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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!

By Karen Peakes, >sick Mary in Women in Jep

   Laughing onstage is an interesting thing.  Sometimes it’s a safe, internal chuckle easily kept to oneself and tucked away in the back of one’s mind to share later in the safety of the dressing rooms.  Other times it’s an utterly embarrassing guffaw that comes without warning and certainly unbidden and immediately sends one into a state of panic and self-recrimination – “How could I have let that happen?!?  I’m supposed to be a professional?!”…the list goes on.

Still other times, it’s an ungodly fight to maintain one’s composure in the face of mounting hysteria.  A mere twinkle in the eye of the other actor is enough to trigger it.  The slightest lip wobble or eyebrow lift or, god forbid – vocal quivering (as in, someone trying not to laugh) – is enough to cause a full body reaction similar to the “flight or fight” response – only in this case it would better be called the “laugh or bite-your-lip-till-it-bleeds” response. 

This show, Women in Jep, just happens to create more of those moments than any other show I’ve been a part of.  I can’t remember a time I’ve laughed more in a rehearsal room – and I do mean while running scenes and trying to be a good actor.  The actors in this play are all so uniformly wonderful and talented that they make it almost impossible to keep a straight face.

Now, once rehearsals have been going on for awhile, the laughter sort of dies down between actors as we come to expect those moments that have made us crack.  We become better able to let go of wanting to laugh and just live in our characters (who of course take all of it very seriously).

So, just as we are finally feeling on top of things and confident in our lack of hysteria, the live audience shows up.  The audience – which quickly reminds us of how funny this play is and how ridiculous these characters are.  The audience – which adds the extra layer of pressure NOT to laugh – which, of course, only heightens the desire TO laugh.

Then comes a show like tonight’s.

A crowd roaring with laughter and wanting to have fun from the word go.

A crowd up for anything and not afraid to let us know they’re there.

Karen (as Mary) feeds Aubie (as Trenner) The Noodle. Photo by Mark Garvin

A crowd perfectly suited for the perfect storm that was THE NOODLE.  At the top of Act two, I’m in a scene with Aubie Merrylees, who plays Trenner.  Now, the scene is already on the verge of making me break every night – not the full lip biting verge, but certainly a kind of welling up in the throat that wants to be a laugh but hasn’t quite managed to bubble up and out.  This night was no different.  Loud laughter from the audience, fueling a slight urge to smile as I look at Trenner’s hilarious face.

Then, as I was clearing the plate from the table, a large noodle fell from the fork and landed with a splat on the floor.

Now, in these moments, it’s utterly astounding how fast one’s brain is able to think of a million differing scenarios of how to rescue the noodle (or whatever prop or item that has created chaos)without it seeming to disturb too much the flow of the scene.  My brain sifted options and came up with – “leave the damn noodle, you’ll figure out how to clear it later”.  Admittedly, not my best solution, but I was feeling confident.  Then – oh then – I look up and start to speak just as Aubie, in perfect Trenner attitude and character, reaches down and cockily and obviously pops the noodle from the floor INTO HIS MOUTH.

    Needless to say the reaction from the audience and from myself was immediate and without warning.  Huge hysterical response from those who could and should respond in such a fashion.  Huge hysterical response  from me.  It was just such a perfectly executed, totally viable option for that character to pursue.  The simplicity and the outright comedy of solving the problem of the noodle by EATING it just charmed me to my core and literally took my breath away.  Fingernails went into the palms, lips drew inward as far as possible for maximum biting capacity, and breath became a kind of panting desperation.  Even with these coping mechanisms, I am afraid I have to admit to a laugh.  It was just one of those moments – completely unexpected and completely ridiculous.

All one can do in that situation is to try to lamely turn it into something your character would find funny.  So, for just a moment, Mary found Trenner utterly hilarious.

It’s moments like these, that make this job so hard – and so incredibly fun.  I’m so grateful to have been a part of this project.

Every single actor involved was such a treat to work with and laugh with (more importantly).  Wendy and our director, Ed, created an atmosphere where laughter was ok and to some degree embraced as a means of getting at the heart of this play and these characters.  No one’s gonna find the play funny if we don’t!  And, boy have we had fun!

