features + interviews

reading ruminations: tcg playwrights in conversation

TCG Playwrights in Conversation
New Voices in the American Theatre
Monday, October 24, at 7pm
Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, 44 Charlton Street
event web site

Imagine if you will (we were asked not to photograph once things were under way but believe me, these people are good looking): L-R David Cote (Time Out), David Adjmi, Young Jean Lee, Tarell Alvin McCraney. Image: Martha Wade Steketee.

The program proceeds as planned.  New voices (read young playwrights) are welcomed, introduced, their work read aloud (sometimes by the playwrights themselves, sometimes by actors), and discussed.  Engaged in conversation about the intensely personal and profoundly important art of playwriting.  Last year about this time David Cote hosted a discussion at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center featuring some prominent NYC-based critics and scholars.  This year, sponsored by Theatre Communications Group, David Cote hosts three playwrights with intriguingly different origins and career trajectories (and some words to say about critics and we’ll get to that) and with strong distinctive storytelling voices: David Adjmi, Young Jean Lee, and Tarell Alvin McCraney.  The conversation sparkles, the talent shines, the words bounce, the audience appreciates.  This evening and the theatre reflected in it is vibrant and hopeful and frankly very smart and funny.

Cote edges into the evening’s conversations with a reference to a 2005 article by Jeffrey Jones that sets us up for word play and intelligent analysis and just plain fun.  An article originally published in the October 2005 issue of American Theatre called “Thinking about Writing about Thinking about New Plays” (and reblogged by the author in 2007) poses the question of preparing audiences for new work (hello there dramaturgs).  How, Cote asks, can critics and artistic directors and others act as curators to make new works accessible to their audiences.  How, he muses, are the new audiences prepared to read the newer stranger and wilder theatrical creations presented these days?

Cote offers his own quick sketches of the panel members’ writing styles.  Of Adjmi: layers of dialogue that play like a musical composition.  Of Lee: ironic, bitter, using found objects.  Of McCraney: double hung visions, heightened lush sensual language.  And the audience is prepped.

Adjmi.  First up for a reading and individual discussion is Adjmi.  He has four fine actors (Johanna Day, Lisa Joyce, Jeremy Shamos, and Stephen Barker Turner) read the first scene of his play Evildoers.  Two couples (Judy and Martin, and Carole and Jerry) are gentle and vicious in equal measure.  Overtalking and circling back and running up to tears and back again.  I find I fall for the acerbic Carol (ceremony hating, irreverent, wedding planner) who says at one point when challenged on one of her many inconsistent snarky comments: “Well, it’s a cynical age and I’m the zeitgeist.”

Adjmi offers observations on several dimensions of his process.  The scene we observe is of couples in crisis, inspired by reading he had been doing at the time of traditionally well-made, small cast plays.  It was hard, he reports, to craft this particular 15-page scene that was at first a full act.  He was striving for a “well made-ish type of thing”.  Growing up in Brooklyn in the Syrian-Jewish community he always felt “outsider-ish” — that helps him “write for the margins”.  He likes characters who are voluble and charming yet lost to themselves.  He also notes that he doesn’t like it when people assume that while his plays can be dark (and his characters sometimes a bit brutal) that this suggests something about his own personality.  He reflects that he is intrigued by those who right about the anti-argument, and gives as an example the work of Wallace Shawn, whose Aunt Dan in Aunt Dan and Lemon can espouse fascist diatribes while Shawn has very different political sympathies.

Lee.  Young Jean Lee moved to New York City from Berkeley after leaving a Ph.D. program before finishing her dissertation in literature, proclaiming to herself that she was going to become a playwright.  (She also pursues additional MFA writing training she does not mention in her self-deprecating presentation of her own life path.)  The monologue we hear tonight, read by Lee, is from her first piece Yaggoo, in part inspired by class teaching she had recently done on Moby Dick.  This monologue is not yet what she describes as her “collage voice” yet evokes the sea, the ship, the life of a whaler.

She talks about the process of writing as being “like torture”.  For her, the directing she has done of all of her own premieres is really pleasurable, “a natural act”.  Thematically, she proceeds by forcing herself to write “the last play she’d want to write” — she is driven by challenge rather than passionate interest in the topics of the plays she sets out to craft.  Creatively, directing assists her by setting immovable deadlines with scheduling first rehearsals.  She also casts her plays before she writes a single page so she is writing for particular actor strengths and attributes.  She also “crowd sources” topics and research using social media, posing questions, queries, challenges and obtaining answers.  She admits, without providing details, to being occasionally challenged by the choices other directors have made with her works.

