Ruminations inspired by the final Public Theater performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 2pm Public Theater, Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette event site
This piece of writing can’t be a typical review for many reasons. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been reviewed for two years in its many forms and we know what it is (one man’s story of his adoration and frustration with Apple and its cult and the factories that create the cult objects) — my summary of its journey on stage on this day plot-wise and dramatic structure-wise is now irrelevant. I thought what I was going to be doing when I purchased my ticket for this return engagement as soon as the Public Theater Member tickets became available weeks and weeks ago was to catch this piece of the cultural zeitgeist before it cut a swath somewhere else, before all the “do it yourself from the published versions of the script provided by Daisey himself with blanket permission to do just that” started springing up, crazy quilt, across the globe. I wanted to see the man himself do this show at one of his theatrical homes. And then, living in real time one of the memes of this piece of theatre, the whole megillah changed. The paradign shifted. In Daisey’s words repeated at several points of his monologue, “I can feel the metaphor shifting underneath me.”
“I was having the conversation with people in the theater industry, about how to get new audiences into the theater. And I thought, the trouble is, we’re all having this conversation amongst ourselves. Nobody’s having this conversation with people who don’t go to the theater.”—Emma Gibson
Over in Scotland, a new format of play has become a phenomenon. “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” gives audiences a pint of beer, a piece of pie and a short, one-act play – all during lunch. According to the Guardian, “Play, Pie, Pint” will produce more shows this season than any other theater. Each runs for a week. Tiny Dynamite’s Emma Gibson, who hails from the UK, has brought the trend to the US, and more specifically, to Philadelphia. The format’s changed slightly – we prefer a slice of pizza to a meat pie and prefer to see our theater during happy hour than during our lunch breaks. Each show runs for just two performances. The first, four-play season occurred in October and the second is about to start this week.
In the spring of 2011, Tiny Dynamite was awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant to bring “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” to American audiences.
I recently had the chance to speak with Emma about the funding process for the project, how it differs from the UK version, and just what is so great about the one-act play.
Amy Freeman: How did getting the Knights Art challenge grant shape the project? Do you think it impacted the process?
Emma Gibson: Yes, I do. It was amazing experience getting that award because I hadn’t thought seriously doing the project until they opened the submissions. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind, you know what, I think Philadelphia needs this. This is a thing that isn’t happening here and most other things are. I really wasn’t expecting to get anywhere and then it did, so I began to structure how it would actually work.
It was $25,000 from them, and I had to match it. It was craziness. We got the notification that we got the grant in April or May and I wanted to do the first season in October, so I had basically four months to not only create this whole project but also to raise $25,000. I’d never raised any money before and that was huge. But we did it, and in a way, having that challenge meant I gave the project a much greater budget than I would normally have given it. I think I would have cut edges had I not had that money and I must say it’s been so amazing to have had that amount of money. This current season that we’re producing, one of the directors said to me, can I get union actors? And I’m like, yeah, you know what? Let’s just go for the best people we can get while we have the money because that’s all going to change after March. So I think it made a massive difference, actually. It allowed the project to get started and to get audiences interested in a great way.
Amy: I guess this is a hypothetical question. When you think about not getting the grant, how would you have seen Play, Pie, Pint? Would you have done fewer plays or hired less expensive actors?
Emma: I would probably have changed the venue. When we did the second helping at Fergie’s, I found that it was much more cost-effective and I think that’s what we’d have done, found a pub and performed it there. Society Hill, I love it there, but it’s really expensive to rent.
I wouldn’t have been able to employ union actors. I think I’d have done as many plays. Over here, one of the feedbacks I’ve been getting is people have said, you don’t need to do so many plays. But I think we do. In the UK, certainly, they’re doing way more. But I think this idea that there is such choice. It’s like a mini-season. What normal companies do in a year, we do in four weeks and there’s so much to choose from, they don’t last very long so the value is greater. So I think I would have done four.
Amy: What you were saying about venue leads into another question. So, you did it first at Society Hill, which is a theater, then you did it at Fergie’s, an actual pub. So was it different?
Emma: It was really interesting. Because when we decided to look for venues, I’d gone to Fergie’s and I thought, no, not sure about this, it’s not nice enough. I’m a real sucker for lights and sound and theaters just giving me a helping hand, so when we went first to Society Hill, Fergie was enormously supportive, came to every show. The director of “Peaches and Regalia” (the first play performed in the series) said you know, I think it would really work there [at Fergie’s]. So we tried it and it was amazing.
