Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December 2009 - Maria Alexandria Beech


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

This month's guest essayist is Maria Alexandria Beech, a translating playwright for our U.S.-Mexico Playwright Exchange Program in both 2008 and 2009 as well as an Advisory Committee member for the program. She has been an important addition to this program by keeping a close eye on how Mexican culture is perceived, misperceived, valued, and undervalued on both sides of the border. And as this year’s U.S.-Mexico Playwright Exchange came to a close, she took part in some of many conversations about how we can deepen our commitment to bringing Mexican voices and stories to audiences in the U.S.

We look forward to reading your responses to Alex’s thoughts—and to one another in the Lark blog.


Let's Not Use the Word “Mexico"
by Maria Alexandria Beech

As a child, I almost drowned in Mexico. No one told us that the beaches in Acapulco could be deadly, and I got trapped in a fish net. That experience cut short our vacation, but left me impressed with the mystery of the country’s indigenous roots, and colonial remnants such as bull fighting.

In 1997, I returned to Mexico for a fiction workshop but, after sharing long conversations and tequila shots with Cuban American playwright Irene Fornes, I abandoned fiction for playwriting. Irene’s proposal was simple: your characters are people. Ask them questions and listen. That decision changed my life, not only because it re-directed the course of my work, but because it opened a world of possibility to me, the possibility of theater.

That summer, our Mexican counterparts in Taxco were writers like Oscar de la Borbolla, who had written THE DAMN VOWELS, (Las Malditas Vocales) a work he said nearly drove him crazy because he had used only one vowel in each of its five stories. (Los locos somos otro cosmos is my favorite because it protests the treatment of patients in an insane asylum.) Another writer had set his play in a rocket inhabited by a little girl and an astronaut. Yet another had written a poem about chairs. It seemed the Mexicans were synthesizing their rich culture with events around the world, engaging in a conversation with history, science, global literary trends, and with each other. Their work felt fresh and important to me, like looking through a magnifying glass for the first time, and by experiencing their literary impulses, I became excited to follow my own.

However, when I returned to New York, I found little trace of Mexican theater in my “comparative” literature classes at Columbia. I learned that when it came to non-US theater, mainstream New York (and academia) was interested in the Greeks, Romans, British, Irish and French, and writers such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Calderon de la Barca and Lorca but there was little focus on contemporary writers from other regions. One artistic director told me that writers from other countries “didn’t have an audience.” It was accepted that limited audiences existed for different styles of theater. Furthermore, some perceived that if a play didn’t have an audience, then creating a new audience could prove too risky, especially since it often entailed devising unique marketing strategies. Ignoring the work of certain regions seemed dangerous to me because it seemed to tell artists (and their cultures) that their art wasn’t important or relevant, and that blocked the dialogue and exchange that was elemental if we were going to progress as a civilization. It was also troubling to me that even though Mexicans and Mexican Americans made up a significant portion of the population, few theaters were producing their stories.

After attending one Beckett and Chekhov production after another, my yearning for unique international stories became palpable, and I always remembered the magnificent work I had heard in Mexico. (When films such as 21 Grams, Pan's Labyrinth, Babel and others surfaced on our movie screens, images of Mexico’s artists at work and play came to me since I knew these films reflected a vibrant creative community.)

When Andrea Thome called me one year ago to participate in the exchange program at the Lark, I jumped at the opportunity to revisit Mexico’s talent. I was hired to translate THE CAMELS (Los Camellos), by Luis Ayllon. THE CAMELS is about a poor family that is hired—and trapped in a theater—to act out their lives on stage. Paid by the word by a producer and goaded by the public to show their worst behavior, the family members insult and degrade each other and compare their lives to soap operas. In an era when we exploit individuals and families for entertainment—almost as a way to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives and actions—this play felt urgently relevant. It wasn’t a play about Mexico; it was a play about the world. The other plays in the exchange program were equally stunning. Ernesto Anaya’s THE MAIDS OF HONOR (Las Meninas), translated by Migdalia Cruz, brought us painter Diego Velasquez whose denigration as an artist made him yearn for a position in the court. This play spoke to our era in which art—and artists—are defined by commercial viability. In fact, all the plays presented universal themes but in unique settings (ie, a boat, a mariachi park).

This year, the plays were equally provocative. I translated HITLER IN MY HEART (Hitler en el Corazon) which explores different perspectives of the death of a soccer star (inspired by the death of Spanish soccer player Antonio Puerta). The play is about how an oppressed, alienated culture uses celebrity to search for meaning, finding it only in annihilation—which is why the play shares its title with the Antony and the Johnsons song. The other plays included Quetzalcoatl Puddle, about a love triangle on a futuristic beach where sunlight is rented by the hour and people struggle to hold onto love as a way to understand reality; Gourmet Homicide: or the fine art of Murder, in which upper class friends kill as a hobby and as an absurd way of bonding; and A Lover’s Dismantling: Fragments of a Scenic Discourse, about couples who fall in love and then into regret, presenting two ways of seeing the world: imagination and memory. Once again, I experienced the universality, originality and magic of Mexican theater. It didn’t surprise me that for the second year in a row, the public readings were jam-packed with a diverse and curious audience, some excitedly discovering Mexican theater for the first time.

Following the US-Mexico program last month, and despite the tangible enthusiasm among both its participants and its audience, troubling discussions surfaced regarding the next steps for the translations. Did the plays present themes that would interest a New York audience? Who and where was the audience for these plays? Should the program’s name (US-Mexico Exchange Program) include “Mexico” or would that turn people off?

Keeping in mind that most of the people talking about these issues care deeply for the survival and propagation of these works, I consider these questions important and worthy of discussion. Regarding whether a “New York audience” would find the plays thematically relevant to their own lives, I wondered how many of us had personally encountered a woman pondering the sale of her cherry orchard. Yet those of us who admire Chekhov understand that THE CHERRY ORCHARD explores cultural and ideological tectonic shifts that many have experienced. Even if its plot doesn’t speak to our specific experience, its rich subtext about changing power dynamics and loss resonates with us. Besides entertaining an audience, couldn’t the theater bring new and important minds and imaginations to the service of a world in great need of new thinking and innovative solutions? Was the issue thematic relevance, or was there a cultural misconception at work about the ability of Mexican writers to create universal stories? To explore that question, it is important to try to understand how many people in the U.S. perceive Mexican writers, or better yet, how they perceive Mexicans and Mexico. There is no other way of tackling the question.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the United States is living one of the most racially charged moments in recent memory, and that much of its racism is aimed at Mexicans. Despite a powerhouse economy with a GDP of about $770 billion, Mexico’s endemic poverty has sent millions to the U.S. to look for income and security. Prominent in our zeitgeist is the plight of undocumented immigrants who often face trying living and work conditions. Many Mexicans we encounter in New York form part of this subculture of undocumented workers, and our news media is saturated with images of Mexicans crossing the borders, often running from vigilantes such as the Minutemen. Our news is also flooded with Mexico’s massive drug trade and ensuing violence. In the U.S., commentators realized they could draw ratings by inciting hatred, and did so with relish; and U.S. politicians also fanned the flames of discord, convincing Americans that undocumented Mexicans were taxing the health and educational systems, and taking jobs away from our labor force.

Mexicans have also been complicit in shaping our perceptions of their country. Its most popular entertainment export—soap operas—gives us melodramatic depictions of its wealthy and poor, caricatures that don’t reflect the country’s rich cultural identity. In addition, its world-class tourism industry has succeeded in exploiting our own clichés of Mexican culture by offering us sombreros, margaritas and mariachis. Where is Mexico in all of this?

Besides recent remarkable exceptions in Mexico’s disjointed film industry—which faces its own challenges—there are few ambassadors of Mexican culture capable of drowning out the negative images of Mexicans that permeate the United States. Of course, art connoisseurs know the names of visual artists such as Gabriel Orozco, Arturo Rivera and Ximena Cuevas, and music lovers know Federico Mendez, Victor Rasgado, and Alondra de la Parra. But there is a misconception that the elusive “theater audience” won’t fill theater seats because they don’t know Mexico’s theater, and this may explain why many decision makers from some of the leading theaters in New York and around the country have not yet taken part in the Lark’s exchange program… (though the presence of at least twenty decision makers this year shows that those perceptions may be shifting.)

It’s evident that the theater has the power to unite cultures. International exchanges have the potential to tear down walls and build bridges. I’ll never forget when one playwright looked around the room at the Lark last year and said, “This trip has completely changed my perception of Americans.” Since he is a well-regarded theater artist in Mexico, I can only imagine how that shift in him will influence the stories he tells. At its core, and this may be scary for many, an international exchange holds up a mirror to two cultures and shows us that we are all the same, that we cherish and mourn the same things.

