Performing came first for Talene Monahon, but she has always loved writing and it shows in her new Shakespearean farce Jane Anger, now running at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village of Manhattan.
“It’s tricky being a multi-hyphenate,” says the playwright and actor.
Monahon appears on stage as Anne Hathaway in her intriguing comedy, which imagines William Shakespeare stuck in quarantine with his apprentice, Francis, in 1606.
As Shakespeare struggles with writer’s block, Jane Anger (Amelia Workman) bursts into the room with an idea that may change the course of history.
Alongside the effervescent Ryan Spahn as Francis, Anger also reunites Monahon with frequent masterful collaborator Michael Urie, with whom she starred in the acclaimed play The Government Inspector.
She spoke with The New York Independent about how she came to wear many hats and the complex road that led to Anger.
New York Independent: How did you decide to take your skills as an actor and apply them to being a playwright?
Talene Monahon: I’ve always been a writer and loved it, but I think it took a little bit more time to have the confidence to take up space as a playwright and to push what I’ve written on people and ask them to put it out in the world. It’s tricky being a multi-hyphenate and feeling a need to convince yourself that you’re legitimate as something other than an actor, and then also convincing people that you’re serious about writing.
NYI: What first motivated you to write?
TM: I started making interview-based theater in college. I was really inspired by Anna Deavere Smith, the Tectonic Theater Project, and making plays that are sort of docuplays using verbatim interview transcripts that are heavily edited and curated. It’s like making a documentary. In college, I made a play that was a docudrama about the social scene at Dartmouth. It was a big learning experience. Then, for six years I interviewed historical reenactors and used those transcripts to make the text of my play, How to Load a Musket. It was such a wonderful experience.
NYI: How does being a writer inform your work as a performer and vice versa?
TM: With Jane Anger, I’m the smallest role, thank goodness! I have a very different relationship with acting than I do with writing. For me, acting is pretty free of angst because I don’t have a lot of time to stress over it. Whereas with writing, it’s harder to leave it on the stage and come home.
It has been calming to be a small role in this play because acting has given me something else to concentrate on besides the stress and anxiety of being a writer. It’s a nice distraction from watching the show and biting my nails-which I’ve also been doing. I’ve always felt like more of a playwright than an actor. I love playwrights, the written word, and trying to deliver what that initial vision was.
NYI: What was the impetus for writing Frankie & Will, your short play that you later expanded upon to create Jane Anger?
TM: I wrote Frankie & Will two days into the pandemic. Being quarantined and feeling like I didn’t know what to do with all of this time was a crazy situation. It was about one week into quarantine when there was a burst of articles about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine.
I wanted to be productive even though it was a traumatic time. It’s funny thinking about Shakespeare being in quarantine and having writer’s block. I wrote it very quickly. I remember having Michael [Urie] and Ryan [Spahn] do a Zoom reading of it just to hear it out loud. Then I sent it to Will Cantler, an artistic director at MCC Theater, just as a funny thing I wanted to share with him. We didn’t have virtual theater two weeks into the pandemic. A few weeks later he called and said they’d love to do it virtually. It was bizarre to make something over Zoom.
NYI: How did Frankie & Will evolve into Jane Anger? Why and how did you expand on it?
TM: It felt like the response to Frankie & Will was so exciting and it was such a fun world. I wanted to add women to it. I started doing a lot of research and at some point I randomly stumbled onto this Jane Anger pamphlet that was published in Elizabethan England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. They don’t know who authored it.
It was this really exciting piece of writing that’s articulating sexism before that was something that people really had words for. [It brought attention to] sexist writing and women not being able to control how they were being written about. The language is really colorful and fun. I fell in love with that and thought it would be fun to have the writer of that pamphlet with this amazing name be a character in the play.
Then I kind of merged her as the dark lady of the sonnet and threw Anne Hathaway in there. It was like pressing a blender. What would happen if all of these people got completely mixed up in one room and there was a plague? This is just my idea of who Jane Anger could have been.
NYI: Your work has deep themes infused with humor. From where does your desire to write in such a fashion originate?
TM: I don’t know that it has been a conscious decision, but I think it’s the type of writing that I gravitate towards naturally. It’s how my worldview manifests itself. I am attracted to worlds that are not necessarily comedies, but that have a comedic sensibility in them.
I think with Jane Anger and Frankie & Will, specifically, that was really me seeing how many jokes I could put on the page. I think that came out of the bleakness of the pandemic and me writing the type of play that I wanted to see or do when theater returned.
NYI: Many actors have portrayed Shakespeare. How would you describe the Shakespeare of Jane Anger and Michael’s take on him?
TM: There’s certainly a flamboyance, but there’s also a darkness and some deep insecurities. There’s also a grossness in some places. I’ve been interested in questions about amazing artists who are not good or nice people, and it was interesting for me to wonder about that in the context of Shakespeare. No one knows what he was like as a person, and obviously he was an amazing writer. Michael is hilarious.
NYI: Michael and Ryan work with you often. What do you appreciate most about their continued collaborations with you?
TM: It’s a dream to work with them and have a shorthand with them. They are so creative and open to trying things. They both have awesome ideas for jokes and are happy to scrap them if they don’t work. With Michael there is a physical comedy that is unteachable and unparalleled. Some of the stuff that he is able to do so naturally is very exciting.
I felt like the character of Frankie was something else when I first wrote Frankie & Will, but when I first heard Ryan read it, Frankie became this other thing. Because Ryan can go to such wild theatrical places as an actor, there was no such thing as too far with that character. Frankie is ridiculous. He keeps lying about his age and saying he’s a boy of 16 because he wants to be a starring ingénue in the theater.
When Frankie says, “I’m just a peasant, that’s why I look old. But I’m actually 16,” Will believes him because he’s so self-absorbed. Then you add in Amelia Workman, who is phenomenal and an instant icon as Jane, and it is fantastic to be sharing the stage with all of them.
NYI: On what else have you been working?
TM: I have written another play that started as a short for The 24 Hour Plays Broadway Gala. It is a play that is just the girls from The Crucible, and it’s a feminist and fantastical response to both The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials.
I’ve been delving deep into research on both of those things. I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be featured in Bedlam Theater Company’s spring reading series.
For more information about Jane Anger or to purchase tickets, click here to visit the jane anger website or the box office of the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St., Suite 1E, New York.
Jane Anger runs through March 13th.