Asking the Right Questions

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 playwright Erin Courtney, as part of Clubbed Thumb’s collaboration with Playwrights Horizons

Working with Maria Striar and Adam Greenfield on a Superlab of my new play Honey Drop has been the most productive development week that I have ever participated in as a writer. New play development is difficult because there are so many factors that must be “right” in order for true development to take place. Let me track in what ways this development process was so successful.

First of all, Maria Striar knew that my first draft of Honey Drop was not ready for a Superlab. I was sure it was ready to be rehearsed and contemplated in that format but Maria thought the draft was not there yet. Maria and I have worked together for many years, and we have recently been discussing my tendency to underwrite plays. Coming from a “less is more” approach, I often leave so much out of a play that the story does not get fully told and the audience is left wanting more, but not necessarily in a good way. So the first component in effective development of new plays is knowing when is the most beneficial time to be in a rehearsal room with actors and a director. I was sure Honey Drop was ready for a Superlab, but Maria could see it needed more time in the hopper. So I wrote more and a few months later I resubmitted the play to Maria and Adam. Both Adam and Maria decided the new draft was in a place that was ready for an intensive, collaborative, feedback oriented process.

The second effective practice that Superlab did so well is the ability to match the writer with a director who is experienced in new play development and who is the right aesthetic match for the play. In order to find the right director, Maria, Adam and I engaged in a conversation regarding my goals for the piece, the rehearsal approach that might best suit those goals, and they asked me to brainstorm what directors I had worked with in the past or what new directors I might be interested in forging a new relationship with. Maria, Adam and I were all interested in the work of May Adrales and we all felt she was the best director to work with on this project. Even though May has had a very busy season, she read the play in one sitting and emotionally connected with it right away. May and I had a long, very productive meeting where we discussed goals for the play. I expressed my fears about what parts of the play were pat or cliché, and she discussed the way she felt the play was emotionally true and places for further exploration. Like all good directors, she asked great questions and she listened intently to my answers.

The third element required for a great development process is casting. Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb both have an incredible relationship with talented actors who are experienced in new play development. I cannot over emphasize the importance of the actors’ input, artistic generosity and intelligence in this process. Casting this particular piece took quite a while but the Superlab team were able to cast a group of actors that Maria Striar dubbed “The All-Stars”. They are Bill Buell, Judith Hawking, Jenny Seastone Stern, Hannah Cabell, and Mike Iveson. All of these actors have a fearlessness in embracing new plays and a sharp eye for exploration.

The fourth step in a successful development is in the providing enough rehearsal time and space. Playwrights Horizon and Clubbed Thumb provided us with a great stage manager, Chuck Turner, a beautiful rehearsal space, copies of scripts and copies of new pages. We had planned to do an invited reading, but one of the actors had a family emergency. We decided to cancel that reading, but the Superlab team made it possible for us to schedule an extra rehearsal and a new date for an invited reading. This required extra time from the staff of both Playwrights Horizions and Clubbed Thumb, as well as additional money to pay an additional stipend to the creative team.

And lastly, there is the extremely important contribution of the feedback. Both Maria Striar and Adam Greenfield are two of the most experienced and effective dramaturges of new plays. They both have spent years listening attentively to the fragile birth of new work. They scheduled in plenty of time for listening, meeting with me, and then giving me time to respond in the writing. After the first read through, I asked for their feedback. Both of them gave me incredibly perceptive notes that I implemented during the week. After the week of rehearsal, they met with me again with a new round of notes and I wrote more. Then after the invited reading, we discussed the play once more and I am now in the process of integrating those notes. Their wisdom, their desire to take the time, and their ability to convey their thoughts in a useful manner are an invaluable asset to the completion of new plays.

I am deeply appreciative that I my play Honey Drop was selected to be a part of the Superlab and that each element of this process was so thoughtfully and professionally completed. Superlab is setting a new standard for quality play development and audiences and artists will benefit from their intelligent and passionate work.