DG National Report: Western New York by Donna Hoke
Central New York representative Aoise Stratford and I have been working diligently behind the scenes for the past six months or so to create a new program for our regions: the Dramatists Guild New York State Roving Readings series. We hatched the idea at the Dramatists Guild conference in October 2013, and have spent the time since then enlisting theaters, soliciting plays, talking to directors, and nailing down dates.
Dramatists Guild members residing in our two regions – or nearby environs – were invited to submit blind copies of scripts that had had at least one production. Our reasoning is that we aren’t looking to help playwrights develop scripts, but rather relationships with other theaters in the state, as well as the larger New York State playwriting community. As such, no participating playwright will have a reading in his/her hometown.
During the submission window, we found three eager volunteer theaters: Road Less Traveled in Buffalo, the Kitchen in Ithaca, and Geva Theatre Center in Rochester. To start, we developed a system for theaters to choose from as many plays as possible, but with no chance of duplicate selection or selection of a playwright from that theater’s city. Once plays were chosen, we recruited directors who were charged with casting and rehearsing for reading night, and had the pleasure of informing the playwrights.
“I am thrilled that The Scavenger’s Daughter is getting more exposure, especially since that exposure is at the esteemed Geva Theatre Center,” says Gary Earl Ross. “The play is about an African-American family who face problems that have nothing to do with being African-American. It is a murder mystery that involves Alzheimer’s, mental illness, and family dysfunction, as well as a social drama that explores the realities of aging. My hope is that it will find more and more audiences as issues of elder care take center stage in our country’s health care debate.”
Darryl Schneider, whose Artie Award-winning play, Clean Break, will be read at the Kitchen in Ithaca, was equally enthusiastic: “I’m honored my play is included in the first Roving Reading series. I’m eager to see how a different director and set of actors interpret the play and how the audience reacts. I hope to gain new insights into this play.”
After a month of date wrangling, we announced the schedule for the inaugural Dramatists Guild New York State Roving Readings Series:
• May 20 at the Kitchen Theatre, Ithaca: Clean Break, by Darryl Schneider of Buffalo
• September 8 at Geva Theatre, Rochester: The Scavenger’s Daughter, by Gary Earl Ross of Buffalo
• September 15 at Road Less Traveled Theater, Buffalo: Happy Birthday, Tina Marie, by Craig Thornton of Watertown
In the next issue of The Dramatist, Central New York rep Aoise Stratford will deliver part two of this regional update when she reports on the first reading in Ithaca. Please watch your email for details about the remaining reading dates and consider coming to support theater and playwrights from your state. We’re excited about this program; if you come to reading, be sure to introduce yourselves!
DG National Report: Utah by Julie Jensen
The theme of this issue might appropriately be applied to the feeding of playwrights, as in nurturing new plays and encouraging future work. Local universities in Utah are making a significant effort in that direction. The University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and Weber State University have all been active participants in the development of new work by local playwrights. It’s a relationship that’s unique and valued, giving playwrights what they cannot get in professional settings: much more time with actors, directors, dramaturgs, and enhanced opportunities to rewrite based on experiences with other collaborators in the process.
The University of Utah’s New Play Workshop, run by playwright Tim Slover, has for a number of years helped to develop the work of several local playwrights: Fae Engstrom, Kathleen Cahill, Mathew Ivan Bennett, Mike Dorrell, and Elaine Jarvik. The plays by three playwrights are selected ahead of time, two by students and one by a local professional. Each new play gets five hours of table work, then is given ten hours of exploration, where actors are on their feet, directors and dramaturgs engaged. The process ends with a rehearsed reading, directed and acted by students, the preparation for which takes an additional two to three hours. Elaine Jarvik, whose most recent play, Two Stories, has just completed the process, is enthusiastic about the method used by Slover and the intelligent response of the students. “Slover himself,” she adds, “is an amazing resource, able to respond to a play on both the micro and macro level.”