Even though I didn’t drown that summer day in Mexico, a part of my soul stayed there, and I yearn for the day when Mexican plays are published and produced here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 2009 – Henry Godinez


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

This month's guest essayist is Henry Godinez, the resident artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre and the director of the Goodman's Latino Theater Festival.
He recently joined the advisory council for our U.S.-Mexico Word Exchange program. He and his colleagues at the Goodman have committed themselves to connecting important Mexican voices, translated into English at the Lark through a unique collaborative process, with the Chicago public through workshops and productions in the summer of 2010. In this essay, he discusses both his passion for cultural exchange as well as his dedication to moving the work along to the next stage of its journey. As the date draws near for the U.S.-Mexico Word Exchange to begin, we’re hoping to provoke conversations about partnerships—like the one Henry and the Goodman have initiated with us— that will advance new work to public awareness.We look forward to reading your responses to Henry–and to one another—and we hope you’ll join us November 21-23 to see the outcome of this year’s exchange!



By Henry Godinez

A couple of years ago I was blown away by a hauntingly beautiful new play called Our Dad Is In Atlantis, a modest play that manages to conjure up a kind of mystery and magic I associate with that legendary underwater country yet set within the context of a brutal reality facing thousands and thousands of people every day—not in some hidden corner of the deep blue sea but in the parched deserts of our own continent. I was deeply moved by its stark intimacy, by its heartbreaking humanity. Today I still cannot even speak of this play without experiencing a very real emotional kinesthetic response. Our Dad spoke to the experience of undocumented people willing to risk everything to improve the lives of their loved ones, human beings, actually young brothers in this case, who suffer unimaginable hardships in the struggle to maintain the most fundamental of human truths and rights, a family. Sadly, through the ignorant efforts of pundits like Lou Dobbs and organizations like the Minutemen, the general public in our country has become desensitized at best, hostile and racist at worst, to the rights even of children. When I read Our Dad, it humanized the nameless, faceless people we know die in our deserts every day and that yet our society often manages to vilify or ignore. That unassuming little play felt so immediate, so vital and so urgent, that I knew it must have come from a different perspective, and indeed it did.

Upon discovering the play’s origins in this country—the Lark Play Development Center’s U.S.-Mexico “Word Exchange”—I was captivated by the idea of how this program identifies some of the most gifted young artists in Mexico today, largely unknown in the U.S., and brings them together with bilingual artists in New York City during an annual residency focused on developing stage-worthy translations and lasting interpersonal relationships. Under (Our Dad is in Atlantis at the Theatres at
45 Bleecker, a co-production with Queens
Theatre in the Park. Photo by Carel DiGrappa

the direction of Lark playwright Andrea Thome, this program, has created a groundswell of activity that is propelling Mexican voices into the U.S. theater scene and, reciprocally, opening up opportunities in Mexico for a broad range of writers from the U.S. I have become a member of the program’s advisory council and am excited to join the company that will assemble in New York in November.

To me there is nothing more important in the theater than telling human stories: stories that have the potential to change the way people view the world in which they live. A great deal of the work that I do is based on the conviction that we as humans share far more similarities than differences; to me that is the future and to me that generally demands some perspective. There is something especially poignant about the plight of those two young boys in Our Dad when you consider that the story is being told from the perspective of the Mexican experience. These are not only voices we haven’t heard, they are voices we haven’t heard from that side of the border. The future demands more than simply our projection of what the rest of the world is thinking and feeling. That nearsightedness was typical of the way our nation viewed the world for the first eight years of the twenty first century. It seems to me that the more direct communication we have with the world in which we live the less potential for misconceptions, prejudice and fear.
As part of the artistic collective at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, I have the privilege of championing underrepresented stories of the Latino experience, generally told by the wealth of exceptional Latino writers that we have in the U.S. Now what the Lark exchange has done is broadening the chorus of voices by creating opportunities for collaboration, connecting exciting Mexican writers like Javier Malpica with talented Latino writers like Jorge Ignacio Cortinas, and the reward is a gem like Our Dad is in Atlantis. Coming from a Cuban immigrant family of ten children it’s probably no wonder that I am drawn to collaboration; it was nothing short of a survival skill for me, but it’s also what I love about the theater. So when the possibility arose of extending the output of the Lark’s exchange program into the context of the Goodman’s biennial Latino Theatre Festival, it seemed a natural and undeniable opportunity, a way to help great stories survive. The intentions and potential rewards are twofold because even as we showcase voices mostly unheard in this country we are simultaneously inviting new audiences into our theaters to hear them. What’s wonderful is that these new audiences come to hear their own stories told in one of the great cultural institutions of Chicago, along with traditional Goodman audiences that come to hear stories other than their own that impact their lives, and they experience those stories together as that unique community we call audience.

Still, the real value lies in furthering the developmental work of the writer—which takes place at the Lark hand in hand with the translation process, and with unflinching, fierce commitment. In this period of economic downturn, it is the development of new work that suffers most, let alone non-mainstream work, because we are a society of consumers and we want product not process. It is precisely at these times that it’s most important to not withdraw to safe and recognizable corners of our existence. Audiences are changing and if we are to keep the theater vital and immediate, the stories we tell must be inclusive. All of us at Goodman are so excited to help move these important, newly-translated works forward through a series of readings and conversations that we will offer during the Latino Theatre Festival this coming summer. It is especially fitting to be initiating this collaboration this summer because 2010 celebrates the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution—both events that strove to address challenges of the present for the benefit of the future of those that were historically marginalized. A revolutionary idea like the U.S.-Mexico Word Exchange merits a presence in just such a celebration because perhaps through collaborations with organizations that share common goals, like ours, we too can begin to confront the challenges we face today by helping to insure that more unassuming but urgent plays like Our Dad have an opportunity to benefit our future. Perhaps in this way we can begin to create a future were we celebrate our similarities instead of capitalizing on our differences to promote fear, misunderstandings and prejudice. That’s the kind of revolution I’m interested in waging.
About Henry Godinez:
He has directed numerous productions at the Goodman Theatre, Signature Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Kansas City Rep, Chicago Shakespeare, Victory Gardens Theatre, and Apple Tree Theatre. He is co-founder and former Artistic Director of Teatro Vista, an Associate Professor at Northwestern University, and has served as a site evaluator and panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. He is the recipient of the 1999 TCG Alan Schneider Directing Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the Lawyers for the Creative Arts. Born in Havana, Cuba, Henry has a profound interest in plays about the immigrant condition and that express the experiences of marginalized communities in America, including Latino voices, and has directed significant productions of plays by such notables as Luis Alfaro, Eduardo Machado, José Rivera, Regina Taylor, Luis Valdez and Karen Zacarías.

Friday, October 9, 2009

October 2009 - John Clinton Eisner

The Island Swim

by John Clinton Eisner

When I finished writing this essay, I realized that it had gotten very personal. I have been struggling recently with some grave doubts about the efficacy and inclusiveness of our cultural institutions, including our theaters, and, not so coincidentally, my own sense of worth as a practitioner and artist. Throughout my life, I have been kept aloft and energized by a sense of joy and wonder at what people can accomplish when they set their minds to it. Joy and wonder, leading to inspiration and action, are tightly knit together as important aspects of my personal life, and I was drawn to the theater as a vocation for this reason. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” and I have always seen enthusiasm—from the Greek entheos, “having the god within”—as the spark that sets off the creative process from which I have always derived sustaining warmth. My tendency is to expect the best of people—not the worst—and my experience is mostly that we all step up when others believe in us. But recently I have felt a bit defensive and self-conscious about my joy and wonder, as though my emotional response to the world is somehow out of joint—a bit too large, a caricature, like Carol Channing’s smile or the tail that wags the dog. I have always been enthusiastic about the power of theater to connect people through stories of common experience, but these days I don’t think that we, collectively, are fulfilling our potential in reaching out across cultural and ideological lines to find true points of contact, and I think that we have practically shut ourselves down to possibilities for change.

My conversations with peers tend to focus on common concerns like “Risk-taking in the arts,” “Sharing resources through collaboration,” and “Reaching new audiences through new media.” While these issues are well worth discussing and central to the survival of mainstream theater as we know it, I think there are more fundamental questions lurking below the surface that we are generally unwilling to ask because we might not like the answers: “What do we actually mean by ‘risk?’” “How do we define ‘success?’” “What attracts people to the theater?” “Who do we want in our theaters?” “What must we sacrifice in order to succeed?” The answers to these deeper questions are game-changing. If we were to reframe our assumptions about theater’s role in society—how it is underwritten, who makes decisions, and why it is important—the institutions that we have long considered cornerstones of our culture might topple. Naturally, this line of inquiry extends beyond arts and culture to a broader spectrum of social institutions in education, religion, social justice, science and health care, national security, and more. The theater, as usual, is merely a metaphor for something more universal.

