Playwriting workshop at the community theatre – back to the future

Let me throw a few names around: Eugene O’Neill, George S. Kaufman, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, Susan Glaspell. What do they have in common? They all got their playwriting chops at local, community-run Little Theatres.

While New York’s Theatre Syndicate were touring lots of money-making shows that were fresh hits on Broadway, these playwrights were able to make their mark in theatre history. These people found places to get support for their work and places to try ideas and writing out on people who would not only come and see their plays, but were helping and abetting them to succeed. These were places that saw theatre as something more than glitzy, melodramatic, or vaudevillian entertainments that were a good way to make gobs of money. These local Little Theatres, the forerunners of community theatres, had seen the Irish Players and other global touring companies and realized that theatre could be much more satisfying than watching the travails of someone tricked into drinking, forced to forfeit family and society for the evils of drink, and then, miraculously, be “saved” from a fate worse than death. Copious tears of joy from the audience, or maybe only the backers of the melodrama.

From the international theatre companies all over Europe, came realism and that changed everything.

My point is that community theatres, a legacy from the Little Theatre movement in America, very often finds ways to do more than just entertain. Many of our community theatres have brought more meaning to those who attend and have strengthened their audience and volunteer support because of it.

My community theatre is joining the ranks of those local theatres that are doing more than entertaining, that are contributing to the health of theatre everywhere. There are two of us playwrights at my Playhouse and both of us came to 1) get our plays read by people with theatrical experience, and 2) to get a workshop-like situation where we can improve what we have written through thoughtful and helpful comments and suggestions of a community of theatre-makers and theatre-goers. I know it is a stretch to put us in the same sentence as Eugene O’Neill, but we are getting the kind of break he had: a place to practice our art.

So there was the young O’Neill, smitten by the theatre. He had heard of the Provincetown Players, where a new kind of theatre was being founded by people like Robert Edmund Jones, who was developing a new theatre stagecraft. He went there to write. (And probably to do a little socializing.)

He had to deal with rejection at first, but sure enough, he finally clicked with Bound East for Cardiff. He got recognition. Better yet, he got produced.

The Provincetown Players moved their venue to New York City (this was in 1916) and did well for a few years, but it wasn’t until the 1920-1921 season that O’Neill had a big hit with The Emperor Jones.

I love looking back at significant times in American theatre history and see that some things don’t change, while others need to. Too often people, especially those who used to be involved in theatre and are now doing it on the weekends or when they have time from family, work, and friends, say, “Oh, it’s just community theatre.”

“Just,” my foot. We are carrying on a great tradition in this country. To many of us who work at it and who subscribe to it, we want more than passing fads from our community theatre and ways to generate box office. The idea of new playwrights working at the community level is good not only for the playwright as a tool to develop the craft, but it is good to stimulate and generate new audiences who are more representative of the community itself than those who want to be “just” entertained.

Besides. It’s fun.

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1: Theatre globalized

One of the things that set my teeth on edge, back when we technical writers copy-edited each other’s work, was when I came upon “utilize.” It was a perfectly good word when it meant making a thing do what it wasn’t originally meant to do: “I utilized the washtub as a temporary raft in the flooding backyard.” But not “I utilized the rowboat to row to the other side of the creek.” The washtub was meant to wash clothes in so if you need it as a raft, you are utilizing it. A rowboat, on the other hand, is meant to navigate over water, so you would use it to get to the other side of the creek. You get the idea.

Characterizing theatre as an example of globalization makes me wary. It’s the “ization” thing again. The theatre becoming world-wide? Wasn’t it always? Most of us read a Greek play or two in our day. How global can you get? Yeah, you can say that now. But there weren’t always handy paperbacks with Greek plays available.

Theatre usually starts locally, in a specific branch of civilization, mirroring back to the audience just what their culture looks like. So if theatre is local, how could it be global? Is global-izing just a modern way to say theatre is being used for something new? Like making money?

