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by Sally Ollove

TULIPOMANIA just ended its run at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company. TULIPOMANIA was originally commissioned by the Arden in 2005—before the economic crash of 2008, but right in the middle of the mortgage bubble. It went through many stages of development, ultimately colored by the economic rollercoaster America rode between 2005 and its premiere in 2012. Early in the process playwright Michael Hollinger was attached as the book writer  and Michael Ogborn was composing, before Michael Ogborn took over as solo writer and composer. For most of its life, TULIPOMANIA took place in 17th century Amsterdam. Finally, when it became clear that the period was holding the story back, Michael (Ogborn) decided to set the main action in contemporary Holland where the patrons of a hash shop start listening to the tale of one Dutchman, Jan van der Bloem, and his experience of the Dutch Tulip craze. As they get high, the patrons get involved, acting out the man’s story and investing in it emotionally. Throughout the piece, we learn tiny bits and pieces about the lives of patrons as they find parallels between their own stories and that of Jan van der Bloem’s tale, namely, the toll that obsession with riding an economic high takes on families and personal relationships.

I came on very late in the process, attended a workshop earlier in the spring and was present for the rehearsals leading up to the show. Michael and I had many great conversations about the commission process and what kinds of work environments he gravitates towards. Over and over again two words came up: trust and collaboration.

While most acknowledge that theatre is a collaborative art, Michael embodies the ideal. In the rehearsal room, he welcomed input into the script or score from anywhere in the room. I have often seen directors work this way, but rarely writers, even highly collaborative ones. While TULIPOMANIA absolutely retained Michael’s vision and voice, there is much in the text that comes from others: Michael let director Terry Nolen shift major pieces of dialogue around until he found the best option, allowed Music Director and Orchestrator Dan Kazemi to play with tone, tempo, and harmony freely, and thought hard when I raised questions about structure, motive, and content resulting in the letting go of numerous darlings. He fit the characters to the actors to such an enormous degree that most of the costumes were indistinguishable from their personal wardrobes. Michael essentially turned the work over to us for the rehearsal process, trusting that we would do right by the play, confident that we could solve problems, and always aware that a world premiere doesn’t mean set in stone. Sometimes solutions need to be road-tested for a run to see if they work before abandoning them. As he explains below, a one-shot world premiere is far from his developmental ideal.

We were working hard and around the clock up until the very last moments, so I didn’t get a chance to record our conversations. Instead, I sent him four questions, which he thought about on the train ride down from New York for closing weekend and hand-wrote on a yellow legal pad.

Sally Ollove: What are the 3 (or 2 or 4 or 5) most important characteristics or organizational qualities of a good development process for you?

Michael Ogborn: The first thing I look for is a true commitment between the theatre and the writer, a sense that what you are writing has a place in the theatre’s artistic mission. The play should match the theatre. The second is an ensemble of trained actors who are familiar with and enjoy doing new work. I like to be able to say to myself: “if these actors can’t make it work, it’s not their fault.” A third is communication/dialogue between the author and the director during the “downtime,” between reading and workshop—keeping the ball in the air as a play is re-written and sharpened. Finally, I look for a nurturing sense of collaboration, especially when commissioned to create new work.

A major requirement I need is time. Time is always a major factor. I write two kinds of shows. Both are exciting methods to me and require different skill sets. The first kind I don’t let out of the apartment for years. Not until they are ready. This is my ideal for shows developed in my own time. BABY CASE took me almost six years on my own to write.  This method allows me to get to know my play before introducing it to others. The second kind is developed in public—from the day the title is announced there is an expectation. When People’s Light and Theatre Company announces the annual Panto, we have nothing written, only a deadline. In this type of development, we all discover it together. Both ways can yield quality work when the work and the theatre are in harmony. We could always use more time, but that’s part of the excitement—people are waiting to see it. It has to be ready by opening night. It’s the runway to opening night that I always want to be as long as possible.

Plays and musicals are two different animals and require different means of development. An extra week is always welcome to any artist, but it’s essential when doing a new musical. There is no cast recording to listen to. We find the sound together.  In order for rehearsals to move forward, I think a week to focus on music only is very important. That said, for one workshop of TULIPOMANIA, we did the opposite and just read the lyrics and script without music. That was instrumental in finding clarity in storytelling, character, and action.

