Updated: Sep 25



In an out of the way black box off the corner of Church Street, writer and director Sawyer Estes rattles on about the vernal and the sere. Like a crazy preacher man, Sawyer tests his southern audience on the laws of human society. But not for religion’s sake. Instead, the lonestar Texan built his following for the love of theatre.


Sawyer

I like to think of myself as a better adjusted Hazel Moats.

Alex

In what way?

Sawyer

He’s in the big city without a sense of decorum about himself. Completely misguided and extremely offensive. I’ve learned how to hold a punch.

Alex

Flannery O’Connor described him as “Christ Haunted.” Sawyer

Right. She described him in that way and claimed it to be an intrinsic value of all southern fiction.

Alex

Was Hazel Moats ever redeemed?

Sawyer

Eh, I don’t know. But he’s always paying penance. He puts glass in his shoes, wraps sharp objects around his torso and drives this lemon of a car that barely runs, determined on it being his form of transportation.

Alex

Hmmm.

Sawyer

Of course, it's a metaphor for the vehicle that is faith and religion. "No one with a good car needs to be justified."


Alex

I think it’s good for your audience to recognize the grappling with religion that’s put into the work you do and I’m curious how they perceive it. Is it really avant garde?

Sawyer

I think avant garde is bullshit. Anybody that does anything slightly off the beaten path now is avant garde. It’s absurd. I’m not avant garde because there is no avant garde anymore.

Alex

What makes you believe that?

Sawyer

Well, avant garde is connected to 20th century theater. It’s connected to modernism and anything that’s made now is past modernism. We’re probably all just post modernists pulling from an endless supply of resources.

Alex

Are you saying you’re nothing new?

Sawyer

Yeah, there’s nothing I do which hasn’t already been done. I combine one source with another and shade it with a specific way of producing and a specific way of being. At times, it may appear strange or off-kilter but the reality is that it’s recognizably rooted in some modernist movement.

Alex

Reinvention rather than invention?

Sawyer

Consider a great chef. All they do is put this and that together slightly differently from the restaurant around the corner. Does that make them avant garde? I think people’s impression of my work is much stranger than it actually is.

Alex

So how do you label it then?


Sawyer

Whatever the dish calls for, you know? We often use poetic language because theater is best when based in rich language. But the dance and the movement exist because we have it available to us. To me, theater is all of the art forms combined.

Alex

You’ve compared making theater to working on an oil rig. What’s funny to me about that is you actually have first-hand experience doing both. Tell me a little bit about working on an oil rig.


Sawyer

The simplified version that I like to tell is that I paid for a liberal arts degree by fracking.

Alex

That’s definitely the best way to put it but tell us more.

Sawyer

Any chance I got, be it spring break, winter break or summer break, I would drive out to the middle of west texas to this tiny camper with no running water. I’d squat there for 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, overseeing the production of these volatile new oil wells.

Alex Like in ‘There Will Be Blood’?

Sawyer

Close to it, sure. And every hour, on the hour, I had to wake to ensure everything was running properly, miles and miles away from any point of contact. I did a lot of writing and reading.

Alex

Surely.


Sawyer

Did I ever tell you the Samuel Beckett story though? It’s one of my favorite stories to tell.

Alex

Never. Let’s hear it.

Sawyer

This story is essentially an indictment of conventional theater in America because it speaks to its presumption of people's lack of insight and knowledge. Anyway, I was lying in the bed of a pickup truck, reading Samuel Beckett, while these truckers were pulling a load until one of them asked me what I was reading. Imagine a beefy man in his mid-forties, with arms like logs and a jutting belly.

Alex

Got it.

Sawyer I hand him Endgame and he starts reading the damn thing. Before long, he just starts laughing out loud to himself. And I’m like: holy shit. I asked what he thought of it and he said it was hilarious. Then I asked if he understood it and he just started reciting it back to me.

Clov (Trucker) Why didn’t you leave? Hamm (Trucker) There’s nowhere else to go. Clov (Trucker) Well, why don’t you go find someone else? Hamm (Trucker) There is no one else.

Sawyer And this trucker is dying. It resonated. Meanwhile, every theater company in America has chosen to believe Beckett’s unproducible, esoteric or too difficult a writer for anyone to understand him. They might give Waiting for Godot a try because it’s the most adjustable one but rarely is Endgame ever done. There I was sitting with this guy who got it immediately.

