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The Catharsis of Horror

An interview with The Ants playwright Ramiz Monsef

Interview by Olivia O'Connor, Dramaturg for The Ants

Olivia O'Connor: You grew up in the Bay Area. How does your experience in that city—and your experience watching the city change over the past decades—show up in The Ants?

Ramiz Monsef: I have a really complicated relationship with the Bay. I love it so much and also really don't love what it's become. Tech money is coming in and pushing people out. It's prohibitively expensive to exist there unless you're a millionaire.

I feel like this always happens in places that are cultural centers. They are cultural centers because they're cheap for artists to exist in. People with money want to be around the artists, but they don't want to pay the artists. So they move in, they try to get into the scene, and then eventually they buy the club and raise the prices and change the decor. And all of a sudden, the thing that was funky, weird, and—in the case of San Francisco—queer, becomes a place for tech bros to go hang out in their striped shirts and harass people and drink drinks that only they can afford now.

It’s a place that, to me as a kid, represented a kind of freedom. San Francisco, especially, because I could leave Marin County, which was not a very welcoming place for me personally. San Francisco always felt liberating; it felt like everything was okay there. It’s not a place that feels like that anymore, and that breaks my heart. As someone who grew up spending time there, I really see how life has left that city. And it's because we put our faith in the almighty dollar rather than putting our faith in what built that city in the first place, which is the people.

I started writing The Ants when I was doing a show at ACT [American Conservatory Theater]. We were at The Strand on Market Street, and I was staying right around the corner, in the heart of the Tenderloin. Being there and seeing the huge disparity of wealth was shocking. It was shocking to step over bodies to walk into the Twitter building to get oat milk or whatever. It seemed ridiculous to me that there was all this money and we couldn't help people. I don't understand why that is. There's an app for everything, but there's no way to just help people.

OO: How long have you lived in LA? I feel like it's a slightly different story in terms of the cultural evaporation that you're talking about, but the wealth disparity is very present.

RM: I’ve lived here about eight years, but I’ve been in a different financial situation here. As an adult, I lived in the Bay between [the ages of] 18 and 24, during and after my time at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. During those years, I was dirt poor. I was selling CDs to eat. I was selling weed. I was just piecing together whatever money I could piece together to pay my rent and have food. I was living on McDonald's cheeseburgers because they were a dollar a piece. I was just very, very broken, really relying on the kindness of my friends to get me through. I existed in that city with nothing.

I haven’t had that same experience during my years in LA, but I still see economic disparity across the city. That is the reason why I don't specify a city in this play. I don't want anyone to be like, oh, that takes place in Chicago. That's not here. Or that takes place in LA; that's not here. It's everywhere. It's in different forms, but this is a problem everywhere. And it's a problem to do with capitalism. We haven't found a way to make money off of the poor and indigent. Well, we have, but the way we make money off of them is we incarcerate them and have them provide free or extremely cheap labor. They press our license plates and build our office furniture.

OO: Our audiences are going experience [that disparity] coming to the Geffen to watch this play: just walking from the parking garage to the theater.

RM: Yeah. It's so easy for people to distance themselves from it or throw out [explanations] like mental health. But I've known homeless people; I've been friends with homeless people by name. Maybe not so much here in LA, but in Seattle. Definitely in San Francisco. And being that poor would make you crazy too, you know? I wish we were all a little bit better at recognizing the difference between somebody who is dangerous and a threat and somebody who is just trying to check with the world if they exist anymore.

OO: The Ants is a horror play. Talk to me about your history with that genre.

RM: I love horror. I love to be scared. I think horror and comedy are important, and I think that they run parallel to each other. It’s a kind of catharsis to be scared, as it is to laugh. American audiences, our roots are in Puritanism. And so whether we like it or not, there is something inside of us as a collective that is afraid to express vulnerable emotion. We have no problem making a million John Wick movies. And look, those are fun. Don't get me wrong, they’re a lot of fun. But for us to cry deeply and openly with each other is hard. To laugh deeply and openly with each other is hard. And I think for us to be scared is a kind of vulnerability, as well.

Horror is having a bit of a moment. I think it's because we are all dealing with some very pent up and complex emotions about the last few years that we have experienced. The last six, seven years have been actually horrific for a lot of people. And so we're looking for a kind of catharsis: some way to get that out of us.

