Room 4, a new satire about black stereotypes in entertainment, is currently running at the PIT. Described as a mix of Groundhog Day, Waiting for Godot, and A Chorus Line, this comedy follows four black actors as they audition for the same role as an anonymous drug dealer’s friend in a certain prime-time crime drama. Unfortunately, this time, it doesn’t just feel like the same role, but it is the same role. The four actors are stuck in a time loop, and they will have to work together to break out of it.
I sat down with playwrights Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo “Nicco” Aeed the day before their opening night to discuss changes in the comedy sketch world, the stories we tell, and who gets to tell them.
Tell me about how you both first got into comedy and play writing and how you ended up working together, how this partnership started.
Marina: We started writing together at Swarthmore College, so we, you know, I think we both had done a lot of writing before, and then at Swarthmore, we joined the campus sketch team together. We were both brought on as freshmen, and Nicco and I both grew up in New York, so over breaks, we would be back at home and would meet up to write, and we were like, oh, we kind of click. So we kept on going after that.
Nicco: Yeah, so it was the college sketch team. Towards the end of it, we performed around Philly a little bit because the school was near Philly, and I was a theatre major in college. The way Swarthmore taught theatre was there was a fringe festival in Philly, and they told you to go and make things in the fringe festival. One of our first comedy things was in the fringe festival around 2009-ish or 2010-ish. We did sketch comedy around the city for a while, and in the past couple of years, we’ve been interested more in longer narratives and other stories we could tell, other ways we could do things.
M: Yeah, I think our sketches tended to have a more narrative feel to them, especially as we kept on doing it longer and longer. It felt like it made sense to transition into somewhat meatier, longer narratives.
N: I think often with our earlier sketches, we didn’t want our sketches to seem like we were too broke to film them, and that’s why we were doing them live. That’s what a lot of sketch can sometimes seem like, so we tried to make them worthwhile to see live, so we had Choose Your Own Adventure sketches, we had weird sketches that you could release a Kraken in the middle if you got bored with it. So we thought about what would make something worth seeing live, and then with this residency here at the PIT – which is what this came out of – we were also exploring what makes a good live play, what makes good live comedy, what is worth seeing live.
What is your writing process like, working together? On a show like this, do you write different characters? Do you sit down together and bounce ideas off each other?
M: It’s kind of a combination. For this particular show, we had – I think I wrote the first scene and then we kind of chatted about it a little bit, and then what we usually do when we’re writing a longer piece is early on, we’ll chat about what scenes could generally be and we’ll sort of meet together. We’ll each tackle a handful of different scenes, kind of regroup, see what we have, and that sometimes will sort of shape the direction both of what you currently have and what you can do moving forward. So we’ll have what we call free writing for a while where we’re just like scene here, scene there, some that are mutually exclusive.
Sometimes, we’ll both tackle a scene that we know we have to write but aren’t quite sure how and then we’ll reassess, read over what we have, and there are sometimes scenes that we will literally write line-by-line together. But often, we’re kind of branching off, writing things, regrouping, and kind of going through collectively to smooth it over into a polished whole.
N: Yeah, I think we generally also find what we’re writing about sometimes by what we – sometimes, we’ll find like, oh, this character seems to be doing this in a number of scenes in both areas and that’s what we should make it. I feel like sometimes, we’ll discover it as we both generate, like what we both independently write seems to be in line, and that stuff usually stays in.
Is the script also – do you feel like it has changed through the rehearsal process or based on the performers?
N: I think the writing certainly changed between this and the workshop or the time in the residency. I think also some actors just made characters more real than you’d ever thought they were, and sometimes the actors improvise or add lines. Like Temesgen really makes his wise janitor character in this complete way that I guess I wasn’t even seeing from the beginning. He’s much more complex. The actors often take it beyond the script.
M: There wasn’t necessarily a lot of rewriting from one rehearsal to the next, but they are certainly pulling a lot more out of it than necessarily would have been on paper, as much as we love to take credit. There is definitely, they are reaching in and pulling things out.
N: I think that often when we write, we often produce our own scripts, and so especially after the last one going into this one, there was a lot that was like, “Oh, what did he do to this? How did they edit this scene, how did they add this thing?” We try to remember, but we don’t necessarily write down in the moment, and then only after, we’re like, “Oh, crap. That was really great. How do we make sure that stays a part of this?”
Backtracking just for a minute, could you explain what Room 4 is and how the idea came about?
N: Room 4 is about four black actors who keep auditioning for the same “Friend of Drug Dealer” role – the same bit part – over and over again, and then they realize they are stuck in a literal time loop, like something out of a Groundhog Day nightmare, and they try to get out of that. I guess it’s a story about performing race and as an actor or writer, the stories you perform and how they mess with your head, and that’s the short of it.
M: Yeah, it’s sort of taking that metaphorical feeling of being stuck or being pigeonholed and making an actual nightmare that you literally cannot escape from.