But wait. Sophocles may have been wright-ing plays for local audiences, but Aristotle, writing for the ages, built his notion of what makes tragedy on those plays of Sophocles and others. And we still mull that over when we are watching theatre critically. What the local Greeks, sitting in amphitheaters watching these plays, were seeing was something true about human nature, so true that it transcended that local culture into something that we still relate to and learn from today. You can watch Trojan Women in Greek and get the idea that war is hell on the people left behind, an idea that is still alive and true today in works like the movie American Sniper.

So globalization has something to do with ideas that resonate throughout cultures. Studying globalization more closely, though, in my readings for a Coursera course, “Theatre and Globalization,” I find that the concept also has an economic ring to it. Trade with other countries. Buying and selling internationally and forming world groups to facilitate this.

Take the world tour of The Lion King. At first glance, there is a mix of world-cultures, plus some world-class puppetry, but it remains a product of an homogenized version of what the United States and Disney’s idea of African culture is. The intent of the tour was to bring the show, as is, unmodified, uniform, to theatres around the world that could accommodate this production, without changing anything. And a global intent is there: bring an American brand (show) that would put butts in seats all over the world, and better yet, have it be the means to open those international wallets to all the peripheral goods and services on offer with the Disney logo. Not a bad business strategy. And an example of economic globalization.

Is there more to say about theatre and globalization than economics? There is that exchange and assimilation of ideas to explore.

Next up: The Hull House Theatre: Is Little Theatre local or global?

(Got comments? Email me at m.turner@theatre-follies.com)

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How improv finds its way into a play

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen a little of where improvisation comes from how it developed in the 1960s, and where it ended up in the present time. Along the way, some of you may have read Sara’s blog (see this page for links) about how she spent part of last summer preparing to play various parts in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. Here’s how that effort turned out and here’s what I saw of improvisation influencing a script.

See also:

What do you know about improvisation?

Improvisation: some background

The script started as an effort of the Chicago-based Neo-Futurists back in 2003. It was then called, appropriately, 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. It has become a national event and was produced in various theaters by various groups all around the country. There is even a web site to coordinate the events and there are videos on YouTube where you can see scenes of some of these productions.

The production at SCAD

Right before the elections, ad-weary and my head overstuffed with what both presidential candidates were claiming about the other, I went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) to see 44 Plays for 44 Presidents and that put everything presidential right into perspective. I went mostly because I wanted to see how my niece Sara made out after her summer’s preparations but the performance soon became all about the ensemble and not individual performances. Not only was it entertaining and oddly informative, it put forth the notion that these men (I can’t wait to someday be able to write men and women) into the context not only of their time, but of what is common to all times. I howled at what were some clearly inept leaders, cried for some good leaders who never had a chance (Jimmy Carter comes to mind) and mourned for some who, even though they had time in office, were cut down too soon.  Imagine how much more Lincoln would have achieved had he lived, and what would JFK’s legacy had been if he had lived long enough to see the Camelot metaphor encompass the whole country?

Some misunderstood, or understood only too well, as George W. Bush, played with a hint of deformity in this production by the inventive Ian Mather, shaped his whole presidency around showing up his father. None of the “plays” gave us a complete, unbiased picture of any presidency, but 44 is a heck of a lot of plays to present in one evening, so vignettes have to do. Yet the evening worked and the pall from being bombarded constantly with “messages” from all candidates loosened its hold on all of us watching. We lightened up. We saw that we needed to let go of the “life and death” hold elections have us in and just vote. The world will not come to an end if one or the other is elected. It will just be different. Either way. The message was, just vote. So we did. My brother is now ready to move to Canada, and I’m content that policies already in motion will get to play out.

But beyond that, what this production had was a lusty vibrancy to it that felt like even though it was obviously scripted, this cohesive ensemble were playing off each other and what was already in the script, and what they knew about each president. Everyone had a contribution that was both unique and alive. Got to credit director David Storck for giving the production a firm foundation the cast needed to give everyone a jumping off place to create. Storck has ties to Second City and is the former artistic director of Gotham City Improv in New York and it showed.

So what about improvisation in 44 Plays?

