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: http://nopassport.org/wayofwater

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Bringing In THE OUTGOING TIDE

by Carrie Chapter

In New London, CT, the Monte Cristo Cottage- the summer home of playwright Eugene O’Neill – provides the setting for two of his best known works, namely AH! WILDERNESS! and LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. If you visit the cottage, you can actually position yourself in the rooms as they are described in the stage directions for LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, and become enlivened by the world of the play through the inescapable world of the playwright.

Truth be told, the feeling you get with O’Neill’s cottage is much like the one evoked by his play – an eerie, sad strangeness- but my memory of it was invoked when director Jim Christy held rehearsals for Bruce Graham’s new play, THE OUTGOING TIDE, at Bruce’s vacation home on the Chesapeake – which acts as the very setting for the play. The actors could follow scene by scene on Bruce’s property with approximate accuracy to the text, which includes fishing off a shoreline, conferring at the kitchen table, and even watching the tide crash and roll in and out.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the actors perceived their “given circumstances” materializing in such detail – not to mention the pungent, wafting atmospherics of low tide. When I asked one of the actors about his experience, he replied, “It was really cold.” I do love that kind of frank, physiological response; it is pretty evident in the pictures taken on that day that the bundled actors braved a winter shore wind in the name of theatre. I did, however, have to ask playwright Bruce Graham his feelings on the site-specific rehearsal, to see what it was like to watch his characters move through his house and the world of the play at the same time. Unlike Eugene O’Neill, who cannot comment on his characters “ghosting” through his childhood home, how does a living playwright view this sort of enactment? With perfect, dependable candor, Bruce remarked,

“Actually, it was kinda creepy. I think I mostly stayed in my room while they rehearsed.”

Now, though THE OUTGOING TIDE and LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT are both family dramas, the plays are vastly different with regard to tone – the dividing line being O’Neill’s sullenness and Graham’s humor.  So, maybe, it is not the reputation of the house, but more of the act itself, which makes the “live” text intrinsically spooky. The closest I ever got to having my own on-site rehearsal was in a graveyard on a dark October night for Edgar Lee Masters’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY – so, yes, in my theatrical career, the pattern of creepiness continues.

THE OUTGOING TIDE at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Photo Credit: Mark Garvin. From left to right: Anthony Lawton and Richard Poe

What makes this experience even richer, though, is how it has endowed the characters with a sense of place. Their performances are now imbued with a glow of fundamental home life, with the all its hair-pulling yet tender complexities intact. That is something Bruce Graham and our audiences can take pleasure in, the joy of watching the world of THE OUTGOING TIDE ebb and flow.

The Outgoing Tide by Bruce Graham, directed by Jim Christy, sets by David Gordon, costumes by Pamela Scofield,  lighting by R. Lee Kennedy, sound design by Bart Fasbender, original music by Robert Maggio properties by Melissa Cristaldi, stage manager Amanda Robbin-Butcher, director of production Bruce Charlick, dramaturgy by Carrie Chapter, assistant stage manager Danielle Commini, technical director Michael Cristaldi. Production runs until April 22, 2012 at Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard streets, Philadelphia, PA 19102. 215.985.0420. 

WITH: Anthony Lawton (Jack), Richard Poe (Gunner), Robin Moseley (Peg)

© Carrie Chapter (23 March 2012)

Double Shot!: Two new plays from PTC@Play

By Samantha Lazar and Amy Freeman

Note: As a dramaturgy collective, we’ve tried to avoid reviewing the plays we’re working on, especially when it comes to new plays in development. You will often hear artistic directors of new play festivals ask politely audiences to not review plays that are receiving staged readings and there is wisdom in that. As Poor Lessing’s is in its first year, we’re trying to focus on projects that offer dramaturgs paying jobs and when the call went out to hire dramaturgs for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s new play festival, we wanted the event to be represented on our site because it was a program that employed area dramaturgs (more power to them!) In that spirit, these pieces are more dramaturgical musings, and not reviews. 

For a listing of all the new plays that were read at PTC (and full plot summaries), click here.

Famiglia!: Samuel D. Hunter’s WHEN YOU’RE HERE at PTC@Play

By Samantha Lazar

My PTC@Play assignment was When You’re Here, a new play by Samuel D. Hunter. The play, which is set entirely in an Olive Garden restaurant, is aptly titled, and anyone familiar with the chain’s slogan can fill in the second half: “When you’re here, you’re family.” I was tasked with reading the stage directions, and since I already had my deadpan down pat I was able to sit back and mull over all things “family” while the actors and director fine-tuned their lines in preparation for the reading.

