beyond the surface of things: an interview with lyle kessler and david fofi

This interview originally appeared on Culturadar, an arts listings website for New York City. You can read the original post here.

Entering Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly Place, I blinked my watery eyes as my face thawed from the blistering cold blanketing the city. I asked for Lyle Kessler and David Fofi, the playwright and director, respectively, of Collision, a new Off-Broadway play being produced by The Amoralists, a downtown company known for raw, in-your-face productions. Neither gentleman had arrived, so I stood at the back of the theater and watched the cast of Collision joke with each other on stage as they relaxed prior to their final preview performance.

After a few minutes, Mr. Kessler entered the theater and immediately saw me. He stretched a sweet smile between longish locks of silver hair. His gravelly voice inquired, “Are you James?”

He reminded me of, Harold, a character from his famous play, Orphans: a smart, old dog with some good lines and a few tricks up his sleeve. I confirmed my identity, and he wondered where “Fofi” was. Mr. Kessler looked at his watch and realized we were both early, so he approached the edge of the stage where the cast joyfully greeted him, like a favorite uncle. It’s clear they like having him around. He’s a likable man, as I soon discovered.

David Fofi arrived right on time; his stocky frame stuffed into a bundle of winter wears. Mr. Kessler joked about it being colder than Los Angeles, where Mr. Fofi resides and is artistic director of The Elephant Theatre Company, also known for hyper-real productions, including L.A. premieres of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ plays.

We settled into the two back rows of the Rattlestick’s house, and the actors instinctually vacated the stage, only to return intermittently to warm up for the evening’s performance. I saw Collision the day before, and I was eager to discuss the play’s development and its themes, including family, violence in America, love and hate.

JAMES CARTER: Orphans is receiving its Broadway debut in March. What’s the difference between mounting a 30 year old play on the Great White Way and a new play with a company like the Amoralists?

LYLE KESSLER: This is very exciting because it’s a new play. We’re on a journey, an adventure in discovering it. I mean, Orphans has been discovered and rediscovered, and been around for a while. Certainly, it’s wonderful it’s being done on Broadway. For years they were attempting to do it. Finally, I’m fortunate Alec Baldwin is doing it.

This is a play that I wrote a few years ago…the first draft of it…and I was sort of was rewriting and developing sort of privately because I didn’t have any productions of it. I had a relationship with Dave Fofi at The Elephant because I lived out there for many years…my wife and me. He directed a play of mine called Robbers, and they called me and said they were going to do it. And, then I began going to the Elephant Theater, which is really kind of a cutting edge theater in L.A. It’s terrific. It’s like the Amoralists or Steppenwolf or Labyrinth. So, I would go to see all his plays…all of Steve Guirgis’ L.A. premiers.

So, we had a relationship, Dave and I, and so that when Collision was going to be done…David Van Asalt was going to do it…Terry Kenney connected to it for quite a while, and then he got offered a Broadway play of Neil LaBute’s, you know. Then David gave me a list of directors that may or may not be possible to come in…and many of these people were all booked up and I wasn’t crazy about some of the people on the list, and I thought to myself, “Oh, shit.” You know? And then I thought, “Why don’t I call Fofi up? I mean, I know he’s got this fuckin’ theater, you know, in L.A….

Mr. Fofi laughs.

…and he’s probably booked for the whole year.” And it turns out that they had taken a little a…a…

DAVID FOFI: Hiatus.

LK: Hiatus. And they were going to start in February, March, and he said, “Hey, I’m available. Send me the play!” So I sent him the play and this is how it happened. He read it, and flew in…without much preparation.

They both laugh

DF: That’s the best way to do it.

JC: Down and dirty?

DF: Not too much time to over-think everything.

JC: You’re a writer, too, right? Or, you have written?

DF: I’m primarily a director, but I do work with a kind of…I guess I would say…most of the time I seem to be working with new scripts. I don’t write scripts myself, but I’ve a lot of experience working with writers in development.

JC: And you like working on new plays?

DF: Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do, you know, when I really got started working on theater in Los Angeles downtown after school back in ’95…’96. I kind of got into theater late, as some people would say…in terms of it wasn’t something I did in high school. So, when I did get involved it was actually post military.

JC: You were in the Navy, right?

