Fish Tank: Interview with Playwright Aly Kantor

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“Fish Tank” is a short and speculative horror-themed play by Aly Kantor that focuses on a woman who is coping with being an immune lifeline amid a virus epidemic that turns the affected into zombie-like shells of themselves. Aly was intrigued by the ideas of using Zoom as a stage and the piece aired as part of the One House One Heart virtual one-act play festival. The show’s premise was inspired by current events and formulated when Aly was hiking in the woods a during the Coronavirus peak and realized that she felt safer than she ever had before.

Aly is an elementary school teacher and an actress who is well known to the Long Island Community Theatre. She recently discussed her play and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in writing and why did playwriting interest you in particular?

Aly Kantor (AK): Before I was an actor, I was a writer. It was the first creative outlet I can remember pouring my whole self into. In elementary school I used to read the morning announcements, and I started writing original poems to spice them up and make them more interesting! As I got older, writing became more of a private pursuit for me, but there has never been a period of my life when I wasn’t working on some kind of fiction.

I ended up writing plays, foremost, out of necessity. I am a teacher and an actor, so it was inevitable that at some point I’d start teaching drama! Strangely enough, my writing life and my theatrical life never seemed to intersect – writing plays never even occurred to me until I started teaching a play production class and realized that the whole process would be more fun if I devised the show based on the kids rather than choosing something and shoe-horning everyone in. I decided to adapt children’s stories and Shakespeare plays for my elementary actors, and parents always loved the way I hid some humor for adults in there! It never felt like something serious, though I was constantly reading plays and contacting playwrights I admired, so clearly it was in the back of my mind! It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I wrote my first piece for adult actors. I can’t believe it took me this long to realize I could combine two of my passions so seamlessly. Now I am hooked!

MM: What inspired “Fish Tank” and how long did it take to write?

AK: I have always been a fan of sci-fi and speculative fiction, especially in theatre, and as Zoom plays became more and more common, I couldn’t help thinking that we had an amazing opportunity to tell stories through and about technology. I always say that all art is problem solving, and virtual theatre is just a new and interesting problem for artists to address. We suddenly had this cool virtual stage to use to tell stories! I was waiting and waiting for someone to come up with some funky sci-fi theatre, but I got sick of waiting. If you want something done, do it yourself, right? And that’s when I started brainstorming the concept behind “Fish Tank.”

The plot itself came to me while I was out hiking in the woods. I love hiking, and it’s one of my favorite solo activities, but there’s always a risk when you are a young woman out hiking alone. At the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was nervous and avoidant, I felt so safe out there. Nobody was going to snatch me – what if I had the virus? It was a really strange, sick, almost liberating feeling, and I knew I wanted to harness it. That’s how the idea for my main character Maddy was born. What kind of story could I tell about a dangerous woman in isolation? It also fed into my passion for stories about ‘women at the end of the world.’ Plus, what’s scarier than being alive in the world today? I took what was going on around me and warped it, and I loved playing with people’s assumptions and expectations.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been working on original plays on and off, so it’s hard to say exactly how much time passed between my first draft and the version I ultimately submitted to the festival. Leading up to the submission deadline, I was editing it daily. It’s exposition heavy, so it took some work to nestle everything into the dialogue!

MM: How did you find One House One Heart?

AK: I knew Deborah Rupy from other theatre projects, and months before the pandemic began, we’d had a long conversation about producing new works. She really made me think, and put the idea of getting involved in new, original theatre on my radar. I was supposed to direct and perform in a new original piece as part of a short play festival in May, but obviously that didn’t end up happening. Deborah and I stayed in touch, and she reached out to me when she began producing Long Island Pause Monologues 2. I wrote a monologue for that project called “Six Feet Further,” based, again, on my experiences hiking every day during the pandemic! Christopher Rupy was also writing a monologue for the project, and he asked me if I’d be interested in performing, too. It was such a wonderful experience that I asked Deborah if she knew of any other opportunities to write. She hinted that something might be on the horizon, and a few weeks later I saw the announcement about the festival. That’s when I got my drafts out of storage and started the process of getting “Fish Tank” production ready.

MM: Did you always intended this play to be presented via Zoom or would you like to have it performed live, too?

AK: “Fish Tank” was a Zoom play from the beginning, written for the current times and, in a roundabout way, about the current times. I feel like something might be lost if it was to be performed on a stage, unless at least one of the characters was on a screen anyway! I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing what a clever director could do with the task of bringing this to a brick and mortar theatre, but that was never my intention. Now you’ve got my gears turning, though – I’d love to see a production set in Maddy’s space, with Ellison jumping from screen to screen as she goes about her life. Imagine the ‘Big Brother is Watching’ vibes!

MM: How did you find the actors and how did you feel about the final results of the performed piece?