N: And it came about – I guess we were thinking about what type of stories we wanted to write, and this came about as part of this residency that we were doing.
M: A bit of background about the residency, it was a six-month playwriting residency where we had to write and produce a new play each month here at the PIT. It was really like all-hands-on-deck. We’d be writing one, rehearsing the next, and publicizing the next.
N: So within that, she wrote that first scene, which was generally about the four black actors auditioning for this Crime Watch SVU bit part and wondering if a fifth was going to come to audition or whether he was doing The Lion King, and that was the two options. You were either going to do this bit part or you were in The Lion King, so that’s how it emerged. We just generated a bunch of scenes and then edited it together, and through the process, it became what it was.
Have you personally seen much of a change in casting since you started working in theatre?
M: I think that what I will say is that the first scene we wrote pre-Hamilton, so it’s kind of great that Hamilton and the Tony Awards were such a great testament this year to how much more diverse live theatre is becoming. It was really exciting.
N: I feel like on the more personal level, I think there’s definitely been, since we started doing comedy in small clubs, it’s gotten a lot less sexist.
N: There used to be, like, you couldn’t do a show without being surrounded by all-male teams doing rape jokes, and that’s definitely a change in the past ten years. Not a complete change – it still exists – but much less of that.
M: I think that as racism and sexism – there are broader conversations and more public conversations about all these things taking place, it’s easier to call people out on things more quickly, and so there’s more pressure not to indulge these terrible tropes and clichés or force people into those positions.
N: Yeah, I feel like the 2010s have been a pretty political decade in terms of movements, and I think that’s manifested itself in TV at least. There are a lot more black shows coming out. I feel like post-Girls, there was this thing that was like – I feel like something happened in Girls, and everyone was like, “Girls is the voice of our generation,” and everyone’s like, “Oh, but it’s kind of all-white.”
There hasn’t been a black show in a very long time. It felt in some ways that the 90s had more black TV than the 00s did, and since then, it’s been a political decade and people pushing for more representation. There just seems to be more diversity in TV and storytelling than there has been perhaps. So I don’t know if there is necessarily a sense of complete progress because I also feel like in our lifetime, there was more diverse TV at one point, and then it kind of dipped off and then kind of came back. I don’t know.
M: I think that what’s interesting and true about many things, but I think conversations tend to happen faster than the actual change does, so there’s this interesting, logical sort of impatience. Okay, many network executives are like, “Yes, something must be done. We need to change it,” and it’s like, “Okay, great! So you’re going to do that, right? Let’s put those wheels in motion and actually make those changes that we all agree are needed,” so I think that having more public conversations, like we’re kind of in that phase, and I think changes are slowly rolling along.
I’m not sure exactly how to phrase this question, but obviously, you guys came up in comedy, so writing a show like this, it’s going to be comedic in tone. What do you think that comedy brings to it versus if another team had come up with a similar idea and decided to write about it from a more straight-forward serious dramatic approach?
N: I don’t think it would be as fun. (laughs) I don’t think that would be a blast to see. I think our writing is sometimes – I don’t know, I think there’s something funny, sometimes, very serious things can be very funny. But I think we often write serious, existential situations, and I think the heightened-ness of it does make it funny.
M: Yeah, I think the absurdity of the existential drama is what takes it to a funny place. I think that there is a version of this that is a drama, but I think that the comedic approach to it is a nice entry point. The other thing too that I’ll say is – sorry if this comes out a little half-baked, we can kind of figure this out as I say it – but I think that there’s something in comedy – and this is both in terms of actors and characters – about who owns the narrative, and I think that there are several points in play where we have these characters performing tropes on behalf of and for the expectant white audience.
I think by making it a comedy where the actors are having ownership of those scenes and they are controlling the puppeteer, they are controlling something that might otherwise – does that make sense? I feel like there is something about who gets to own the narrative, and I think that in comedy, you get to own narrative a little more clearly than in drama.
N: I could see that, yeah. I think there is something definitely interesting about owning the narrative, but yeah, I don’t know. That’s the eternal question, right? Because that’s what drove Dave Chappelle insane, the idea that he felt that he was laughing at racism but then for some reason felt there was a change somehow, and I don’t know if there’s ever a solution, but I think there is something in comedy that makes it more accessible but can also be dangerous.
M: I want to also say that in this, I would say the characters are not in control of their circumstances, but the actors always are, and I think that comedy is sort of what allows for that duality to kind of exist. So I think that’s what I was trying to say.
I think the closest thing I’ve seen tackling this subject as far as casting has been Master of None. Did you see that?
N: Yeah, I love Master of None.
Like you said, I think comedy might be essential to have this conversation, and the New York arts community likes to think of itself as very progressive, and maybe that puts people on the defensive when confronted about it. What do you think it is going to take for us to continue this conversation and see real change?