SO: What do you think is essential for cultivating emerging musical writers? What isn’t happening that should happen?

MO: Essential in cultivating new work is a commitment from the theatres to create artistic homes for emerging writers, a place where they are safe to create without the glare of the spotlight.  I also think that the regional theatres could do more to combine their seasons. To produce a new show in three or four different theatres, allowing the authors to continue working. The pressure of a first production is great enough without “world premiere” attached to it, unless it’s been tested.

When Terry and I did CAFÉ PUTTENESCA, it was a co-production at the Arden and City Theatre in Pittsburgh. There were incredible changes to the script between the two openings and the show was much better for it. The [old practice of the] out-of-town tryout was there for a reason, the audience teaches the show what it still needs to succeed.

SO: Specifically speaking now about TULIPOMANIA. What most attracted you to the story of the Dutch Tulip craze?

MO: What attracted me most was the human element in the historic event. The eternal folly of mankind playing out in the unlikeliest of times and places. Given the recent bubbles that have been popping all around us, I thought it was time to explore and exploit this event in a modern day context.

SO: What was the moment in which you unlocked what the play was about for you and how did you arrive there? Did you start with a song or a character or a phrase or an image or an idea?

MO: I started with the image of a woman/dancer. She is dressed in a parchment-colored body stocking covered with 17th century watercolor renderings of tulips. She is joined by five others. Together they make up the six petals of the tulip. They dance around the bed of a sleeping man—he awakens and dances with them. The seeds of obsession are planted in the subconscious in the dark night. This image led me to the opening waltz music. The dancing tulips didn’t survive but the music provided me with a doorway to the musical world of the play. The dancing tulips never made it to the stage, to my dismay.

Though TULIPOMANIA has finished its run at the Arden, Michael intends to continue developing the piece, perhaps by fine-tuning, perhaps with radical changes. Regardless, he considers the information learned in the full course of a run has been invaluable as he moves forward. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can catch the New York premiere of BABY CASE at the New York Musical Theatre Festival: read New York Time Arts Beat “New York Musical Theatre Festival Report” 18 July 2012. 

Wizard of Oz lobby display by third-grade dramaturgy students with Alliance Theatre teaching artist Kim Bowers-Rheay

Cursed with playing doudy middle-aged characters in school productions, I knew going into my junior high auditions for The Pirates of Penzance that the best I could hope for was Ruth, the  foolish old maid. So I went for the part, and I got it. Because of my new role, my brother gave me the complete libretto as a Christmas gift. It was heartening to realize that Ruth, jostling with pirates, was at least interesting and, possibly, funny. And because I could, I compared the original to our version of the show. Although it wasn’t bad, I realized that one of our scenes had been cut so badly that it didn’t make much sense. I lobbied for lines to be put back in the script (lest you think I was line greedy, none of them were Ruth’s). Then I wanted to know about other Gilbert & Sullivan pieces. I got books from the library and poured over G&S anthologies and histories. No one called me a dramaturg, but The Pirates of Penzance was most likely my first entry point into dramaturgy. I loved it.

Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre provides a more obvious entry point into dramaturgy: the Dramaturgy by Students, K-12 program. It began in 1999 by education director Carol Jones and was designed to be a “challenging authentic learning program.” Working first with an Alliance dramaturg and then a freelance dramaturg, Jennifer Hebblethwaite, the program now works with gifted and talented students who learn about theatre and research through working on a play or musical. For younger students, that has been the annual children’s show; for older students, it has been a mainstage production.

Planning begins early. In the education department’s summer seminar, students who have already been part of the program preview for teachers what the process is like. Next, the teacher and a teaching artist identify what is most applicable or useful for the class and decide on how to focus the students’ research. They also determine early on what the research’s final format will be, whether a dramaturgy notebook that is used in rehearsal, a lobby display, or a performance for their school’s kindergarteners or first graders who will also see the show.