Having embraced a commitment to “change” in the last election, are we afraid of a vacuum? We asked for change, but, having cleared the old furniture from the room, we seem uncomfortable with the empty space we have to fill, and ambivalent about setting new directions and dividing power fairly. During my lifetime, we’ve adapted to the touch tone telephone, the fax, the microwave oven, and recycling; but are we brave enough as a society (are we brave enough as arts institutions?) to open the doors of opportunity to everyone—democracy at its most basic level—and, in the spirit of free expression, invite a more broadly diverse community to redefine our culture in practice and purpose? Can we find the joy and wonder in entering into new, cross-cultural conversations, difficult as they might be, before they happen anyway, perhaps more violently, outside the realms of art and play? Change is happening in the world, there is no doubt about it. Demographics and wealth are shifting, often violently. Now, more than ever, we require vision, on a huge scale, to shine a light on where we are going. But, even more important, we must acknowledge that big dreams are not accomplished overnight like in the movies, but in tiny steps, with great effort, as part of a community. This may be the one thing that people in the theater know better than anyone else, because we invented the concept of “rehearsal.” We know that no matter how much we look forward to opening night, it takes a lot to get there if we want to succeed on our own terms.

I love the theater because it celebrates very small moments in which individuals come to recognize the truth that allows them to change. Somehow, perhaps counter-intuitively, these small moments, the pivot points in people’s lives, seem to pack more of a wallop than big events and spectacle ever can. Anyone who has seen a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph understands this principle. Good politicians know that one good human story gets more votes than all the statistics in the world. Small things can be intense and powerful, and we are well aware that good things often come in small packages. But small, purposeful steps taken in a clear direction are different from small gestures disconnected from real intent, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. How can we get “on task” again? How can we let go of the artificial commercial “metrics” that have dominated our recent and misguided era of profligacy, and look for measures of success that lead to success and growth for people’s spirits as well as their stomachs?

When I was a boy, growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, I spent three weeks each summer at YMCA Camp Manito-wish in the North Woods where I was exposed to opportunities and challenges that were not available to me at home. I learned to chop wood, cook over a fire, respect the wilderness, and rely on my peers. I fell in love with the older woman who was in charge of the sailboats—a college student with kind, blue eyes—though, at the time, I am sure I imagined that my infatuation was a secret from her. I shot bows and arrows and fired guns, which, for me, was a massive act of rebellion: my father, an active protester of the Viet Nam War—a doctor who worked for the U.S. government but refused to cut his hair during Nixon’s entire tenure in office and was prolific in writing lengthy protest letters to various members of Congress—would not permit even a squirt gun in the house (I had to hide mine in the bushes in the front yard). I swam and ran and climbed all day and fell asleep early at night, exhausted. At twelve, my favorite activity at camp was the canoe trips we’d take into the wilderness, often for a week or more. Strangely, the best part of those trips, to me, were the portages—the sweaty, hellish, brushy, buggy slogs between pristine bodies of water which we’d undertake laden with gear. I preferred to carry the canoe, which was nearly as heavy as I was, rather than one of the bulging canvas packs. I’d fasten on the yoke, awkwardly flip the canoe onto my back, and stagger down an overgrown path, sometimes a mile long, my bony shoulders blistering from the weight and motion, counting every step to divert my attention from the pain, loving the calls of encouragement and admiration from my peers. I felt a sense of glorious accomplishment as I lowered the canoe into the water on the other side, even if I’d had to stop a few times along the way.

I am profoundly fortunate for these wilderness experiences that taught me many things about myself. I faced my fears, walking alone in the dark woods at night; I recognized my limitations, sighting with my weak eyes through a rifle’s scope or swimming through murky water without the benefit of my glasses; I grew to value the freedom that open space celebrates; and I was part of fortunate community of peers who were learning about themselves in the same way, growing stronger and self-reliant in relationship to nature and the world. Many people never experience the glow of joy that I felt each time I lowered a canoe into the water after a long, hard walk—a joy I still experience in my imagination when I travel back in my memory 35 years. It is not as though my life did not contain hardship; it did. My father suffered from manic depression in a time before effective drugs existed to manage his condition. He filled the house with his love, except for the times when he could not climb out of a dark despair I could not begin to comprehend, and eventually took his own life. It is funny, though, that despite the size of his mood swings, I think it was my father who taught me the value of patience and determination in pursuit of big dreams. Perhaps his manic depression forced him to embrace a strategy of moving forward by incremental steps, of fighting little battles one at a time on the way to where he wanted to be. At any rate, I distinctly remember coming home from camp at the age of 12 and that my father stopped what he was doing and listened to me attentively as I described how I’d carried that canoe on my shoulders. It is an important memory to me because, for a moment, I saw myself in his eyes, the child growing fast into adulthood, choosing the path to walk and the burden to bear, over whom he had little control but a great deal at stake.

I have learned in life that it usually takes a long time to create something wonderful. I have also learned that patience and persistence are elusive skills that pay off immensely. And it takes big vision to imagine change, to describe a different way of perceiving something even before it exists. And pursuing a vision, accomplishing bits and pieces of it a step at a time, creates joy. And joy infuses us with the desire to see it in others, which is itself another kind of vision of the future.

The funny thing to me is that when we get stuck in a rut, we tend to run around in circles trying to justify why it is important to stay there. As a species we are resourceful and can adapt to change—that is the hunter-gatherer-adventurer in us—but we also have the nesting instinct that compels us to settle down and make ourselves as comfortable as possible within any given circumstances. Change is a gamble much more significant than financial risk as it is tied to our identity and sense of purpose as well as to our fortunes. It isn’t just that the theater industry is stuck in a rut, but that we could do something about changing our circumstance if we chose. We could try to listen to more new voices and work with each other to encourage others to do the same thing. It would be kind of wonderful if people actually came to view the theater as the platform for free discussion that it was founded to be in ancient Greece.

I heard the legendary performer Tony Bennett interviewed on the radio a few days ago and he made a case for the role of the arts in society that stopped me in my tracks. Bennett, 83, believes that America grew strong as a nation because we valued the pursuit of individual vision and achievement—that is to say, excellence—and that its current decline, with respect to wealth, education and culture, social justice, and other social indicators, stems from our shift to valuing quantity over quality. Automobiles, for example. No matter how many cars we produce, how big they are, or how many we sell, it doesn’t make America, or Detroit, a better place simply to increase productivity and dominate the market. The only thing that will make a difference is the goal of making those cars better, for the right reasons, which is really more like art than commerce. Bennett says the only pathway to excellence that civilization has ever invented is the arts. The arts are the guiding beacon and central metaphor for the pursuit of truth. Through trial and error, risk-taking, rehearsals, and a vision of how we’d like the world to be, we agree to a set of common values that we can count on. Thank you, Tony Bennett, for reminding me that our faith in what is good, in each song about love, in the story of a child growing into an adult, are the things that matter, and we should attempt to do them well!

There is a tiny island across from Camp Manito-wish, about a half mile away on the other side of Boulder Lake. The island is covered by a tangle of birch trees and brambles and, at the top of its steep embankment, just enough flat space for a small tent and a campfire. I’ve visited it from time to time in a canoe with my 10 year-hold son, Jake. Over the past several years, my family has joined me in late August for “family camp” at Camp Manito-wish. That my family recognizes the importance of this place in my life is very moving to me, and I am grateful to them. Anyway, this past August I swam all the way to the island and back. A year ago I didn’t think I could do it—or would attempt it. But I practiced a lot and did it after all. It was fun. I never thought I would do the island swim, and now I plan to do it again. Maybe you want to join me?

Friday, September 4, 2009

September 2009 - May Adrales


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

May Adrales is an accomplished director and producer who has been part of the Lark community for nearly 10 years. She joined the Lark team in November 2008, after several years on the artistic staff at the Public Theater, as a recipient of a two-year New Generations Future Leaders Fellowship awarded by Theatre Communications Group with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon and Doris Duke Charitable Foundations. May splits her time at the Lark between hands-on work in the studio and deep thinking about the relationship between theater-making and civic engagement. She is contributing to the Lark’s capacity to support new ideas in the theater while helping us to open pathways among and between communities that have not customarily used the American stage as a forum for sharing their concerns and perspectives.

May is not alone in this pursuit. She is collaborating closely with eight peers in TCG's New Generations program across the nation who are also developing new visions and models for the theater’s role in America’s future. Her peers included Linda Bartholomai at The Play Company (New York City), Julieanne Ehre at the Goodman Theater (Chicago), Rodrigo Garcia at Teatro Vision de San Jose’s (San Jose, CA), Alison La Rosa at The Cleveland Play House, Vijay Mathew at Arena Stage (Washington, DC), Rehana Mirza at New Georges (New York City), Antonio Sonera at Miracle Theatre Group (Portland, OR), James A. Williams at Pillsbury House Theatre (Minneapolis). Together, they are dreaming of, writing about, and advocating for closer connections between theater and the communities they serve. In her essay, May asks us to reconsider our most fundamental assumptions about how we relate to art and the creative process.

