Righting the Play

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

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."

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.

A longtime member of the Playwrights' Center and a prolific writer, Corbett is looking forward to his first Hothouse and the prospect of working again with Stangl. Yet, like many established playwrights, he has some reservations about the enduring benefit of staged readings. For playwrights desperate to get their work produced, he explains, readings often take on the aura of an audition, and the barrage of advice from well-meaning dramaturgs and actors can muddle the writers' vision. "At a certain level in your career," he says, "all you can get are staged readings. There's a point when a writer becomes a dope about his own play. Then you need to put it in a drawer for three months and come back to it."

According to Corbett, discussions with an audience can also be less than helpful. With the playwright opening himself up for criticism, many people are eager to indulge their affinity for public speaking and make comments that have little or nothing to do with the play. "You can always count on a couple of comments about dirty language," laughs Corbett dryly. "I remember one reading in Arizona where this big old cowboy got all bent out of shape about the word fuck. I was like, 'You must have heard that before.' Compared to that, the little old Lutheran ladies here can take a lot more than you'd think."

Like many local dramatists, both Zark and Corbett were drawn to Minneapolis partially because of the Playwrights' Center (Zark from New York and Corbett from Yale's graduate drama program). Not surprisingly the Center's frequent workshops, periodic readings, and excess of $100,000 in annually distributed grant money have turned the Twin Cities into a mecca for writers. Though the center draws an extraordinary pool of transplanted talent to the local theater scene, it has in recent years been a somewhat insular institution.

According to director of playwright services Megan Monaghan, however, this year's Hothouse will cater more specifically to casual theatergoers. "They have TV specials about the making of Titanic, right? We want people to see these plays so they can see how all this magic is created. When they see it in an actual theater, they can see how far it's come." Whether Titanic would seem quite as magical with Leonardo DiCaprio proclaiming himself king of a bare stage remains a potential point of debate.

For the Hothouse playwrights, the danger of sinking is part of the thrill. "It's still mysterious," says Staffa. "I love the questions when they're hot and scary. When the work is safe, it's no fun."


The Hothouse Festival runs April 12 through April 17 at the Playwrights' Center; (612) 332-7481.

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