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Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”

May 29, 2011 3 comments

My concept for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.como) was deceptively simple – embed myself with a community theater group as they rehearsed and mounted a play over the course of several weeks. Practical realities dictated that I be there off and on, for a few hours there or few minutes here, in observing and reporting the experience, but I think I managed a compelling behind the scenes glimpse at some of what goes into the development of a theater production from first table reading to opening night. My theater of choice was the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  The theater’s namesake, John Beasley, is a fine stage, film, and television actor and his small theater is a good showcase for African American-themed stagework, particularly the work of August Wilson. And it was a Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, that the theater prepared and performed during my time covering the company.  On this blog you’ll find more of my stories about John Beasley and his theater, including many more pieces related to other Omaha theaters and theater figures, as well as authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers.  I am posting lots of of my  theater stories now to coincide with the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, and you’ll find several of my stories about that event and some of its leading participants.

 

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean “

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mounting a production has its own dynamic. Discoveries happen incrementally over weeks. This creative process occurs not before a paid house but among a theater family in the privileged moments of readings-rehearsals.

It means late nights, running lines, working scenes. Over and over. Until truth emerges. Developing a play is by turns grueling, moving, satisfying. It’s all about exposing and confronting your fears — in service of emotionally honest expression.

It’s not all inspiration. More like a grind. Adrenalin feeds anxiety. Caffeine fights exhaustion. An edge cuts the air. Making a fool of yourself is a distinct possibility. Doubts creep in. Anticipation awaits resolution. Tension seeks release.

The process unfolds hundreds of times each theater season. In big state-of-the-art facilities, in intimate black box spaces, in church basements. Fully realized performances spring from coaching, encouragement, cajoling, berating, freaking, experimentation, work and prayer.

Over several nights at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop a fly on the wall observed this company developing their production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. The two-act drama is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience. The JBT’s produced seven works in the cycle. Set amidst 1904 Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Gem’s a story of redemption.

Like most community theaters the JBT uses largely unpaid, untrained people who fit the work around busy lives-careers. There’s scant time to get things right. Much can go wrong. Chronic tardiness, family crises. Recasting a major part 10 days before opening. As a veteran JBT actor put it, “It seems there’s always something but in the end it all comes together.” Until opening night, the process, not the play, is the thing. In classic show-must-go-on tradition the troupe pulled Gem off. Getting there was heaven and hell.

Jan. 7 – “It’s a lot of work”

The first reading convenes. It’s like Bible study. Actors explore the sacred text — the script — under director Tyrone Beasley’s sober guidance. Hallejuah!

John Beasley, journeyman film-TV-stage character actor, headlines as Solly Two Kings, a loquacious drifter and former underground railroad conductor-turned- pure (dog manure) merchant. John arrives late, brimming with excitement about a new gig — acting in an August Wilson festival at the Kennedy Center in D.C.

Joining him in Gem are three regular JBT ensemble players. Retired electrician Charles Galloway is Eli, gatekeeper for Aunt Ester, a sage and spiritual adviser. Eli, also an ex-freedom fighter, is Solly’s best bud.

Andre McGraw, owner of Red Hot Barbershop, is Citizen Barlow, a fugitive come far to get his soul washed by Ester. Carl Brooks, Union Pacific systems analyst, is Caesar, a big, belligerent cop enforcing the white man’s law. Carl has an excused absence tonight. Ty reads his part.

JBT newcomers fill out the cast. Lovely Lakeisha Cox, grad student, plays Black Mary, Caesar’s sister and Ester’s successor-in-grooming. Tom Pensabene, dean of information technology and e-learning at Metropolitan Community College, debuts as Selig, slave finder-turned-slave runner-turned-peddler. Enigmatic Yvette Coleman is Ester. She’s a no-show. Stage manager Cheryl Bowles reads her part.

Everyone’s seated around a wooden table on the bare stage. The auditorium floor is stripped to the studs, awaiting new carpet-seats. Cast-crew wear street clothes. Introductions are made. When it comes his turn Andre jokes, “I’m born and raised in the John Beasley Theater.” Its namesake discusses the play’s musical language.

“It’s tough at first picking up the rhythm August writes in. I think August gives you enough that you won’t have to try to force it. It’ll be there.”

John commands respect. It’s he, as much as Ty, the ranks look to please.

Ty shares a JBT philosophy:

“We believe acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Being yourself is the first thing we’re looking for. Being in the moment. Being present.”

He suggests the players use personal experiences to make their characters extensions of themselves. “Be as specific as possible.” All to better ground one in the reality of the situation. That’s what “brings a character to life.”

He assigns homework. Actors are to flesh out character objectives, backgrounds and relationships, plus research facets of early Pittsburgh.

Ty impresses upon the cast what’s expected. “It’s a lot of work. It’s important to be here on time. It’s a long play and there’s relatively little time to do it in. If you’re here, you should always be working.”

“Let’s get started.”

The reading, opened scripts in hand, proceeds. Even dry, the drama’s inherent power is felt. In-character John tests Lakeisha by making direct eye contact with her. She rises to the occasion, By reading’s end the energy lags and lines suffer. John officially welcomes newbies Keisha and Tom with hugs and handshakes. He and Ty discuss a Plan B should their Ester prove unreliable.

Jan. 8 – “We’ll turn Omaha on its head”

Before rehearsal John covers a pivotal Act II scene with Andre. Ester puts Citizen in a trance that transports him to the City of Bones. Citizen imagines himself in a boat at sea. John says Andre must visualize it.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

“You’re going to have to take us to the City of Bones. We see it through your eyes. If you do this right, we’ll turn Omaha on its head –and we’re going to do it right.”

