Catching Hope with Sarah Bierstock

Sarah Bierstock has never been one to be boxed in.

Sarah Bierstock. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In addition to being an accomplished stage and screen actress – appearing on The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, and in Lincoln Center’s 2012 concert revival of the musical Chess – she is also a playwright and producer. Her debut play, Honor Killing, had its World Premiere production at FST in 2018, and has gone on to be produced across the country.

Now, the woman known for gripping mainstage drama is taking on a new challenge: Children’s Theatre. We connected with Bierstock to talk about her varied theatrical career and her latest collaboration with FST – a play for young audiences inspired by the myth of Pandora’s Box.

You began your theatrical career as an actress – particularly in musical theatre. What inspired you to start writing plays?

I was inspired by an article I read about the murder of a young woman named Farzana Parveen. She was a 20 year-old woman, four months pregnant, who was killed in broad daylight outside of the courthouse in Lahore, Pakistan in front of policemen who did nothing to stop it. I started following this story and began writing my first play, Honor Killing, days later. I really had no intention of writing a play, but since I’ve been in the theater my whole life, a play seemed a natural medium.

In 2018, FST produced the World Premiere of Honor Killing, which deals with mature issues surrounding cultural divides and violence against women. But most recently, through the Playwright Collective, you’ve been developing a very different style of play for young audiences. Tell us about it.

Pandora is my first play for young audiences. It’s an adaptation of the myth of Pandora’s Box and Elpis, the Goddess of Hope. The first draft was very aligned with the original Greek myth, but through the online readings FST provided, I discovered that I wanted to abandon about 85% of what I’d written and blow it open. 

I’m keeping my protagonist – a quirky fast-talking character who portrays Hope incarnate – but I am changing her circumstances entirely. My hope is that Pandora offers some coping mechanisms to young people as they navigate this incredibly bizarre and challenging time!

Sarah Bierstock following a live workshop performance of her play Mothers & Daughters. Photo by Sarah Haley.

Have you experienced any new challenges or surprises while working on your very first Children’s Theatre play?

Yes! Playwriting is like a puzzle. You need to fit in all the same elements you would in an adult play – with captivating characters, driving plot, appropriate tone, and hopefully some humor – but in a much shorter number of pages! There were places where the material was too “heady” or the language too advanced.

One of the things that’s most useful about having an actor’s eye and ear is that, when I get to see the Zoom reading of the work, I can immediately tell what is working and what is not. Then I go back and see what I have and try to determine where to begin editing. I do this across the board, no matter what I’m writing. So, I learn as I go.

You’ve approached the stage from almost every angle – with experience as an actor, playwright, and producer. How do you find these different roles inform the others?

I think the more hats you have the chance to wear in theater, the better. As an actor, you learn how to study a character – what drives them? What do they want? What is the journey that character makes over the course of the play? 

I try not to think like a producer too much when I am writing because it can seriously stymie the creative process! Thinking about budgets and the logistics of something being fully produced is important – but that realism can also prevent you from creating something amazing.

Sarah Bierstock is a playwright, actor, singer, and producer. Her acting credits include roles on Boardwalk EmpireThe Walking Dead, and The Good Wife. Her debut play, Honor Killing, premiered at Florida Studio Theatre in 2018. She is an avid traveler, proud mother, and alumnus of Bard College and NYU’s CAP21 program at Tisch School of the Arts.