Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On Beginnings: Trust and Patience


A few weeks ago, I learned that I will be the next artist-in-residence at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. It's a two-year gig, that pays quite well ($10K/year) as these things go. My task is to explore this historic and beautiful place, where 98,000 people are buried with their stories, and create and produce new, site-specific theatrical work to be staged at Mt. Auburn.

I'm the third artist-in-residence, being preceded by filmmaker/multi-media artist Roberto Mighty and composer Mary Bichner. In doing preliminary research for the project, I've had a chance to explore some of the work they created at and for Mt. Auburn--Roberto Mighty's project Earth.Sky  and Mary Bichner's Spring & Autumn Suites. Talk about setting a high bar.  Sublimely beautiful work that meshes so well with the atmosphere and landscape of the site.

Beginning a project like this is an interesting exercise, because it requires both great eagerness and great patience.  An eagerness to dive in and explore is required, but it's just as important to have the patience to hold back on committing to any one structure or story or set of characters. I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I don’t want to go in with too many preconceived notions right now. I need to read and listen and watch, and let the place and the stories of the place wash over me.

Equally important is trust, both in my experience and whatever talent I have. I have to trust that what I find interesting enough to explore and express will find a form that is useful and suitable and beautiful, not just for myself but also for the audience.  If I start thinking too early about how to make it good, or what will the audience think, I’ll crash the car. Sure, I want whatever I make to be excellent and impressive, and better than anything I’ve ever done before. But thinking about that too early in the process introduces the judge and editor to the seedling of an idea, and they will surely stunt it.

I’m getting a sense of the scope of what I’ve taken on, and it’s scary and awesome. And feels more like an honor to have been selected than ever. Doing my best means approaching the project mindfully and with energy and commitment. The rest will follow.

I think both patience and trust are possible only because I've been gaining experience with commissions and site specific work over the past few years. My work with the Bostonian Society on Blood on the Snow, and with the MIT Museum on Both/And were both situations where the initial approach wasn't necessarily obvious, and both required a lot of research on my own, as well as research that was guided by experts. At Mt. Auburn, their staff can help guide me in my explorations and I certainly won't be shy about asking questions.

So if you're looking for me over the next six months or more, you might want to look at Mt. Auburn Cemetery--I'll be wandering and looking and reading and listening and thinking. Which feels like a pretty great job.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Things I Didn't Expect When I Was Starting Out: You Can't Remember Everything

When you’re a new playwright, the struggle is all very much in the here and now. How do I write this play right now? Where do I send it right now? How can I manage this development process and production as it’s happening. Which is all very important.

What was impossible for me to see when I was just beginning is that all of this activity and writing and thinking adds up over time. I couldn't really comprehend that it would take me thousands of submissions, of dozens and dozens of different plays, to start to build a career that has any sort of momentum.  Though even now, I view any momentum with great suspicion, knowing that the doldrums, a full blown dry spell, might be right around the corner.

It also didn’t occur to me that my resume would eventually fill up the page, and as the years moved forward, I would have to leave stuff off. Productions that I loved, with great pride, would slowly drift off the list of my most recent work. Because I wasn’t in academia, I wasn’t initially in the habit of keeping a running list, a vita, of everything I had done. And why would I? It’s all so fresh.
Except that it turns out that it’s hard to remember every production and every cast member, or exact opening date over 20 years, 30 years.  (My first play, The Elevator, was produced 30 years ago, in 1987, by the Pendragon Theatre, in Saranac Lake, New York. But I'd have to dig deep to find the date.)

So a bit of unsolicited advice. Keep a running file on your computer, a vita, if you will, of every project you do, every award, every reading. You will rarely be asked for it, unless you’re applying for academic positions. But when your list of productions moves from a handful to hundreds, its going to be hard to remember the specifics. Though I’ve kept an extensive Microsoft Access database of where I’ve submitted my work over the past many years, with all kinds of fun reports and stats available, I have realized that I need to expand that database now, to keep track of specific details, all in one place, of all the productions and readings I’ve had. So I’m going to need to dig through the emails and my big file cabinets, and start a new section.

I actually have a massive Excel spreadsheet that keeps track of numbers of productions and money and attendance each yet, but it doesn't track names, or casts, or opening dates. And the whole thing is unwieldy.

Things you might want to track on your spreadsheet or database:
  • Name of play
  • Theatre Company Name
  • Venue (not always the same)
  • Dates: opening and closing.
  • Number of performances.
  • How much you got paid.
  • Attendance.
  • Director name and contact info.
  • Producer name.
  • Cast.
  • Stage Manager.
  • Designers.
  • Website/links to photos and reviews.