We look forward to reading your responses to May–and to one another!


by May Adrales

Imagine a world in which the profound words you heard one night at the theater were repeated back to you in a conversation months later. That somehow that string of words had found its way from the writer’s imagination, to the lips of the actor, to the ears of someone who remembered them and spit them out into the world in another new context on a new day, long after the play’s run was over. It has happened before. Shakespeare’s phrases still color the English language today—so if you are "fashionable," or have a “spotless reputation,” or if you have gone “full circle,” or if “the world is your oyster,” you can thank Shakespeare who coined those expressions.

Pretty difficult to imagine that a writer could have that kind of impact today. But it must have been pretty unimaginable for Shakespeare, too, because the Elizabethans had only recently invented the printing press which suddenly made wide distribution of new ideas more possible than ever before. With so many new modes of communication available today on the internet and in the airwaves, and a relish for the written word no matter how truncated (i.e., nm if u dnt lol @ my gr8 tweet), you would think it’s even more doable now.

How did Shakespeare’s language weave its way into the vernacular of our culture? Can we continue to reinvent our language to serve our culture’s evolving needs? Will the theater play a role in this process?

Many present-day theater makers, like me, believe that our artistic vision is important and relevant to the society in which we live. We dedicate our lives to the theater; we believe that it is a medium that can affect, move and touch people’s lives, even inspire change and new ways of thinking. But when we consider the proportion of Americans who actually attend the theater regularly, (about 9.4 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2008 ) we have to question theater’s relevance. It is difficult to imagine how the beautiful words penned by present day writers would ever catch fire in our language.

What concerns me is how I can help to strengthen theater’s role in society. Is there a different way of thinking about how to drive audience demand? We can’t expect that audiences will arrive at the theater in droves based on a few email blasts, a Facebook fan page, or a few pay-what-you-can-nights. We have to build a deeper movement around the work that we do. We must engage with our community in a deeper and more profound way and weave theater into the very fabric of our culture.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing and despair about declining audience numbers. Producers wondering, “What will drive audiences?” Pushing to choose cash cows like A Christmas Carol to guarantee ticket sales. But imagine a world in which it wasn’t the type of theater that drives audience demand. That you didn’t have to produce well-known dead playwrights and popular musicals to save your bottom line. That we began to invest in building a broader audience base—bigger and more ambitious than our current producing models allow.

Imagine if theater was more like fashion, music or sports—you might gravitate to or like one designer, musician or sports team over another, but you are aware of all the major players. Because all the players are an integral part of the popular culture, part of the daily conversation. Movements are created not just by the final product, but by the buzz, excitement and anticipation of the very event. What if each performance of theater was simply part of a larger, more participatory conversation with theater artists and the community at large? What if advocacy and audience engagement occurred throughout the process, not simply around the final product?

Change starts with the artists themselves. What if artists advocated for their work directly to the communities that would be changed most? That artists passionately articulated a vision of their work with the aim of rallying a community of people behind the work? What if they partnered with organizations, community centers that had direct links to the community they were trying to reach? And a domino effect occurred—more people, more communities talking about and advocating for the play.

What if there were fewer barriers to experiencing the theater? What if you could read a brand new, never-been-produced-before play for free on-line? So those that can’t afford the subway or a plane ticket to New York to see the show for its two-week in a small downtown theater could experience the work anyway. Or even better, you could see a simultaneous live broadcast at your home computer? Or share the experience with a large group at a screening in a park or movie theater? Think about the movements that would create—passionate fans organizing theater clubs, rallying around writers and their plays, writing impassioned blogs, quoting memorable lines in daily conversation, tracking the writers’ progress on-line, advocating for their work in their own communities.

These new goals would require institutions to change how they think about producing—and how they define success. That it’s not always about how many butts are in the seats, but how many people in our society are affected by the work. What if we counted in our audience figures those who are reading plays, watching videos about them, engaging in conversations about the issues within those plays and following the work of artists, even without having set foot in the theater? Would that make the work any less valid? It doesn’t mean that live theater will cease to exist, but hopefully it will play to full houses. The mounting excitement around the plays may lead to audiences full of theater-newbies who are chomping at the bit to see the live performance of a play by Lisa Kron, Katori Hall or Rajiv Joseph, instead of something someone may do if there were free tickets.

What if producers of theater made their process completely transparent? What if rehearsals were broadcast on internet radio, interviews with the creators were podcast? What if conversations and dialogue were generated about the theme and content of the play in a series of blogs, roundtable conversations? We invite our audiences to participate in deeper more thought provoking ways than writing a check or buying a ticket. We also help them understand the process of making theater itself, a process that is foreign to most.

To go a step further, what if people were deeply invested in the “major players” of the theater, like in sports? What if the process of casting were open and public? What if we knew about the process of actors auditioning for various roles so that people could be invested in their favorite actor’s success? This kind of transparency is scary to imagine (would it become Theater Idol?), but I think transparency allows for stronger and more respectful communication. It opens the dialogue not only between the actors and the creative team but also with the community at large. My colleague Vijay Mathew even went as far to suggest at the Baltimore TCG conference in June that producers should make their play selection process completely transparent. That producers should make it public knowledge what plays they were choosing from and why? And through that process, communication between writers and the producers became even more respectful and open, rather than closed door and seemingly random.

Funders and granting institutions would then have to rethink their strategies to support this change. Say they expanded their granting to support innovative audience engagement strategies? What if they diversified their funding to support more artist residencies in non-theater institutions? Imagine the conversations between a group of resident artists and leaders and experts at a think tank organization like the Council on Foreign Relations? What if every local government in America hired a full-time resident artist in a community, whose job was simply to create art in that community? Imagine the difference that local theater artist would make within that underserved community. Imagine the impact of theater if this happened all over this country.

Are they these ideas do-able? Sure, but not without some serious advocacy, sheer will and determination, and community building. I falter a bit as I write this as I think about my own show which had its first public performance last night and will have its last performance on September 26th. On September 27th, the set will be long gone, the actors will have dispersed, and I will also be starting rehearsals for my next project. Seems difficult to create a movement in the midst of such a hectic schedule. But now is exactly the time for me to work towards the world I imagine and write about it. By starting to think about audience engagement in my own creative process, rather than leaving the challenge for the marketing department to wrestle with alone while I work in an isolated rehearsal hall and direct the play.

Our society needs artists’ vision and theater’s spirit of collaboration now more than ever. So we must respond with more effective ways to engage our society in a deeper, more profound way. We must redefine who the “audience” is, and be bold about engaging people not normally considered within our reach. Make theater truly accessible. Open the doors, allow people to become stake holders in our art and our vision.

Monday, August 3, 2009

August 2009 - Theresa Rebeck


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month, we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to sha
re a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

Theresa Rebeck joined the Lark’s Playwright Advisory Board in 2000, serving as consultant to the company and session facilitator in our Playwrights’ Workshop program. She also served as Playwright in Residence for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons during which she wrote THE WATER’S EDGE, THE SCENE, and MAURITIUS. She is an accomplished writer in many disciplines—film, television, fiction, essays, and theater—and brings to the Lark community her distinctive voice as an accomplished American dramatist, heartfelt passion for plays, desire to nurture th
e next generation of playwrights, and driving concern for the ways audiences experience the theater and its relevance in their lives. In her essay this month, she opens up an exciting conversation about the inextricable connection between craft and creativity. I hope that she will provoke an active debate about balancing iconoclastic ideas with the skills necessary to engage and transport audiences.

We look forward to reading your responses to Theresa–and to one another!


by Theresa Rebeck

Recently, John Eisner asked me how, as a playwright, I reconciled my passion for structure and historically more traditional elements of craft with fidelity to the inchoate and poetic essence of the creative impulse.

I was honestly startled by the question. John is smart and reasonable and he spends a lot of time thinking about theater and theater artists and questions of how theater can remain a lively and important element of the American culture. So when he wondered how I reconciled craft and creativity I had to take it seriously even though the question kind of made my head want to explode. It has always seemed to me that the instigating impulse is something messy and internal and that a playwright’s job is to take that messy internal moment and build it into a stronger and more complex and dynamic version of itself so that it can sustain itself, on a stage, with actors, in the light of day. It’s like being a gardener: You have a seed; you add water and dirt and light, and you have a plant. You have an idea, you add structure, and you have a play. That’s not reconciling a conflict, that’s art.

Not so much maybe. Last summer I was talking to Rajiv Joseph about the overt disdain I sometimes hear come out of people’s mouths around the whole notion of structure. He agreed, noting that “people are really down” on anything that seems like it might be “conventional.” The suspicion is what John’s question suggests it might be—that craft somehow presents a compromise to some essential voice, and that purity of expression actually needs to detonate tradition for it to be authentic.

I do understand that artists of integrity can disagree around this question of aesthetics. I recently served on a panel with the exceptional Constance Congdon and Mac Wellman. Connie and Mac spoke passionately for the need for originality and the exploding of expectations that can prove the groundwork for provocative writing. I spoke passionately on behalf of story and character and forward motion. I think at one point we got a little annoyed with each other, but that really was only once during a workshop that took place over four days. Mostly we shrugged and agreed that sometimes it’s hard to know what to tell a young playwright who’s got a kind of interesting mess on his or her hands and theater is a weird business no matter how you slice it and we’re all in this together. They’d we go off and have cocktails.

