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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

A View from the Trenches: APA Bobby Bangert discusses his involvement with the workshop of Dennis Smeal’s new play Meticulous Gentlemen.

Last week I had the privilege of spending some time observing a workshop of a new play written by the Arden’s literary manager, Dennis Smeal. Meticulous Gentlemen explores the complex relationship between two men, Gus and Tad, who unexpectedly reunite after more than two decades of estrangement.

One of the things that drew me to the Arden when considering this apprenticeship was the work the Arden does with new plays. As an aspiring writer and director, I jumped at the chance to see the process by which new work comes into being. Terry presided over the workshop, Dennis sitting opposite and watching, absorbing everything.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect, everyone bundled in sweaters and surrounded by poinsettias as the actors worked through lines about The Nutcracker, which plays in the background throughout the play’s action from start to finish. The music presents a unique technical and artistic challenge, in which the actors’ opinions proved useful. Ian, who played Tad, shared his dislike for music that imposes itself on an actor’s performance or an audience’s experience, as if dictating the way he should perform or an audience should feel. It was decided that the dynamic of the music would change throughout the reading, but the general goal was to have the music “dust the air,” in Terry’s words, highlighting the performances without overwhelming them. The exchange of opinions between actor, director, and playwright helped them to arrive at what worked for everyone, and, most importantly, for the play.

Fortunately, no one lacked opinions. On one occasion more than a half an hour was devoted to debating the merits of two words, in which Tad describes Gus as “guzzling, slurping”‘ and in that half an hour of discussion I was surprised to find the entire emotional content of the scene excavated and dismantled, then put back together. As the discussion progressed they found that those two words had drastically different implications to each of them, and that two simple words could change the whole scene. In the end, Dennis informed me that those words were cut, but the final outcome did not seem as important to me as the process by which they arrived there. It was inspiring the way every phrase and every note was crafted with such care and discernment, the same love with which Tchaikovsky must have composed his Nutcracker.

The end result was a reading of the newly revised play in which Arden staff members and other invited guests watched. Having read an earlier draft before the workshop and seeing some of the revisions throughout the week, it was a particularly rewarding experience for me to hear the changes and see the growth that had taken place over the past few days. By the time the Hallelujah chorus from The Messiah rang out over the final moments, it became clear that their work, both passionate and meticulous, had paid off.

Dennis Smeal, literary manager for the Arden, discusses the workshop of his new play, Meticulous Gentlemen.

So the name of the play is Meticulous Gentlemen and I wrote the first draft exactly two years ago. When it wasn’t immediately greeted with unanimous praise, submitted for the Pulitzer Prize for best unproduced play and placed on the Arden production schedule, Terry told me, “Smeal, if you wanted to write an easily producible play, you would have. But you didn’t. You wrote a play that needs a workshop first, and you want a 68 year old British actor and a 45 year old American actor with very specific looks and sexual orientations which you probably shouldn’t reveal if you ever actually get that workshop and find yourself blogging about it.” Terry actually said some of that – the first part. Anyway, the workshop is finally happening and what is unspoken and unpromised and TOTALLY the elephant in the room is that if all goes well and I do my job and turn this rough draft into something that will amuse and inform and transport Arden audiences to another world through the miracle of storytelling, it might (finances, designers and actors availability pending) make it onto the production schedule next year!

The first day of the workshop consisted of the actors, Russell Leib (Caroline, or Change) and Ian Merrill Peakes (All My Sons, etc.) reading the play once straight through, and then reading through the first act and talking about it. This was the absolutely first time I’d ever heard the play out loud per Terry’s request. I had never been able to hold out before but now that Terry is the director of an Obie Award nominated play and an Emmy nominated short film, I guess we all should maybe pay a little more attention to what he says, right?

