14 June 2013

More on New Plays in the Nation’s Capital

“The Daring Double Act of Two D.C. Theaters”
by Nelson Pressley

[This article, which serves as a continuation of “‘How great plays are (eventually) made’” by Jessica Goldstein, another Washington Post article about mounting new plays in the District (posted on ROT on 5 May), was published in the “Arts” section of the Washington Post on 26 May 2013.]

Theatre J, Woolly Mammoth test models for getting plays onstage

Theaters keep rolling out new ways to premiere plays, and two fresh Washington initiatives are in full flower — or in full beast mode — right now. Theater J’s initiative, called Locally Grown, puts the company’s muscle behind Washington-based writers, while Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Free the Beast program is raising $4 million to produce 25 new plays in the next 10 years.

The industry standard is to slap an untested play together with three weeks of rehearsals. Actress Kimberly Gilbert, who has been in two Locally Grown premieres at Theater J and is in her second Free the Beast show at Woolly, suggests that’s too much like an “experiment.”

“I-only-have-three-weeks-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing!” Gilbert says of the usual adrenalized, nerve-wracking process. “You’re forced to make huge choices that can be hit-or-miss.”

Typically, though, theaters can’t budget for more time.

“Look, we’re an underfunded field,” Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz says of the labor-intensive theater business. “That’s just a given, and it’s not going to change any time soon.”

That’s why Woolly is raising major money and Theater J is putting in sweat equity in these very different new play efforts. The theaters’ leaders sat down separately to explain the whys and hows of their programs as Theater J readied “The Hampton Years,” Jacqueline Lawton’s real-life drama about a refugee Austrian art professor and African American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis, and Woolly buffed its premiere of “Stupid F---ing Bird,” Aaron Posner’s freewheeling adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

Theater J, Locally Grown

WHY: Artistic director Ari Roth is a playwright himself, and Theater J has consistently pursued new and new-ish national and international works since his arrival 16 years ago.

But for years a lot of out-of-town guest writers stayed at a local hotel that offered Theater J a sweetheart deal of $25 a night, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in underwriting. That deal fell through in 2008.

At the same time, the company has stretched itself financially and logistically with its ambitious Voices From a Changing Middle East series showcasing international works.

“Who said we have to be hosts all the time?” Roth asks.

Associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky adds that the “locavore” food movement came up during a new play conference at Arena Stage in 2011, and the notion of applying it to art clicked. The Locally Grown program launched last season with Renee Calarco’s “The Religion Thing”; this spring, Roth’s “Andy and the Shadows” and now “The Hampton Years” (beginning Wednesday) have reached the stage.

HOW: Serotsky and Roth count 14 writers in the fold at the moment, with works in various stages of development. The festival of public readings is currently in bloom; plays by Allyson Currin, Liz Maestri and Randy Baker have been heard, with scripts by D.W. Gregory and Malcolm Pellas to come. Longtime D.C. writers Norman Allen and Ernie Joselovitz are also testing projects in Theater J’s newly fertile soil.

Roth likens this to spreading seeds widely: “That’s what we’re here to do right now, is add to the terrain. The great art will come when the great art takes root. You don’t know where the genius child is coming from.”

Serotsky, who is directing “The Hampton Years,” observes that theaters across the country are phasing out the inefficient and frustrating old submissions model, with scripts from everywhere uselessly piling up over the transom.

Locally Grown aims to be better at fostering ongoing artistic relationships. As Gilbert says, “I’ve been having an awesome time creating these characters with my neighbors.”

Woolly Mammoth, Free the Beast

WHY: “It’s really simple,” Shalwitz says. “Free the Beast is just a way of buying artists time.”

In part, this counters what Shalwitz has called the widespread “assembly line” habit of producing. But there is an in-house issue, too.

Woolly was defined in the 1980s by its daring actors; beginning in the 1990s, the focus began to shift toward playwrights. Shalwitz says that created a tension he hopes can be partly reconciled by commissioning writers and getting them to work more closely with the Woolly company.

The $4 million figure is based on an extra 10 percent of the season’s annual $4 million budget, spread over 10 years. Woolly has pulled in $2.4 million so far, and the target is to finish the fundraising by the end of summer.

That money is designed as a lockbox guarding against the perils of season-by-season budgeting, which routinely finds troupes axing “luxuries” like longer rehearsal time. Funding more workshops means more creative time with designers and even actors who, ideally, are brought inside the process early.

“You are not just supporting a playwright,” Shalwitz explains. “You are supporting a team of artists who are working with a playwright on a new project. That to me is what will make Free the Beast successful, if it bridges those gaps.”

HOW: Posner has adapted such works as “The Chosen” and “My Name is Asher Lev,” but he is perhaps better known as a busy director (e.g., the just-closed “The Last Five Years” at Signature Theatre, lots of award-winning Shakespeare productions for the Folger Theatre). He was offered a commission to complete his riff on “The Seagull” after nervously showing Shalwitz a half-done draft.

