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

Advertisements

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.

Working on a New Play: The Bee in My Bonnet

by Hannah Daniel

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, Fallow underwent 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?

Elizabeth (Mary Elizabeth Scallen, foreground) reads one of the letters her son Aaron (George Olesky) wrote on his journey across America. Photo by Mark Gavin.

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

On the premiere of “The Dangers of Electric Lighting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Cheryl Katz (14 November 2011)

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

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

For further reading, see New York Times review.

“Emotional Collisions”: LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS

(Musings on a new play by Tammy Ryan)

by Heather Helinsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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