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Sarah Mantell. (Photo by Walls Trimble)

Sarah Mantell Wins 2023 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize

They take the honor for the as-yet-unproduced play ‘In the Amazon Warehouse Parking Lot,’ written for cast of 7 women, non-binary, and trans actors over 50.

NEW YORK CITY: Three years ago, Sarah Mantell‘s play Everything That Never Happened was set to go into rehearsals for a July production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and they were about to have their first year making a living primarily as a writer, when the pandemic hit. “It was a really big moment for me, and then it completely crashed down,” they recalled.

Things have turned around for Mantell, as the occasion for our conversation earlier today was the news that they have just won this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a prestigious annual award given to women, transgender, and non-binary playwrights who have written outstanding works for English-speaking theatre. Mantell, the first out non-binary playwright to take home the $25,000 award, was announced as one of 10 finalists last month. The judges for this year’s Blackburn, the prize’s 45th, were playwright Julia Chodirector Rebecca Frecknall, choreographer/director Raja Feather Kelly, producer Eleanor Lloyd, actor/director/writer Lucian Msamati, and actor Amy Ryan.

The play Mantell won for, titled In the Amazon Warehouse Parking Lot, was commissioned in 2020 from Playwrights Horizons and the Toulmin Foundation, and it was Playwrights Horizons that nominated it for the Blackburn Prize. But as Mantell told me today, it’s something of a miracle that the play—set among a septet of queer women and nonbinary characters over 50 in a climate-compromised U.S. in the near future—was written at all, and its validation by the Blackburn jury, first as a nominee, now as the winner, took them by delighted surprise. The prize comes not only with $25,000 but with a signed and numbered Willem de Kooning print made especially for the award.

Mantell, who wrote a beautiful piece about best practices around trauma-informed theatremaking for our magazine a few years ago, is also the author of The Good Guys, Tiny, and Fight Call. They have been produced and developed at Boston Court Pasadena, the Playwrights Realm, Artists Repertory Theatre, Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, the Yale Cabaret, and Seattle Repertory Theatre. They got their BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, and their MFA at Yale School of Drama. They spoke to me from New York, though they are now based in Vermont.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations. I just read the play, it’s devastating.

SARAH MANTELL: Thank you so much!

I was really struck by your opening note, where you talk about wanting to write for older queer actors who’ve been effectively forced out of the business, if they were ever welcome at all. I’m curious, was that motivation your key inspiration for the play? Or did the play come from somewhere else, and the way it’s cast is a separate, perhaps related, concern?

The fact that we’ve pushed those actors out of the industry and made them so rare feels pretty personal to me. Because those are the people I get to age toward, right? I think I needed this play to exist. I don’t see models of older queer love stories, and I needed those in order to imagine that I had joy to look forward to, in addition to all of the hard things that seem to clearly be coming our way. It also felt really personal, as I watch my generation of women, trans and non-binary actors, not having plays to age toward. That was my sort of wildest hope for this play, that it would have enough of a life that these roles would be waiting out in front of my generation, so they would have them when they get there.

The play is set after a sort of climate catastrophe, among a group of women and non-binary folks living fairly meager, circumscribed lives in many ways. Looking at the timeline of the play’s commission and writing, and its themes of social breakdown and mutual aid, would it be fair to say this was a COVID quarantine play?

I started putting pen to paper in 2018, and the idea had been sitting with me in various forms since a little before that. But I did get locked into quarantine with this play, and I can think you can tell. It was a very strange time to be writing a play about the end of the world, and to also find sort of joy and camaraderie for my characters at a moment when I was sort of fighting for the same thing.

I especially appreciated the way that, unlike plays like, say, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play or The Children, your play’s apocalyptic setting sort of creeps up on the audience. Basically, your version of the end of the world doesn’t feel as much like speculative science fiction, but more like how we live now, only shrunken and stripped down.

I was definitely inspired by the plays you mentioned, in addition to—I made a list the other day of the books and movies and articles that I couldn’t have written this play without, and it was not short. The play was certainly informed by being in quarantine and watching impossible things start to feel normal, sometimes slowly and sometimes subtly, and sometimes in ways that were bigger than I could have possibly imagined—things that if I’d written them people would have laughed in my face. You can absolutely feel the pandemic era in the play. Also, I think my instinct is always to sort of write to the side of all of my influences, wherever possible, in such a way that I can catch people off guard.