When I was a kid, I was terrified of the “Thriller” video and Jaws. Those were the two that started it for me. And then I found a VHS of the making of “Thriller” where it's Rick Baker putting on the zombie makeup and zombies having a great time off camera. It demystified it for me. It was like peeking behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage gets made, and all of a sudden it wasn't scary anymore. It was just fascinating. And then my obsession with monsters and creatures began.

[Horror is] an effective way of talking about trauma. And I guess I grew up with some trauma. I wasn't able to connect those dots as a kid, but I see why I loved it now. And now [horror] is comforting to me. And like I said, I want to be scared. I want to feel that. Now I invite it, you know? And horror is hard onstage.

OO: Tell me more about that: in moving from being the audience for horror to its creator, what’s on your mind as you build this world? What are the limitations and the opportunities of putting something scary onstage?

RM: You have to think differently because the medium is different. It's not film. Film works very well with jump scares. I'm not a fan of jump scares really, but I think they work a whole lot better on film. Not that they can't be done onstage; they absolutely can, [but] I feel like jump scares let you off the hook. You get scared and then you're done. What I find more scary and more visceral and something that gets more under your skin is the concept of menace.

Menace is a lot more terrifying. Movies like Misery or The Night of the Hunter, those are both really great examples of menace. I think it’s scarier because it's like you are tied to the train tracks and the train is coming and it's not going to stop. But it's not coming quickly. It's slowly advancing towards you. And so you have time to think about what it's going to feel like when those wheels roll over and crush your bones. To me that's scarier. And also, after it rolls over you, there's a lot of train behind it. It's not just one car, it's a whole string of cars that have to roll over you. [That feeling] sits with you; it sits on your chest and it keeps grinding you up into little tiny bits until finally you come out the other end, just the ground up little pile of flesh and bone.

OO: You’ve cited Night of the Living Dead, which makes a cameo in this play, as a source of inspiration. What about that movie spoke to you?

RM: It was one of the early [horror movies] that hooked me. It definitely scared me. I was afraid to go outside. I was afraid of zombies. I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of a lot of things as a kid. But also it's one of the most brilliant horror movies. Those three actually: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead are absolutely brilliant, because they are a perfect example of horror as metaphor, as social commentary. Night of the Living Dead came out in ’68. Our country was going through some things in 1968. [The movie is] very much to do with race. It featured a Black protagonist, which at the time was pretty revolutionary.

I didn't realize this as a brown kid growing up in the Bay Area, but I think subconsciously I was drawn to the fact that the lead character was Black. Not Middle Eastern—but in those days, that was as close to Middle Eastern as you got in movies, unless it was faceless, nameless terrorists.

For that reason, I think it's brilliant. And Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism. Day of the Dead is about the military-industrial complex. They are three movies that are a perfect example of horror as social commentary and how this really is an elevated art form that masquerades as lowbrow entertainment.

OO: You have a career as an actor, as well as a career as a writer. How has your experience as an actor influenced your approach to writing?

RM: Working in this business is a little like working in a restaurant. I would hope that whoever the artistic director is, whoever's managing the restaurant, at one point also washed dishes and mopped the floors. Tended bar, waited tables, hosted. So that they know how every little piece in that machine works.

The only pieces I have are being an actor. But luckily, as a writer, most of what I'm doing is giving a thing to an actor. So I do feel like I have some kind of leg up in terms of knowing what I as an actor would want from a writer.

I also feel very lucky that I have gotten to work with such incredible playwrights and done new plays with people like Rajiv Joseph, Bill Cain, Sarah Ruhl, Chuck Mee, Robbie Baitz. I've worked with some really, really great playwrights. I've gotten to watch them and their process. I would cite Rajiv as my greatest inspiration and influence.

I always say that a good play is an emotional map that you give to an actor. If the play is good, the map should direct them to where they need to go. All they should need to do is follow the instructions. Guards at the Taj was one of the hardest plays, physically, that I've ever had to do. But in terms of the emotional notes that I had to hit, all I had to do was say the words and be honest. If I did that, I got to where I needed to go. That's a good map. Says turn left here, turn right here. Go straight till you hit the mailbox, then go to the cul-de-sac, boom, you're home. You know? I want to give actors all of the clues and all of the directions that they need to get to where they need to go.

