The O.G. Surfer Girl: A Chat With Sarah Utterback
By Megan Lohne
Sarah Utterback, who certain Greys Anatomy devotees may know as Nurse Olivia from earlier seasons aka “Syph Nurse” is joining with Animus Theatre Company and The Dirty Blonde’s to bring the New York Premiere of Leslye Headland’s Surfer Girl to life.
A monologue about the perils and joys of couch surfing, Surfer Girl was Headland’s first play in her seven deadly sins cycle and IAMA, an LA based company which both Headland and Utterback are members of is about to produce the seventh and final piece: Cult Of Love.
I had a chance to chat with Sarah about IAMA, being the O.G. Surfer Girl, and revisiting old characters.
SB: How did you get involved with Animus?
SU: I do not know any of them but we do have mutual friends. A friend is co producing with her company the Dirty Blonde’s. I had just done a reading of Surfer Girl; I have a theatre company out in Los Angeles called IAMA. We’ve done all the world premieres of Leslye’s plays out here. We’re in our tenth season and we’re about to do our final sin play, the seventh in the series. It’s called Cult of Love,it’s about pride and I’m so lucky to be a part of that cast as well. We’re rehearsing that right now. It opens on May 24th but kind of as a lead up to this world premiere we went back and revisited the first six plays in staged readings over three weekends so I was able to revisit Surfer Girl for the third time. I did a reading in 2012 that Trip Cullman directed. Leslye did major rewrites two of the weeks and she just had some questions about the script and kind of wanted some insight since I had this character as a part of my theatre history and had seen it change.
SB: What’s it like to inhabit someone for ten years and what do you think the differences are now from when you began with this character?
SU: Well, I have set her down. I haven’t been performing Sufer Girl steadily for ten years. I’ve taken major breaks and have had little opportunities to revive her. I haven’t been obsessing over this material for ten years but what I see each time I revisit the material is just like the penny dropping deeper like it’s just…..the…..I guess when you live more of your life and you go through experiences that carve you a little bit deeper it effects how you approach a character especially when there’s a lot of pain involved or loss or grief you somehow tap into it a little more easily as you experience more life and I think what’s changed for me is just the weight of being on the road kinda. I think when I was in my twenties, I was 27 the idea of couch surfing and bouncing around was not that big of a deal but it happens to like a lot of twenty something’s and it’s not…you know but now I’m 36 and I’m not discounting my age when I’m working on this. I know the stage directions in the script say a young girl, early twenties, but I’m approaching it from where I am now. I’m really excited about this production because they have so many actresses from so many different walks of life. I think you have to weave that in, I don’t think you can discount that.
SB: Why is it important right now in the current climate for Surfer Girl to be seen? What is it about the sin of sloth that resonates currently?
SU: Well, that’s really interesting because I had a couple of discussions about this after the reading that I had just thinking about apathy in America. Particularly white apathy in America. The discussion of can you just sit by and do nothing. The luxury and the crime of apathy and is there a punishment for that crime whether it’s a moral punishment in yourself. Whether it’s a crack in your own plate. In this time-it’s questions, I hope the audience-I’m so excited that question was asked. We were just talking about “slacktivism” and why does the material draw our attention to it. Why does the audience allow themselves to engage in an hour or so of patter from this surfer girl with this very started prospective.
SB: The juxtaposition of the two pieces you’re working on right now is very interesting because it’s pride vs. sloth and they are the first and last in the cycle. Do you think it’s somehow intentional?
SU: You know it really is. We’re about a third way through on Cult of Love in our rehearsals. This is a ten-person ensemble and my character is a bit of an outsider looking in on this family. There is a pride though in Surfer Girl. It’s the-this way of life is my way of life and it’s the right way of life and I can see that in pride too. This is what I believe and is coming up against what other people believe in my own family. Sloth-there is an an active commitment to inactivity. She is fiercely gripping on to this way of life. It defines her, it’s her identity, it’s all she has so there is a sense of pride in that too. It kind of correlates rather than opposes. If you just stay in your ways-there’s no effort to grow or to learn or to heal or to open but if you just stay in your ways it’s completely slothful.