It almost worked better, I think. It was much more intimate. There were communal tables, so you just kind of ate and watched together. You met strangers. It had a very different feel. We served up pot pies instead of pizza, which was also much nicer, I think.
The show lost some of its nuance. On some nights, there was a lot of sound from downstairs, so the actors had to project. Artistically, it lost a little, but as far as entertainment went, the audiences loved it and we sold out every night.
Amy: Brecht would talk about how people should smoke cigars during shows, would you say it was more like that?
Emma: That’s so great. It was. At Society Hill, nobody really got up and went and got another drink. I would have been angry if they had. Whereas at Fergie’s, the first night we went on there, that’s exactly what happened. When people had finished their pint, they got up and walked in front of everybody, walked in front of the state, went and got their drink. The waitresses were milling in and out. I was getting really wound up by this. I was sitting there, thinking, ‘why aren’t they respecting the actors?’ Then I realized that it was the whole point of this. That they had this freedom and were much more relaxed. Everyone just really enjoyed that informality. I don’t know about the cigars, though.
Amy: How does this compare to the UK version?
Emma: What British pub theater actually is, compared to what we’re putting on, is miles apart. In England, I actually don’t know Scotland, I know in London, you have all these pubs. You buy your pint, and then you go downstairs to a very tiny, claustrophobic black box space and everyone drinks and watches the show. They don’t have to pay that much for rental, because they are making so much from the bar. That’s real pub theater. But I wanted to present something that people would think “oh, that’s British.” But it isn’t the same in anyway. But then again, I think it’s also very different from what they’re shown here.
Amy: Would you ever want it to go in that direction, where it was in a proper pub?
Emma: I would love it to have a home. We’re talking at the moment for two directions for it. I like the idea that it has the Society Hill initial run and then can go off to Fergie’s, then we’re going to try to get it to the Main Line. So it can travel and the shows are constantly fluid and can go anywhere. But ideally, it’d be amazing for it to have its own home, have a place with a kitchen so that we could do proper English meat pies. That would be the big dream. I just don’t see that happening at the moment.
Amy: Going off from that, you work with a couple other companies. You worked with Inis Nua, Iron Age. Do you think eventually you’d like it to be a theater community thing versus a Tiny Dynamite thing?
Emma: I think you always have to have somebody super-producing, just to organize the whole thing. The whole concept was to come into the community here in Philadelphia and say, this is for everybody. The different theater companies obviously communicate with each other and the time of day we’re doing it means that nobody’s in competition with anybody else, so it’s really just trying to create a community. People have a chance to reach out to new audiences, to try out new work, to work with new actors. It’s very low risk for them. It doesn’t cost them anything.
Amy: I read the grant online. It said that you wanted to reach a wider theater audience. Did you notice anyone for whom this was their first foray into theater?
Emma: Yeah, and I think that will grow as well. Absolutly. I truly was not expecting to sell that many seats. I’ve done two Fringe shows and honest-to-god, I knew everyone in the audience. You know, we were lucky to get 20 people. I always keep my expectations low. I care so about the project that I couldn’t bear the thought of people not seeing it.
But we did get a lot of press and that brought in people. And I knew hardly anybody in the audience. There were interesting groups. We had one group that came to Fergie’s who were a meet-up group. They were a group of women who just like going out and trying new things. They’d seen it in the Philadelphia Inquirer and thought, oh let’s try that for our next meet-up. We had a lot of people who certainly weren’t big theater buffs.
I was having the conversation with people in the theater industry, about how to get new audiences into the theater. And I thought, the trouble is, we’re all having this conversation amongst ourselves. Nobody’s having this conversation with people who don’t go to the theater.
I was on the train with my husband and we bumped into this guy who runs a pub in Malvern, really nice guy. We were telling him about the project. And he said, I’ve never been to the theater. And his friends with him all said, they’d never been to the theater. These were just normal people from my community. Then he said, “you know what, if you were serving me a beer and it didn’t take too long or be boring, then I think I might come to that.” I was like, you know what, you’re the people we should be speaking to. Do you want it shorter? We can make it shorter? Do you want a beer with that? Then fine. We’ll give you a beer with that.
Amy: What would you say, besides the briefness of it, is the joy or appeal of a one-act?
Emma: I really like the one-act. I never knew how much I liked it until I started reading them more. They’re so immediate. There’s very little exposition, they have to come straight in there. The characters have to be defined in just a few lines. Generally, there has to be only one location and they have to have a full arc, a beginning, middle and end and a moment of revelation and an “a-ha!” moment. The ones that have that are so perfect. Which one did you see?
Amy: “Peaches and Regalia.”
