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.