Many thanks to all involved.  I’m gonna miss being a woman in Jep.

By Daniel Perelstein, Sound Designer for Women in Jep

Most of the sound design for Women In Jep takes place in the transitions between scenes. Like many comedies, Wendy’s play moves quickly and it was important to us not to lose momentum between scenes, despite the fact that I anticipated long transitions. [Director Ed Sobel] has done really interesting work choreographing the transitions so that they maintain visual interest.  My job was to match the energy Ed and Wendy have created.

An early design meeting for the play. That's Dan pointing at the groundplans.

It took me an unusually long time to find a useful musical vocabulary for this show, and I’m not sure exactly why that was. I think that part of it is due to the timeline of this project, which was shorter than many design processes. This meant that we jumped right in and skipped some of the initial phases typical of a design process. It wasn’t until the night before tech (after a handful of reminders that Ed and I didn’t seem to be on the same page) that I finally asked Ed to send me music in the style he was hearing for the show. Often in a design process this is a starting point, but for Women In Jep, I had jumped in assuming he and I would be on the same page. Another reason that it took me so long to discover the musical aesthetic may have been that this play calls for less music and sound than many plays, so I had fewer clues to rely on.

After a few false starts (the first sketches I sent Ed were all kind of short piano miniatures that kind of floated instead of driving rhythmically), Ed sent me the name of a female Salt Lake City pop / rock duo, Meg & Dia, as well as a song from the soundtrack to the movie Juno. After listening to these suggestions, it was instantly clear what sort of music Ed had been hearing (and just how far I had been from his wavelength initially). I finally made a sketch that Ed liked (and so did Wendy!). It involved a base of light strumming on guitar, with a melody played on bells, electric bass, and drumming. I don’t own a drum kit, so the drumming was a layer of me drumming on my chest of drawers at home, and another layer of me stomping in my slippers and patting my thighs with my hands. This homemade aesthetic, even though it originated pragmatically (the more traditional way of recording rock music involves expenses including hiring musicians and renting recording studio time), was really appropriate for the style of music Ed had sent me, and really wound up working for this production.

A fundamental question I worry about in all of my designs is “what’s the same? What’s different?” from one selection to the next. It is relatively easy to create a design that feels disjointed, especially when my only tools are a handful of pieces of transition music. Often these designs can wind up feeling like a random series of jukebox selections. To avoid this, it was important for me to create a consistent and strong musical through-line that would underlie all the music in the show. I typically use melody as the musical glue that ties together the moments in a piece, but the style of music Ed and I eventually settled on (pop music) is a style that isn’t really suited to this level of melodic construction. As a result, I used the homemade, DIY, aesthetic that I discovered in my first sketch, as the glue that tied the music together. All the music in Women In Jep shares this sensibility, regardless of whether I created it on my own, or whether I stitched it together from existing music. I think the music we settled on all feels fun and familiar, and matches the energy of the actors, staging, and text.

Ed Sobel, Associate Artistic Director
These Director’s Notes appear in the stagebill for Women in Jep, which runs on the Arden’s Arcadia Stage July 5-15, 2012

The Writers’ Room is a playwright residency program in which a writer is in residence at the Arden for six weeks completing the draft of a new play.  A few weeks after completion of the draft, the play is given a workshop and rehearsal process which culminates in public performance.

The program is an attempt to address a number of issues facing our field. As Todd London insightfully documented in his book Outrageous Fortune: The Life And Times of the New American Play, the landscape for the development of new work in the American Theater is vibrant and fertile, but also facing severe challenges.  Many playwrights feel alienated from the large institutions presenting their work and the communities to whom it is being presented.  They undergo protracted development processes that often do not result in an actual production.

A rehearsal inside The Writers' Room

The Writers’ Room is designed to offer the playwright a relationship with the Arden, and the wider Philadelphia community, that is positive and nurturing.  We shorten the time between the actual writing of the play and the performance of it, so that the writer is better able to keep in close contact with the creative impulses that originated the work.  This new model is an experiment, and as one of the first audiences to see the results, you are joining us in its exploration.

