It’s Raining Dramaturgs: Collaborating on new plays about the BP Oil Spill

While I call Philadelphia my home, I have been working long-distance on a project for playwright Caridad Svich’s new play The Way of Water about the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill. So far, it has been a rich research project (that I will hopefully post about later this month as now over 40 theater companies and universities are reading the play to raise awareness about the two-year anniversary of the disaster), it has also been an opportunity to collaborate with other dramaturgs! Dramaturgy is often a solo act, so it is quite delightful when I have the chance to be a part of a dramaturgy team. Since January, playwright/dramaturg R. Alex Davis has been a part of the team preparing for the reading scheme in April 2012 and it’s been great to ‘divide and conquer’ as the research on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill is quite extensive. Together, we have created both a research website and a blog so that all the theaters participating can access our dramaturgy.

Credit: Abigail Feinberg and Quentin Pharr
We were then thrilled to discover that UMASS Amherst was also creating new work in response to the BP Oil Spill disaster. Tasked by their Dean to devise new work to the theme “The Gulf Oil Spill: Lessons for the Future”, dramaturg Megan McClain has been organizing a festival for their Theatre Department. Not only did Megan arrange for Caridad’s new play to be read during their festival, but she’s also shared with us her research from the Gulf region. It’s not just ‘good timing’—but an example of artistic generosity and the spirit of dramaturgical collaboration. And if we also count dramaturgs Adewunmi Oke and Alison Bowie who have worked on these devised pieces for UMASS’s festival—that makes five dramaturgs concurrently researching and creating new work responding to the BP Oil Spill crisis. We hope you enjoy this article by Megan as we’re all responding artistically to the crisis by asking those dramaturgical questions of  this continuing national crisis. The BP Oil Spill has long-ranging impacts and these new works created will hopefully raise a dialogue of how we can engage with this issue and not forget those Americans who are currently struggling because of this disaster.—Heather Helinsky, freelance dramaturg 

Beyond the Horizon: A Devised Theater Festival

by Megan McClain

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon off-shore drilling unit exploded, killing 11 people. For the next three months nearly 5 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, negatively impacting plant, animal, and human life.  The full extent of the catastrophe’s aftermath is still unknown.  Though the news media’s coverage of the spill has dissipated in the ensuing years, artists and activists continue to give voice to the lasting devastation of this event.  Addressing the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its position in a long line of environmental disasters, the Beyond the Horizon Festival presented by the UMass Amherst Theatre Department seeks to use performance to map our changing relationship to the natural world and offer models of community response to ecological crisis.   Developed by a interdisciplinary community of theatre artists, musicians, dancers, and environmentalists, the Beyond the Horizon Festival offers three original devised theatre pieces that use the power of performance to illuminate the interactions between humans and the environment.

The first piece, What Have We Learned, uses letters, dance, and song to explore how the BP Gulf oil spill has effected the lives of those in the Gulf and beyond.  To whom it may concern addresses how we struggle to communicate during times of crisis in a world pulsing with the din of suffering, disconnection, and corruption.  The final piece, Nightingale, imagines a post-apocalyptic society in which natural organisms are strictly controlled and shows what happens when one bird throws the whole system into shock.

Members of the Beyond the Horizon artistic team are also participating in a reading of Caridad Svich’s new play, The Way of Water, presented in collaboration with NoPassport Theatre alliance and press as part of a nationwide and international reading scheme.  The Way of Water interrogates the BP Gulf oil spill by exposing the continued negative effects of the disaster on the health and livelihoods of those in the region.  This network of readings across the country joins theatre artists in a larger conversation about the hidden and ignored human suffering of those exposed to contaminated water in the Gulf.

Silent Spring author Rachel Carson once wrote, “In nature, nothing exists alone.” The same can be said of theatre.  Though theatre has been described as the site for exploring the human condition, that human condition is intrinsically linked to the conditions of all other life on this planet.  Theatre gives us a space to play out sites of connection and disconnection. It creates a place to reassess our destructive actions and celebrate the most beautiful wonders of the world around us.  Above all, it offers the chance to rediscover and announce what poet Mary Oliver calls our “place in the family of things.”