It’s going to take a lot of digging. Which will be fun, but also a lot of work. I’m grateful for each and every one of those productions, and for all the friends I’ve made along the way, and the audiences, and the inspirational collaborators. Now I just need to gather all those names and dates into one place.
You could do this in an Excel Spreadsheet. I like the Access Database, because I can hook up my productions with submissions info, and generate interesting reports and data. Because I'm a number geek.

Which you might already do.  But just in case you don’t, it’s never too early to start.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The 2017 Blood on the Snow run is over


Daniel Berger-Jones as Colonel Dalrymple, Bill Mootos as Royall Tyler, and Lewis Wheeler as Samuel Dexter in Blood on the Snow. Photo by Nile Scot Shots

The 2017 production of Blood on the Snow at the Old State House in Boston is finally over. This is the longest any of my shows has ever run, and that's not even counting the initial 4-week run last year. For the second time, we basically sold out the entire run, which was very exciting. It's a small house (56 seats), which makes for an intimate, immersive theatrical experience. We had more than 3,000 audience members over the course of the run. (Interesting stat--22% of the first year's audience returned to see the show a second time this season.)

Most of our cast returned for the second run, and we were very fortunate to pick up extremely talented replacements and understudies. Our production team of producer/museum liaison Peter Meacham, stage manager Jeremiah Mullane, and director Courtney O'Connor managed a complex casting calendar--with a cast of 10 over 12 weeks, with various scheduled absences--and kept the show running at a high level, seamlessly for the entire run.

I still have a lot to process from the whole experience (and will write about it eventually), but one of the more interesting aspects of such a long run was watching the performances deepen and mature over time. This is a play set in 1770, in a Boston that had a population of only 15,000 and everyone knew everyone. Especially the men in this room. After 3 months of a run (and for some of the actors, 2 years of performing together), there were glances and gestures between these people that really felt like they'd known each other for a long time. The level of detail of performance just kept getting richer and richer, with each passing week.

I'm already missing the cast and crew for this show. It's common to experience a bit of post-partum depression at the end of a run, and this project is one that I'd been working on since 2013. (I'm doing carpentry on my house to keep me from moping around too much.) There's a strong chance that the show will come back again, and I've always got new projects coming up. This production will always be close to my heart.

 In case you want to hear a bit about the show, here's a video of me and Nat Sheidley (Executive Director of the Bostonian Society) at History Camp Boston this spring, talking about the 2016 production.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Design Meeting at Seven Devils

One of the great parts of the Seven Devils script development process is the design meeting. I got to spend part of an afternoon meeting with design fellow Sabrina Reed, my director Christy Montour-Larson, dramaturg Gay Smith, and Seven Devils artistic director, Jeni Mahoney, talking about the physical world of my play, Drift, and how it might be realized on stage. I talked about where the play came from, and about farming, and they asked all kinds of questions about colors and texture, and realism v. non-reality, my best imagined production and my worst.

It's a helpful way to remind a writer who's been living in his head for a while about some of the physical and visual possibilities of the staging of this piece, as it all starts to feel more real. And in the ends, we had a cool drawing of how one designer might set the play.
A rendering of a set design by Seven Devils Design Fellow, Sabrina Reed

Great experience at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference

Table work on Drift. Photo by Maggie Rosenthal
I'm finally getting a chance to catch my breath a little, after an extremely busy start to the year. It was all capped off with a 17-day stay at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in McCall, Idaho, where I workshopped my play, Drift.  I'd had the good fortune to be selected to work on my play, Flight, back in 2011, but had to leave after only a few days, due to a death in our family.  I'd been working and hoping to get back to McCall ever since.
Sheila McDevitt in the reading of Drift. PHoto by Sarah Jessup.
Jonathan Bangs in Drift. Photo by Sarah Jessup
Mirirai Sithole in Drift. Photo by Sarah Jessup.
Danette Baker in Drift. Photo by Sarah Jessup.
It's a gorgeous place, and the first week I was there, I spent every possible moment working on the play with my director, Christy Montour Larson, dramaturg Gay Smith, stage manager Dana Reiland, and our fabulous cast of Sheila McDevitt, Mirirai Sithole, Jonathan Bangs, and Danette Baker.  I'd get up early and write, then rehearse all day, then come back and write some more. On Saturday night, we had a fully staged reading for a sold-out house. And the audiences there, after 17 seasons of the conference, are very smart and sophisticated when it comes to discussing new plays.

For the second week, I helped dramaturg a new play by Dayna Smith, which had a sit-down reading as part of its development. And I got to see readings of all the other plays by my fellow writers, attend a writer's workshop from Elaine Romero, and go to a bunch of other fun events. And spend some time at the Burgdorf hot springs (super rustic, super relaxing) chilling out after a long week.

