At a time of so much uncertainty, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s new collection of essays appears like a desperately needed balm. At first glance, “There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theater of Optimism and Honesty” (www.The3rdthing.press, $24) seems like an “inside baseball” guide to directing for the stage, but Sandberg-Zakian’s extraordinary voice brings the reader up close to her efforts to use whatever tools it takes to accomplish the task of being a better human.
Starting with the anecdote of Penelope making and unmaking a shawl, Sandberg-Zakian examines the notion of storytelling and what we need from it. “A good ending,” she says, “happy or not, draws a line around an experience of story hearing and telling. A good ending is honest.”
Sandberg-Zakian is an accomplished director (“Skeleton Crew” at Huntington Theatre Company, “The Convert” at Nora Theatre Company, “Bright Half Life” at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, to name just a few), associate artistic director (Underground Railway Theater, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Providence Black Repertory Company), and teacher. In her essays, she uses her experiences in the theater — sometimes as a member of the audience, sometimes as a member of the creative team — as points of entry into a personal journey.
“When I started writing,” she says, “I was afraid to be honest without being bleak, but I remembered that the definition of an actor is someone who is easy to laugh and easy to cry. In order to access an appropriate amount of grief, you must also be open to the appropriate amount of joy.”
“There Must Be Happy Endings” is published by The 3rd Thing, an independent press dedicated to publishing “necessary alternatives to what is already out there in abundance.” Sandberg-Zakian is one of six writers and artists whose work is being published this year.
“What ties us together is our commitment to radical inclusion,” she says.
Part memoir, part exploration of the artistic process, Sandberg-Zakian’s determined honesty and willingness to be vulnerable make “There Must Be Happy Endings” remarkably accessible. You don’t need to have seen Lydia R. Diamond’s “Harriet Jacobs” at Underground Railway Theater, Bartlett Sher’s direction of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” on Broadway, or John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to connect with her thoughtful responses to each of those productions. She balances theatrical experiences with the storytelling of public radio’s “This American Life,” the “Batman” films, even the musical story of “Peter and the Wolf” or the Disney recording of “The Three Little Pigs.”
“I’d written the essays over several years and felt like they belonged together," Sandberg-Zakian says. “But in the process of revising them, I put them to the acid test, to distill the ideas to the thing that leaves the most lasting impression.
"But,” she says with a laugh, “I didn’t freak out about including my personal details until I saw the work in galleys.”
Those personal details — from her childhood, professional triumphs and disappointments, and her commitment to tell stories that aren’t otherwise being told — imbue “There Must Be Happy Endings” with a determination to find ways for us to connect with each other.
“There will never be a happy ending if I do not persist in imagining one,” she says.
You can watch Sandberg-Zakian in conversation with playwright Melinda Lopez in a livestreamed event produced by Brookline Booksmith and presented on Howlround TV March 23 at 7 p.m. Go to https://howlround.com/happenings.
An assist for theater artists
StageSource, an alliance of theater organizations and artists, is working with Arts Boston, MASSCreative, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and other groups to assist Boston-area artists who have lost work and theater companies that have canceled productions due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“We are all coming together to support each other and find ways to continue through this complicated time,” says Dawn Simmons, StageSource executive director. “While companies with union contracts are working on the possibility of providing video content from their productions, smaller theater companies are coming up with creative ways to have actors rehearse via Skype and perhaps stream a performance.”
In the meantime, theatergoers are encouraged to purchase subscriptions for next season, donate to their favorite companies, or donate to the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund (www.tcbf.org), which has for the past two decades served as a lifeline and resource for artists in need.
“TCBF will help people put food on their tables, pay their rent, or take care of other unforeseen expenses like medical bills and increased child-care costs," says Simmons. "TCBF is a vital part of the economic stability and recovery of the arts sector during a crisis like this.”