On the first day in the school, the teaching artist and class read the play aloud. For younger grades, the teaching artist focuses primarily on character; with older, the focus is on plot, theme, genre, and applying Aristotelian vocabulary to their textual analysis of the play. Younger grades have created a ‘living dictionary’ they perform for fellow students so that they don’t get confused with any of the language in the play. Dramaturgy students have not recently participated in rehearsals, but they might meet with artistic staff, usually the director, particularly Rosemary Newcott. In some years, students have given the production staff a film of them discussing the characters. Each participating school’s name is acknowledged in the program, and the lobby display includes the names of each individual student who worked on it. After seeing the play, students have a reflection session in which they can discuss what they thought about the production and in what ways they can see the effects of their research. They are not shy sharing their perspectives on the show, and the theatre loves the feedback.

7th and 8th grade dramaturgy students’ work created with Alliance Theatre teaching artist Barry Stewart Mann

A class of dramaturgy students, their teacher, and teaching artist Kim Bowers-Rheay presented their work at the recent conference of the Literary managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) conference http://www.lmda.org/events/conference. Students talked about differences they had found comparing the film to the novel (like the Dainty China country in the novel, and silver v. red slippers). They shared skits they had created to introduce key characters to younger grades. Their Wizard of Oz set designs and character descriptions were dramaturgically based and insightful. Maya talked about her obsession to find out what kind of dog Toto was (“a brindle Cairn Terrier” a dramaturg in the audience shouted out). Like the professionals in the room, Lizzie also had to define the word “dramaturgy” to her friends, which ultimately she described as “furthering minds about theatre.”

The Alliance doesn’t know of any other theatre doing work like this, and, as a theatre with “a long history of employing fulltime dramaturgy staff, they are proud of the creative, engaging role dramaturgy plays there. If you’re interested in learning more, Alliance will be sharing more about the Dramaturgy by Students, K-12 program at AATE. August. There will also be a DVD available about the project. See http://alliancetheatre.org/Education/Institute-For-Educators/Dramaturgy-by-Students.aspx

Young Playwrights Inc. Urban Retreat 2012
July 14-22, 2012
New York, New  York

19 July 2012. Elizabeth Bojsza takes Urban Retreat participants through some of the characteristics, functions, and roles of dramaturgy. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

A few years in a new city have already inspired for me repeat viewings of newly discovered events and productions and places and people. We return when we feel inspired, we return when we feel welcomed, we return when we feel that we’re of service.  And after two years in New York City, inspired by my established love for working with young people finding their voice in theatre (ah yes, the Goodman-AWJ Young Critics Circle program, let us replicate you), I return again and again to the delightful, delicious, enthralling and supportive Manhattan-based Young Playwrights program.  As reader of submitted scripts for their various competitions, as dramaturg for the annual conference of playgoing and readings for the winners, as dramaturg for their week-long summer program for young writers called “Urban Retreat”  – I’ll do anything for them. They’re that good.

This week we are deeply ensconced in  the 2012 edition of the Young Playwrights Urban Retreat and it is a wash of activity and a wonder to behold.  I have the privilege of speaking to the current group of 15 or so participants during, as the program materials describe it, one of the  ”luncheon roundtable discussions related to the craft and business of playwriting.” I talk about my experiences as a dramaturg (reading scripts, working on productions, writing reviews, working with playwrights) and am terribly impressed by the energy and enthusiasm and intelligence of these young people.

Read more: click here

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 22, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Photo Shoot: Chance and Layers of Play
Sunday June 24, 2012
Alder Manor, Yonkers, NY

Alder Manor shoot, makeup room at the far end of the hall, endless possibilities. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

A series of meetings inspired by music, enhanced by fellowship, fueled by a love for theatre and respect for the preservation of its ephemeral record lead me to a photo shoot in an empty mansion in Yonkers on a beautiful summer Sunday.  Sound designer Fitz Patton attended a brunch I attended a month or so ago — he knew one of our hosts and I knew the other, and we soon found a common language in the theatre making we love.  He has a scheme: a new magazine with fashion photography photographic quality that will capture as straight production photos, behind the scene photos, and photos inspired by theatrical art — the ephemera of theatre.  His magazine in development will be called Chance — from a line in Tom Stoppard‘s Travesties: “All design is chance.”  And so it is.  Chance and attention to detail and capturing the moments and being inspired by the possibilities.  Fitz says to me at one point that what he seeks to create in this publication is a “noise-free, calming, focusing, meditative space.”  I hope to be a part of it as it goes forward.