Melissa Larson workshopped her adaptation of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice at Brigham Young University before a major production there. The workshop is co-taught by playwright George Nelson and dramaturg Janine Sobeck. Plays are submitted ahead of time, six are chosen. Three plays are worked in two different “pods.” Each play is given two hours of work with actors and dramaturgs each week for six to seven weeks. The nature of that work depends on the needs of the play. “Sometimes it’s feedback, sometimes physical exploration, sometimes improvisation,” says Melissa Larson. The work culminates in a staged reading of each play featuring undergraduate actors. Larson, who has been a part of the workshop process several times, both as a student and as a working writer, is enthusiastic about its value and grateful for the experience with the other collaborators.
Weber State University, located 45 miles north of Salt Lake City, produced an entire season of new work this year. One of those plays was by a local writer, a commission by Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences. It’s a play written by Julie Jensen, an adaptation of a novel by Kathryn Erskine Mockingbird. The piece focuses on a young girl with autism and is told from her point of view, meaning that group scenes are frightening and chaotic and that the central character has odd physical traits and tics. The director of the project, Tracy Callahan, cast the workshop production in December and worked for three and a half months with the actors. Much of the work was physical because of the demands of defining the world of the play. The work was gratifying, both the process and the product. The play now goes on to a production at Kennedy Center with Weber State’s Tracy Callahan directing there as well.
University theatres are devising important methods of developing to new work. Indeed, they’re in a unique position to make a major contribution to the American theatre. In the process, they’re forging gratifying relationships between working writers, theatre students, departments of theatre, and, yes, even professional theatres.
DG National Report: Portland by Francesca Sanders
Ashland, Oregon is a favorite destination for any theatre lover. The idyllic setting and non-stop performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival draw over 400,00 audience members each year.
On April 5th it was also the gathering spot for Dramatists Guild members as the Guild hosted the discussion “Authenticity: a Writer’s Quandary in the American Theatre.” Authors from nearby converged for a lively discussion where Lue Douthit, literary manager of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was our guest speaker.
As a backdrop for this event, members were offered half price tickets to see Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play Water by the Spoonful, as well as The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry.
Water by the Spoonful explores (among many other things) the process of drug recovery and dissonance. While Ms. Hansberry (best remembered for A Raisin in the Sun) illustrates a man’s foray into the “Bohemian” lifestyle while managing to also address topics of ethnicity, suicide, politics and homosexuality. Of neither woman would it be said that they spoke only to what they had experienced personally.
Our discussion asked many questions. Some of them were: Has political correctness skewed this discussion in recent years? Must we limit our imagination as dramatists? Is there censorship inherent in some aspects of this topic? Can we “speak” for a group we are not a member of? Are there “credentials” that make a voice “authentic?” If we write a character, do they represent more than the question we’re trying to ask? And finally, as artists can we explore all realms of the human psyche, regardless of those we have experienced personally?
These questions obviously must be answered by each individual artist. But I wonder where we might be if Shakespeare had been told he couldn’t author Othello, since he was clearly not a Moor. Or perhaps be told Lady Macbeth might be better drawn and layered if penned by a woman?
Variations on this topic are cropping up all over the United States. As a playwright who’s sat on many panels about diversity in the theatre and/or multi-cultural aspects of the theatre, I find the issue fascinating. The questions posited seem to be ones for the ages. And while I may not have any answers, I do have another question…when trying to illuminate the human condition, isn’t it best to remind ourselves that what’s primary here is the word human? Regardless of anything else, that’s a topic we can all write about “authentically.”
As a nice bookend to the discussion, Ms. Douthit mentioned she’d been a proud member of the Dramatists Guild for over 25 years and valued it greatly.
DG National Report: Philadelphia by Tom Tirney
In sports-mad Philadelphia, it is gratifying to find a playwright that cares about themes involving a pigskin or baseball. That’s how I met playwright and long-time Guild member, David Robson.
His play, Assassin – about the confrontation between an infamous football linebacker and the son whose father he paralyzed on the gridiron – premiered at the Adrienne in spring 2013. I attended the opening where a number of sports pundits and Comcast talking heads attended, including Ray Didinger, my favorite football sportscaster.
Afterwards, I asked Dave to a Philadelphia Eagles game and an opportunity to sit down and talk. The Eagles game never panned out but the interview did.
Tom Tirney: I love sports themes in theatre but find it rare. Maybe artists aren’t as concerned with sports as the average American.