But there are real questions around this conflict, if that is indeed what it is. Steven Dietz wrote to me a couple of months ago, noting that when he was just a wee beginner of a playwright, people praised his “experimentation.” But now he feels that at that time he just didn’t know how to write a play. This is my worry, honestly: In the current environment, when young writers are being encouraged to stay away from anything “conventional” are we perhaps falling in love with a kind of playwriting that frankly just doesn’t work? Are we judging too harshly plays that do work? And how does the audience fit into this discussion? Does it?

There is a class issue at the core of this discussion which I think frankly never gets named, and that centers on the question of audience. Several times I have heard wonderful theater artists complain about how stupid the audience is. Usually that statement is tangled in a larger discussion of why that particular audience didn’t particularly enjoy an especially experimental piece of theater. I also hear a lot of people complaining because while all us intellectual and hip theater artists are so busy running away from what may or may not be conventional, audiences are pretty much running toward it. Up in Dorset, Vermont, where I hole up in a little farmhouse during the summer, there’s a fantastic little theater which produces wonderful work, the Dorset Theater Festival. They started out their season this year with Jack Gilpin starring in Conor MacPherson’s St Nicholas; it was a terrific night of theater, but didn’t sell many tickets. Just last week, however, they opened The Hollow, by Agatha Christie. This production is a boffo hit; they’ve sold more tickets to the Agatha Christie play (staged with dazzling panache by artistic director Carl Forsman) than they have sold to any production of any other play in the last three years.

Does that make the audiences in Dorset stupid? I’m sure there are plenty of theater artists who would say, well, it doesn’t make them smart. On the other hand, these are not people who just stay home all night and watch television, or go see bad movies about idiots blowing up airplanes. These are people who got in their cars, drove to the theater and paid $45 each to watch three full hours of some pretty hilarious Agatha Christie. They laughed and clapped and had a great time, and I’m pretty sure they will come back and see another play at the Dorset Theater Festival soon. I suspect all the actors who were in that Agatha Christie play thought those audience members were smart enough. I suspect Carl Forsman and the merry band who are up there trying to keep that theater alive up there in Dorset don’t think those audiences, or Agatha Christie, are all that stupid either.

There are always questions inside questions. Who is theater supposed to serve? Why do we do it, anyway? Do we write for audiences, or do we write for ourselves and our community? If we are convinced that the purest forms of theater—the ones that honor the original and mysterious impulses in the heart of the playwright, and ask that the playwright find the most original and “unconventional” theatricalities to express that impulse—then do we need audiences at all? Why do we get mad at audiences for not flocking to theater which doesn’t interest them because it doesn’t care about them?

Do we think that theater is art only if people don’t understand it?

Can art be serious and popular at the same time?

Is the idea that craft and creativity are in opposition perhaps mistaken? Isn’t it possible that they are the yin and yang of storytelling? Isn’t it possible that greatness in theater embraces both?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July 2009 - John Clinton Eisner


It is July and the beginning of a brand new year at the Lark. Our program cycle begins and ends in the balmy, contemplative breezes and soft rainstorms of summer in New York City. For that reason, I am reclaiming this space—occupied for the past five months by various artists and thinkers in the Lark community—to share a few thoughts about what we have accomplished this year and where we are headed.

We turned 15 this past year, and experienced our most visible growth spurt ever. A group of key stakeholders planted the seeds for this success over a decade ago through their clear vision, thoughtful goal setting, careful planning, and a mission and vision that still meets a critical need for deeper and more productive collaborations in a diverse and changing world.

Our accomplishments this year include the first round of “Launching New Plays into the Repertoire” (an initiative that brings playwrights and artistic leaders together to plan multiple productions and deepen community engagement), exponential growth in our partnerships with organizations to support new voices, our largest grant ever ($500,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), and two major awards (Obie and Lucille Lortel)—not to mention a litany of Lark-developed plays that landed at theaters across the globe. I am moved by the scope of our impact in the lives of playwrights and the communities for which they write, but it is you, our family of artists, funders, board members and friends, who have brought us to this place.

Despite these successes, our challenges are significant. In the coming year, we need to be resourceful and disciplined in order to maintain our momentum and to grow. We need to apply energy to board development, building a broader financial base, community engagement, deepening our artistic core, and stabilizing physical and human resources. We count on all of the members of our community to help us move forward and grow stronger. Times are tough, but the new economic and social structures that are coming into place challenge us to think deeply about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, to explore what the arts have to offer society as a whole, and to propose new ways to shape the theater of the future.

Along with many other changes taking place in society, the theater field's focus has recently returned to placing a stronger value on “process” and “partnership”—two hallmarks of the Lark’s mission and vision. Our work advocating for and actively practicing these ideas, along with others, such as promoting internationalism, bringing unheard voices to the forefront, and levying freedom of expression, has been a material part of a new and promising relationship forming between the arts and society—away from culture as "product" and moving towards a more active, holistic and multi-dimensional role for the arts. This new reality was stunningly present at last month's Theater Communications Group annual conference in Baltimore, which seven Lark staff and board members attended. Almost every session acknowledged this shift of focus, this new recognition of a deeper purpose to the art we make, and it felt good to know that the Lark, with many others, has been at the cutting edge of this change. At the same time, change in the field means that we must consider how the Lark itself must change to focus on new challenges.

As we move forward, I anticipate that the Lark will deepen certain aspects of its programming while looking beyond existing programs to what comes next. Some programs will remain central to our activities—those programs that support intimate and in-depth collaboration “in the studio” and among people of different backgrounds and traditions—while other functions may be taken up by independent producers, partner theaters, universities, and entrepreneurial artists, allowing the Lark to move forward and to innovate. Our job is to exist where the newest thinking is happening, where we can help make real risk seem approachable, where artists look out across open and uncharted territories of the imagination and lead us into our future by creating new vocabularies to describe it.

The Lark exists as a departure point for artistic growth and cultural inclusion, but also as a steady partner to the artists who have found a home in our community and the theaters and other organizations that have banded with us to make the value of the whole exceed the sum of its parts.

The impact we have had on the field, and on society, has been made possible because of your participation in our work, and I thank you for your active commitment and support as we take a deep breath of warm summer air and dive into another year of creative exploration. In the coming months, we will hear more in this blog from artists we know and respect and social innovators who are showing us new ways to view the world, and I look forward to sharing reflections of my own as I travel from city to city and into the creative territory of our studios here at home.

As always, let me know your thoughts, ideas, dreams, and concerns about anything that has piqued your interest here.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Monday, June 1, 2009

June 2009 - Rajiv Joseph


Rajiv Joseph was appointed in 2005 as a Playwright Fellow in our Playwrights’ Workshop, led by Arthur Kopit. It was in the Workshop that he began to put together the pieces of his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo which has just opened to critical acclaim at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. In the following essay, Rajiv reflects upon the juggling act of writing a play that speaks to his own vision and experience while embracing the experience of collaborating with actors, directors, translators and widely divergent communities. Rajiv has had a chance to see his work performed not only in English, but in Spanish and Romanian, in the U.S. and outside its borders, and, as a consequence, has learned a great deal about his writing and its impact on different audiences. We look forward to reading your responses to Rajiv–and to one another!



Spies Like Us by Rajiv Joseph

So the other day I was on a Transylvanian morning TV talk show. It was like Northern Romania’s answer to "Regis and Kelly," except in this case, Regis was a chain-smoking dude with a beard who read the news directly off of his laptop, and Kelly was a beautiful, tall, blonde, 22 year-old woman who never spoke. She literally never opened her mouth. But she did provide a nice visual contrast to the host, which is probably why their show is the most-watched morning TV program in Târgu Mureş.

I was there to talk about my play, Animals Out of Paper, which was opening at the Ariel Theatre and was translated into Romanian by Sorin Rusa and is now called Animale de Hartie. The director of the play, Gabi Cadariu, sat on the couch with me and acted as the translator between me and the chain-smoking, bearded host. The host asked some questions, read some news, and, at one point, started reading horoscopes for the day right off of his laptop. When he got to Gemini, my sign, I asked Gabi to translate for me. Gabi thought about it and then paraphrased and said, ”Choose your words carefully.” I still think he must have made that shit up, because it seemed a little too apropos. Considering he was translating. And I was there talking about my play, which was translated. And that, two days earlier, another play of mine opened in Los Angeles in which one of the characters is a translator in a story that is about, well, translation.

It was a crazy week, what with two openings in two different countries, and in both cases, one could see the evidence of a huge amount of Lark-based contribution. My play ”Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in LA on May 17th, is a play that has been developed extensively through the Lark, beginning in the fall of 2005 with the Playwrights’ Workshop and extending since then with a roundtable, studio retreat, Barebones® production and a co-production with the drama school at SUNY Purchase. Animals Out of Paper, produced last summer by Second Stage Theatre, was first drafted at the Lark Workshop at New York Stage & Film in the summer of 2007, and also benefitted from a roundtable reading.

