InterAct Theatre Company, located in Philadelphia, annouced the winners of this year’s 20/20 New Play Commissions. They are Rehana Lew Mirza for her play Neighborhood Watch and C1 artist Idris Goodwin (How We Got On) for Sanctity. Read the article here.
An American Theatre Magazine article, The Technical Answer, talks about the advances in technology in theatre and how (or if) we are training the next generation of theatre makers in this new technology. Jared Mezzocchi (Astro Boy and the God of Comics) is interviewed in the article and talks about the multimedia class he teaches at the University of Maryland. Read the article here.
This Boston Globe article highlights the rising role of the actor-playwright in the Boston theatre scene and asks these actors why they have decided to pursue writing in addition to their acting careers. C1 artists Obehi Janice (FUFU & OREOS, Splendor), Steven Barkhimer (The Book of Grace), and Danny Bryck (No Room for Wishing) are interviewed and/or featured in this article. Full text is below.
At 55, Steven Barkhimer is one of Boston theater’s most familiar faces, with scores of local productions under his belt in the past decade-and-a-half. At 26, Obehi Janice is near the beginning of her acting career.
But Barkhimer and Janice have one major thing in common: Each has chosen not just to perform in plays, but to write them as well. “Windowmen,’’ Barkhimer’s comic drama about shady doings at the Fulton Fish Market in the early 1980s, recently wrapped up a critically acclaimed run at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. “FUFU & OREOS,’’ Janice’s semi-autobiographical solo show, is slated for a workshop performance at Company One Theatre in June, and she is currently at work on a couple of full-length plays.
They are members of a robust and crowded category, in Boston theater and beyond: the actor-playwright, or, in some cases, the playwright-actor. These multitasking hyphenates are an especially welcome presence in the theater just now. At a time when technology and spectacle are increasingly in vogue onstage, the actor-playwright can help remind us that the play’s the thing — to borrow a line from an actor-playwright of note, William Shakespeare — and underscore the fact that a compelling story is the most special effect of all.
After all, who knows better the electric power of the spoken word than the performers who speak it night after night onstage? And who has a bigger professional stake than actors when it comes to keeping the theatrical pipeline stocked with plays that are rooted in complex, multifaceted characters who can talk up a storm?
Though actor-playwrights of course write in different styles and genres, plays written by performers help strengthen the tradition of psychological and social realism, which is, after all, at or near the top of the list of things the American theater has historically done well: O’Neill, Miller, Williams (poeticized though his realism was), Mamet (stylized though his realism is). Pungently memorable dialogue is a hallmark of some of the better-known actor-playwrights, such as Sam Shepard, Anna Deavere Smith, and Tracy Letts, author of “August: Osage County’’ and a Tony Award winner for his performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ Generally speaking, their works are driven less by image than by character and story and psychological atmosphere.
Firmly in that tradition is the Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park’’ by actor-playwright Bruce Norris, seen last season at SpeakEasy Stage Company. Norris’s play shone a merciless light on the way language conceals and reveals when the subject is race. “Clybourne Park’’ also provided a showcase for the SpeakEasy cast, who got to play different roles in each of the play’s two acts, in eras half a century apart, while immersed in the kind of high-stakes confrontations that are any actor’s dream.
Language is also central to Barkhimer’s “Windowmen,’’ a portrait of blue-collar workaday reality that manages to be both hard-nosed and heartfelt while featuring a host of gritty, profanely eloquent characters. A couple of them — such as Al, the gruff and intimidating owner of Turner Point Fish Company — are more complicated than they first appear. All of them operate within a moral universe that is streaked with shades of gray; there are personal pressures, Barkhimer’s play suggests, that might tempt a fundamentally decent man to cross the line into criminality.
We learn a lot about the byzantine workings of a New York fish market in “Windowmen,’’ whose most distinctive character is Vic, a vendor from Brooklyn whose staccato soliloquies and rapid-fire transactions with buyers of flounder and grouper — conducted in an arcane code — are a marvel to behold: “Got three-seventy-five at 1-4-5, that’s five four three seventy-five, ba-boom!’’ he barks through the customer window at one point. “All right, Tommy, see ya tomorra!’’ Vic is a one-man assembly line, simultaneously training a college-educated new employee named Ken, quizzing him on his living situation and love life, and dealing with a nonstop blizzard of customer requests. It’s the kind of matter-of-fact multitasking not often celebrated onstage. In letting us see what the vendors do, Barkhimer enables us to also see who they are.