When You’re Here is nothing if not a play about family: eight of the ten characters comprise two actual families, the restaurant’s staff weave the two together and make a clan of their own, and the play is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone. On top of that, the whole thing is infused with Olive Garden’s forced, if earnest, “famiglia” mentality. Just about all the themes and conflicts revolve around familial relationships as well. While this has certainly been done before, it never gets old.

Thinking about the popularity and prevalence of “family plays,” it seems they’ve been around just as long as the dysfunctional family has – the canon is filled with classics by playwrights ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare, and more recently from Eugene O’Neil to Tracy Letts. Family is always in vogue. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because everyone can identify with such themes, whether they hail from the lap of luxury or a hardscrabble upbringing. Judging by the audience’s vocal responses to the reading, they identified with even the most unusual and unlikable characters in this play. That’s certainly one thing about family: even if you don’t like it or want it, it’s always there in the back of your head, for better or worse. And for that very reason, it seems like plays about family will always be there, too.

© Samantha Lazar (March 16, 2012)

WHEN YOU’RE HERE by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Kent Nicholson. Reading Friday, March 9th at Philadelphia Theatre Company. WITH: Davy Raphaely, Rachel Camp, Kevin Bergen, Amanda Schoonover, Tom McCarthy, Maureen Torsney-Weir.

Freefall: Michael Hollinger’s HOPE AND GRAVITY at PTC@Play

By: Amy Freeman

Life’s a bitch, but at least we can laugh at it. This past week, I had the opportunity to work with an excellent group of people on a reading of Michael Hollinger’s Hope and Gravity, part of the PTC@Play Festival hosted by Philadelphia Theater Company. The play, which consists of nine short plays fused together, is hilarious. But it’s also deeply moving and incredibly sad.

And that’s really the heart of comedy. You laugh and laugh, but if you aren’t crying a little inside when it’s all done, it really wasn’t a comedy. It was just funny. And we don’t need funny: it doesn’t go anywhere or make us reflect on the world around us. We need comedy. We need to laugh and in the end, realize what we’re laughing at and pause to think why we’re laughing.

A great scene that illustrates this occurs in Hope and Gravity. A woman has a meeting with her boss to discuss her health plan. Instead, her boss co-opts the meeting, attacking her for casting a white student to play Atticus Finch in a student production of To Kill A Mockingbird. In attempt to “diversify” the casting, the boss wants Atticus to be played by a black student, which doesn’t make sense. The scene is over-the-top, full of white people guilt and air quotes around terms that may not be politically correct. But it’s the scene’s end that hammers the point home. Sure, the audience was dying of laughter though the scene. Then the boss, the boss who tried so hard to paint himself as this sympathetic, super-PC character, denies the woman health coverage for her wife. It’s the knife twist that pulls it all together. Without it comedy, all comedy, would fall flat.

© Amy Freeman, March 12, 2012

HOPE AND GRAVITY by Michael Hollinger, directed by Aaron Posner. With Sarah Sanford, Peter Pryor, Jessica Bedford, Andrew Kane, and Benjamin Lloyd. March 5th, 7:00 p.m.

Pour Me Another: A Play, A Pie, and A Pint In Philadelphia

By: Amy Freeman

March 4, 2012

“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.

Kittson O'Neill and Kevin Bergen in "Being Norwegian" by David Greig, the first play in the new season of A Play, a Pie, and a Pint./Photo: David O'Connor

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?

Marcia Saunders and Maureen Torsney Weir in "Fly Me to the Moon," by Marie Jones, the third play during the first season./Photo: Emma Gibson

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?

Amy: Yeah.

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.

© Amy Freeman (March 4, 2012)

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).

What you seen, Nelson Barre?

Damien Wallace and Kash Goins in Joe Turner's Come and Gone; photo by Drew Hood, Throwing Light Photography

By Nelson Barre

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

Dramaturgical Costumes

Interview with Erica Hoelscher, costume designer for Plays and Players’ production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

By: Amy Freeman

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.

The Cast of<!--em Joe Turner's Come and Gone/Drew Hood, Throwing Light Photography"

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.

Kash Goins and Damien Wallace in Joe Turner's Come and Gone/Drew Hood, Throwing Light Photography

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.

© Amy Freeman (January 30, 2012)

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone By: August Wilson. Directed by Daniel Student.
At Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA. Through February 11.

