Kat Sandler is having a busy year. The playwright and director, whom we dubbed one of the funniest women in Toronto last year, has debuted three new plays in 2014: Cockfight, a gritty family drama about three ne’er-do-well brothers; Punch-Up, in which a comic is kidnapped by a lovesick man in need of a comedy master class; and Retreat, currently playing at the Storefront Theatre at Bloor and Delaware, where a corporate retreat gets dirty and bloody.
Kat Letwin is having a busy year, too. Cited in this year‘s edition of our Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh feature, Letwin played an over-the-top handmaid in Scheherazade at the Next Stage Festival, and a troubled starship captain in Dark Matter, a sci-fi adaptation of Heart of Darkness—and she’s been all over town with her sketch troupe Rulers of the Universe.
Now the two Kats are collaborating on Retreat, putting their considerable talents to work alongside a fresh crop of Theatre Brouhaha performers. We spoke with them prior to the show’s premiere last week…
Can you sum up the show in one line?
SANDLER: It’s a high-paced screwball satire about four corporate interns sent to a dilapidated scout camp for a retreat by their firm, and everything goes horribly awry. It’s a comment on how the millennial generation is insanely overqualified, and the job market is ridiculous, especially in the lengths someone will go to get a secure job.
LETWIN: It’s how far people think they need to go, to secure a position that’s at all tenable, to provide for the life they’re hoping to have. That’s not often on offer these days, as it was for previous generations.
SANDLER: There’s also the thought that there’s an animal in each of us, and when we “get out” to nature, that animal comes out, and we revert back to that vicious “survival of the fittest” mentality.
So it starts out Wet Hot American Summer and turns into Lord of the Flies?
SANDLER: Ha! We’ve been saying it’s a cross between Glengarry Glen Ross, Office Space, Lord of the Flies, and Survivor. There’s a lot of reality TV references, actually.
For this show, Kat (Sandler), you’re working with all new (to you) actors.
SANDLER: Yes, they’re all Theatre Brouhaha virgins.
Including you, Kat (Letwin). How’d you get involved in the show?
LETWIN: Well, I’ve been a big fan of Kat’s work to date. She came to see me in Rulers of the Universe’s sketch show at the Toronto Fringe, and we talked at the Fringe tent, and she told me she had a show coming up, and she’d keep me posted.
SANDLER: This show didn’t exist then! I said, “I’d like to do a play with you one day, I’ll pop something out.”
Kat (Sandler), you had Kat (Letwin) in mind.
SANDLER: For this role, absolutely. And the process has been really exciting. We started with a first draft, then rewrote it in a room, the way a TV writers’ room would work.
LETWIN: It’s felt very much like a writers’ room. We started with a great script, and while working it up, we had the freedom to act on impulses and take our characters somewhere interesting.
So the process sounds similar to how sketch comedy is written.
SANDLER: The process, absolutely.
LETWIN: The end result, not so much. Kat’s made sure we didn’t spin off into complete whack-a-doodery.
SANDLER: Whack-a-doodery sounds really fun!
LETWIN: It sounds fun.
SANDLER: With a new group, everyone took really quickly to the process, and it’s been a short but amazing and intense one. Everyone’s been really open and honest and patient—it’s been like camp! We had a theatre boot camp.
The set you have here is pretty detailed.
LETWIN: It’s tactile! Very tactile. We can touch all the things. We don’t have to suspend belief at all, or imagine the setting—I hate that kind of work.
SANDLER: The conceit is that Kat’s character Candace made the camp herself, and it’s a DIY kids camp. It feels very cobbled together, which is fun, and it’s the first show I’ve written that’s set entirely outside.
LETWIN: When I walked onto the set for the first time, I just started laughing, cackling at how good it looked. Going from a rehearsal space that was a windowless basement space with no clock—time felt like an illusion down there…
SANDLER: Like in a casino!
LETWIN: …and coming into Storefront, which is completely transformed, really helped solidify for me what kind of person Candace is—that she was the sort of person who would have made this.
SANDLER: It’s been a really condensed process, but the set, and the amazing costumes, and the sound, and the fights, all make it feel like it’s been luxurious. There’s also a satisfaction in creating something that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a very pulpy show—B-movie genre sort of stuff. We’ve had a lot of fun with the style.
LETWIN: But there’s still moments of genuine emotion in the show—hurt, and longing, and loneliness, to offset the, um, campiness…
SANDLER: Ah, boooo! Fired!
LETWIN: I’m fired—”Get out, Letwin!” But it really has been interesting finding a balance and rhythm for the show, where it’s campy in some places, but less so in others.
Tell us about your own camp experiences.
LETWIN: I was a day-camp counsellor in Paris, Ontario, where I’d take kids to the pool. As an adult, I’ve been to quite a few camping weddings. But my first outdoor camping experience was when I was 18, about to graduate high school, and my parents didn’t want me staying overnight, because of the boys. So I got really drunk before a friend drove me home for the night—and I still had fun times with the boys.
SANDLER: I worked my way up the brutal ladder of camp culture, from a junior camper all the way up to senior counsellor. But more vividly, I remember going camping, where a lot of the set imagery comes from. My sister and I went cross-Canada car camping with our parents, and I remember meeting this guy who bamboozled my dad into thinking he was a native shaman, when he was for sure just a white guy. We paid money to eat exotic game in a tent, and I’m positive it was all just chicken.
This interview has been condensed and edited.