McCraney.  Tarell Alvin McCraney began as an actor and delivers his multi-character pieces (one from each of the three Brother/Sister Plays) with drama and skill and power.  One dismissive comment by a character about a female character in his first piece he reads, Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet, catches my attention as does most of what he reads: “Every time I see that woman I get new insight into my own misery.”  Of the second play he reads from “In the Red and Brown Water”, McCraney notes that it is “my favorite of the three plays, and I’m allowed to have favorites — August Wilson told me so.”  This playwright talks about the order of writing the plays, the order in which the pieces came to him, and keeps us with him in his process.

McCraney utilizes images from mythological traditions, seeing and exploring mythic archetypes.  “It’s about finding ways to help people see themselves”, he notes, “to see the God in you.”  When pressed about his process for writing these particular plays he reflects on a time in Oxford when he was jet lagged and up nights writing letters to his mother who had recently passed away.  When he returned to the States some time later and reread the letters, he realized that he had 50 pages of these plays.  About his role as an artist he says: “We’re not telling new stories.  We’re telling the us in these stories.”  He is highly quotable about process.  “Sometimes when you put a work on its feet”, he observed about work on a youth theatre adaptation of Hamlet he did with the RSC, “things make themselves known to you.”  When asked if he had any set process for writing he says: “its early in the game … every baby is born differently.”  When asked about writing for film or theatre (and after the obligatory “just ask me” jokes related to the hefty film salaries), McCraney offers that “for me it’s about a communal invitation … the theatre is a place where I ask you, invite you, rather than take you.”

On their role in the rehearsal room.  Adjmi says humorously that he is “bad .. and when I’m bad they get mad”.  He reflects that he is uncomfortable and new to the process, “the codes are unclear”, to that it is weird, tentative for him in the rehearsal room. He is still learning the language and the idiom.  McCraney credits his background as an actor and the directors he has worked with who made him comfortable. Some have said to him “get up and do” and he does, to demonstrate what he intends in his script.  As a director himself he says that “I wish I was as patient as the directors I have worked with — I’m relentless.”  In rehearsal, he says, “I’m game … that other guy wrote and I’m here to dramaturg.”  Lee feels most at home, as she has said, as a director.  “It’s a dream” in the rehearsal room for her — “the director me says to the playwright me” change this or that …. it works out.

On mentors.  Adjmi jokes that he has had tormentors, then seriously says he would love a mentor  but hasn’t come across one yet … “even mavericks have mentors” he quips.

On critics — are they helpful or hurtful or do they just not get you.  McCraney read reviews early on and was confused by them.  One of his mentors, playwright Richard Nelson, warned him to be careful with them and the words that might label you to yourself.  McCraney has surmised that most critics are not talking to playwrights in their reviews but to everyone else to rationalize their opinions of the play — “not a conversation for me” he concludes.

On writing for Hollywood.  Lee currently is writing a script for Brad Pitt‘s production company Plan B.  This kind of writing is for her straightforward and “the first time I’ve enjoyed writing” — there’s more of a formula to guide the writing she finds.  And the life of a screenwriter in this case was appealing to her: the first time she had the experience of living the life of an artist as a normal person who writes during the day and has a life outside of work.  McCraney jokes that “I’m the only idiot in the game still”, yet he has paid his bills and paid off his student loans writing for theatre.

On curating the theatrical experience.  Adjmi “likes the idea of curation if it enriches the experience.”  He draws a parallel to MOMA exhibit audio tours — that can enrich and enhance appreciation of a work, especially if the audience member/museum goer is new to a genre or artist.  McCraney adds that “anything that keeps the conversation open and spreadable” is a good thing.  He continues: “it never stops me from seeing a play to know the play” — and adds that curation is not telling the story but give it a context.

On publication of their works, the words on the page.  Adjmi reflects on his play scripts on the page as being complicated and musical.  He came to this not as an aesthetic but through the need for “elaborate codification” of the musical and rhythmic beats, to clarify his intentions.  McCraney notes that the act of crafting play script out of his drafts is an act of sculpting. His first drafts are just language and the “fun part is when he gets to carve into it.”

Final reflections.  It can be as charming and illuminating to hear a playwright read his or her own creations as to hear them performed by professional actors.  It is instructive to learn about the varying methods through which, by which playwrights come to their vocation and craft.  And it is a matter of both belief and proof: the American theatre is alive with young voices who write for live performance and not a projection screen.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 25, 2011)

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