Tag Archives: Humana

Throw out the kitchen sink dramas!

by Kitty Felde

This past weekend was DC’s annual “Page to Stage” Festival. It’s a tremendous gift from the Kennedy Center to local playwrights. Every Labor Day weekend, the Kennedy Center opens up rehearsal rooms, the Millennium Stages, donor event rooms, every nook and cranny on every floor, to staged readings of plays by local writers. Imagine the Music Center turning us loose for an entire weekend!

This year also included a special seminar for writers given by Michael Bigelow Dixon, formerly the literary manager and associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Dixon wants us to stop thinking about conventional reality and play.

Reading hundreds of plays for the Humana Festival, he says none of the current batch included anything other than realistic plays – kitchen sink dramas, domestic conflicts, even those that got away from home and hearth and tackled international issues were still written in conventional, realistic fashion.

He wants us to dream and has written a book to spark our imaginations about making theatre THEATRICAL.

Why? Not just to get our plays noticed, but to attract a modern audience.

But how do you do this? Do we throw out everything we know about writing plays and reinvent the wheel? Not necessarily. Dixon has a few suggestions:

  • – Interruption: the “reality” of the stage play is interrupted by “real” life. How many audiences paid big bucks to see “Spiderman” for the play itself? More were there to see if a real-life event like an accident might happen. Is there a way to bring reality into our artificial worlds?
  • – Give the audience a choice: call it a gimmick, but from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to Alan Ayckbourn’s “Intimate Exchanges,” plays that let the audience choose its own ending are very popular. Is there a way to invite the audience to participate in the creation of your play?
  • – Anthropomorphize a character: put a talking animal on stage. Or a lot of them. Hint: there were WAY too many dog characters in our workshop.
  • – Interdisciplinary approach: try rewriting your play as a radio play – what do you have to eliminate? What do you have to add to make the audience understand what’s going on? Then rewrite it as a graphic novel. Then go back to the original script to add SOME of the elements.
  • – Ekphrastic drama – or what I call “dancing about architecture” – include other art forms in your work
  • – Distort time and space – ala Jose Rivera’s “Cloud Tectonics”
  • – Recontextualization – tell your story from someone else’s point of view. Think “Amadeus” and Salieri’s version of Mozart

Just a few thoughts to shake up your “realistic” world.
The book: “Breaking from Realism: A Map/Quest for the Next Generation” by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Jon Jory

Gimmick Plays

By Kitty Felde

I mentioned in an earlier posting that I’ve seen a lot of new “gimmick” plays lately. Our fellow LAFPI member Marissa was “wondering what you mean by ‘gimmick plays’ being the new hot trend these days” and asks what kinds of gimmicks are showing up onstage.

Great question.

First of all, I don’t mean to disparage the genre. It’s a concept as old as playwriting and the mantra of Hollywood. Another way of describing it would be a “hook.” In my own personal theatre dictionary, I’d describe a Gimmick Play as one that offers something else besides character, dialogue and plot to draw in an audience.

Here’s a few examples: Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” is a two gimmick play. It’s a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” AND it offers the added bonus of having the cast from Act 1 play completely different characters in Act 2.

At the Humana Festival, there was another play with FOUR gimmicks: “Oh Guru Guru Guru, or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” (I suppose you could count the title as a sort of gimmick, too…) by Mallery Avidon. Gimmick one: a lecture. The first act is a lecture, complete with slide show, of the “author” explaining the premise. Very funny. Gimmick two: we go to the ashram in act two where audience members are invited to come onstage and sit on embroidered pillows to be enlightened. And then there’s gimmick three where we discover the ashram is just a film set for “Eat, Pray, Love” and act three is a conversation with Julia Roberts about how tough it is to be Julia Roberts.

“Clybourne Park” would have stood on its own feet without any gimmicks; “Guru” would not.

