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A Q&A with the cast and writer of: ‘If I Were You, and other Elvis Presley songs’

This Thursday, March 21, the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre will host the world premiere of a student-written play, “‘If I Were You’ and other Elvis Presley songs.” Senior Cadenza Editor Georgie Morvis sat down with two members of the cast and the playwright herself. Leah Barsanti, who won last year’s Hotchner Playwriting Contest, is a senior majoring in English literature with minors in drama and writing.

Jamie Gottlieb, who plays Sadie, is a senior majoring in Latin American Studies and Spanish with a minor in drama. Hal Matthews is a freshman majoring in German.

Student Life: Describe the plot of the play. Is it a drama or a comedy?

Hal Matthews: It doesn’t really fit into either category.

Jamie Gottlieb: It’s a dramedy. It’s about a family that has moved to California from the South, and the brother, Brett, is very unhappy and seeks solace in an Elvis impersonators’ club until one day his sister, Sadie, investigates and tries to bring him back.

HM: Specifically, the family had just moved from Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo, Miss., thus the angst. The play is pretty much entirely from Sadie’s perspective. She is very concerned about her brother and had previously had a really close relationship with him and sees that relationship dwindling as Brett becomes more secretive and doesn’t want to play with her anymore. She takes a lot of responsibility for Brett’s actions.

Leah Barsanti: I think it’s changed a bit throughout the writing process. Originally, I would have said it was about Brett’s sense of being himself and how being himself wasn’t enough for him. I think that’s still present, but it’s much more Sadie’s play now. At its core, it’s about a brother-sister relationship and a sister who really loves her brother and he moves away but in a more dramatic way. I really do think it is about a sister who loves her brother very much and how she deals with it.

SL: Go into a little more detail about who your characters are.

JG: Sadie is very spunky. I think in Leah’s description she said she exists in a triangle between idealism, edginess and spunk. She thinks she’s [going to] be a famous TV star when she grows up, and she’s really upset that she has lost her playmate. I think she has confidence that most 13 year old girls don’t have in that she will do anything to get her brother back.

HM: Brett is very, very angsty. His greatest fear is to be normal, I think. He wants to be special; he wants to be distinguished. He finds that in being an Elvis impersonator.

JG: It’s just your average story.

SL: What was it like working with a student playwright?

JG: Leah is one of my really good friends, and I was glad to be working with someone who knew me really well. So she won the A.E. Hotchner competition in the fall and did a table read, and then she started doing a lot of rewrites. So then we already had the cast for the spring, and she really catered the characters to us. She’s been at every rehearsal saying little things, but now she’s sitting back and letting her play happen, and it’s really wonderful to know that her text is now a play.

HM: It was fun to watch the changes they’ve made from beginning to end. The play is completely different from what it was. It’s been developed from this ever-changing text and draft to something finished that has a set and costumes.

JG: So many costumes. All of the costumes.

SL: So Jamie said you go to all the rehearsals, Leah. How involved are you with that process?

LB: At the very beginning, before the table read, when I was still doing extensive rewrites and restructuring and changing whole scenes, I was more or less who the actors would consult with at the beginning. Now, it’s more if Jeffrey really needs a simple line change he just double checks with me. I guess now I’m the person most available to get coffee during the rehearsal process, but I love it.

HM: I would say the nature of the dialogue didn’t really change, but many of the scenes as well as the chronological order of events would change. Many relationships that were originally larger parts of the play were sort of diminished to make room for other relationships, which ended up changing the themes.

SL: Leah, when did you first get the idea for the play?

LB: I was writing a really bad play for Carter Lewis’s class, and I knew it was bad and he knew it was bad, and he suggested writing something else. So I scrapped that and started a new play. The problem with the first play was that it was too abstract, and so I tried grounding the new play more in reality. So it was about this girl whose brother joins a gang, and I thought that was really boring. I had recently been to Memphis for a fraternity formal, and my date and I had gone to Graceland to see Elvis. So I wrote this note on my draft saying “This is really shitty. If it’s gonna be bad, make it about something funny, like an Elvis impersonator.” And I turned in the first 10 pages to Carter, not realizing I hadn’t deleted that note. And Carter read it and was like, “I like the idea about making it about Elvis impersonators.” And I was like, how did you know that was an idea? And he was like you wrote me a note… So I forgot to erase it, and that’s how the play happened.

SL: How long did it take you to write the first draft?

LB: The very first draft I whipped out in about two weeks ‘cause I had to make the deadline for the class. I’ve been editing it for basically two years since then. The draft I submitted to the Hotchner contest was actually the second or third draft.

SL: Did Carter [Lewis] help you a lot with editing the play?

LB: The actual first draft he sort of let me do my own thing and gave me notes at the end when I turned it in. He helped me originally by teaching me how to write plays, but we didn’t converse much until the Hotchner festival. He was the official dramaturg for the play project and the other dramaturg for the table read, but he’s helped a lot. He’s brilliant.

SL: What about working with the director, Jeffrey Matthews? How was that?

LB: He’s just a total goofball. He’s so passionate about what he’s doing. Whenever I go into his office, he’s watching Elvis videos. He’s funny and has a good attitude and I think everyone really enjoys working with him ’cause he’s just this goofy guy. I think a lot of the teachers and staff working on the play are reliving their childhood with this play ’cause it’s set in the ’70s, which gave them a way to connect with it. He’s gone on a journey with the play, but mainly he’s become obsessed with Elvis.

SL: Hal, the director of the show is your father. What was it like working with him as your director?

HM: I didn’t really know how to feel about it at the beginning, but he’s basically been a personal director to me my entire life, and he raised me into the theater, so we’ve already worked together personally on a lot of things. So it ended up being a pretty positive experience ’cause I was already used to how he works and what he likes. It was funny because over spring break we couldn’t have a single conversation with each other that was not about the play. It’s become sort of a 24-hour thing that is unavoidable, but it’s been very positive as well.

SL: Last question, for Leah. Are you nervous for the premiere?

LB: I’m terrified. I think it’s a lot because there’s nothing else I can do. Throughout the whole process I was like this is going to get better; this is going to get better. And I think it’s in a really good place, but I can no longer be proactive about it. I’m terrified, but it’s also awesome.

Editor’s note: Jamie Gottlieb is a Cadenza Writer on Student Life’s staff.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878