In Charise Castro Smith’s genre-blending play Feathers and Teeth, Chris, a teenage girl lamenting the recent death of her mother, plots against her father’s new girlfriend with an intricate revenge plan.Castro Smith recently sat down with the Goodman’s Associate Dramaturg Neena Arndt to discuss her inspirations for the play, her dual career as an actor and playwright and why she enjoys mixing comedy with horror.
Neena Arndt: What was the catalyst for Feathers and Teeth?
Charise Castro Smith: I trained as an actor and only started seriously writing about five years ago. As an actor, I was always cast as girlfriends or in sidekick roles. The juicy, cool roles I wanted to play were usually dudes. I would love to play Richard III, but chances are they’re going to cast a dude. I started thinking about this with my last play, The Hunchback of Seville, in which the lead character is a hunchback lady. So for this play I thought, what about female psychopaths? Where are they on stage? I wanted to create an awesome, crazy role for a woman to play. I started with the character of Chris and originally thought the play was going to be about this young girl who was a psychopath. I read The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson, which I really loved. The book explores whether this condition of non-empathy is a nature or nurture issue. But then my thought process moved away from that and I started watching ‘70s horror films and got really interested in how horror can actually be a way to understand the obsessions or fears of a culture. It also provides access to some really primal issues—this play is a horror play, yes, but it’s also about a family grieving. As I was finishing the play and developing it in subsequent workshops, I became very interested in the idea of revenge plays.
NA: Did you go back and read Elizabethan plays?
CCS: Yeah! Hamlet! Hamlet is basically a play about this dude who is paralyzed by his father’s death. I thought I could find some parallels there too, so there were a lot of different streams of inspiration that converged into Feathers and Teeth.
NA: How would you describe the genre of the play?
CCS: My friend put it in a way that I really love—she called it a “thrilledy.” She said, “It’s a thriller comedy.” And I was like, “Oh yeah? Okay, yeah, I’ll take that.” I love the juxtaposition of a genre with comedy. The play I mentioned earlier, The Hunchback of Seville, is historical, but it’s funny. A play I’m currently working on is science fiction, but it’s also funny.
NA: Tell me about transitioning from working solely as an actor to also becoming a playwright. Do those two disciplines feed each other?
CCS: I went to the Yale School of Drama to get an MFA as an actor. They have an event called the Yale Cabaret where anyone can put on a play. So I wrote this play called Estrella Cruz (The Junkyard Queen) and they produced it. [Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright] Paula Vogel, who was the head of the playwriting program at the time, took me under her wing. When I graduated I was mostly an actor and did a couple of small TV jobs and some plays. At the same time I was writing and had started a fellowship at New Dramatists in New York, which made me embrace playwriting more as a career rather than just a side project. Then I got a job writing for a TV show. I’ve mostly been writing, so that’s becoming the larger part of my life right now. But because I’m an actor too I’m really interested in hearing what actors have to say when I’m developing a new play and the script is still in progress. I am very much interested in what an actor’s experience is of the inside of the play. They track their character’s journey and there might be things that don’t make sense to them—I want to hear those ideas.
NA: Feathers and Teeth has a lot of elements of horror, like little evil creatures, but also involves a family that recently lost its matriarch. What are you looking to explore about grief and loss, or about what it means to lose a parent?
CCS: I’m extremely fortunate that both my parents are living. My grandma died seven years ago and I was very close with her. With grief, I think first you try to deny it and then you are angry. Then there are the stages of grief, right? Seven years later I’ve accepted it in a way, but I don’t know if there’s ever a way to really forget about it or fully let it go. You just kind of negotiate it. In the play, Chris, the daughter, deals with loss in a really specific way by seeking revenge and acting out; she’s really angry. Arthur, her father, handles it in a different way. He’s totally in denial and shuts the door to the past. Both of those methods of coping really come back to bite them—literally. I think there’s this primal thing that we can manage in different ways, but ultimately we can’t really control it.
For this play I thought, what about female psychopaths? Where are they on stage? I wanted to create an awesome, crazy role for a woman to play.
NA: This play was developed over the past several years as part of the Goodman’s New Stages Festival. How did that process work for you?
CCS: [Director] Henry Godinez and I have developed a way of talking about the play and I totally trust his vision. During that process I learned how not to tip my hand too much early on—how to preserve the suspense as long as possible. Sometimes people ask me what I want the audience to know about the play going into it. My response is “not much.” The surprises are the most fun things about the play.