TEX will most likely get its own blog post some time after the videos are posted online. So I'd like to discuss the new plays, Burning Up the Dictionary and Ghosts of Hamlet. One piece is a fairly straightforward full length play, the other is a short piece of devised experimental theatre.
Let's start with the less conventional of the two:
This is a project I was invited to participate in by Meg Taintor, Artistic Director of Whistler in the Dark (and one of my favorite collaborators), shortly before becoming an artistic associate of that company myself.
Essentially, five different groups were each assigned one of the acts of Hamlet to interpret in a 10-15 minute piece, with the caveat that they could not perform the piece as written. I was assigned Act V. Which should come as no surprise to anyone as that's the one with the big duel.
My collaborators on this piece were Amanda Coffin, Ashley Korolewski, Joelle Kross, Mary-Liz Murray, and Rachel Coffin. I asked them to join me because each of them had two specific qualities: they are all fantastic collaborators in the process of creating something entirely new, and they all have extensive movement training. In the cases of Ashley and Joelle there was the added dimension of extensive vocal training and in the case of Amanda there was also the element of being a rather kickass dramaturg. I'd previously worked closely with three out of the five ensemble members as either a writer or a choreographer or both, and the other two came highly recommended by people whom I have tremendous respect for.
I based my concept for this piece on an essay by Edward Gordon Craig called "On the Ghosts in the Tragedies of Shakespeare," which is included in his seminal book, On the Art of the Theatre. Craig holds that the supernatural forces written into the play are the true driving forces of the action. Here is a piece of the essay:
These spirits set the key to which, as in music, every note of the composition must be harmonized; they are integral, not extraneous parts of the drama; they are visual symbols of the supernatural world which enfolds the natural, exerting in the action something of that influence which in, "the science of sound" is exerted by those "partial tones, which are unheard, but which blend with the tones which are heard and make all the difference between the poorest instrument and the supreme note of a violin"; for, as with these, "so in the science of life, in the crowded street or market place or theatre, or wherever life is, there are partial tones, there are unseen presences. - from On the Art of the Theatre by Edward Gordon Craig
This was very much on my mind because I had brought it up in an earlier conversation with Amanda on a really interesting Macbeth project that she has in mind (that I hope to be writing about once it happens). As I was already aware of her dramaturgy skills from working with her at the Playwrights Commons retreat back in August and knew that if I were to go forward with this, I would want her involved, we sat down and discussed Act V.
I am very interested in the idea of the three sons in Hamlet each fighting battles that were set for them by their fathers. As well as with Craig's idea of the ghosts interfering with and manipulating the actions. Furthermore, in the final duel, there are several verbal exchanges that a modern audience might not necessarily pick up, but which relate directly to the codes of dueling that were current at the time the play was written. So there was definitely going to be a duel influenced and manipulated by ghosts. Whether it was one ghost or more would depend on who I could cast.
But a funny thing happens when you open up the creative process to everyone involved and sit down and talk with a good dramaturg. The first scene in Act V takes place in a graveyard. Where Ophelia is buried. And where we might assume the entire character list ends up at the end. And there is Yorick. The court jester. Jesters were charged with speaking truth to power, and were an institutionalization of the trickster archetype on a certain level. Ms. Coffin was very taken with the graveyard. And I have a thing for tricksters and devils and such. And so a very twisted interpretation of Yorick became a major figure.
When I got the offer for Something Rotten I was initially hesitant to take it on as I didn't think I could assemble a cast and logistically manage creating a piece on top of all of my other projects. A thing like this is to be done right or not at all. But after a long conversation with Ms. Coffin about the plot structure of our project and the physical possibilities, it became clear that this would be too much fun to pass up.
I spoke to each ensemble member separately before rehearsals started. I wanted to make sure that everyone was ready to be part performer/part dramaturg, that they knew that I was going for a less conventional style, and that I was hoping for an ensemble created piece based on my concept. Everyone was up for it.
Another person who I asked a little more of was Ashley. Ashley recently completed her MM in Musical Theatre from Boston Conservatory where I had originally met her while fight directing a production of Killer Joe. She was later the title character in the readings of the libretto for The Marquis De Sade's JUSTINE that I'd co-written. An aspect of the piece that I really wanted her help with was the vocal score. I knew that I had trained (or extensively trained) singers involved and had the idea of holding and manipulating notes to create effects and highlight various sequences, but I am nothing resembling a composer. Ashley worked with the rest of the ensemble to create a vocal score using mainly transitions from unison to harmony to dissonance as the relationships between characters changed. What she did with my "Could there be a cool music thing when this happens? How about over here?" was pretty astounding.