“It’s about a young theater artist who wants to do great things and change the world,” Posner says of Chekhov’s drama, which Posner acted in as a student at Northwestern. (“I was terrible,” he moans.) “And I remember very clearly, in the way you remember stupid things you say, talking about how ‘this is my favorite play,’ and ‘I think I really get this play.’ The me at 23 who said that totally annoys me now.”

Posner was directing Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play” at Woolly when he began “Stupid F---ing Bird.” Three “Vibrator Play” actors, Gilbert among them — plus some designers and the Woolly ethos — have carried over as Posner has worked through his script, which is based on an old literal translation he fished off the Internet for free.

The point of the fund is to add a degree of cash to projects that most need it. In the fall, the initial Free the Beast project, Mia Chung’s “You for Me for You,” included a four-week workshop of that play at New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company. Next season’s efforts include commissioning Manhattan’s acclaimed Elevator Repair Service for its Supreme Court-themed “Arguendo,” premiering at Woolly next spring. Free the Beast put Posner’s play through four workshops.

“That’s more than we’ve ever been able to support before,” Shalwitz says. “And in most of those workshops, most of our actual cast was present. So we came into the first rehearsal in a whole different place than we normally do. It’s small expenditures that really change the equation for how the work feels.”

“It’s no guarantee that you’ve gotten it right,” Posner says. “This is art, so who . . . knows? But it gives you a better shot at doing something that is more interesting and more complete.”

[The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was founded in Washington in 1980.  The company’s stated mission is “to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community by developing, producing, and promoting new plays that explore the edges of theatrical style and human experience, and by implementing new ways to use the artistry of theatre to serve the people of Greater Washington, DC.”   Free the Beast is an effort to support the production of 25 new plays from 2012 through 2022.

[Theater J, in the District, produces plays “that are part of the Jewish cultural legacy.”  Founded in 1990, Theater J has received over 50 Helen Hayes nominations. The Locally Grown Festival and the new Locally Grown Year-Round Initiative celebrate the District's burgeoning playwriting community.]

*  *  *  *
“An Enlightening Head Trip Down The Aisle”
by Maura Judkis

 [The following review of another D.C.-originated performance piece appeared in the “Weekend” section of the Washington Post on 24 May 2013.]

On May 30, you’re invited to witness the union of a bride and her subconscious.

“Dream Wedding,” a site-specific, immersive theater piece by the D.C. arts organization FABUM, might begin like a typical wedding, but instead of a trip down the aisle, it’s a trip through a bride’s dreams, hopes and fears.

Written and directed by Jameson Freeman, “Dream Wedding” incorporates Jungian psychology and Greek mythology to examine the way marriage changes and enlightens a person.

“I think when a person is approaching marriage and thinking about marriage, it’s a very vulnerable thing,” Freeman says.

Freeman knows that all too well. He is engaged, and preparing for his marriage unified his thoughts about what was originally going to be a non-narrative movement performance. (Freeman and his fiance, choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, have not set a date.)

“In creating [the bride], obviously the moment that she’s in is a similar moment that I’m in,” he says. “Applying the wedding theme came from my own subconscious, but it ties the idea of dream performance together.”

Wedding guests (a.k.a. the audience) will walk through the Arts Club of Washington — a popular venue for real weddings — with each room representing parts of the bride’s mind.

Freeman plays the shadow, a Jungian concept to describe an aspect of one’s personality that one does not accept or realize.

“I find the theme of self-actualization really interesting,” Freeman says. “Now that I’m approaching the point where I’m going to be a husband, I think it’s important to be as self-realized as possible before you take that next step to a union.”

There’s no dress code, but Freeman says he hopes the “guests” will be inspired to play along — it is prime wedding season, after all.

“I would say dress dolce, stylishly,” he says.

[Jameson Freeman is the founding artistic director of FABUM, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit arts organization founded in 2011 to develop original artistic projects through collaborations across a variety of mediums.  He is executive producer of the organization's ongoing series of performance works, the Dolce Revolution Project, and ‘chief curator’ for Tecnicus Project, FABUM's newly-launched series of visual arts events.  He currently serves as volunteer chair of the Drama Committee at the Arts Club of Washington.

[A former classical ballet dancer, Freeman was accepted into the Nutmeg Academy in Torrington, Connecticut, on scholarship at the age of seven and danced full-time for many years.  As an actor, he has performed in diverse theater projects and venues around Washington, D.C., including the Burke Theatre at the Naval Memorial, Flashpoint, DC Arts Center, Busboys & Poets, Warehouse Theater, and the Capital Fringe Festival.  His onscreen acting work has been seen at the Columbia Film Festival, New York Film Academy, Scion xPress Fest in Philadelphia, and other film festivals in the Washington area.

[FABUM seeks to explore identity and the human experience through artistic works and to give artists the opportunity to have impact in a variety of mediums.  Their objective is to celebrate the creative process—in addition to the ‘final product’—of artistic collaborations and self-expression.]

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