SB: I like the artistic statement of your company. What are the next steps for creating hyper real stories? Where do you see IAMA and theatre ten years from now?
SU: We played around with a few taglines. I think one of them was “you can’t Tivo theatre” and it’s just like who has Tivo anymore? I think we have to change it to you can’t DVR theatre because we’re in LA and this is film and TV town but there’s a really vibrant theatre scene and I’m so stoked to be a part of it. The thing is that theatre is hundreds of years old. It’s been around a long time and I think people will continue to go to the theatre for the same reasons they go today. I don’t think phones in our faces or catching the latest episode of GOT-you’re still going to want to go to the theatre instead of stay home and watch television. I’d be excited if we did incorporate technology into our work. I think we’re just really drawn to stories that move us and resonate with a great conversation and we feel need to be told. The voices that need to be heard. I think that is never ending….there’s always more stories to be told and we just want to do the best we can in getting them to the stage. I think as far as making something super theatrical and using technology and becoming a very modern theatre company that takes a lot of resources. We’re still growing and learning and really focused the work. We’re so lucky to have Shonda Rimes on board as our patron of the arts.
SB: Did she come on as your Patron of The Arts because of your connection with Grey’s Anatomy?
SU: I think it’s because Katie Lowe’s was one of our artistic directors and she was a series regular on Scandal. Shonda has employed a dozen company members. She’s hired a lot of IAMA’s on her shows. This year with her help we were able to do our first ever commission. We’ve never been able to do that before but with her help we were able to use her name and we’re commissioning a playwright to write us an original piece.
SB: I heard that Surfer Girl was written for you. How many parts of it do you think are actually you or a piece of you?
SU: That’s probably a question for Leslie to be honest but I mean-how this all went down. We all went to college together at NYU. Leslie and I were the first to migrate out to LA. I asked Leslye if she would direct me in Neil LeBute’s Bash and there’s a monologue play Medea Redux-she and I worked on that together for a couple of months out here in LA. We produced it for 500 dollars in this tiny little studio above an Indian Restaurant. Blocked out the light of the windows with cardboard and construction paper. Real shoestring. It was a relationship we established and a dynamic that worked between us. I think she was inspired to write her own one-woman piece from that experience. Her monologues are some of my favorite.
When we were creating IAMA our first play was called You Are Here and Leslye swooped in and helped us to get it ready. It was kind of unwatchable and she salvaged what she could. She pulled it together and then she said hey-guys, I have this idea. I want to write a play about each of the Seven Deadly Sins and she had the first two-Cinophilia and Bachelorette. We produced those. And then she said I’ve got Greed which is Assistance and I’ve got Sloth which is Surfer Girl and I wrote it for Sarah and I remember sitting there-mouth dropped, so honored, so scared, so stoked, so everything. The fact that she was directing it gave it a lot of comfort and support and I thought Oh, this is going to be like Bash again and I just loved that process with her so much and Surfer Girl was the same. Leslye is a very special person and I’m really fortunate for those hours I got to spend on her work with her. At the time she was writing Surfer GirlI was also couch surfing. There were a couple of instances where I was sitting outside her apartment dropping her off and I just held up my keys and said look at this. I have no idea which key goes to which place.
At the time I was sleeping on my friend Jennifer’s flowery couch inherited from a relative without a trace of my houses personality and it’s a direct line from the play. There’s little references where I see our conversation working into the play. I was about to move into a loft downtown and it wasn’t finished and kept getting pushed back so I was staying on friends couches until I found out the building was under a bunch of lawsuits. The whole thing fell through and I had to find another place to live. It wasn’t surfer girl dire in that I didn’t know where I was going to go next. I was like I’m eventually going to move into this pretty sweet loft downtown.
