intimacy, mystery and loneliness, no need to break someone, but rather to offer to make him soup.
How it works sweet pea compare to your previous work, like Ophelia underwaterwhere you imagine a victim of Shakespeare after his death?
I have this deep concern of loneliness. I feel like all of my best work is created out of loneliness. I’m alone for my characters and alone for the connection, and then I start writing about it.
For Ophelia underwater, I was interested in the quiet solitude of no one knowing what is happening to them. For sweet pea, there is a loneliness in the face of the impossibility of intimacy and the tragedy of not functioning. I think there is a core that I noticed in my work. I am very obsessed with connection and missed connection and having the love you need or the connection you desire so close but missing or missing.
Through Dec. 11 at Bryant Hall, 3400 Blackburn St., Dallas. $25. Pay what you can on December 6. 214-897-3091. secondthinktheatre.com.