Innovation Takes Time; Time Takes Money

by Andrea Lepcio

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

I tend to introduce myself as a playwright or I might say I write plays. Caridad’s invitation to write on innovation and my response to reading the essays that come before mine, TCG’s framing of the question and to listening to Howard Shalwitz’s insightful talk from last year’s conference, is challenging the limits of that self-definition.  I have a private process that is the writing of plays.  But even from page one, I am literally writing to get myself away from my desk and into a room with other theater artists to make theater and into a space with an audience to perform that theater.  I wonder why I don’t introduce myself by saying I make theater. It feels like there is an insight in that shift.  If I merely write plays, said plays might pile up on the shelf or in the cloud, as the case may be, but nothing demands that they be performed. If I make theater, from the get I am taking steps toward the process of working with my collaborators, I am taking steps toward my audience. It is this time to collaborate that in my experience leads to innovation.  I spend an inordinate amount of time writing to innovate completing draft after draft questing to go as far as I can.  In all of my production and workshop experience, my time with others never begins to approach the time I’ve spent alone. What would theater be like if it did?

The alone part I’m at liberty to do anytime and regularly do every morning once the dogs are walked and the coffee is made. Regardless of what opportunities I am offered in the theater, the private part occurs.  The collaborative part begins when there is the opportunity or resources to come together.  This can be as simple as inviting actors, directors and designers over to my place to read a text and converse or being invited by a playwright friendly place like the Lark to have a Roundtable or being invited by New Georges or Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre to spend a week workshopping.  But there is a harsh reality to wanting to play with others.  They need to get paid if they are stepping away from other lucrative work to spend time with me. And they need to get paid because people should get paid for their work.  If I am invited by a theatre, hopefully, at least some pay will come with the offer. If we’re in my apartment, I can bake a pie.   My preference is for artists to get paid, but in our freelance system, it is often hard to accomplish that for the amount of time I want to spend with my collaborators.

My plays pose questions I couldn’t possibly and wouldn’t want to answer alone.  Tunnel Vision calls for the creation of an art installation through the action of the play. I was fortunate to be selected by Melody Brooks, Artistic Director of New Perspectives to join their Women’s Work Project.  I brought in an early draft of this play that baffled even me. Director Melissa Maxwell responded to it and me to her through the questions she asked.  Melody gave us a three week workshop with set and costume designer Meaganne George.  Though low budget, the time and company was luxurious.  We had little to spend on materials, but having a designer thinking and experimenting with us and equally to have the actors working with us as we tested this early was invaluable. The play opened up for me as Deepti Gupta at a critical moment when her character wanted to avoid speaking her truth, grabbed the masking tape Meaganne had proposed as building material, and spontaneously made a set of curtains on the wall with the tape.  This gesture was brilliant and profound and was found through the confluence of text, design and acting.  Without this workshop, I would never have discovered that moment.

Similarly, my play Me You Us Them uses dance as much as, in lieu of and to an extent in competition with text. I can’t possible sort this out on my own and wouldn’t want to.  TerraNOVA Collective led by Jennifer Conley Darling and Jessi Hill gave me quality development time through their Groundbreaker’s Playwrights Group and introduced me to director Jo Cattell.  Working with a number of very talented actor/dancers,  we worked first on a staged reading and then in a four-day workshop developing dance vocabulary and testing the interplay with text. An early, surprising discovery was the addition of a third unanticipated element. I knew that no external sound or music could enter the space because the characters doing the dancing have nothing, they are hungry and abandoned.  Actor/dancer Brian Quijada also happens to beatbox. Might we want to try, he offered?  Sure thing, we responded.  And there grew a critical element of the piece. Another discovery I would never make at my desk.

As a theater maker, I need the time, space and resources to bring artists together early and often enough to make these kinds of discoveries.  I am happiest when I can work with my fellow artists deeply to solve questions and problems together. I want to raise questions and answer them collaboratively generating fresh questions and answers in the process all of us thinking and feeling together. A critical and natural part of my process is to work with artists who are different from me.  I am frequently the only Jewish lesbian Red Sox fan in the room and that’s fine by me.  I live my life befriending and working with a wide range of people and that is how I must make my theater.  As a result, the folks I gather will regularly have different life experiences and, therefore, different answers to the questions.  This is critical to my process.  I am in the midst now of two projects which are changed by the Boston Marathon bombings.  One is my newest play, Strait of Gibraltar, which has a lead Muslim character who is dealing with the machinations of life as an illegal immigrant in New York confronted by prejudice that can disrupt his course at any moment. The second is Me You Us Them which gets inside the experience of insurgency. Both plays will grow and come to be realized through the clashing collective vision of the artists I gather.

I had an experience back during the brief time when I as more identified as an actor which has always been a model for me for how I want to see artists work on my plays.  I was playing Grumio in Taming of the Shrew during the very early years of the Mint Theater which I helped to found.  As it happened, in the rehearsal process, Petruchio was having trouble transferring his affection from Grumio to Kate. We had a particularly chummy relationship and he didn’t feel he could be as comfortable with her.  We came to work on the road scene and quickly hit a block. None of the actors or Neil Maffin, the director, could quite figure it out. We tried one thing. We tried something else. We stopped working on the scene and did some physical exercises. We broke for coffee.  We talked, we pouted, we bemoaned. But we kept working. Trying it this way, trying it that way until finally we broke through. We felt it. We all knew. We’d broken the scene. We’d found it.   Petruchio embraced his Kate and she learned what she needed to know to make that speech. That effort is all I am ever looking for from actors, designers, directors, artistic directors and everyone else working on one of my plays. It is the effort I put in during the long hours alone and the effort I am willing to put in when we all come together.

Howard Shalwitz talked about the need for getting the collaborative team together early outside of the design/rehearsal schedule to allow the time, space, flexibility and opportunity for innovation. In my experiences, this is critical.

Innovation requires:


Can theaters make adjustments to their processes to allow more artists to have this time?

How and where are dollars currently being spent?

How and where might they be spent to create more vibrant audience-engaging theater?

As Howard proposed, might theaters challenge theater artists to innovate? To seek to outdo each other?  PS: I always am, but have to say much of the work I see seems content to be okay rather than hungry to invent.

Rather than staged readings and talk backs and notes, might development dollars be allocated to meetings with designers, early collaboration with the whole company, exploration of key new elements in the piece and the like?

There is much press about the disparity between CEO and employee incomes.  Some theaters, as I understand it, share this disparity, perhaps at a more modest level, but nonetheless.  Might such theaters realign their salary structure in service of innovation?

Here’s to deepening the conversation.

Andrea Lepcio’s Looking for the Pony was a finalist for the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner Award and for the NEA Outstanding New American Play Award. It was presented in a “Rolling World Premiere” Off-Broadway at Vital Theatre Company in New York and Synchronicity Performance Group in Atlanta and subsequent productions. Plays under development include Tunnel Vision, Me You Us Them, Dinner at Home between Deaths and Strait of Gibraltar. Numerous musical librettos also in the works. Andrea is the Dramatists Guild Fellows Program Director. M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing, Carnegie Mellon University. B.A. Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic. Andrea lives in Harlem, New York and Seal Cove, Maine.