An Interview with TRUTH/DARE playwright Tori-Keenan Zelt
Written by A.D. Timms
I had the privilege of talking with Tori-Keenan Zelt about her play Truth/Dare.
What inspired you to write Truth/Dare?
I was in grad school, and one of my professors challenged us to write the play that we would want to write before we died if we could only create one more play. I thought of my best friends growing up that shaped me. One of them died by suicide, and that experience combined with one of my friends coming out to everyone in my hometown except for me sort of inspired this play.
I don’t see that represented in stories about little girls really. I feel like a lot of coming-of-age stories involve teenage girls bullying and being brutal to each other and the “mean girl” archetype, but in my experience, our relationships at that point in our lives are more complex and formative, and I wanted to explore the complexity.
Although this is an early production of the play, the play is one of my first plays, which I’m revisiting. I wrote it 5 years ago at Tisch Asia (Singapore) in an attempt to describe home and have worked on it on and off, including at High Desert at New Mexico State University with director Larissa Lury and at the Lark, O’Neill, and Pittsburgh Fringe with director Ilana Becker. The recent production at Project Y’s Women in Theatre Festival (directed by Andrew W. Smith) was its NYC premiere. This is its second full production! It’s been wonderful to revisit my earliest work.
The play involves themes regarding Christian faith. Can you delve into that?
I was raised in two houses at one time: my dad is an evangelical and my mom is a progressive Presbyterian minister. These experiences helped me wrestle with my own faith because I had to wrestle about that prejudice in the evangelical community, and I had to analyze how God interacted with my own sexuality. I went to Christian summer camps, and as a kid, I remember those experiences as one of the ways to engage with God spiritually. Being in nature and finding God in nature helped me see who God is, but I also had to deal with rhetoric that misrepresents God and is violent that manufactures guilt in kids. I wanted to see a character (Hannah, played by Caitlin Brockell) start to grapple with the ways the rhetoric falls short of application in her life, but without losing the real stuff that also happens in those spaces and is authentic spiritual practice. For example, the way she feels accepted by the camp community and being connected with nature is very real, and because she can’t separate the rhetoric from her life, it does damage to her relationships. However, I didn’t want her to reject Christianity altogether. It wasn’t the solution for me. The solution was learning more about theology and practicing and trusting my experience with the Holy Spirit.
When I start a play, it’s usually because I have a frustration or a curiosity with life, and I want to explore it, and hopefully other people go through that process with me.
What was the most challenging part of writing this script?
Technically, it was getting comfortable with the way the play falls into grief in the parts that happen in 2002. The parts that happen in 1998 were so fun to watch, and when I watch the characters as older girls, it’s hard to move to their moral grappling. I also hope that the audience and collaborators can take the characters seriously. They’re little girls, and they can be fun to laugh at, but they are still full people.
What playwrights have influenced you and your writing style the most?
I think Medea was the first play I fell in love with. For a while, I didn’t know that people still wrote plays. I came out of college, and I was teaching, and I volunteered to do a theatre program for middle schools where I would write skits and vaudeville acts involving pirates. When people think of playwrights, they think of people like Arthur Miller and such. So I started to read newer plays. I love Sarah Ruhl. Caryl Churchill is probably the most brilliant playwright we have. Also, Alice Birch who wrote Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. I love so many, but I think those playwrights have given me something specific.
What’s your personal favorite play?
There are so many! I love Medea and Much Ado About Nothing. I also love The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl. I even started a theatre company so I could do that one!
Why choose theatre instead of any other narrative medium for this play?
I think that getting people into a space together like a sleepover was really exciting because not a lot of people experience that. I wanted to invite the broader world into this secret, intimate space that’s very important to me. I also think that because we play with time, we see the actors carry their younger selves with them.
Theatre, unlike film, is uniquely an impossible space, and it allows the person watching it to engage as themselves rather than having their perspectives shaped. I’m excited about inviting the audience to look at the things that interest them in the play and respond to it.
What’s your favorite line in the show?
I think that it might be “There could be cat.”
Is there anything else that you would like to say about the production?
I am so delighted by the care that’s been given to the play by the director (Natalie Risk) and actresses and production team, and I want everyone in Nashville to see it! They’ve done a lovely job, and I’m proud of it.