Emma: “Peaches” was the simplest of them all. We had one play called “Fly Me to the Moon,” by Marie Jones, which I thought was just the most brilliantly written one-act play. It takes you places. It was slightly longer than the others and it really went in incredible directions. So much happened in the plot. I think that’s what I loved. And I love not having an intermission. I would much rather not have an intermission when I go to the theater anyway. I would much rather sit there for two hours than have it broken. I like that about the one-act: there’s no intermission.
This is a problem I came up against this time. My ear is very tuned in to the British one-act. So I can hear when it works. I found it much harder hear American one-acts. It’s a very different style.
Amy: That was another question I had. What was the difference between UK plays and US plays?
Emma: I think there’s a lot of naturalism here. It’s funny, a lot of them are therapy plays. Characters trying to work out issues – issues plays. You can’t do that in a one-act, I don’t think. Most of the plays were in restaurants or diners or bedrooms. I think season two, we have restaruant, bedroom, bedroom. And then the last one is in a taxidermy shop, so we broke the mold there.
With the British plays, I have a head start, because I get a lot of plays sent to me from Òran Mór, who have already tried and tested the plays. So I’m reading stuff that’s already been sifted through. But when I’m reading American plays, I have no idea where to turn to get playwrights, so I’m reading everything, so it becomes harder. I don’t have the ear for it yet, for the American writers.
Amy: I have written down “drink and dramaturgy.” Does the choice of play change based on knowing that people will be having a beer with it?
Emma: No. I don’t think so. I find choosing the plays is interesting. There is one group of people who think I should be more experimental with my choices. But I don’t. I feel that I just want the best writing. I want the writer to be excellent. I don’t particularly care for people playing with form in this situation. I do normally in theater, I’m all for that and and I love to see it, but I don’t think this is the place.
Amy: One last question. On the Scottish website, they have a “critic’s circle.” Audience members can write a short review of each play. Do you think that’s something you’d want to bring in?
Emma: I certainly would. Don’t they get a bottle of malt?
Emma: I should think about doing that, shouldn’t I? Maybe having a slip in the program, or they should email them. I think that’s a great idea.
Amy: I really like that. I wanted to read some of the reviews, but they didn’t have any posted.
[At the time of the interview. There are a few reviews posted at time of publication.]
Emma: That’s another way to get new audiences too.
Amy: Do you think that would be intimidating for a person who’s never seen a show before? To ask them to write 100 words and they’ll get a bottle of whisky? Do you think that’s something would appeal to people because there’s an incentive?
Emma: I think just getting a bottle of whisky may be enough for someone to do it. It could even be kind of anonymous. It’s a great idea.
The second season of “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” begins March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA. The plays run Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the month of March. Tickets are $15 and include a beverage and a slice of pizza (pie).
Over the past couple months I have been fortunate enough to work on a production of my favorite August Wilson piece, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, at Plays and Players in Philadelphia. As the second play in the playwright’s Pittsburgh Century Cycle, it presents us with one of the early intersections of the African-American experience in a quickly industrializing area of America. This play examines everything from race issues to economic problems to questions of identity that draw on the African as well as American experience of former slaves and their children and grandchildren.
My experience as the dramaturg began with the play’s selection last spring. I was newly made the Literary Manager and Resident Dramaturg and working on a production of Lost in Yonkers. Among my preliminary research was a need to connect myself into the process. It was more than simply providing a glossary and being there to answer questions about West African culture and its echoes throughout the past century. Not that those weren’t important to the production team and the actors, but I wanted to make the process more personal.
I found myself speaking with people who grew up in Pittsburgh, historians who knew the Hill District from August Wilson’s early years, families willing to share a piece of their community and their private history. It was beautiful to research these things, read about them in books written by experts, but one can never substitute the real thing. Hearing firsthand about a mother raising ten kids, spending every night at the dinner table. That’s beautiful. Speaking about religion and its importance to a community, as a sort of extended family, an intertwined neighborhood where everyone knows and trusts the people around them.
Telling the cast and production team about these experiences brought more stories from their own lives. Read more
I recently sat down with Mike Lew, author of InterAct Theatre Company‘s current hit play, MICROCRISIS. It was a fun and easy conversation that ranged from the zombie apocalypse to Mike’s very impromptu conversion to Islam. (Oh the things we do for love!) Later reflecting on the interview it got me thinking about what a great range there is in the paths a writer takes from first spark to finished play; and really what a great variety there is in those sparks.