Seven Devils is the kind of experience that I'd want to give to every playwright at some point in their career. There's an entire artistic community that forms with an intense focus on helping the playwrights explore, change, and refine their scripts. And they've also engaged the greater community--so local businesses donate space and material and money to help make it all work. Local residents help provide housing for almost 50 visiting artists who are coming in from all across the country.

I stayed in a cozy apartment above a garage about five miles out of McCall, surrounded by miles of pastureland, ringed by snow tinged mountains. It's hard to imagine a more perfect spot to work on this particular play.

Now I'm back to my regular life. Excited to see my family, settling into summer . Working on a new play, with Blood on the Snow still running at the Old State House, and Both/And still at the MIT Museum.

But behind it all, I've still got the afterglow my time at Seven Devils. I made solid strides on Drift, and I got to work with some really great people. I hope to work with them again, and to find a way to get back to McCall someday. We'll see what the future holds for Drift.
Seven Devils 2017! photo by Sarah Jessup

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Busy May/June

May is a super busy month for my work.  Here are the events and shows happening around the country. I hope you can check some of them out.  (Please e-mail me if you do, or if you see me, come say Hello.)
  • Stop Rain, a short play, was produced at Actors Workshop in Ithaca, NY, on May 3.
  • My short play, Spitting Image was at Payson High School in Payson, AZ, on May 4.
  • My short play, The Discovery, was produced at the Bethune School, in Bethune, CO, on May 5.
  • My short play, Pumpkin Patch, was produced at the Henry W. Grady High School, in Atlanta, May 5-6.
  • My one-minute play, Polaroids, will be in the Gi60 International Play Festival on May 13, at the University of Leeds, 7:30 p.m.
  • My short play Eden in Chains will be in the Boston Theater Marathon on May 14 at the Calderwood Pavilion Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. This event features 50 ten-minute plays by New England playwrights, from noon until 10 p.m. (My show is in the 9 o’clock hour.) Plus the event supports the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund!
  • On Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m., Porter Square Books will host the official launch for
    StageSource’s New England New Play Anthology, a fantastic collection that I edited, by some of New England’s best playwrights. We’ll have actors read from scenes from the plays.
  • On Thursday, May 18, at 6:30 p.m. I’ll be part of the Four Stories reading series at the Middle East Restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge. Actor Marc Pierre will read from my novel, Steering to Freedom, about Civil War hero Robert Smalls.
  • My one-act about quantum entanglement, Both/And, continues to run at the MIT Museum. This month it will play on May 20, 21, 29 at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
  • My one-act, The Next Big Thing, will be at St. Anne’s School of Annapolis, in Maryland, May 24.
  • On Tuesday, May 25, at 6 p.m., I will be giving a talk with Stephen H. Case at the New England Historic Genealogical Society about Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy Shippen and their plot to betray America during the Revolutionary War. We’ll have actors read scenes from a screenplay that I’ve written based on Stephen’s book, Treacherous Beauty.
  • And at the end of the month (June 1, actually), Blood on the Snow will return to the Old State House for a 12-week run. Last year the show sold out very fast–this year there will be plenty of chances to see this site-specific play about the day after the 1770 Boston Massacre. (But don’t wait to get your tickets.)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The New England New Play Anthology is now published!

After a very long time, and a lot of work and support, all across the Boston and New England theater community, StageSource and the New Play Alliance have finally published the New England New Play Anthology!

I'm so proud to share these fabulous plays with the rest of the world. Our authors are:
Walt McGough, Melinda Lopez, Marisa Smith, Kirsten Greenidge, Johnny Kuntz, Steven Barkhimer, MJ Halberstadt, and John Minigan.

Special thanks are due to Laura Neill, Julie Hennrikus, Emma B Putnam, Brian Michael Balduzzi, Haley Fluke, Ty Furman, Alicia Bettano, Daniel Begin, Clare Lockhart, Jake Catsaros (who designed the fabulous cover), Naomi Ibasitas, Mary Frances Nosser, Michaela Tucci, Juliet Bowler, Steven Bergman, Ellen Davis Sullivan, Amy Merrill, Lisa Rafferty, Stefanie Cloutier, and Karla Sorenson, Ilana Brownstein, Charles Haugland, Jessie Baxter, and many more.

I hope you'll buy a copy (via StageSource, but bookstores and Amazon also have it), not just to support new plays in New England, but to read these fantastic scripts by some of New England's most talented playwrights.
http://bit.ly/NPAbook