Four Questions for TULIPOMANIA writer and composer Michael Ogborn

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. 

Post Shows for Preschool

Frank X and David Sweeney in Arden Theatre Co’s Peter Pan

Tips for Running Effective Post Shows for Young Audiences (ages 3-11 edition)

by Sally Ollove

When thinking about post show discussions for young audiences, it’s easy to assume that they should run similarly to those for adults with only the sophistication of questions differing. That’s what I did when I ran my first one after a production of The Secret Garden. As dramaturg on a production of Peter Pan done by the Arden Theatre, I observed a well-oiled children’s post show machine. A lot of what they did worked really well, and when I went on to design or advise for other companies, I used my Peter Pan  experience as a baseline as I experimented a little bit with the formula. I’ve found that post show discussions for young audiences are one of the best ways to introduce kids to the craft of theatre, expand their understanding of what is involved in a production, and contribute to an overall great experience that hopefully keeps them coming back!

I’ve found the following tips handy—some are traditional attributes of adult post shows that also work with kids, and others might not be so obvious to those used to mature audiences.

  1. Do not release kids’ attention until you are done. The most effective way to handle this that I have seen is to consider the talkback part of the show.  Whereas it’s common practice to let audiences have a chance to leave or take care of human needs in between curtain call and discussion, I’ve found trying to get back the attention of kids once they think the show is over is like trying to climb a mountain. Start the talkback right away. One variation that has worked, however, is if your audience is reasonably sized, letting the kids gather at the front of the stage allows them to see things up close and personal—especially great if you’re demonstrating puppets. However, you will lose a good section of the audience in the transition.
  2. Consider letting a cast member run the talk back instead of yourself. I know this one is tough for dramaturgs used to interacting with audiences. But the truth is: kids form a relationship with the actors and characters. They feel like they know them. Asking questions in front of a lot of people can be scary—especially for the youngest ones. Add a stranger into the mix, and some might be too intimidated. Generally the most approachable or warmest person in the cast is a great choice. For Gas & Electric Arts’ production of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, our moderator played the mother in the show and kids just fell in love with her—it made it very easy for them to ask questions.
  3. Each cast member should introduce themselves by naming the character they played and their real name. The younger ones in particular have a hard time separating actor from character. The more this can be re-iterated, the better, as understanding this basic idea is crucial to understanding the art form. At the same time, don’t be a jerk about it and completely ruin the magic. An example: I worked on a production of Peter Pan. In the post-show, a very concerned child wanted to know where Captain Hook’s mother was. The quick-thinking actor responded “Well, I don’t know, but I think she’s probably not too far away, and Captain Hook probably writes to her a lot.” This preserved the idea that Captain Hook was a person who had a real identity that could be called up, and maybe a life offstage. He then continued: “My name is Frank, and my mother lives in New Jersey.” This highlights the difference between the actor and the character without forcing the idea that Captain Hook is not a real person on them.
  4. Each cast member should pick one or two things they are an “expert” on so everyone gets to talk. This one also happens in adult talkbacks, so probably doesn’t need explanation. It just makes things easier. It’s a little trickier when a cast member moderates because they are often put in the position of being asked a question that pertains to their character or action, but as much as they can toss things back to other cast members, the better.
  5. The moderator should repeat every question. This one also often happens in adult talkbacks, but kids aren’t always great about editing their questions in their head, so some much needed clarity can come from repetition.
  6. Kids don’t always have a question when they raise their hands. Sometimes, it’s just nice to be called on. Sometimes they’ll come up with one on the spot, other times the moderator will have to make something out of a bunch of nothing.
  7. The more you can credit the designer or crew member by name, the better. Kids, especially the young ones again, have a tendency to think the actors did everything they see including building the set and making the costumes. The more the actors who are answering can identify a designer AND USE THEIR NAME, the easier the concept of a costume designer is to grasp. A costume designer can be a tough concept for someone who doesn’t really know how their own clothes get in their closet. “These clothes were made for us by Mary. We call Mary the costume designer, because she decided what we would wear and how we would look” carries a little more weight. In some cases, I’ve seen offstage crew used very effectively to demonstrate a stagecraft technique from the show (trapdoors and quick changes are popular). This not only shows the tech behind the illusion, but also shows the kids that there are people involved backstage who they might not have seen onstage.
  8. Fairness is really important. This means making sure to pick from all sections of the audience and not picking the same child twice if there are others with raised hands.
  9. Give warning when time is running out and you are only taking one or two more questions. One thing the Arden does is have this person be a cast member other than the moderator. I’m not sure this is necessary, but it does mean the moderator doesn’t have to keep track of time in the midst of everything else.
  10. Keep it short. They have been sitting for a long time. 15 minutes is ample. But, I would recommend asking the actors to stick around for about 5 more minutes if they can so kids who didn’t get picked can ask questions if they want. This relates back to that fairness thing.
  11. Enjoy! How often do you get asked your favorite color at a post show?

