Its 7:00 pm
Welcome to “8 Questions with…….”
I was recently sent a new film called “To The New Girl” of which I loved and I think its one of the best films of the year. After watching it for the fourth time,I knew I wanted to interview EVERYONE involved in the film but also knew that wouldn’t be practical.
So I went with the top two of my wish list and was lucky enough to land this interview with the playwright who wrote the play and later on the film,Sam Macher. Yes,I know my title says “Samantha” but the lady likes to go by Sam.
Sam is one of the most multitasking artists I have met yet….writer,playwright,teacher and producer. She does this while also working in the professional world (as long as there isn’t a pandemic going on). I really wanted to know how her play has become such a powerful film and so I went slightly wild with my questions. Sam is the type of artist that you find yourself saying “8 Questions?? To hell with that….I got waaaaay more then 8 Questions to ask”.
I hope you all enjoy this interview and getting to know the voice behind one of the best films of the year in “To The New Girl” as I ask playwright Sam Macher her 8 Questions…..
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your current project
I’m Sam Macher, the writer/producer of “To the New Girl”, an independent feature film from New Girl Pictures and Dragon Hunter Productions. I’m a playwright by training, producer by necessity, and storyteller by birth.
How have you been doing during this pandemic? Have you found it challenging to remain creative or has it been easy?
The pandemic has presented as many challenges as it has opportunities in a lot of ways. On the one hand, I was laid off from my stable day job, but on the other, I had more time and energy to dedicate to helping get this film project (and others) off the ground. All in all, I feel lucky to be safe and healthy, and though this hasn’t been the most creative time for me, I’m still able to work on projects I love with people I love.
What was it like growing up in your house as a child? Were your parents artistic and how did they encourage you to be creative?
I would say both of my parents are incredibly creative and imaginative in their own ways, so the nice thing about being their child is that there were no limits to what they thought I could do. My dad is a first generation American and built his own transportation/logistics business in our garage (it’s now been around for 30 years this fall!). My mom has worked her way from office manager to VP at a national non-profit and now works at a architecture firm, in part because she has an incredible passion for design. I think they both come from a “follow your passion- you’ll either figure it out or you’ll change direction” mindset.
A lot of folks I’ve met during my career had well-meaning relatives that told them to pursue more traditionally lucrative fields of study and warned them away from unstable careers in the arts, but thankfully I never worried too much about that. For me, as the first one in my immediate family to go to college, their perspective was that so long as I got my education, everything else would work out. They turned out to be right. I learned the skills I needed to run my creative career like a business by producing my own work and this eventually translated into working at small non-profits then small businesses, and eventually even Fortune 500 companies. Once they got past my weird job history and somewhat irrelevant degrees, hiring managers saw my creativity as an asset and not a liability. I will say though that I got (and still get) a lot of benefit of the doubt along the way. Attending the right schools and having the right connections has undoubtedly helped me succeed. I don’t say this to undermine my talent or work ethic, but to highlight that lots of talented folks work hard and unfairly don’t even get in the door in creative or corporate spaces.
When did you start writing and what type of writing did you do? How important was reading to you growing up and who were your favorite writers growing up?
I started writing at a pretty young age. I think the first story I wrote was when I was six or seven. Thankfully, my mom kept all of my “early work”, and it’s funny to me that even then, it was surprisingly dialogue heavy. I also used to write TV shows for my friends and I to perform on the playground and spent countless hours making movies on the family camera.
I read a lot as a kid and some of my favorite books were the Anne of Green Gables series. I think I read them/watched the Canadian miniseries dozens of times. I also loved RL Stine and all the Goosebumps and Fear Street books. I adored Steven King. I still can’t get enough ghost stories. One of these days I’ll finally get around to writing something spooky!
You attended and graduated from the University of Virginia,what was your college experience like? How much did your creative writing blossom while you were in school?