The Beyond the Horizon Festival runs April 5-7 and April 10-14 at 8pm and April 14 at 2pm in the Curtain Theatre of the Fine Arts Center on the UMass Amherst campus.  The reading of Caridad Svich’s new play, The Way of Water, will be held at 4:30pm on April 10th at Food for Thought Books, 106 N. Pleasant St. Amherst, MA. For more information visit our festival blog

What Have We Learned is directed by Carol Becker, dramaturgy by Adewunmi Oke, and actors: Ryan Hill, Tyler Appel, Shailee Shah, Corrina Parham, Jenny Jin, Tori Clough, Kathryn McNall, and Alex Dunn.

To Whom it May Concern is directed by Daniel Sack, dramaturgy by Alison Burke, creative consultant Phoebe Vigor, and actors Rachel Garbus, Tiahna Harris, Ella Peterman, Kevin Cox, Christina Mailer-Nastasi

Nightingale is directed by Brianna Sloane, dramaturgy by Megan McClain, and actors Anneliese Neilsen, Katrina Turner, Devyn Yurko, Samantha Creed, and Brianna Sloane.

The Way of Water by Caridad Svich was developed at the 2011 Winter Writers Retreat 2011 at the Lark New Play Development Center in New York City and was further developed at a Lark round-table reading in February 2012 directed by Jose Zayas, dramaturgy by Heather Helinsky, R. Alex Davis, and Suzy Fay, and actors Lanna Joffrey, Alfredo Narciso, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer, Bobby Plasencia. For more about the project:

The Importance of Being Nice

In our previous article, Cheryl Katz explains how Luna Stage was able to weather our current economic condition by commissioning a play on Thomas Edison as they moved into their new space in West Orange, NJ. Other theaters, however, haven’t been so lucky. After twenty-four years of being a home for contemporary American playwrights, Florida Stage had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

So far on Poor Lessing’s Theatre Almanack, we have stayed present by focusing on current productions that inspire dramaturgical lessons. But after reading Nan Barnett’s article “One of Those People” on Howlround, my dramaturgical mind had more questions. When theaters committed to American playwrights close their doors, not only the opportunity for writers to get produced disappears, but the institutional memory of what made Florida Stage so successful gets lost. I immediately asked playwright Tammy Ryan, whose new play we recently featured, to write about her experience of working at Florida Stage on her play The Music Lesson in 2000. As she recalls her memory of that experience, one of the lasting legacies of Florida Stage for her was how everyone was so nice. What a great lesson for those of us who are currently working on new plays to pause and consider!

I hope this will be the first of a series of articles that can give a deeper insight on what institutions like Florida Stage did right as well as what current theaters are doing to stay true to American playwrights in such difficult producing conditions.   —Heather Helinsky


In January 2000, Florida Stage flew me to Manalapan, FL for a reading of my play The Music Lesson.  I’d met Mark Lynch their Education Director at that time, at the Bonderman National Playwriting for Youth Symposium at Indiana Rep the previous year where my play originally written for young audiences was first developed.  Many theaters expressed an interest in Music Lesson that weekend, but I was surprised to get a call from Florida Stage since they were interested in the play not for young audiences, but for their mainstage adult audience.

They picked me up at the airport on a gorgeous West Palm Beach day and took me to a restaurant near the ocean where I met Lou Tyrrell who at the time struck me as this very cool, very laid back, very nice man who wanted to make sure that I was taken care of during my visit.  Nan Barnett was the next person I met who took me under her wing and was so warm so welcoming I felt I’d known her half my life.  In fact everyone there was so NICE.  This is my overriding memory of that time (it was over ten years ago) and the fact that the theater itself was a block from the beach and I could walk there on rehearsal breaks.   I could get used to this, I remember thinking.   This was my first experience at a regional theater, and I believed (at that time) that every regional theater treated its playwrights this way. Later I would learn this wasn’t always true, but Florida Stage set the bar high for my expectations.

The reading went very well and the talkback with the audience made it clear how much this audience felt ownership in the process – lucky for me they loved the play.    Afterwards Lou and I talked about the different possibilities for staging and I began to get the feeling they were interested in producing it.     A few months later I got the phone call from Lou – Mark and Lou would co-direct.  Jessica Peterson, who did the reading, would play the lead role.    This would be the first professional production of this play and my first LORT production.  A few other theaters were interested in producing at this time, and in October, Suzan Zeder at University of Texas at Austin, who had been developing the play since the Bonderman, invited all the interested producers and directors for a little pow-wow about the play. Lou and Mark came with a model of the set, along with David Bradley of Peoples Light and Theatre and Dan Herring of Stage One.  I felt that they were committed to not just their production of the play, but to the play itself, to me.