Voluble though the characters are in “Windowmen,’’ much is left unspoken as the central story line unspools, or spoken of only in the most cryptic, fragmentary terms. In a telephone interview, Barkhimer makes clear that approach is a direct result of his experience as an actor.
“I understand the temptation to overwrite things so that people get it, but what actors are good at is unpacking the suitcase,’’ says Barkhimer, who lives in Brookline. “The actor is your collaborator, and to know that when you’re setting pen to paper — ‘Don’t put this in, I’m sure the actor will find it’ — you have that trust so you can subtract things and know they will find the emotional interior, the subtext. Having found enough subtext myself [as an actor], I perhaps know not to spell it out, to leave that out there for the actors and directors to do it themselves. To write with a kind of trust.’’
Of course, it’s easy to write with trust when you know that you’ll be the one performing the play you’re writing. “FUFU & OREOS’’ grew directly out of Janice’s experience as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. “I didn’t see that story, so I wrote it myself,’’ she explains. “It encompasses my identity and the duality of being American and being Nigerian, of how strong your family ties are, being this multicultural person but also being an American, dealing with the balance of that.’’
With regard to acting and writing, Janice says: “I feel like I have both hats on at the same time. They don’t feel separate. More actors should be writing, either as an exercise or to explore that part of ourselves more. You just learn things about yourself. What I learned is that I am more than enough. All I did was listen to that tiny voice saying ‘You should write that down.’ ”
A striking number of theater artists in the Boston area have listened to that tiny voice and donned those two hats at one time or another. In addition to Barkhimer and Janice, a list of those who have both acted in and written plays would include Melinda Lopez (“Sonia Flew’’), John Kuntz (“The Hotel Nepenthe’’), Ryan Landry (“Mildred Fierce’’), Walt McGough (“Priscilla Dreams the Answer’’), Robbie McCauley (“Sugar’’), Brenda Withers (“The Billingsgate Project’’), Benjamin Evett (who collaborated with Barkhimer on “Blood Rose Rising’’), and many others.
“The playwright may ultimately enjoy a deeper kind of satisfaction,’’ says Barkhimer. “To have written a piece and have the audience laughing and responding, that’s very satisfying, I’ve got to say. Maybe it’s one degree more separated from the evanescence of performance. As an actor you walk off and go ‘All righty, well, that’s done.’ But the play [you’ve written] has legs of its own.’’
On the most basic level, of course, writing plays can be an act of simple self-preservation for actors. You can literally script a part for yourself, as Kuntz did with “The Salt Girl,’’ an ambitious 2009 solo play about a man (portrayed by the author) who is coping, not very well, with the psychological fallout of his sister’s disappearance during childhood.
Any actor who cares about the art form wants to have some say over the shape of theater in our time, the direction it takes in the future, the values it chooses to champion. There’s nothing wrong with video projections or aerial stunts or life-size puppets as a means to storytelling, but actors who write can be a force that safeguards the theater from conceptual gimmickry run amok. The holographic horse that galloped across the stage of the Cutler Majestic Theatre in December 2012 in “La Belle et La Bete’’ was very impressive, but the script by Pierre Yves Lemieux was almost unlistenable.
Experienced actors can write with an intuitive grasp of, say, when the pace of a play needs to be accelerated or slowed down, or when the audience’s perspective on events needs to be shifted, or when the emotional or psychological stakes for Character X need to be made clearer. Because performers often become personally invested in the communities where they live and work, actor-written plays can have a sense of place that anchors their work in the here-and-now, quite literally, and that reflects their communities more fully than dramas imported from New York or elsewhere. Boston actor Danny Bryck conducted scads of interviews with protesters at Occupy Boston, then turned those interviews into “No Room for Wishing,’’ a documentary solo play in which he played dozens of characters and captured a slice of regional history.
At Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, artistic director Curt Columbus sees so much merit to the actor-playwright model that one of his first steps when he arrived eight years ago was to implement a program in which members of the company’s resident acting ensemble are encouraged to write plays, with a commitment from Trinity Rep to stage them once they’re ready for production. In 2011, ensemble member Stephen Thorne’s “The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe’’ received its world premiere at Trinity Rep.
“All I did was listen to that tiny voice saying “You should write that down,” said Obehi Janice, actor-playwright.