DF: Yes, I was in the Navy. And I was really attracted to this contemporary new stuff. And though I appreciate…have an appreciation for classics and all of the different kinds of theater people do or revive, my company was started primarily as a new theater company.

DF: That’s part of the process for me is just telling stories that reflect the completely complex and insane world that we live in. You know? So many topics…so many things that touch our American lives or abroad. We like to do stuff…like Lyle’s stuff, too…that’s very kind of visceral…very down to earth. Not that everything has a realism, but it’s definitely something that approaches people on a level of this is something that they either relate with. Or, it is part of our fabric and it is something you should be aware of. Whether it’s something that has comedy or tragedy or both…a little bit of both, that’s what we’re attracted to.

JC: There are some great performances in Collision. Nick Lawson and muMs were especially beautiful. How have the actors influenced the development of the play?

DF: They had probably a series of readings over the past year…or something like that…with Terry or with maybe various actors in and out. But, I think that once we got started, Lyle was really willing to and wanted to open it up and really mine it for everything he could kind of find in there. Of course, anytime you get have opportunity to use the actors…I mean, just to have human beings to hear how things sound, how they would feel about it…especially with the youth involved. Because I’m older. I’m an old guy.

Laugher.

DF: I always think it’s good for Lyle to hear that stuff. Obviously, he’s the writer. Anything I can do to facilitate not only hearing different things…the opportunity to look at it from different angles, hear different ways…hear how it comes out of actor’s mouths…and also just from a generational stand point of what type of feelings they may have on it.

In the amount of time that we had, it was definitely kind of a workshop/rehearsal process that was pretty impacting. A lot of work got done.

LK: My plays are allegories. Orphans is a parable, really, though the emotions are very true. You know, I try to find a certain basic truth by not going into a realism kind of thing…although everything is real in terms of intense emotions. But, in this piece, which is much different than most of the plays I’ve written because of the…it’s like a fable…it’s like an old, Medieval morality play with extremes of behavior. The play has gaps in it because I didn’t want to write it naturalistically. And, to try to mine the truth I was trying to find in it, it had to move in certain ways and things would happen and would change.

So, Dave’s involvement has been essential to the links of each of the scenes so the audience can follow to a degree and go with the journey. Dave was bringing in certain kinds of reality issues that needed to be put into the play, you know…and the play needed. As we said, this was like a brief…this would be way out of town now…in Baltimore…we’d just be developing the piece. It’s like a pressure cooker here doing it so intensely. Trying to discover with the set and the music and everything…so, I’m very happy with the production Dave’s done.

JC: Both Collision and Orphans have similar themes – especially that of family and redemption. What does family mean to you?

Mr. Kessler laughs.

LK: Well, like my character [Grange] says, “I’d never put them on the wall. I’d have nightmares.”

We all laugh.

JC: It hits close to home.

LK: You know, I love the fact that Fofi comes from a military background. His father was a lifetime career…his brothers were all career. This great family. We all come from different families. I use a lot of extreme emotions with my family.

Family, you know, I guess there is…I never try to connect the two of them as themes, but I guess the first one is…in a way…a positive family. Orphans becomes a family. In a way there’s a redemption there. He brings the two brothers together and they live their life.

This one, is a different journey. It’s probably the reverse of it. But it’s a family. The people — in both aspects — need family. I think this is what’s happening in America right now with the families…the macabre families of violence and needs and lost people…are looking for something and not getting it and striking out.

I never intended it to be a play about guns. It just accidentally happened I was writing a play about these characters and it turned into this family that he [Grange] brings a family and exerts his power. It’s open to interpretation whether he comes into the room and wants to do that from the beginning. Or, as he starts to observe his power it starts to see more accumulates and ends up where it’s ended. I love the fact that there’s laugher, and then suddenly the audience doesn’t realize…it turns on a dime, really. “What are we laughing at?” It’s a black comedy, but it’s extreme emotions. So…we’ll see what happens.

DF: Family to me has always been very important. Four boys in my family. Military. Different than a lot of people I know. Like I said, my family’s very strong, male, you know, kind of ideals. But, you know, I think we had a kind of intense and at the same time loyalty and a lot of looking out for each other.