They flew me back to Manalapan in December for the opening.  During the rehearsal process we had only a few phone calls, a few minor adjustments but no real re-writing, and I had very little idea about what I was about to see.  I remember being the only person in the audience during a dress rehearsal.  It was the most professional and beautiful production of one of my plays I’d ever seen.  It was handled with such care, skill, imagination, and heart that I sat in my seat and cried.  Yes, the bar was set high now.

Jessica K. Petersen as Irena, in background Maggi St. Clair Melin as Maja. Thanks to Jeanie Burns for preserving this photo.

The audience loved the production and loved me, Opening Night was a love-fest.  My family came and the theater set us up in a lovely little house near the beach, and when Lou introduced me to the audience on opening night, my eight year old daughter looked up at me with such pride and awe, “Is he talking about you?”     The look on her face was a gift I will always treasure.

My experience with The Music Lesson at Florida Stage was such a turning point in my career and in my life it is difficult to sum up in just a few words.  It was a high point, a measuring stick for all future theater experiences, but it also gave me a rock solid sense of myself as a theater artist.  They treated me like a REAL playwright, and probably for the first time, I believed it.

Afterwards the play was optioned for off-Broadway a few times.   Lou was committed to bringing it to NY and it looked like it was going to happen, but instead 9/11 happened, we lost investors.   They tried again, bringing it to The Dorset Theater Festival in another beautiful production.  New investors were onboard and we were about to have auditions in New York, but in the end that fell through too.  By 2003, I was ready to move on, publish the play and let it have productions at theaters for young audiences across the country.  I was also personally overwhelmed at the time, just after giving birth to my second daughter.  Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision. I know it disappointed Lou, when I didn’t take the option the third time (and they were less than happy with my then agent) but Lou never pressured me, never gave me a sense that it was ever anybody else’s decision, even though they invested a lot of time, talent, energy and money in trying to bring the play to New York.  Although we never did find another project to work on, we kept in touch and I always got the feeling that the folks at Florida Stage not only respected me as a playwright, but cared about me as a person. I feel blessed to be able to count myself as one of the lucky playwrights who had the good fortune to have their work produced there.

For further thought: Nan Barnett shared with us a link to an panel at their final 1st Stage Festival that features Deborah Zoe Laufer, Carter W. Lewis and Israel Horovitz, as well as two FL-based playwrights, Christopher Demos–Brown and Kew Henry (AKA Kathleen Holmes) and Tony-nominated actor John Herrera, who was there as a playwright. Thank you, Nan!

On the premiere of “The Dangers of Electric Lighting”

A letter from Cheryl Katz, Associate Artistic Director/Director of New Play Development at Luna Stage.

Two years ago, we commissioned Ben Clawson to write a play about Thomas Edison. Our company had just relocated to a new space in West Orange and we were thinking about ways to embrace and engage our new community.  We thought a play about the town’s most famous denizen would allow us to learn more about the heritage of our new neighborhood and provide opportunities to partner with local organizations.  Having enjoyed a long relationship with Ben, we knew his approach to the man would not be your run of the mill idolatry and homage. We knew he would dig deeper into what makes a man like Edison tick.  What we had no way of knowing was that our world premiere of this play would coincide with the death of another great inventor.

Edison’s legacy is mammoth.  At any moment in history, an examination of his work and psyche would prove relevant and provocative.  But somehow, the death of someone who has lived among us makes everything more immediate and personally, leads me toward introspection.

Thomas Edison (and I imagine Steve Jobs and Nikola Tesla as well), was clairvoyant. He knew what the public needed and wanted before the public knew themselves. He had an unshakable confidence in the necessity and definitiveness of his inventions. In lesser men, these traits might lead one to simply be labeled arrogant, but, in a genius such as Edison, they are inspiring.

As many of you know, two years ago, Luna Stage lost our Montclair space in the midst of the worst financial meltdown in recent history. We saw countless theatre companies close their doors permanently. We could easily have chosen to do the same, but we chose to persevere. Because, at the end of the day, I guess theatre artists share some characteristics with great inventors.  We believe we know what the public really wants and even though everyone says that people are spending all of their time tuned in to reality TV and Facebook, we cling to our conviction that the human soul thrives on genuine contact. And we are utterly convinced of the power and electricity of live theatre.

