As the leader of a company that is dedicated to playwrights and the advancement of playwriting as an art form, I struggle constantly to define for myself what does or does not constitute a play. I remember some of the plays that turned me on to the theater when I was very young: a bold and vibrant Mother Courage at the Guthrie Theater; a beautiful, simple Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company; an adaptation of The Iliad (in football motif, with The Odyssey as a halftime show!) by the National Theater of the Deaf. I know how these plays made me feel, and I continue to look for ways of experiencing those feelings again. But I also know that what’s most important in life—and art—is to keep one’s eyes open to new possibilities. So I try to avoid “rules” about what makes a play good, or what makes it a play at all. I think that this decision has helped me to enjoy theater a great deal more than I might have otherwise, which is a good thing as I see a great deal of theater throughout the year.
One thing I do know about theater, however, is that, at its most basic, it is a live art form. Simply put, theater requires that one group of living people (the actors) perform for another group of living people (the audience). There are lots of other qualifiers that can go in different ways, but I don’t know how you can get around the idea of “liveness” in the theater. This amazing notion of “liveness” was introduced to me by a staff member at the Lark, Anna Kull, who is also an actor. She took a course in college that dealt with this intriguing subject of "liveness"--a course I very want to take myself The topic came up when we went together to see the Wooster Group’s Hamlet at the Public Theater, and we were both struck by the fact that the extreme amounts of technology that were applied to the production did not in any way diminish the accomplishments of the actors on stage. It was thrilling to see how this contemporary production celebrated the live actor as much as I imagine Shakespeare intended his play to do in the first place.
All this is to say that I think it is important to remember that playwriting is an art form that only comes to life when actors put the words in their mouths and the action in their bodies. Playwrights who have trouble with this concept are seldom happy when they hear their plays read or see them onstage, while those who write to put actors in control of the theatrical event find themselves in seventh heaven when they see their work. For that reason, we consider the actors who work with us at the Lark essential players in the process of making plays and supporting playwrights.
To better understand the relationship between actors and the playwright’s process at the Lark, we have explored this idea in two ways. First, we’ve worked with a fascinating group of actors, called “Circling the Drain,” who are asking lots of questions about the role of actors in the creative process. We’ve attended “Drain” convenings and recently had the opportunity to host a think-tank session that brought members of this group, the brainchild of Olympia Dukakis, together with Lark playwrights to talk about their most exciting and frustrating experiences in developing new work. We have also taken the time to reach out to a number of the many actors who are part of our community in order to listen to what they have to say about their experiences at the Lark. It has been gratifying to open up this conversation and to learn that many of them find their time with us particularly rewarding. It has also been helpful to know what about the Lark is important to each of them. I am exciting to share some of these actors’ ideas about the Lark, which are listed below. Please read and enjoy what they have to say, and join me in celebrating their participation in the playmaking process—and in gratitude for the extraordinary power of “liveness” (thank you, Anna, for broadening my vocabulary!) that the theater brings to our lives.
Here is what some of our actors have told us about their Lark experiences:
LYNN COHEN: “Working with the Lark provides the rare—and enriching—opportunity for an actor to take an interactive role in the vital process of creating new works for theater.”
MARIA-CHRISTINA OLIVERAS: “We get to jump in, make bold choices, discover and experiment all together to help illuminate and clarify the text—we're not just plugged in to a predetermined structure or form. The work is truly collaborative and we're involved in all phases of development. What emerges is a vital forum of actor, director, dramaturge, theatergoer and playwright—a community dedicated to developing and telling these playwrights’ great stories.”
JESSMA EVANS: “Being an actor at the Lark is wonderful because it really is about the play you are getting off of the ground. This makes acting a pure joy because it's collaborative and stimulating. I've learned so much about my own craft from watching playwrights work through theirs. I always feel like I just got a great massage when I leave the Lark!”
BRIAN DYKSTRA: “Acting at the Lark is more than just a terrific opportunity to keep your teeth sharp. It is a workout that flexes first choice or first impulse muscles and rewards daring.”
ALOK TEWARI: “Because everything is geared towards the playwright, in some ways there is less pressure on the actor. Put that together with the lack of pretentiousness at the Lark and you have a safe place to grow and play. I haven't been to too many places where the overriding mission—to serve the playwright and the theater—is as clear as it is to the people who gather at the hallowed studios of the Lark on Eighth Avenue.”
HARRIET D. FOY: “ For me, the Lark is a great place to network and keep my acting chops sharp. I always look forward to Monday night workshops because I can't wait to see how the playwrights have altered their plays. The environment is very open and encouraging to all participants. It is also great to work on a play that you might not ordinarily be cast in.”
HOON LEE: “The Lark has created an environment that feels much like a gym for actors like me. To me, the company is an idealist's dream: a place that recognizes the fundamental need for the subordination of commercial concerns in order to prioritize artistic achievement, trusting that the merit of the work will lead to its own reward, cultural or commercial. It is an example for any artistic institution and any individual artistic pursuit. The relative ease with which Lark playwrights share their work is also an object lesson for any actor. As much credit as actors are given for laying themselves on the line in auditions, I cringe at the thought of what writers must go through in allowing a group of strangers to read highly personal work that they've just set down.”ANDRES MUNAR: “From my first day, I was made to feel indispensable: A conduit for the unique process at the Lark. I feel appreciated, respected, needed. I can't tell you what a difference it makes for an actor to feel that kind of confidence. It means the work is unencumbered, expansive, free.The dialogue between writers and actors is also unique to the Lark. We tend to live in a theater culture where the reins are handed to the director and sometimes we over-think ideas in that process. It is interesting to talk to writers directly, who almost always have a way of opening things up by simply talking and being themselves. 939 Eighth Avenue is a place where I always feel welcome.
John Clinton Eisner