Friday, August 8, 2008


A few weeks ago, 15 Lark artists were packing their suitcases for a week in the country on the glorious and woodsy campus of Vassar College for our annual playwrights’ retreat in partnership with New York Stage and Film.

Then the phone call came: there was a stomach bug on the loose in the dorms that, though short-lived (it reportedly sped through the human metabolism in 36 hours), was observed to be unpleasant. The local authorities in Poughkeepsie insisted that all of the students attending summer programs on the Vassar campus return home at once and no new people (like the 11 writers, two actors and two facilitators from the Lark) were to be allowed to come. Thankfully, our colleagues at New York Stage and Film were able to convince the powers-that-be not to cancel their production schedule. Miraculously, only one NYSF staff member had suffered from the bug (and was already up again) and the threat of contagion seemed limited to the campus dormitories. It was agreed that the audiences attending NYSF shows in the theaters themselves would be safe.

There was something mildly exciting about this quick change of plans. It all felt like the opening scene of a Hollywood summer release disaster film that you know will not end well. I don’t know about anyone else, but I privately imagined my own encounter with the disease, the sweaty palms and dull eyes, the highway full of Red Cross trucks and state troopers, a massive toilet paper shortage, and all the suffering playwrights and theater artists whining and shrieking. It seemed like a good idea not to take the risk.

But something had to be done, and fast. The 15 Lark artists bound for Vassar had been setting artistic goals and laying the strategic groundwork for weeks to be able to take full advantage of the weeklong artistic Nirvana they had been promised and were expecting. Visions of sugarplums had danced in their heads along with images of modern college athletic facilities, sloping green lawns, a tranquil arboretum, mixing with the artists from other companies and the happy college interns, hanging out at the Beech Tree bar, time to think and to write, and lots of peace. And every day a two our block of time to share work and reflect: a daily deadline that was enough to push things along and get the blood pumping, but still low-key. A sense of personal space and time, where the only obligation that anyone had to feel was to herself. Now all that was gone. Tabula rasa. How could we come up with a solution that could jibe with people’s expectations?

Naturally, we couldn’t. The only thing we really had going for us was that we had kept everyone from suffering a very unpleasant 36-hour intestinal upset. More a glass half-empty than half-full. Amanda Berkowitz, our Company Manager, was amazing and rescheduled the retreat in our own overcrowded facilities here in New York. She invented all sorts of ways of spicing things up and provided lots of snacks. And Catherine Coray and Sturgis Warner, the retreat facilitators were truly inspired leaders. They spoke eloquently and kept everyone’s “eye on the prize.” I thought of the “wooden ‘O’” speech in HENRY V, and appreciated that the Lark’s mission is really about managing expectations and rejecting the muse of fire as long as the creative inspiration alone could suffice. Still, I was kind of depressed because I thought I had disappointed everyone and I realize now that I skulked about and felt a bit sick to my stomach for 36 hours even though I was nowhere near the Vassar campus.

But then I began to notice something: each day, the group seemed to grow tighter, closer, just as though they were upstate in vernal isolation. The pages kept pouring in and I could see the frantic eyes of the staff as they rushed copies of new-minted scenes down to the room where the group assembled each afternoon. And everyone was hanging out afterwards, or, occasionally, running off to the NYU library to write a scene they had to get down on paper immediately. There was laughing, and, when I joined the group to see the work myself, there was unbelievably amazing creativity going on. And a lot of love. Everyone was listening to and supporting one another, challenging one another to do their very best, and feeling good about it. They had set aside a week of their lives to focus on their own creative lives—and to be with one another—and they were following through on it, even in a scrappy New York rehearsal studio with a groaning air conditioner.

After we popped the champagne at the end of the week, took some photos, and talked about how we’d all been affected by our Manhattan retreat, people just wanted to hang out and be together. And they did.

As the summer winds down, I hope you’ll find the time and space to design and implement your own retreat—whether it is just a few hours long, or an entire week—and that you are able to experience as much renewal and growth as our Vassar campers did even when they didn’t get what they expected.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director