MICROCRISIS, which premiered at MaYi and is getting its Philly premiere with InterAct, is a scathing satire of the financial services industry. The play imagines a second disastrous bubble built on the backs of microcredit recipients, which leaves the world’s poor even more destitute, the middle class closer to disaster, and the ultra rich a whole lot richer. Mike described his inspiration as a near fixation with the 2008 mortgage crash itself. “I was pretty obsessed with the financial crisis when it was happening and wanted to know what the deeper causes were behind it.” He said “I wanted to see what the root causes were.”
From there he realized how vulnerable we still are to bubbles and crashes. He wondered where the next one might come from and realized that a seemingly virtuous movement like microcredit could be the instrument of our destruction and that that had serious comic potential. Mike said,
“I also thought that anything that involves money that’s going to be for the greater good is going to end up getting co-opted, which it has.”
But how do you write a play, with live bodies and some human drama about abstract ideas like credit default swaps and tranching? In Mike’s comedy, the victims and the perpetrators intersect closely, so that we follow the ruin of a Ghanaian entrepreneur and an American school teacher just as closely as the internet wizard and the clueless do-gooder who are the selfish banker’s willing accomplices. We are laughing at the absurdity, but we also feel for them as the financial machine grinds them to a pulp.
Mike says his plays don’t always start out with such strong emotional arcs. He jokingly describes himself as a bit “robotic.” Lucky for him he’s married to playwright, Rehana Mirza. Together they run the MaYi Writers Lab and they often serve as dramaturgs for each other. He credits Rehana with pushing his characters into more emotionally truthful actions. “If you read (my first draft) people are behaving like sociopaths and it’s like, how can I follow this if I can’t invest in anybody?” he says. She pushes him to think as deeply about emotional logic as he does about the logic of plot and action. The result is a very funny play with a totally plausible plot driven by complicated financial instruments and a truly human cost at its climax.
Two separate ideas, both very much in the news, mixed inside a vivid imagination and guided by an emotionally astute dramaturg, make for a play that sits right in the heart of InterAct’s mission. Lucky us!
Microcrisisby Mike Lew, directed by Seth Rozin, sets by Caitlin Lainoff, costumes by Anna Frangiosa, lighting by Peter Whinney, sound design by Mark Valenzuela, properties by Avista Custom Theatrical Services, stage manager Tom Helmer, production manager Daniel X. Guy, dramaturgy by Kittson O’Neill, production assistant Rebecca Dennis, technical director Britt Plunkett. Production runs until February 12, 2012 at The Adrienne, 2030 Samson Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103. (215) 568-8079 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting(215) 568-8079end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
WITH: Kevin Bergen (Bennett), Maia Desanti (Chavez), Hannah Gold (Lydia), Dave Johnson (Randy), Bi Jean Ngo (Clare, Beta Test), Frank X (Acquah, Frankfurt).
Whenever I see a show, the first thing that I notice is the costumes worn by the characters. Costuming, more than any other aspect of a production (in my mind, at least), gives the audience a clear picture of the play’s dramaturgy. Through the costumes, an audience sees the time period of the play and is given a snapshot of the characters’ qualities and personalities. Excellently designed costumes help push the play’s dramaturgy forward. Poorly done costumes hinder a play.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat about the connection between costuming and dramaturgy with Erica Hoelscher, who designed costumes for August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, being performed at Philadelphia’s Plays and Players theater until February 11, 2012. Erica traveled to Pittsburgh, PA to perform research on the play along with Heather Helinsky, the associate dramaturg on the production (Nelson Barre was the lead production dramaturg for Joe Turner). The conversation gave me a chance to see how research and dramaturgy helps a designer on a project.
Amy Freeman: What was your process for designing for Joe Turner? Did you do research on your own and then did you talk to Heather Helinsky and Nelson Barre, the dramaturgs, and Daniel Student, the director?
Erica Hoelscher: I did research on my own. In fact, it’s pretty much when I learn that I’m going to be designing something or when I’m contracted, as it were, I start my research process. I’ve done a lot of productions, so I’ve collected a lot of work but what I’ve found with Joe Turner is that there has been a lot of new stuff since the last time I did an August Wilson play. That was very exciting to find books and specifically, what I’m looking for, is visual research more so than text. So that’s where I started.
I had done my renderings and pretty much designed the show before we had the chance to go to Pittsburgh. What I found in working with Heather and what was very exciting about working with a dramaturg is that they are never done. They continue researching even after the play is open. To me, the message in that is that you can always do a play again. There’s always something more than you didn’t do the first time, either by choice or by design, or by accident that you can do the second or third or fourth time you do the production. What I really enjoyed about was that even though I had done my renderings and shopped for fabric, I still found more information [in Pittsburgh] that I could then incorporate into my design. I left enough allowance and I left room so that I could still learn from that.
