Interview: Which Way to the Stage? Ana Nogueira Accidentally Finds Her Way to Comedy
Actor and playwright Nogueira debuts her latest work, a comedy about friends waiting for Idina Menzel's autograph after If/Then.
Not long after Ana Nogueira's debut play, Empathitrax, premiered in 2016, South Coast Repertory commissioned her to write her next play. She didn't expect the finished product to be a comedy; she doesn't even consider herself a comedy writer. But Nogueira guarantees the authenticity in Which Way to the Stage will make audiences laugh as they travel back to 2015 to experience two friends waiting outside the stage door of If/Then to get an autograph from the star, Idina Menzel. Directed by Mike Donohue, the four-person cast features Sas Goldberg, Max Jenkins, Evan Todd, and Michelle Veintimilla.
Nogueira is now developing Empathitrax into a feature film with Berlanti Productions. She is under an overall deal with DC as a screenwriter and has a recurring role as Donna on the Starz crime drama Hightown. She set aside some time to talk to us about Which Way to the Stage, her writing process, and her guarded relationship with playwriting.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The name of the play changed a couple of times. How did you eventually land on Which Way to the Stage?
First the title was Mask Only. I was on the fence about it, and then the pandemic happened. I was like, "Oh my God, people are going to think this is about Covid and mask wearing." The play takes place in 2015 and it could not be less about that. So, I changed it to Here She Is, Boys, which is a line from Gypsy. The play is very much about musicals, auditioning, and stage doors. But as we were winding up to performance, I started feeling worried that the title was going to send the wrong message about what the play is about. The theater was very receptive and let me change it to Which Way to the Stage, which is another theater reference; it's Maureen's first line in Rent. And the play is very much about these characters who are obsessed with Idina Menzel.
Why the year 2015?
The idea for this play came up over a hilarious brunch conversation. We were talking about Idina Menzel, only in the most wonderful terms, and we were talking about stage doors. I suddenly saw this idea for a play. I think it was probably 2016 when this brunch happened, and the most recent time Idina Menzel had been on Broadway was in 2015 [in If/Then]. That ended up being a total gift because the world is moving so fast right now. We've been through so much together, like the pandemic. Setting something slightly in the past means there is a whole host of world events that I do not have to touch and my characters know nothing about. So, I can just focus on the events of the story. I'm very grateful for that.
Still, you explore very important and relevant issues in Which Way to the Stage: gender, homophobia, and misogyny in musical-theater, but the play is a comedy. Was that intentional to tackle these issues in that genre?
I was kind of following what my characters were telling me and realized, "this is a comedy." I unearthed things from my past life: all the things I saw and experienced while getting a BFA in musical theater at Boston Conservatory and my life as a young musical theater actress in my 20s. I realized that this play could surprise me, which is my favorite part of writing. You don't quite know what you're writing about until you're writing.
And I always say a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down — always, and forever. The best way to get people to listen to you, I think, is to make them laugh.
How do you make people laugh?
If you put me in a comedy room, like for a sitcom, I would clam up and disappear. I actually don't even consider myself a comedy writer. I'm not a joke machine. I like finding humor in conversation and everyday life. I, again, just listen to my characters. And these four characters in [Which Way to the Stage] have such specific voices, voices that I feel like I've listened to. They're so based on people that I know and love. So, I just let them tell me what's funny. I definitely am not sitting there trying to write a joke out of nowhere; that's my nightmare. But I can assure you this play is funny.
Your play Empathitrax premiered in 2016. Is that around the time you realized you wanted to go into playwriting in addition to acting, or has this been something you've always wanted to pursue?
It was earlier than that, but it definitely wasn't something I always knew I wanted to do. I thought I just wanted to be an actor. And that's what I was doing for most of my 20s. And then I kind of started writing on a whim. The more I worked as an actress, the more I wrote because I didn't have to work a day job anymore, so I had a lot of free time compared to when I was busting my butt.
When I was 29, I got into the Youngblood at the [Ensemble Studio Theater]. They kick you out when you're 30, but it was an incredibly educational, pivotal year for me. I got to see if I could hang and keep up with all these writers who'd known since they were 22 that they wanted to be playwrights.
You've said you don't put pressure on yourself as a playwright. Does that lack of pressure allow you to experiment and try new things that you probably wouldn't do in other mediums?
One hundred percent. I let my imagination go wild. My relationship with playwriting started that way because I was just an actress being like "Can I do this?" And then playwriting quickly turned into screenwriting opportunities, which I put more pressure on myself to pay the bills. With plays, I let the inspiration find me, like with Which Way to the Stage. I chose a premise that feels sort of out of left field and allowed the characters to guide me. It's like a wonderful freefall where you're constantly caught by different parachutes. I realized early that I have that experience as a playwright in ways that is harder to find as an actress, or even as a screenwriter. I never, ever want to lose that, so I really protect playwriting and try not to turn it into too much of a job.