Part to Whole

Here was the challenge: Seven people from across the country, who had never met before, were selected to come together for five days and take a new play from page to stage.

This ‘magic act’ took place at the New Plays Workshop, under the auspices of the American Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) National Conference last month in Scottsdale, Az. Seven one-act plays were chosen for staging through a juried process. On day one the actors saw the script for the first time and on day five they were on stage performing the play.

Each play group (sort of like play groups and play dates we had when we were little, but with rehearsals ) included the playwright, the director, the scenographer (who designs the stage space and the visual elements of the play ), the dramaturge ( who helps in the development of the play, provides research to help inform the work of the actors, director and playwright, and is an advocate for the play ) and the actors.

Our play, written by C. Andy Landis, is titled Praying for a Hurricane. It has four actors, two of whom speak the dialogue, two of whom dance the unspoken thoughts and feelings – the subtext – of the two characters,a husband and wife. Our work process was similar to work in progress for any play going into production, it’s just that we needed to speed up the process considerably to double or triple time. There was time enough for several read throughs of the play,for sharing images and music to generate ideas, for trying out ideas – casting some aside and choosing others – but no time to get bogged down in egos or thoughts of “it can only be done this way”. With so little time we all had to step up to do the work quickly and thoughtfully while staying light on our feet.

The director and dramaturge arrived at our first group meeting very familiar with the piece and were steady guides for our work. A process that could have felt pressured instead felt fun,exciting and rich. Ideas were flowing. We paid attention, we listened to one another, we tried out an idea and then tried another. We revised, improved, kept exploring. We had a goal to reach and we made our own map of how to get there. None of us could have done our work without the work of each other.

Theatre is occasionally known for the diva-esque behavior of actors, for the drama off stage as well as on. It can be a muddled mess of cast and crew who are all doing the same play but never find a coherent approach or meaning for the work. They do their “own role” and the rest be damned. That was not us.

This staging of new work was a collaboration start to finish. All the players, both on stage and guiding from off stage, were united in a desire to serve the work and give the playwright a chance to hear and see how what she had put on paper came to life. As Shakespeare wrote, “The play is the thing”….. and this was a chance to enact that belief.

This was theatre at its best, which is to say it was a collaboration that respected and enjoyed all the parts of the whole. More experienced actors were on equal footing with less experienced actors. We approached this production with experienced and fresh eyes, eager to make this work be all that it could. And that is the joy of making theatre. We get to make meaning – to create something that didn’t exist before – to put story, characters, feelings and ideas forward and to share individually and as part of a team of artists. In making a play all the parts are needed. The whole becomes the whole only if all the parts are there.

Alison Marshall

ATHE: Association for Theatre in Higher Education

Developing New Plays Workshop

Praying for a Hurricane
playwright: Cynthia ‘Andy’ Landis
director: Janeve West
dramaturge: Patrick Elkins Zeglarski
scenographer: Juiet Wunsch
actors: Baron Kelly, Abel Zerai, Shelia Hickey Garvey, Alison Marshall

The plays the thing…
Act 2, scene 2 Hamlet
William Shakespeare

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