David Robson: I’m not sure I agree with you: Eric Simonson is mining this vein. He has several plays involving sports including Lombardi. I follow football and other sports though I never set out to write a sports play; I wouldn’t know how. I wrote about conflict and diverging goals. Between the two main characters, something awful happened. But maybe you are partly right; sports is a ripe topic for theatre and I don’t know why there isn’t more of it.
TT: I saw your zany Playing Leni three years ago that Madhouse Theatre did and really enjoyed that you were able to employ Nazis in a comic way. It reminded me of Mel Brooks.
DR: Playing Leni is an exploration of Leni Riefenstahl’s psychology and her affectation of calculated blindness. It’s not as if she didn’t know that bad things were happening in the Third Reich. And that’s probably where the lightness and the comedic sensibility comes in.
TT: I hope that it will have a life after that production.
DR: It’s kind of tricky subject matter. I haven’t pushed it and neither has my co-writer John Stanton. The two character structure should be attractive plus it’s funny. I do think it has interesting things to say about personal responsibility too.
TT: What are you working on now?
DR: I have this strange idea for a full length farce and the plot is loosely based upon the racist film Birth of a Nation. It was the first film ever shown in the White House. In a strange way, it could be timely.
TT: Let me ask you about the tough work of playwriting – what do you do for the play after you’ve written it? How do you get it out there and market yourself?
DR: Conferences, phone calls, emails, letters: you name it. It is hard. I’m always asking myself if I’m doing enough. Donald Margulies was famous for putting himself out there and introducing himself to anybody who could advance his career. He’s an inspiration.
TT: How has being a Philadelphian shaped your writing and outlook?
DR: I grew up here and consider it home but there weren’t as many theatre choices then. There was the Wilma Theatre, the PTC, the theatre at the Annenberg and few others. God, now you have Fringe and all these troupes with homes or sharing homes and tons of world premieres every year. I’m just glad to be in a town like this.
TT: I’m perplexed by the proliferation of Philly premiers from non-Philly writers.
DR: You’re right. You see the new stuff coming in from New York or other areas. I wonder how the theatres look at it. You may have to ask them about that.
Robson’s Assassin will receive two more productions in 2014 at New African Theater in Cleveland, OH and Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, NY.
Playing Leni, 2011 Madhouse Theater production
Why I Joined The Guild
by Julia Jordan [from the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of #TheDramatist @dramatistsguild]
I joined the Guild because Marsha Norman told me to. I was her student at Juilliard and in one of our very first classes she told us, “If you are going to be a playwright, you have to join the Guild.” I had exactly one unfinished play under my belt but a few more in my head, so I signed up.
At the time I had no agent and no productions, but a few years later in the midst of my first production it was not my agent, it was the Guild who swooped in and helped me when I needed it most. The theater producing my show was dragging its feet on paying me. The actors were being paid. The director had been paid. My slip fee was overdue and I needed the money badly. I lived on a boat at the time. (Twenty years! Long story.) The slip fee was my rent and the dock-master wanted it yesterday. There was no avoiding him. He was there checking lines and docking transients every day. One phone call from the Guild and my check was in the mail. My slip fee was paid and I had another month or so of peace in which to write.
Over the years, the Guild has come to mean even more to me. It is, as Ms. Norman often says, the best club in the city. I have become more involved in its work by sitting on the Steering Committee and the Council. It is a benevolent community of established writers reaching out to and paving the way for the emerging.
I was helped along and protected when I was a young writer. When I began to work on parity for female playwrights the Guild and Gary Garrison offered support and advice. When Marsha Norman, Theresa Rebeck and I began the Lilly Awards for women in theater, the Guild partnered with us and underwrote the endeavor. Now, becoming a little more established myself (I now live on land!) it is an honor and a thrill to sit on the Council with writers that I have idolized for so long. It is an honor and a thrill to be part of the continuing legacy of the Guild by protecting and extending a hand to the next generation of playwrights.
JULIA JORDAN is the author of Murder Ballad, Tatjana in Color, Boy, and Dark Yellow among others. She is one of the proud founders of the Lilly Awards and sits on the DG Council.
