Theatre and Social Justice: Everything Has to Come Out of Session

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[article originally published in HowlRound, January 16, 2016.]

photo 1 Estelle Parsons (nathan johnson)
Estelle Parsons. Photo: Nathan Johnson.

Theatre and Social Justice Crafted out of Session to Engage Audience
The Actors Studio is known for creating socially relevant material but not for creating socially engaged public programs. Their first goals are to serve the actors, playwrights, and directors who are their members. Associate Artistic Director and longtime Studio member Estelle Parsons recently shared her thoughts about a public series on social justice that has been created out of Actors Studio session work. The plan is to reach out to audiences beyond the occasional and unpublicized public performances the Studio has always offered.

“I’m sad that people don’t go to the theatre the way they used to,” Parsons reflected. One way she has determined to address the situation is to present a set of works that have been in development in Actors Studio Session over the past few years. “If we do all of them separately, who’s going to come? We don’t advertise or anything. So I thought: let’s hook them all together. Let’s entice people to come to the theatre with something.” And part of that “something” Parsons has cooked up is programming around the performances to “make it all more meaningful for people to come.”

The series is comprised totally of projects developed at the studio—either new works or new productions of existing works—work by Studio members. Rhapsody in Black, created and performed by Leland Gant, played in late October and early November with post-show guest Stacey Sinclair, who discussed implicit bias. María Irene Fornés’ 1983 work Mud played over several weeks in November with guests Ian Solomon (VP for global engagements at the University of Chicago) and Nick Kotz (author of Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America) who led discussions on poverty, illiteracy, and inequality. The next two entries in the series play in 2016. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis runs in January 2016 with at least one scheduled post-show led by playwright Lucas Hnath (The Christians) to address challenges in writing about religion. An evening of new one-acts will complete the series in May 2016 under the theme “community and trust,” addressing the changing idea of community. Playwrights Sarah Shaefer, Jessica Dickey, Marco Calvani, and Saviana Stanescu scribe, while Daniel Talbott and Kirsten Kelly direct. Margo Jefferson has been tapped to lead at least one post-show conversation during this final sequence.

Parsons noted that the social justice program has “sort of done what I hoped it would do, which is get people going a little bit. I didn’t have anything to accomplish except to get people in. And it’s worked. You gotta get a gimmick. That was in Gypsy right? You gotta get a gimmick. That was my gimmick.”

Blending Politics and Art Making
Parsons was entranced by theatre as a kid in school, but thought she was meant to follow her father into law. In a 2008 conversation she mused on this theme and on the fact that she was a survivor of a year in law school, something she and I have in common.

I went for one year. I wasn’t comfortable with being an actress as a grown-up. My grandfather was a Greek and Latin scholar at Harvard. My father was [drawn] to literature and poetry, and he was a lawyer. Going into the theatre was something I just couldn’t square with myself, even though I was working in it all the time. I vaguely thought I’d be a politician, but as I discovered in law school, my psyche couldn’t take a lot of real-life drama. That’s when I knew the phony life was good for me.

The April 15, 1979 New York Times Arts and Leisure Guide described a multicultural production of Anthony and Cleopatra she directed, which Joe Papp saw; thus, continuing a new phase of her career.

Actress Estelle Parsons tried her hand at directing a year ago with Voice, a theatre piece based on a prose poem for five women by Susan Griffin, which ran at St. Clement’s as a workshop production. Now Miss Parsons is turning her directorial efforts to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, which will open Thursday at the Interart Center for a limited run through May 13. Miss Parsons plans to take an experimental approach to the classic, in which she will give the actresses and actors somewhat loose rein…Hispanic members of the cast may render certain passages in their native tongue.

Papp asked her to form a Shakespeare company for him to bring productions to schools. “We operated one of the school programs for two years. I set the whole thing up.” She likes to direct multicultural companies, and encourages the actors to bring their own life experience, their “essence,” to the work.

She tried her hand at organizational administration in the 1990s, running the Actors Studio for five years. “I basically had to give up my acting career. If you run a place, you know, everything gets to be twenty-four seven if you’re really going to do it right.” She crafted a wide range of programming during those years that seem quite related to her current “Theater and Social Justice” series.

I had a Group Theatre festival for a month. We found and read every single play, which was not easy to do because some were at the Smithsonian. We got lawyers from Washington involved and we read on Monday nights every Group Theatre play that was done. And people who are still alive who were part of the Group Theatre, or had done documentaries about it, spoke. I did an Actors Studio Festival of plays that came out of the Actors Studio and went to Broadway or Off-Broadway. But we had to limit it to Broadway because almost every single thing in the 50s, 60s, and 70s came out of the Studio! We did that for a month.

Series Pieces Emerged out of Session
Two productions have concluded and one is currently running out of the set of four that have been planned, linked by themes imposed after the fact (poverty, hunger, and inequality through theatre, and social justice) and by their origins. Parsons reflected that, “they all seem to have really something to do with society and social justice.” The studio hasn’t done anything quite like this before. All the work she underscored came out of session and the commitment of the actors involved in each work.