Citizen’s killed a man and the death of another haunts him. He needs to make himself right with the Lord. His inward journey to be justified drives the story.

This night’s about working the prologue, when the agitated Citizen appears at Ester’s house demanding his soul be washed. There’s many takes of a tussle he has with Eli (Charles). The commotion awakens Ester, whose serene bearing calms Citizen. The movements, pacing, blocking require much attention.

“Take it again,” Ty repeats. “Good work,” he says after another.

Our missing Ester’s here. Yvette strains finding the right beat. Ty wants her moving slowly, not feebly. Exuding an aura. He contextualizes Ester in the Wilson canon.

“Aunt Ester is someone that’s talked about in several of August Wilson’s plays. She’s a powerful, spiritual woman and her power comes from her faith. This is the first time she’s seen…People are anticipating her, so when you come out there has to be a powerful, spiritual presence.”

After false starts, Yvette hits her stride.

For the reading actors have underlined or highlighted their lines in their scripts.

Ty demands more from his players. “What I want you guys to do is look each other in the eye as you’re saying your lines. Try to lift the words off the page and really talk to the person…Really communicate. Really work on seeing the images.”

“Let’s take it from the top.”

He looks and listens hard as they work. Cheryl gives stage directions, feeding lines as needed. Ty has comments for everyone. Keisha needs to find Mary’s stubbornness, Charles must avoid indicating his actions, et cetera.

“Good, that’s better, let’s do it again,” Ty says. After a bit he declares, “OK, good, let’s get this on its feet.”

Before walking through the scene he takes Keisha aside, reminding her the words she speaks must be anchored in thoughts-images.

Minimal props are introduced. Blocking addressed. The scene plays disjointed, stilted, lifeless. Ty has actors try different things. “See how that feels,” he says.

 

Jan. 10 – “Let the words do it”

Scene one pits Solly and Mary in a dispute over the pure he peddles. Ty’s been on Keisha to be ornery: “Black Mary has an attitude.” Keisha shoots back, “You want some real attitude? Put some real pure in there.” Laughter.

The action’s fuller, tighter than two nights ago. When Ester enters she asks Mary for the pure. Yvette, realizing what Ester’s supposed to examine, asks, “So that’s what I’m looking at? Is it real dog poop?” She’s teased. “It’s going to be dry. All you gotta do is break it up,” John quips, trading smirks with Ty. They begin again, but Yvette’s still thrown by the doo-doo.

LaKeisha Cox's photo.
LaKeisha Cox

 

 

While not the director per se John freely instructs, careful not to overstep Ty’s bounds. John goes over movements with Charles, who, as Eli, responds to loud knocking at Ester’s door. “The urgency will determine how fast you walk,” John says. He shows him. “Does that make sense?”

“OK, let’s sit at the table,” Ty says. All the principals gather round. They read scene three. It flows well. The intensity builds. The volume so high John gestures for them to tamp it down. Carl’s feeling Caesar. In a long speech his bellowing voice rises in anger. After he’s done John comments, “You don’t really have to be that forceful. You’re a big man. It’s all there in the words. Let the words do it.” Carl says, “Yeah, I don’t have to make him a caricature.”

“OK, top of the scene,” Ty says. They read it again. Carl’s quieter yet still formidable. John can be overpowering, too. It’s why he works hard “to bring everybody up to my level of energy.”

John confers with Andre, who’s concerned about finding the right note for Citizen. “He’s a full man. He’s carrying that burden with him,” John says. “You working it. Don’t be afraid to try anything because Tyrone will pull you back.”

 

Jan. 14 – “Being here, being now”

John helps Keisha modulate her delivery. Her thin voice pitches up to make  statements into questions. “Try it again,” he says. “Down on the inflection. Keep going…One more time…Better.” “I’ll work on it” she promises.

The Gem set, which Tyrone builds by day, is more filled out. It’s basically a kitchen, dining room, parlor and staircase.

Ty and John discuss replacing Yvette. She’s missed rehearsals. She’s late for this one. “If she’s not here tonight,” John says, “then that’s it.”

John puts the cast through warm ups. “Get yourself loose. Focus on the breath. Slowly breath in and slowly breath out. It relaxes you. It keeps you focused in the moment and that’s what we need. Being here, being now.”

“One of the worst enemies of an actor is tension,” Ty says. He works with Keisha on a yoga position. He’s cast her and the others for qualities they share with their characters. Expressing that means letting go. “She has the power of Black Mary, but she’s shy to let it out on stage.”

Yvette finally arrives. She flounders with her lines.

John and Ty work with the actors on their characters’ motivations.

 

Jan. 15 – “It’s gotta be in your voice”                                                                                                                                                        

Yvette and John work one-on-one. He presses her to make it real.

“You don’t believe me?” she asks him. “Talk to me,” he says. “Make me hear it. Make me hear what you have to say. It’s gotta be in your voice because I don’t believe those other voices.” She tries again. “There it is. Did you feel the difference?”

 

Jan. 18 – “I want to get my soul washed”
The set’s now dressed with furniture-fixtures. The stage speckled with paint and sawdust. Ladders lean against walls, electrical cord snakes across the floor.

Per usual Carl’s arrived early to work his lines. He studies at a chair in the lobby. Others find sanctuary in the overstuffed theater tech booth or back stage amid the flats, costumes and props or in the cramped wings. Tonight, Carl and Keisha animatedly share the back stories they’ve concocted.

As actors straggle in, they run lines, scrounge for eats or just kick it. Charles is distracted. His Navy Lt. Commander son has gotten orders for Iraq.

Ty asks Andre why, as Citizen, he’s timid with Ester. “I’m feeling her out. I’m kind of like hesitant because I don’t know her. I’ve got this picture of her that’s she’s a scary looking lady,” he explains. “No, she’s not,” Ty says. “Why are you in her house?” “Because I want to get my soul washed.”