I think the thing here when I approached at the top was human beings or people have an inherent need for that. Whether it’s an actual biological family or the family that you choose. The family that you fall into. Sometimes you don’t choose it, you just find yourself involved. Whether it’s a gang…whether it’s a theater company…a musical group. Whatever your cabal or click that you happen to find. We’d all like to think that people are all just so secure and strong and sound by themselves. But people like to be part of something. And to me that’s an extension of family.

I think, when people don’t have that…and whether it’s even good or bad…I sometimes think apathy is even worse than sometimes coming from a rough family. Rough father…or rough family…at least there’s an impact there. When there’s a vacuum, something’s gonna fill it. And, I think in some of the young people, there’s a vacuum out there today. It can be filled in various forms. Whether it’s media, or whether it’s other people…and, unfortunately, they become very susceptible to with going with the group. Until you find yourself face to face with, “What are we doing here?”

This [Collision] is an extreme version. Obviously, it’s very extreme. From here to here. But, I can name a myriad of instances where people find themselves part of a group and then find themselves face to face with the decision, “Do I even believe this group is doing?” And it doesn’t necessarily mean something this intense.

I think people are always searching for that.

JC: You’re tackling very controversial and current issues, including atheism and violence. Did the Newtown shootings influence the development of the play?

LK: When I wrote the play, I had these posters that were going to be put up. And one of them was Heath Ledger as the Joker. I didn’t realize. We had it there and took it down. Somehow, in my…I don’t know how I intuited this character would be drawn to this kind of violence. And then, this kid that did that in the movie theater had the same thing.

I wasn’t doing it terms of controversy. Hopefully, it’s about what is happening now. I always intended to try to discover what the nature of… Fascinated by all the books about Hitler to try and identify at what point did he become a crazed racist and a psychopath. And then you read this thing that he was a poetic soul in the beginning. His buddy…I have a book that that they went on the mountain, and they talked about music…and Hitler had a “yearning disposition.” The guy became the worst mass killer in history.

And nobody could identity where that is. Nobody could identify what the kids at Columbine…why they would want to commit suicide…why they would want to kill people.

I don’t explain it in the play, as you know. To go naturalistically, and say, “He did this because of that,” is just a lie. It’s an assumption that I don’t…I’m trying to go for bigger fish. I’m trying to attempt to leave it to the audience to understand that these people…I’m trying to make them human. That hopefully they’re not so far from us. And maybe to disturb that way. They become this family, they need each other, and they’re manipulated. And they need each other. It happens. I don’t try to show the naturalism of it.

DF: The news…I heard about it in this theater from the stage manager, who was online. Obviously, it affected me in a strong way. And it wasn’t something we wanted to go, “Okay, we’re gonna rewrite things.” But I think it affected me in terms of, “Okay, what are we doing?” I think going into it I took it from the level of, “I’m directing a play…is it a dark comedy? How far do we want to go with it? Are we going from this parable…maybe this graphic novel kind of feeling in my head to…”

You know there are particulars of just staging it and not thinking about them. I don’t ever go into something thinking about repercussions. You know? I don’t choose that kind of theater. If I was worried about it, I wouldn’t do it.

I remember this [Newtown] happened on a Thursday or Friday. That weekend I was kind of going through something. I needed something to be really passionate about this. And in the midst of that initial, kind of, “Oh, shit. This is one of the most horrific things I’ve ever heard, and here we are doing this play. How can we continue to do this?”

For me, it was really digging down and saying this is why I decided to do theater. It’s not to make everybody happy all the time. It was to tackle things. Issues. That are happening. Not to be a shock artist. Just to take on topics that need to be discussed. For me, the passion of it became maybe more clear. Obviously, I just wanted to hold it to a lot more reverence and respect to the play and to the characters…to the process. That this wasn’t something to be done…not that it was ever lightly…but it was even more paramount that this was important. To basically go, “This has become a part of the fabric of our society that we’ve chosen to ignore a lot of.”

LK: These people [the characters in Collision] are nihilists against existence, really. I don’t know if they’re atheists. I think they want to kill off God. I mean, their rage…they need the gods because they’re so enraged at existence and whatever existence did to them. Whatever failings… And I have a feeling that a lot of these killings and a lot of these people…that it goes beyond revenging their families or things that happened… I think there is a feeling in a sense like a baby striking out against everything and everybody. That’s what Grange says to provoke them. He asks them, “What do you hate?”