Parsons describes the weekly session work like a dancer describes going to daily class. The work is both individual and an accumulation of wisdom, skill, and awareness from group work and feedback. Sessions at the Actors Studio currently consist of Tuesday and Friday actor sessions, Monday night playwright-directors unit (or PDU), and a new Monday night unit that focuses on the director’s perspective.

For the Theater and Social Justice series, all the pieces were worked on all last year and traveled through the Actor Studio session process.

Everything for me has to come out of the session. Two members might be doing a homeless play that came from somewhere else and it might be right for the program but I’m not going to use it because you have to have worked through the sessions to get where you are in the work. The acting comes out of years of doing it in the session, and being critiqued by their colleagues, do you know?

Rhapsody in Black
Rhapsody in Black by Leland Gantt, which is about growing up black American in western Pennsylvania during the 1960s and 1970s, was written when the playwright was in a two-week program at New Dramatists as an actor. The actors were invited to bring in material one day when there was a free afternoon, and Gantt brought in draft pages. John Steber, head of the New Dramatists Playwrights Lab, encouraged him and he then, brought his own material to perform in Studio session. Steber notes:

I said that’s fantastic, bring in some more. And then finally, we said bring in the whole thing and we’ll give you a whole session, which I do because that’s what I do. So he brought in the whole thing. And then I took it to this producer that I had taken Betrayal to some years ago up at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie, one of the oldest theatres in the country. I had a relationship with Chris Silva and I said, come and see this black play, and he loved it. He has a huge educational program in Duchess County, and his educational team got Leland’s piece into high schools, all over.

The play was developed with many helpmates. Initially “very literary” and not very dramatic, Parsons worked with him to make it a dramatic eighty minutes. Then Silva needed a sixty-minute version for schools—the version shared with the public at the Actors Studio. Parsons reflected that for the actor’s development, “You never want anybody to do just schools, they’re just too different an audience. Always have to have an adult component with it, for my point of view, for the actor to have different audience energy.”

The play, which Parsons called at times the “racism show,” is already traveling around an education circuit in the US and Canada, and will soon travel to a festival in Sweden. Parsons is proud of the show itself and of the gap it addresses in school theatre. She says:

There’s hardly anything for high school people in these children’s theatre programs. There was only his racism show and a sort of shoot-em-up Vietnam soldier sort of show for high school audiences, which is terrible when you think of theatre. High school should be getting theatre. And good theatre. But they don’t.

Mud
Mud
is a 1983 three-hander by María Irene Fornés involving characters trapped by dire economic circumstances: a woman Mae, her companions Lloyd, and a neighbor Henry who comes to live with them. Beth Manspeizer, who played Mae, brought the play to session. Manspeizer and Marc Solomon, who played Lloyd, graduates of the Studio drama school, brought in a third actor, Jerry Zellers, who played Henry the neighbor. They “just went ahead and put it in session, just because people put up in things in session, you know, when they can.”

photo 3Patricia Mattick (Mae) Alan Nebelthau (Henry) MUD 1983 TFTNC (Anne Militello)
Patricia Mattick (Mae0 and Alan Nebelthau (Henry) in 1983 production of Mud at the Theater for the New City. Photo by Anne Militello.

Parsons noted that Fornés is quite explicit about production details in the published script of Mud, down to the timing of pauses during the blackouts between scenes, and the nature of the limited set pieces. In the series at the Studio, “we were just trying to do her vision. That’s in her plays, how it should be done. We tried to follow it word by word, you know, whatever she had said about it, how it should be done. It’s somebody’s vision of a production. It’s as close as we could get, just having her words, to her vision of her production.”

Fornés carefully controlled the design and direction of her plays after an unsuccessful production of The Office directed by Jerome Robbins. “She made the decision then that she would not let anybody else touch her work, and she never did allow anybody for the whole rest of her life.”

There was minimal set design for Mud, and none for Rhapsody in Black. Parsons noted that her design colleague Peter Larkin worked with her on Mud and on the upcoming Last Days of Judas Iscariot, but rebuffed the idea that there might be a conventional approach to design at the Studio. “We have no conventions. Sometimes people have sets, and sometimes they don’t. Environments more than sets. Though we have had sets. It’s different every time.”

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Two Studio members were working on Jesus and Judas scenes from The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The play is structured as a courtroom defense of Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, mute throughout the proceedings (except for flashback sequences), while others defend or prosecute his life. “It made no sense at all,” recalled Parsons, “but they wanted to work on it. So they started working on it, and then they brought in some other people. And they invited me in to work on it.”

Larkin has a more developed design for this production, including a set model. “Usually I have an idea. But this time I had no idea. I read that play and I thought: what on earth do you do with this play. And he knew. He loves burlesque. He said, this play is just like burlesque, the first act is just like burlesque. So he set up the whole thing.”

Community and Trust
Multiple playwrights, multiple directors, and actors from inside and outside the Studio are collaborating on the final chapter of the series. The team has been working on the Community and Trust project for a year—new one-act plays by Sarah Shaefer, Jessica Dickey, Marco Calvani, and Saviana Stanescu directed by Dan Talbott and Kirsten Kelly.