Alex

Big lesson there.

Sawyer

At that moment I realized a disconnect. Where we go wrong as artists is we think we’re so fucking smart. That these lay people couldn’t possibly get these things. Then we make art we think they'll understand and it sucks. Nothing in that moment with the trucker told him he couldn’t understand Samuel Beckett. We were on his turf. It brought meaning to his life. I’m convinced that guy understood Endgame far more than anyone I have ever met.

Alex

You learned to never underestimate your audience.

Sawyer

Exactly! A lot of people believe theater is this smart thing (which is total crap). People are much smarter than we ever give them credit for. Yeah maybe I’ve read a few more plays and have a certain grounding in theatrical history but when you arrive at the core of what a great play does and what it’s all about, I think anybody can understand these things. The culture surrounding theater is one of my least favorite things about it.


Alex

It’s cool to hear you say that. I thought theater was only for people who read Shakespeare in their spare time.

Sawyer

I’d much rather be watching the Cowboys in my spare time. I’d much rather have been an NBA basketball player than a playwright but that life wasn’t meant for me to have. So now I’m tending to this other thing. We’re made up of so many different parts. Theater is the spiritual side of me. I think that’s important for people to know.


Alex

How so?


Sawyer

It took the place of my religious upbringing. Speaking in tongues, fasting for days on end. So when you made the connection between me and a crazy preacher man, it wasn’t entirely wrong. I’m just not preaching redemption.

Alex

The analogy I pictured was of some person who felt they had an important story to tell. Someone who was overflowing with their own version of enlightenment.

Sawyer

My father dug materials from the earth to create comfort in his life but that was never going to be enough for me. My question to the world is pointed to these things within us that have been lying dormant forever. I must dig those things up; that which I would rather turn away from. It’s a grueling, arduous process to make theater in this way. Watching it can have the same effect. My hope is that our audience sees a very carnal, physical, emotional and spiritual labor at least, if not in the sweat on the actor’s bodies, than in the sound of their heavy breathing.

Alex

Let’s talk about leaving the oil rig for New York City.

Sawyer

I left under the assumption that my voice was unique. That people would be interested in it and make way for me. But it was an illusion I had to dispel. That first year, I bussed tables at Balthazar.

Alex

Did you make theater in New York?


Sawyer

I was able to direct one play there. But the actors barely learned their lines and I was paying some exorbitant amount of money to rent someone’s living room next to Madison Square Garden. I think we paid SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS for that tiny space. It happened six months after being there. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t matter. The world wasn’t waiting for me and it would continue to go on fine without me.

Alex

How is Atlanta any different?

Sawyer

In Atlanta it was the same thing. It's not like anyone split the water for me either.

Alex

So, what exactly did you take from New York?

Sawyer

I learned that if I wanted to make theater, I would have to produce it myself and I’d have to be doing it for myself and if I was able to do it with other people and have an audience show up, I would need to consider myself a very fortunate person. That was the beginning of where I’m at now.

Alex

Another important lesson for artists.

Sawyer

You can’t worry about getting paid or recognized. You can’t give undue thought to those things because you could wait forever and it won’t come. You have to put yourself in the best position to make the work. I couldn't make the work in New York so it wasn’t the place for me. You're either too young or not good enough to work at any of those signature theaters anyway. Life is so expensive that people are torn from living and thrown into surviving. Space is costly. I moved to Atlanta having never visited before because I knew I wanted to start a theater company.


Alex

You started from scratch in a city you had never seen before. Years later, the shows are sold out. What happened?

Sawyer

It took us a year to make anything. We couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do our first show in a living room. Most people thought it was sketchy and weird. So no one wanted to work with us. But eventually, we found a space and the people who would do it. The first show only sold ninety tickets. Word of mouth grew so we had to squeeze a hundred people into a forty seat black box. People either stood or had to sit on couch cushions.

Alex

And how many tickets did your last production sell?

Sawyer

We sold over a thousand seats. Pretty decent growth for a span of five years or so.

Alex

That’s encouraging.

