ARCHIVE - BRING ME THE PLAY OF DW GREGORY! (1-29-14)

STAGED READING

RadiumGirlsPosterv1 (2)Two summers ago in the land of bourbon and horses, I was fortunate to present a workshop in archetypal acting to my peers and colleagues. Among the group of interested artists and educators was a delightful and intrigued playwright, D.W. Gregory. D.W., co-chair of the AATE Playwriting network, approached me and said we should “network” and talk about Playwrights In Our Schools (PIOS).

PIOS is an AATE program coordinated by Dr. John Newman that offers a residency to playwrights in participating schools in Utah. As part of the residency, playwrights work with high school actors in the development of new plays for young people. D.W. was interested in the possibilities for expanding PIOS to other parts of the country.  Our discussion led to an entirely different kind of collaboration outside of the traditional PIOS model. In this variant, we (a high school) would work directly with a playwright to develop a competition version of an already written full-length play.

When I first sat down with DW, she shared with me her repertoire of plays, including an exciting and much-produced play called Radium Girls, a dramatic tale based in history, consumer science, and the emerging workers’ rights movement of the 1920s. I was aware of the play because I had a colleague who had already produced it. He raved about the script as an opportunity for young actors and female actors in particular, as well as its use as vehicle for exploring social issues. As a high school teacher, I knew this was the perfect trifecta not only for a production but a competition piece .
So I ordered copies of the full script and set my students down.  Amid pretzels and soda, we held a reading to see if the piece was pursuable. The students agreed with a wholehearted yes, but they also acknowledged it was a rich and dense text that was going to have to be skillfully cut.

From my earliest days as a theater maker, I knew one of the holy and sacred commandments is to respect the playwright’s words. I was not about to make any attempt to cut a playwrights’ text on my own, especially a writer I knew and respected. If we were going to do this, I needed the writer’s permission (and assistance), not just for my own peace of mind, but to demonstrate to my students how important it is to respect a playwright’s work. Copyright laws aside, the responsibility of the director and the actors is to interpret the text, not to create a new version of one. By shaving away whole scenes or even a few lines, we would be creating an entirely new piece that robbed the playwright of their voice and their work.

So I made a phone call. I had already floated this idea to D.W. when she presented a fantastic keynote address to a Theater In Our School’s mini-conference that I had chaired earlier in the year. When I mentioned my interest to her at that time she gave me a “yeah, yeah, yeah I’ll look into it.” I left the idea to simmer, but in the interim she had been invited by her publisher to write her own adaptation for competition. So this time around D.W. agreed and after sharing a few ideas we said we would reconvene at the 2013 National AATE Conference and hash out the particulars. Come July in DC, D.W. and I finally got the chance to dive deep into discussion, figuring out an entry point and beginning to develop a script that was due not one month later.

I was excited and petrified at the same time. It was a lot to ask D.W. to take a beautifully written full-length play and cut it down to a 40-minute competition piece. Personally, I find competitions and competition one-acts to be a necessary evil. In an education system currently emphasizing high test scores and always rewarding extracurricular athletics –with trophies and inequitable financial support–, one-act competitions have become a means of proving a program’s worth to educational administrators and athletic-minded communities. (Never mind that I am the one subject in school that collectively teaches communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, i.e the ill-monikered “21st Century skills.”)

Compounding that need for program approval is the search for material itself. On one hand, I have found that many of the competition scripts being written today are contrived confectionaries, offering an inoffensive text without much true substance. On the other hand, the danger of adapted competition pieces is that they are reduced texts often not edited by the playwrights themselves but pieces hacked together by directors who feel they know best. The results are often clunky narratives or diminutive shadows.

Radium Girls had been produced in competition before, but as a selection of scenes or occasionally as a director’s cutting. D.W. and I were instead interested in creating a competition version with the author’s stamp on it. Having a set deadline and a chance to test out the new version with young actors was another strong inducement to the playwright. To develop a new play takes actors who give the infant text voice. To redevelop a play takes new actors to give it new voice.

While she wrote and rewrote, I tapped into my advanced students, looking for five young women and five young men and a crew of undetermined students to shepherd the birth of this new version. I was concerned that the play, not only in its writing, but also in its direction and staging, would live up to the spirit of the original, which was written for professional actors and performed on professional stages. Although a director’s cutting of Radium Girls had just won best play at the American Association of Community Theatre’s festival,  I felt the pressure of being given the first one-act adaptation from the pen of the writer herself—and for which D.W. wrote some entirely new material.

After receiving the script, the students and I got to work preparing the first staged reading for the playwright. Normally we rehearse a text knowing our deadline is ten weeks away. Now we were preparing for a show that could potentially have lots of changes halfway through the process. The weekend of September 22nd arrived and a very gracious D. W. flew to Marine Corp Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina – I teach for Dept. of Defense Schools — to workshop the play with us. Of course in my professional experience, I worked with playwrights and actors and directors and designers but I have never been gifted the opportunity to work with the playwright wearing my own director’s cap.

