Things are heating up. Sure, it’s summer, but the world is getting warmer.
The Flux Salon XV will feature Tender Rough Rough Tender. In the play we meet a firefighter named Mike and a waitress named Bell, who are in the midst of an escalating heat wave. Wildfires are breaking out, water is becoming scarcer, and birds are dropping dead right out of the sky. It’s an environment reminiscent of my home in Southern California, where wildfires, drought, and water scarcity came with the summer season…but now occur year round.
Playwright Sarah Saltwick wrote this play during her Jerome Fellowship year at the Playwrights’ Center in 2013. Having left Austin, where she currently resides and also did her graduate degree at UT Austin, she found inspiration at Norm’s Fish Camp at Tofte Lake in Minnesota. There she reflected on her Texan home: the Bastrop Fires in 2009 and the 24-hour diners that she says are “famous for pancakes.”
When reading Sarah’s work, my attention was immediately grabbed by its splendid theatricality. Sarah and I discussed her work, process, and her musician husband…
BB: Tender Rough Rough Tender. It’s definitely one of the most fabulous titles I’ve encountered. At what point in the process of writing did the play get named that?
SS: I don’t know where the name came from. I know it came early. I actually just looked at my files and even the very first pages I wrote, I called it Tender Rough Rough Tender. And [the characters’] names are the same. And the drinking and fire is there already. I don’t know what part of me picked that title, I can be a pretty shy person and it’s definitely aggressive. But I’m glad. It sounds like a play I would want to see. I think that helped me write it.
BB: What was going through your mind when you were writing it and why did you feel compelled to write it when you did?
SS: It was summer. I was alone. I was a little homesick for Texas already but more than that, I felt far away. I had this new perspective on Texas, on Austin, on parties, and on the heat. And I had been meeting a lot of people. So many people. So many intense conversations that were so quick. And I wondered how many more people I had room for. I knew it wasn’t infinite. And this idea of Bell, of someone at capacity, came into focus. She was flanked by Mike, someone who was looking to fill his life up. I’ve been both of them. I still am in part. And I liked spending time with them. I wrote so many pages that never made it into the play because I was just curious about these people. It was the play I was going to stop working on to work on something serious. But I kept coming back.
BB: Tender Rough Rough Tender is certainly whimsical and, for lack of a better word, fun—but it definitely hits a serious note.
SS: Yes! Another big inspiration was the Bastrop Fires in 2009. You can still see the damage even now. I was back in Austin and it was so close. And that summer was so hot. It made you feel like something was wrong with the world. And the water restrictions were severe. It was a scary time. Not quite as bad as it is for Bell and Mike but close.
BB: So, why did you start writing plays and why do you keep writing them?
SS: I love the art form. I love being in a room with other people and experiencing something live and in real time. I love the questions theatre can ask simply by using the human body. It’s a powerful tradition.
BB: You totally utilize the human body to great effect in Tender Rough Rough Tender. In fact, the characters have a language composed of gestures like pouring liquid on themselves, running their hands down their bodies, using their thumbs to “kiss”. It’s very evocative. Where did that theatrical convention spring from?
SS: I got restless watching people drink on stage. I wasn’t convinced that they were drunk. More than that, it never made me feel drunk, never seemed to take me anywhere new. Same with kissing. Being kissed is pretty electric but watching people kiss onstage? Their faces have to be so close to each other! You miss all the good stuff. I wanted to find another way into these gestures, find opportunity for surprise. I want to feel the kiss land. I want to feel the slipperiness of drinking.
BB: Do you listen to music when music when writing?
SS: I’ll make a playlist and listen to it for inspiration or to get into a feeling. Sometimes, I’ll listen to that playlist right before writing. My playlist for Tender Rough Rough Tender has a lot of angry sexy ladies on it like Liz Phair, The Breeders, and a little Aimee Mann too. And the song “Weightless Again” by The Handsome Family was a great emotional touchstone. I love music. My husband is actually a musician with the bands The Octopus Project and Woozyhelmet.
BB: Wait. The Octopus Project? As in “Hexadecagon”? I listened to the song “Korakrit” pretty obsessively in 2010.
SS: Yes! That is my husband, Toto Miranda, he is the best. Their live show of Hexadecagon (with 8 channel sound and 8 channel video) is still one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. They played in the middle of the audience and speakers surrounded the crowd.
BB: While we’re discussing the senses, let’s play a game!
If Tender Rough Rough Tender were a song, what would it be?
SS: Loud. Something you heard by accident but now can’t get out of your head.
BB: If Tender Rough Rough Tender were a flavor, what would it be?
SS: A mango with cayenne pepper sprinkled on.
BB: If Tender Rough Rough Tender were a color, what would it be?
SS: Fire Engine Red.
BB: If Tender Rough Rough Tender were a texture, what would it be?
BB: If Tender Rough Rough Tender were a smell, what would it be?
SS: A burned out match.
Learn more about Sarah and her work at sarahsaltwick.com.