Stages of life
City Theatre’s local playwrights festival gives birth to four new plays
Without warning, the whole room went dark.
“So, you’re opening this weekend?” someone asked.
“Yep,” said another voice, from another corner of the darkness.
“Where’s the set?”
“This is the set.”
The lights crept back up, revealing, well, not much. A bare, black, scuffed-up floor, a pair of chairs spaced widely apart, some plywood risers piled together upstage and a ladder standing open. Though it seemed more like a backstage, this was the stage, and it was set.
Here, in the 165-seat Art Court Theatre at Sacramento City College, final rehearsals were under way for So This New Play Walks Into a Theatre, a festival of four short plays by Sacramento-area playwrights and an essential local laboratory for the creation of new theatrical work. Taken together, Michael Pollock’s The Ripple Effect, Zack Sapunor’s The Invisibility Staff of Mombasa, L.E. Nall’s A Day Waiting and David Martin’s The Crabtrees of (Lesser) Hollywood collectively explore the very nature, and the nurture, as it were, of theater itself.
A few actors moseyed onto the stage, warming up their voices with carefully enunciated pronouncements like “Red leather, yellow leather” and “You know you need unique New York.” They scrunched and stretched their young faces, spread and shook their limbs. “Are we doing a cue-to-cue or a run-through?” someone asked.
“Cue-to-cue,” said Lori Ann DeLappe-Grondin, one of the festival’s three directors.
The run-through would happen later. This would have to come first. The cue-to-cue is an abbreviated, though time-consuming, preparation of lighting and sound cues, one of the final elements to be secured during the last week of rehearsal. The trade name for this period is tech week; colloquially, they call it hell week. Technical rehearsals can be tedious, morale-wrecking affairs, in which a feeling of artistry becomes obscured by a feeling of drudgery. Creative collaborators can become leery adversaries and feel like they’re running on inspiration’s fumes, with nerves frayed beyond repair and still no solutions to the roughly 37,000 serious problems that had better get solved now because an audience will be here in just a few days, goddamn it. Hell week is when you find out whether or not you’ve actually got a show. They were in the thick of it.
“Maybe sometimes it’s risky, but I think it’s very important to do new work,” said Luther Hanson, the festival’s overseer and another of its directors, earlier in the evening. Sitting in the theater office with DeLappe-Grondin and Hanna Rahilly, the third director, Hanson explained that this festival marks Sac City’s first foray into a full main-stage production of new, locally written work. It complements, and elaborates, the annual 29 1/2 Hour Playwriting Festival, a regular September event for the past six years (see Cosmo Garvin’s SN&R cover story “Speed theater,” October 9, 2003).
“This is a studio production,” Hanson said. “It’s a little more experimental.” But it does benefit from important resources unavailable in 29.5-hour productions, like costumes, lighting design and time to rehearse and develop.
Hanson described the process of selecting this festival’s plays: “We advertised, and they sent them in. We asked for something that would fit in the chaos of an empty theater. Things that were small enough, 30 minutes or less. We’re trying to tie them together into one logical evening. And that changes every day.”
“It’s totally invigorating and exciting to know that nobody’s ever directed these plays before,” said Rahilly. “It’s a premiere!”
“That’s true,” DeLappe-Grondin said. “There’s no expectations. And there’s freedom. The process of deciphering what the playwright is envisioning is exciting and scary at the same time. It really helped me grow as a director.”
When asked whether it also helped to have the writers looming nearby, DeLappe-Grondin grinned. “I wouldn’t say there was head-butting, but there was discussion,” she said. “And out of that discussion came something better than either of us could have thought of independently.”
“It’s definitely a lesson in what the roles of the playwright and the director are,” added Rahilly. She was grinning also.
Each writer had a different degree of involvement with the realization of his or her play. None so far has followed the example of, say, Samuel Beckett, who in 1984 furiously had his name removed from an American Repertory Theatre production of Endgame because the director changed its setting from an empty room to an empty subway car.