“Just remember you know that she’s the reason you’re there.”

“Lights up.”

Jan. 25  – “Come take the circle”

Nitty-gritty time. The Beasleys grow more direct. Ty announces, “Come take the circle,” a cue for players to form a tight circle in chairs. “Remember the exercise,” he says. Working in close quarters the actors call each other out on whatever rings false. Ty makes sure no one gets away with anything. In this intimate, in-your-face interaction there’s no where to hide. The extreme scrutiny bares all. It’s a living tableaux of pure concentration and naked emotion.

“I don’t believe you,” Ty tells Keisha, who’s plays opposite Carl. “Do you believe her?” he asks Carl, who nods no. “Then why are you letting her go?” “I’m just asking you to believe what you’re saying,” Ty tells all. Keisha goes again, but stops in frustration, saying, “I didn’t feel it.” Ty chastises her for breaking character.

Keisha’s under extra strain these days as her mother and aunt battle illnesses. She says the play provides a needed vehicle to channel her feelings.

Yvette’s AWOL again. And so it goes…

Jan. 29 – “We’ve all got to be in this”

There’s a new Ester. JBT favorite TammyRa Jackson has replaced Yvette with the opening less than two weeks off. A cosmetologist and mother of five, she concedes she’s anxious joining the cast so late but is warmed by how supported she’s made to feel. John won’t push back the run — not with the house sold out opening night. Besides, he’s confident his new Ester will “put the work in.”

“We brought TammyRa in because we felt she was the only that could do this in this short of time. She’s a tremendous talent. As she commits the words she’s bringing a lot of new stuff to the table, which I figured she would.”

 

Cover Photo

 TammyRa Jackson

 

 

Fresh carpet’s been laid down. A noxious chemical smell permeates the auditorium.

With “C’mon y’all” John beckons cast to work the crucial City of Bones scene at the table. The scene’s not jelled. The time’s short, the stakes high, the nerves raw. Music director Leon Adams hovers over the group to consult on song verses.

“We need to find this thing,” John tells the pensive cast, “so I need you to do as much work as you can.”

They begin. “Feel it, feel it,” he says. “See the stars, Andre,” who rocks in Citizen’s trance. TammyRa’s spot-on with the sing-song spell that puts Citizen under. John and Charles take up the chant. When Keisha and Cheryl speak out of character the chant’s broken, making John upset.

“Wait a minute, what’s going on there? Don’t talk during the exercise. You’ve got to stay in this, Keisha. We’ve all got to be in this. This is a very difficult scene. You’ve got to stay focused…This is a chant, and if you focus in on this you can feel a rhythm come up…If you find that, we’ll be half-way home.”

She’s taken aback. He holds her hand to show he’s not mad.

Next he turns to Andre to say he’s unconvinced by Citizen’s born-again epiphany.

“You’re still acting, Andre. You’re not there yet. You gotta go deeper, man. You gotta believe it. Just like in any ritual, any spiritual thing, you gotta be listening and open…in order for it to really take over, and I think you’ll find it in the rhythm. You’ll feel it. You’ll hook up into it.”

They take it again and again. Leo advises more “embellishment” here, more “swung” there. John reminds TammyRa to “keep the contemporary” out of her voice. She asks lots of questions. A good sign. Her young daughter Nadia hangs by her side as she guides Citizen on his way. John’s pleased after another take. “Just paint those beautiful pictures with those beautiful words. That’s nice, nice work.” He wants TammyRa to do more with the title line and cautions Keisha “not to throw away” a strong line about Satan.

A work in progress.

Feb. 6  – “I think we’ll be ready for Friday”                                                                                                                                          

It’s tech week and 48 hours until show time. The stress shows on people’s faces. The tense actors get costumed.

The seats are in. So are Ty’s notes from the staged run through two nights before.

The company lost yesterday to a snowstorm. “I was confident enough to give them that time to study their script and do their work,” John tells a visitor. “They’re finding their characters. We’ve come a long ways. I think we’ll be ready for Friday.”

A key player’s missing, however. Carl’s father died a few days earlier and he’s still in his native St. Louis for the services. Ty’s assumes the role tonight and may open in it Friday. He’s told Carl to take as much time as he needs.

As cast filter in crew clean up the freshly painted set.

“Actors to the stage please,” Ty says. They gather round and he reads aloud their notes — hand-written critiques, refinements. As is his penchant he works from general to specific. He directs packing Caesar’s gun in a waist holster.

“Overall, it was low energy…The audience is not going to be feeling the show. So keep your energy up everybody.”

His individual notes cover stage positions, cues, intonations, intentions. He demonstrates various actions. His most telling comments concern Andre. “If you don’t have that urgency of why you’re there…then it’s a tough show.”

Before the run-through John reiterates “it’s important we keep up the energy. Just keep the story moving along…”

They work late into the night. No preview tomorrow. Another rehearsal. Then it’s on with the show the next night.

Feb. 8 – “It’s finally here”                                                                                                                                                                    

Opening night.

6:30. An hour to curtain and jitters abound. On stage John runs lines with Carl, who got back last night. John presses him to emphasize each subject. Ty, unhappy the way Carl handles a speech to win over Mary, gets up in his face with, “You got to try to get her on your side. That’s what you’re trying to do here.” “Let me start over,” Carl says. He nails it. “Good, good,” John says.

 

 

 

 

Carl, hours removed from his dad’s funeral, never considered not performing. He says the play’s “a pretty good distraction.” He frets having “missed some valuable time” but is risking it anyway. “Something’s going to happen — stick around.”