Sawyer

Other companies say our work is too esoteric for Atlanta in the same way they think Beckett is too smart for the oil field worker. Still, we do it and it’s a big point of pride for me to say that the audience in Atlanta has gladly come along with us and appreciate not being pandered to. They appreciate us challenging them. For me, a big part of the success is when a person comes to see us who’s never seen a play before and leaves caught off guard or surprised or bewildered. So often you go see a play and it's exactly what you expect it to be.

Alex

Atlanta is under a lot of reconstruction I think. Lots of talented folk are content.


Sawyer

Some of the best musicians in this city are working at a tattoo shop or some other place, trying to make a living. I think that’s fucking awesome and I’m really proud of it. Too often, people think artists who have to work real jobs are failures. But you don’t have to tie economic success to artistic ingenuity.

Alex

A major theme emerging in this interview is how we labor to create and how the jobs we work make for wonderful hideouts in a way.

Sawyer

Totally. I love that - hideouts.


Alex You’ve titled your upcoming production Hurricane Season. We don’t have to get into its details but I’m curious to know if natural disaster as a theme in art has any special meaning to you.

Sawyer

For sure. I’m at a point right now, as a writer, that I'm very much interested in natural disasters and climate change and how to reconcile those realities with the way I live my life, given my history and how I paid for school.

Alex

The title is nostalgic to me.

Sawyer

It does pay homage to your sunshine state in the first line! The character’s reading about catastrophic flooding again in Florida but can’t remember how many times it’s been. Has it been three or two times this year? The point being that it's just all the time. Everyday of our lives is some new disaster and we can’t keep track of it anymore because it's wearing on us. Though some of us have never experienced a hurricane, we know enough for it to take a secondhand toll on our bodies and our minds.


Alex

I think a healthy amount of space between you and the real life experience of enduring a hurricane will allow your imagination to run loose. I remember the sky would go green. It was beautiful in a way. Fascination with natural disasters is universal I think. Not that we all enjoy the consequences. It’s just a reminder that we don’t control everything.

Sawyer

This play explores the limitations of our control in many facets: natural disaster, erotic love, and conventionalized living.

Alex

Please elaborate.

Sawyer

We’re all walking around, asleep and bored. We’ve been told to live this way but there's something missing and we don't know what it is. Life is dull and dreary and many of us are feeling alone. Then disaster comes and for a moment we wake up. Everything stands still and the world is tilted on its axis. Anything becomes possible and tenuous. Suddenly, our world is in the eye of god and we don’t know what comes out the other end.

Alex

Then?

Sawyer

We fall back asleep. We know we’re going to wake up and do the same fucking thing. We’re going to go to work and nothing exceptional is going to happen. Then we’re going to go home and cook dinner and nothing exceptional is going to happen. We just keep doing these tasks and it adds up. We’re not alive and we’re not alert and we’re not tending to our soul.

Alex

How does love play into this?


Sawyer

I think the spark of erotic love is similiar. You feel like you might suddenly be decimated by this person or might in turn decimate them and suddenly you might move houses and suddenly you might change cities because nothing matters anymore. Very quickly you’re sure your life is about to be reconstructed in the image of this other person and you don't know what part of you is going to stay or be left behind and there’s an exhilarating thrill to that.

Alex

Whoof. This is gonna be good. And I think it's going to translate really well in light of current events. Personally, I find that boredom is becoming more and more prevalent. How will this production differ from the others?

Sawyer

It’s a sharp turn from the work people have come to love. It’s going to be surprisingly familiar while finding renewed insights into that familiarity. I’m really excited about this because the work is always labeled avant garde. I’m ready to make something that's immediately recognizable and then pull the rug out from under you.

Alex

Before I travel across the Atlantic Ocean to come see this play, what could I read to prepare myself for its language?

Sawyer

Well, if you don't know Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds then you haven’t been redeemed.

Alex

OK. And?

Sawyer

I would check out Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Thomas Mann. Those three play a key role in the language outside of certain stylistic things that seem to always come back to Sarah Kane.

Alex

I envy your ability to write plays.


Sawyer

I envy your ability to write music.

Alex

But we all just want to be NBA basketball players, right?

Sawyer

Exactly.


This interview took place in June, 2022 between Alex Vila and Sawyer Estes.

Images (in order of appearance) by: Katerina Eichenberger, Amelie Hoeferle, and Mariana Novak.