This was the third time the Lark had sent me to a foreign country. I always feel like a spy when I’m on Lark business abroad. John Eisner usually shows up at midnight in some random train station, we go to a bar, he asks me what contacts I’ve made, what information I’ve gotten, and then he gives me a list of people whom I should call in Bucharest. I don’t know them, but they are expecting me. This is how the Lark works: Playwrights as spies, plotting to bring together theaters and people and cultures and ideas.

John, like all Master Spies, seems to be everywhere at once, and was also at my opening in LA, so it was useful to chat with him in Romania about that experience. I had lived the previous two months in LA, going to rehearsals, working with the cast and director Moises Kaufman, and basically re-writing every night. After nearly five years of development, I had foolishly thought that the script was locked and set, before rehearsals had even started. But this was not the case. As it turns out, when you have a bunch of brilliant people like Moises, assistant-director Jimmy Maize, dramaturg Pier Carlo Talenti and my crackerjack cast poring over every last beat of a play, questions are going to rise up... and every time I rewrote one moment of the play, other things would unravel. This turned out to be a very good thing for Bengal Tiger.

I’m homesick right now for my little Oakwood apartment in Marina del Rey where the theatre put me up. It’s coroporate housing, the place feels like a hotel, but after all the late nights of re-writing, re-thinking, nervousness, frustration and elation, I look back on that place and see it as this little cove of creative energy. And I realize that those two months of working on this play in LA were the culmination of five years of Lark development. And now it’s ready, it’s ready to begin it’s life as a play, and I’m going to miss that time in my life when I was working on it.

By the time I got to Romania, I was exhausted and a little emotionally ragged. In good ways, but still... my parents and their entourage had descended upon LA for opening, as well as all of my college buddies. The play had opened, it was a beautiful production, everything I might have wished, and before I could catch my breath, I was in Transylvania, picking John up at a random train station and then we were in a bar, drinking, and talking about contacts and information and the strange media blitz that accompanies the opening of a play in the fantastic town of Târgu Mureş. Like how, for example, I was to be up very early the next morning to be a guest on the Transylvanian version of Regis and Kelly.

The production of Animale de Hartie at the Ariel Theatre was stunning. Tiny origami cranes were placed on every seat of the theatre as gifts. The actors were phenomenal, and I had the curious and wondrous experience of being able to watch my play performed in a language I do not understand. I felt I was learning new things about the play every two seconds. Gabi’s direction was inspired and it seems that the audience really loved it. Again, I was transported back to those early days on the campus of Vassar at our New York Stage & Film retreat, with my fellow Larkees, hearing the words for the very first time. And I thought about how much those words have changed with every re-write, and now, how they’ve changed even more, into something utterly foreign, and yet familiar.

A party followed the opening and the food was bread with pork lard smeared on it and paprika sprinkled on top. I am telling you, this is the perfect post-opening-night food. Sorin, my translator tells me you can substitute sugar for the paprika if you like your lard a little sweet. Either way, it’s good stuff. Crack open a couple of beers and you are good to go.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 2009 - Margarett Perry


Margarett Perry, a core Lark artist for over ten years, describes in the following essay the conditions that she feels have been most useful to her in supporting playwrights in developing new plays. She believes that the theater is most alive in the presence of the audience, and that it is in front of an audience that playwrights learn the most about their plays. Here, she discusses some of her experiences working with playwrights—over the course of several early productions—to support a natural and vital process led by the playwright, towards a deeper, more fully realized script.

We look forward to reading your responses to Margarett–and to one another!

Practice Makes Process
by Margarett Perry

For a freelance director like me, the challenge of new plays is not only to convince theaters to produce them but also to create an environment in which the work can grow. Over the course of the past several years, through my work with the Lark Play Development Center in New York City and the Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, I have arrived at an understanding about the process of supporting playwrights that is healthy, productive, and provides the time and space necessary for the play to become what the playwright envisioned.

A good example of this process was my collaboration with playwright Brian Dykstra on Clean Alternatives. Our work on this play for over a year, and in several runs, taught me just how much new plays develop on their feet, in front of an audience. Although Brian and I had heard several drafts of the play in roundtable readings at the Lark—a helpful format where actors perform the text unrehearsed and then discuss the experience of the play with the author—it wasn’t until we were in rehearsal and performing the play that choices could be made at the deepest level. Changes came out of discoveries about how the play worked in front of an audience during the course of its run, and from going back into rehearsal to try new things before it went back into production again. Returning to the rehearsal room after encountering an audience is an incredible experience. New progress is possible because we have much more information about how the play actually works. During our final run of Clean Alternatives at the Kitchen, actor Mark Boyett, who had been with the project from the very beginning, said, “I want to give all the people who saw our show in its earlier productions their money back!”

Rachel Lampert, Artistic Director of Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, saw the play and decided overnight she wanted to produce it. While we were preparing for the Kitchen production, Clean Alternatives was also invited to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it would perform first. The hitch was that, in Scotland, the play was limited in length to 90 minutes. We had to cut 25 minutes from the script and make it work without an intermission. This was a painful process, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to go to the festival. Brian began cutting and I arranged for the show to be remounted again at 59E59 where they were hosting the “East to Edinburgh Festival" as a way to help American companies warm up for the stressful festival environment. We went back into rehearsal for three weeks and ran the new version at 59E59. It was a tighter show, but Brian felt it was missing some of the humor and character development.

Nevertheless, the short version was very well received in Scotland—we won a Fringe First Award—but, after playing it for a month, we still felt it was incomplete. And so, before heading up to Ithaca, Brian developed yet another draft, restoring some sections from the original script while keeping some of what he had learned through the process of cutting and from the three runs so far. We were thrilled to have another three-week rehearsal process at the Kitchen with this next version of the script. Even at this point, Rachel Lampert encouraged us in her “meet and greet” welcome speech to think of our time at the Kitchen as a continuation of the development process. Even though there would be an opening night, she said we should never feel we had to stop working on the play. I had heard similar words from other artistic directors, but it was clear that she meant what she said. This was backed by her invitation to stay in Ithaca for the entire run—an unusual opportunity for a director—so that I could observe the production and continue working with Brian. I knew we wouldn’t be able to rehearse with the actors after opening, but there is always so much to learn from the audience—especially if the playwright and the director are in the house.

Not every circumstance allows for this kind of sustained partnership between director, writer and actors. And so when I began to work with Carlo D’Amore on his solo play No Parole, I decided to work with the Lark to begin the rehearsal process in advance of our official rehearsal dates at the Sacramento Theatre Company. Carlo and I met periodically over the six months leading up to the first day of rehearsal in California. We scheduled three Lark roundtables, with small invited audiences, separated by six weeks of work on the script, as well as some basic rehearsal sessions. After each roundtable, we discussed what we had learned and what changes Carlo wanted to make. I began to understand the shape of the piece and how it was affecting the audience based on my observation of people in the room and their response. During each stage of this process the play leapt forward. The week before we left for Sacramento, we held a more in-depth version of a roundtable in which Carlo performed for a larger group of people. The process was invaluable. It allowed us to head into our first rehearsal with confidence in the script. It also convinced us that some of the changes we had been discussing were necessary and would make the production more powerful.

Following my work with Carlo, I decided to apply this early discovery process to my next collaboration with Brian on his play, A Play on Words. Brian had begun writing the play in the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, but it didn’t really flourish in that format so Brian began working on it in a series of roundtables where he could hear the entire play in front of a small group of actors and friends. And so prior to our rehearsal period in Ithaca we met several times reading and re-reading the play. We scheduled a Lark roundtable in February, just a few days before heading up to Ithaca to begin rehearsals. This was incredibly helpful because we were able to see how the comedy worked in front of a small audience and it had a significant influence on our understanding of the play’s tone as we began rehearsals.

Even with all of this development work at the Lark, it wasn’t until the third preview of A Play on Words that we realized that we needed to trim several sections to support the shape and build of the play. Brian cut almost 20 minutes (in little nips and tucks) during previews. The feeling in the house the night we executed the cuts was remarkable. It felt like a different play. Once the play was running for about two weeks and the comedy was really cooking, Brian felt that the ending needed some tweaking. After some discussion with Mark Boyett, who was also acting in this production, they tried some changes during a performance and the payoff was exciting.

Yesterday we went back into rehearsals for A Play on Words because it’s going to be at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Americas Off-Broadway Festival. As we started to talk about all the little changes we wanted to make based on our discoveries at the Kitchen, I couldn’t resist reminding Mark Boyett that the last time we went back in to work on a play like this, he wanted to give everyone their money back. We laughed, but I know we’re all gleeful at the thought—as the artists involved you can only hope that you are continuing the work and making discoveries and that you feel that those discoveries matter.