So, the basic storyline of the piece: Yorick (Joelle) has two aspects of Ophelia in her thrall in the afterlife (split in two by her loyalties, and conveniently played by identical twins Amanda and Rachel). Hamlet (Ashley) and Laertes (Mary-Liz) attempt to make peace and are manipulated into an escalating conflict by Yorick and Ophelia(s). (This eventually becomes a rapier & dagger vs. katana fight. Because I could.) They die, awaken in the afterlife, reunite with an aspect of Ophelia, and make peace with each other. They then recognize Yorick as having manipulated them into fighting, attack her, lose, and then get rescued by Ophelia, who defeats Yorick by reconciling herself. The four reunite and are in harmony for a moment. Yorick says, "What, has this thing come again?" (see the Hamlet quote?), and they all fall and are still. Yorick laughs.
This was intensely physical with a multi-layered vocal score that included music, bits of text from Hamlet, and some things that I was not previously aware that the human voice could do. There were fights that played with time by coming in and out of slow motion, performers flipping each other and supporting all sorts of physical structures built off of each other, and a blend of elements wherein everyone got to draw from the various physical disciplines that they'd focused on in the past and blend them with the other disciplines in the room. Also, there was a double balisong sequence.
This was all kinds of fun to work on. It took the shape that it did because of the combined input of everyone in the room. I came in with a concept and people ran with it. The only thing I wish I could change was the very limited amount of rehearsal time. We did it in five rehearsals. I can only imagine what a more extensive process would have yielded.
I'm hoping that we get a chance to take this piece further. I haven't worked on that rehearsal model in far too long and would love to do it again.
Roundtable Reading of Burning Up the Dictionary at the Lark Play Development Center
Last week I was lucky enough to get a roundtable of my new full length play, Burning Up the Dictionary, at the Lark Play Development Center in New York. I'm a huge fan of the Lark and feel really lucky to have a relationship with them. They're basically an organization that exists to help foster playwrights. I was first put in contact with them when I was a National New Play Network Emerging Playwright Resident at New Repertory Theatre a few years back, and they've been a tremendous resource. I'm in fantastic company at the Lark. Pulitzer and Tony winning playwrights develop work there.
A roundtable reading is a fairly informal event in which the play is first read aloud by actors and then discussed as a work in progress by the assembled company (playwright, director, dramaturgs, actors, guests). The way they do this at the Lark is both incredibly supportive and unbelievably useful for the revision process that inevitably comes later.
My casting was handled by Frank Licato, who arranged for my play to be read by Susan Louise O'Connor and Sean Patrick Reilly. And they were amazing. The process was facilitated by Suzy Fay, who oversees the program (and has been dubbed "The Playwright Whisperer"). Also joining us was Alison Rooke, an Australian writer and Lark dramaturgy intern.
I've been billing Burning Up the Dictionary as a story of "language, love, lust, and loss." But I've also been describing it more informally as Neil Labute meets When Harry Met Sally. An element I borrowed from the film is that very little about the characters is revealed outside of their relationship to each other. (Think about it, you never know what either of them does for a living.) I don't even mention their ages. This was important for me as the actors who read the excerpts of this play at the Small Theatre Alliance readings and the Playwrights Commons Summer Playwrights Playground, were not long out of college, while the actors at the Lark were established adults. It worked both ways, but the different casting arrangements caused different moments of urgency. My conclusion of the moment is that I am not sure I have a preference other than that the actors be good at what they do.
This play is a stylistic departure from my earlier work, and so I was a bit nervous. I blogged about the Small Theatre Alliance readings where a selection of this play was performed not that long ago. That went very well, but an entire full length is a much more complicated beast than a ten minute excerpt. Also, as I wrote earlier I'm handling human intimacy in this play in ways that I haven't in my previous work. I will not go into detail, but there were scenes in which everyone in the room was blushing bright red. Including me. And I wrote the thing.
On the whole the play seems to work. There are a few plot points that need clarifying, and I will get on those soon. The funny parts are funny, the emotional journey makes sense, and the characters work. This is not to say that I won't be doing extensive revisions on the piece to make it stronger, but I'll be shopping this thing around in the very near future. I'm hoping to have more to report about it soon.