Read more: click here

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 29, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

The Group Theatre & How it Transformed American Culture
Co-curated by Ronald Rand & Mel Gordon
Featuring Ellen Adler, Laila Robins, Wendy Smith, John Strasberg, Fritz Weaver (and others)
Monday, June 4, 2012
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center in Elebash Hall, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue
event site

The Group Theatre, Brookfield Center, summer 1931. Crop of image by Ralph Steiner.

We assemble in the lovely Elebash Hall of the CUNY Graduate Center this cool June Monday to celebrate, analyze, synthesize, rhapsodize about, and contend with the art and the legacy of the individuals who came together out of hope and vision and the need to make a new kind of American theatre. As one commentator says: this was “the last time the avant garde merged with Broadway theatre.” We have come together to parse that statement and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Group Theatre. What a day it is.

The celebration events have been planned by experts on the people and legacies of the Group Theatre. Ronald Rand writes and shares the legacy of Harold Clurman and his colleagues and was a student of several of the Group members. Mel Gordon writes and teaches about Stanislasky, the Group members, cinema, and related topics. Wendy Smith, another expert who has written on the Group and several of the Group personalities is present throughout the festivities and takes an active role in the final panel of the day. Consistent with the Group members themselves who created theatre, acted and directed productions, and became teachers — the experts are themselves teachers. This is not a static kind of knowledge. It lives and breathes and begs to be shared and debated and passed along.

Read more: click here

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 9, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Industry Talk: Literary Directors and Managers
Host and moderator Christie Evaneglisto with
Kirsten Bowen, Adam Greenfield, Carrie Hughes, Annie MacRae, Elizabeth Frankel
Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 6pm
Signature Theatre Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
event site

Signature Theatre and its new home at the Pershing Square Signature Center has become a meeting place of sorts. A fabulous airy open second floor main lobby, a bar and cafe with reasonably priced items open long before and long after shows in any of the theatres, wireless internet, friendly people. A place to hang, to meet, to have a chance encounter. A place to immerse yourself in provocative new and old productions perhaps enhanced by pre- and post-show discussions, special conversations with creative staff, and other production-specific programming. This evening Signature inaugurates a free Industry Talk series to discuss the business of making theatre more generally.

Read more: click here

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 1, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Anytime a beloved book regenerates as a play or film, there’s an understood gamble. Fans cling to their favorite moments, scenes, and lines like mountaineers on K2.  The risk lies in whether they will accept and enjoy a condensed production or resent a company who dared to mangle their treasured tale.  (For more on possible results, compare the multi-generational fan-driven success of Lord of the Rings with the lackluster, cobbled mess of The Chronicles of Narnia.)

So when I sat down to begin preliminary work on A Wrinkle in Time, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle, it was not without trepidation.  I’ve loved this book since I could read.  The playwright, John Glore, also loved the book and admitted he pared out pieces he enjoyed to fit the parameters of South Coast Repertory’s Theatre for Young Audiences, who had commissioned the script.  Before I could focus on our production, I thought I had to reconcile myself to this script. I learned that a script, well-written, remains true to the story, even if it does condense the plot a little.

On a dark and stormy night, Meg Murry (Emilie Krause) waits for Charles Wallace as the Ensemble (L to R: Tom Byrn, Catharine Slusar, Aubie Merrylees, and Pete Pryor) looks on.
Photo by Mark Garvin

For those who haven’t read the book, a recap: Awkward, stubborn, brilliant-at-math, Meg Murry sits alone in her attic, missing her father, a scientist absent for two years.  She and her brother Charles Wallace, a child of excelled intellect and empathy, learn from the very odd Mrs Whatsit that he is alive but in danger.  They meet Calvin and the three are whisked away by Mrs Whatsit and her colleagues, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit.  The Mrs Ws inform the children that Dr. Murry was experimenting with the tesseract, a concept which wrinkles the fabric of space-time, allowing for intergalactic travel in no time at all.  He tessered to Camazotz, a planet shadowed by the Black Thing, the evil which pervades the universe.  The only way to save him is for Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to rescue him.  On Camazotz, they meet IT, a huge disembodied brain which forces everyone into the same rhythm and to behave and think exactly alike.  Though they find their father, Charles Wallace becomes controlled by IT.  To escape, Dr. Murry tessers Meg and Calvin away.  Angry at her father’s inability to fix everything, Meg demands the Ws return and solve her problems.  They arrive but inform her that she alone can save Charles Wallace.  Returning to confront IT, Meg must discover what she has that IT does not.  Realizing what her weapon is—the love she gives and has been given—enables her to save Charles Wallace and reunite her family back on Earth.            Early on, one of the cast asked if this production would be in the present day or period.  After all, 1962 in many ways looks nothing like 2012.  Our director replied she had considered “going period,” but the book is relevant because it is timeless.  To choose period would not be as accessible and she wanted it to be as accessible as possible for our audiences.

