SPOKEN WORD:MTC's Jasson Minadakis oversees an ambitious staged reading program.
By David Templeton
When a playwright finishes a draft of a new play, they just desperately want the thing to be done," says up-and-coming New York playwright Sharr White. "The fact of the matter is, in nearly every single case, as much as the writer wants that play to be finished, it is usually not. And that is why 'workshop productions' and staged readings of plays—and series like Marin Theatre Company's Nu Werkz series—were invented, so playwrights would have a way to work out the bugs in their work."
While most professional theater companies have the occasional staged reading of a new play, few local troupes are as committed to the development of new works as Marin Theatre Company, which, over the last few years, has turned up the fires of theatrical creativity by reengineering its annual Nu Werkz staged reading series, adding two major playwriting awards as part of the package. Now in its fifth year, Nu Werkz was created as a way for the staff of MTC to test-drive new plays while getting to know promising young playwrights, all part of the company's ongoing effort to grow strong creative relationships with a large number of emerging artists.
Originally, the Nu Werkz series included worthy plays that the company would, for one reason or another, not normally have as part of its regular season of fully staged shows. Now, under the leadership of Jasson Minadakis, who was named artistic director two years ago, the Nu Werkz series only includes plays that MTC is seriously considering for full productions in the future, with four plays included in the reading series each season.
"We're trying to keep the series structured as a way of giving people a glimpse of where we could be going in the future," Minadakis explains. "There's no guarantee that if a play is in the Nu Werkz series it will automatically end up getting a full production in the future, but what it does mean is that we are seriously considering doing the play, and that we are very interested in building a lasting relationship with that playwright. For audiences, it's a taste of the future of American theater. These are writers in the early stages of their literary careers. This is a way to preview what is coming in the future, both at MTC but also on the wider American theatrical landscape."
The 2009 Nu Werkz series kicks off next week with two free staged readings of Sharr White's Sunlight, a four-person play set on the campus of a prominent New England university, involving an explosive personal and professional conflict between the liberal president of the university and the conservative dean of its law school, who happens to be the president's son-in-law. At the heart of the play is a conversation about the post-9-11 legality of state-sanctioned torture, with each man on opposite sides of the argument.
Sunlight was commissioned by South Coast Repertory Company in Southern California, but when that company, after giving it a partially staged workshop production, decided not to do a full run of the play, Minadakis, who saw the workshop of the show, decided to pick it up for Nu Werkz, which also will feature Kate Walber's Elsewhere and Zel Williams' Blood Money; the fourth play in the series has yet to be announced.
"We are probably going to do Sunlight in our next season or two, after a little bit of tweaking," Minadakis says. "So it's kind of exciting. Audiences will be able to watch part of the evolution of this wonderful play." For the Nu Werkz reading, the focus will be on the words, as the actors will likely be sitting on stools with their scripts in front of them on music stands.
"These kind of staged readings of plays are a really great way to find out how the document as a whole is set," White says. "Even with a play like Sunlight, which has gone through a very productive workshop experience at South Coast Rep, it's always an intense experience, learning anew how a piece is sitting." Sunlight being a very timely and topical play, White's primary concern is making the piece feel more timeless. "Because it deals with elements of the Bush administration, I feel that, if not handled right, that could end up feeling a bit dated," he admits. "So my big question is in finding out how to make sure the play has as relevant a life five or six years from now as it does now."
White also has questions about pace. "It's a very quick, fast-paced play, but I have moments where I take it down in tone and let it be a little restful, and the question is should I be doing that or not. The reading will, I think, prove to be very valuable in the development of this play."
Clearly, for many of the playwrights whose work is included in the Nu Werkz series, the hope is that the staged readings will be followed somewhere down the line by a full production as part of MTC's theatrical season. In some cases, the wait between the Nu Werkz reading and the full production will not be long. Last season's series included Zayd Dohrn's Magic Forest Farm, which won MTC's first-ever Sky Cooper New American Play prize ($10,000 and a guaranteed slot in the next year's season), and the play is now slated for its first full production in April of 2009 as part of the regular season.
"Readings like these," Dohrn, also of New York, explains, "are a big part of what a playwright needs, just to hear the piece out loud and get a sense of what it looks like onstage a little bit. For me, the Nu Werkz reading was a particularly useful process. There's a very special kind of pressure a playwright feels when something is going up onstage before an audience, and it's a creative pressure that can be incredibly fertile, so in getting to do the readings and work toward the actual full staging, to test-drive the piece, I was able to take the play apart and look at it and see what was working and what wasn't working. It's a very valuable experience to me as a playwright."
In these "test-drive" experiences, Dohrn explains, audience members are a major part of the process, because their reactions gauge whether the play is doing what the playwright intended while he or she was writing it alone in a studio. Also valuable is getting to hear the play spoken aloud by professional actors, another indicator of whether the piece is working or not.
"You get some good actors in a room," Dohrn says, "and suddenly some stuff you didn't know would work is actually working, and other stuff you thought was working, once you're sitting there listening to it, you realize it's not quite fitting the character the way you thought it would. And then when you get the audience in there, their reactions are so important. Just observing whether they're slouched back in their seats or sitting forward to catch every word, that alone can be incredibly valuable."
In the case of Magic Forest Farm, a play about the 1960s' back-to-nature commune movement, in which flashbacks play an important part, Dohrn was interested to see if those flashbacks proved confusing, and whether the audience was able to tell where things fit chronologically. As a result of the readings, he has made significant changes in the structure of the play. Anyone who caught the reading last year will probably recognize where the fully staged 2009 production deviates from the Nu Werkz version.
"If you're interested in the nuts and bolts of how the theatrical process works, then, as an audience member, this could be a very appealing experience, to see a play grow from script to production," Dohrn says. "Most people just get to see the last part, without any idea how it got there, so the Nu Werkz series allows people an opportunity to see how a playwright gets from A to Z."
Nu Werkz readings of Sharr White's Sunlight takes place Oct. 6 and 13 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 7:30pm. Free. 415.388.5208.