Playwright Liz Thaler

Playwright Liz Thaler

It’s a different sort of boy-meets-girl story at The Brick Theater June 20-21 and June 27-28, when Liz Thaler‘s Happy makes its world premiere as part of F*ckFest, a sex-positive theatre festival in Brooklyn. The boy is a professional dom in the BDSM scene and the girl is a feminist gender studies professor. If you need a translation for any of that, this serio-comedy will be a brave new world for you.

Playwright Thaler explained, “The play starts with our protagonists, Luke and Alex, leaping outside their comfort zones. Alex, a Philosophy/Gender Studies professor, finds herself dating Luke, a professional dominant who isn’t used to dating women outside the organized BDSM community. They both really want to surpass their assumptions about what a relationship’s supposed to be — but old neuroses die hard. So we have two people who are ferociously drawn to each other, and get a bit lost in each other, but eventually have to face some things about themselves.”

Todd Lawson and Hanna Cheek in "Happy." (Photo by Clark Kim)

Todd Lawson and Hanna Cheek in “Happy.” (Photo by Clark Kim)

Lauren Miller, known as the producer of NewTACTics Festival of New Plays at TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, directs the four-performance run of Happy, which began as a short play in Amios’ monthly short-play series Shotz at the Kraine Theater in December 2013, and has now been expanded to 95 minutes.

“As soon as we did the ten-minute version, it was clear to everyone that it was the germ of a longer play,” playwright Thaler told me. “You know how in romantic comedies, the movie ends with the hero realizing he has a problem, and doing exactly one thing towards solving it, and that’s the happy ending? That’s what the short version was. My degree’s in psychology and I hate the whole Hollywood ‘Magic Key’ thing, so writing the full play meant really exploring what it means to work on your life — and how we can think we’re working on our lives when we’re actually just finding new excuses. This exploration brought in three new characters, [turning it into a six-actor play]. Luke, Alex and Luke’s client Ben were the original three.”

Thaler fielded more of my questions of her past and her new play (subtitled “a love story with a few kinks”). Check it out below.

Kathleen Wallace atop Todd Lawson in "Happy." (Photo by Clark Kim)

Kathleen Wallace atop Todd Lawson in “Happy.” (Photo by Clark Kim)

The Brick Theater and In Extremis Theater Company produce Happy, which is officially billed this way: “Sparks fly when kink novice Alex encounters professional dominant Luke at a fetish party. But when these private roles clash with their public selves, how do they know what’s real and make-believe? A serio-comedy about what turns us on, what shuts us down, and what really makes us happy.”

The Happy cast features Todd Lawson (TACT’s Abundance) as Luke and Hanna Cheek (TACT’s Happy Birthday) as Alex, with Michael Grew, David Jenkins, Cassandra Paras and Kathleen Wallace. The production team includes scenic designer Chris D’Angelo, lighting designer Catherine DiGirolamo, sound designer Robert Gonyo, costume designer Courtney Butt, fight director Sean Michael Chin. Peryn Schmitt produces. Erin Person is the stage manager.

Hanna Cheek and David Jenkins in "Happy." (Photo by Clark Kim)

Hanna Cheek and David Jenkins in “Happy.” (Photo by Clark Kim)

Thaler is a playwright and director. Her plays include The Peddler’s Tale (Fresh Fruit Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe); Courtney and Kathleen: A Riot Act (NY Fringe); eight short plays for Amios’ Shotz. As a director, her credits include The President Plays (ANT Fest, Blowout Theatre); A Midsummer Night’s Dreme and HMLT (IETC’s The Most Unkindest Cut series); serials@theflea Cycle 8 (The Flea). She is artistic director of All Out Arts/The Fresh Fruit Festival.

Tickets are $18. Visit the F*ckFest site. The Brick is at 579 Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Performances are Saturday, June 20 at 2 PM; Sunday, June 21 at 6 PM; Saturday, June 27 at 5 PM; and Sunday, June 28 at 6 PM.

Here’s my chat with Liz Thaler.

Take me back to your first inspiration. What prompted the play? Did you see a character first? A situation? A setting?

Liz Thaler: Definitely a situation. In 2005 I found myself at a huge fetish ball in Dallas. That provided the inspiration for the first scene of the play — I tried something Alex tries, and was asked a question that Alex is asked. In 2013 I was tasked with writing a seven-minute play for Voulez Vous Coucher Avec Shotz?, an evening of erotica-themed plays produced by Amios. I used that moment, that question, as a jumping off point.


Todd Lawson and Michael Grew in “Happy.” (Photo by Clark Kim)

What attracts you to these characters and what they’re going through?