 

Mary Tuomanen, David Blatt, and Waddles in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Sally Ollove’s most recent children’s theatre role was as dramaturg for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins at Gas and Electric Arts

Conceived and Directed by Lisa Jo Epstein

Adapted by Jacqueline Goldfinger from the book by Eric Kimmel

Music by Gregg Mervine of West Philadelphia Orchestra

Puppetry by Martina Plag

Performers: David Blatt, Mary Kay Tuomanen, Lorna Howley, Leila Ghaznazi and John Greenbaum

Just Call People What They Want: Names and Power Plays in August: Osage County

by Sarah Ollove

I recently finished work on the Arden Theatre Company’s production of August: Osage County. I usually work as a dramaturg, and so while involved in rehearsals, I try to keep some separation between myself and the production in order to be a more useful outside out. However, August: Osage County changed things up a bit: I was hired as the Assistant Director—with Ed Sobel on your staff, you’ve got August: Osage County dramaturgy covered! Assistant directing gave me a chance to listen to the play a lot, and notice subtle choices made by Tracy Letts as a result. I kept returning to the way he employed names throughout the text. Almost every character gets a first and last name, and not just in the character list, but planted in the text of the play itself. For the actors, names became a one-word way to sum up everything a character felt about the name-bearer—whether adoration as when Karen delivers her fiancé Steve’s name as if it is a present, exhaustion when Charlie tries to reign in effusive wife Mattie Fae, or astonishment at the passage of time when Sheriff Gilbeau and Barbara meet again after many years. Director Terry Nolen also took advantage, encouraging subtle emphases to be placed on certain parts of character’s names, such as the “Little” rather than the “Charles” in “Little Charles” to convey an identity of smallness steeped in family history. As I watched, such small touches added up until attacking a name became tantamount to attacking the person themselves—an incredible accomplishment by the playwright and production.

Honesty is never the best policy in the Weston household, where people horde information like nuclear bombs. Words in this world are weapons capable of decimating lives within seconds. They carry the greatest ability to hurt—and this in a play in which people endure slaps, choking, fists, cancer, plate-smashing, and a particularly memorable cast iron frying pan. In such a world, names, intimately tied up in identity, become missiles–used kindly they lend strength to the bearer, used cruelly, they destroy him. This fact is not lost on the Westons of Oklahoma who employ names as a means by which to exert control and demonstrate power: mocking them, forgetting them, changing them, and occasionally invoking them.

From the early moments of her time onstage, middle sister Ivy Weston wages a subtle war on behalf of her lover (and cousin), Little Charles Aiken. Known as Little Charles, Ivy wants the family to start calling him Charles. Little Charles has spent his entire life with the diminutive and it shows—he is deferential, downcast, and defeated. Named after his father, Charlie Aiken, Little Charles has never strayed far from the house and hasn’t been able to hold a job or a relationship–he lives in a state of arrested development from which Ivy wants to rescue him.

Ivy, desperate to leave her life behind and escape to New York after forty-four years in Pawhuska, seeks to change her man by forcing others to change his name: “Charles. His name is Charles,” she mutters after his failed attempt to stand up for himself at the end of dinner in Act II. Despite Ivy’s best efforts to separate man and moniker, Little Charles’s willingness to answer to the name reflects the character—at the end of the play, Little Charles is still Little Charles—both in name and manner.

But even more than just keeping Little Charles in his place, mother Violet and older sister Barbara use it to keep Ivy in hers. In her final confrontation with her mother before running off to New York, Ivy attempts to shake the bonds of her family and embrace freedom in her new life with “Charles,” but Barbara won’t let her get the words out:

IVY:Charles and I—
BARBARA: Little Charles—
IVY: Charles and I—
BARBARA: Little Charles—
IVY: Barbara—
BARBARA: You have to say ‘Little Charles’ or she won’t know who you’re talking
about.
IVY: Little Charles and I … (Barbara relents.)

Ivy loses the name game to Barbara, but wins a victory—despite Barbara’s attempts to prevent her from telling Violet her plans, Ivy gains the right to share her news. But immediately after Ivy concedes the name, Violet tears her world apart, completely shattering any possibility of a new life for Ivy or Little Charles:

IVY: Little Charles and I … (Barbara relents. Ivy will finally get to say the
words.) Little Charles and I are—
VIOLET: Little Charles and you are brother and sister. I know that.

