Photo by: Michael Watier

Let Kat Sandler rope you in with her fast-paced comedy, Punch Up

T.O.'s most prolific playwright/director lets loose about Mamet, marketing and making theatre for the HBO generation

By: Glenn Sumi


A week before Kat Sandler's new play, Punch Up, debuts at the Fringe, the writer/director is sporting a tensor-bandaged wrist and a big, nasty cut on her thigh.

Clearly, life as one of the hottest young playwrights is dangerous.

This morning, on her way to a writing workshop for another play, Sandler had a bike accident and landed in the hospital. The night before, she'd eschewed the Dora Awards for Red Bull-fuelled rewrites and the first run-through of Punch Up. Then there was the recent opening night of another new play, the hit comedy Cockfight, which she also wrote and directed.

Maybe the accident is a sign that she's taking on too much?

"Nope," she says, smiling, sitting at a rickety table at the Victory Café in the Annex. "It's a sign that I should concentrate more, and maybe not listen to Beyoncé so loud on my earphones while I'm riding my bike."

She lets the joke settle, and when the waiter comes, asks for a whisky, because, she admits, "I've had quite a day."

She's also had quite the past couple of years.

Fringe audiences know her for high-energy shows like Help Yourself, a dark comedy about murder and a motivational guru (it won the fest's New Play Award in 2012) and We Are The Bomb, last year's anarchic show performed at the Paddock, about a bunch of drinkers staging an Occupy-like protest on the eve of a modern-day reinstatement of prohibition.

But she's also mounted two productions of Delicacy, a satiric take on swingers, class and condo dwellers, and Rock, a modern morality tale about a man who hears voices asking him to stone people to death.

She's written, directed and co-produced eight shows since 2012. Which must be some sort of record. It's a wonder she didn't end up in the hospital earlier.

"It sounds less insane when you consider that these are really workshop productions," she says. "We just don't call them that. If I spent two years developing one of these scripts, it would absolutely be better. It would have to be.

"But things happen so quickly. It becomes a race against the clock. That means you can't be precious about the work, you can't be wishy-washy with decisions."

No one would ever call a Sandler play wishy-washy or precious. Punch Up takes its title from the comedy expression about taking a line of dialogue and enhancing it so the laughs are stronger. A pretty apt metaphor, by the way, for her process.

"I'm fascinated with the idea of ownership of ideas - where they come from," she says. With most of her shows, she comes into rehearsal with a working script, and then, along with the actors, the director side of her takes over and tweaks it.

"I want the best possible experience for the audience," she says. "If someone else's joke is funnier than mine, I don't care - let's put that in, as long as they're okay with using it. Rehearsals can have a writers'-room feel."

The play, about a man (Sandler regular Tim Walker) who kidnaps a comic (Colin Munch) in order to make a suicidal woman (Caitlin Driscoll, from We Are The Bomb) laugh, also features lots of old-fashioned screwball humour.

Critics have compared Sandler's rapid-fire dialogue to the work of David Mamet, but she says she's also influenced by legen­dary comic Mel Brooks.

"Carpooling with my dad, I wanted to listen to Ace of Bass, but he would have on things like The 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner and Brooks," she says, laughing. "That really changed the way I think about comedy, jokes and pacing.

A play should enhance your evening, not be your evening.

"Punch Up is a cross between a Mel Brooks movie and The Princess Bride. It has to have heart; it's all about love, another theme that goes way back to silent movies - the guy saving the girl on the train tracks."

Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride? Sandler clearly understands the power of succinct, effective marketing in a city saturated with information. She and her company, Theatre Brouhaha - which she runs with dramaturge Tom McGee and producer Chris DePaul - have branded themselves, using a consistent photo­grapher, design and font for their posters.

Sandler wants people who don't normally go to theatre to see her shows. And it's working. The pace, tone and entertainment quotient of her plays excite audiences who might just as easily be at a club or concert. She feels that a lot of younger artists - among them directors like Mitchell Cushman and Jordan Tannahill and the people behind Red One Theatre, who co-produced Cockfight - are making theatre to reflect this new generation's changing lives.

One of the catchphrases she's used since graduating from Queen's and moving back to T.O. has been "writing plays for the HBO generation." But how do you compete with the budgets and complex character arcs of some of the best cable TV writing?

"I don't know if you can," she says. "Most Fringe shows are an hour. We just did a run [of Punch Up] and it was an hour and 18, so I sat down and sliced it. Fringe asks you to give it the best hour you have.

"But," she continues, "what's beautiful about a play is that it exists in that immediate time and place. I can't compete with Breaking Bad. I wouldn't try."

She would also never write a three-hour play.

"I don't enjoy watching a three-hour play, unless it's really well done. A play or theatre should enhance your evening, not be your evening."

From the start, Sandler seemed to have emerged onto the local theatre scene fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. There were no sensitive solo shows full of poignant insights. In fact, few of her plays have monologues, another crutch the novice writer uses.

"I know that dialogue is my strength," she says. "I've written one-person shows, but I've never shown them to anyone. They're tragic - not just in theme, but straight-up bad."

One of the secrets to her prolific output, she says, is that she doesn't rely on outlines. She finds the story through conversations.

"I'm excited to see what will happen at the end," she says. "It's like being engrossed in a book and staying up all night to finish it. That's part of why I can write so quickly."

She still has a job as a restaurant server, which she'd like to give up eventually, but says she gets great material from it. A play or character can come from anywhere. For instance, in her neighbourhood she regularly passes a man who has devil horns tattooed onto his forehead, and that inspired a character named Scarman Devilman in Cockfight.

And since she writes such strong dialogue, does she want to write for TV some day?

"Absolutely," she says. "My mother [Ann MacNaughton] wrote for Traders and E.N.G., so I came up in that world. But I'm not quite done playing around in this world yet. Not to say that you can't do both, but I need a little more time here.

"Right now, from the moment you get an idea to opening night to rewrites and remount, I control every decision - along with my friends and theatre family. In TV there's so much more money involved, so there's much less freedom."

She knows that when she eventually makes the move, she'll want to be a show runner.

"And I don't know how to do that yet," she says. "I need more time to play and more time to learn how to jump into TV. Jump - because I don't really step."

Interview Clips

Sandler on the Fringe, comparing the festival to Netflix and how Punch Up is different from Cockfight:

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On directing her scripts:

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On why men outnumber women in her scripts:

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On the genesis of Theatre Brouhaha and making money in indie theatre:

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glenns@nowtoronto.com | @glennsumi