Finding creative ways to deal with staging a script that presents 44 people everyone thinks they know in a way that illuminates and also entertains, is a daunting task. The script does well, but finding 44 unique and memorable ways to illuminate 44 men in a couple of hours needs collaboration. That is where discussion and improvisation comes in. Improvisation can suggest creative staging to the director and creative business for the actors that become part of the finished performance. Sounds like a perfect set-up for improv to me.

In this production I saw an ensemble that was seamless, weaving in and out of presidents and the characters surrounding them, taking on and discarding the symbolic presidential coat, moving easily from one scene to another. And they did it by presenting each of our presidents in a very specific, physical, and theatrical way. To get to this level of performance meant there had to be brainstorming of some kind. Improvisation could lead to script enhancements and inventive business that put a unique stamp on each of the characters. The script would be the starting place. Improv would be the finishing.

In my view, criticism doesn’t revolve who was good or bad, who was the best, who should be voted best actor, etc. I see it as who fulfilled what was asked of them and how did they do it and how well did it work, depending on what they were asked to do. So I can’t pick out the best actor, but I can say that Ian Mather went way beyond what the script asked of him as he improvised physical ways to bring a character, like George W. Bush, to life through his body, his face, his voice, his attitudes. It was memorable to me, how he moved in an almost deformed way and how he seemed to be in pretzels at other times, all to show us who this character was internally, what was going on in the character’s mind. And Jorge Bolanos, a tall, sad Lincoln and who subtly and physically seemed to become whoever he was playing. Sara Turner, who knows how to build a comic scene and who, when improvising, uses her inner terror to make the character vibrate. (Improvising is terrifying to me, so naturally I think everyone who does it must be terrified.) Candace Kitchens brought a vulnerability to all her characters and I still feel the pathos of her Jimmy Carter, the outsider, who never did fit in. The twinkling eyes of Matt Webb, and all around good, insightful performances, too many to go into. Besides, I promised this wouldn’t be a review.

Improv meets the written script and a good time was had by all. Except for some of those guys who held the highest office.

Try it – improvising – in early rehearsals. See how it works for you. Of course, be sure you get your drama teacher on board first.

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Improvisation: some background

Improvisation has made its way into most legitimate acting programs and we are familiar with it as a way to teach acting or as form all its own. We know it and therefore we like it. We look upon it kindly as a good way to hone the actor’s skills.

It wasn’t always that way.

Improvisation had a big boost with the Commedia dell’Arte in 16th century Italy and then Europe, where troupes of actors went from town to town setting up a stage, playing stock characters with a plot that was more like an outline of where things would go. There was no real script. What the actors said and did to get the plot moving was often improvised, with the business becoming bawdy. People would gather around to watch and be entertained by romance and a kind of Punch and Judy show where someone was always being whacked around and the situations became more and more absurd, violent, obscene, and of course funny. Slapstick, like the three Stooges, but with real slapsticks that made a lot of noise when someone got slapped around with one. I imagine commedia to be like one of those raunchy/funny kind of movies like Get Him to the Greek that I always thought appealed only to dumb beer-swelling guys until I saw it and actually liked it. (I neither swill beer, nor am I a guy, but funny is funny.)

And later on, in the 1960s, there was Off-Off-Broadway. What was it like back then? Let’s image you are a theatergoer before the 1960s and there was only Broadway. You dress up, take a cab to the theater, and take your seat in the orchestra. In front of you is a lush red velvet curtain bathed in tasteful light, waiting to go up, signaling that the play is to begin. The curtain is surrounded by a gilded arch carved with intricate motifs. The surrounding walls are equally ornate and the chandeliers coming down from the ceiling are tasteful and dim. The stage itself has a kind of lip that comes out a little over to where the orchestra would be if this were a musical. You are in your element, you think, as you watch from your fifth row center seat. When the curtain goes up, you know what you will see. Something called realism, which makes you think you are spying on a bunch of people where they talk to each other and work out their problems as if you weren’t there. At the end of  the evening their problems are solved and you go home thinking that you are lucky to be you and not those screwed-up people you just observed. But you are safe out there in the dark and if things get boring, you can always nod off without anyone knowing. When the curtain comes down, signaling that the play is over, you go out for a late supper, meet some friends, call a cab, and go home. A nice, carefree, entertaining evening, which means nothing visceral.