They see themselves as revolutionary nihilists against existence. Whatever that entails.

JC: Today is Martin Luther King Day, and I happened to come across this before I came over here to see you guys. He said:“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love?”

I was already going to ask you this question: What do you hate?

Laughter all around.

DF: Extremists!

More laughter.

JC: On the other hand…I also want to know: what do you love?

DF: I love a lot of things. I love my family. I love freedom. I love honesty. I love good people. I love generous people. I love grace. I love forgiveness. I love creativity. I love loyalty. You know, I love…a lot of things.

What do I hate? Ignorance. And not the kind of ignorance that can’t be helped. The kind of ignorance where…you should know better. Or, you just choose not to. Extremists just refuse to be open-minded to anything.

Obviously, I hate murderers, killers, rapists. That goes kind of without saying. But on a bigger level, I hate the idea that we, right now – at this time in America – seem to focus on the most sensationally unimportant things. You know? News stories that just dominate the airwaves that are so inconsequential to anybody’s lives. Some celebrity lied about something. Somebody said a politically incorrect term on the radio. God forbid! We sit there and argue about that while, you know, stepping over some human laying in their own pee to spit on someone wearing fur. That’s the mentality right now. Social activism. It just seems to be a fashionable way of thought right now. Rolling with that, instead of really…really looking at what’s around us.

Millions and millions of dollars are wasted arguing about something that half of that money could have probably had a solution for. I don’t know what the answer is to that. I probably become more disgusted by our political process and our elected leaders representing their party and not this country.

JC: (to LK) What do you love?

LK: You know, I love the theater because it encompasses everything that Dave was talking about…family, love…I mean…coming together. It’s what brought me back to New York, really, from film, which doesn’t have the same feeling. Theater is amazing because it brings up family and how people deal in family…and how you have to resolve issues. And, also, you’re creating something greater than yourself. It’s something to live for, and it’s why we’re here. Not just the everyday things…eating, sleeping and making a living.

And what do I hate?

I hate the idea that people take things at face value and don’t see beyond the surface. They jump to conclusions. I hate that people don’t think for themselves. If people thought for themselves, they wouldn’t be able to be controlled by a situation like this. Or, by Hitler…or, by Stalin. They would think for themselves.

As she [Doe] says: “Stand up and fight,” she tells the professor. But, he says, “Well, I can’t because my wife would destroy me.”

So, I think, look for people who can see the world and make decisions based on what they’re looking at rather than what is usually the case. It’s all a knee jerk reaction to the surface of things. I hate the surface of things because it’s untrue.

JC: Well, thank both very much for hanging out today. It may not be exactly what you expected. I don’t know what you expected.

Everyone laughs.

But I appreciated it. It’s fun to talk about deeper stuff, I think, than the surface of things in life.  

_____________

Collision runs through February 17 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place, between Perry and West 11th Streets
(866) 811-4111; collisiontheplay.com

PHOTO CREDITS
Middle image (L-R): Craig ‘muMs’ Grant as Renel, James Kautz as Grange and Anna Stromberg as Doe. Photo by Russ Rowland

Bottom image (L-R): James Kautz as Grange, Michael Cullen as Professor Denton, Nick Lawson as Bromley, and Anna Stromberg as Doe. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Advertisements

it’s about engaging

Last night, I met some great people with whom I’ve corresponded in the social worlds for quite a while, and we put faces to names (not just screen names to avatars) for the first time. We had a quick chat about our upcoming projects, and I told them about the blog I’m creating for Feeder: A Love Story. One suggested it was about marketing and hooking an audience, and I tried to explain that it’s not just about putting butts in seats but about telling the story.

This is a common misunderstanding when it comes to transmedia storytelling. Certainly, it’s a way to “hook” people, but I prefer the word “engage.” When I first thought about creating the problog for Noel and Jesse, I hadn’t heard of transmedia storytelling. I just wanted to find a unique and interesting way of telling and expanding their story. Eventually, after working on it for a while, I discovered the world of transmedia storytelling, or deep media storytelling. There are stories in the problog that are only briefly mentioned in the play, and the play has stories not even referenced in the problog. The pieces are meant to work together to give the audience a richer experience of the tale.

