21st Century Voices Interview with Playwright-In-Residence Natalie Symons

It’s 2019 and we’re kicking off the new year with new plays! Our 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival will run January 3rd-6th featuring five staged readings and talkbacks with playwrights from all over the country. Here’s an interview with American Stage playwright-in-residence Natalie Symons whose play THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS will be presented Sunday January 6th at 2pm.


Set in a hoarder’s nest in the Black Rock neighborhood of Buffalo NY, Miles, an aging funeral home custodian with a taste for whiskey and a taste for laughter, lives with his daughter Mabel, a middle-aged agoraphobic who spends her days writing letters to prison inmates. When a court-appointed guardian threatens to take away their home, their rights, and their stolen poodle, Miles takes action and sets out to find a ‘good guy’ for Mabel. Enter Todd, an inept mortician who lives with his mother and pet hamster Stanley Kowalski. It is a father’s fierce determination not to accept his daughter’s fate that ignites an endearing human comedy about love, loss, loneliness, and the healing power of laughter.

What is your relationship with American Stage and the 21st Century Voices/New Play Development programs?

I’m the playwright-in-residence at American Stage this season and I’ve been involved with 21st Century Voices the last two years as an actor in Sheila Cowley’s FLYING and Alex Rubin’s GROUP.

What inspired you to write this play?

I have no idea why, but it started with an image, the image of a man working as a custodian at a funeral home watching the embalming process. It’s always hard for me to look back and remember what inspired a play, but I do know that all of my plays started with an image rather than an idea. One of my idols Flannery O’Conner said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” It’s similar for me. The story and emotional life of the characters come to life around an image. Once I find the heart of the story I write the ending. Then I start at the beginning and work toward achieving the ending.

What has the life of your play been like thus far?

I spent about a year writing the play. I first heard it out loud back in September in a private reading and then about 6 weeks later in an invited guest reading as a part of the playwright-in-residency program with American Stage. Since then I’ve been collaborating with Chris Crawford in the director chair to start to unpack the play. Chris and I met when we were cast together in THE FOREIGNER at American Stage, and later he was in my play THE BUFFALO KINGS at freeFall Theatre. For years we’ve wanted to collaborate as playwright/director so this is a thrill and a privilege to work with him on this level.

What are the challenges of putting your work in front of an audience??

I wrote a novel a few years ago. For me playwriting is more vulnerable than writing a novel. As a novelist you obviously don’t interact with your reader. If someone doesn’t connect with the novel I don’t have to witness it. As a playwright the development process is much more exposed. There’s an intimacy that the playwright has with audiences and collaborators. It can be thrilling, but it’s also daunting and at times it’s terrifying.

What has been a unique or particularly useful piece of feedback/commentary you have received during this process??

All of the feedback and audience response has been useful. Usually, even the comments I don’t agree with somehow inform the development of the play. However I feel like playwrights have to protect themselves against too much commentary. Too much feedback, or should I say, feedback from the wrong people can be counterproductive to the creative process. Sometimes a play can get caught in that ongoing cycle of readings and talkbacks. As a result the play gets overwritten. For me the director’s eye is essential at this stage. Just as a novelist needs an editorial eye it takes a directorial eye to shape the play.

How has your play grown from the beginning of this process until now?

The answer is, a lot. Obviously every writer has a different process but I do a lot of revisions and rewrites. My first drafts are terrible. However I tend to get a bit obsessive with the revisions and there’s a danger in trying to write the perfect play, mostly because that’s an unachievable goal. I could easily spend five years trying to perfect each script so I have to force myself to abandon the script and work on other projects. Playwright Taylor Mac says: “all plays are flawed except the extremely boring ones so stop trying to make my plays perfect.”

What are your hopes for future of THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS?

I hope to see a fully produced production, and if I’m lucky a second and third and…

Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?

Keep writing. And rewriting.

Visit americanstage.org/new for more info and tickets to our 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival.

Individual Tickets: $10 per reading

All-Access Pass: $40 General Public | $30 American Stage Subscribers & Act 1 Club Members*