So, here we are– opening our second season in our new home with the world premiere of this wonderful new play. We hope that through The Dangers of Electric Lighting, you can gain access to these extraordinary men in a way that would prove difficult in a biography or another medium, and that in turn, you will discover something about yourself. Because that is our work, our passion: to illuminate the world around us and to foster a common understanding and appreciation for all that it is to be human.

© Cheryl Katz (14 November 2011)

The Dangers of Electric Lighting by Ben Clawson received its premiere at Luna Stage, Oct-Nov. 2011. Directed by John Henry Davis, sets by Andrea Mincic, lights by Paul Hudson, costumes by Deborah Caney, production manager Liz Cesario, stage manager Danielle Constance. Jane Mandel, Artistic Director; Mona Hennessy, Managing Director. 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ. (973)-395-5551.

WITH: Frank Anderson, B. Brian Argotsinger, Jon Barker, James Glossman, Joseph Langham.

For further reading, see New York Times review.

“Emotional Collisions”: LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS

(Musings on a new play by Tammy Ryan)

by Heather Helinsky

Christine (Laurie Klatscher) and Gabriel (David Anthony Berry). Photo by Drew Yenchak.

September 16th, 2011: At 6:45 AM, I am driving on the PA turnpike so I can reach Pittsburgh to meet with playwright Tammy Ryan for lunch. I hate driving—almost as much as Sam Shepard hates flying—but other modes of transportation are not an option right now. Yet, some plays are worth the drive. At the same time, I have several hours of empty road to wonder, ‘why am I doing this again? Why am I so passionate about this play?’

Back in 2009, when I was the dramaturg for Pittsburgh Public Theater, I was invited to a reading of LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS at Bricolage Theater’s “In the Raw” series. As an event, it was a mixture of new play discussion and social outreach and donations were taken for the Pittsburgh Sudanese refugee community.  Already, the play had a vibrant life and community around it, and it seemed primed for a production that would draw in new audiences and engaging discussions. To me, no brainer, this play needed to reach audiences—here, in Pittsburgh.

But instead of a Pittsburgh premiere, it received more developmental support at New Harmony Project and a reading at The Lark. It was then featured at the National New Play Network’s National Showcase of Plays before it received a co-production between Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in September 2010. Finally, The Rep, the professional company in residence at Point Park University, will now be given its Pittsburgh audience. 

At 1:15 PM (don’t judge me, I already told you I hate driving), I arrived at the Coffee Tree in Shadyside for my conversation with Tammy Ryan, who has been patiently waiting. She was extremely generous with her time and found a way of answering my sleep-deprived questions to her beautiful new play. As we talked, I realized I had still not answered for myself—‘why am I here, why am I so driven to discuss this play. Doesn’t it already have its Pittsburgh production?’

As I finished my interview with Tammy, I realized I had to go back to the play and figure out why I’m such a fan. It’s not just the story of the Sudanese Lost Boys, its Tammy’s writing—honest and truthful. As Tammy said in her conversation, ‘you have to bypass the conscious mind to get to the true stuff.’ And what I feel about this play, beyond its accomplishment for receiving a Pittsburgh premiere, is that for me, it’s a little elusive, it looks like a play we’ve seen before, but it’s not, it stretches the audience into a different theatrical vocabulary away from traditional American realism. It’s metaphorical. It asks us to imagine.               

And so, my response to the play, hold on for the ride.

Laurie Klatscher (Christine) and Connie Castanzo (Alex). Photo by Drew Yenchak.

American audiences, whether consciously or not, are used to seeing a certain type of play. Whether it is a comedy or tragedy, a character’s traumatic past puts him in conflict with his present situation, and once he comes to terms with this past, he can move forward. Perhaps the reason this is an American theme is that we are still examining our past history to understand our current crisis. We are in search of a cause and effect relationship to make sense of our world. Plays can help us to be introspective as a way of giving the character (and ourselves) hope and promise of a future new life. In a way, this kind of dramaturgy puts a character on the psychiatrist’s couch and we listen to their story to help them heal. This is what we Americans applaud.