I think the other thing that working with Heather did for me, or just working with a dramaturg in general, was that her interest was not limited to or even focused on the costumes at all. And, so, I was watching her find things out and it did inform my thoughts about the costumes as well. So, where I ended up with that was really feeling that the clothes had to look like they belonged in Pittsburgh. We found a photograph of Pittsburgh in 1910 that showed how filthy and dirty it was there due to the steel industry. That made it critically important to me that the clothes be clothes and not costumes. At the end, they turn a little costume-y, but that was director’s input. For stylistic reasons, he wanted certain things at the end of the play, he wanted to see a progression.
Amy: Can you explain that, what makes something costume-y versus just clothing?
Erica: Clothes are lived in. Clothes belong to the characters and not to the designer. That’s very important to me. It was Robert Edmund Jones who said “get the ‘me” out of your work.” And to me, that’s what a dramaturg really can do for you. Get the me out of your work and it’s not about the designer, it’s about the play.
Amy: Can you talk about what happened in Pittsburgh and maybe the connection, how you ended up going there?
Erica: The play is set in Pittsburgh and it’s rare that a designer, or anyone in theater gets to visit the locale of the play. Of course, we can’t transport ourselves back in time, which would be handy-dandy, so being in the location at least lets you see what’s left of 1911 Pittsburgh. It’s available, if you search it out.
Amy: Is there a lot left?
Erica: There’s more there than any place else. I knew that, that was kind of a gimme. I knew I wanted to go there and the benefit of having Heather along was that, here was a person really disconnected from what I was doing but really connected to the world of the play and of the playwright. Some of the most informative and exciting things that happened were just our conversations in the car on the way there. We discovered our similar interests and our similar attitudes or opinions about Wilson and the play and where we were coming from with it. That was all the plan that we really made. We didn’t schedule our time to the nth degree, we just went with it. She had good ideas of where to start and I was depending on that.
Amy: Where did you go?
Erica: Our first stop was the Carnegie Library. We to the library and could have stayed there the whole time, they had such a wide array. But what we found was the Pittsburgh Courier on microfilm. That was not available in 1997, I think, the last time I was there. That was very exciting.
Actually, I think the first place we went to was the Heinz History Center. Heather knew that they had this book. There’s been a recent publication about August Wilson and his connection to Pittsburgh and all of the locations in Pittsburgh that have to do with his plays and life. So we went and got that book and accidentally stumbled upon an exhibit of the Pittsburgh Courier. That had a lot of photographs available. We stopped by the Heinz History Center Library, which is where we found the photograph [from 1910] that I mentioned a minute ago.
We went to the UPitt library, which also has an extensive African-American collection. At none of these places did we exhaust the available resources. We didn’t have time. I got a Carnegie library card, Heather already had one. We were checking out books and returning them the next day, making copies, things like that. We could have easily spent an entire week going through this stuff, but we were limited.
We had dinner with an actor who had played the original role of Selig in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production of Joe Turner and that was very interesting. We didn’t sit down to dinner and talk about the play the whole time. We talked about other stuff, but I was able to ask a couple of questions and the actor opened up about it and gave some pertininent details about his experience that were very enlightening and we then pursued those further.
We stopped by the August Wilson Center for African American culture, which was fabulous and incredible but had nothing to do with this play. It did in a profound, but abstract way, so it wasn’t a direct connection. The last thing we did was drive around the neighborhood of the play. We stopped by several addresses that are specifically mentioned in the play and took some photographs. We went to August Wilson’s birthplace, the home. And I was sorry that we didn’t spend more time doing that. I was sorry that we left that to the last because I ran out of time and I had to leave. There just wasn’t enough time to do everything.
It was a really good feeling to come back and feel that I had done all of this work and had this much more full understanding, even if I was not capable of inserting it all into my design.
Amy: Costuming and dramaturgy to me seem like they are kind of connected. There’s more research into the historical aspects for costuming than for other designs. When you are doing sound, for example, I mean you have to listen to historical stuff, but it’s different. Does that make sense?
Erica: It does. The way I think of it is that a set is usually built for a play and then it’s done. Usually, honestly, it gets tossed in the garbage, because it is so expensive to recycle and it’s so expensive to have storage space to keep anything like a set piece whereas costume designers hoard everything. We are the original recyclers, re-users, re-procurers of everything. I have closets where I work that are so packed, they are overflowing with stuff because we refuse to throw anything away. It’s partly economic but it’s mostly artistic. Once we have made it and done it, we know it and we will use it again.
