What Makes Play Development Work?

by Clubbed Thumb

in MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It Do It

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(These posts were originally posted on Think It, Do It, Blog It as part of  The MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program. We’re cross-posting on the Circle to better highlight the work of our grantees.)

By SuperLab playwrights Madeleine George (SuperLab #1) and Tanya Saracho (SuperLab #5), as part of Clubbed Thumb’s collaboration with Playwrights Horizons

April 22, 2011 - Madeleine George

It’s widely acknowledged that American new play development has floundered over the past few decades. There’s been a national conversation about the preponderance of timid theatrical institutions that, despite their best intentions, engender tepid plays. But there are a number of smart and scrappy exceptions to this rule, and Clubbed Thumb is one of the smartest and scrappiest. For 15 years Clubbed Thumb has built a dazzling reputation among adventurous theatergoers and theater practitioners as the go-to producer of the most exciting and audacious new American plays. I’ve been lucky enough to be the beneficiary of their producing energy not once, but twice.

Bold, curious, frank, unfettered by convention or fidelity to what may have worked in the past, interest in plays’ for plays’ sake—these are the hallmarks of Clubbed Thumb’s approach. The cleverly designed SuperLab series combines this ethos with the resources, reputation and infrastructure of another famously playwright-centered institution, Playwrights’ Horizons.So when Maria Striar invited me to bring my new play SEVEN HOMELESS MAMMOTHS WANDER NEW ENGLAND into the SuperLab series I jumped at the chance.

The development goal of the SuperLab is not to make plays different or “better,” but more of themselves, more fundamentally and fully what they set out to be in the first place. The focus, as with all Clubbed Thumb’s work, is on the playwright and her questions about her work. The architecture of time and space are writer directed, from the scheduling of the week as a whole to the pace and purpose of every rehearsal hour. This intense writer focus is something lots of theaters talk about, but Clubbed Thumb actually makes happen in a peerless way.

The result was a huge leap forward for my play. A script that went into the SuperLab week as a promising collection of scenes cohered into a leaner, funnier comedy with the act break in an inspired new place (thanks to Maria Striar’s hands-on dramaturgy) and about eight new scenes’ worth of material. The intensity and abandon of the writing time made possible by the SuperLab structure was precious to me; the progress I was able to make on the work was crucial to the play’s future life. I can only wish the same experience for every other playwright I know.

Yours sincerely,

Madeleine George


April 27, 2011 - Tanya Saracho

Dear Maria and Adam,

I’ve been meaning to write you this letter since I drove to the airport right after that amazingly encouraging Superlab reading of Mala Hierba at Playwrights Horizons in March. It’s been on my mind since then, but because of Nogalar, I hadn’t been able to write you and properly express what an extraordinary opportunity the Superlab was for me.

When I find myself thinking about the experience I had that week, I keep going back to this feeling that it was like nothing I’ve been through before. That sounds a little corny but seriously, I’ve been through many a workshop process, of various natures, at theaters big and small, but I have never had a process as supportive and nurturing as the Superlab; putting it into words doesn’t do it justice.

I think the trick was that we didn’t have the pressure of a production and I didn’t have a producer over my shoulder micro-dramaturging and giving notes bent towards some sort of aesthetic or mission statement. It was just about the play.

When does that ever happen? You guys just let the words breathe and would come in periodically to offer gentle dramaturgical advice. The combination of that with making
available a script assistant who kept up with my rewriting rhythm was gold. Absolute gold.

And I can’t tell you how much I laughed. The team we put together was just truly specially. During Superlab I was able to forge a relationship with Jerry which, I can tell, will go on for years. I can feel it. Thank you so much for that and for introducing me to New York in such an intimate way. This Chicago girl could never repay that.

Estimadamente,

Tanya Saracho