One of my favorite pursuits as an arts writer is keeping track of artists from Central Indiana who have moved on, especially to larger markets, such as L.A., Chicago or New York, to pursue their passion. One such individual is John F. Sarno, a playwright, actor and Indy native who moved to Manhattan in 1985.
Knowing I would be visiting NYC for a few days in October, I reached out to Sarno to see if he would meet with me for an interview, to which he agreed. Unfortunately, due to a snafu, we were not able to keep our appointment, so we decided to do the interview via Zoom, which took place recently.
As we began our conversation, I quickly learned Sarno has a lengthy history with NYC. “My father grew up in East Harlem and in the Bronx, so I started visiting New York in the 1950s. We would visit from Indy. My dad met my mom at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and they got married and stayed there. But I would spend a week, two weeks, a month in ’64 here in the city, so I had an attachment to it, even long before I was interested in theatre,” he revealed.
“And where is that you live in the city?” I asked. “I am sitting here in the poor man’s penthouse at 1st Avenue and 20th Street. It’s the far east end of Gramercy Park, overlooking Peter Cooper Village. I have been in this apartment for 23 years. It is a 110-year-old walkup. I am five flights up, so that is why I call it the poor man’s penthouse because I am on the top floor. It’s just my euphemism,” joked Sarno.
Supporting himself on the side working in advertising and public relations for 30 years, Sarno has managed to assemble an impressive resume that speaks to his talent and drive to succeed as an artist. Of eight plays Sarno has written and were produced his most recent ones include “The Knickerbockers” – May 2002, Producer’s Club, New York City, “B.T.K. Agonistes” – July 2010, Love Creek Players, New York City,“Mushroom Cloud, Turnupseed” – July 2010, Love Creek Players, New York City, May 2015, Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, New York City,“Susquehanna” – August 2018, Itinerant Theatre, Lake Charles, Louisiana, August 2019, Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, New York City. Sarno also wrote a prize-winning screenplay, “The OMalley.”
Sarno has also acted in over 40 plays and seven short films. He recently portrayed a key character in the feature film, “The Saint of the Impossible,” directed by Marc Raymond Wilkins and opposite Magaly Solier, a Best Actress/Golden Bear winner for “The Milk of Sorrow” (an Oscar nominee). “Saint” was screened at the Cannes and Shanghai film festivals, made its formal premiere in October at the Mostra Independent Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and opens in the U.S. at the Miami Film Festival this March.
As for his background, Sarno said, “I grew up on the south side of Indianapolis and spent my formative years a few paces from the railroad tracks. I earned a BA from the University of Indianapolis, and much of an MFA/Playwriting at Indiana University. I was a sportswriter, university counselor, and a reformatory supervisor in Indy. After my divorce, I spent a year on the road, accompanied by a laundry bag of books and a shoebox of cassettes. I worked temp jobs on loading docks nationwide, including a stint in the Mojave Desert.”
When asked how he discovered theatre in the first place, Sarno said, “I was somewhat directionless in the winter of 1977. I was married and living in a lovely condominium, cathedral ceiling, fireplace, lots of room, lovely wife…and I had never seen a play. I wrote a skit for my workplace, which was the financial aid office at IUPUI. The son of a co-worker there gave me a text, Sam Smiley’s (well-known Indiana University professor and playwright) “The Structure of Action.” I was immediately and completely enthralled – and still am. I got involved with the theatre department at IUPUI, did several shows at Edyvean Repertory, and things evolved from there with the Broad Ripple Playhouse, the Phoenix with Bryan Fonseca, Civic Theatre, and so on.”
“There were no formal reasons for my pursuing playwriting or acting. For me, it is the most natural thing in the world to do. That pursuit has made for a life that has been…less than easy, shall we say, but…I have no regrets at all,” said Sarno. Regarding his purpose in playwriting he said, “I don’t have specific things I’m trying to say. When I have a story idea, and that story always starts with specific characters, I just follow those characters where they lead and give a dramatic shape to those events as they play out. I rewrite a lot – and I enjoy that very much. It’s absolutely fulfilling.”
Regarding his acting career, Sarno admits, “I’ve never had a real goal as an actor. I just like to do it. I love the physicality and it absolutely feeds my writing. I played a lot of basketball as a young person, and I was utterly mediocre. Acting is a context where I’m a bit more competitive.
“A few years ago, I made the decision to try a little Shakespeare and that went much better than expected. No bona fide roles in any productions, but a few tiny things here and there. I have not been a big one for auditions. Shows have led to more shows with the same director and those also led to the short films and the one feature film I performed in, “The Saint of The Impossible.” I have only done about 15 shows here in New York over almost four decades. The focus has very much been on writing,” explained Sarno.