I also think it’s the people connection. Sets are things. They are environments. . . Costumes are hanging on the actor’s body, whereas a prop is in their hand or something like that, it’s slightly disconnected.
Amy: The costumes almost make the character.
Erica: They do, they do. . . anything you wear is a costume if you are wearing it on stage. It may also be, I don’t know if this is part of it, but since I’m an academic, I also have a great interest and love of doing this kind of research and doing this kind of scholarship. So even if if doesn’t inform this play or this production, it’s valuable to me for the future and to my ongoing work as a scholar, so that may be partly why I felt very keenly that I needed to go to Pittsburgh. Having Heather along for a dramaturgical standpoint was just invaluable. There’s no substitute to having her come with me. I couldn’t have done what I did by myself.
Amy: How do you design the costume’s to fit into the play’s dramaturgy? How do costumes push the story of the play or its themes forward?
Erica: The most exciting part about the dramaturgy is the little tid-bits that you find out, it’s like a lightbulb that goes on over your head. You can’t predict them. You can’t expect them. You can try your best to prepare yourself and position yourself to access them but you can’t guess at things like that.
As a for instance, as we were scrolling through these microfilms of the Pittsburgh Courier, we found an article that was also an advertisement for an African-American couple who ran a boarding house. It was a long description of what you’re going to get if you stay there, their amenities, their background, who they are, their history, their affiliations and how great it’s going to be if you come and stay at this boarding house. It was perfect. There was a photo of the couple and it described their interactions and who they are and all this. Their house was just like the play, it was a little piece of the play that was in reality. Just finding that opened the whole world of the play up and I thought, wow, this is real. These are really, truly real people.
Another example of that was another article in the Courier about a man who was a former slave and he somehow came to own a parcel of land. This was not around Pittsburgh, I think it was in Georgia, if I’m correct about this. He became recognized because he grew the most cotton per acre of land for several years running. This article was kind of celebrating the achievements of this former slave, who is now the top of his producing line. But it was written in the most deplorable, racist language you would ever read. But it was published in an African American newspaper. So, I guess I sort of understand who Loomis is now. He’s enslaved by his own thoughts of who he is, his own boundaries of self.
And it is still going on today.
Amy: But today we have more of a reaction, you know?
Erica: Right, we think it’s weird and unusual and we don’t see that the same kind of language and visual representations are alive in our world.
Amy: After finding these things, did you go back to your designs and tinker with them?
Erica: I did, yeah, I changed them. I dyed some fabric, I trimmed things in a different way, I cut patterns differently. Now, after the fact, there’s always things I would do differently. It’s the designer’s curse.
There’s one dress that I would have totally redesigned if I had had the opportunity.
Amy: Why do you say that? Was it seeing in on the actress?
Erica: Yes, it was seeing it on the actress and seeing how she envisioned the role. I brought too much of a white woman’s context to the character.
Amy: I think that’s another interesting aspect, the actors themselves contribute to the dramaturgy of the play. You might actually have a costume that is conflicting with what they are doing in the role.
Erica: It did turn out that way. She worked with it, she made it work, she brought it to life, but it could have been better. I don’t know when she came to this interpretation. The director told me it was later in the process. He could also see it. I first encountered this problem with his reaction which was one of frustration and he said, don’t you have something different for her to wear? I didn’t completely understand it and then I started seeing it. She made it work, though, it was okay in the end.
Amy: When I see the play, will I be able to tell which character?
Erica: I don’t know. That will be interesting to see.
Lately I find that more and more of my dramaturgical hat is worn before pre-production even commences.
One of my earliest theatrical experiences was playing Yente in my high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. And while today, I inwardly cringe at the very thought that video of that production exists somewhere, I seem to have inherited a few things from a certain Anatevka resident. As a literary manager and dramaturg, I have fallen into the matchmaking tradition (albeit a behind the scenes one).