Illustration by Dan Romer
DG National Report: Northern Ohio by Faye Sholiton
Daily missives that open with “Dear Playwright” remind us how hard it is to get our work onto a stage. Some writers add a degree of difficulty by living and working in markets too small to be called “markets.”
Meet playwright Eric Pfeffinger, whose Toledo address hasn’t stopped him from getting work done all over the country. Among his prestigious venues: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Geva, the Phoenix Theatre, Bloomington Playwrights’ Project, InterAct, Imagination Stage, the Signature, PlayPenn, Page 73, the Rattlestick, New Jersey Rep, and Available Light.
Pfeffinger is modest about his career, declaring on his website, “He enjoys a robust Midwestern humility.” His humor is self-deprecating (“It was either playwriting, or whittling.”) And his assessment of his career feels familiar: “A sensible person might have given up long ago.”
He became hooked on theatre 35 years ago, finding a captive audience in his third grade classmates. By college, he was still writing and performing, but gained more recognition for cartooning and writing fiction. After college, theatre beckoned him back. By now, he had discovered theatrical collaboration, an experience “unmatched in any other creative endeavor. A perfect fit [with other artists] gives you a high that can keep you going for years.”
Not that he’s had to wait that long between gigs. Each year has yielded productions and/or development opportunities. One connection begets another, most recently with a reader in Louisville recommending a script to a colleague in Texas, leading to a San Antonio run.
About now, it’s important to mention how good the work is. It’s funny, intelligent, provocative, bold and extremely theatrical. His play Some Other Kind of Person, commissioned by InterAct, is a brilliant spoof of our irrepressible urge to save Third World strangers. His darkly comedic Accidental Rapture follows a quintet of politically and religiously mismatched friends staring down the Apocalypse. Who knew the Rapture was funny?
It was a production of Rapture that remains a career benchmark for the playwright. Produced at the Visions & Voices Theatre in Chicago, it was “glorious in every conceivable element, a great experience. And the review in the Tribune was the best review I’m ever going to get,” he says.
The afterglow was fleeting, however. Another Chicago theatre soon produced a script that “wasn’t as strong as it should have been,” to lesser acclaim. But from that experience, Pfeffinger understood that you always need a solid answer for “What else have you got?”
Pfeffinger admits that marketing isn’t his strong suit. Between his day job (he’s Children’s Librarian at Toledo Lucas County Public Library, where his story hours are more performance than recitation), his travel, and time with his wife and two children, he barely finds time to write. Marketing is his way of avoiding writing, he says.
Mostly, he opts for repeat submissions, believing that literary managers (a title he has held) look for new work from familiar artists. He also trusts that when something does hit, it will prompt still more industry connections.
Such connections in Toledo are limited. Producing companies draw from a predominately local talent pool. A playwright is unlikely to run into a theatrical agent on a city bus.
On the other hand, Pfeffinger enjoys life in his adopted city, “a respectable, blue collar town.… It’s an affordable place to live. And people are ridiculously decent.” Its coffee shops boast ample work spaces, a measure of solitude, electrical outlets and free parking. Take that, Gotham!
Moments of self-doubt pass quickly because “There’s a degree to which you condition yourself to just not stop.” Besides, he’s able to vary his pace, writing (among other genres) children’s theatre. His play Pink Think is part of NYU’s 2014 New Plays for Young Audiences program. In 2015, he will take his play The Day John Henry Came to School to DePaul University.
Still a novelist, he has co-written The High Impact Infidelity Diet with Indianapolis playwright Lou Harry. That one’s been published and has also been optioned for film by Warner Brothers.
And so he keeps plugging away in Toledo, grateful for every opportunity that’s come his way. Wherever he is.
DG National Report: North Carolina by Kim Stinson
2014 is the 21st year of The North Carolina New Play Project. This year’s winner was Dramatists Guild member Evan Guilford-Blake’s Mountain Greenery. A workshop production of the play was presented April 4-13, 2014 at City Arts Drama Center in Greensboro, North Carolina by the Greensboro Playwrights’ Forum and 3rd Stage Theatre Company.