 Audiences are central to the program.  A group of interested members of the general public signed on for an “Inside The Writers’ Room” pass.  The passholders attended a reading of the first draft of the play, a number of rehearsals, technical rehearsal (the period when the design elements – sets, lights, costumes, sound—are integrated into the production) and are seeing the play in performance.  By their report, the passholders have been energized by this added exposure to the development and production process, and we have gained insight from their questions and responses.

What you are seeing today is the result of the four-week workshop and rehearsal process.  The first week most closely resembled a “workshop” of the play.  The actors, sitting at a table, read the play or sections of it, while Wendy and I listened.  Wendy made revisions, sometimes minor, sometimes extensive, both in the rehearsal room and between rehearsals.  The second week was a transitional week.  Wendy continued to revise, as we started to put the play “on its feet”.  The last two weeks have more closely resembled a rehearsal process, with all of us gearing our thinking and choices more toward performance.  However, we have incorporated opportunities for Wendy to revise the play, up to and including between our two performance weeks. 

This bears some external resemblance to the customary process for producing a new play, but it has been qualitatively different in our emphasis on the development of the script.  As a play lives not on the page, or even purely in actors reading it aloud, but as an entity on a stage we have included a design process (rudimentary, but we hope, suggestive enough) and now you, an audience.

 I thank Wendy for her eagerness to be the first adventurer to occupy The Writers’ Room.  I have long admired her work, her sensibility and her dedication to craft.  I could not imagine a better collaborative partner.  Thanks are also due the actors who approached our work with a spirit of rigorous but generous inquiry; to the design team who have brought skill, ingenuity and thrift; to our Artistic Circle who have welcomed Wendy into the community of artists in Philadelphia, and to our entire staff at the Arden for supporting this addition to our already ambitious season of work.

And thanks to you, our audience, for supporting new work, and for entering this Writers’ Room with the open-hearted faith that you will be moved and entertained by what you see.   We hope we’ve delivered on that promise, and that you will be inspired by knowing that by attending today you are being an active participant in the creation of a new work of art.

By Wendy MacLeod, playwright of Women in Jep

Is it possible to write a balls-out comedy about three middle-aged women?

When we see a female character in the movies, she is statistically likely to fall between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five and the story is usually a marriage plot—a young woman tries to find and marry the right man.

But what if she doesn’t marry the right man? The three women in Women in Jep are divorced, with all-but-grown children. When one of them re-enters the dating scene and loses her head over the wrong man her friends have to step in. It’s not just that the new boyfriend is a weirdo; he may be a serial killer.

Wendy on her own adventure in Salt Lake City, Utah

I once read that “comedy begins in the kitchen and ends up under the stars.” Our lives are grounded in the mundane–SAT scores and Fun Runs, Bundt pans and book clubs–until suddenly they’re not. In Women in Jep, the three women begin in the kitchen, but then embark on an adventure that leads them into the remote, starlit canyons of Utah. They pack their granola bars, put on their hiking shoes, and set out to save their friend.

Some critics think that horror movies are a metaphor for adolescence—with its blood, hair, and testosterone. But I wonder if the vocabulary of horror movies isn’t more about aging. We look down at our veined or spotted hands and scream: “What’s happening to us?!” So the collision between madcap comedy and grisly murder mystery is perhaps not accidental. As the play poured out I realized it was a mash-up of a Lifetime “women in jeopardy” movie and a libidinous Restoration Comedy, with a dash of Thelma and Louise.

This is the first time I’ve ever cast a play while I was still writing it, and it was tremendously helpful having these actors’ voices in my head. I could write to their unique comic strengths and I knew I was on track whenever I brought new pages into rehearsal and the actors laughed as they read them over. Was it scary to know that whatever happened an audience would be there come July 5? Maybe, but writers need deadlines and playwrights need productions. A play doesn’t really exist until an audience shows up. And a comedy isn’t a comedy until an audience laughs

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