John, wife Judy, Ty, Cheryl and production staff scurry to place props. Tom and Charles, already costumed, work lines backstage. The other actors get made up and change in the dressing room.

Past 7 the lobby fills with patrons. “We’re getting ready to open the house,” John announces. “Hold on, man, I need two minutes,” says Mark O’Leary, who hangs a picture and touches up a faucet. “You got it.”

Andre runs over lines to himself in the wings, pacing in a circle. He and Keisha share a tender moment. “A lot of different emotions,” Keisha says. “It’s finally here, so no matter what you’ve just got to go out there and have fun at this point.”

As insurance, TammyRa’s wearing an earpiece that Cheryl will feed lines into.

The house opens and folks stream in, unaware of the activity on set moments before and the beehive backstage.

Cast members squeeze into the small dressing room. They flit in and out. John, bandana wrapped around his head and big ass walking stick held in his hand, offers final notes to Charles and Keisha. There’s the usual “break-a-leg” well-wishes.

“What’s our time like?” Charles asks. “Not much — like five minutes,” says John, who asks Cheryl to round up the others. All the players cram inside. They clasp hands as Cheryl leads a fervent prayer. She refers to how “we’ve come up against everything” on this show. “We thank you God for this time we’ve been able to work together and join hearts and become friends and even family. We thank you for John Beasley and all of his hard work…He struggles to keep this going…but he hangs in there because he believes in us. He could walk away, but he doesn’t.”

“We pray you God that you will give us victory. Amen.”

A chorus of Amens goes up. John cracks, “Anybody got a collection plate here?”

The full house gets their money’s worth. The rich, naturalistic performances the JBT’s noted for are evident. TammyRa’s imbued with Aunt Ester’s old soul spirit. Keisha’s found Black Mary’s stubborn streak. Andre’s got Citizen’s raw yearning down pat. Carl strikes the right balance as Caesar. John shines as Solly. Charles and Tom believably inhabit their parts. Aside from a few awkward pauses, it’s fine theater. Few glitches or flubs. All the hard work’s paid off.

“I was proud of them.” Ty says afterwards.

Just another opening, another show.

Gem continues through March 2.

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Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference playwright Caridad Svich explores bicultural themes

May 29, 2011 9 comments

UPDATE: I attended a production of playwright Caridad Svich’s Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Theater as part of the ongoing Great Plains Theatre Conference, and the performance did what any good  theater should do – it transported me to another place emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.  It’s a strong work with deeply resonant themes of loss, grief, war, dislocation, transformation, community, and many more touchstones. Because it is so rich on the page, it would be hard not to mount a production that engages and moves audiences, but I thought director Cindy Melby Phaneuf and her UNO production team, combined with a dynamic cast of actors-singers and two excellent musicians, conceived and executed a visually and aurally stirring dramatic experience that would have captured any audience, anywhere.  It was the kind of night out at the theater that makes me hunger for more live theater.  I will definitely see Svich’s Twelve Ophelias when UNO produces it in the fall, eager to experience more of her multi-layered work. I will definitely catch at least one more play in the Great Plains conference, which runs through June 4. And, who knows, this just might be the motivational or inspirational spark I needed to tackle a serious rewrite of the play I wrote a few years ago and that I’ve left languishing in the proverbial drawer despite some helpful notes and encouraging words from a local theater professional whose opinion I respect.

Continuing my posts in celebration of the Great Plains Theater Conference, here is a very recent piece I wrote for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper published in South Omaha, about Caridad Svich, a featured playwright at the 2011 conference. I did a very long phone interview with Svich and had enough material for a full blown feature profile of her, but my assignment called for a short  700-word piece and that’s what I delivered.  I still think I managed to get some sense for who she is and how she views things in the article, though I would have preferred to have more space in order to flesh some points out and to include other elements of her life and story.

 

 

Caridad Svich

 

Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference playwright Caridad Svich explores bicultural themes 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

Caridad Svich, a leading figure of the American stage, is a featured playwright at the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College.

As a playwright, songwriter, editor and translator, Svich explores themes of wanderlust, biculturalism and dislocation. Her experience as the American-born child of an itinerant Argentine father and Cuban mother informs her work.

Her journey as an artist has paralleled her identification with “being a first generation American, trying to sort that out, and living bilingually,” she said by phone from her home in New York City.

“It took me a long time to come to terms with any sense of Latinidad. I think that’s something that came rather late for me, especially as an artist. I really didn’t write my first play that had anything remotely to do with Latino or Latina characters until my last year of graduate school.”

It was only then, she says, she acknowledged “I need to start figuring this out for myself.” Where before she viewed it as something to wrestle with privately, she realized it was permissible, even necessary to explore her identity crisis on the page and the stage. Nudging her in this direction were plays she read by Hispanics. It’s then, she says, she recognized “this is a world I’m attracted to and is a part of me…and I feel a kinship with.”

Participating in the first Latino playwriting workshop of the formidable Maria Irene Fornes (Saritia) became a turning point.

“I wanted to be part of a community of writing that could help me sort that out,” Svich says, adding it helped being around bilingual writers with their own hybrid identities.

Fornes became her “primary mentor.”

Though Svich doesn’t go out of her way to write Latino plays, those cultural themes are inescapably part of her.

“Ultimately I’m a writer, and when I look at the page I don’t prescribe what’s going to happen. I feel like a landscape, a story, a voice, a character will come to me and I’ll follow it wherever it leads, and whether the characters are Latino or not I sort of just take the story where it goes.

“But I feel the fact I am Latino. I am a first generation American that lives with the memories my parents brought with them from their home countries.”

Her work is known, among other things, for its critique of the American Dream.

“Because I am a child of immigrants I’ve always had this double point of view — I see what my parents went through not being from here, subtle levels of discrimination. Even though I was born here, I was treated sometimes as an immigrant myself.