But in our 21st century world, we are beginning to collide with cultures that may not understand our need to sit on the psychiatrist’s couch and analyze how to move forward from traumatic national conflicts. Such is the case of Gabriel in Tammy Ryan’s new play LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS, a young man from Southern Sudan, who is “found” by Christine, a recently divorced, middle-upper class white woman who offers to be his mother. And as playwright Tammy Ryan orchestrates this culture clash, the form of her play demands a new dramaturgical structure than what psychological realism allows. Read more

“A play built out of questions? Yes, it really works!”

by Heidi Nelson

13 September-25 September 2011

Freelance dramaturg Heidi Nelson worked on the ArtsEmerson’s presentation of The Foundry Theatre’s world premiere of How Much Is Enough: Our Values in Question. We invite you to comment on the interesting dramaturgical questions that this play is raising. The Foundry Theatre will also present this work November 3-27, 2011 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Can you name a play in which audience members dance, turn change out of their pockets, speak truths, tell lies, weave stories about the past, and sharThe Foundry Theatree dreams for the future? All this and more happens in the Foundry Theatre’s How Much Is Enough: Our Values in Question. Because ArtsEmerson will host The Foundry in August and September for rehearsals and the world premiere, I visited the company in New York City for a casual workshop rehearsal to get a better idea of what this curious new piece holds in store. Read More: click here.

How Much is Enough: Our Values in Question written by Kirk Lynn, created and directed by Melanie Joseph. At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA 02111

RED: Part 1, Chicago

17 September-October 23, 2011

Every season, there is a play that takes American regional theatre by storm, and this time it is the Tony Award-winning play RED by John Logan.  According to Theatre Communications Group, there are 23 productions of John Logan’s play happening in the 2011-2012 season, so this play, blowing through America, is really the perfect storm, and we will endeavor to track it and point out the dramaturgical work happening on it. (Sidenote: The last play to have an such an impact was 34 productions of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt in season 2007-2008, and 29 productions of David Auburn’s Proof in season 2002-2003, so this is not an unusual trend. And perhaps, because the subject of this play is the importance of art and the intention of the artist, the phenomenon is more akin to Yasmina Reza’s play Art produced 30 times in season 2000-2001, just from the numbers.)

The Goodman Theater’s production is first up and it is produced in association with Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. As explained by director Robert Falls on the Goodman’s website, John Logan is a playwright originally from Chicago, so as this play takes its course through America, Chicago is an appropriate place to start.

The Goodman Theater’s OnStage Magazine has many dramaturgical articles. The Goodman’s Associate Dramaturg Neena Arndt’s Conversation with Playwright John Logan is particularly insightful.

In addition, actor Edward Gero is blogging about his experience playing Rothko, and we encourage anyone interested to check out his process. Click here. The blog contains not only behind-the-scenes features but also links to news and press about Red.

The Chicago Tribune review of the production will also be linked here shortly.

RED directed by Robert Falls, sets by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Birgit Rattenborg Wise, lighting by Keith Parham, original music and sound design by Richard Woodbury. Production runs until October 23, 2011. Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60601. Box office: 312.443.3800.

WITH: Edward Gero (Mark Rothko) and Patrick Andrews (Ken).

Does the role of a stage manager change with director-less Shakespeare?

Interview with Stacy Renee Norwood, Production Stage Manager of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s TWO NOBLE KINSMEN

By Heather Helinsky

27 July 2011

There is a desire to understand Shakespearean dramaturgy by recreating the original conditions that Shakespeare and his company had to work with. One major example of this is the reconstruction of the new Globe in London to match the same light and physical configuration of the stage to understand how the building itself impacted the dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s plays.

While many modern professional companies design a set similiar to the Globe for their productions, another contemporary approach to understanding Shakespeare’s text has been to remove the role of the director, which did not exist in Shakespeare’s day. This method, termed “original practice Shakespeare” has even become the mission for such companies as the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival and Taffety Punk Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival under the artistic direction of Patrick Mulcahy decided this season to try their own experiment with their production of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN. Equity actors were asked to arrive with their lines learned, rehearse with a stage manage for five days, and find their own costumes. For the playing space, the actors were given a Bob Phillips designed set for the company’s children show Sleeping Beauty in the smaller arena theatre that roughly approximated some of the elements of the Globe theatre, but was obviously not created for the needs of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN. The PSF company termed this challenge as “commandeering” the set of another play.

I decided to sit down with production stage manager Stacy Norwood Read more