“This is the fourth revision of the 10th draft of my play,” said Julian Olf, drawing an appreciative laugh from his audience. Most of the people who crowded into a Northampton living room on a recent Wednesday evening were playwrights, directors and performers. Olf’s statement may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but these artists knew all too well the blood, sweat and rewrites that go into the creative process.
The gathering was a meeting of the Northampton Playwrights Lab. Established five years ago by Meryl Cohn, the lab gives local playwrights at various career stages the opportunity to share their work-in-progress and discuss the craft with a group of peers. Cohn, herself a successful playwright, said she founded the group “because I needed it. Playwrights work alone, and the voices of the characters don’t truly come to life until the play is read aloud.”
The Lab continues the time-honored tradition of live readings as a crucial part of the playwriting process. A play-reading series has been part of the theater program at Smith College since the mid-’90s, and other departments in the area frequently offer staged readings of new works. Next week, for instance, UMass hears a work by writer-in-residence Caryl Phillips and the Smith series continues with readings of two short works by students in the college’s playwriting program.
Professional theaters in the region also include public readings in their programming. Hartford Stage has a regular series of works by writers in residence and other new scripts. And Shakespeare & Company in Lenox ends each summer season with an all-day Studio Festival, with staged readings of plays being considered for future production, or performed just for fun.
The Playwrights Lab, Cohn explained, functions on several levels: “as a springboard for new ideas, for rethinking and reworking dialogue, for listening to intelligent feedback, for trying things out, and sometimes for listening to a whole new play.” This gathering was for the last-named purpose—a reading of Julian Olf’s Twins. It’s a dark comedy involving the widow of a closeted gay artist who has recently died of AIDS, and the dead man’s twin brother, a footloose gambler. The leads were read by Eliza Greene-Smith and Kevin Tracy, with other local actors taking on the supporting roles, including her wealthy Lebanese parents, his kvetchy mother, and two former lovers.
In addition to giving authors a chance to hear their words on actors’ lips, readings involve audiences in the creative process, since talkback sessions are a regular part of the event. After this reading, the audience of Lab members and friends offered strikingly forthright comments on the script’s strengths and shortcomings. While praise wasn’t stinted, neither were questions and critiques on character motivations, interactions and plot turns that didn’t quite work for one or more of the listeners.
Olf, a professor emeritus of the UMass Department of Theater, expressed appreciation for the feedback and the opportunity to air his text for a knowledgeable audience. “I hear the voices in my head as I’m writing,” he explained, “but until I actually experience actors reading and interpreting the roles, I can’t really tell where the strengths are in the play and what portions need more work. I’m exceedingly encouraged by what I heard, and in a much better position to understand what I’ve written.”
This meeting of the Playwrights Lab was a bit of a departure. The twice-monthly sessions, usually held at Northampton’s Forbes Library, typically involve a smaller group of regulars in informal readings and discussions of shorter works or excerpts. The group, which embraces experienced pros and neophytes, is open to new members, and also keeps a list of actors interested in performing in the readings. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
Art for Art’s Sake
The Smith College Theatre Play Reading Series is a more public and longer established institution than the Playwrights Lab. Held monthly during the academic year, it was founded 13 years ago by Smith professor Len Berkman as “an open forum to acquaint our community with plays they might not otherwise come to know.” Some of the scripts presented in the series are by Smith undergrads and MFA candidates in the college’s graduate playwriting program, some are prize winners or finalists in nationwide contests for emerging playwrights, and most are by women playwrights, a group that is disgracefully underrepresented on this country’s stages. Many plays first heard in the Smith series have gone on to professional productions around the country.
Like last month’s Lab reading, the Smith events are usually stationary affairs, with actors seated in chairs or standing at lecterns. But the most recent offering was an on-your-feet, script-in-hand staged reading of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2001 one-act A Number—a departure from the usual practice of presenting new scripts. Directed by Smith theater professor Andrea Hairston and featuring James Emery and Troy David Mercier, the play is a thoughtful, quirky satire that explores family relations and the ethics of cloning.
Hairston is also a playwright and director of the local Chrysalis Theater company. She said she arranged this reading partly to explore a text she’s considering for a full production in the future. But she also believes that “play readings are pleasurable and stimulating on their own, as artistic events.” In this, she is in tune with Berkman, who devoted his contribution to the 2002 anthology Theater in Crisis? Performance Manifestos for a New Century to the thesis that play readings are not only important tools in the developmental process, but have stand-alone value in their own right.
In a time when commercial theaters increasingly seek to dazzle audiences with noise and spectacle—”the body electric reduced to electricity”—Berkman maintains that low-tech and no-tech productions and readings come closer to the original aim and perennial gift of live theater: to create a connection between actors and audience, and to stimulate the imagination instead of overwhelming the senses. Readings and workshops, he argues, “are at the forefront of our fight to keep the theater poised within the magic of live actors/live stagehands/live spectators…. Do, in fact, ‘incomplete production values’ constitute an actual absence? Is a play that actors read in a living room& less truly ‘theater’?”
Play readings distill the essence of the shared theatrical experience, foregrounding the actors’ interaction with the text and the audience. Again and again, playwrights emphasize the importance and value of simply hearing their words spoken aloud by live actors. As Andrea Hairston put it, actors are the ones who “turn the small little scrapings we put on paper into full human beings. You write the secret code and they do the magic. When they stumble on a line, you know it’s not right. They also notice things in the text that the writer didn’t notice. They guide you to your best play.”
The Shelter: Act 2 of the play by Caryl Phillips, April 7, 4.30 p.m., Curtain Theater, UMass-Amherst. Admission is free.
Kokora and Subway Songs: One-act plays by Kendra Arimoto and Darren Harned, April 8, 7:30 pm, Earle Recital Hall, Sage Hall, Smith College. Admission is free.