“I feel like there’s always embedded in the work what is the promise that America as a concept holds and what is the reality. I have a couple plays that deal specifically with immigrant characters, but I also have plays that deal with characters who are elsewhere, in unnamed countries outside the U.S., who are thinking about what their America is and the image of America that’s exported to them.”

 

 

 

 

Svich says her critiques are meant to be constructive. Besides, she says, critical examination is “part of the job,” adding, “Part of the position of being an artist is to stand outside — it’s your duty to be able to reflect back.”

She also takes seriously her role as an established playwright. At the Great Plains conference she’ll be lending her expertise to emerging playwrights at panel discussions and workshops.

One of her plays, Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues, will be performed May 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Weber Fine Arts Building on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s main campus.

She describes this early, bluesy work as “still a touchstone play for me.” Set in the bayou, it’s about a woman mourning the loss of her military husband in a desert war. Haunted by the ghost of her man, the young widow is befriended by a community of women who try helping her through this passage of life.

It’s a love story with songs, influenced by the blues and call-and-response traditions.

A later Svich play, Twelve Ophelias, will be performed in the fall by UNO Theater. She calls this bluegrass oratorio an elemental play set in a primal landscape with the resurrected Ophelia visiting the ghosts of her past for some reckoning.

“I wanted to free her from her destiny in the original Shakespeare and give her new life by like getting over a really bad love affair and moving on.”

For conference schedule, artist and ticket information, call 402-457-2618 or visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu.

Attention must be paid: Arthur Kopit invokes Arthur Miller to describe Great Plains Theatre Conference focus on the work of playwrights

May 29, 2011 10 comments

With the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference going on May 28-June 4 in Omaha, I am posting a variety of stories I’ve written directly related to the event and others having to do with other aspects of Omaha theater. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is based on an interview I did with the playwright Arthur Kopit. It’s a lively, insightful discussion of the playwriting craft and of how events like the conference help nurture emerging playwrights.

 

 

 

Attention must be paid: Arthur Kopit invokes Arthur Miller to describe Great Plains Theatre Conference focus on the work of playwrights

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

New York playwright Arthur Kopit (IndiansWings, the books for the musicals Nine and Phantom of the Opera) sees “many values” in the Great Plains Theatre Conference going on now through June 3 at various sites in Omaha. But none more than the vital forum it provides new playwrights.

“One is, it connects them with a community of playwrights,” he said. “Playwrighting is a very lonely profession, particularly if you’re not in New York. And even if you are…you work so often in isolation. Meeting with other playwrights enables the writers to see the problems they are dealing with are not theirs alone. It’s very hard to write a good play, so it’s kind of a bucking-up…a strengthening. And it’s nice for playwrights to be welcomed and honored and to realize they’re doing something important, because the development of new plays is a difficult task in American theater.”

The collegial spirit of such a conference has a palliative effect on playwrights.

“It’s an odd profession,” Kopit said. “It’s very hard to figure out why you want to be a playwright. Screenwriters and television writers can say they expect to get a lot of money or to get steady employment, but when you’re a playwright it’s much chancier. So there’s an emotional support from seeing other playwrights and finding out you’re not the only one who has this passion…Second, you’re going to get some very good feedback on your work from other professional playwrights and that’s important. You’re going to see the work of other playwrights — new work — and that is invigorating. Even when the pieces don’t work…you’re learning something. So you’re learning things professionally, you’re making contacts with other writers, directors, actors that may be helpful. ”

The benefits of this community extend to veteran writers as well. “For writers who are more established it’s an opportunity to meet with other writers, and that’s exciting, and hear their work and get comments on their work,” he said. Regardless of how accomplished a playwright is, no one’s immune from creative-craft issues. “Problems with the second or third act, or the first,” he said, happen to everyone. “Yes, absolutely. And each play is different. As Moss Hart (legendary Broadway playwright) once said, ‘You only learn to write THIS particular play.’ It doesn’t necessarily help you with the next play. So, it’s hard.”

A successful playwright, he said, is made not born. “You have to have discipline. You have to work at it. And some days go well and some days don’t. You can’t tell before you begin.” The process, he said, is all “in the crafting of the play,” which he said is why “so much of conversations” at the conference “will be about the crafting. How you get something, how you make it better. The architecture, the structure of the play.” A conference like this, he said, can be instructive to general audiences. “They will learn this is not an abstract situation where someone sits and waits for inspiration. If inspiration comes by, you grab it” but unless you’re “logging the hours” at work on your play, you’ll miss out on your muse.

Letting the public in on the formative process is healthy. “How extraordinary it is for audiences to understand how a play is put together — the complexity of it, particularly in the development of new plays,” he said. He sees the conference as an ideal vehicle for approaching theater from multiple angles. “What is it like to write a new play? What is it like to see a play in progress that’s not been seen before? How do you evaluate it? It’s very hard to do new plays because they have problems and audiences usually like to feel secure…to see something that is good and that has been tested. Audiences too often depend on critics.”

At its best theater reflects the aspirations of people and the times they live in. But great plays resist pat solutions or analysis. “They can’t be editorials. They can’t be propaganda. Really good plays are not easy to define, like all great art,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons theater is important because great plays are open to interpretation. Weak plays are very obvious on the surface as to what they’re about. They’re like sit coms. Great plays explore the gray areas. They don’t look at black and white…good and evil. They’re about human contradiction…the intermingling” of values. “Plays can be unsettling when they don’t give you easy answers, but the purpose of a play is to raise questions, not provide answers.”

 

 

 

 

Classic plays can be revisited again and again, he said, for the very reason “they’re open to different interpretations” by the artists and audiences who tackle them over time.  With each staging, he said, “other aspects of the play come out.”