I have the good fortune of being the Literary Manager for Passage Theatre in Trenton, NJ and the resident dramaturg at Premiere Stages, the professional theatre in residence at Kean University. Both theatres are dedicated to new play development, focusing on first stagings like Passage’s upcoming premiere of Slippery as Sin by David Lee White or Premiere Stages Play Festival, which offers developmental opportunities to four previously unproduced plays and includes the new commissioning initiative Liberty Live. Premiere and Passage also feature second or third productions of exciting new work like Passage’s recent show The History of Light by Eisa Davis. Lately I find that more and more of my dramaturgical hat is worn before pre-production even commences. I think contrary to popular belief there are a great deal of inspiring, well-written scripts floating around in need of a good home. The challenge lies in getting past those awkward first dates and pairing a script and writer with a theatre where the play can grow and flourish. It can be tricky–there are so many elements at play in making a match—What stage is the script at? Is the chemistry right? How will the play fit in a theatre’s space? Does the theatre have the budget and staff to fulfill the technical requirements of the writer and director’s vision? Will the play connect with and challenge the theatre’s audience? The list goes on and on. And since there’s no ok cupid survey to fill out, those questions can be tricky to answer. For me they often start with the ever-mounting stacks of scripts that live in my work and home offices and inbox. I try and read and see as many plays as possible always with an eye for where can this script live. For example, I first encountered Eisa Davis’ work while interning at New Dramatists. I fell in love with her excellent plays Bulrusher and Paper Armor as did the rest of the Passage Staff. That eventually led to finding a home for TheHistory of Light in the talented hands of director Jade King Carroll and being able to give the show a second production. The play follows two inter-racial couples a generation apart and traces the intersections of love, friendship, music, trust, politics, and family. The show’s themes and amazing writing resonated deeply with both the Passage Theatre audience and the artists involved in the production.
My work at Premiere Stages is matchmaking on a very different level. Our Play Festival Competition calls for submissions from writers born or currently residing in the greater metropolitan area (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania). Play Festival affords us the opportunity to get to know work from literally hundreds of new playwrights over the course of a few short months. It’s a very different skill set meeting a writer for the first time and pairing them with a theatre where in less than six months you could be potentially working on a production together. Often the first introduction is a synopsis and eight-page sample. These small excerpts actually give a great deal of insight into if a writer is a good possibility for the theatre. We read them carefully and I feel a great deal of responsibility when taking a look at such a small snippet of a playwrights work. In an ideal world, it might be possible to read only full scripts, but sometimes due to staff and time constraints that is simply not feasible and this is the best way to extend consideration to a wide pool of writers. While the excerpts are brief (think of it as theatrical speed dating) a strong synopsis and sample gives a good idea of if the voice and subject matter might make a nice pairing with the Play Festival program.
No matter what circuitous route a play takes to reach a production, there is a definite satisfaction when all the elements fuse together and a play has found a theatrical match. I think the behind the scenes selection process is often clouded in mystery and viewed with suspicion from the outside. It’s certainly not an exact science and yes, there are times when a match sours instead of soars, but I hope that opening dialogs about how new plays make it from page to stage is a way to clear the air and pass on the tradition of ensuring that original, important stories find a happy, healthy theatrical home!
The History of Light by Eisa Davis, Directed by Jade King Carroll. Matthew Campbell – set. Karin Graybash – Sound. Robin I. Shane – costumes. Lighting design completed by Nicole Pearce. Projections created by Passage Theatre’s design team. Production Stage Manager: Anthony O. Bullock. Featuring June Ballinger, Peter Jay Fernandez, Steve Kuhel, and chandra Thomas.
Journeying is something common to all of us, whether it was in a state of mind, for education, for love, for work, or for a lark. I’ve wandered from Texas to Michigan to California to Florida to Indiana to Pennsylvania for my theatre profession. Along the way I’ve encountered extraordinary, unusual, sometimes downright odd folks who have challenged the way I see the world. As an assistant to the dramaturg, I spent all my energies looking at the new, exploring the unknown during the process, overlooking my own connection to the play. Discovering and sharing that story has been the latest, though I’m certain not last, surprise on this journey.
But I run ahead of myself. Before I was assigned to this process, the journey began when Kenneth Lin first drafted the script. At People’s Light and Theatre, we were fortunate to have him throughout the production, from casting through opening weekend. During that time, Fallowunderwent a second off-site workshop, resulting in the trimming of at least one scene and tweaks elsewhere. Such edits and revisions, I learned, are commonplace in the facilitation of a new play from inception to stage. Each round of changes earned a different color of paper to be inserted into the rehearsal script. The end product is something I can only describe as “the amazing Technicolor rehearsal script.”
My journey with Fallow began a little over a year ago, which seems fitting given that the play follows Aaron sojourn of little more than a year. As assistant to lead dramaturg Elizabeth Pool at People’s Light and Theatre, it has been a sweet (literally) and surprising time. For example, what other show could send me to sample honey and mead for research?
Aaron’s journey is all about change, superficial and substantial: his physical appearance, the shifting landscape around him, his view and appreciation of the world. He travels the country with his bees, going fromMaine, down the East coast, across the South, winding up inCalifornia. At each stop, he composes a letter to his mother, chronicling his adventures and discoveries. Travel is a job hazard with its own rewards—exploration, discovery—and costs—isolation, confusion, loss. The further he travels from home, the greater his known world expands. As he goes, the connectedness of everything and the interdependence of society assails him. He muses how bees were brought to theNew Worldon the Mayflower, the same as his ancestors. “Maybe it’s in our blood,” he concludes, “Honey and travel. Oceans and fields.”