When you stay on someone’s couch for a full month even there’s a sense of routine that sets in with you and your host and there’s an odd sense of territory on the couch. Also trying to be conscious of their space. I could relate to don’t disrupt the flow just be somebody who works their way into the life of the person they’re staying with and becomes a part of the furniture. Almost seeps into…it was interesting but I also feel like I took a lot from Leslie. Straight up her cadence and how she would say something. I would try to think about that. Not that I was trying to be Leslye in Surfer Girl but it was almost impossible not to pull a few little character traits and work those in and marry them with my own and kind of create this hybrid
SB: Are there any other female writers that you’re excited to work with?
SU: We haven’t announced our next season but there’s a female playwright in that season that I’m excited about. Louise Munsen is one of our original ensemble company members who is actress turned playwright and I love love love her writing as well. Some female playwrights that excite me right now are Halley Feiffer, Bess Wohl, Annie Baker, Bekah Brunstetter, Brooke Berman, Sam Chanse, Inda Craig-Galvan, and Stacy Osei-Kuffour.
SB: Are there any other sides of theatre you want to explore beyond performing?
SU: I would love to direct and I’ve talked to Stephanie Black one of the artistic directors of IAMA. I hope I’ll be able to find one in my company at some point to give it a shot. I’m really focused on acting right now and I’m focused on ways that I can step up in my own company. I’m purely an ensemble member but there’s all kinds of opportunities to get involved and step up and have a vision for the company even if you’re not one of the artistic directors. If you have an idea, follow through, go for it.
We’re a company that only does new work so I’d love to do a classics reading series. Once a month, go through the classics because I just want to get those words in my mouth again. Seeing Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya five years ago inspired me-so I want Louise to do her own Three Sisters because Checkov is her favorite writer of all time. Whether it’s revisiting the classics through an adaptation or whether it’s straight up reading the classics I’ve brought that forward. My company isn’t going to shoot that down, they’re like yeah if you want to work on that, do it. Very open minded in that way. It just takes the intiative to go for it. I’m looking for ways to exercise my vision.
I’m also working on the health of the ensemble a little bit and ensemble recruitment. I’ve had an awakening this year of what is my place in a company where I am as an ensemble member. How can I make it the best it can be. I’m one of the founding members so I still have a weird protective ownership. Well, this is a company I helped created but I don’t feel a part of the decision making process anymore. What it takes with IAMA is just standing up and taking initiative. With my acting career –this opportunity to do Surfer Girl came to me and I said yes, I want to do that.
SB: How was it going back to Grey’s Anatomy?
SU: Yeah, that’s meeeee-
Syph nurse. It was an amazing time, I had a great time being back. It was returning home after a long time away. Seeing people who were really influential to me right when I started out in LA at 22 when I had my TV firsts. I was very self-conscious on set. Didn’t know how to hit my marks because I’m a theatre girl and went to theatre school and I had never done camera work. It was so warm and welcoming and lovely and felt a new sense of confidence and feeling comfortable in my skin and catching up with cast and crew. I wrote a little essay about it. It’s on Shondaland and it’s called “Not Yet” https://www.shondaland.com/live/family/a20067596/marriage-and-motherhood-assumption/
Its pretty personal-I was kind of faced with the question you must be married with kids right now and I said “not yet”. I hadn’t been on a set in a couple of years so I’m really grateful for it. I was really happy to get in front of some eyeballs again just be on set and be an actor and have fun and do my job. Even my character has lapped me in life. She’s married and has a child. That’s the only thing you really learn-if she’s nurse and has kids.
SB: What’s coming up with IAMA
SU: Cult of Love, Cult of Love man. It’s opening May 24thand it’s the final sin play. This is it. Leslye’s final. It’s a family drama so it’s very close to her heart. I just hope everyone comes out to support her and this play. It’s a dooze. It’s a big ensemble family piece.
Click here to find out more about IAMA and Cult of Love http://www.iamatheatre.com/mission/