The story of this set of plays involves Parsons’ conviction that Danny Talbott, a young Off-Broadway talent I’ve written about several times before in HowlRound (here and here), has a role in reinvigorating part of the Studio’s future. Parsons tracked his career for some time before talking to him about working at the Studio, attracted to the way he goes about working more than the subject matter of any of his projects.

Dan Talbott is trying to do exactly what we do at the Studio, but it’s a different root. He’s a whole different generation. Inclusive, collaborative, everybody has to work together, they have to work with what’s in the room not whether we like what someone’s bringing or not, but whatever it is they bring we have to include it. It’s interesting. We were after the same thing back in those days, the legitimate theatres, and the good actors aren’t trying hard enough, their work isn’t deep enough. The same criticisms all the time, just a different way to get to something else, which now is collaborative. Everybody has a stake in it. It’s not unlike Mud, you know. They did it and they have to do it, they have to keep owning it, they can’t let the director take it. And the director can’t let the producer take it, you know. It has to be what they bring. And that’s the way that Dan’s work is. How do they work our way? They’re working our way because they’re collaborating with the director and playwright.”

Parsons met with him for lunch around the corner from the Actors Studio about a year ago to involve him in energizing the Studio, and they inspired one another. They decided to try the community project. Parsons gave Talbott his charge. “Get the playwrights and we’ll mix Actors Studio people with some of your people—there are five Studio actors and four non Studio actors—and we’ll do this together and we’ll get started.”

They started with an idea out of La MaMa.

Neil Labute and Marco Calibani have been doing these series; write a play about a word. They met at La MaMa Umbria, and they did “family”—so of course they wrote about incest. Then they came to the La MaMa here, and I did one of those, and that’s where I met Marco and Neil. And the next year they did “desire.” I said to Dan: let’s do what they did. It’s going to be about “community” because that’s what we’re concerned about, and then “trust” because I wasn’t sure “community” was a good enough word. So we had two words.

The four plays that have emerged are “so disparate and crazy” Parsons notes that she concludes they aren’t community in any traditional sense but “what four not-too-young, in their 30s maybe, not established playwrights think community is.”

It Has to Translate into Action
Parsons is doing dramaturgical, post-show, community building, and audience engagement kind of program planning with each of the pieces, and learning as she goes. She asks me a question she is clearly asking herself, “What was it all about anyway? We’re not trying to create activism in the room? I mean. I just sort of had this idea and I had no idea what the after things were going to be.” After the performance of Mud I attended, Ian Soloman from the University of Chicago spoke of poverty and need he has observed all over the world, raising awareness of relative world income.

Ian was the first time we had a person. I knew from the first two nights that this is a play that, when it’s over, the audience does not have a lot to say. You know, some plays you get out there for the post show and the audience can’t wait to tell you their experience. They’re full of the experience and they’re not ready to talk. So I knew that it was up to us to have a discussion up front. So then I got thinking: what is this all about anyway?

Now there have been two plays and several kinds of post-show conversations, either without guests and Parsons moderating, or with guests offering expertise on related topics.

I hear these people talk and they’re wonderful. But then that has to translate into action. That’s where the problem is, right? Talk, turning it into action. You like to think that these people would come and talk, and excite people about the problem. And they would go out and perhaps talk further and try to excite other people; do you know what I mean? You hope it would spread. And maybe it will, maybe it will.

Some connections are too nebulous…they evolve. Parsons selects the connections that are made with each show, and some connections work and some don’t. A filmmaker contacted her about her documentary about María Irene Fornés [The Rest I Make Up: Documenting Irene by Michelle Memran] and Parsons realized that the film’s focus on Fornes’ late-life struggles with Alzheimer’s has little to do with the themes in the 1983 play Mud, or with the series in general. The documentary might be included later in the series when it is completed.

What’s Next For the Series, For the Studio, and For Parsons?
Parsons claims they haven’t done anything yet, but that conversations are beginning. She speaks about another play in development and a new Actors Studio development that continues the series’ themes into the future.

A Studio member has written a play about her ancestor Justice Taney who decided the 1857 Dred Scott case, which held that African-Americans, enslaved or free, had no standing to sue. Dred Scott, a slave taken by his owners to a non-slave state, could not sue for his freedom. The Studio member’s play places a Taney descendant with a Dred Scott descendant in a coffee shop. “I’m trying to work it into the community project, or have some more things next year, have every year a social justice program. I think it’s good because I believe in social justice but I’m telling you I’m a one-man band.”

Parsons and Talbott now are co-leaders of the new Studio unit with Monday evening sessions that focus on directors and directing. Parsons sees it as filling a gap in the education of theatre artists. “People spoke to me about how much they learned because in the drama schools they don’t teach the actors about the directors, they teach the directors about the actors. They never teach the actors about the directors. The director is the odd man out in the whole picture.”

And a young friend has written a new play for Parsons, which is not yet in production. “Jerry Zaks wants to direct it and he’s been busy so I don’t know what’s going to happen with that play. And of course I don’t plan too much in the future because I’m eighty-eight in a couple of weeks. So I’m grateful there’s a yesterday and I hope there’s tomorrow.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 16, 2016)

 

 

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