How a Play Makes It Onto the Stage
Playwrights at the recent Humana Festival describe the process, from idea to polished production
LOUISVILLE, KY. — "Our deal is, the playwright has the final word," says Jon Jory, producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL). In a recent interview during the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Jory talked about the process of bringing a play to the stage for the festival.
A new play usually needs work- from fine-tuning to substantial changes. Suggestions might come from a variety of people including director, researcher, and even set or costume designer. And those suggestions often include cuts - tough realities for any writer.
But the assurance that playwrights must approve changes works toward cooperation - the playwrights are more flexible. "They have the right to say no, but then they have to listen," Jory says.
Getting a play to the stage is a long process, sometimes involving years of effort on the part of the writer. Edwin Sanchez, whose play "Icarus" brought him to the festival for the first time this year, has seen seven of his plays produced around the country.
He says a play starts first with an idea. In this case, he was questioning the whole idea of "beauty" and reversed the fairy tale making Beauty a young man and Beast a disfigured young woman.
Thinking about the nature of beauty brought up a lot of memories, particularly a rush to judgment in the seventh grade that labeled a red-haired girl a snob. But once young Edwin got to know her, he fell in love with her; her sweetness and joy still touch him.
Sanchez started writing little scenes that didn't at first connect. He took long walks to let the characters talk to each other in his imagination. These "conversations" led to connections. He made an outline, but not an ending, which he says has to come naturally when the rest is finished.
Since he writes his plays in longhand, his transcription to the computer becomes his second draft. Then he sends it out to his agent and a friend or two. His agent sent it to ATL.
Choosing from the submissions
ATL is unusual because it has been running the Festival of New American Plays for 21 years - quite a track record for a small regional company. All the manuscripts it looks at - 900 a year - have been referred to the staff by various theatrical professionals including agents, producers, directors, playwrights they know, and actors they have worked with. All 900 are read by members of the literary department, and the number is easily whittled down to 50. Then the next round is slightly tougher as the batch of 50 is reduced to 25. Out of that, six will be selected for the next festival.
"This selection is really tough because every play can be construed to be flawed," Jory says. "It's all subjective. How you judge the plays against each other becomes an abstract and personal matter. There are some holdover plays, and we do commission four or five plays a year. A long-range project can take three years to complete."
Then Jory and the literary staff under the direction of Michael Dixon begin talking with the writers. Sometimes they workshop a play (a staged reading in which actors hold scripts and move about using props, etc.), but not necessarily.
"We get just as much out of a two- or three-day reading with the actors sitting around a table, listening to how dialogue comes out of their mouths," Jory says. "We share opinions with the playwrights, and many things that might be confusing get cleared up at these rehearsed readings."
So the playwrights are in on the process from the beginning. For Humana Festival newcomers, the experience is little short of miraculous. Benjie Aerenson's "Lighting Up the Two-Year Old" concerns a particularly egregious crime in the racing industry. The playwright, who is a civil lawyer, had read in The New York Times about the killing of a racehorse for insurance, and he turned this article into a powerful drama undergirded by a profound moral vision. Though he has been writing since college, this festival marked the first full-scale production of one of his works.
About his first experience with the festival, Aerenson says, "They treat you like you're golden. Michael Dixon is so good. He went through the play with me and showed me where it needed strengthening - the first act needed greater urgency [to motivate the commission of the crime]. Then Michael sent the manuscript to people in the horse industry who showed me where mistakes were. I referred to a character as a 'cowpoke,' for example. They said, 'No, it's "hotwalker." '
"Then working with [director] Lszl Marton day after day was amazing," Aerenson continues. "He suggested some changes and made some great cuts." Marton had seen what is most moving in the drama and helped Aerenson reveal that at its core, the play is about what happens to a man when he sells out his integrity, the thing that gives his life meaning.
"When you are writing, you are not always gauging the emotional states of your characters," Aerenson says.
"But when I heard the actors and saw what Lszl was doing, I came up with different [solutions]." He changed the ending at Marton's suggestion, giving it such powerful closure that it remains one of the most meaningful plays of this year's festival.
A gradual process
Naomi Iizuka's challenging play, "Polaroid Stories," reworked several ancient Greek myths into the lives of homeless teens gathered at a pier. Experimental and riveting, the play is full of unique rhythms, poetic flights, and raw street language. For her, the process really started when she read Ovid in college. Later, she taught playwriting to teens at risk.
"I wanted so much to recognize the humanity of these kids so that they wouldn't be seen as monsters," Iizuka says. "There is something about myth that can make your day-to-day travails and experiences understandable in a way that helps you realize you are part of a continuum, which can be wonderfully comforting."
When she was commissioned to do a site-specific work by a New York theater company at a pier, the play started coming together. But she went on interviewing street kids. She made transcriptions and then started shaping the material.
In the rehearsal process, many things changed. Jory, who directed "Polaroid Stories," says Iizuka is particularly good at facing theatrical realities. "I could tell her, if you want a costume change here, you have to add six lines, and she understood."
The playwright and ATL staff have to agree on a director (either can veto a given choice). The set and lighting designers and costumer talk to the playwright; a dramaturge is also assigned to the play who helps with research and may make suggestions that can lead to changes in the play, either in structure or dialogue.
When casting begins, the playwright is in on the process. Since ATL is a resident company, their own actors must be used in some roles, but the leads are left open to the writer's and director's discretion.
Rehearsals begin and refinements are made in the script until the last possible moment. The complex process of mounting a play for the Humana Festival has taken a year from selection to production. It's similar to what Steven Dietz says archly about his show "Private Eyes," an elaborate, labyrinthine comedy about deception: "The phrase I keep coming back to is, 'It started so simply.' "