Righting the Play

A series of workshops at the Playwrights' Center strips the dramatic process down to author, script, actor, and audience

Before opening-night jitters, standing ovations, or rave reviews, there are bleary-eyed nights of too much coffee and endless days of not enough sleep. There are small apartments awash in paper, scripts scribbled over in red ink, books stacked on furniture and floor, and puzzling Post-It notes that breed spontaneously on every available surface. Before a play, there is work.

For short-fiction writer-turned-playwright Rosanna Staffa, the work proceeds as life allows, in longhand lines written and rewritten. Her new play, Sahara, is just words on a page now, but on the evening of April 13, Staffa will see the fruit of her labor strut across the stage. "I'm very nervous," she says in a lilting Italian accent mixed with a trace of Southern Californian. "Right now, I'm doing the textbook nervous writer. It's never safe. That's the thrill."

Along with Staffa, a host of a dozen-odd Minnesota playwrights will debut new works in progress at the Playwrights' Center's third annual, weeklong Hothouse Festival. Designed in part to whet the appetite of artistic directors from local companies who might eventually produce the plays, the festival's staged readings also help playwrights distill a rough draft into a finished script. Stripped of lighting, costuming, and cleverly crafted scenery, all that's left onstage are the writer's words and actors to breathe life into them. Hearing their lines spoken, the playwrights develop a more intimate relationship with the rhythm of the language. "It's like a sheet of music in your head," explains Staffa. "You hear it, but you don't really know the tune. I need to know if I feel it."

Following their own script: Hothouse Festival playwrights Todd Irvine, Waring Jones, Rosanna Staffa, Bill Corbett, and Jenna Zark
Following their own script: Hothouse Festival playwrights Todd Irvine, Waring Jones, Rosanna Staffa, Bill Corbett, and Jenna Zark

The Playwrights' Center, which was founded in 1971 by a consortium of dramatists, is unique among similar institutions for its focus on writers. Like the center itself, which has about 325 members, the Hothouse Festival operates as a think tank for play development. The dramatists, who all hail from the center's ranks, are given ten hours of rehearsal time and allowed to select a director, a dramaturg, and a cast with whom to work. The idea is that as in the terrariums from which the festival takes its name, the embryonic plays will be planted in optimal conditions to bloom into masterpieces of theater.

According to Polly Carl, director of development for the center, this year's festival will also give a larger audience a glimpse into the intricate mechanics of making of a play. "Our hope for this year is to bring the experience to the audience," she says. "We want to show them that when they go to Cheap Theatre or Eye of the Storm, this is what has to happen to make that experience worthwhile."

To broaden the Hothouse's appeal, this year's festival will include a piece from the center's young playwrights--high school students who come from around the metro area to attend a weekly workshop. Unlike the other readings, their play, called CarPlay Diem, will evolve in the parking lot outside. A handful of audience members will be invited into the backseat of a series of cars while actors in the front stage skits based on the setting (married couple locked in a car, sock puppets in a car, etc.).

Todd Irvine, who workshopped his well-reviewed Notes on the Uncertainty Principle at the Playwrights' Center before it was produced by Cheap Theatre last year, will also stage a reading of his new work, The Primitive, during the festival. Although it is still in its primordial stages, Irvine describes the play as a "a love story that takes place over 65 million years." To help the script evolve, he recruited freelance director and writer Lisa D'Amour and itinerant thespians Steve Hendrickson and Maggie Weaver. According to the playwright, the ten hours spent around a table, hammering out the nuances of the script with the director and cast, is actually more valuable than seeing his work in progress onstage. "It's not the performance," he explains, "but what goes on with the actors during rehearsal. I usually have everything I need before the performance itself."

For others the reading and subsequent open forum with the audience are the highlights of the event. Playwright Jenna Zark is keen to see how her The World to Come will play onstage. Unlike some of the other Hothouse works, Zark's script is almost in finished form. It began, she explains, as a commission from the Jewish Women's Theater Community in Los Angeles to craft a piece about ethnicity and hair. After some initial dubiety and perhaps some hair tearing, Zark stumbled upon the idea of building a play around the ritual depilation of brides in an orthodox Satmar community in Brooklyn. "I thought that would be a really interesting way to start a play," she says. "It became about a girl's struggle with a community that puts a lot of energy into living a pious life [while] she's really drawn into the secular world."

Bill Corbett's Antigravity also began as a commission, in his case from a small college in Ohio. Working with the single stipulation that the play needed to include enough speaking parts to accommodate the college's sizable drama department, Corbett came up with a domestic dramedy that takes place in upstate New York and which he describes as a hybrid of Neil Simon and Chekhov. Corbett, who has been at various points in his career a member of the Guthrie's acting company, a screenwriter, and the voice of a small yellow robot on Mystery Science Theater 3000, has also produced a number of plays with Eye of the Storm, including The Big Slam and Hate Mail (co-authored with Kira Oblensky). For the Hothouse reading of Antigravity, he chose to work again with Eye of the Storm director Casey Stangl, as well as Hidden Theatre's Annelise Christ and Carolyn Pool of Park Square Theatre and Bald Alice Theatre Company.

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