There Must Be Happy Endings: On Theatre of Optimism & Honesty
By Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Published by The 3rd Thing Press
Available on Kickstarter with a $24.00 pledge
Paperback, 230 pages
Review by Kitty Drexel
“An ending doesn’t have to be happy to be satisfying. A good ending, happy or not, draws a line around the experience of story hearing and telling. It picks the story up, holds it in its hands, and offers it out, whole. It gives us the opportunity for a collective breath. A good ending is honest: a boundary we can feel, the knowledgable edge of a reliable container. It is a ritual threshold between story and not-story.”
— Megan Sandberg-Zakian, “There Must Be Happy Endings,” There Must Be Happy Endings: On Theatre of Optimism & Honesty, 2020.
Somerville, Mass — There Must Be Happy Endings by Megan Sandberg-Zakian is an exploration in the personal dramaturgy of the mind and spirit. In her first book of essays, the author takes a deep dive into the works that have made a lasting impression upon her. They are an extension of her need to share stories through theatre. Whether by quoting Homer, The Dark Knight or Annie, these essays draw the reader into the author’s personal story by circumnavigating the landscape of the greater western narrative. She tells us why happy ends are important and why they are especially important to her. Her title essay isn’t demanding sappy closure but commanding a divine right to culminate our narratives with an end to the suffering within them.
Sandberg-Zakian is a confident writer with a strong but benevolent voice. She knows what she wants to say and communicates her messages with a clarity of purpose. These essays are an invitation into Sandberg-Zakian’s processes as a director and also her personal, emotional history. We are her confidante’s and her confessors. As she discusses in “The Empty Circle,” theatre, for her, is an exercise in enchantment. She draws the reader into the wonder she experiences when she works. It’s cliche to say that There Must Be Happy Endings is an intimate glimpse into Sandberg-Zakian’s life but it’s also true.
There Must Be Happy Endings contains multitudes. There is so much content in each essay that it can overwhelm its reader with just how much they are expected to absorb. Each essay could easily be written into several. There is enough material on Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Lydia R. Diamond’s play Harriet Jacobs to write separate books. Sandberg-Zakian’s observations are astute and may prove to be a guide for director’s nativaging these projects.
Unfortunately, our author didn’t write several books; she wrote only the one. Rather than delve deeply into each essay, exploring each nook and cranny of research, directorial insight or personal experience, Sandberg-Zakian skims over her subject. She writes with such flair that it’s a shame she doesn’t take deeper dive. She has a lot to say and we want to read it. We want to know the finer details. We don’t know if she’s brief because she feels restricted by the essay structure or if society’s demand that women keep quiet is at play. Sandberg-Zakian has our attention. Expounding upon her subject to fully explore its limits wouldn’t be an abuse of our attention but the best use of her skills as a writer.
In “A Play With God In It,” Sandberg-Zakian references Ukrainian-born American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, the 52nd Street Project, Jill Dolan’s Utopia in Performance, Ira Glass, Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, the Providence Black Repertory Company and ties it into her experiences of mysticism as a theatre maker in theater spaces. It’s a lot to pack into twentyone pages. On the one hand, using so many references tells us that our author is well-read and thoughtful. On the other, using many references without a broad analysis of their influence on the essay connotes a lack of focus. We know Sandberg-Zakian is capable of great focus because we know her work as a local director. Perhaps what she needs is a better copy editor.
There Must Be Happy Endings references Sandberg-Zakian’s career in New England and New York, the dramatic works that have influenced her career and her life’s path, and the reference books that have given her insight into her journey to now. These references aren’t cited in her essays although there is a bibliography at the end of the book called, “Areas of Interest.” “Areas of Interest” makes an excellent reading list but it doesn’t tell an interested scholar the necessary information for research. Even in personal essays such as these, citations are mandatory. If Sandberg-Zakian intends to publish these essays in additional places (and I highly suggest it based on their readability alone!) or to use them to get other writing work, citations in AP or Chicago style must be added.
A reader interested in learning more about Sandberg-Zakian’s local credits must perform an additional search. Alas, they aren’t cited in her essays or listed at the end of the book! In the essay, “The Old Dark Cloud Comes Over Me,” she mentions directing Harriet Jacobs for Underground Railway Theatre in Cambridge, MA. It’s the first of many times Sandberg-Zakian references this play and production. She does herself a disservice by not including more information about the performance. We want to know the particulars! We’re celebrating Sandberg-Zakian by reading her book! It is easier to appreciate her fully if we have all of the information.
I discovered that she directed Harriet Jacobs in 2009 at the Central Square Theatre with performances in January 2010. The same applies to her productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and The Good Person of Szechwan. Readers will lose interest if they must perform an internet search every time a local theatre credit is mentioned. Holding onto a reader’s interest is paramount. (A copy editor would also help in this situation.)
There Must Be Happy Endings is rich in content and in spirit. Sandberg-Zakian goes out of her way to share her work, her process and herself at personal risk. This book tells a specialized history of the New England theatre scene. It boldly details where our author comes from and hints at where she will go. This book will appeal to local artists, dramaturgs, and friends of the theatre. It is Sandberg-Zakian’s first book and will hopefully not be her last.
LIVE ONLINE EVENT!
Megan Sandberg-Zakian in conversation with Melinda Lopez
March 23, 2020, 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Bios for the artists and the organizers are HERE.
BROOKLINE, Mass — Brookline Booksmith presents Megan Sandberg-Zakian in conversation with Melinda Lopez on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Monday, 23 March 2020 at 4 p.m. Pacific / 6 p.m. Central / 7 p.m. Eastern.
During the livestream, you can text questions for Megan and Melinda to (617) 651-1794. Please include your name (first name or initials only is fine!) and the location you’re listening from. We’ll get to as many as possible!
Event description: In her book, THERE MUST BE HAPPY ENDINGS, Megan Sandberg-Zakian asks, Is it possible—is it even ethical?—to make hopeful art in an unjust and chaotic world? In the tradition of artist-essayists such as James Baldwin, Anne Lamott, and Adrienne Rich, Sandberg-Zakian looks to her own socially-engaged theater-making practice alongside a diverse array of cultural influences (from slave narratives to popular musicals, Batman to “This American Life”), considering how we might reconcile our desire for hope and possibility, connection and transformation, with the necessity of navigating darkness, despair, hate, and violence.
About Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Megan Sandberg-Zakian is a freelance theater director based in Jamaica Plain, MA, and a co-founder of Maia Directors, a consulting group for artists and organizations engaging with stories from the Middle East and beyond. Megan has previously served as the Associate Artistic Director of Underground Railway Theater (Cambridge, MA), the Providence Black Repertory Company (RI), and The 52nd Street Project (NYC), and as Director-in-Residence at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) in Lowell, MA. Megan is a recipient of the Princess Grace Theater Award and the TCG Future Leaders fellowship, an alumna of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. She is a proud member of SDC. She is a graduate of Brown University and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. Visit Megan’s website.
About The 3rd Thing Press
The 3rd Thing is a small, independent press dedicated to publishing necessary alternatives to what is already out there in abundance. We produce a suite of 4-6 projects a year that represent our interdisciplinary, intersectional priorities in terms of form, content, and perspective. We think of these projects as a cohort—together representing a range of perspectives and approaches to writing—and contributing to our larger endeavor to create not just beautiful books, but also culture.