In all of these examples, the writer also performed in the production and was able to stay connected and make changes that allowed the play to evolve. More often, the playwright does not have the opportunity to stay with the production beyond opening night. Nevertheless, seeing how a play works—or doesn’t work—in front of an audience is at the core of how we learn about it. Commercial Broadway producers understand this and have traditionally developed shows through out of town performances during which the director and writer continue to work on the production before moving to New York City for several weeks of previews where their work continues through opening night. But non-profits can seldom afford to keep the team together long enough to provide this development opportunity. And so I am continuing to explore new ways to approach this challenge so that all new plays can benefit from this sustained period of focus.

In my three seasons directing at the Kitchen I have continually witnessed the audience’s role in this collaboration. The Kitchen encourages people to come early in the run and—if they come to one of the previews—they are invited to come back to see the show again for free. During the preview talk-backs, the audience is made aware of their role in the creative process and many of the subscribers return to see the production several times. At a Meet the Artists event during the final week of the run of The Two of You, there were about 25 people who had seen the play three or more times. Wow. This group of clearly understood that a play grows and evolves in production, and that every night is unique. I’ve left many shows on opening night only to hear from my cast how much better it got during the run—maybe not so much better that you want to give everyone who saw it the first week their money back, but you get the idea.

Margarett Perry is a director and producer in theater, film and television. Perry was the Producing Artistic Director of Access Theater for six years where she directed and produced numerous plays and world premieres. She is an Artistic Fellow at the Lark where she has worked with many playwrights and has produced the Playwrights' Workshop with Arthur Kopit. She received her MFA in Directing from Southern Methodist University, and is a Drama League Directing Fellow alumni and a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

April 2009 - Chisa Hutchinson


This month’s essay is by Chisa Hutchinson, a theater artist who has recently moved back to New York to focus on playwriting and is enrolled in the Graduate Dramatic Writing Program at New York University. We know her because she submitted her play She Like Girls to the Lark in 2006 while she was still teaching at a school in California. It is a beautiful and passionate play about high school kids in the inner city, and about the consequences of love and life choices, and it was selected for inclusion in our annual Playwrights’ Week festival and was further developed as a BareBones® production at the Lark directed by Kristin Horton. It was a conversation with Tina Howe, whom she met at the Lark, that encouraged her to return to graduate school to focus on her writing, and, almost immediately things started to change in her life: she got into NYU, she got a good literary agent, and she received commissions from the Atlantic Theater and the City Parks Foundation.

We are delighted that Chisa is a part of our community, attending the work of other writers and sharing new work of her own from time to time. She is a powerful and hungry writer with clear ideas about how she would like to see the world change. She has an enormous and generous spirit, an overwhelming sense of fun, penetrating intelligence, and a desire to connect with audiences from communities that she knows would benefit from having theater as a part of their lives. In the essay that follows, she discusses how she understands her evolving role as artist and teacher in relation to her community and her belief in theater as a platform for telling stories that especially honor and include Americans who have been marginalized, in part, through their lack of connection to culture and the arts.

We look forward to reading your responses to Chisa–and to one another!


To Make A Contribution,
You Must First Exist

by Chisa Hutchinson

Maybe you know that person who came out of the womb quoting Shakespeare. Who wrote a play in five acts at the age of six and had an informed, well developed opinion on the absurdist style at ten. Yeah. I’m not that person. In fact, I didn’t even see a legit theater production until I was in high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about theater. I saw the commercials for Cats. It’s that I grew up in Newark, New Jersey (before the New Jersey Performing Arts Center existed), and my family had more pressing things to spend money on than theater tickets. Like food. And bail. And rent. And food.

Then, at fourteen, I got a scholarship to a swanky private school. The school had— along with a field house, a dance studio, and a theater— an art gallery where the work of a photographer who takes pictures of the poor was once exhibited. There was one picture in particular of a woman sitting next to a huge hole in her wall. One of my classmates, who was standing right behind me as she looked at this picture, asked in astounding earnest, “Ew, why doesn’t she just get that fixed?”

This girl. I knew what she got on her Chemistry test that week, about her obsessive devotion to Dave Matthews, where her family summered (yep, it’s a verb, too). But she didn’t know that people like me— people with my background and my circumstances and my struggles—even existed. I saw her almost every day, but she didn’t see me. She didn’t see me in that picture.

And this is why I write plays.

I want to validate people who get too little validation. I try to write plays about things that matter to them to let them know that they matter. I have two plays slated for production right now, both of which are about kids from the inner city. She Like Girls, which was developed at the Lark, is being produced in the fall by Working Man’s Clothes Productions. We’re planning a benefit performance to support a shelter for gay kids who’ve been disowned by their families. The second play, Dirt Rich, was commissioned by the City Parks Foundation and will be presented—admission-free—at four outdoor sites around the city this summer. The idea, of course, is to bring theater to people who’d love to see it, but who, after all, have more pressing things to spend money on than theater tickets.

There is another idea, too. A subtler one that has implications beyond whether or not people can afford to come see a show. In my experience as both a student and a teacher of theater, I have both felt and seen the impact that art can have on the drive of a human being, even one who is not particularly interested in art. As a student, for example, I was taken to see two powerhouses, August Wilson and Robert Brustein, debate the issue of color-blind casting. I remember thinking, “Now here is something that affects me. They’re talking about me up there!” Back when I still acted, I’d been cast as everything from a Theban princess to what was supposed to be a middle-aged, male, Jewish radio host. While I enjoyed the challenge and was flattered by the vote of confidence, I worried that my audience must have been thinking things like, “Why is Antigone black? Is it some sort of statement?” or “Couldn’t they find an actress who looked more the part?” or more to the point, “Couldn’t they find a play that would be more appropriate for this girl?” When I heard Wilson’s call for more stories actually about people of color, I knew what I had to do. I was practically catapulted out of that hall into the world of playwriting.

Of course, I know that broadening the spectrum of dramatic narratives isn’t exactly a job I can do alone. Which is why I teach. Right now, I teach creative writing at a free after-school arts program in Brooklyn. Before that, I taught creative writing with NJ SEEDS, the very same program that got me my scholarship. Before that, it was high school English and theater at private schools very much like the one I attended and, before that, SEEDS again. I’ve been teaching since I was eighteen years old. I’ll probably keep teaching for as long as the universe will let me. When producing entities begin to view artists of color as more than ornaments, when institutions that reward creativity decide that it’s okay to give a prize to an Asian writer two years in a row if the writing is just that good, I want to be sure that my students are ready, their voices strong and distinct, their hearts full-to-bursting with purpose.

I recently got an email from a former student. She’d read about me in the SEEDS newsletter and wanted to let me know that she remembered me and the (race-appropriate) monologue she performed for the theater elective I taught back when I was still an intern with the program. She’s now an investment analyst at the World Bank/IFC. Obviously, I can’t exactly take credit for that. The fact that she was a brilliant student with an inhumanly strong work ethic might have more to do with it than anything else. But the fact that nearly a decade later, she remembers the exact monologue she recited one silly summer and felt compelled to let me know… well, that’s got to count for something right?

Here’s my theory: people with access to art—both as audience and as subject—tend to have a sense of entitlement that makes them better equipped to succeed in the world. Seeing yourself or someone you know on stage, seeing a house that looks like it could be your grandma’s in a painting, even hearing your name in the refrain of a song (I’m still waiting for that one) can go a long way to make you feel like you belong in the world and can contribute to it. Totally underrepresented people, on the other hand, lack the sense of entitlement and confidence they need to fulfill their potential, whether as business magnates, technology whizzes, or playwrights. They are simply too invisible to feel essential and society totally misses out on what they might have to contribute. Makes me wonder how many Sakeenahs, Seong-Euns, and Soledads out there have something to offer the world and don’t know it. You can bet your sweet, culture-loving ass one of them makes an appearance in my next play.

Friday, March 6, 2009

March 2009 - Saviana Stanescu


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month, we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

Most of all, we hope that you will read these essays and take part in our online blog conversation with us so that we can begin to get a sense of what ideas are in the ether.

This month’s essay is by Saviana Stanescu, a playwright of global stature whose work and perspective are particularly resonant for American audiences now. Saviana arrived in America the week before 9/11, which has, I think, had a significant impact on the stories and themes she has explored in her plays since then. She was a Fulbright scholar and award-winning Romanian playwright who completed the MFA program in Dramatic Writing at New York University where she now teaches. She has developed a number of plays while in residency at the Lark, in our Playwrights’ Workshop and in other programs—and several have gone on to critically-acclaimed productions. She is a core member of the Lark community who, three years ago with the support of a TCG New Generations Grant, created Lark’s American-Romanian Theatre Exchange program.

Saviana’s singular voice, clear vision, humor, and profound understanding of the human condition, as well as her professional discipline, prolific output and ability to work as a member of a creative community, are some of the reasons why she is making a unique and essential contribution to the field of theater and to society. In this essay, she contemplates her journey from child of communist Romania to revolutionary artist to global citizen, and her experience in America since she arrived here one week before the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. What she sees, from her vantage point between two cultures, is hope for the future.