AK: Melissa Myers, the director, worked with me to cast the play. Both of the actors we cast, Kiana Douglas and Noah VanderVeer Harris, submitted their resumes and headshots before the casting process began, and Melissa and I were given access to the full collection of submissions when we began to collaborate. It was the first “Zoom Audition” either of us had been involved with, and there was a learning curve! Melissa was frantically trying to figure out breakout rooms before our audition! Luckily, everyone was flexible and willing to go with the flow, and we were able to simulate a typical audition process in the virtual space. There was so much talent that casting the piece was challenging, but we went with our gut and ended up with our incredible little cast!

Honestly, I was pretty floored by the professionalism of everyone involved. I attended every rehearsal, and listening to Melissa, Kiana, and Noah discuss the piece so critically was surreal! It was so strange to be present as the “expert” on the text, because that had never been my role in the production process before. All three of them were fearless, too! They left no stone unturned and really dug deep into the characters and their motivations. Initially, I really thought “These actors are going to take one look at this crazy script and head for the hills!” but they stuck it out, and I think you can really see their thoughtful work in the final product. I could not be prouder of this premiere!

MM: What other plays have you written and what are they about?

AK: I am very new to playwriting, and prior to March wrote exclusively for student actors, so the majority of the pieces I have produced have been performed in elementary school all-purpose rooms by eight-year-olds! It has been a nice change writing theatre in which none of the characters are talking animals, though I am sure there is more of that to come, too!

In terms of my writing for adults, most of my plays are still early drafts, and while I will definitely keep them around as evidence of my growth as I continue to pursue this, I know most of these pieces will never see the light of day. Many of those are genre pieces like “Fish Tank,” since I still want to see more female-led science fiction on stage! Others are just flights of fancy.

Back in May, I collaborated with Claude Solnik on an original Zoom piece called ‘The Hamlet Monologue,’ which was also the first piece of “Zoom theatre” I acted in. It is a sweet story about a young woman auditioning for the role of Hamlet. My original monologue for Long Island Pause Monologues 2, “Six Feet Further,” came next, then “Fish Tank!”

MM: How do other aspects of your life—like your childhood, acting, and/or day job—influence you creatively, if at all?

AK: I’m a teacher, and I’ve taught students from preschool through fourth grade. My favorite thing in the world is the way young children use and understand language. I’ve been sharing stories and quotes from my classroom for years, and the kids always inspire me. I think working with children really allows me to find the complexity in others, and contributes to writing richer, more interesting characters. Thinking about human beings in context leads to radical empathy, and that humanist approach is key to connecting with audiences as a writer or as a performer. Humans are wonderful, glorious, terrible creatures, and I love them. I want to tell their incredible stories, and I want to do it in the theatre, so we can all be together and grow together while we take them in.

MM: How have you been keeping yourself entertained during the coronavirus lockdown?

AK: A lot of hiking, a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of podcasts! The educational world adapted to “the new normal” pretty quickly, so I have been working from home consistently since March, teaching my regular students, tutoring, running enrichment classes, and teaching a few drama classes for elementary students – including a playwriting class back in June! Little did I know that by October I’d be a produced playwright! I’m a homebody anyway, so the only thing I really miss is in-person theatre. I’m dying to get back on stage. I am so grateful that I still get to see my friends during virtual theatre events and online readings – otherwise, I don’t think I’d be able to make it!

MM: Are you working on any other plays right now? If so, can you give us any specifics?

AK: Yes! I’m working on my very first full-length piece of original theatre as part of EastLine Theatre’s new devised theatre collaboration, EastLine Muses. It’s going to be my very first foray into a live virtual theatre production, so I am a little bit nervous – it seems like a big step for me, but it’s definitely the next logical one! The thing I miss most about in-person theatre is just being together, so I am using that as impetus to develop a theatre event that is best experienced live.

The piece is inspired by epic poetry – ironically, just as I prepare to teach ‘The Odyssey’ to my second graders – and asks the question “Who gets to be a hero?” It takes the form of a series of related monologues (and one song – a brand new writing adventure for me!) that will each explore a different female-identifying character’s ‘hero’s journey’ before, during, and after joining a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in their sober living community. It’s nerdy and funny and deeply personal, so I cannot wait to move forward with the project and see these women come to life. I hope fans of “Fish Tank” will check it out – it will be much less spooky, I promise!

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

AK:  I want to write more plays and see them produced! I never thought I’d find a role in the theatre that’s just as engaging and exciting for me as performing, but I am hooked! I have realized that as long as I am telling stories, I am happy, and I have so many more stories to tell! I’m going to keep writing, maybe submit to some virtual festivals – but my ultimate goal is to write something for performance in a brick-and-mortar theatre. That’s how I’ll know I’ve “made it” as a playwright! I hope the opportunity to do so isn’t too far in the future. I miss my theatre community, and I want us all to be together again soon!

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To learn more about Aly, visit her official website: www.alykantor.com

To watch the plays, visit the official YouTube channel of One House One Heart: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCI5kZQ6MUtKI0Y9pxYs-IKA