“They were all absolutely invited to be part of the process,” Hanson said. “I feared that in a workshop, to improvise a scene would be group writing. But it always goes back to the writer.” Hanson’s rehearsal process, he explained, did involve some improvisation from the actors—which playwright L.E. Nall observed and then used as the basis for revising A Day Waiting, her spare, poignant piece, set in a train station, about the arrivals and departures and connections from which we essay our relationships. Generally, though, as Hanson recalled, “She stayed away.”
If playwright David Martin tended to linger a little more during rehearsals, he had the reasonable excuse of being in the cast of his own play. Martin plays the patriarch, Rufus Crabtree, in The Crabtrees of (Lesser) Hollywood, a ruefully funny series of vignettes about a family of performers, with shades of Edward Albee-esque gravitas. Of his own performance, Martin said, “It’s really a weird experience. It’s tougher than I thought it would be. I still have to make all the decisions that I would have to make as an actor. In a way, I kind of forget that I’ve written it.” On the other hand, Martin has been known to enjoy the writer’s prerogative: “When I screw up a line, I say I’m just doing a rewrite.”
In spite of his Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from UC Davis, Martin said, “I feel like I’ll always be a beginner.” But he made that sound like cause for elation. “It can be sort of frustrating sometimes, but you can also find these delightful surprises. There are insights an actor can bring to it without even knowing it. I love working with actors. They can put their finger on a problem right away, in a real nuts-and-bolts kind of way. They ask good questions.” Martin reasoned that whenever he can’t answer those questions promptly or clearly, it means he has more work to do on the script.
“The thing that I’m so grateful for is that there are people like these guys willing to do this,” he added. “They’ve just been so dedicated to this, as if it were any other playwright, like Shakespeare, or Chekhov, or anybody. Thank God for these people. Writing, it can be such a lonely task, so to get with people who will take it seriously is wonderful.”
“Do I not get to kiss her now?” Martin was asking onstage, as a pool of warm light dimmed around him. The cue-to-cue continued.
“You get to kiss her,” Hanson replied, from the darkened back of the house. Then he added, dryly, “She threatened to quit.”
“They always do,” Martin cracked back.
All the actors had gotten a little punchy. But it was a good kind of punchy. Their spirits seemed high. The light continued to shift around them, bringing out features, rearranging shadows and evoking new moods. Everybody dutifully worked their cues, appearing and disappearing from the stage, and giving out only cryptic hints about what actually happens in their plays—from the whirlwind madcap improvisation of The Ripple Effect to the farcical, romantic adventure, complete with “infant-hippo death-charge,” of The Invisibility Staff of Mombasa. Rahilly moved around the house, checking sight lines. Hanson sat still and watched from the darkness, working a Tootsie Pop.
The cue-to-cue phase of rehearsal might seem like a brutal abstraction, but it is a necessary one. It might seem to have reduced the playwright’s work to rubble, a morass of gestures—of stuttering entrances and exits—more than any real language wrought from words. Dialogue occurs only in snippets, and sometimes in loops, as the technical crew rewinds and fast-forwards the performers through the beats of their scenes. The actors arrange themselves accordingly, inhabiting the light, waiting around. Or, if they have any energy left for it, fooling around. To some, this might appear as the epitome of inelegance. But to the destined playwright, such a moment, when a play first totters toward coherence in its fully realized form, reveals theater’s beauty at its most radiant. Especially if the play is an original, this is the moment that most seems like its birth.
Anything can happen in a theater’s magic circle—or, if you prefer, its fighting ring. What always happens, one way or another, is that you get something from nothing. That immediacy, the energy of its newness, can be beautiful or horrible, but it won’t last forever, and that’s reason enough to bring it into being. Having undergone interpretation by directors, actors, costumers and designers, any fledgling play still awaits its most essential co-creator: the audience. This group was ready to meet its audience.
“Thank you all,” Hanson said when the work was done. “See you tomorrow.” They parted and withdrew to the wings and the darkness, leaving on the stage only the prospect of its own empty space.