There was one FABULOUS gimmick play at Humana – tucked in with two real turkeys. Apparently the acting school in Louisville is learning how to fly ala Peter Pan or Spiderman or that Angel in Tony Kushner’s work. And there really aren’t a lot of other plays out there with flying actors. So Humana commissioned a trio of writers to come up with them. The real genius gimmick piece was by Lucas Hnath called “nightnight.” He used the gimmick of flying to show weightlessness in space, telling the story of a trio of astronauts on a mission. It was brilliant. You marveled at the cleverness of the gimmick itself: an astronaut sleeps in zero gravity, lying sort of sideways, suspended above our eyes, the launch itself had the actors straddle a wall twelve feet high, upside down. It was marvelous to watch. The director also created with perfect accuracy the mumblety dialogue of the NASA engineers in Mission Control, chattering about who knew what constantly. But the play itself was about the conflict between characters, their ambitions, their foibles, their actions.
It’s not a new concept. Shakespeare certainly wrote gimmick plays. “Twelfth Night” could be described as a cross dressing play; “Hamlet” as a ghost story. Again, though, it’s the writing that carries the play, not the gimmick.

And I suppose here’s my beef: a lot of theatres are choosing work for the gimmick, not the writing. It will certainly sell tickets. But will those theatre-goers return for more once the gimmick has been revealed?

New Play Festivals: GO!

by Kitty Felde

I’ve done the ballpark tour: planning vacations to cities with interesting baseball stadiums, trying to visit every one of them. Unfortunately, new stadiums were being built at a rapid rate and many of the old ones I’d visited were being torn down, so that goal of seeing them all went out the window.

But I’ve started a new vacation tour: new play festivals. And fellow “emerging” playwrights, I highly recommend it for several reasons:

– The Work: It’s like Fashion Week. You get the opportunity to see who’s hot (or for cynics like me: which MFA playwriting program is currently churning out kids with promise), spot trends (gimmick plays, in case you wondered), and see plays that aren’t perfect – always a wonderful opportunity to practice your writerly skills and imagine how YOU’D fix the play.

– Ego Boost: Seeing new work can also be a real confidence builder. You realize that the quality of your writing isn’t lacking; you know you can turn out work equal to or much better than anything you’ve seen. It sends you home to your laptop with real determination.

– Relationships: In a business built as much on who you know as the quality of writing, these weekends are grand opportunities. This spring, fellow DC playwright DW Gregory persuaded me to join her in Louisville, Kentucky for Humana. They have two “industry” weekends, which I discovered means that artistic directors, dramaturgs, university theatre professors, and literary managers from all over the country show up. Very few playwrights. The schmoozefest began at the airport where – because there just aren’t that many flights to Louisville – half a dozen DC theatre folk were on the same flight. At Humana, there were pie meet and greets, seminars, and lots of drinking. Because there were so few playwrights, the opportunity to have actual conversations instead of 15 second elevator speeches was priceless.

– New Play Festival 101 – I also attended CATF – the Contemporary American Theatre Festival at Shepherdstown, West Virginia – this summer, again with local writer DW Gregory. This time, we brought our husbands, lured with the promise of bike rides along the C&O Canal. We saw two very good and one just awful play. How could that happen? We attended a Q&A session one evening after a show in a local restaurant (again, the alcohol flowed freely…) and got to ask how they pick their plays. The artistic director is the main guru, making final selections after others at CATF have sifted through the submissions from agents. (Alas, having no agent myself, that counts me out for a while.) But the one klunker we saw: it was an actress they had worked with previously. Her husband directed this particular show (by one of those hot young playwrights) in New York and they brought it down to CATF intact. Aha! That’s the way the theatre world works. Which takes us back to relationships and ego boost…

– Californians: I live in DC now, but I miss California – the beaches, the produce, the weather. But I also realize I miss Californians. At every new play festival I’ve attended, for some reason I find myself gravitating towards Californians. We think differently, perhaps we’re more open. And because we have SO much theatre, there’s a lot of us at these festivals.

– The Unexpected: the highlight of Humana for me was meeting Paula Vogel in a drink line at a loud, local bar. And SHE was excited to meet ME! Alas, not because of my playwriting, but because of my day job on public radio. But that led to a lovely conversation and subsequent following of each other on Twitter.

You lucky folks in LA have several new play festivals within driving distance: South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, the Ojai Playwrights Festival, Playfest up in Santa Barbara. They’re on my list. Look for me in the audience next year.