What makes theater “very different” from film, he said, is that it’s “a collective, group experience. There’s a ritual involved in theater. There’s no ritual in film. And the audience receives the play from actors. That’s why when there’s been a great audience and a great performance actors will applaud the audience because the audience performed too by giving them their serious attention. The actors will feed on what audiences give them. That shared experience is part of what’s powerful about theater. It’s a communion and it’s a community. It’s a love affair.”

Theater has deep reverberations in the collective consciousness, he suggests. “It’s an ancient art. It has an inherent significance to it we instinctively understand,” he said. Like storytelling, plays cut across cultures to express the human experience. All the more reason to celebrate new stories and new plays at a gathering of the cognoscenti. “It brings attention to new plays, it brings attention to the theater in that community and it adds some fire, some sparkle, some new awareness. You know, “attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller says (in Death of a Salesman).

The sympoisum’s built around the New Voices play labs series that reads/performs the work of emerging playwrights from around the nation for critical appraisal by distinguished panelists like Kopit and Edward Albee (A Delicate BalanceWho’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?). Albee is co-organizer of the conference with Jo Ann C. McDowell, president of Metropolitan Community College, the event’s host.

Luminaries like Kopit and Albee “waive their speaker’s fee,” said McDowell. Before this, she and Albee lured top talent to The Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, the model for the first time Great Plains. Kopit never made it north,  “but I know all the writers who’ve been there and they’ve always loved it,” he said.

Kopit said playwrights couldn’t ask for a more nurturing mentor than Albee. “Edward has been extremely generous to other playwrights. He established a foundation for playwrights early on in his career and believes very deeply, thoroughly in the importance of theater and new plays, and this conference is an example of that.” He said it’s “unusual” a playwright of Albee’s stature is so supportive, adding “other playwrights come here because they respect Edward and the great amount of passion he’s put into this.”

As an honored playwright, Kopit’s own work is featured in panel discussions, readings and staged performances. Selections from his Nine (Tony Award for best musical) were presented May 28. Albee led a May 29 Kopit panel. Kopit arrived early to prep local artists performing two of his plays — “making sure the pieces are done properly.” He’s conducted a master class, read from his work, been a respondent in labs and interacted with visiting/resident artists and enthusiasts at social gigs.

After a lab reading of Max Sparber’s Buddy Bentley (presented by current/former Blue Barn Theatre members), Kopit and fellow playwright respondents Albee and Glyn O’Malley questioned Sparber about the work’s character development, motivation, tonal issues, etc. Several fine points were addressed. Far from an inquisition, it felt more like a grad student having his thesis gently challenged. Kopit, who enjoys teaching and directs the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, said, “Oh, yes, many playwrights teach. We love to do this.”

Scenes by Kopit, Albee and fellow playwrights Emily Mann and Mac Wellman will be staged June 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center. A reading of Kopit’sWings (Tony nominee/Pulitzer finalist) is set for June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland. On June 3, Kopit receives the Edward Albee Great Plains Playwright Award at the fest’s closing Gala at 7 p.m. on Metro’s Fort Omaha parade grounds. On the Albee Award, Kopit said, “I’m honored and it’s exciting. Wonderful writers have been honored by this. But you don’t write for that. You write for the piece itself.”

Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights

May 29, 2011 13 comments

This is another glimpse at the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, this time through the prism of playwright Edward Albee, who served as artistic director its first couple years. The 2011 conference, running May 28-June 4 in Omaha. I did the following Q & A with him by phone in advance of one of the early conferences. He’s since disassociated himself from the event, which led to some speculation about its sustainability, but after a limbo year or so the event has come back stronger than ever. In the intro to the Q & A I share some of the trepidation I felt going into the interview. I mean, am used to interviewing celebrities and public figures in all different fields of endeavor, and the names and reputations of some of these folks carry even more weight than Albee’s, but he is a writer extraordinaire known to not suffer fools gladly, all of which made me more than a little tense. It went fine, as these things usually do, and his easy charm is a big reason why the interview session went smoothly, though I distinctly recall feeling a self-imposed pressure to not tarry or dally or digress, but to get on with it, to move quickly from his answer to my next question.  If I had been a bit more reflective and deliberate I think I would have gotten more from Albee, but while it’s not a great interview, it’s more than satisfactory looking back on it now a few years later.

 

Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly

 

That old lion of American theater, Edward Albee, wears well the mantle of expectation that comes with being his country’s “foremost” or “preeminent” living playwright. The descriptions of him, used as if official titles conferred by some ministry of theater, appear whenever his name is invoked. Living legend status is part of the baggage that comes with being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. As he might wryly observe, there are worse things he could be called.

Considerations of Albee are far from abstractions for locals now that the Great Plains Theatre Conference  he helps direct is an annual event hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The second annual conference features a full schedule of play labs, readings, panels, lectures and performances.

Before you ever interview Albee, you hear that the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women can be peevish and prickly. That he reads everything written about himself and his work and won’t hesitate to point out errors. That he’s an intellectual of the first order, you don’t need reminding. You hear, too, how deeply he cares about theater. How he generously advises young playwrights. How the future of this art form is often on his mind.

In preparing to talk with him you read his plays. Then you realize it’s folly to engage him in a discussion of his work. No, it’s best to focus on the conference and his efforts at passing on his wisdom to the new wave of playwrights coming up. To draw him out on his long association with Metro president Jo Ann McDowell, who’s responsible for making the conference and luminaries like Albee fixtures in Omaha. The two met when she directed the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan. and they went onto organize the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Last year they launched the GPTC.

Still, you despair: What hasn’t he been asked before? How to go beyond the banal?

