The Playwright’s Room: Sam Kressner
BY Robbie Armstrong, May 20, 2021
The Playwright’s Room is a series featuring the newest cohort of Columbia Playwriting students. These playwrights study under the tutelage of Associate Professor David Henry Hwang and Associate Professor Lynn Nottage.
This week, Playwriting student Sam Kressner sat down with us in The Playwright’s Room. Kressner is a playwright and screenwriter who recently wrote his first feature film, Light On Broken Glass, starring Patricia Clarkson. Kressner has worked with a host of international film directors such as Isabel Coixet (Elegy), Peter Sattler (Camp X-Ray), and Claire McCarthy (Ophelia).
Tell me about your first time in Theatre.
Sam Kressner: The first time, like for many other playwrights, was through acting. I was very sick as a child and I could not play a lot of sports. Everyone in my elementary school played at this basketball camp and I couldn’t go. I was the youngest child and always desired attention so my mother encouraged me to audition for The Wizard of Oz and Missoula Children’s Theatre. I later worked with the Playgroup Theatre. I also was a die hard Stagedoor Manor theatre camp kid. I found my voice and that creative outlet. That was where I got my first dip into the theatre.
As a high schooler, I was auditioning in the city for film, tv, and theatre. That was the driving force that led me to pursue writing. My life was this division between my friends and school life and my creative professional life. Being a child actor is interesting because you learn to face a lot of rejection. You learn how to savor the parts that you book and how to use the audition process as a vessel for the need to act and be in the creative arts. You have to wait until your tenacity aligns with your passion.
What led you to writing?
SK: What led me to writing was very simple, I wasn’t landing the roles as an actor and I was getting frustrated with the way people were presented. Every audition I went to, they wanted the Michael Cera type. They wanted a nerdy but loveable person. I wasn’t that type and I became frustrated by the representation of teens and young adults. I felt the need to write authentic stories about how kids my age actually behaved.
Tell me about some of your film experiences.
SK: I used to work for a Line Producer and we would hop from film to film. During that time I was writing continuously. I was writing sort of the New York indie films that I grew up watching. I slipped my screenplays to someone who worked at E1 and then eventually my screenplay for Light On Broken Glass got optioned. That movie got produced and I moved to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter.
I got to the point that I was writing material that I didn’t believe in. I was writing horror, sci-fi, stuff that would sell. I was utterly displeased with my trajectory as a writer. I got into writing to tell stories that were meaningful to me and also meaningful to others. I realized I was at the point that I was writing solely to make money. How can I pretend to walk into a meeting and tell someone that I felt this passionate about it? I had to reassess who I wanted to be as a writer. LA does that to you quickly. It started to feel distorted.
Why did you pick Columbia for your MFA?
SK: I started to love writing and was becoming successful in film, but I realized very quickly that the well began to dry up. I could only write the woe-is-me screenplay or play so many times before it was done. I had come up with a play called Covenant Woman which was conceived as a socially minded horror film but I couldn’t see it as anything other than a play. So I wrote the play in a few weeks. I looked at it and I thought that it was pretty good. I felt really confident. I did a reading with some actor friends of mine. I love theatre and wanted to be back in that. I missed theatre and on a whim I applied to grad programs in New York. I knew from the first minute of speaking to David [Henry Hwang] in my interview, that this was home. It felt like a return to the reason why I pursued the creative arts. I want to be surrounded by people who tell stories in the most passionate and intellectually curious ways possible.
How would you define your writing style?
SK: My writing style is entirely character driven. When I write, I think about who is the intended audience and does the work challenge the audience in an interesting or meaningful way? Usually there are some power dynamics at play, which is a good starting point because it drives conflict. I like when the play can facilitate a discussion afterwards. I don’t like morally instructive works. I like theatre that poses a lot of questions and doesn't provide prescriptive answers. Any play that starts with the author assuming a position of moral superiority can provide affirmation for the audience (which I think is dubious) or it is solely to provoke, which pushes the audience away. I write theatre pieces where audiences feel at odds with the forces of the world.
What kind of artwork and experiences influence your work?
SK: What usually influences my work is an amalgam of theatrical experiences. It’s a confluence of multiple pieces of media and then I just happen to chance upon a story. I’m inherently not aware of the influences that brought the story to me. If I were aware of the influences, then I wouldn’t need to write that play. I haven’t written about when I was sick as a kid because I don’t typically write about my personal experiences. Although, I know what it’s like to be in the ICU for weeks on end and not know if you're going to live or die, so that feeling can relate to a character that I’m writing.
What is one of your favorite theatrical experiences?
SK: I like to listen to Simon Stevens talk about theatre. If I could have his passion for theatre and for working with artists, then I’ll be a very content person. When I think about the impactful theatre experiences, they’re character driven plays. I remember seeing God Of Carnage on Broadway and seeing James Gandolfini look like he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. I remember watching him explode at the climax of the play and thinking that there’s an amazing energy when you watch an actor do their best work live. Film is meant to replicate real life whereas theatre has the vitality of real life. Everyone realizes that we’re about to undergo a communal experience of our imaginations. With the right play at the right theatre, you can have a visceral experience with the audience members and the actors. Theatre is not a passive experience, it demands the audience’s attention as an active participant.
What are you working on next?
SK: I’m working on a play about sexual assault on a college campus, that’s perpetrated by a college athlete. It looks at the investigation that is done by the campus police and the institutional failures that exist in the current bureaucracy. It’s about the tribalism that people revert to in order to not disrupt their status quo.