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The experience couldn’t have been more exciting, more educating and more professionally rewarding. D.W. arrived and along with a full house comprised of the student body of Lejeune High School was treated to the first full reading of her competition cutting. Following talkbacks with the student body and school faculty, we then went to work. With reactions to the script in mind, she and I discussed the need to trim the script further in certain places and to beef up the storyline in others. We also discussed the style and approach to how these characters and this world were to be imagined. Some protean scenic elements and lighting/sound transition choices were crystalized as necessary to delivery. In addition, the student actors were enthralled to be able to ask the playwright directly about their character’s histories, about their characters’ intentions, about their characters’ relationships and about how the playwright envisioned these historically fictionalized people. As a director, I got to ask about staging, pacing, tone, and the delivery of lines, a time-saver to my normal interpretation process.

As D.W. and I collaborated on structure and on text, we were always respectful of our differing viewpoints, confident that we were working towards a mutual goal of creating the perfect competition piece. I may not have gotten every requested change or cut, but I always got a stronger rewrite. Based on the strength of certain actors, D.W. even rewrote lines and scenes to make the main character’s guilt more apparent and truthful. We successfully strove to keep one of the core beauties of the play; that it reveals the morally bogged down reality of corporate America in the 1920s and also forces reflection on how much (or little) had changed since then.

Finally on a Saturday evening in late September, with the fourth draft in hand, the students once again performed a staged reading of this now newly collaborative piece. The reception from friends and family was positive. We were all pleased at the process and the workshop outcome. With some final notes from D.W. about permissible potential additional cuts, we (the students and I) embarked on an intense final month of rehearsal.

Strangely, I felt more certain about this text and my own directing of it than I had with any other piece I had before tried. Was this the relationship of Burbage and Shakespeare; of Chekhov and Stanislavski?
Here was not only a story I believed in, but a text I was truly trusted with. Instead of wondering what the playwright would think, I had a direct line to consult. Through notes and conversations, I knew “what would D.W. do?” (W.W.D.W.D.?) — Or at least would want me to do.

And so we rehearsed and readied our sets and props and when the time came we went to compete at the NCTC Regional High School Play Festival. More cuts came along the way but cuts that served the play and were blessed by the playwright. We fared well in our early (8:30am) competition slot. Though no official record of ranking was posted, colleagues applauded our choice and said we were one of the tightest productions of the day and the festival. We earned nods for ensemble acting, the lead actor, and as an added surprise, one for costume. While our production will not advance to the state level of competition, we believe our win has nothing to do with a trophy.

I had no idea when I decided to make this small request of D.W. the number of incremental, but impactful benefits that would come of this collaboration.

First, my students got to originate a play.  They are connected to the world premiere of a new work that will be published with their names as part of the process. More importantly, they got to work with a professional playwright, learning to respect the process of theatre making and of collaboration on an entirely new level.

The benefits to the school are equally exciting. When D.W. came to visit, she graciously conducted playwriting workshops with students from other classes. Seeking a STEAM trans-disciplinary event, my teaching colleagues and I framed a multi-curricular playwriting project inspired by Radium Girls and its playwright’s process. Lejeune High School students and their teachers are currently developing their own short science plays that talk about consumer science gone wrong. Our administrator – a former chemistry teacher himself – is excited to not only see collaboration across disciplines but to see the students working on a project that does not involve rote memorization or classroom testing.

Radium Girls was also the first whole school performance of theater that has occurred since the beginning of my tenure at Lejeune High School, and possibly for the last 15 years—a major milestone for us. The whole package of events even helped us garner press from the local newspaper, adding to the reputation of the theatre arts program and the school.

Because D.W. was willing to volunteer her time (we funded her travel and housing), she was also the first guest artist in theatre to visit the school. Her presence helped to provide a professional career link to my elective course and created a model that we documented and can use in seeking financial support for future visiting artists. All wins for the arts in an environment driven by the warrior culture of the U.S. Marine Corps.

However, the benefits of this collaboration extend beyond just my classroom and our school. As AATE network chairs charged with championing the needs of our networks, D.W. and I also created and modeled an alternative equally collaborative format for future Playwrights In Our Schools (PIOS) projects. We took the core concept and humbly went outside the box to find a different approach. PIOS provides playwrights with an opportunity to workshop a new play written for young actors, as we did here, and it generally provides compensation to the writer that we were not able to offer this year. Our project demonstrates other dimensions that a playwright in residence can bring to the mix and it shows that theatre arts teachers and writers can collaborate directly to create residencies on their own.

Going forward D.W. and I hope to build on this experience and seek out funding that will help to support another playwrights in residence not only at Lejeune High School but throughout the region and eventually the nation. The steps ahead are many and we look forward to keep pushing for this project. Thankfully it is a project that happened with enthusiasm and skill and support from all involved. However, none of this would have happened without AATE and the cross network collaboration that started when a playwright met a high school teacher.


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Steven L. Barker holds an MFA in Theatre for Youth from ASU and a BFA in Theatre Education from VCU. He is the Theatre Arts Director & Teacher at Lejeune High School on MCB Camp Lejeune, NC. In 2012, he was awarded an Excellence in Directing Award & a Distinguished Play Award from the North Carolina Theatre Conference as well as a Theatre Arts Award for Cultural Diversity & Awareness for Lejeune’s production of “Black Butterfly…” by Luis Alfaro. He is also a professional lighting designer with over 65+ credits including the recent production of The Glass Menagerie with the New River Players in Jacksonville, NC. Steven is the current Strategic Planning Director & former Treasurer for the Virginia Theatre Assoc. He also currently serves as the Co-Chair for the High School Network of AATE.

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