Always of interest to me, as someone who once considered living in NYC, I asked Sarno what advice he has for anyone considering making the move to New York to pursue their creative dreams. He said, “I can only answer that by pretending COVID is not dominating everything, like it is right now. I would just say to bring copious amounts of resilience and determination. It can be a warmer and more humane city than people might think, but it is also tough. One can think, ‘Oh, I understand how competitive it is. I can handle it.’ Well, it is a lot more competitive than one can imagine. People from all over with tons of experience and top-tier collegiate training are here, so one competes against layers and layers of those people who’ve arrived over the years. Year after year.”
To illustrate his point about the level and intensity of competition for artists in NYC, Sarno related a story. “Twelve years ago, I went to read for a short film. The character was a detective interrogating a teenaged girl after her friend’s death. The script was mediocre in toto, but that scene was pretty good, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Plus, they were shooting the scene on a Sunday in Connecticut, so that meant I would not have to miss any days at my much-needed copywriting job. At the time, I was juggling lots of trips back to Indy to see my mother in her nursing home, plus running up almost $1,000 a month in medical bills trying to keep my beloved dog alive. So, there are six guys there to read for the role. We all chatted for a while before they started calling us in. One guy was a Juilliard graduate, one was from Yale, one guy had studied at The Sorbonne, for cryin’ out loud, and the other two guys were former NYPD detectives and looked just right for the role. The upshot? I got the part. But they then informed me they wanted me to not just shoot my role, but stay Monday and Tuesday to fill in as background on other scenes. All this for $500. I knew this script was not going anywhere, which it did not. The writer and director were very young with some money to spend, but zero experience in the business. So, I said, ‘No thanks.’ Sometimes one must make hard choices to keep on keeping on in this town. Meantime, I keep writing,” he said with resignation.
“And have you seen a lot of people come and go during your time living in the city?” I inquired. “Whoever comes to New York from elsewhere, there are either things in their past that prepare them to embrace it or there aren’t. A lot of people, and there are hundreds and hundreds, they will come for two to four years and then they are done. If nothing remarkable happens, then they go. I was just thinking yesterday about a guy from Texas, a terrific actor, I did two shows with him…suddenly, he was done. There was a girl back home and they were going to get married. There are thousands of those stories, but anyway, the more time you spend here, you learn to navigate. You learn to navigate the streets, the stores, put on that armor, adjust the armor, take the armor off when you are with trusting souls. For me, that is usually theatre people. If I am in a pub with the gang after a show, then the armor comes off.”
Concluding the interview, I asked Sarno if his theatre experiences in Indy prepared him well for New York. “Absolutely. In every theatrical way. That camaraderie. That give and take. That was huge. In my life. Working at the Phoenix. I was employed by the IUPUI theatre department for a while, doing things there with Dorothy and Edgar Webb. Their program was incredibly important to me. Bryan Fonseca. You know Bryan came to a show at IUPUI titled “The Indian Wants the Bronx” that I was in, and he plucked me from there. I met you right around this time because I did “The Shadow Box” with Mary Flick and the Burketts (Cynthia and Jim) and some other people. Around that time, I did a bunch of shows at Edyvean Repertory Theatre, “Tally’s Folly” at Civic. It was a wonderful experience, the Edyvean shows at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) with Rose Kleinman and Clara Heath and those were great fun. The Indianapolis theatre scene had a great influence on me. When I look back at my hometown, it all meant a great deal to me. The theatre people there, those experiences, which made my hometown for me.” “Do you stay in touch with any Indy theatre people currently?” I asked. “I talk to Suzanne Fleenor and Brad Griffith all the time. Brad and I have been very close. We’ve been like brothers for a long time. Suzanne and I are also very close. And I stay in touch with Deb Sargeant and Gayle Steigerwald on Facebook.” Sarno stated.
After an interview, it is not unusual for me to have follow-up questions for my subjects. In the case of Sarno, I wondered what exactly he loves about NYC and what keeps him there. In an email reply, he noted, “Everything about New York keeps me here. The diversity is a huge factor, the arts/theatrical scene is crucial. The density and proliferation of the intellectual exchange (within a few blocks, I can buy the Times, The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books. I DO NOT like to read those kinds of materials online.) The city’s history is absolutely fascinating to me.”
Elaborating further, Sarno wrote, “I have a great set of friends here (although I’ve now lost four to COVID), and there are half a dozen directors who are interested in my work, as either a writer or an actor or both (I’m doing two readings, via Zoom, tomorrow). I have a play of mine up for production soon, but that has not been confirmed (waiting on Omicron). My lit agent thinks it is best I stay here, and finally, there is nowhere else in this country I would rather be. No way, no how. Would I move a few miles north at some point? Maybe. But not right now. I like to fight it out on these streets. I grew up trading punches with a frustrated boxer; I was set up to compete.”