When you finally speak to him, by phone, you find an amiable man who, as expected, listens closely. His responses come quickly, precisely on point. His speech is formal, his delivery measured. His glib sense for irony and his dry wit ever present. You’re keenly aware of the analytical mind on the other end of the line. One always a step or two ahead of you. It’s intimidating. It all goes by in a rush.

As you’ll see below, the Q & A resulted in several of my questions being longer than his answers, which is less than ideal, but I think I evoked reasonable responses in most cases. I was likely a bit too timid and deferential and not being as active a listener as I needed to be. Though he was nothing but gracious, I think it’s safe to assume he was not the most willing of participants.

LAB: McDowell says that when she informed you she’d accepted the Metro presidency, she was afraid you might look askance at doing a conference here, but you embraced the idea, saying something like, They do my plays there — we’ll have better audiences in Omaha.

EA: “Well, you know, we did it for 13 years or so in Alaska and it was lovely up there, but it was a little harder for a lot of people to get up there. And I just thought it would be a lot easier for people to get to Omaha then to get to Alaska. And it being a bigger city and having a theater culture already — because Valdez had no theater culture, we had to create it — that it might make a lot of sense.”

LAB: Other than residencies at Creighton University and an awareness your work is performed here, I take it you didn’t know much about this place?

EA: “I’d been to Omaha a couple times over the years. I’d been to the art museum and I’d been to that lovely downtown complex (the Old Market or Old Towne as he calls it) of galleries and shops. I knew Omaha a little bit.”

LAB: But isn’t what really sold you on Omaha, McDowell?  She says she can’t imagine what made you two “click” given your disparate backgrounds and can only guess her demonstrated passion and commitment for theater gained your trust.

EA: “Well there it is, she has great passion and commitment. She gave the impression that she could work miracles, and if you’re in the theater you like people who can work miracles.”

LAB: You obviously have an understanding of what each other wants.

EA: “She and I disagree sometimes on how best to go about it, but it’s her conference more than mine, so she gets to run the show.”

LAB: But isn’t the event informally known as the Edward Albee Theater Conference?

EA: “Well I’ve been doing my very, very best to destroy that impression. It’s now the Great Plains Theatre Conference. There are many who get invited there — major theater people. It’s not just me showing up, You know, I guess my name sells a few tickets or gets a few people there, but I don’t like being used that way.”

LAB: Yet I’m told this is the only event of its type you lend your name to.

EA: “I’ve lent my presence and my participation and I guess the name goes with it. I wouldn’t lend my name unless I felt there was some virtue to it, and we’ll see how this develops there in Omaha.”

LAB: You’re far more than a figurehead. I mean, you take an active role in the meat of the conference — the play labs.

EA: “Yeah, sure, of course. I try hard to do that. One thing I’m not happy with and it’s one thing this conference has to develop is a much broader base of young playwrighting talent, because it’s tending these days to be a little parochial and I’m afraid the quality of plays being submitted has declined from the Alaska days. But we’re going to be working on that…There’s no point in having all of these wonderful professional theater people around to evaluate work that really isn’t worth evaluating, and there’s quite a bit of that I’m afraid. So it’s got to become less parochial. I understand it is Omaha-based and we have wonderful theater companies in Omaha, and they should be involved in doing the work, but we’re going to have to have to get a much more national and international base of young playwrights coming there for the thing to really matter.”

LAB: By casting an ever wider net?

EA: “Yes, of course, which I’ve been trying to do, but I’m going to have to try harder. We’re going to have to do better than we’ve been doing it.”

LAB: Are there other things about the event you’d like to tweak?

EA: “I just want to find out what all this film nonsense is that’s beginning to happen (He refers to a cinema component this year called Fringe Fest.). I don’t feel there’s room for it at all. But, again, that’s just me. I’ll talk to her (McDowell) about it.”

LAB: It may come as a surprise to people that someone of your stature takes such a hands-on role. I’m told no detail is too small to escape your attention.

EA: “I’m a control freak, but so is Jody. You get two control freaks together, you get a lot of control, and a lot of freaking.”

LAB: Why do you choose to take such a keen interest in emerging playwrights?

EA: “Because I think if you’ve had some experience in the arts and you know something about teaching and you know what you’re doing in the arts, you have a responsibility to pass on the information and that expertise to younger people. You need the new, young generation of wonderful creative people and if you can be helpful in keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping their sights where they should be, then it’s your responsibility to do it. In the same way I feel creative artists should be loud and vocal politically.”

LAB: When you were a young playwright were there experienced writers who served that same function for you.

EA: “Well sure, but those were the playwrights whose work I was beginning to see in Greenwich Village. The great Europeans — Brecht and Beckett and Inoesco and Pirandello and all those people. And then when a whole new generation of us came up at the same time. Me and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit and Jack Richardson and Lanford Wilson and a bunch of others (including Omahan Megan Terry) were there, and we were feeding off each other.”

LAB: Were there events like the Great Plains Theatre Conference then?

EA: “There may have been one or two, but I didn’t know about them. I was living in New York City, in Greenwich Village, in the theater hotbed, in the center of experimental and adventuresome theater in America, which New York still is.”

LAB: So in that sense every night was like a play lab.

EA: “Of course it was.”

Melinda Dillon and Arthur Hill in original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

LAB: Omaha’s a long way from New York. McDowell’s maintained her commitment to theater wherever she’s been and that’s never wavered despite various political machinations she has to contend with.

EA: “It seems not to have to. Yeah, sure, I understand the pressures, but whenever I think the pressures she is under are dangerous and destructive, I try to put a lot of pressure in the opposite direction.”

LAB: She likes to say she’s been “carrying this thing around with me for 26 years,” meaning her devotion to theater and these conferences. Her support of theater has remained consistent in an era of scant federal funding for the arts in America.