Theatre is a unique and special experience. Like any live performance, it allows the audience to congregate and trek through events and emotions of the characters. It should make the audience curious to know more. I don’t know how many times (especially with this play) people remark, “I wish I knew more about that character.” To put everything in the play, however, doesn’t make sense. There’s subtext. Human behavior. Uniquely theatrical journeys. As a dramatist, I don’t want to tell everything in the play. That’s where mystery and magic lives.

So, why tell back stories on another platform at all? I dislike dramaturgical notes.

With Feeder: A Love Story, one of the first questions audience members ask is: “Is this real?”

Yes, it is. Do I want to put that in a paper program people read before the play begins, detailing out what the fetish is, how people live it, or how I found it? Not really. That takes people out of the play. Generally, theatre could do a better job of pointing the audience in the right direction to discover these answers for themselves.

As theatre-makers, our job is to create worlds that entertain, enlighten and excite. If we have to explain why we wrote something in a dramatugical program note, aren’t we falling short somehow as storytellers?

Of course, sometimes audience needs explanation. Pieces may be completely avant-garde or experimental with no story at all, or perhaps a company re-envisions a classic play in a new setting or time period. There are ways of giving context without writing a four paragraph manifesto on why this piece exists. I don’t care. I don’t usually read them. If I am not moved to laugh, cry or dance, the performance doesn’t succeed.

If and when audience requires context, why not share it in other mediums? There are loads of ways to achieve this. Direct an audience to source material on the internet, tell a classic story in a two minute video with puppets, or create an interactive game that reveals more about the live performance experience. Make dramaturgy a fun discovery, not a return to the classroom. No body wants to feel like they must learn something to enjoy art. But, if art spurs people to learn because it engages, a dual benefit manifests.

We aren’t printing a program for Feeder: A Love Story. We’re going green. Our program will live online at the terraNOVA Website. But, we’re not going green just to “go green.” We’re doing it because we want to direct people to the back story. Back to the problog. If an audience member hasn’t discovered the problog before the play, she or he can dig deeper on their own.

Hopefully, it engages in a fun and fantastic way.

transmedia storytelling

At the end of last year, August Schulenburg, Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, posted at the TCG blog, TCG Circle, “The World Wide What Next”. He primarily focused on fundraising, social networking and how companies interact with their audience in the 21st Century. At the end of the post, he brought up the subject of transmedia storytelling. He quotes Max Koknar on 2am Theatre blog, “Don’t just write/produce/devise a new play. Build a new world and loose it upon ours. Do it incrementally and make the live performance your premium content.”

Two years ago, I’d written a play, Feeder: A Love Story, and it had some problems. First, was it was about a couple living the feederism lifestyle, and I got it all wrong. I wrote a thriller disguised as a love story. It was a series of monologues and short scenes about a subject on which I skimmed the research. The feeder and feedees who came to see the workshop readings were disappointed and, in some cases, angry. The other problem was the world of the play wasn’t consistent. One character was creating a video diary for a television program, and the other character spoke to another, unseen character in monologues. Their worlds didn’t make sense together, and the characters felt disconnected.

Once, I shared this play with a director, and he responded, “I don’t even know if it’s a play.” That may be the single most insulting thing for someone to say to a playwright. I get the statement’s sentiment. Perhaps the story isn’t well constructed. Perhaps it’s not a traditional dialogue rich theatrical experience. Perhaps they have a narrow opinion of what a play is. Still, the statement stuck with me in a way that challenged me.

Finally, I concluded, “Maybe this isn’t a play. Or, maybe the play is a part of a larger experience.”

I valued the workshops the play received, for during this time I made two major discoveries. More research needed to be done, and the characters yearned to live in the same world. I didn’t want to lose the aspect of monologue storytelling, but keeping the current scenario no longer made sense. I chose to shift the entire given circumstances to tie in with one of the main plot points in the play:

The characters share a blog together.

Suddenly, I saw this story as a theatrical journey rather than a traditional play. What if the characters’ blog existed? What if both characters share stories leading up to the opening of the play? What if this experience was as essential to the journey as the play itself?