College was… weird. I wasn’t a great student, but I loved my spiritual writing and playwriting classes and probably took 6 of them during those 4 years. Even though my academics were a little subpar, I learned a ton. I learned how to write in a workshop, give and accept feedback, and self-produce my plays, which was completely invaluable. The training I got in the UVA playwriting program (headed by Doug Grissom) was a huge part of how ready I was for my MFA at Hollins (led by Todd Ristau). While I was at Hollins, I already had the toolkit to be a good collaborator, but they helped mold me into a good writer. So many of the opportunities I’ve had over the years have come from the reputation I established at Hollins and the classmates and instructors that believed in me enough to produce my work.
To this day, I still have a strong relationship with both programs. UVA brings me back as a guest artist about once a year, and I’ve even gotten to be a guest lecturer as well. The Hollins New Works Initiative still functions as a production office for my films, allowing me to fundraise through their 501c3 infrastructure. Not all schools take this kind of risk on their alums. I’m grateful that my schools do.
What drew you to live theater and how did you get your start as a playwright? How is writing a play different from screenwriting?
Ah! I have always desperately wanted to be an actor, but alas, this is not a gift I possess. I don’t know what to do with my hands when I’m on stage. I can’t remember lines to save my life. My reactions as a person are wildly exaggerated, and so on stage they somehow look even more ridiculous! But, I figured if I couldn’t be on stage, I could certainly still be near it.
I’ll tell you a quick story: My senior year of high school, we were supposed to have a spring musical. Then, our drama teacher left to go work at another school, then the person who took over the program resigned mid-year and the musical was cancelled. I was furious. Though I am a fairly crappy actor, I’m a pretty good singer (and am really enthusiastic) and thought for SURE this was going to be the year I was going to be in the play! So I did what I thought anyone would do, and wrote the spring musical with a role for me in it! It was funny because I wound up being so busy with rewrites and eventually producing, that I had to recast myself in the show, direct it, and then wound up producing the other student-written one-acts that we needed to couple with my play to make it a full evening of theater. The whole point was to be IN the play! But once I saw how awesome my classmates were, I really couldn’t envision it any other way. From there on out, I stuck to what I did best. Lurked backstage like the Phantom of the Opera, and lived vicariously through the folks in the spotlight.
The second part of question is a little harder for me to answer. Aside from this project, most of my film work is documentary and movement pieces, so I don’t really write for the screen in a traditional way. Generally though, when I have written more straightforward screenplays, it’s a lot more “Show” and a lot less “Tell”. You think a lot more about what can be communicated with the character’s actions, their facial expressions, their moods, rather than what they’re saying. The classic axiom is “When you write a play, the audience should be able to know what’s going on just by listening to it. When you write a film, the audience should be able to know what’s going on even just by looking at it.” I try to just do that.
How did you get the inspiration for “To The New Girl”? How hard was it to take your
words from paper to a live stage?
I went through a divorce in my early 20’s after a brief marriage, so the play itself is very loosely inspired by that emotional journey (not the factual one), but also by the women in my life who’d been through divorces as well. The stories I heard were both sad, and heartening. In their own way, they were telling young me that things would be hard, but you’ll get through it. I think I was trying to find a way to capture the essence of their advice to me to share with others, and wound up twisting it on it’s head a bit to tell the story we have now.
Have you ever done spoken word yourself and what drew you to basing your play on this format?
I have incredible respect for those who tell their stories this way, and also it seems, they have made an obvious (if not intentional) impact on the way I tell mine, but I’ve never performed spoken word poetry.
I think the reason this way of storytelling appealed to me when I first started writing TTNG is that when you don’t have other characters to play off of, or a clear setting, it’s the voice of the character itself that tells you a lot about who they are. Is this character a fast talker? Does this person take long, deliberate pauses? Does this person invite you in, ask you to sit, and then tell you their life story? What do the answers to these questions tell you about how they live their lives outside of this play? When you bake in the pauses and emphasis, I think an actor gets a lot to chew on (or ignore, which is also fine). I think the acknowledgement that how and when we speak is almost as important as what we say, is something that spoken word poets and I have in common.
How did you find your “voices” for “Girl”? How many original actresses made the transition to the film?
