Rachel Bonds’ SWIMMERS

When Mike Donahue told me he was coming out from New York to California to direct Rachel Bonds’ Swimmers at Martin Theatre Company, I was delighted to successfully weedle an invitation to the first table read.  swimmersIf I had to pick only one activity associated with new plays, my favorite is to sit in on the first table read of a world premiere.  Although at that point a new play has almost certainly been read out loud before (in developmental readings or even perhaps a workshop) the table-read is the first time a group of actors, the playwright and the director who will be putting together the fully produced play ever meet together as a team and, sometimes, the first time many of them meet each other.  The actors have probably read the script at home but it is their first time to try out their ideas as to voice, inflection, how to read particular lines, and to start creating a certain chemistry with each other.

I have been watching the skyrocketing career of director Mike Donahue for several years now and had the joy of seeing two of the many world premiere productions he has helmed – Grace, or the Art of Climbing by Lauren Feldman and The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez (for which Mike won the 2014-2015 Joe A. Callaway Award for Outstanding Direction), as well as sitting in on some of his rehearsals for a reading of Laura Marks’ Gather at the River at the Theatreworks 2013 New Works Festival.

I love the way Mike Donahue directs.  Mike seems particularly suited to handle technical and practical challenges built into the structure of the plays on which he works.

Director Mike Donahue

Director Mike Donahue

He makes it look easy.  (Examples: the stunning “rock climbing” apparatus and choreography of Grace, or the Art of Climbing and the  show-within-a-show aspects of The Legend of Georgia McBride.)  He’s very hands-on and focused, but rather gentle with his actors and coaxes out heart-rending, believable performances.  He seems to build a joint vision with his playwright of how the play should breathe and grow and then works to make that happen.

Mike also seems to have a talent for building strong relationships with amazing playwrights (Jen Silverman is another on his often-worked-with list) and he and playwright Rachel Bonds worked together on the world premiere at Studio Theatre in Washington DC of her critically acclaimed play The Wolfe Twins (Kilroy List 2015). The Washington Post named the production as one of the Top 10 theater experiences of 2014.

Playwright Rachel Bonds

Playwright Rachel Bonds

So, I was looking forward to meeting Rachel Bonds, who was recently announced as the winner of the 2015 Rella Lossy Award, which honors an emerging playwright and supports a world premiere play; in this case, Swimmers at Marin Theatre Company.    The table read was also the first time I had the pleasure to meet Jasson Minadakis, Artistic Director of MTC, who was warm and welcoming, and clearly as excited about Swimmers and the new play development process as I am.

In fact, MTC is committed to the development of new plays as a central component of its artistic programs  and for nine years has sponsored two significant national New Play Contests – the Sky Cooper New American Play Prize  and the David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize.   As he explained in the introduction to the table read, it was while reading submssions for the Sky Cooper Prize that Jasson fell immediately in thrall with Swimmers and decided to produce the play. (This is particularly remarkable given the size of the cast – there are eleven actors in Swimmers!)  Jasson and his team continued, for months after that decision, to read and consider the hundreds of other plays submitted for the Sky Cooper Prize, but as just announced, Swimmers won the 2015 Sky Cooper New Play Prize.

I was so happy to be in that room during the read-through.  I found the play funny, engaging and thought-provoking and I’m looking forward to going back to see it with costumes, sets and lighting!  Here is Marin Theatre Company’s descriptions of the play:

Tom has fled to the basement to escape the end of the world. On the first floor, Vivian makes the mistake of saying what all the women in the office were already thinking. Randy’s smoking dope on 2, Farrah’s waterboarding Yuri on 7 and the toilet explodes on 4.

In spite of looming coyotes and apocalyptic billboards, everyone does their best to get through another day. Life is short, after all – whether or not the world’s actually ending.

This world premiere comedy by up and coming playwright Rachel Bonds explores the relationships we take most for granted – those with whom we work every day – and asks us how well we know the people we share a break room – and maybe even a lifetime – with.

Swimmers takes place entirely in a one-company office building, beginning in the basement, with each subsequent scene moving higher in the building.  Here are a few production photos to whet your curiousity:

George (Charles Shaw Robinson) offering Walter a drink...in the middle of the day.  Photo:  Kevin Berne

George (Charles Shaw Robinson) offering Walter a drink…in the middle of the day.
Photo: Kevin Berne

Walter (L. Peter Callender) & Charlene (Sarah Nina Hayon) conversing in the break room.

Walter (L. Peter Callender) & Charlene (Sarah Nina Hayon) conversing in the break room.
Photo: Kevin Berne

Tom (Aaron Roman Weiner) & Randy (Max Rosenak) watching videos of coyotes that have been spotted near their office building.

Tom (Aaron Roman Weiner) & Randy (Max Rosenak) watching videos of coyotes that have been spotted near their office building.
Photo: Kevin Berne


I asked the playwright a few follow-up questions by emai  following our meeting:

SKF:  The building provides a structure for the play and to me becomes almost a character in itself.  Did that happen organically as you wrote or was that a part of your original concept?

RB:  It happened organically.  I really wandered into the first draft of this play—I didn’t make an outline, I had no sense of where it was going or where I wanted it to go—there was not a clear image or moment I was driving toward.  I let myself bounce around in the writing of that draft for a long time—until this structure of the building took shape.  Then it became a game for me—I thought a lot about how to introduce objects or themes on lower floors, and how they might reappear on later floors.  I thought a lot about what characters could and should reappear, and which shouldn’t.  I thought a lot about how information might travel up the floors of this building, and how the play could work as an accumulation.  I’d say the characters came first, and once I got to know them and their relationships to each other, then the structure came into view.

SKF:  Theatre budget issues make it increasing rare to see large cast plays, particularly new plays, produced these days.  You were very brave to write a play with a cast of eleven.  Can you share a little about your thinking, if any, about the cast size and its effect on the likelihood of finding a stage?

RB:  I’m bored of seeing the same people on stage all the time.  So I tried to write for people I feel I don’t get to see enough of and want to see more of—which became this play for eleven, somewhat odd, lonely people.  I honestly didn’t think much about cast size when writing it.  It just was what the play wanted to be.  People just kept appearing and I just kept letting them.  And I honestly assumed no one would ever read this play, much less want to DO it.  I considered it a crazy, private, deeply personal thing I wrote during a difficult time.  Until I let a few people in my writers’ group read it—and their response was so positive it made me consider taking the play more seriously.

I’ve had to be honest with myself that most theatres are not going to want to produce this play.  Ever.  But Marin was willing to take the risk, which is so exciting and heartening.

SKF:  Anything else you’d like to say?

RB:  So many people along the way encouraged me to make this play smaller, to conflate characters or cut them out.  Marin never asked me to do that, for which I am so grateful. The heart of this play lies in its accumulation—and each of the characters contributes to that in a meaningful way.  Jasson and everyone at Marin approached this process with a sense of “how can we make what you wrote happen?” rather than, “how can you make this work better for us?”

It sounds like MTC, Rachel Bonds and Mike Donahue have found artistic partnerships that work well for them.  Let’s all go see the result!  Swimmers plays at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, California through March 27.  Click here for the full schedule and to buy tickets.

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