Honey and beekeeping play a predominant role in the life of Aaron. Choosing not to return to classes at Cornell, Aaron follows the rotation of crop cycles with his bees. The machinations of hive life fascinate him; the interdependence of bees, crops, harvesters, and how it reaches the dinner table sometimes astound him. The same wonder struck me as I delved into the apiary world.
Surrounded by Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees, A World Without Bees, Beekeeping for Dummies, and the internet, I felt as though I had performed a magnificent swan dive into the deep end of bee knowledge. Read more
“Theatre is a vocation. It chooses you.” (Lisa Kron)
“A journey to absorb America through its sounds.” (Anna Deavere Smith)
“Getting audiences to the spot where they don’t know what the fuck is going to happen.” (Mike Daisey)
“In an organic, urgent kind of way … cathartic and inevitable.” (Sarah Jones)
The Dramatist Guild holds readings, panels, and other events for its members in many areas of the United States. As a member and now a resident of New York City, I frequently take advantage of these benefits of membership. When I received notice of the planned Smith-Kron-Jones-Daisy discussion about developing and performing solo work, I immediately reserved a seat. All of these performers have entranced me on stage or on film on represented by scripts they have written for others, so my fandom was invoked. In addition, the topic of the one person play (multiple character or not) with its special challenges of crafting dramatic situation and arc and drive has long fascinated me personally and professionally. A 2010 blog post reflecting some of these ruminations during (still ongoing) collaborative work on a one woman show about makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel provides some of professional connection that merges with personal interest.
So this evening, I settle into the comfortable 2nd floor main performance space at Playwrights Horizons surrounded by DG members and their guests, am welcomed by Gary Garrison of the Guild (who provides short questions to mark chapters in our journey), and these brilliant invested theatre artists take us on a ride. I’ll provide some themes and rich quotations.
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 Pandone 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enjoy! How often do you get asked your favorite color at a post show?
“I’ve been warned that I’ve only seen the most progressive audience when it comes to Hilton Head Island–the kind of audience that will buy tickets for a whole weekend of staged readings in the middle of a tropical storm.”
by Katie Rasor
It was a wiltingly humid South Carolina morning last August as I waited to give one of my collaborators a ride to rehearsal during the whirlwind weekend of staged readings that is the annual Hilton Head Island New Play Festival. “Yeah, I’m in New York” he said into a cell phone, giving me a friendly nod as he came out of the house. I was looking around the car for alligators and poisonous snakes that, according to the local news, Hurricane Irene had driven out of the marshes and into local neighborhoods, and I thought he might be confused. Didn’t he see the palm trees? Hadn’t he been privy to our days of panicked debate, pouring over weather maps and questioning whether Irene would force us to cancel the very festival we were off to rehearse? Do his producers in New York habitually crawl around under cars looking for copperheads?
Then I remembered: that pervasive notion that if it isn’t happening in New York, Chicago, or LA, it’s not worth doing. I’m not saying that my collaborator felt that way; I’m saying that enough people DO feel that way that it was easier to lie than to argue the artistic merits of spending a weekend creating theater in the South.
The blame for this does not lay entirely on any one group of people. Anyone who has tried to stage Angels in America outside a major city knows that all too often, less urban audiences tend to have a lower tolerance for strong language, controversial issues, and the avant garde. So it is understandable that those trying to create cutting-edge work tend to write for the most flexible, open-minded audiences to the exclusion of all others. Yet, after years of work created without the regional audiences in mind, its unsurprising that some audiences have begun to perceive the work coming out of New York as hostile, or at best, indifferent to them. They then complain about anything outside their comfort zone, in turn only driving playwrights further from them, and the cycle continues.
This is something we’re trying to combat at the Hilton Head Island New Play Festival. We speculate (however naively) that part of the reason the American South as a whole doesn’t seem to value the arts is that it does not have enough opportunity to actually experience them. We think that perhaps there are people out there that would find theater interesting—indeed revolutionary—if they had the option to see something besides Cats or whatever Broadway three-hander won the Tony four years ago. Maybe there are people who love Cats that would also enjoy something new. I can’t speak for the entire South, but I can say that for the audience of South Carolina Repertory Company, this is absolutely true.
When Nick Newell came to me with the idea of doing a New Play Festival in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Read more