Siah Berlatsky just graduated this month from ChiArts, but though she’s taking a gap year before college, the 18-year-old playwright-director-actor isn’t letting the grass grow under her feet. In August, she’ll be part of Artistic Home’s outdoor developmental series, “Summer on the Patio,” with her Elizabethan-style gender-bending rom-com, Malapert Love, which she also directs. (“Malapert,” a favorite word of William Shakespeare’s, is both adjective and noun, meaning “saucy,” or “an impudently bold person.”) Berlatsky’s play, in which six characters (and a foul drunkard named “Phischbreath”) scheme and (sort of) duel as their hidden affections are revealed, nestles in repertory alongside those of internationally known writers: David Ives’s Venus in Fur and Jez Butterworth’s The River.
Sun 8/7-8/28, Artistic Home studio, 3054 N. Milwaukee, 7 PM; theartistichome.org, free
I caught up with Berlatsky (daughter of Noah Berlatsky, a longtime Reader contributor) the day after her ChiArts graduation to find out how she ended up being the youngest playwright onstage in Artistic Home’s history, and how being both trans and a fan of Shakespeare combined to help create her play. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Kerry Reid: Your play has a lot of fun with the ridiculous comedic tropes of unrequited love and the lengths people go to when in its throes. What was the inspiration for the story?
Siah Berlatsky: It’s very inspired by Shakespeare. I first started writing it when I was 15, 16 years old and really just starting to experiment with and explore my gender identity and my sexuality and what that meant to me. Shakespeare has, for as long as I can remember, been a huge inspiration to me. The first Shakespeare play I did was in seventh grade. I played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve interacted with Shakespeare for a long time, and I’ve always adored all of the tropes and the stock situations that are used in those plays to sort of advance the language and the poetry. And obviously the queerness and the homoeroticism has always really interested me. So really what the play started out as was that I wanted to make a response to a Shakespeare comedy specifically with all of those tropes that I love so much and make it a more explicitly modern piece.
In terms of coming out as queer and trans, did you find that process easier by being in a high school for the performing arts?
Definitely. ChiArts has been a particularly accepting environment for that. Most of the people that I know there are trans. But it’s not just at my high school. I know lots of other people from lots of other schools that have been very accepting and supportive.
What was the journey with this play? Was it a class project that kind of just kept going?
It started out just as purely a hobby, sort of a passion project thing. I would write it on the bus or the train to and from school on my phone. I didn’t really think that anything would ever come of it. I was just a kid experimenting with art. But there have been a lot of teachers and mentors [at ChiArts], especially Kathy Scambiatterra [artistic director at Artistic Home] who took notice of it and felt that it could be a professional production.
How is the Summer on the Patio program set up and have you started working on the show?
It’s basically a festival with three different plays, with three completely different teams in a very strict process that just really emphasizes the relationship between the actor and the text. We’ve just begun rehearsals. We had our first table read last week and we’ll be performing every Sunday in August.
What are some of the things you’re hoping the rehearsal process might bring out for you and the play?
With theater, there isn’t any insight that is deeper than seeing the play fully performed. You don’t really get to see what the finished product is until you have actors and audience in a space. I’m really just excited to see the work as it was meant to be—viewed and interacted with. Already, I’ve gotten a lot of insights just from the few table reads and I’m just hoping to see more of that, see what works and what doesn’t, to make it the best play that it can be. And hopefully have it produced in the future.
Who are some of the playwrights that you’ve looked to for inspiration aside from Shakespeare?
Definitely more classical playwrights—Oscar Wilde and Chekhov are the two whose style I think I enjoy the most. Oscar Wilde, particularly, although, you know, one hopes that my career doesn’t go quite the same way his did. [laughs] But I just love his voice. I love the satirization of cishet societal norms. The way that he does that, I admire greatly. Among more contemporary playwrights, I think probably my favorite would be Tarell Alvin McCraney [Ms. Blakk for President]. I just think that the work that he’s doing in elevating queer voices and the sophistication, the control that he has over his settings and his characters is really brilliant. And definitely something that I aspire to.
What are your future plans?
Well, so right now, I’m looking at taking a gap year. I have a lot of projects that I have to sort of attend to at the moment. Hopefully I would like to go to college in New York or Chicago and pursue a degree in either dramatic studies or English or something that will forward my writing and get me new connections in theater spaces to hopefully branch out, where and with whom I’m producing plays.