To talk about how entertainment is pulling people away from live performances and gluing them to televisions or computers is to beat a dead horse. It is obvious, unless you’re a neo-Luddite living beneath a rock in the woods, the Internet is here to stay. It is a part of what we do and who we are in a very intimate way. So, why wouldn’t it be a part of the characters created on stage? Especially, when the characters talk about it in the play.

From this breakthrough, I fused the idea of a prologue & blog that exists entirely online in blog format. I’m calling it the problog. The aim isn’t viral marketing, as so often is done with big Hollywood films (though, some television shows [Fringe, Heroes] fully embrace transmedia storytelling). The purpose is to be part of the play in a very integral way. This doesn’t mean if audience only attends the play they won’t understand the story. The problog does, however, adds to the audience’s understanding of the characters.

Other theatre is venturing into transmedia storytelling. Most well known was New Paradise Laboratories Fatebook, which was a hit at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2009. In 2010, Waterwell’s #9 explored how we use technology creating a live video feed of the play in which Twitter users interacted with the production in real time. Currently, Better Left Unsaid is a live play streaming online with audience purchasing a ticket to go to the theater and see the play or paying less to view the online streamed version.

It’s exciting, for theaters are finally embracing the next evolution of live performance by tapping into this medium in fun and creative ways. I’m not suggesting that every play needs Facebook profiles created for each of its characters. What I am encouraging are more playwrights to think of innovative ideas to engage and entertain their audiences. The Internet is a unique, individual experience while still being social.

The problog for Feeder: A Love Story launches on February 15th, and I look forward to seeing how people respond to the story. I hope, like any good yarn, it will invite an audience to join another unique, individual (centuries old) experience while still being social – attending the theatre.

play development

Over at the 2amtheatre.com blog, Mariah MacCarthy shares her experience with the New York Theatre Experiment’s Generations event. There was debate on the development of plays – over or under development (or none at all) – and Mariah offered the debate to the people, asking ten questions to playwrights and theatres. Most of the responses (so far) have been from the playwrights’ POV, and one was a very insightful response from the literary manager’s office.

Here’s my response to her questions as both a playwright and associate director of terraNOVA Collective, a theatre company that not only develops but produces new plays:

1. Playwrights: have you ever had a play produced as a result of submitting it to a theater with an “open submission” policy? (And if you submitted it to Theater A, and Theater A did a reading of it, to which a rep from Theater B came, and Theater B produced the play, that doesn’t count.)

No, I haven’t, but I know many playwrights who have.

2. Theaters: has your theater ever produced a play that was sent to you unsolicited? How often does that happen?

Yes, we have produced unsolicited plays; however, over the past two years our play submission and development process underwent a drastic overhaul. We shifted how we accept play submissions. Namely, we only accept submissions to our Groundbreakers Playwrights Group, a program that develops not only plays but playwrights.

3. Theaters: if you cut your literary department today, completely, what would happen to your theater and the way it functions? What would change? How would you decide what plays to do, and how is that different than how you decide what plays to do now?

We did cut our literary department. Two seasons ago, we realized that our Groundbreakers Play Development Program was stagnant. We put out calls for open submissions, and we had a rolling submissions policy on our website. If someone sent in a play and we liked it, we asked the playwright if she or he would like to bring in the play in to be read in our weekly round table. Most of the time, the playwright was more than happy to have the play read, for it probably felt like a carrot at the end of a string – “A possibility to have my play produced!”

We had a “literary manager” who read the scripts and acted as a gatekeeper. Initially, that person was myself, and then we brought on Jessi D. Hill to comb through the plays. Sometimes, playwrights would come in, have the play read, and we would take it through the three tiers of Groundbreakers – table readings, staged readings/workshops & full main stage production. This is how we found and cultivated plays we produced. It worked in theory, but more often than not playwrights would do a table read and never return.

Happily, we produced several of these plays, and many have gone on to production. I just received an email from a playwright getting a production of a play that came through Groundbreakers a couple years ago. That excites me. We had a hand in that! Still, something wasn’t working.

When Jessi came on board, we took a long hard look at what was working and what wasn’t. The overwhelming realization was that we were developing plays, but the playwright wasn’t getting the attention she or he deserved. Our mission for the program shifted drastically. We opened submissions for the first annual Groundbreakers Playwrights Group. Last season, we invited seven early career playwrights (our criteria for that can be found here), and we found that the experience was very fulfilling – both for the playwrights and us. We learned tons – mostly, that we needed to make the group smaller – and this year we invited five playwrights to join this group.