The original production at SkyPilot Theater Company in Los Angeles was developed in close collaboration with their actors and the original director Jeanette Farr-Harkins. I went to auditions, heard the women in the company read their monologues, and as I heard them speak, I started to see my characters realized. A lot of those speech patterns you see in the play evolved from imagining specific actresses in these roles. How they talk and how they move in a helped ground these characters while I was writing.
Only one actress came from the original SkyPilot cast to the film- Samantha Carro. She played Elyssa in the original production. But Kelly Goodman is an actor from the original company, so when we were casting the role of Miriam, she came to mind really quickly.
What were you feeling during Opening Night? What emotions were you feeling listening to your words?
I wrote this play so long ago (I think I was 24, so about 10 years ago at this point), so whenever I see this show, it’s a little like hearing people read your diary from that age. It’s surreal, but also incredibly cool. It’s nerve-wracking, but I also have enough distance from it to be able to evaluate the work for what it is today. I also feel incredibly proud that this play has had a decade of performances, and humbled/lucky that my collaborators have chosen to take it to this distance.
How did the idea of making “To The New Girl” from the stage to screen make you feel?
As an artist, in general, I’m very “let’s throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks” so I was on board from the get go. I also trust Laura Hunter Drago, our producer, with my very life so I knew for sure she was the person to trust with this project.
I want to note that I was a little skeptical about there being widespread excitement for this project (sometimes I get in my own head about “why would anyone want to see my plays?”), but once the Kickstarter campaign was funded, I knew we’d have the support we needed to get it done. Laura never doubted it though. It’s amazing to have a producer with so much confidence in herself and confidence about the work. Did I mention I love her?
Did you have to make any adjustments in your play to fit the film?
Thankfully, not really. Since it’s such a simple script and setting (and it was workshopped pretty thoroughly), there weren’t a ton of edits needed to the final version of the screenplay.
You are also a working professional,how do you balance your work life with your creative one?
I don’t 😊 It’s always kind of feast or famine either way. There are some times when I have the chance to throw myself into my writing and really go for it, and other times I have to hunker down and work so I can eventually support the writing. I think other writers definitely have more discipline in this way. I admire them greatly.
Where do you find the time to write and what is your process like?
At the moment, even in the pandemic with the layoff, I’m not writing a ton, but I am reviewing and revising work that I did in the past and making updates. I’m also seeing which projects I should be pushing for the next phase of production and which ones need to go to the back burner for a little longer. What I’ve found over the course of my career is that things that I worked on in the past have a way of becoming relevant again with time. TTNG is a lot like that- though I wrote it over ten years ago at this point, it has a new life and audience with the film. All that’s old is new again!
When I am in writer mode though, it’s a little like a faucet. I’ll sit down over the course of a few days, get the whole ugly story, warts & all, out of my brain in a few sittings. This, of course, comes after months of thinking about the characters, hearing how they talk in my mind, and wondering what is it about this time in these characters lives that makes this part of their story interesting? Why am I dropping in on them now? Why would the audience want to see this?
For example: With TTNG, I think we’re dealing with an emotionally charged moment for these women. They have something to say, they’re going to say it, and we (as a stand in for the woman they can’t say anything to) are going to hear it. We become a part of their journey- that’s why we’re here. After the inital brain dump,I honestly spend the next few months workshopping,rewriting,etc until I have something I can share with theater companies/filmmakers that I’ve worked that might be excited about it.
Sometimes my collaborators love it! Sometimes they really don’t,or it’s not a fit for their audience. From there,I make a decision about next steps.Do I keep tweaking it or do I put it on the shelf for another time?
What do you enjoy about teaching theater? Do you feel live theater still has a viable voice in the face of all the streaming channels we have now?
There’s nothing I don’t enjoy about teaching theater, especially with younger students. It’s always a joy to share what you love with people, and watch them do it on their own in their own way.
| One of my favorite classes I ever taught was with a group called Determined to Succeed in Los Angeles. They paired me and my friends Nikki Adkins (an amazing children’s playwright), Elizabeth Dragga (founder of the non profit Book Truck), Jac Sanchez (a wonderful children’s librarian) and Jaime Robledo (an accomplished LA Theater Director and Writer) with local middle school students, and together we helped them write, produce, direct and star in their own plays. The kids were already so awesome, but it was fun to see them blossom over the summers into actors, writers, and directors. I hope that even if it didn’t instill a lifelong love of theater, that it taught them to be confident in their writing, proud of their stories, confident public speakers, and most importantly generous collaborators. Theater teaches all of that.