But there soon comes a time that something new comes to town. Your friends say you are getting stuffy and fuddy-duddy and need shaking up. There is something you must try, something your friends say is Off-Off-Broadway, whatever that is. They plan to meet you at something called the Living Theatre. Or La Mama. Whattheheck? What happened to the good old Helen Hayes theatre where people who knew what they were doing produced shows for your entertainment? La Mama? Really?

You look at your watch and wonder if you should make reservations for after the show. You pile into your car, but you go past the usual Broadway theaters and drive downtown even further.

Inside, you are disorientated even further. Where is the theater? There is no fifth row center orchestra seat. There is no gilded proscenium arch, there is no chandelier dangling from the ceiling, and worse, there is no curtain, red velvet or otherwise. Everything is stark and inhospitable. You are already longing for the familiar opulence farther uptown. Then you realize that what used to be just a lip of a stage gracefully peeking out in front of the curtain, now there is this giant apron of a stage rudely thrust right into the audience. In fact, there are audience members sitting on three sides of this crude stage and worse, there is furniture and props and things already set on this stage, if you can call it that, right there where everyone can see it. There is no curtain! you think again, suddenly panic-stricken. How will they start the play!

The lights go down and you think, Whew! Something is going right about this night. The lights come up and there are actors on that thrust of a stage and the play begins. Only what is wrong now is that you can no longer pretend you are spying on a bunch of people with problems. You are right there, in the midst of them. You are part of their problems. And it gets worse. There is no discrete nodding off here. The actors are practically in your lap and are asking you to participate. One brave soul sitting on the other side of the three-sided stage does and then the actors take off in a kind of jazz riff about what he just fed. What happened to the dialogue? These people are improvizing it as they go along. There seems to be some kind of a plot, but how they will get to the end of it, beats you. You are terrified they will grab you next and pull you on stage. The play ends and you stumble out of the theatre space. You can no longer call it a theater.

You cancel your supper reservations. No way can you eat after that. What is the world coming to when actors can’t even bother to learn their lines and they have to upset the audience for inspiration?

That’s how it was for some theatergoers back then. The end of theatre as we knew it. To others, it was the wave of the future, where theatre came to the people, where you could no longer be passive observers, but must become a dynamic part of what was “happening.” This form of theatre has lasted, even as the more legitimate Broadway has.

For a hint of the legacy of that Off-Off-Broadway theatre today, that used improvisation as a matter of course during a performance, check out things like Theatresports and interactive theatre like Sleep No More (see Sara’s blog, “Perchance to Dream.”)

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What do you know about improvisation?

I’d love to hear your comments about improvisation, but until someone actually answers this question through the comments function, you’ll have to be content with my answer:

Not a whole lot.

My interest comes from my niece Sara (see Sara’s blog on this page) who is in an improv troupe at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) in Savannah. Unlike her aunt, she likes improv and is good at it. It started with her blogging about what she did this summer to prepare for a play that uses improvisation as part of the performance, 44 Plays for 44 Presidents.

(See “Because every 19 year old theatre student loves Jimmy Carter” and “Who the Hell Are These People?”)

My background doesn’t go much beyond using Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin in acting classes. This is THE theatre acting textbook and to this day it is still on my bookshelf. To this day, I am still terrified of it.

Improvisation for me is something I know when I see it and can appreciate it, but if I have to do it, it frightens me so bad that I am speechless for days. I was always terrified of those damned exercises when I had to do them. My problem is that I’m a slow (conservative) study and for the life of me, I couldn’t think of a thing to do or say on the spot. It wasn’t until three days later that it came to me what I should have done. I was not a spontaneous kid. I’ve loosened up as an older adult. I think I missed the point.

Here are a few things I know about improvisation.

