Ever wonder how the set comes together for a new play? We sat down with Chris Haig, the Arden’s props master who is serving as scenic designer for At the Old Place, the new play developed in The Writers’ Room.
By Kristen Bailey, Jolene in At the Old Place
The opportunity to be a part of the development of a new play in this way is a really special gift. I have spent my three years in Philadelphia devising original works with collaborative theatre companies — we start with the theme, >treat the big idea behind the play, > and work towards the details, the smaller specifics, the skeleton of the story.
But with this kind of process, Rachel starts by herself with the language. In her case, from what I understand, she is inspired by the smaller things first. The details of a moment, and specific language that shifts only slightly. It is our job to start with these details, find out what the bigger movement of this delicate play is, and then go back to the specifics to make the right kinds of moments to support the larger idea. It has been really exciting for me to think about storytelling in this new way… and the process is expedited in a delightful and satisfying way by having the playwright and her beautiful brain in the room with us. That is the gift.
It has been challenging and scary but ultimately exciting as an actor to walk the line of complex inner struggle and straightforward simplicity that this story is asking us for. We talk a lot about how navigating each scene feels like walking a tightrope. Big things are going on inside these characters, but they don’t quite understand them, so they definitely don’t manifest themselves on the surface. Yet that smolder and tumult underneath is what gives the play a heartbeat, and gives those few moments a chance to blossom in their glorious tiny way. This play is more like real life, more a like a film, than any other traditional piece I’ve worked on. Seemingly simple and small, I believe it has the potential to touch us deeply–I think we can more easily see ourselves in these people. I can’t wait to get an audience in the room and share this poem of a play.
Next week, we begin performances for At the Old Place, a new play written by Rachel Bonds during the second year of The Writers’ Room.
Learn more about the Arden’s innovative playwright residency program in this short documentary of last year’s process that chronicles the 2012 production of Women in Jep by Wendy MacLeod
The Writers’ Room is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and the Independence Foundation through its New Theatre Works Initiative The program was also recognized in 2012 with an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
By Rachel Bonds, Resident Playwright in The Writers’ Room
The first few days of rehearsal were a little insane, as I was going back and forth between Philly and Poughkeepsie, where I had rehearsals for a reading going on up at New York Stage & Film. It was nice to have the 3.5 hour train ride to shift my brain from one play to the other. I went back and forth three times in four days. Exhausting, but I was enjoying working on both plays so much, I was able to coast by on adrenaline and good cheer.
We’ve been working steadily for two weeks now and I’ve been impressed with how the play is coming together. It’s a delicate thing we’re trying to accomplish…The actors have to be as simple and honest as possible, which can be difficult to do when so much of the play takes place in a few lawn chairs and there may be the nagging feeling of “I’m not DOING enough.” Luckily, my actors are extremely talented; they are quite good at being simple and honest. I could watch them sit in lawn chairs for hours and hours and be entertained.
We keep reminding ourselves of the quiet way the play operates…what changes from beginning to end is essentially small. It’s about a small opening, a slight shift. So finding the tiny nuanced changes from scene to scene, making sure we let these little things build in the right way, has been our work over the past two weeks.
We’ve been making great strides in the rehearsal room, and now I’m looking forward to getting in the theater and beginning to play around in there. It will be wonderful to have the real Adirondack chairs for the actors to lounge in, and a real door to slam. I’m also excited to start exploring the transitions between scenes, to find out what those will look and sound like.
In other news, I’m loving where I’m living in Queen Village. It’s a beautiful 20 minute walk to The Arden and back, which is the perfect amount of time to be alone with my thoughts in the morning, pre-rehearsal, and to decompress post-rehearsal. I’m living on a narrow little street off of 2nd…it looks a lot like Italy to me, actually. I’ve been able to run along the water in the early mornings, which is pretty great when it’s not oppressively humid.
My fiance and my cat are also here with me now, so it’s feeling a little like home. I’ve been out to a few local places, but we’ve also been cooking quite a bit. I was really excited to find the very impressive Farmer’s Market on Sunday…I bought a bunch of amazing produce. We’ve also already made friends with our neighbors. I will feel sad to leave this place at the end of the month…
By Sally Ollove
Producer for The Writers’ Room
We are a week into rehearsals with two open rehearsals under our belts! Passholders who attended our first rehearsal, generic Thursday evening June 20th, saw design presentations in which we learned about the inspiration behind the set, light, sound, and costume designs.
Chris Haig, set designer, has designed a set that takes the realistic front of a house and abstracts it by using a collage of found materials to represent set pieces like the magnolia tree and the grass.
Alison Roberts, costume designer, and Larry Fowler, sound designer, both discussed their role in helping ground an abstract set by providing realistic costumes and sounds. Alison explained that in a project like this one, she thinks about where the characters would shop and Larry discussed the inspiration he’s getting from the backyard of his own home and his decision that Angie, played by Kathryn Peterson, probably owns a Volvo. They pointed out that they have to think about who the character is as a full person–where they shop, what they own–things that aren’t dictated by the script.
We also heard from Dom Chacon, the lighting designer, about some of the qualities of light he’s interested in pursuing. In the follow-up discussion, we talked about how much agency designers can have over the characters as well as some of the technical details of building and running a design. Visit our Flickr page to see some of the inspiration research images.
Our next event took place on Sunday afternoon, June 23rd. We watched 90 minutes of a “tabling” rehearsal, in which the actors and Ed read through scenes, often multiple times. In between, they discuss character choices and why certain choices were made in the writing. Rachel made several cuts in the moment and also took home several questions to work on in more detail. We heard the last section of the play, including the last scene.
Since Sunday, the actors have gotten on their feet and begun blocking the play, figuring out how it works on the stage instead of on the page. Meanwhile, Rachel has written a new version of a scene.
Stay tuned for more reports from inside The Writers’ Room and get your tickets to see At the Old Place July 18-28!
By Sally Ollove
Producer for The Writers’ Room
The Writers’ Room, >troche the Arden’s playwright residency, includes over 50 audience members as Inside The Writers’ Room passholders. These individuals have the opportunity to observe the process of developing a new play at the Arden. We’ll post blog entries about their special events so you can have a taste of what happens Inside The Writers’ Room.
Last night, generic we started with a little bit of orientation in the Arden Lobby before moving to the Arden’s Nancy Hirsig Rehearsal Hall. After some light refreshments, passholders introduced themselves and told us what brought them “Inside The Writers’ Room.” There were a number of great responses from young writers looking to see what a future in playwriting might hold to passholders from last year eager to see how a new writer and cast will impact the experience, to jealous audience members from Women in Jep who wanted to join “the cool kids” this season.
Then Ed Sobel gave an overview of the impetus behind the program and introduced Rachel Bonds who answered questions from passholders about her background and life as a writer. Rachel admitted that all her plays seem to end up addressing questions of grief, no matter what her intentions are at the start. You’ll find out whether this holds true for her Writers’ Room play at our table read next week!
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.
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.
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.
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.