Finding the Funny with Sandy Rustin

If laughter is the best medicine, then playwright Sandy Rustin has healed countless people.

Sandy Rustin. Photo courtesy of the artist.

From musical sketches about the struggles of parenthood to a Noël Coward-esque romantic comedy, Rustin has shown she has a knack for making audiences laugh with plays that are as timeless as they are hilarious. Even now, she is bringing humor to theatre, with multiple new projects in development as a member of FST’s Playwright Collective.

We sat down with Rustin to learn more about her comedic roots and how she mines merriment from even the most serious circumstances.

Your most well-known plays, like The Cottage (which FST produced as part of its 2019 Summer Mainstage Season) and an adaptation of the movie Clue, are inspired by the witty comedies of Noël Coward and Neil Simon. What is it about this genre that inspires you?

I love comedy. There’s something exquisite to me about the collective experience of shared laughter with strangers. To make a whole room of disparate people laugh at the same moment feels like magic to me. It’s a reminder that we are more alike than different. It feels good to laugh – it’s cathartic, refreshing, and rejuvenating.

Plus, I relish the challenge! The satisfaction of working on one single moment until it lands just the right punch – consistently – with an audience is so fulfilling to me. Building a comedy is like creative math. There’s a rhythm to it – and when it “hums,” there’s nothing better. 

You’re currently working on a play commissioned by FST: The Suffragette’s Murder. What is the story behind it?

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, the woman’s right to vote, FST commissioned me to write a play inspired by the women’s suffrage movement. I asked, “Can it be a comedy?” And FST said, “…Sure?”

So, I set out to create a period piece about an eccentric group of women’s rights activists under suspicion when one of their members – an orphaned suffragette – is murdered. It’s part comedy, part protest.

How did you go about “finding the funny” in a story centered on such serious topics as murder and the fight for women’s suffrage?

Sandy Rustin chats with FST audience members prior to FST’s Regional Premiere of The Cottage. Photo by Sarah Haley.

To me, the story is never what’s funny. It’s how you tell it. And pretty much any story can be told in a funny way if you spin it around enough. For The Suffragette’s Murder, I did a lot of research and came across a book that included a chapter on this boarding house in New York City in the mid-19th century.

The descriptions of the people who lived there tickled me, so I allowed those real-life people to morph and grow in a way that feels true to the era, honors the weight of the subject, but also feels fun.

From The Cottage to The Suffragette’s Murder, it seems you have a penchant for period pieces. However, your latest project with FST, Family Dinner, tells its story in a contemporary format: Zoom. Tell us more about that project and the inspiration behind it.

I was looking for a way to create a piece of theatre that could live and breathe in the only way possible right now – on a video sharing platform. So, I set out to create a comedy specifically for Zoom. At the time I started writing it, everyone was adjusting to life on a screen. So, this play reflects those beginning days when we were all still a bit in shock, while trying to teach our moms and grandpas how to mute themselves on Zoom.  

You are kind of a pioneer, writing live plays for a digital platform and a digital audience. What has been your process in making a new play for such a relatively new platform as Zoom?

Well, first – thanks! I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer! Do I get a bonnet?! (Just kidding).

I went about writing this play just as I do any play – I just had the restriction of knowing that each character would be in his/her own space – alone – and that we would only see them through a small square. It was a fun challenge! 

Anna Stefanic and Hanley Smith in FST’s production of The Cottage. Photo by Matthew Holler

Are there any discoveries you think playwrights, actors, and other theatre artists will be able to take away from this period of increased virtual connection and entertainment and apply to live theatre once venues re-open?

One of the greatest things about theatre people is that we are obsessed with theatre. We LOVE it. We can’t help making discoveries! So, yes, of course, this experience will bleed into the work of artists for decades to come.

At the same time, however, I do not think that the necessary evil of “online theatre” will be a thing that continues once we’re able to safely share space again. We ALL want to be back in theatres – in person. That’s the whole point. I, for one, can not WAIT to sit next to strangers in a darkened theatre and laugh, and laugh, and laugh!

Sandy Rustin is an actress and an award-winning playwright. Her playwriting credits include stage adaptations of the cult hit films Clue, Mystic Pizza, and the Off-Broadway sketch comedy musical, Rated P For Parenthood. Her hit comedy, The Cottage, was produced at Florida Studio Theatre in 2019 and is slated for a 2021 Broadway run directed by Jason Alexander.

**Header Picture (Left to Right): Drew Hirshfield, Greg Balla, Anna Stefanic, Hanley Smith, and Casey Predovic. Photo by Matthew Holler.