EA: “Certainly, look at the last 25 years. The William Inge Festival was begun by her and then the Alaska Last Frontier Conference and now this. She just keeps right on doing it. Of course continuity is very important. And I appreciate her ability to get funds from the local big wigs. I think that’s very important — as long as the local big wigs don’t have anything to say about what we do.”

LAB: Do you ever involve yourself in the fund raising?

EA: “No, she seems to get that all done before we show up.”

LAB: Earlier you mentioned Omaha’s fine theaters. From what you’ve glimpsed of Omaha’s theater community, how do you appraise it?

EA: “Well from what I’ve seen when they come to do readings of plays they do a fine job. They’ve very talented people. You don’t need to be an equity company to be good. I’m always gratified when I find people are doing what they should and doing it well.”

LAB: As you say, local theater companies are a vital part of the event.

EA: “We just want to be sure we give them the best work we can possibly find for them to participate in. It’s good publicity for them. They’re doing a responsible act and they’re probably being exposed to interesting new plays they probably wouldn’t have known about without the conference.”

LAB: As all of theater is, the event’s very much a collaborative, communal affair…

EA: “What do you mean by collaboration? A play is written, that is the individual creative act. Everything else is interpreted.”

LAB: Well, in the sense that a team comes together…

EA: “That is not a creative act, that is an interpretive act. That shouldn’t get in the way of the creative part of it.”

LAB: The conference mission statement mentions your quest for an important, enduring discussion of theater at the national level. What aspects of theater need addressing on a continuing basis?

EA: “Trying to develop an audience that wants theater that matters rather than safe, escapist stuff. Basically developing audiences and critics who know the difference between junk and excellence. And a conference if this sort can be very helpful.”

 

Maggie Smith and David Hilder (center) and participants at the 2015 Great Plains Theatre Conference.

 

LAB: In line with that you have a goal of growing audiences for serious theater.

EA: “The only way to do that is to give them good stuff to see and that’s why we have to keep improving the quality of the scripts by casting our net wider.”

LAB: You’re often asked your opinion on the state of American theater. Last year you were pessimistic in the wake of the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Since then, Lloyd Richards and Glyn O’Malley (a participant at last year’s GPTC and a director of Albee’s work) have died. All great voices silenced. You seemed to lament the theater can’t recover from such losses.

EA: “Well we can recover from our losses. Losses are always terribly distressing and damaging, but if conferences of this sort can develop a whole new generation of first rate theater people than the continuum is on.”

LAB: But these have been such major losses.

EA: “Well we’ve been having them all along. Look back at every decade — you lose an awful lot of good people.”

LAB: Miller, Wilson and company were more than colleagues, they were friends.

EA: “Yeah, of course. Well the older I get I keep having to scratch out more and more names in my address book every week. It’s terrible. I must develop a lot of younger friends. See, I usually have friends older than I am because I learn something from people who know more than I do, but they seem to be going away pretty fast.”

LAB: Have you seen promising new talents emerge from conferences like the GPTC?

EA: “Oh sure, a number of talents have emerged, but you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to be enough to save theater from the forces of darkness, which are commercialism and sloth — intellectual sloth.”

LAB: At a play lab last year I was struck by how many questions you asked the playwright, such as Did you consider this? or What was your intention here?

EA: “Yeah I like to teach by the Socratic Method of asking questions rather than giving answers because I have a lot more questions than I have answers about everything.”

LAB: Do you follow a similar process, internally, with your own work?

EA: “Gee I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about what I do when I’m writing. I try to stay away from too much conscious awareness of what I’m doing. I just let it happen.”

LAB: Is there someone you show your work to as you’re developing it?

EA: “No, I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve finished it.”

LAB: May I ask what you’re working on now?

EA: “Nothing right now. I just finished a long two-act play about identical twins, Me, Myself and I, which is going to be done at the McCarter Theatre (Center) in Princeton, N.J.  next fall. (To be directed by Emily Mann, a visiting artist at the GPTC in Omaha.)

LAB: Has the subject of identical twins fascinated you for awhile?

EA: “Apparently it has. If you go and read The American Dream (an early ‘60s play by Albee) there’s a pair of identical twins there, so it goes back a long time in my career.”

LAB: When you come to Omaha are there rituals you follow to begin your day and to end your night?

EA: “Well let’s see, unless I get to read the New York Times I’m an incomplete person, so I do that over breakfast. I try to go to the gym. I work out every day. At the conference Jody has us doing things 27 hours a day, so it’s very difficult to do anything else. Sometimes it’s even hard to get the Times read. The only things I keep protesting are the social events.”

LAB: A necessary evil?

EA: “Ahhh, I decide about half of them are a necessary evil. I involve myself in what I think the most important things are.”

LAB: What about the host site, historic Fort Omaha with its military provenance, Victorian buildings and green spaces?

EA: “It’s a really interesting campus. They always give me a nice place to live and I’m happy when I’m there. They give me a car, not that I ever get a chance to drive it anywhere. They treat me very nicely.”

LAB: McDowell’s stated she wants Omaha as the permanent home for the conference, which she hopes to endow. Are you fine with that?

EA: “Oh, of course. Why not for heaven’s sake? Sure. I have nothing against Omaha.”

LAB: We spoke of losses before. You suffered a great personal loss recently with the death of your longtime partner.

EA: “Yeah, I did. Thirty five years with the right person, that’s a pretty big loss.”

LAB: I know you were really hurting at least year’s conference. How are you doing?

EA: “Oh, I’m functioning. It never gets better, it just gets different…that kind of loss.”

And with that, one could only say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Albee.” “You’re very welcome,” he said.

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