No matter how badly Ivy wants to believe that she and Little Charles can start new lives, they cannot change. Their relationship is doomed from the beginning, as is Ivy’s one-woman rebellion against “Little” Charles.

Whereas Ivy tries to build Little Charles up into Charles, older sister Barbara uses names to tear others down. She refuses to get the name of husband Bill’s young lover right, despite his constant correction, stating her intention explicitly: “I know her stupid name. At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I’m demeaning you.” By not using the name, she trivializes both Cindy (the lover) and Bill in an attempt to minimize the emotional damage inflicted by the idea of Cindy. She uses a similar tactic after Bill and their daughter Jean leave her: “Jean, that’s a stupid name…Know why we named her that? Bill’s a big Jean Seberg fan.” It was Bill’s choice to name Jean, and it was a bad one. Barbara diminishes Jean, and by extension Bill, by attacking her name.

Barbara learned this tactic from her mother, Violet, who’s ability to sum up her disgust with someone in a single word drives the play. From the opening moments of the play, we are clearly in Violet’s house, a place she defends vigorously. She dismisses youngest daughter Karen’s fiancé by mocking his last name:

STEVE: Steve Heidebrect
VIOLET: Hide-the-what?
STEVE: Heidebrecht
VIOLET: Hide-a-burr …

Steve, used to being in charge wherever he goes, is very quickly put in his place by Violet who proves she’s the alpha in this house. In the space of thirty seconds, Steve no longer registers in her consciousness and she does not interact directly with him for the remainder of the play.

While she launches a missile at Steve, Violet takes a different approach with the woman she considers a true intruder. Before he vanishes, Beverly Weston hires a local Native American girl, Johnna, to cook, clean, and take care of Violet. Johnna remains in a world apart, a mostly silent observer to the Weston family’s verbal sparring. Though a constant presence washing dishes, folding laundry, preparing food, Johnna barely speaks and rarely intervenes in the life of the family. Violet takes particular exception to Johnna, and displays her displeasure largely by refusing to use Johnna’s name, referring to her instead as “that Indian girl” or just “that Indian.” Whether she actually forgets Johnna’s name in the haze of her pill addiction or pretends to forget, she conveys the message that Johnna just isn’t worth remembering.

By Tracy Letts’s admission, August: Osage County is meant in some ways as a meditation on America. The stand-off between Vi and Johnna brings to mind the appropriation of Native American names and the attempts by Native American tribes to reclaim their heritage. Violet refuses to use Johnna’s name, substituting it with vaguely offensive generalizations while Johnna has gone back to her family’s original paternal name, “Monevata” instead of the Anglicanized “Youngbird.” Johnna rejects assimilation in her name and also in the house, spending all her time in peripheral places, the kitchen or in her tiny attic room. Violet complains about her presence constantly, despite reaping the rewards of it in biscuits and gravy, chicken dinners, and clean towels. They reach an impasse: Violet unwilling to accept Johnna, Johnna determined to keep
her job and her dignity.

The play ends with Violet, her meanness having stripped her of her family, stumbling around her house calling out the names of those who have left her: Barbara, Ivy, Bev. In the end, names become less weapons than ghosts of the people who bore them. At first commanding their presence, she ends by begging them to appear. When they do not, she turns to the only name she has left, the one she has avoided thus far, Johnna. She chants it over and over as she crawls from the ground floor to Johnna’s attic room. Names, wielded so carefully by characters throughout the play, are here rendered almost meaningless in their repetition, used imprecisely and ineffectually, the tools of a woman who’s ability to communicate has broken down almost completely–the last words of ruined woman.

© Sarah Ollove (October 18, 2011)

by Tracy Letts; directed by Terrence J. Nolen; sets by Dan Conway; costumes by Alison Roberts; lighting by Thom Weaver; sound designed by James Sugg; stage manager Alec E. Ferrell. At the F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122. Now through October 30th, 2011.

WITH: Elena Araoz (Johnna Monevata), Carla Belver (Violet Weston), Kevin Bergen (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau), Corinna Burns (Ivy Weston), Charlie DelMarcelle (Little Charles Aiken), Dylan Gelula (Jean Fordham), Grace Gonglewski (Barbara Fordham), Eric Hissom (Bill Fordham), David Howey (Beverly Weston), Anthony Lawton (Steve Heidebrecht), Mary Martello (Mattie Fae Aiken), Paul L. Nolan (Charlie Aiken), Kathryn Petersen (Karen Weston).