The actors read the play. The actors are awesome. The play has its moment. (Oops that was a typo. I meant to say “moments” but think I should leave it that way now. Maybe it’s a Freudian slip. Well, not exactly Freudian because it’s not sexual, so more of a non-Freudian slip. I guess that would be just a slip.) But you know what IS sexual? This play. It’s actually got sex stuff I can’t describe on a website your children might read. And it’s gay. The Arden is going to try to tell you that you don’t have to be gay to like this play, and while that’s true enough, trust me, you’ll like it best if you’re gay or you know someone who’s gay or you wish you were gay or you wish you knew someone who’s gay. ‘Cause there’s a lot of gay in this play. For example, the word “gay” is used 72 times in the play. To be fair, 9 of those times is in rapid succession and in reference to a beloved American composer who isn’t Sondheim. That’s actually a good test of whether you would like this play. If you know who that probably is, you would like this play. If you don’t know who that is or might be, you ought to see this play anyway because while you might not like it, it will be good for you.

Anyway, bottom line at the end of day one – the first act has some problems and apparently it’s the playwright’s job to fix them. So I take my script to Fork where the lovely Ellen is leaving to go to a holiday party in a lovely black frock and after a hug from her I get to work. Hugs from Ellen are one of my playwriting secrets. Ssshh. I don’t need Michael Hollinger or Bruce Graham hearing about this. They already have the advantage of having been born with a lot more words than I was. Terry seems to think they just make better use of their time and talents but I know it’s all in the number of words you were born with. By the way, at Fork, I have the Chef’s Selection of tapas which includes the most amazing calamari ever, delicious albondigas, and a pretty terrific crab cake in a spicy but not too spicy aioli. I sit at the bar for four hours and rewrite the first 30 pages of the play, trying to make it “flow” better and hopefully making it less “bumpy”. Here’s what I try to do. I try to NOT be smart, ’cause I like to be smart but being smart is easy. I try instead to be honest, which is hard. That’s one of the interesting things about storytelling.

You’re making something up, which is inherently a lie, but then you have to make it honest if you really want anyone to connect with it. So basically the rule is “Lie honestly.” So this is what I try to do. Then back to the Artist’s House to type the pages, call home and get some sleep.

Hey All,

James here! Yes I’m playing James in James and the Giant Peach and my real name is James. In fact my whole name is James Ijames, how cool is that?! Just wanted to say hello and introduce you to this great play and to me.

James and the Giant Peach is based on a novel of the same name written by Roald Dahl. Have you ever seen the movies Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Mathilda? Well Roald Dahl wrote the books that those movies are based on, so you get an idea of how absolutely crazy, fun, and fantastic James and the Giant Peach will be.

I’ve been working really hard preparing for this character. It is one of my favorite books. I actually had my mother mail me my old worn out hard cover copy of the novel to read and carry around with me while I’m working on the show. This show is going to be amazing! The cast is full of some of the most talented actors in Philadelphia and I’m really excited to be working with all of them.

The director is a total rock star, his name is Whit MacLaughlin and he is one of the most creative minds I know. The designers are all amazing too! There is just so much talent and positive energy in this show. I don’t want to give too much away but I hear the animation in the play should make for a very interesting day at the theater. Well I have to run now. I hope to see you all at the show, it’s on stage now!

Aaron Posner, adaptor and director of My Name is Asher Lev, discusses the first day of rehearsals.

It was a great first day.

I started talking with Chaim and Adena Potok about bringing My Name is Asher Lev to the stage back in 1999. So to finally find ourselves at the first day of rehearsal after thinking about a project for nearly a decade is quite a trip. We have an amazing cast – Karl Miller, Gabra Zackman, and Adam Heller – and each have some pretty major challenges in bringing this complex and compelling story to life. To have Adena Potok be part of the rehearsal process is quite a gift, as there may be no one in the world who knows Chaim’s work more intimately.

Today we all just got our feet wet. Our set designer, Dan Conway, introduced us to the world we will be inhabiting. A combination of artists studio and synagogue and open, evocative canvas for the play. Alison Roberts, our costume designer, showed us our jumping off place for how we all three actors to play 10 or 12 roles over 20 years without hardly ever leaving the stage, and James Sugg, our composer and sound designer talked about the music – listening to what he composes will come after he has had a chance to see more of where we are heading in rehearsal.

My mind was set into high gear by all that I saw and heard in both the reading of the play and the excellent discussion that followed with the entire team, and we are starting rehearsal today, Wednesday, with an entire new draft of the script. Some new scenes. Some scenes from earlier drafts. Some cuts, some rearrangements, some shifts. I am sure this process will continue for at least the next two weeks as we find the right balances for how to tell this particular story in this particular space at this particular time.

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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