In that vein, she began the first day of rehearsal asking the cast, who had all read the novel, why this was relevant today.  Responses ranged from the importance of family to the acceptance of oneself including all quirks, faults, and foibles.  She followed with the question, “What do you think is ‘Camazotz’ today?”  Responses from the cast began with social media: “It’s like everybody has an iPhone, a Facebook, all the same,” one actor noted.  A second chimed in: “On social media, you’re not talking to someone [by] posting.  You wouldn’t have the guts to do that in real life.”  A third cited texting, with its lack of facial and vocal interaction.

While nary a smart phone appears in the play, we began integrating social media into this production.  This show employed a tag-team relay among departments.  Creating and coordinating tweets and hash tags with our Audience Services Manager for the company Twitter account tested our ability for witty, engaging, relevant blurbs.  The opening of The Hunger Games proved to be a great connection as the argument stands that without Meg Murry there could be no Katniss Everdeen.  Our favorite tweet went: “resistant. resistent. resistint. resistit. Resistit. Resist it. Resist IT.#AWrinkleinTime,” playing on the surging theme of fighting the system in today’s world (thank you Occupy, Arab Spring, Dumbledore’s Army, and Tributes).  I pulled tidbits from my dramaturgy work and the rehearsal room to be status updates on the company Facebook for our Subscriptions Manager/Marketing Assistant.  Later, we launched a separate Facebook page for the show itself in coordination with our interactive lobby display and online companion guide, a three-pronged intersection conceived by our Producer for Arts Discovery Programs.

A WRINKLE IN TIME by John Glore at People's Light and Theatre

The lobby display includes a QR code to access the Facebook page and a hard copy of the companion guide. Audiences create the “galaxy” of stars by sharing the name and story of someone they know as courageous or trailblazing.
Photo by Hannah Daniel

And while these can all be wonderful tools in reaching the audience, they aim to support a timeless story in a relevant way.  As a house manager, I witness the immediate response the work onstage, which provides a check for when I am frustrated by a lack of response on the Facebook page or nobody retweeting our clever quips or kids coloring all over the lobby display.  The point is they come away connected.  All those elements outside the house—the online work, the interactive lobby display—those are there to enrich an encounter.  They are not excessive or frills, but they are new facets in a potentially already unfamiliar place.

To some extent, they’ve been successful.  It is still a learning process on both sides, balancing the traditional with the modern.  Each performance concludes with a post-show discussion with the cast, and that’s when our audiences, especially students and all who love the book, really respond and interact and connect.  And that’s when the fans voice how much they love what they’ve seen: the story they know brought to life.  There is a place and time to integrate today’s media into live arts, but first and foremost, the aim remains to tell the story.

A WRINKLE IN TIME adapted by John Glore, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle; Director Samantha Bellomo, set by James Pyne, Jr., costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis, lighting by Lily Fossner, sound design by The Broken Chord Collective, dramaturg Hannah Daniel, production stage manager Kate McSorley. At the Mainstage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA 19355.  For tickets, call (610) 644-3500.  Now through May 20, 2012.

WITH: Emilie Krause (Meg), Conrad David Sager (Charles Wallace/Ensemble), Catharine Slusar (Mother/Mrs Who/Camazotz Woman/Aunt Beast/Ensemble), Pete Pryor (Mrs Whatsit/Man with Red Eyes/Ensemble), Aubie Merrylees (Calvin/Ensemble), Tom Byrn (Father/Mrs Which/Camazotz Man/Ensemble)

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