Insiders’ Glimpse of the New Play Process

I spent the first weekend of April with fifty or so other theatre lovers immersed in thinking and talking about and seeing new works in theatre.  Oregon Shakespeare Festival offered a three-day program helmed by Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, exploring the topic. Douthit was joined at various times throughout the weekend by playwright Luis Alfaro, Loretta Greco (artistic Director of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre), a panel of playwrights from OSF’s Play on! Shakespeare “translation” project, and the four tall, gorgeous guys who created (and perform in) the new musical The Unfortunates.  Enough to keep any new works enthusiast breathless.

Lue Douthit and Luis Alfaro

Lue Douthit and Luis Alfaro

Douthit put together a program that illuminated the process of play creation from the genesis in a playwright’s mind to a script to a reading to revisions to a rehearsal to revisions to more of all of the same and then, if all goes well, to a production.  She said, “The thing about theatre – it is still handmade.”  Then she went on to show us just that, and that it takes a lot of people working together.

Douthit thinks that “We are in a renaissance of writing.  There’s never been more writing – never been more forms of writing; never been more stories aching to be told.”  I could listen for many hours to Douthit talk about playwrights and plays.  She said her work is all about supporting the playwright.  She talked about “the rise in the twentieth century of the feeling of art; the explosion of form (like the camera). . . it is now not just kitchen sink realism.”

Time and space prohibit a complete description of this full and fun weekend, but here is a summary of some of our activities:

Luis Alfaro, a well-known and award-winning playwright, took the group through some writing exercises that he uses when teaching playwriting at USC, using prompts to get in touch with memories, thoughts or feelings.  (Example: write a few sentences about how you were feeling 30 years ago.)  Very interesting results.  Alfaro explained that, for him, playwrighting must be about truth and about feeling.  It is much easier to just write a story and not touch those deep and often painful places inside.  He said,  “How do I trick myself into telling the truth?  I can tell when something starts to bubble up.”  We also spent time exploring one of his plays, Oedipus el Rey, and hearing some scenes from the play read from the script.

Another great session comprised a group

Playwright Amy Freed

Playwright Amy Freed

of 5 of the 36 commissioned playwrights who are participating in OSF’s Play on! project where all of Shakespeare’s plays are being “translated” to, when warranted, more understandable English, but without edits or changes to place or time or story.  It was fun and fascinating to hear them sharing with each other their individual approaches to the project and how they were dealing with the “audacity of the assignment”.  Some were only beginning and one, Amy Freed, who is working on The Taming of the Shrew, has already completed a first draft and had a reading.  All seemed honored to be involved in the project, although perhaps surprised and concerned by the level of controversy the project has engendered.

In a weekend full of little but highlights, Loretta Greco was one of the brightest.

Loretta Greco

Loretta Greco

When she talks about theatre, she talks in poetry.  She can’t seem to help it.  She is a passionate and knowledgeable theatre artist, with strong views, backed by years of experience and excellence, and she talks with an articulate grace and power that can be mesmerizing.  So much so that my notes are pitiful because I was listening too hard to write it all down. Greco is the Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre at Fort Mason in San Francisco and also sometimes directs at other theatres as she did with The Realistic Joneses, a play by Will Eno produced at ACT which our group attended one night of the weekend.  We were able to speak to her about that play, as well as take a field trip to the Magic and attend a rehearsal of one of two plays by Mfoniso Udofia — Sojourners and runboyrun – that have since opened and are currently running in repertory at the Magic Theatre through mid-May.    (These two plays are part of Mfoniso Udofia’s planned nine-play Ufot Family Cycle about a Nigerian family’s triumphs and losses.  Magic’s website says that “her language is ethereal and poetic, and her characters are rooted firmly in questions of circumstance. . .”  She joined us after the rehearsal for a brief Q&A and was part of the playwright panel the day before; she is a stunningly impressive artist.)

sojourners

runboyrun2

Greco explained that at the Magic, she wants to make the playwrights the stars.  She agrees with Douthit that we are in a renaissance of American playwrighting.  She said, “The thing for me is how deeply some of the young playwrights are thinking.”  She said that  Mfoniso Udofia is a representative of that kind of emerging artist.  She is “struck by the profundity and sense of legacy” in Udofia’s plays and how the plays “excavate what legacy means and what it means to look forward.  This is so much about what she doesn’t know and has to imagine.”

[For a fascinating in-depth interview of Loretta Greco by Lue Douthit, check out the SDC Journal Summer 2013 piece “For the Love of Stories -- Loretta Greco: On Career & Craft:  interview by Lue Douthit.]   Here’s a quote of Greco talking about new plays:

“. . .The gestation period is contingent on what each play wants and needs to be, and the process is infinitely intriguing to me.  The making, forging, birthing of something new, is stimulating intellectually and always surprising emotionally.  It’s kind of like being a mother.  Every stage is perfectly intense, and you think, “This is just it.” And of course, you have to move into the next stage, and again you think, “This is it. Couldn’t be tougher or better!” That part of the new play process of constantly moving forward, digging for meaning, has never ceased to be fascinating.”

Our final panel was a visit from Ian Merrigan, Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt and Ramiz Monsef, co-creators of the musical The Unfortunates which was the second evening’s outing for the group.  This show had its world premiere at OSF in 2013 and just ended its second production at San Francisco’s ACT Strand Theatre.

Ian Merrigan, Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt,  Ramiz Monsef and Lue Douthit photo by Pat Taviss

Ian Merrigan, Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ramiz Monsef and Lue Douthit
photo by Pat Taviss

Although the music in this show is loved by virtually everyone who sees it, the story is not universally accessible, and the guys know it. After hearing them talk about it, I understood more.  Although their fans are plentiful and devoted, they did make some changes between Ashland and San Francisco. In discussing how much, if any, to change between the two productions, Jon said the questions for him were ”How much do you write down? How much is in the margins? How much is in the ghost of the thing.”  Ramiz said at one point it felt like “constantly building the Winchester Mystery House.”  There is clearly some deep and abiding affection among these guys and Douthit and many of the attendees who loved the original production in Ashland. Hearing the tales and many tribulations of the writing and revising process from this group of close friends was priceless.  (Not to mention that I am a big fan of Ramiz as an actor after seeing him in Guards at the Taj in L.A.!)

All in all, the weekend was everything a new plan aficionado could hope for.  There are nascent plans for another weekend in Arizona, perhaps involving OSF’s acclaimed production of  Marisela Treviño Orta’s play The River Bride.  If it happens, I’m in!

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