Guilford-Blake appreciates the opportunity to workshop this play as he values the process of development. He offers fellow playwrights the following advice, “Write! Every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. That will help you retain the flow of the script. I wrote Mountain Greenery in five weeks—over seventeen years. But the first half flowed like water till it hit the dam, then the last half rushed out when the dam finally broke. Rewriting was, and always is, the easy part.”
Having had a long career, he also offers his thoughts on why he writes for the stage:
“As a director once told me, nobody invites you into this business and no one twists your arm to get you to stay in it. Being a playwright is enormously rewarding—nothing I’ve ever felt matches the rush of finishing a script and knowing it’s good. I’ve had about 40 plays produced, won 42 competitions and had 30 scripts published, but there’s a special thrill that comes with writing ‘End of play’ on a work that’s been in progress. And it’s also rife with frustrations which anyone who’s been a playwright long enough to start piling up rejections knows well. But you do it for love and because you’re compelled to and there isn’t much else in life that offers both stimulae.”
Career development is also important to Guildford-Blake who, “joined the Dramatists Guild in ‘95 or ‘96 on the advice of several playwrights…and became a voting member last year.” He feels that the Guild offers, “numerous benefits, but the contract and business counsel is the one from which I’ve benefited most. I teach playwriting and always advocate Guild membership for my students, even if they’re just starting out.”
The North Carolina New Play Project is an annual series run by the City of Greensboro through their City Arts Drama program. Each year they accept submissions from playwrights and choose one of those plays for production. There is no fee for submission. The winning play is given a workshop presentation and the winning playwright receives a small cash award. Submission is open to North Carolina residents, college students enrolled in a NC college or university and members of the Greensboro Playwrights’ Forum.
This project and ScriptFest at the Southern Appalachian Repertory Company are the only yearly calls for original works in the state of North Carolina with a long history. Placing ScriptFest on hiatus for a year, the guidelines for a newly revised contest are set to be released in fall of 2014. Both the NC New Play Project and SART are part of not-for-profit entities to which donations can be made.
DG National Report: Minneapolis/St. Paul by Laurie Flanigan Hegge
I recently spoke with Richard Cook, the Artistic Director at Park Square Theatre, a mid-sized theatre in the heart of downtown St. Paul. It’s a very exciting moment in Park Square’s history, as they recently announced a 2014-15 season with nearly double the productions of previous seasons thanks to the addition of a new thrust stage. This additional performance space not only allows for more programming, it also helps the theatre broaden and deepen that programming. Richard’s commitment and intentionality around a diversity of programming were set in motion several years ago, when he reviewed the processes that led to decision-making, and decided that in order to reach a younger and more diverse audience, he needed to discover new voices.
To that end, Richard has assembled a team of five artistic associates who function as fully engaged advisors to the theatre. These working professionals (which include DG members Aditi Kapil, Carson Kreitzer, and Ricardo Vazquez) help identify and advocate for playwrights and a diversity of new work, bringing projects to Richard for consideration and helping the theatre to create liaisons with new artists, building trust in the process. Functioning as more than a typical “play reading group,” the artistic advisors are actively changing Park Square’s future by expanding the range of work under consideration and ultimately, in production. During their three-year commitment to the theatre, the artistic associates also work closely with the theatre on a project near and dear to their hearts, as playwright, director, or as a performing artist. (Carson Kreitzer’s Behind the Eye just had its regional premiere at Park Square this past April. Aditi Kapil will direct Sharr White’s The Other Place in April of 2015.)
Richard describes the process of working with this team as challenging but inspiring. In his words, even from their first meeting, he was “blown away, as every single one of them brought shows to the table I wouldn’t have thought of as a ‘Park Square’ show. It opened my head to a range of work that the theatre can do. It’s exciting and honoring that these artists see this theatre as being able to do this work at the highest level.” And he has risen to the challenge. Park Square has continued to produce work that he referred to as “mainstream,” but the breadth of choices, the “menu,” if you will, has broadened, so that audiences can choose work they relate to as well as exploring a potentially new aesthetic. Carson reports serving as an artistic associate is extremely satisfying, pointing out that in the last season’s cycle, all four of the current members had a piece they championed make it into the 2013-14 season, work Richard says he wouldn’t have known about had it not been brought to him by the artistic associates.