The new structure rolls out in three tiers:

TIER 1 – Five playwrights each bring in one early draft play. Over the course of 15 weeks, each playwright hears her or his play three times. We match actors to the play, often casting people who might not be traditionally right for the roles. Always, the actors have experience in play development and feedback. The intention with these round table readings is to grow these first or second drafts into workshop ready scripts.

TIER 2 – The scripts go into a 12 hour rehearsal process as per the Equity Staged Reading Guidelines, and each playwright receives a public presentation of her or his play. This gets plays on their feet. Play development can never happen solely around a table. We solicit audience feedback through written forms with questions about each specific play.

TIER 3 – From these five fully developed plays, terraNOVA selects one play annually to be our main stage production. Obviously, we cannot produce all five plays developed each season, but our aim is to send the playwrights out into the world with fully developed plays she or he can share with other companies and get produced. Additionally, we actively invite companies to attend Tier 2 readings in hopes of finding productions for each of the plays.

This new framework in which we develop and produce plays is unique and exciting, for it doesn’t leave the playwrights out in a lurch if they don’t receive a production. Yet, it sticks to our mission of producing the plays we develop. If we continue the momentum terraNOVA currently has, in the next five years we will be producing two main stage productions annually from this fast evolving program.

4. Are there any theaters out there that have a purely blind submission policy – not just for one contest, but for all your season, all the time? If so, what are the pros/cons of that policy for you?

I do not know of any theatres that have a blind submission policy. I’m sure there are some. Groundbreakers cannot have such a policy, for we assemble a group that works well not only with terraNOVA’s dynamic but with each other. Every year, it’s a challenge, for we are constantly faced with the desire to be “diverse”. I’ve quoted diverse, mainly because I hate the word. If ever I use the word seriously, it’s discussing the diversity of styles and forms in plays or artists. This is the true road to “diversification” of race, sexuality and gender. Choose the best plays, and you’ll discover your pool of artists is “diverse.” We apply the same philosophy when selecting performers for our soloNOVA Arts Festival. One year, we had 11 women artists and one man. Other years, we had an even mix. Consistently, we strive for excellence, and typically that means reflecting all walks of life.

This season we have three women and two men in Groundbreakers. Two are gay. Two are Jewish. One is African. One bi-racial. All are dynamic, challenging and cutting edge. They feed each other in extraordinary ways, and friendships are budding from their interplay. It delights me to watch writers from different backgrounds clash with and enjoy each other.

Do I understand the value of blind submissions? Of course I do – especially in the case of contests and grant funding; however, that process won’t work for Groundbreakers.

5. Playwrights: how vital do you consider readings and workshops to your process? Do you feel it actually improves your play? When it works, why does it work? When it doesn’t, why doesn’t it?

As a playwright, readings and workshops are essential. Any playwright who says differently probably isn’t produced often. The only time one hears the play is when one hears the play. It’s magical. The first time actors utter my written words is very emotional for me. Not because it’s so good. Often, it’s not, and that’s the point. You dig through dirt to find gems. Good actors infuse a reading with purpose, showing what works and what doesn’t. They help discover gems and polish them for the audience.

Readings and workshops do something most people don’t consider: They introduce actors to playwrights. Often, characters are only flat black on white pages. This process yanks the writers out from in front of their computers and plops them into rehearsal halls – where they should be.

Finally, audience reaction is extraordinarily important. It’s ultimately who you have to please. I don’t mean pandering to the audience, but if they don’t understand the play or find it severely boring, there’s no chance anyone else will come and see it. In the end, that’s what we all want, right? People to see our work?

6. Theaters: of the plays of which you’ve done readings and workshops, how many of them have you ended up giving a full production? (Rough percentage.)

100%. Since 2003, we’ve been producing and developing new plays, and of the plays we’ve produced, all have gone through the three tier development process, landing on the main stage.

