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The Folger Spotlight

Q&A with Sarah Mantell

The Reading Room Festival:
Everything That Never Happened

Sarah Mantell

The Reading Room Festival (Jan 25-28) features new work and conversations inspired by, in response to, or in dialogue with the plays of William Shakespeare. Leading up to the festival, we’re doing a Q&A series with the creators involved.

One of the new plays featured at The Reading Room Festival this year is Everything That Never Happened by Sarah Mantell, which takes place in the gaps between Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the realities of Jewish history.

“I wanted to write a play that allowed these characters to speak in Jewish voices for the first time,” writes Mantell. “To give them back their history, their humor, their heartbreak.” Read more in the Q&A below, and join us for a staged reading on Sunday, Jan 28, at 1pm.


FOLGER: What’s the story behind the creation of your play and its early life? What was your process?

I’ve been trying to pretend that Merchant of Venice didn’t exist for as long as I’ve known it existed. I knew that something about it felt very wrong to me and so I managed to avoid the play until grad school when I walked into a rehearsal room and encountered Shakespeare’s script for the first time in the mouths of people I loved. The play felt so harmful and awful and exactly like what you might expect someone to write if they had never met a Jewish person (he hadn’t) and only had an awful stereotype to go on (he did).

It was also clear to me that there was another story living just underneath the surface if you knew any of the things he didn’t know. Everything That Never Happened became a story about passing and assimilation and a very particular father and daughter and what we will leave behind for love. I set out to write something funny and heartbreaking and filled with everything Shakespeare left out.

My process felt like wrestling with Shakespeare in a dirty ditch and coming up with a piece of his shirt and being like, “I’m going to get him next time! I can feel it!”

FOLGER: Were there any particular problems or knots in Shakespeare’s works that you wanted to interrogate in your play? Any particular opportunities that arose in spring boarding off Shakespeare? What are you hoping that audiences will take away from this play? 

Writing this play felt like fighting with Shakespeare. And that fight felt so uneven. Every time I walk into a bookstore I see pounds and pounds of his plays on the shelf. Every time. He’s on every stage. He’s in movie theaters. This didn’t feel like a fair fight. The only things I had on my side were a) being alive and b) knowing what the heck I was talking about.

William took a long-existing stereotype and imbued it with just enough depth that it has lasted generations beyond his death. But it’s still a stereotype. One that has been used as an excuse to harm an entire ethnic/religious population for a very long time. His play has been used in the same way, most notably when performed repeatedly in Nazi Germany. I don’t want to see it on any more stages. In fact, I would like to see a lot more plays by living writers and a lot fewer by dead ones. They can’t enjoy it. They don’t need the money. And they already got produced in their own lifetimes. (Playwrights can write plays alone in a room, but it’s impossible to finish revising a script until you’ve seen it on its feet with sound, sets, lights, costumes, and of course actors.)

I wanted to write a play that allowed these characters to speak in Jewish voices for the first time. To give them back their history, their humor, their heartbreak. It has been particularly meaningful to me when the play resonated with artists and audiences across identities—and especially when non-Jewish queer and BIPOC folks see themselves in these characters.

FOLGER: What is your favorite Shakespeare adaptation, and how did it make you think differently about Shakespeare’s works?

I love Paula Vogel’s Desdemona, a play about a handkerchief (from Othello) and Jiehae Park’s peerless (based on the Scottish play.) I love a.k. payne’s love i awethu further, which is in conversation with Julius Caesar—about a revolt in the antebellum South. All of those plays center women, trans, and/or BIPOC folks inside stories that Shakespeare never intended to cast them in. I love it when writers take up space that was created to exclude them and bust out the windows.

FOLGER: What are you hoping to learn from The Reading Room Festival? 

Everything That Never Happened was set to travel to multiple productions across the country in 2020 and we all know what happened to that season of plays. It’s been sitting here waiting since then and I have become a different writer in the process. I’m ready to see this play with new eyes and rewrite from a very different place than I was in four years ago. I’m particularly excited to see the play with some new casting too. Come see these brilliant artists do their thing. They’re all alive and very amazing.

FOLGER: Anything else that you’d like readers and audience members to know about you and/or your play?

I wasn’t sure die-hard Shakespeare fans would like this play very much but god was I wrong. It has now found a home at lots of Shakespeare-loving spaces, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and now the Folger. If you love Merchant, this play is for you too (and there are lots of Easter eggs waiting for you to find.) And if you don’t know anything about Shakespeare you can walk in the door and have a full experience. No matter how you feel about Shakespeare, this play is for you. Come join us.