N: I don’t know. I think more access to stages, more access for writers and directors as well as actors. I think also just like – it’s been rare that this is a mostly black cast, which even in a lot of our work – which is diverse – even in diverse work, it can be diverse but still be majority white. We wouldn’t be able to do the same jokes that we do in this if it was some black people or some people of color but still felt like a majority white thing. I don’t know, not only just having people in but really trying to think of more specific stories.
I think there’s something that comes up a lot, which is making something very universal, which often translates to make something more white. That’s what the Master of None thing kind of gets into, and there’s other stories of this. What I think is really interesting is that the more specific you get is when it gets more universal. So again, like Master of None, the moment in the father-son episode, and the sons are like, “I really don’t want to hang out with you, Dad,” and the dad remembers everything they did from moving to the country to the moment when their son says, “I don’t want to hang out with you.” In that moment, both of those are very specific, but everyone with an immigrant dad that I know was like, “Oh, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly it.”
Even from a very specific place, so I think the answer is to really try to write very specifically and really try to write honestly and not necessarily for something you think is universal, which is actually just white. I think it’s sometimes hard to say this is very specific to me and real to me and not be either shut out by an internal voice which makes you want to present to a white audience or to external voices that then tell you once you’ve gotten over yourself, to go, “This is the story I want to tell,” to get over the other people who are like, “Eh.” So I think maybe it’s something about grounding something in specificity, finding people who are like you, and more access to stages.
M: Access to stages, which representation goes sort of hand-in-hand with that. It’s just like exposing more of these specific stories on-stage, having more black actors performing, more women on-stage, just in general, more diversifying what you see on stages because that inspires people. If you don’t see yourself represented on-stage, it doesn’t occur to you to see that yourself, really. There’s no model for continuing or participating.
N: I think also maybe also realizing that the stages that are there – like the stages that you think of are not the only stages that exists, do you know what I mean? It’s not like the indie comedy feels like it is the comedy community, but there are other places even in New York where you can go and see people be funny that are not all-white. You can go elsewhere, and you can look to find other stories too, both in what you create and in what you decide to see.
M: And on a logistical note, because we come from a comedy background, the stuff that we write tends to be pretty bare-bones in terms of set pieces and all that. Logistically, we can transport this, so there is something about being scrappy and being able to put up something here or there or wherever and putting up art wherever so more people can see it.
What is your rehearsal process like for a show like this?
N: So a number of the actors we’ve worked with a couple of times. They’re really great. We love building up a community to work with, and so usually, we’ll email out to a lot of the actors. Most of the times, we don’t do open casting. We talk to people we know, and so we’ll email some people and then say, “Hey, can you do this thing with us in this month?” And they’ll be like, “No, I’ve got better paying gigs.” (laughs) And we’re like, “Okay, cool. We’ll find someone else,” or then go from there to open casting. And then we have several rehearsals a week where we read it through and keep performing. Sometimes, we’ll be editing while we’re rehearsing, but usually, it’s asking people to join us and just meeting several times a week and feel it out.
M: There have been a few occasions where we have had a couple of open auditions, but often, it’s by word of mouth, through people who are recommended to us by our community of people we work with. Also, just so you know, Nicco directs the show, and I’m along for the ride. (laughs)
What do you hope that audiences take away from Room 4?
N: I don’t know if there is one specific thing. As Marina said, I think people often think that they’re really for more diversity. I think most people wouldn’t disagree with it, even if they’re not practically acting in that manner, and so I don’t think that we’re necessarily going to convince anybody of anything, but I think we want to see people live in this moment for a bit. I think it’s really funny and that a lot of our work is about moments where life feels insane, like a time loop does make sense for this. It’s heightened, but not that heightened, do you know what I mean? And so I think people living in that absurdity and feeling that absurdity together is important. I think black actors or actors of color or women actors who will probably see some story that they had reflected in it and enjoy that and talk about that. I think we should be able to live in this absurdity.
M: Yeah, I think the absurdity will kind of invite people in too because again, like you said, there are very few people that we work with that we know personally who would disagree, the fact that casting could and should be more diverse, but we do think the comedy angle on it that we’re taking and the heightened absurd positioning that we have for this is a different entry point.
N: Even if you know something to be true, it’s still good to live in it for a second, just living in this thing that we’re all kind of cool with and the fact that we all accept it generally is maybe the experience we want to share with people.
Do you have any other projects coming up that you’d like to mention?
N: We don’t know exactly what our next play is going to be, but we’re probably going to bring back another one of the plays we created during our residency, so look out for that coming up. Online, you can follow us at MarinaAndNicco.com, and we have a bunch of sketches online and videos online, and we’re going to be releasing a bunch of new ones this fall.
Tickets are on sale now for Room 4 and can be purchased online here at ThePIT-NYC.com or in-person at the PIT, located at 123 E 24th St. For other questions or assistance with ticket purchases, call the PIT at 212-563-7488.