1. It’s a good way to teach actors how to give and take attention on stage.

I think (she’s also heard this from others) that what makes Sara successful is that she’s already got that nebulous thing sometimes called stage presence. I can’t define it, but I know it when someone on stage is so interesting, even when completely still, that your attention goes back to that person. It’s almost as if your attention knows that here is a safe port and things are going happen if you just watch this person. It’s a restful, comforting feeling, like a port in an acting storm and yet there’s energy there that is compelling, that lets you know things are going to get interesting real soon.

I don’t know if you can teach someone to be that or have that quality, or if you can even learn it. I’m tempted to say that you either are or you aren’t.

But I do know that there are things you can do to enhance that quality in whatever measure you have it and one of those things is learn to do improvisation. With improvisation comes, believe it or not, a kind of calm that comes from confidence.

An example: It’s the red carpet before an award ceremony. Tina Fey has her― “Oh, gee, who me?” Stumble, stumble. Shaky smile. Glance around wondering how she landed here with all these people ―thing going on. But she knows exactly what she’s doing. She is improvising. Later on, there she is again, sitting next to Amy Poehler. If you are really watching, you see that tentative look, but a little above that innocent wisp of a smile, you can see her two fingers pop up in a peace vee waving over Poehler’s head. For millions of people to see.

I kept looking and watched while her whole shtick turned into this supreme, un-arrogant, confidence.

That’s not nerves or alcohol or jitters or attention-seeking. That’s someone with a lot of confidence who is improvising.

2. It doesn’t have to be funny all the time.

Improvisation works for drama, too. Just think of how easily you come up with all kinds of rationalizations for why you should be allowed to hang out after rehearsal on a school night. Drama ensues.

3. The improviser has to say ok to not always hitting the mark. And other rules to live by.

(Translation, it’s ok to fail.) Letting yourself fail doesn’t mean you are a failure.

I saw a TEDx video by Dave Morris, “The Way of Improvisation,” during which he outlines and demonstrates some points about improvisation, which he characterizes as a process. It’s a lively and practical discussion. You should check it out.

The thing that struck me most, besides the fail thing, was that you can’t say No in an improv. It shuts everything down. (Is that a life lesson?) You can say Yes, and should, but you may want to add, And. So your response would be “Yes, and….” where you add something to what has already gone before. Collaboration and a way to get your ego out of the way.

4. I know that improvisation in the theatre didn’t start with Second City.

There has always been improvisation in the theatre. More about this in a later blog.

5. You can see the fruits of improvisational collaboration today.

Just turn on your television or head on over to a comedy club that does improvised skits, which is a short form of improvisational theatre. Or travel to Chicago and catch anything at Second City. Or see 44 Plays for 44 Presidents at SCAD or at a whole hoard of theatres across the country just in time for the 2012 election. (Go to http://playsforpresidents.com/ to find or a performance near you.)

On television, there is (drum roll) Saturday Night Live, Portlandia, among many others. Maybe reruns of Whose Line Is It Anyway whose skits are improvised in front of your eyes. This is a short form improvisation. (Check YouTube for some of these Whose Line skits. Or you can go to their web site http://whoselineonline.org/ to see all the episodes free.)

Comedies like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. They are scripted and set but there’s a good chance that to get that zing, somewhere, someone improvised what could happen in a scene, then they discussed it, then wrote a script.

Portlandia seems like it benefits from that kind of collaboration.

A Chorus Line was created that way, with people talking, improvising, discussing, until an organic script came out of it.

6. I know it’s not all about dumping out whatever comes into your head, that there are rules to follow.

Which seems counterintuitive to me but the way Dave Morris explains it, it makes perfect sense. Rules give it structure.

My problem doing improv was always a fear of not doing it right. But here’s the thing. Morris says to just relax and enjoy it. Keep the rules in mind and you’ll have all the structure you need. Get your ego out of it. It is not about you. It is about what is happening right now right in front of you. Go with it. It just is. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. (See? I did read Spolin.)

Stay tuned… there’s more on Improv coming. Right here.

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