Speaking of writing to the side of things, there’s a lot of indirection and unspoken assumptions in the play, and not a ton of expository dialogue laying out the world and backstory. That had the effect of drawing me in to learn more.

That’s making me think about all the conversations I’ve had with people about my earlier plays and how they end. The note I get a lot is that people want some sort of a bigger speech—people are very often looking at my plays and looking for catharsis. And I’m specifically avoiding catharsis, because I want the play to sit in your body. I want the thing to end and I want it to stay with you. I’m trying to sort of break people’s hearts in a particular place that leads to change. That’s always what I’m most excited about.

Arturo Soria and Stella Baker in “Everything That Never Happened,” part of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays at Yale School of Drama in 2017. (Photo by T Charles Erickson)

I want to ask you about the form of the play: There are number of short scenes, a few monologues, and then a number of wordless moments, or movements, that are conveyed in the stage directions, where time passes and things seem get more poetic. It seems like you’re giving both a gift and a challenge to your director and designers with those.

So my first degree is in visual arts, and I think with my stage directions, I’m really excited about the thing where they sort of tell you which direction to run, but not where to end up. That makes it possible for my collaborators to do their best possible work. I believe in stage directions as deeply as I believe in dialogue; they’re one of my favorite things. When I was at RISD undergrad, I talked my way into Paula Vogel‘s playwriting class, not even really understanding that she was Paula Vogel. And that’s what “ruined” my life: I was like, “Maybe I’ll just do this for a year, because it’s so great.” And here I still am! She’s “ruined” a lot of people’s lives like that; I love her so much. Anyway, she talks a lot about stage directions and the way that they talk to your collaborators, even when you’re not there or after you’re gone. I think about her a lot when I’m writing moments like that.

The play hasn’t yet had a production, but it’s had a few workshops. Can you tell me about how it’s developed?

I had a workshop with younger actors who I knew last summer. They were spectacular. The play was not. I was at a series of residencies, and I stripped the play for parts and started rewriting. I was 50 pages into that draft—I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this—when I got a call from Lizzie Stern at Playwrights Horizons saying, “We’d like to nominate the play for the Blackburn.” And I was like, “We have a minor problem, and that is that there is no play anymore.” She was like, “Well, it’s due in three days, and I could get you a week’s extension.” I was like: I can’t write the second half of this play in a week! And then I was like: Oh, crap, I’m gonna write the second half of this play in a week, or die! You can imagine how shocked I was when I heard from the Blackburn.

I did have the first in-person workshop of the play in October, and it was really amazing to get multiple days in a room with people, which I had done, I think, only one other time during quarantine. The draft that you read is very informed by all of their notes and their talents and what it felt like to get into a room that was, as my actors put it, entirely queer people and Connie Schulman. There was a camaraderie that I could feel happening, where these actors had not gotten to be in room together before. A lot of them were friends with each other, and a lot of times they’d been up for similar roles. But there haven’t been a lot of other plays where they actually get to be together. They were building some kind of community in that room that sort of circled back around and informed the play.

Here’s something I’m sure you’ll get asked: Have you ever had a warehouse job like the ones your characters do?

I’ve worked retail, but I haven’t worked in a warehouse. I did a lot of research, and did a digital tour because it was COVID; I couldn’t go in person. 

Just to circle back for a moment to the way you dole out information—there’s a lot left unsaid about what happened before the play in terms of climate crisis, social breakdown, etc., and I wonder if one of the notes you’ve gotten in workshop is to spell out more of that.

One of the things you’re picking up on is, this is a play that has had two workshops and no production yet. I’m still wrestling with how much I want people to say and not say. I think this draft errs on the side of not saying. The plays that I love are walking like a tightrope in terms of how much they give you and don’t, and how fast they’re going and aren’t. So many times I write plays and think that I can do that on my own, but I can’t until I get collaborators in the room. I’m really hopeful that Blackburn means that I will have lots of chances to see this play on its feet.

I mean, I honestly did not have a sense that this play was likely to be taken seriously in the world. I’ve had to unlearn everything I’ve ever been taught about who deserves to write plays, who deserves to be onstage, what those plays are about. I’m thrilled to be proven this wrong; it’s been very jarring. I’ve had one professional production, and I’ve been sitting in a room alone with a very loud cat writing this play for years. This has been a very, very magical and strange experience.

Last question: What are you going to do with the De Kooning print?

Weirdly, there’s an empty place on my wall that is the perfect place to put it. And I’m really glad that my landlords made me get renters’ insurance.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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