Following A Different Path: The Unknown Play Project

by Alexis Clements

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

When I was little I used to love reading aloud to myself, and pretty much anyone else who would listen. Today, when I’m alone in my apartment and in the mood, sometimes I still do it, sometimes with an accent, just because.

While I don’t have scientific proof for it, my suspicion is that quite a few other people really love reading aloud, to themselves and others.

There are so many barriers to the productions of plays today. Costs, theaters closing down, changes to season models, marketing and ticket sales, theaters that remain resistant to producing work by women and people of color, and on and on.

These two seemingly disparate things (reading aloud and the difficulties of producing work) were on my mind as I tried to figure out when and how to host the first reading of my play UNKNOWN. Inspired by the 40-year-old Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY, the cast is made up entirely of lesbians, of a variety of races and ethnicities, and ages spanning from 15 to 84. While there has recently been one very prominent production in a major theater of a play featuring a lesbian lead (Lisa Kron’s Fun Home, which has now been a Pulitzer finalist), there haven’t been many big productions of plays featuring casts made up entirely of lesbians or queer women.

Did I really want to go through the usual hustle, sitting in the back of a rehearsal studio or black box, cringing with anxiety, wondering if any of the beats or jokes were landing, cursing myself for having become a writer in the first place, as the reps from one or two theaters nod politely and congratulate me for finishing the fifth play they’ve had to listen to that week, none of which they have any intention or ability to produce? I felt protective of this play, more so than some of my others, and also a little protective of myself after having been through that experience a handful of times. I wasn’t giving up, instead I wanted to find a different way, I wanted to see if I could walk down a different path this time, one that felt a little less alienating.

I decided that instead of immediately pursuing a production, I would have the first reading of the play at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. I had been volunteering and attending events at the Archives on and off for a little over 2 years at that point, and the reading became my final project for a class that I had been taking there, so it wasn’t hard to arrange. And rather than bringing actors with me, or even a director, I decided instead to just print out copies of the play and ask the people who showed up to read the play aloud. I did warn a couple of people ahead of time so I could be sure to have at least a few ready volunteers, but it didn’t take all that much encouraging to get the readers I needed. People seemed genuinely excited to be given the chance to read aloud and, despite some initial protests, only seemed to enjoy themselves more as the evening went on.

So there we sat, tucked into a semi-circle of chairs, along with the aging purple sofa that anchors the main reading room of the Archives, with the audience seated in rows in front of us. People laughed, there were even a few tears. One of the co-founders of the Archives, Deb Edel, read the role of Sydney, the eldest character in the play, whose fictional donated papers make up the thread that ties the narrative together. That reading was, without question, the most moving and connected experience I’ve ever had of sharing my work for the first time.

With so much lip-service being paid these days to notions of community and audience engagement, it struck me that this experience was just that, but with none of the hoopla. There was no grant, I wasn’t a fancy visiting artist. I was, and still am, a member of the Archives community, not to mention the larger queer community (though it’s probably not all that useful to think of all LGBTQ people as a single community, or any other demographic group, really). There was no formal talk-back or audience engagement forum, we just hung out for a bit afterwards and talked. I hope that it was a comfortable and inviting experience for the people who came, I can’t thank them enough for being there and for being willing to jump in, it meant the world to me that they did.

And what’s even more striking about it, at least as far as “production models” are concerned, is that it wasn’t particularly revolutionary or novel in the grand scheme of things. People have been reading plays aloud to one another for as long as there have been plays. Low-fi homemade productions in living rooms and attics (if you’re Louisa May Alcott), or even town squares, have long been an incredibly important forum for sharing plays for at least the past few centuries.

But the experience felt utterly new to me, after years of trying to convince big, fancy theaters, and even a lot of theaters that aren’t so big but still do great work, to just read my work, let alone produce it.

After that reading I decided that I would go ahead and submit the play as usual, because just maybe my number would come up in the lottery. But I also decided to do something else at the same time—to drive around the country with a bundle of scripts, visiting lesbian and queer spaces, and doing more community-based readings, similar to that first one at the Archives.

That’s where The Unknown Play Project was born.

As the idea developed, yet another new path showed up that I decided to go down—I’ve added a documentary film component to the project.

While researching possible places to visit on my trip, I encountered headline after headline describing the demise of yet another lesbian bar or LGBT bookstore or community event. If all these places were closing, where were the communities I was hoping to visit gathering? And why were they closing? The more questions that came up, the more important it seemed to document the trip beyond the play readings.

So, as we go, we’ll not only do play readings, we’ll also be capturing video portraits of the spaces we visit, along with conversations with the people we encounter. That video footage will then be compiled into a documentary film looking at some of the shifting politics and realities facing lesbians and queer women who seek to create and maintain space for themselves.

This model obviously won’t work for every production, nor am I suggesting it as a viable solution for others. Instead, what I’m learning through this process is that each play, each production, has its own life, its own will, and its own constraints. I would still love for the play to have a professional production should the opportunity arise, but this other pathway gives me the chance to share the work directly with people who might have some connection to the piece. And the documentary allows me to dig deeper into some of the questions that drove me to write the play in the first place, while also learning from others as they offer their thoughts on the subject.

And, at its root, it appeals to the little kid in me, who not only loved to read aloud, but also learned most of what she knows about the power of narrative and imagination by listening as others read aloud or shared their stories with me.

Learn more about the project by visiting:

Alexis Clements is a playwright and arts writer based in Brooklyn, NY. An alumna of the Women’s Project Playwrights Lab, she has been awarded a Dramatists Guild of America fellowship, two Puffin Foundation Artist Grants, a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, and the Source Theatre’s Washington Theatre Festival Literary Prize. She founded the multi-disciplinary arts project New Acquisition, and co-founded Private Commission, a queer writing group and publisher. Her creative work has been produced and published in both the US and the UK. Her plays and performances have been seen at Dixon Place (NYC), the River-to-River Festival (NYC), the High Line Park (NYC), the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and Riverside Theatre (Iowa City, IA), among others. In 2010, she co-edited the two-volume anthology of plays, Out of Time & Place, which includes her performance piece, Conversation. From 2012-2013, she served as a co-editor of Women in Theatre Magazine Online. Her articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in publications such as Salon, Bitch Magazine, American Theatre, The Brooklyn Rail, The L Magazine, Nature, Frontiers, In the Flesh, and Travel New England. She is a regular contributor, focused on art, performance, and the arts economy, to Hyperallergic. She has a M.Sc. in Philosophy & History of Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a B.A. in Theater Studies from Emerson College.

  • Andrea Kuchlewska

    This is really inspiring, Alexis. Thank you for writing about this.

  • Kristen Palmer

    this is terrific.