“As a playwright, I have been extremely frustrated by the play development process in this country, because you never know for what community of artists or community of audience you are writing,’’ Columbus says in an e-mail. “Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere, Odets, and many, many more, wrote for specific artists and specific communities, and found universality through that process. We have been trying to reclaim that impulse with our program.’’
Beyond enriching the tapestry of stories that get told, an actor can also gain a deeper connection to, and understanding of, his or her chosen profession by writing plays. Playwriting can potentially open up a second revenue stream for perennially impecunious actors — granted, not much of a revenue stream; this is theater we’re talking about — while expanding their personal brands. For someone who is starting to build a career in the theater, such as Janice, embracing the dual identity of actor-playwright just might be a way to cushion some of the inevitable blows of a pitiless profession and not feel helpless, subject to the whims of others.
“The writing and the acting together, it’s definitely a force, a combined force that helps me create my own path,’’ says Janice. “Auditioning is a really rough part of being an actor. It’s so humbling and so frustrating. But then I get to have my writing to balance that out. I think about it less as ‘I’m a bad actress’ than ‘I just wasn’t right for the role.’ When you’re a writer you just realize that you can’t take rejection so personally.
“I feel if I’m not in a play right now, that’s OK,’’ she adds. “Because I’m writing.’’
In this Boston Globe article, writer Joel Brown interviews our very own Ilana Brownstein, Jessie Baxter, and Shawn LaCount in addition to other prominent dramaturgs in the Boston theatre such as A. Nora Long, Charles Haugland, and Ryan McKittrick about the rising importance of dramaturgy in theatre, especially in the Boston theatre scene and the creation of new work. Company One playwright Kirsten Greenidge is also interviewed in this article regarding dramaturgy on Splendor. Here is the link to the article, and the full text is quoted below.
The posters and programs for Company One’s “Splendor” last fall offered three credits where there are usually two:
“A WORLD PREMIERE by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Shawn LaCount
Dramaturgy by Ilana M. Brownstein”
Playwrights and directors always get prominent credits, but a dramaturg almost never does. The billing for Brownstein was one outward sign of a backstage shift in Boston theater.
But it’s a job that’s at best dimly familiar to the audience. Partly that’s because the role of the dramaturg changes from show to show and company to company. Dictionaries broadly define dramaturgy as the art of dramatic representation. Even dramaturgs say the job is not easy to explain. In today’s theater, they do anything from mundane script management to researching a play’s historical background, from suggesting changes in a play’s structure to arranging post-show discussions with the audience.
“You ask 10 dramaturgs what they do, and you’ll get 17 answers,” said Brownstein, whose title at Company One is director of new work.
From a small-company production like “Splendor” to the Broadway-bound “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” dramaturgs have been shaping much of what Boston theater audiences see. LaCount and others say that a dramaturg is especially valuable to a new play, and that’s why dramaturgs have a higher profile here lately. “I think Boston is becoming a player in new work in the American theater, (and) it’s been a while,” said LaCount. “I think the role of the dramaturg is a lot more noticeable and valuable.”
The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas will hold their annual conference here in June. “The theme of the conference is looking to the future to see where we are going,” says conference chairwoman Magda Romanska, an assistant professor at Emerson College and editor of an upcoming dramaturgy textbook. “I think it’s a really good moment for the field.”
Playwrights are artists and rightly protective of their creations. But Greenidge said she was happy to have Brownstein’s input during the development of “Splendor,” which is built around a Thanksgiving weekend and centers on ties of family and community.
“One thing Ilana brought up was, ‘Nobody ever has Thanksgiving dinner in your play — what does that mean?” Greenidge said. By the time of the premiere, the playwright added a brief, dreamlike scene in which all the characters come to the table to get a piece of pie before dispersing again.
Dramaturgy (it rhymes with clergy, though “dramaturg” is pronounced with a hard G) dates to Europe in the 1700s, when the first dramaturgs were sort of in-house critics. Formal dramatic structure was long their main concern. Now institutional dramaturgs may be involved in selecting plays for a company to produce; they often carry the job title of literary manager. Production dramaturgs work on a specific show. Some dramaturgs are freelance, some on staff. Duties and titles overlap.
In the modern era, dramaturgs are known mainly for researching the context of a play to ensure an accurate production, and to provide background information to cast and designers. They have long been considered “the in-house bookworm,” as one joked.