How can live theater connect with new generations?
In the example with the middle schoolers, I think we saw a lot of intergenerational give & take. We taught them how to tell their stories in a new way and helped them start to understand why the stories we tell are important. On our end, we learned a lot about what’s important to middle school students- what makes them laugh, what makes them sad, what makes them hopeful, and were able to drop any preconceived notions we had about “kids that age”. They consistently demonstrated heart and maturity beyond what I would have thought possible from 12 year olds (shows what I know), and gave us an opportunity to think about all we had in common, even being more than decade older.
(On a personal note, I also learned what YOLO means, which was great. I have used this term now unironically for long past it’s cultural expiration date to the eyerolling of everyone I know under the age of 25.)
Live theater, particularly new plays, provides a platform for those who don’t always have the most power in the room (like kids) to tell the people who do (like grownups) about their lives. It elevates and validates the stories being told. A production that does this successfully says to its creators and collaborators “This show/film was absolutely worth the time we invested, the money we invested into making it happen, and we also believe it’s worth the time and money our audience is investing as well.” It says to the audience “We trust you enough to know what to do once you’ve heard these truths” (This holds up for comedies as well as dramas, I think).
This is why live theater is so important. Not to say that every show you’re going to see will be transcendent (I know I’ve written some real stinkers) but again, at its best, you’re in the moment with those characters and their lives and their joys and sorrows. They become a thread in the tapestry of your understanding and empathy toward other people. You can’t replace that in-person connection. This is why it’s invaluable not only to have live theater but to have live theater that represents and values diverse voices and stories, and now more than ever elevates those who are underrepresented in the canon.
What do you like doing when you’re not at work or writing? Do you have hobbies,causes,activities you like to do?
In the pandemic I’ve become a pretty enthusiastic gardener! I’m also enjoying cooking with the plants that come out of said garden. I also work as a volunteer activities coordinator (at least I did in the before times) for a local organization called ECHO that provides day support for medically disabled community members. Otherwise, I like hanging out with my husband, Bryce, and my dogs, Bridget & Neptune.
What will be your next project?
I’m currently in post-production on a documentary film chronicling the stories of Black equestrians in the county where I grew up with my friend and producer Nola Gruneisen. It’s called “You Should Be In Here, Too” and we’re scheduled to complete it hopefully next year!
The cheetah and I are flying over to watch you launch your latest play but we are a day early and now you are stuck playing tour guide,what are we doing?
Wow! I’ll have to find some Cheetah Friendly places 😊
My perfect day in the hometown area: Start by seeing a matinee at the Angelika Mosaic Movie Theater in Merrifield, VA. They have the best popcorn in town and a fabulous film festival- The Northern Virginia International Film & Music Festival.
Then we’d want to talk about what we just saw, so I’d suggest the Lake Anne Brew House in Reston. It’s a great place to have a beer while looking at a Lake. Perfect for post-movie conversation, and they have a patio, so totally cheetah-friendly. And then grab a substantial bite to eat at Ariake Sushi down the street.
The next day, you should definitely take a drive out to Middleburg, VA (where Laura and I met, and most of my new film was shot) and visit The Upper Crust bakery for a Cow Puddle cookie. From there, you’ll enjoy the rolling hill drive toward the Shenandoah National Park. Stop at the Apple House for donuts near the entrance to the park. You won’t regret it.
I like to thank Sam (and Christa!!!) for taking the time to sit and talk with us about her new film,live theater and life in general. I can’t wait for “TTNG” to drop because I really believe its going to change and reshape a lot of people’s lives…..both from the creative side and also from the audience side. The fim will be drop this month on Amazon Prime so you’ll have plenty of chances to see it.
I like to thank you,the reader,for reading and supporting this interview.