Inside the Playwrights Project – Sarah Bierstock

“I stretch my hands and catch at Hope.”

Sarah Bierstock. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah Bierstock is a nationally recognized performer, playwright, and producer. A passionate world traveler, Sarah distilled her experiences of our uneasy global village in her hard-hitting, critically acclaimed drama, Honor Killing, which had its World Premiere at Florida Studio Theatre in 2018. But Bierstock’s world became very small after the quarantine took hold. The world of her mind expanded again when FST reached out to her to participate in The Playwrights Project. Caroline Kaiser, FST’s Director of Children’s Theatre, had a very specific request: adapt a myth into a Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) play.

Bierstock knew exactly what she wanted to write about – the promise of hope in the story of Pandora’s Box.

How would you describe your theatrical journey?

I got my Equity card and started acting and singing. For a solid ten years, I did mostly musicals, and then began writing plays. After Honor Killing started getting produced, I quickly figured out that I’d have to write more.

Writing one play wasn’t enough?

Not quite. It’s great, but people expect to see a larger body of work.

Rachel Moulton in Sarah Bierstock’s Honor Killing at FST. Photo by Matthew Holler.

What role did Florida Studio Theatre play in bringing Honor Killing to life?

It played a huge role. My script was passed to Richard Hopkins (FST’s Producing Artistic Director) and Catherine Randazzo (FST’s Literary Manager) at a very early phase. The FST Literary Department is very responsive – that’s not typical. They read through numerous early drafts and gave me all kinds of feedback. They eventually selected Honor Killing to be part of the 2017 Burdick Reading Series. After that, it ran for eight weeks as a full Mainstage production in 2018. It was an incredible experience for so many reasons.

How does being an actor inform your playwriting?

I try to write dialogue that an actor can get their mouth around — an approximation of natural speech that actually sounds like speech, not just words on a page. To make that happen, I’ll definitely read everything aloud a few times, and then usually make a couple of changes. I also write in most of the beats. I can’t help myself!

For those not familiar with theater lingo, a “beat” is defined as …?

A beat is a shift in energy or intention — it’s basically a turning point. Say there’s a monologue or a long conversation. At some point, the character switches gears to a different idea, makes a decision, or has a surge of passion. That’s a beat. As an actor, you go through your lines and mark these transitions. As a playwright, I write with the actor’s craft in mind.

How do you adjust your writing style for young audiences?

I tend to write what’s in my mind in the first draft. I’ll start at an adult level, and then go back and rewrite. I’ll take out anything that’s too didactic, too heady, or maybe just too scary.

What led you to work on the story Pandora’s Box?

I wanted my adaptation to speak to where we are right now. When I looked back at all those myths, the story of Pandora really gripped me. The kernel of hope in her story struck a salient chord in me. That’s what I decided to focus on.

I’m thinking of poem by Christian Rossetti. A line in the poem. It’s right on the tip of my tongue

“I stretch my hands and catch at Hope.”

Yes! I’d like to expand on that…Could you please describe your play, your take on the myth, and the meaning of hope?

My play tells the story of Pandora’s Box through the eyes of the narrator, Elpis. In Greek mythology, Elpis is the goddess of hope. I chose to tell the story from her perspective, so I could really concentrate on hope as the primary takeaway from this tale. We follow Elpis’ journey — how she got into the box in the first place, the context of Pandora unleashing her, and, once freed, how she teaches everyone to find the hope inside themselves, no matter how dire the circumstances.

What’s your take on Pandora’s character?
Pandora is a lot more fun in my version. She’s incredibly clever, talented, quick-witted, and articulate – and of course, curious. Her curiosity is still very much at the center of this myth, but I focus on it as a positive attribute, rather than negative. In the traditional telling of this myth, Pandora is blamed for unleashing all of the evils of the world. We already have too many tales floating around that fundamentally blame women for our problems! So I wanted to give Pandora back some agency and allocate responsibility for her actions a little differently.

Have you settled on a title? 
Unfortunately, no. I’m still rewriting pretty actively. I was saving it in drafts as Elpis, but that’s just a placeholder. You can call it my version of Pandora’s Box, if you’d like.

Does the importance of hope in your play reflect the impact of the pandemic on your family?

Very much so — and it’s hard not to be emotional about it. This has all been so very real to us. We’ve been displaced from our home in New York City for the last three months. We live in a residential neighborhood — a small enclave with just a few families sharing the same grocery stores, the same parks. Our zip code had the highest incidence of COVID-19 on the entire island of Manhattan. We chose to go upstate at the start of the pandemic – and were lucky enough to have family who could take us in. Now we’re finally back home and everyone’s still healthy. But our world has been completely rocked. Spreading a message of hope means a lot to me.

Sarah Bierstock is a playwright, actor, singer, and producer. Her acting credits include roles on Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and The Good Wife. Her debut play, Honor Killing, premiered at Florida Studio Theatre in 2018. Bierstock is currently adapting the myth of Pandora’s Box as a Theatre for Young Adults stage production as part of FST’s Playwrights Project.