With: Kash Goins, Damien Wallace, James Tolbert, Cherie Jazmyn, Jamal Douglas, Candace Thomas, Mlé Chester, Bob Weick, Lauryn Jones, Brett Gray, and Erin Stewart

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

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).

June Ballinger and Peter Jay Fernandez in Passage Theatre's production of The History of Light by Eisa Davis, directed by Jade King Carroll

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 The History 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!

Credits:

© Clare Drobot (January 27, 2012)

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. 

For more information on upcoming Passage shows go to http://www.passagetheatre.org

For more information on Premiere Stages visit: http://www.kean.edu/premierestages

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

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.

Immersed in RED

Philadelphia Theatre Company’ production of John Logan’s RED

by Samantha Lazar

There could not be a better space for a production of John Logan’s RED than the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. By some stroke of happenstance the theatre seems tailor-made for the play: its walls are clad in a thick armor of undulating rust-red panels that, depending on what’s on stage, can project neutrality, sleekness, bloody panic (imagine a production of Wozzeck here), or, in this case, the feeling of being completely surrounded by – if not trapped inside – a Rothko canvas.

Inside the Suzanne Roberts Theatre

Walking into the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, taking a seat, and soaking up the surroundings is the perfect way to set the stage for what is about to unfold. The stage itself is also ideally suited for the play, with its soaring fly space providing a fitting facsimile of the former gymnasium in the Bowery that Rothko used as a studio during the years in which the play is set.

As a dramaturg with a special interest in visual dramaturgy and a sometime set designer, I always pay close attention to the entire environment of a production, whether it’s housed in an abandoned warehouse, a clearing in the woods, or, in this case, a 365-seat state-of-the-art traditional proscenium theater with 2,000 square feet of stage space. With all theatre, the pre-show surroundings are an audience’s first taste of what’s to come, and it’s exciting when the atmosphere does more than simply offer up a place to sit.

Working intensely on a show is often an all-consuming experience, and never more so than during tech week, when it can feel like the whole cast and crew is living in the world of the play. This particular work lends itself to that experience: the play is about Mark Rothko, specifically during the two years that he worked on one particular commission. Rothko’s stated intent with the canvasses of his late period, and specifically with this project, was to create a feeling that enveloped the viewer. (This might seem warm and comforting until one learns that the intended feeling is one of claustrophobia, fear, despair, and tragedy. But that’s neither here nor there.) In short, working on this production felt very much like living in Rothko’s universe, which is exactly what the famously curmudgeonly artist would have wanted.

Part of the work I did on the show included research into how Rothko wanted his paintings to be viewed, and where the commissioned Seagram Murals actually wound up after his death. After the paintings sat in storage for over a decade, Rothko negotiated a deal with London’s Tate Gallery, which accepted his conditional gift of nine canvasses. Characteristically, Rothko was exacting and particular about how the paintings were to be displayed and the donation came with the stipulation that they were to hang in their own gray-walled, dimly lit room. The goal was the creation of an imposing atmosphere that dominated the viewer’s senses and forced an uncomfortable engagement with the work.

Although Rothko never saw the installation – his suicide was discovered on the very day that the paintings arrived at the museum – the Tate’s dedicated room was the fulfillment of a dream. As the artist discloses to his assistant Ken in the two-man play,

“All my life I wanted just this, my friend: to create a place… A place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work…”

The dream was further realized the following year, when the Rothko Chapel was completed in Houston, Texas, and again in 1990 when the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Japan created a Rothko room of its own modeled on the Tate’s.

So, creating a place was essential to Rothko and if that same goal is not paramount for a production team that is staging RED, something substantial will be lost. Even without this element the play is a heady one, full of passion, intellectual ideas, pathos, and complex relationships. But this work lends itself to a visual treatment in a way that few traditional plays do. A production of RED is made all the more powerful if it can create at least a little bit of what Rothko himself hoped to attain with his paintings and the spaces he wanted them to inhabit. I think of visual dramaturgy as more concerned with the interplay of set, lights, and environment – how the technical elements make you feel, and how they work with the script – than with textual details and actors’ performances. When there is an additional, tangible element to a production that goes beyond the action on stage and forcibly inserts the audience into the experience, something thrilling is achieved. That participatory experience is what I love most about theatre.

© Samantha Lazar (October 23, 2011)

RED, by John Logan; directed by Anders Cato, set by James Noone, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Tyler Micoleau, compositions/sound design by Josh Schmidt. At Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146 (215) 985-0420. www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org October 14 – November 13, 2011. 

FEATURING: Stephen Rowe and Haley Joel Osment