The Amazing Grace of Lauren Feldman

I recently had the pleasure of meeting gifted playwright Lauren Feldman, who agreed to a follow-up email interview about her experiences with the new works development process. Her thoughtful and provocative answers are below.  But first, I want to briefly tell you about Grace, or the Art of Climbing which I saw during its world premiere run in February at the Denver Center Theatre Company.

photo by J. Koskinen courtesy of  Denver Center

photo by J. Koskinen
courtesy of Denver Center

 

Rock climbing is story, story-teller and metaphor in Lauren Feldman’s compelling play.   There are so many layers to this play that I’ve found it surfacing in my thoughts repeatedly during the weeks since I saw it and that, for me, is one of the best indicators of a good play.

Poignant and funny, the story itself is not unusually profound but is all the more relatable because of that and is an ideal one for showcasing the quest and personal journey the rock climbing represents.  Scenes shift with relative ease among real time, memory and fantasy as the main character tries to climb her way out of depression and navigate a transitionary time — dealing with the end of a relationship, serious health challenges of a parent — a moment when who she is,  what she wants, and what her next step should be, are all unclear even to herself.

The set consisted of nothing more than a deceptively simple-looking grouping of metal beams and struts punctuated with strategically placed climbing holds.  A fixed vertical structure plus three beams descending from the ceiling, adjusting and moving their horizontal angles as needed, was a perfectly engineered marvel of set design that not only enabled the rock-climbing movements necessary to the play but helped create sound, light and visual effects that enhanced the overall mood of the stage and the story.

photo by J. Koskinen

photo by J. Koskinen

I have heard Loretta Greco, Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre in San Francisco,  describe the plays she loves to do as  “muscular” — meaning that the language is taut and exciting, that the play stays just ahead of its audience.  While that is certainly true of this play, Grace…  is also muscular in the strictly literal sense of the word.  Each of the seven actors in the cast were true athletes. (The director, Mike Donahue, told me that part of the final callback auditions took place in a climbing gym.)  The beauty and sometimes strain of these athletes’ movements as counterpoint to their words and interactions played an integral part in the communication of the story.

There is poetry to this play that is hard to explain when writing about it, but hard to miss when seeing it. The interweaving of the language, the concepts, the athleticism and the overall visual beauty tells a kind of truth that keeps you thinking for a while.  Grace, or The Art of Climbing is an intriguing play and I hope it gets picked up for future productions so other people can keep thinking about it for weeks after they see it.

E-Mail Interview with Lauren Feldman:

1.       I loved your play Grace, or The Art of Climbing which I recently saw in its 2013 world premiere run at the Denver Center.  It had a staged reading at the Colorado New Play Summit the year before.   Aside from just getting the opportunity to get the play produced, how important or helpful was the reading to you in developing the final produced form of the play? How much did the play change in the intervening year?

Aw, thank you Susan! The bulk of the rewriting occurred over the course of rehearsals and in the several months prior. I credit Liz Engelman (production dramaturg) and Mike Donahue (director) with the massive fruitfulness of those six months of revisions; they asked keen questions and shared terrific observations and insights. The actors did as well. So

Lauren Feldman

Lauren Feldman

that’s when the play most evolved, and it evolved a TON. And I credit Liz Frankel (reading dramaturg) with laying the groundwork for those changes, during the play’s reading at the Summit the year prior. The revisions for the reading were less massive, more intricate, more nuanced, like weaving gold threads into a tapestry, whereas the recent revisions for the production altered the tapestry itself.

 2.       You have written quite a few plays and have had several commercial productions.  Could you talk about your past experiences with play readings or new works festivals?   Some playwrights feel they can be an alternative to production rather than a stepping stone.  Do you share that concern?