But even that role is not necessarily dull. “Today I’m reading all about S&M for ‘Venus in Fur,’ ” said Charles Haugland, dramaturg at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Dramaturgs enter the field in various ways, but few have had as consistent a path as Ryan McKittrick, director of artistic programs/dramaturg at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. “I sort of grew up in this theater,” he said.
McKittrick was an undergraduate at Harvard when he fell in love with ART’s work, studied dramaturgy at the ART Institute, and has worked with the company since he graduated in 2000. He works on projects developed sometimes over years at the theater, including 2011’s “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” under artistic director Diane Paulus that made it to Broadway.
“When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t really know what dramaturgy was,” McKittrick said. “It provides an opportunity for someone who loves academic research but also loves the theater and wants to pursue a life in professional theater. And within the theater you get to do many, many different things.”
Most dramaturgs write program notes and organize post-show discussions. Their quest: “How do we deepen an audience’s connection to the material?” said A. Nora Long, a dramaturg whose job title is associate artistic director at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
On productions, a dramaturg may also be responsible for “moment-to-moment rehearsal stuff” that requires a deep knowledge of the script, Brownstein said. “Splendor” follows numerous characters in a fictional Boston suburb over decades, jumping back and forth in time. The cast rehearsed the scenes in the order in which they appear in the play, not in the order in which they happen. So the scene they were working on at any given time might hinge on developments not shown until later.
“So it was one of my jobs for every scene to be the person who was like, ‘Context! Here’s what you need to know,’ ” Brownstein said.
Playwright Walt McGough says he’s always happy to have a dramaturg on one of his productions because they can solve thorny problems. When his “Priscilla Dreams the Answer” was in rehearsal with Fresh Ink Theatre a couple of years ago, he and director Melanie Garber got along great except for “one moment where we just kept talking past each other,” McGough said via e-mail.
The issue on which they deadlocked: when to start playing a Belle and Sebastian song in the play’s final moments. Garber wanted to start at the beginning of the last scene, while McGough wanted to wait until the blackout, he explained.
“We were wasting time trying to explain to each other why one choice was right and the other was wrong,” McGough said. “The dramaturg, Jessie Baxter, was sitting and patiently watching us run around in circles. She spoke up and recommended splitting the difference, and beginning the cue about halfway through the scene, so that it underscored the final moments but didn’t kick in fully until the play had ended.”
That solved the problem perfectly, he said, and exemplified the value of having a dramaturg who “observes the entirety of a play and its production, instead of just one aspect, and makes sure that everything that happens is being done in service to the same viewpoint.”
Baxter also “dramaturgs” for Company One and is working on its production of Annie Baker’s “The Flick,” opening at the Modern Theater in February.
The job all depends on the play, the circumstances and who’s involved. Dramaturgs can be less needed on a well-known work, especially with an experienced director. “If we’re doing ‘Private Lives’ with [director] Maria Aitken, she’s done 12 Noel Coward plays, she doesn’t need me,” said the Huntington’s Haugland.
And there are some playwrights and directors who aren’t so enthused about what dramaturgs have to say. Playwright Richard Nelson gave a speech in New York in 2007 in which he deplored a “culture of ‘development’ ” in which playwrights are thought to need help to do their work.
Boston dramaturgs say it’s often the older generation that has an issue with their growing role.
“I have some people in my family who are theater practitioners,” said Long, “and when I told my uncle I was studying dramaturgy, he was like, ‘As a director, what would I possibly need a dramaturg for? I can do research.’
“But the thing you cannot do is be another pair of eyes,” Long said. “I think the best dramaturgical relationships are about finding a collaborator who knows as much about what you are attempting to do onstage as you do, but who is going to look at it from a different perspective.”
As devised theater and new technologies become more common, younger playwrights grow more comfortable with new kinds of collaboration, said Romanska, who had just returned from a theater festival in Krakow filled with experimental work. “The rigid division of roles, director/dramaturg/playwright, becomes more and more blurred as people move across boundaries,” she said.
This PBS documentary features playwrights Tarell McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays) and Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) amidst their process to create the next “great American play.” This video can be streamed until Jan. 14. Watch the documentary here.
Company One alum playwright Qui Nguyen (She Kills Monsters) has been announced as one of the inaugural members of Keen Company’s Keen Playwrights Lab for the 2013-2014 season. All playwrights will conceive one full-length play that falls in line with Keen Company’s mission. Read the article here.