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

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“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