I think when I don't connect to plays, it's because the map isn't good. It’s because it gets me to a dead end. Good plays get you to your destination.

OO: You and [director] Pirronne Yousefzadeh have worked together before. How did you two start collaborating?

RM: We met a long time ago at UCSB, and then we reconnected when she did the apprentice show at Actors Theatre of Louisville a number of years ago. The apprentice show was always amazing because you're watching young people figure out who they are. That's why you go. But Pirronne’s show was that, and it was also really, really, really exquisitely directed. At the time, I didn't realize that we even had met before. I just was like, that's really fucking good. I want to know you because I want to know other dope artists. And then she reminded my forgetful ass that we actually had met a number of years ago.

So we reconnected in Louisville and then I wrote 3 Farids. And immediately I was like, do you want to direct a reading of this? 3 Farids was a really big and ridiculous clown show about Hollywood. And [Pirronne] was amazing. It was one of those collaborations that was like, yes, of course. Like, why wouldn't we do this as much as possible? She gets what I'm trying to say, and there's a very natural balance: we listen to each other; we respect each other. I love working with someone where I can be like, you got this. I feel like we're both in it for the same reason, and that's to make good art in a world that's really hard to make good art in.

OO: The Ants came out of The Writer's Room and was then developed at Ojai. Coming into this process, the first full production, what are you hoping to learn or discover about the play?

RM: Well, I guess we'll learn if it works or not. I really want to make people uncomfortable. My favorite movies to experience are ones where I walk out and I feel different. It doesn't happen that often. I want to know that we can do that. That's what I'm hoping for. I hope it doesn't just feel like another fun night at the theater. I hope it really is hard for people to shake.

OO: You retweeted something about the Writers Guild of America strike recently and contextualized the thread with, “AI is pure evil.” Tell me more about that, since AI figures into this theatrical world.

RM: I think there's a deep hole in the tech industry. There is a chasm of empathy in the tech industry. It is capitalism run wild. Things are being created in the interest of, can we make as much money as possible and not in the interest of, can we make anybody's lives better besides the people who are rich enough to afford whatever this thing is we're selling.

I feel like AI is another step towards that. And look, since art has been commodified, people have been looking for ways to make artists work for free. It's a thing that people feel like they're entitled to. [Being an artist] is not respected in the way that people respect a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor or whatever. [But] I feel like artists provide a service as well. And the service that we provide is we remind people that they are part of the human experience. That's our job. And if you don't have that, then people forget that they are human and they forget that they're part of a larger tapestry and that there are people they may have never met that actually depend on decisions that they make, who will suffer consequences from decisions that they make.

AI is another way for people at the top of the financial food chain to weed out people with creative ideas who may challenge them. It’s a way to keep the money machine running without any question of, is this right? So many things have been created because they could be created, not because they should be created. AI, I think, is one of those things.

And also, AI can't predict the future. It can only pull from things that have been created already. All it's doing is regurgitating an amalgamation of things we've already seen, and that's comforting to a lot of people. Nostalgia is really comforting, but it's also a precursor to fascism. Artists do see into the future. That's why there's Sun Ra. That's why there's David Lynch. That's why there's Octavia Butler. That's why there's Coltrane. Name an artist. Artists see into the future.

Maybe we'll get to a point where AI has gotten rid of management. But keep the artists, because if they don't keep making shit, AI won't be able to keep stealing shit from stuff that they're making. But all that being said still, you know, fuck AI.

The Ants

JUNE 20 – JULY 30, 2023
Written by Ramiz Monsef
Directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh
Featuring Hugo Armstrong, Nicky Boulos, Megan Hills, Jeremy Radin & Ryan Shrime

A breathtaking house on a hill—complete with the most state-of-the-art security that excessive wealth can buy—should feel like a refuge for Nami, whose recent firing and eviction have forced him to crash at his brother and sister-in-law’s luxury home. But on this dark and fateful night, a violent uprising outside leaves the three trapped in what they think is an impenetrable fortress. A horror play infused with darkly humorous social commentary, The Ants asks why we spend so much money protecting ourselves instead of investing in our shared humanity.

This play was created during the Geffen Playhouse’s The Writers’ Room program, in which Los Angeles playwrights develop new works with the support and guidance of the Geffen Playhouse artistic team. Major support for this world premiere production provided by the Edgerton Foundation New Play Production Fund.


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