I do find that play readings run the risk of replacing productions, in our national new play landscape right now (and of late). It’s less costly (by far) to produce a reading, and it poses a much smaller financial risk. So producorially it makes sense why readings have proliferated. But, to me, readings can be deceptively dangerous. They tend to be allotted minimal rehearsal time, but they’re presented and received as a glimpse of a new play. But many new plays can’t really be accurately translated or received via reading with just a handful of rehearsal hours; there’s just too much there that can’t possibly be accessed, explored, and expressed yet by the cast. So readings, to me, often run the risk of being inaccurate representations of the play — for the audience, for the producers, and for the playwright. Readings that are used in the service of play development sometimes fall short of being useful, because of this dearth of rehearsal time (and in many cases too because it’s only being explored vocally but not physically and spatially; readings tend to turn a play into an evocative work of literature as opposed to an embodied performance in three dimensions). Sometimes a reading is genuinely and keenly tailored towards being a useful tool for a playwright who’s developing a new play, like when there’s a substantial amount of rehearsal time allotted (as in the Summit), and a great dramaturg available (also in the Summit), and when the theater is checking in with the playwright to see how best to tailor the reading to the playwright’s and the play’s needs (the Summit did this as well). But more often than not, a reading conflates everyone’s individual goals/needs (the theater might want to drum up interest and maintain audience investment, the artistic director might want to get a sense of how the play dances with an audience, the audience might want to feel included in the act of new play development, the playwright might want to get an accurate sense of where her new play is at and what works and what doesn’t and what needs to be revised next), and it is very, very hard to structure a rehearsal and reading process that effectively fulfills each of these individual — and sometimes conflicting — goals.

All that said, there’s also something joyful and simple and beautiful about reading plays aloud with an audience and nothing more — just a simple celebration/recitation of a new and/or beautiful script. It’s just that while that may satisfy an audience, it may not necessarily serve the playwright or the play in its evolution, nor does it take the place of a fully staged, fully embodied production. Scripts are blueprints for production, after all, like scores are blueprints for music. Yes, I can learn about a score, and imagine how it sounds, by reading it, or by having some musicians hum or strum it out for me. But that’s not the same as hearing it well rehearsed and fully performed by an orchestra. And if it’s a new piece of music, the composer can’t possibly learn what she needs to learn about her new score until she’s heard and seen this full orchestral rehearsal and performance.

 3.       What was your first big “break”? (how did you get an agent or your first significant reading or your first production?)

I don’t know that I think about things in terms of big breaks, at least not in my own career trajectory. But certainly this production at the Denver Center has been the highest profile production I’ve yet had, the most visibility, the longest rehearsal process, the most resources; it was pretty extraordinary. I’m not sure I know how it ended up happening. I think my agent at the time, Mark Armstrong, a wonderful, wonderful man, sent Grace… there once or twice, and (luckily) they accepted it for the next Summit. And from there, they selected it as one of the few Summit plays they’d be producing in the upcoming season. I’m represented by Beth Blickers now, another wonderful, wonderful agent, and — in a way — getting to work with Mark and then with Beth felt like two great strokes of fortune.

 4.       I heard you give a short but very intriguing reading from your work-in-progress Amanuensis.  When that play is finished, what is the process you and your agent will follow to get that work on stage?

When I finish drafting and revising Amanuensis (if that’s what it’s still called by then) to the point that it’s ready to be submitted to theaters for production consideration, we’ll draw up a list of places and people most likely to dig it and want to produce it, and we’ll send it on out to ‘em! And hope some folks take it up…

5.     How many things are you working on at once?

Hm. I’m not sure. Right now, three. Last year, often five or six (way too many). Once in a while I can work on just one or two things at once, which is my ideal. But then on top of the number of projects/plays I’m juggling is also the number of jobs I’m working. So that adds anywhere between one and three more balls in the air, or pots on the stove, or what have you.

6.    Finally, do you know the ending of the play when you start writing it?

With Fill Our Mouths, yes. With A People, no. The Egg-Layers, definitely not. Grace…, sorta yes. So… I guess it varies for me. And I don’t really have a preference. If I know where the play is heading, I find that impulse exciting, and I enjoy deriving what that insight teaches me about the play and about everything that happen in the middle. And if I don’t know where the play is heading, I relish finding out along the way.

So do we, Lauren.  

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