Another big consideration in making Groundbreakers into a group was pulling playwrights out of development purgatory. We all know good plays that are workshopped to death. We all have seen plays that should have spent more time around the table, too. To remove this stigma, we create a time line with deadlines. Playwrights get three readings around the table with four weeks between readings, and that’s it. If it’s not ready to get on it’s feet by the end of Tier 1, it’s not ready. We intend to work fast, furious and raise the bar for playwrights. This is the pros, and there’s no room for missed deadlines or half-assed re-writes. Real writers only. Posers will not be tolerated. This year’s crop Groundbreakers are intent on seeing their work performed, and we’re rewarding hard work with public readings in February 2011.

7. Playwrights: do you agree with Itamar Moses that it’s more productive to get artistic directors, rather than literary managers, to see your work? Or have literary managers/departments actually been responsible for your work getting produced? Or have both been the case at different times?

I do agree. In the end, artistic directors and directors of programs like Groundbreakers are the people to whom you want to be speaking. Certainly literary managers are gatekeepers, and those gatekeepers can get you to these artistic directors. Literary managers are like agents – they can only do so much for you. You must do the rest of the work yourself. Send letters to the artistic directors, invite them to readings, go to events where you know you’ll meet them, and at lower levels, email them and invite them to coffee or dinner. You’ll be surprised how approachable some are. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

8. Theaters: does your literary manager/department contribute significantly toward deciding what plays get produced? Or do those decisions mostly come from the artistic director?

We’re a small company. Artistic Director Jennifer Conley Darling, Jessi D. Hill and I review submissions for Groundbreakers, we interview finalists together (when we can), and we collectively agree on the group participants.

I believe most writers groups work this way. In the end, there are very few artistic directors worth their salt who act like Moses on a mountaintop passing down stone tablets from God. The companies I love, including The Public Theater, an enormous machine of an institution, make these decisions collectively. An artistic director may have the final say in the matter, but it’s rarely without careful consideration by committee. The process is much more complex than just some literary manager (or intern, for that matter) holed up in her office sifting through scripts or some artistic director on high playing with playwrights futures.

Again, I know there are exceptions to this statement, but generally, I see successful organizations working collaboratively.

9. Theaters: do you rely on grants that go specifically toward play development, rather than production? Do you receive funding that you can use for readings and workshops but CANNOT use for a fully mounted production?

This is a conundrum. Groundbreakers does not charge participation fees, we do not charge admission to our readings (but donations are happily accepted!), and the only time we charge an admission is for our main stage. The income for this program is based on grants and fundraisers.

Because we develop every play that arrives on our main stage, we consider it intrinsic to the fully mounted production; therefore, we include Tier 3 – our main stage – in our grant applications. Sometimes, we apply for grants that do not support production, and when we apply for those, we only include Tiers 1 & 2. However, typically, we can include production because the development of the play still occurs during rehearsals. We are not just producing plays. We are a developmental company that fiercely believes we play…in front of people. Our productions run under a Seasonal Showcase Code, and that doesn’t allow for an open ended or extended run. Plus, we don’t make money on these runs. They rely on donation, foundation and corporate support. These productions do exactly what the code says it should do: it showcases a playwright’s (and other artists) work so the play might see another future, either in NYC or elsewhere.

10. Playwrights: do you find that doing rewrites in rehearsal/preparation for a reading or workshop is preferable/more productive to doing rewrites in rehearsal for a production?

Production is part of the development process. Our productions offer playwrights the opportunity to finalize this process. It’s all valuable and essential, in my opinion as a playwright. Tony Kushner re-writes Angels in America for each new major production. It’s never over, and most people only have a three week run in a tiny space way off Broadway to achieve perfection. An impossible task, really. Productions with playwrights’ involvement always offer opportunity to fine tune a script.

Final note:

terraNOVA Collective truly believes in the playwright’s process, and though playwrights too often feel lost in a literary manager’s (or agent’s) pile of papers, there are great companies developing and producing work by discovering writers who are on the cusp of something great. This conversation is still churning, and there’s obviously many things wrong with the system; however, we hope we’re contributing to the annihilation of playwright purgatory and resurgence of producing playwrights.

If you wish to support the Groundbreakers Playwrights Group, we are having a fundraiser for our Tier 2 readings. This coming Monday, December 6th, the playwrights present Bug Out! – five 10 minute plays infused with the word “bug.” It’ll be loads of fun, you’ll get to meet the playwrights, themselves, and we’ll have some great raffle prizes.

Support play development. It’s the future of theatre.