Liz Thaler: These characters are struggling to be honest with themselves. They’re people who could easily spend their lives hiding behind labels — Stoic Dom, Feminist Intellectual, Client, Sister, Friend — but are trying to live more fully than that. The heroes don’t know how to be vulnerable, which is something I really relate to, and they put themselves in some really raw situations in an attempt to grow. They’re also sexy as hell, which helps.

F*ckFest is a sex-positive theatre festival. When we think of sex-negative people, I can’t help thinking about how fear is central to sex-neg thinking. Is “fear” an important, driving element in Happy? How do the characters deal with fear?

Liz Thaler: The characters deal with a lot of different fears, in a lot of different ways. Even though they know from the beginning that BDSM isn’t “bad” or inherently unhealthy, they’re afraid of being open about their desires. They’re afraid of displeasing each other, losing each other, repeating past mistakes. There’s also a larger fear of letting one’s identity slip. If I’m not “this defining thing about myself,” what am I? That’s actually a huge motivating factor for a lot of self-destructive behavior: we tell a story about ourselves, and if we let go of that story, we feel completely lost.

I’m sure you’re interested in entertaining people, but as a theatre maker are you interested in changing people’s minds about a sexual/cultural issue? If someone has anxiety about the play’s content, what do you want them to walk away with?

Liz Thaler: I’m always concerned with making principled art. Not every play is an Issue Play, but I hope that every show I do will embody my ethics. Even for people who are generally sex-positive, BDSM can be seriously misunderstood. I’ve found that a lot of works that think they’re kink-positive still wind up treating BDSM as a problem — it’s something to be gotten over, or, more insidiously, something used simply as a metaphor for the savagery within us all, et cetera et cetera. Or worse, that secretly this is what everyone wants! I hope this play will remind people that kinksters aren’t sociopaths and naïfs, they’re people you know, and if you’re not into what they’re into that’s fine — because everyone’s different!

Hanna Cheek and Todd Lawson in "Happy." (Photo by Clark Kim)

Hanna Cheek and Todd Lawson in “Happy.” (Photo by Clark Kim)

I would never ask a playwright who is writing about a serial killer if she has dabbled in mass murder, but since Happy is part of the sex-positive F*ckFest, I’ll ask something personal: What is your personal connection/experience (if any) to the dom/sub world or to kinks expressed in the play? (And I fully realize that equating BDSM with serial killers now makes me seem kinda…sex-negative.)

Liz Thaler: Let’s just say I have a history of trying things and of finding myself…places. So, when I started writing this play, I was not coming to the topic brand-new. I’m not immersed in the community the way these characters are, but I do enjoy my research! And while I don’t think anyone would mistake this play for an autobiography, I hope people will know that it draws from real knowledge and real experiences.

Speaking of research, what sort did you do to build Happy? Did you go online? Read interviews? Listen to “The Savage Lovecast”?

Liz Thaler: I’ve been reading/listening to Dan Savage for a very long time, and that’s how I found out about Mistress Matisse — I’ve read every one of her old Control Tower series at The Stranger. I’ve also hung out at clubs, and brought some of the cast to one recently. I’ve talked with a bunch of Dominants; some friends who saw the original version, and turned out to be in the scene, hooked me up with a professional Dom (to talk with). The Eulenspiegel Society (TES), a kink-education group, has also been really helpful, and I highly recommend the videos of Bo Blaze’s talks, some of which are available online for free. It’s a very social scene, so it’s not hard to get people to chat about their kinks.

Cassandra Paras and Hanna Cheek in "Happy" by Liz Thaler. (Photo by Clark Kim)

Cassandra Paras and Hanna Cheek in “Happy” by Liz Thaler. (Photo by Clark Kim)

The fight director must be someone you trust, since the violence in this play would seem to be extra intimate.

Liz Thaler: Our fight director Sean Michael Chin is a genius and has several times now made my life much better by showing up and telling my actors how to not hurt each other. He also did fight choreography for my adaptation of Hamlet years ago, and my Ars Nova production of The President Plays, Part 1. A good fight director is addictive, because they are so focused on what the characters are trying to do. Sean always helps strengthen a play because the actors have to take a really laser-like focus on their actions and relationships. Also Sean knows everything your body can do. You know really quickly that you’re in good hands.

What was the primary challenge for you in writing Happy?

Liz Thaler: This started as a three-scene play (what’s now Scenes 1, 2, and 4 of the full-length). One of the things people kept saying in rehearsals for the original was that the play had mystery — it didn’t explain outright how the dots were connected. I stewed a lot over how to expand the story without removing that mystery. It would’ve been so easy to fill pages just by explaining everything! It was a big challenge for me, writing characters who didn’t know exactly what they wanted, who didn’t totally understand their own actions. I think that was a challenge for the actors, as well, and it’s gorgeous seeing the results.

Todd Lawson plays Luke in the world premiere of "Happy."