We look forward to reading your responses to Saviana–and to one another!


®Evolution: Topdogs, Underdogs, Slumdogs - unite!
by Saviana Stanescu

Let’s face it: global diversity and interconnectedness can’t be ignored anymore. Even the Oscars were more global this year, pouring awards over Slumdog Millionaire and acknowledging classy Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, German and Japanese filmmakers, and a French man-on-wire, among others. Moreover, President Obama gave us the green light and a nudge to finally debate race, class and gender issues in the open—a vital act for any society attempting to be truly progressive. In this blog, I will add to the mix my personal experience and a little slice of subjective East-European history. All wrapped in my belief that we still need strong socio-politically aware playwrights, deeply invested in the stories they invent.

We are all constructed by the stories we tell and the stories we are told. Yes, nowadays powerful moving pictures and digital images are very rapidly able to tell a compelling and widely distributed narrative. But nothing can compare to that shared live experience, with roots in ancient ritual, which performers and the audience breathe together during a live theatrical event. However, the time for only one paradigm in playwriting has long passed and we recognize diversity not only in social terms but also in the way we tell our stories. After Shakespeare, August Wilson, Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, Lorca, Genet, Koltes, Grotowski, Pirandello, the Greeks, African performances, Balinese dancers, Japanese Noh, Chekhov, In Yer Face Theater, devised, multi-media, site-specific, cross-ethnic, feminist and queer performances, surrealism, expressionism, post-dramatic and environmental theater, etc., etc, we can’t only rely on the linear cause-effect plot-driven way of telling a story. It ceased to be only about unity of time, place and motivation long time ago. Aristotle is dead. And if he was still alive I bet he would have honored the diversity we achieved in dramatic forms and tried to document it in a serious theoretical way.

The unity of time, place and action might be obsolete in the theater, but in life we still share the same place—the Earth—along with the same time and action of going through our human journeys. Nevertheless, we are at different stages in our lives, we have multiple needs and dreams, and specific local circumstances shape our daily routines. Dramatic living and dramatic writing are interconnected but one does not necessarily lead to the other. There are great playwrights who never experienced hardship but are able to tell a powerful story about people and places burdened by trauma. And there are writers who went through a lot but feel the need to employ gallows humor, to invent parables or fairy-tales aimed at helping people escape their gritty reality. There are playwrights who need to provoke and shout stories in your face, forcing the audience to feel the proximity of the violence they watch on television or in thrillers. And there are dramatists who are still exploring the forests of traditional family relationships, while others write about dysfunctional or alternative families. And the list goes on and on. I wish mainstream producers would become more aware of this variety (in form & content) of stories longing to be shared with audiences. And of the impact that a playwright’s vision and imagined world can still have on people. Theater is not just entertainment but education too. Let’s not underestimate the spectators. The desire to continuously learn is embedded in our genes. We can choose to be ready to question and shake old beliefs and paradigms, and explore the Other.

In America’s patchwork society (a phrase that many, like Obama , favor over the classic “melting pot”), the exploration of the Other translates—more often than not—into an un/conscious form of segregation. Yes, people are willing to lend an ear, an eye—from time to time, on a break from their busy daily schedules—to the concerns of other racial/class/gender/sexual/ethnic groups. But they still seem to see each minority in a pink or black box, with a red or yellow or purple label. It’s easier to look at those boxes when time allows, to store them -for free :) - in the basement of your mind. It’s harder to integrate all those voices in the “garden” of your front yard. It’s easier to condescend and look down at those guys, while feeling superior because you looked, at least. It’s harder to accept that sometimes they are more sophisticated than you are or have more interesting things to say, even if they are poorer or of a different color or have an accent.

At this point, my personal hi/story kinda feels entitled to kick in :) - I am a product of communism—or so I once believed. I spent my formative years under the totalitarian regime of Ceausescu. I learned that all people are equal but—as the joke goes—some are “more” equal than others… Growing up, I realized that words were not always telling the truth even if they were declaimed with conviction on the National TV. I learned what propaganda, censorship and hardship meant but also that, despite everything, your mind can and must be free and your thoughts can reach unexpected heights of knowledge and understanding. And I became convinced that that was the role of the artist in society: to be able to think and express what other people couldn’t. To awaken their sleepy consciousnesses through her/his creative power and imagination. To be subversive. I believed (and I still believe) in the Arts as our means of redemption and tool for creating a healthier society.

My school years passed with good grades and mandatory work in factories and in the field. Years with shortages in food and electricity. Years with my mom waiting in line for milk and bread. Years when Romanian television showed 10 minutes of cartoons followed by hours of political propaganda. BUT ALSO years with books, intellectual conversations, dance lessons and… American television Westerns and series like Dallas Ewing Oil Company. So we could see how rotten capitalism was. Rotten or not, we were fascinated by it. Got our nicknames from Dallas in elementary school. I was Sue-Ellen (Linda Gray) while all the other girls wanted to be the pretty Pamela (Victoria Principal). Yes, hard years in terms of food, electricity, heat and money but full of family love and close friends. The years of my youth. Bitter and sweet. With dates that began with the phrase: “Come to my place on Thursday, my parents are not at home and I have hot water from 4-6 pm!” :)

When the revolution came in 1989, I was there, in the streets, with my fellow students, shouting: Down with the Dictator! The blood, the wounds, the corpses ceased to matter in our collective euphoria: things must change. And they did. I started to work as a reporter in the new free press. My first assignment was to write about pulling down the big statue of Lenin. I worked as a journalist for 10 years, I published books of poetry, I wrote plays, I even became a TV talk-show host. A new and never expected “VIP” life—like Paris, London or New York! A second-hand or, rather, third-hand Hollywood-like glamour. But I had always wanted to experience things first-hand…

So I got a Fulbright grant to study in New York in the fall of 2001. I was in my early 30s. My life was starting again. “New York, the center of the theater & performance world wants me there. What else can be better? This is not the golden dream of communism, but my own super-golden dream. And I’m widely awake!”

I arrived in New York a week before 9/11 and my world was shattered again—along with America’s. For the next eight years I worked hard to be able to tell my stories in English and to be an honest witness to what was happening to people like me, caught in that inbetween space bridging two cultures: the immigrants, the “aliens.” We might have “extraordinary skills” (as my visa states), but we just want to have an ordinary life, to feel that we are fully accepted here.

When people let me down, the City cheers me up—and I feel that I belong here, to this New York that I saw wounded so deeply in my first week on American soil.

Recently, I learned a new slogan: Yes, We Can. Finally, a slogan I could believe in. This wonderful thinker and orator, Obama, made me trust the idea of a political leader for the first time in my life.

And a funny thing: after being required to declaim Marx’s slogans in Ceausescu’s Romania in a mechanical empty way, people are handing me flyers on the campuses of Columbia and NYU that “shout” Revolution and Marx is back! I google Marx and there they are: all the quotes that I knew. But in English. And the funniest thing is … this time I really understand his points. I’m not sure that we need a new revolution, but an evolution towards truly accepting and appreciating various voices, people and stories, we definitely need.

So… my new imaginary friend is Karl Marx. We go for dinner together and have lots of hot debates. He wants to be the man of my dreams. I tell him that my dreams got kinda shattered. He speaks about class struggles, I talk about my struggles. I like it when he talks about the women’s status being the measure of progress in society. Actually he talks about the “fair sex” and then he makes this silly joke: “the members of the fair sex, the ugly ones included, ha, ha”. I tell him he’s sexist, he replies: you’re beautiful. Oh, well. Who can resist that? OK, now he got me on a weak spot, I start rolling my eyes and flirting, wishing I had a push-up bra to make my breasts look “revolutionary”… But he mentions again that freedom is only the consciousness of necessity, turning me off. I reply that freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose. He doesn’t like that. You cannot treat freedom so lightly. I don’t, on the contrary, but I still believe in spontaneity and impulse, this thing with necessity doesn’t really ring true to me. Well, that’s why you’re poor, he looks down at me. You are not able to get organized, you don’t know how to make a profit, you only live on the payment for your labor, yes, arts, theater, teaching – labor. No profit. You are a proletarian. Workers of the world, unite! Religion is just an opiate for the masses. Revolution is the only solution. Oh my God. Here I am again. Where I started. A sexless member of the proletariat. With a new revolution on the horizons. Really? I thought my life was in some sorta evolution. It turns out that it only recycles in a loop. Loop-loop-loop. History repeats itself, Marx says: first as a tragedy, second as a farce—and this time I agree with him. Am I ever gonna break this tragicomic circle? He smiles for the first time. He gives me a hammer. He turns into Brecht and tells me that art shouldn’t be a mirror of reality but a hammer that shapes it. Wow. That’s quite a lot of pressure on a poor artist like me. Am I—are we—gonna manage to shape any reality? Maybe. Stay tuned.