Twin Cities’ artists have long appreciated Richard’s open-door policy towards ideas for programming at Park Square. Richard explains that by formalizing this advisory group and by reviewing the processes by which he considers his programming with intentionality towards building a younger and more diverse audience, he has fulfilled a goal set out in the theatre’s strategic plan several years ago: consciously changing the pipeline through which new work comes to his attention. Discovering the tributaries that feed the river of new work—that is the theory and practice behind this new process. And Richard still welcomes ideas from outside the advisory group, as well as from volunteer readers who read play submissions.
Besides creating liaisons with new artists, the two-stage programming affords the opportunity for Park Square to partner with three other producing organizations, introducing new audiences to each other’s work to the mutual benefit of all, as well as broadening the offerings to the more than 25,000 students Park Square reaches every year through school productions.
Photo by Carson Kreitzer.
DG National Report: Los Angeles by Larry Dean Harris
With this being the food issue, I thought I’d dedicate this report to two of the most delicious new works by SoCal Guild members. Both projects are moving forward because of the tenacity of their creators and the support of people who believe in the work.
THE 20TH CENTURY WAY
Tom Jacobson is one of the most prolific writers I know. If I didn’t like him so much, I’d hate him. His stories are so perfect for the stage, it’s hard to imagine them in any other form.
This play was inspired by the book Gay LA and a 1914 incident of entrapment in the toilets of Long Beach, California.
“The invention of trouser zippers and greater personal cleanliness around 1900 made oral sex much more appealing than in the past, so it became known as ‘The Twentieth-Century Way,’” Jacobson said.
“I was intrigued, because it was two actors who were hired to do the trapping. The idea of two actors playing all eighteen roles appealed to my sense of meta-theatricality.”
It’s a thrilling spin on the play-within-a-play conceit. To witness two extraordinary actors dodge in and out of roles at breakneck speed while propelling the narrative forward.
Jacobson wrote the play in 2008 and had a reading at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2009. The play was produced at Pasadena’s The Theatre @ Boston Court in 2010 and was nominated for five Ovation Awards. It then traveled to the New York International Fringe Festival winning Overall Excellence in Production of a Play.
There were other productions in Philadelphia, Ft. Lauderdale and Cincinnati. But not the “big” New York production.
So Jacobson took the initiative and – working with his director Michael Michetti and cast members Robert Mammana and Will Bradley (both of whom had relocated to New York) – produced a weekend of private industry presentations in NYC in March of 2014.
The gamble paid off: a full New York production is in the works for spring of 2014.
“Patience” was the key, he said. “Continuing conversations, jumpstarting initiatives, checking in with people regularly and taking advantage of new situations like both actors moving to New York.”
PART OF THE PLAN
The late Dan Fogelberg sold millions of records with his signature blend of folk and rock. While listening to the orchestral opening of his song “Nether Lands,” Kate Atkinson had an epiphany that his storytelling style would be well suited for a Broadway musical.
So she and collaborator Karen Harris set about to obtain the rights to his music.
“I wrote a very impassioned letter to Dan’s widow Jean Fogelberg,” Atkinson said. We flew to Nashville and pitched in person to Jean and Dan’s longtime producer Norbert Putnam, spent a year negotiating through the estate and ultimately obtained the exclusive rights to the Fogelberg catalog for the stage.”
“We were not the first people to approach Jean with an idea for using Dan’s music,” Harris said. “But we were the first she embraced.”
Using Kickstarter to appeal to friends and Fogelberg’s extensive fan base, the two raised $50,000 for two staged readings in Los Angeles. Readings for musicals can be expensive, because of the caliber of talent and rehearsal time required to learn all the music.
I was at one of those readings, and the electricity in the theatre was palpable. As of this writing, they are prepping a showcase for the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) national conference in San Diego this summer and a New York showcase with co-producers WalkRunFly (producers of Hedwig and Of Mice and Men on Broadway).
When asked about the secret to their success, Harris said, ”Staying patient and passionate about what we’re doing through every step. Which still applies!”
Atkinson added, “To trust that every little move forward will propel you to exactly where you are supposed to be at that given moment in time. As life imitates art, ‘Part of the Plan’ has become our own mantra as well.”