Todd Lawson plays Luke in the world premiere of “Happy.”

When you write, how important is “theme” in your process, or is that something that emerges later?

Liz Thaler: I often start out with an intended theme, then figure out the characters. Once I’ve developed them, and have to be truthful to them, I usually find that my theme has shifted. Going into this, I knew I wanted Alex to be a Gender Studies professor. Since that’s interdisciplinary, I had to figure out what her field was — when I settled on Philosophy, and gave her a love of Simone de Beauvoir, her work ended up seriously shaping the play. It’s amazing to think what this play might’ve been if I’d decided Alex’s PhD was in Economics or something.

I’m curious how Happy is part of a continuum of the sort of plays you have written in the past. Or is it a departure? 

Liz Thaler: This play’s a departure for me in that it takes place here, now, with characters you could pass on the street. I tend to write about oversized emotions — life as it feels more than life as it looks — and it helps to transpose those experiences into other times and places. So I wrote The Peddler’s Tale, a queer medieval fairytale, and Courtney and Kathleen: A Riot Act about ’90s feminist punk pioneers. I tend to write about pirates and warriors more than contemporary New Yorkers. Also, I never thought I’d write a relationship play, or a play with so many goddamn scene changes.

How did the booking in F*ckFest come about, and how did you get connected to director Lauren Miller?

Liz Thaler: Lauren and I have known each other awhile through Amios — I founded their Director’s Lab, and she was one of the first members. She’s been this play’s director from the very beginning; in addition to being a fantastic director, she’s also a great script midwife. This play wouldn’t exist without her having held my hand. We’ve had a bit of a relationship with The Brick since they featured the short version in January 2014, so when we saw they were doing a sex-positive festival, we leapt. It’s been such a great fit.

You’re a director and a playwright. Have you directed your own work? If you had to give one of those roles up, which would you abandon?

Liz Thaler: I have directed my own work — I used to think that I had to direct it in order to write it. Thank god I figured out I was wrong, because doing both is horrible. I used to identify as a director before a playwright, but that’s started to switch in the past few years. Writing was the first thing I ever wanted to do. (Plus people just treat playwrights better, it’s intoxicating.)

Hanna Cheek plays Alex, a gender studies professor, in "Happy."

Hanna Cheek plays Alex, a gender studies professor, in “Happy.”

Tell me a little bit about your first exposure to theatre, maybe from your childhood? You grew up in New York? 

Liz Thaler: I’m fortunate that I’m from a family of theatre-lovers. I’m a born and bred New Yorker (growing up in the West Village in the ’80s and ’90s is probably why I’m so hard to shock), and we were always seeing things. My first tattoo is a line from a play I saw when I was ten years old — William Finn’s Falsettos. God-or-whatever bless my parents for taking me to see that.

Who are some of the playwrights who have influenced you the most as an artist?

Liz Thaler: Stoppard, and Kushner, definitely — they love words, and enjoy their own cleverness, and go after really specific ideas. (I could only give myself permission to write a relationship play by remembering The Real Thing.) Suzan-Lori Parks helped me resist my addiction to words, though — reading and seeing and directing her plays reminded me about the power of unsaid things, of non-verbal interactions. She’s also happy to leave you with a puzzle, which definitely influenced this play. I actually wrote a bunch of Happy a few feet from her, at her Watch Me Work installations at the Public, so that was a really cool circle to make.

Are there theatre people or artists in your family?

Liz Thaler: My partner, David Haan, is a brilliant playwright. My sister was a talented actress but now she’s in the jungles of Indonesia finishing up her Masters in Primate Conservation.

What’s next for you? You’re artistic director of The Fresh Fruit Festival, another New York City theatre festival.

Liz Thaler: Next up comes The Fresh Fruit Festival! It’s New York’s largest celebration of queer arts. This is the festival’s 13th year, and its first with me as artistic director, so wish us luck. We’ll be at The Wild Project July 13-26. It is really thrilling to help make all the LGBTQ plays happen at once, so I hope you’ll all come join the magic.


The Brick Theater, Inc., is a not-for-profit theatre company “dedicated to nurturing the work of emerging artists at its performance space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Brick presents world premieres, monthly performance series, and seasonal festivals, expanding Williamsburg’s profile as a destination for cutting-edge art and entertainment. The Brick continues to seek new artists and projects, to provide them with a creative home, and to serve as Williamsburg’s primary incubator of innovative theatre arts.”

In Extremis Theater Company “makes plays about strange people. We are devoted to exploring skewed realities and characters who struggle with — or reject entirely — society’s constraints. Focusing on the emotional and psychological tumult within us all, we seek to explore deviance, taboo, and unflattering emotions: the vexing aspects of human nature. Because life is, generally, larger than life.”