Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Do They Pick All Those Cool Plays?

Yes, that is my bookshelf.  I pray to it for much longer than I'd like, most days of the week.  Most of those plays are mine.  Some, I've been holding hostage from The New York Public Library for way too long - in fact, I just got a notice that I owe them something like $150!  But back to the point...

Now that we're gearing up to announce our Fourth Season (woohoo!), I figured that there might be some questions as to what all goes into building a season in the first place.

The Seeing Place gets together once a week to read plays, which I choose specifically for whatever ensemble members are available on a week-to-week basis.  It's a monumental task, believe me.  Generally, I'll spend a few hours on Dramatists' website, looking through the Playfinder.  Then I'll head over to the new Samuel French search engine.  Then I'll go to Google Books and try to look at character lists of the plays that fit the size and genders of our group to see if the ages also match.  Then I'll read reviews to get a sense of the plays, if I don't have them or know them.  Then I'll head down to The Drama Book Shop to look through the plays and buy one (or rent it from the library).  Then I scan it into my computer (should I be admitting this online?).  Then I'll send that play to the group for us all to read, come Monday night.  I do this every week.  Crazy, right?  But that's how we've built our ensemble every year for the last three seasons.  And that's the main thing that's kept me artistically engaged in a community for the last five years.  And that's the trial ground for the shows we eventually pick for our seasons.  And when I say "we", I really mean me.  Because I'm the Artistic Director - and that's one of the million things the Artistic Director does.

In the first few years, choosing shows went something like this:
1.)  We'd read plays that fit our group.
2.)  Someone would get really excited about one.
3.)  Other people didn't hate it.
4.)  People would look at me.
5.)  I'd hesitate a moment and then muster up my courage.
6.)  We'd end up doing the play.

Contrary to popular belief, though it may seem that this is one big ego trip for me, I've very rarely done any of my first-pick shows.  Aside from the fact that rights aren't easy to get in New York, it's never been exciting enough for me to do a vanity project.  I need the people around me to be excited.  This is all way too hard if they aren't.  So, I usually get inspired by what inspires the people I'm working with.  The first play I produced on my own, This Is Our Youth, was this genius piece that I found before Kenneth Lonergan was a household name and convinced my friend Tom Zohar to do it with me and my then-girlfriend, Rachael Van Wormer (they later went on to do a big time production with New Village Arts Theatre after I left San Diego to come to NYC).  Anyway...every time I've brought a play to a group and thought, "Oh, this'd be a really cool idea!", and they get excited, I usually think:  "Oh man, what did I get myself into."  And then I feel like I'm beholden to that group of people, do the play, and end up having a priceless experience - because there's something about standing up in this world and doing something, not because somebody chose us, but because we had something big to say.  That's an amazing experience.

And that's how most plays this company has done have been chosen.  We've gone from play to play like that, one inspiration after another.  In fact, my first dream play that we did never happened in this way at all.  It happened once we turned a new corner into our Third Season.  In fact, our first two seasons were not seasons at all.  We arbitrarily broke them down to look like seasons on our page, because they spanned two years of time.  Last year was the first year that we committed to doing a full year at once - and BOY was it scary!

To make our decision for a year, Erin Cronican (our Managing Director) and I sat down and came up with a list of plays that fit our group - and that we wanted to do.  Some of those plays had consistent themes.  And so, we decided that last year's theme would be Crimes of the Heart - and the Politics of Sex.  Mainly, we were doing Closer in rep with a play I was writing (Scotch Kiss), and we wanted to do Three Sisters, so we found a title that would encapsulate the three.

Then we needed two more plays.  We wanted to diversify our season, so we thought about the kinds of plays we might want to do in our ideal world, and we came up with a five-play season that still looks like this:

An Urban Play that Speaks to Our Community
A New Play
A Classical Favorite
A Modern Classic
An Americana Play

Last year, our season was:

Closer by Patrick Marber  (Urban Play)
Scotch Kiss by Brandon Walker  (New Play)
Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov and Brian Friel  (Classical Favorite)
The Lover by Harold Pinter  (Modern Classic)
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea  (Americana)

In case you're wondering, my first dream show we did in three years was Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.  Closer was Erin Cronican's dream show.  Scotch Kiss was an Elderly Love Story, created for our older actors.  Three Sisters had a good role for everyone in our company.  And The Lover was the only companion piece we could get the rights to for Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.  It so happened that Pinter was our Lighting Designer's favorite playwright.

The concept behind our long awaited FOURTH SEASON is:

Fantasy or Reality:  The Games Our Minds Play

We'll be announcing it at our Season Kickoff this Friday night, 11/2/2012.  Check our Facebook Event throughout the week for the location, the exciting things we'll be doing and auctioning off, and all the other gritty details!

And in the meantime...

TELL US:   What's a game your mind has played on you?  
(Answers will be anonymously acted out at our party on Monday)

19 comments:

  1. Q: What's a game your mind has played on you?
    A: When I fall asleep at night, I sometimes have night terrors. They aren't (where you have a dream about something scary) - instead, you are awakened by the sense that someone or something is threatening you. In most cases, when the person wakes up they aren't fully awake and often they don't remember the episode in the morning. In my case, I usually bolt up in bed and throw the light on, because I see someone standing over me with a knife. It takes me a good 5 minutes to realize that no one is actually there, and for my body to go back to normal (I get a huge shot of adrenaline so I end up sweaty with my heart racing.) More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_terror

    It's really crazy to know how intensely the mind can create something that isn't there. When I try to tell people about what I'm experiencing, I usually am met with disbelief, or a reassurance that it was just a bad dream. This feels really dismissive, and I feel pretty misunderstood. While I know it isn't real when it happens, I also know it isn't a dream - it's not a story I'm living. It's like a hallucination, except that it's happening at a specific stage of the sleep cycle.

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    1. I cannot fathom a night terror. I kinda wish I understood. And I'm kinda glad I don't.

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  2. Erin, did you ever get this variation - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis

    "Many people that experience sleep paralysis are struck with a deep sense of terror, because they sense a menacing presence in the room while paralyzed..."

    This has only happened to me once, and the feeling of sheer terror was not pleasant at all. It's cold comfort to know that it was all caused by a brain/sleep malfunction. I'm just glad it doesn't happen often!

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    1. That's entirely possible. Night terrors have been the only things I've ever heard of that described what I was feeling, but this seems likely as well. Maybe it's time to talk to a doctor about it... :)

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  3. Great blog post! I've always wondered how theater companies pick their seasons, as sometimes they are quite, quite random (or seemingly so). I wonder if larger theater companies, like the RSC or Shakespeare Theater in DC, or even Roundabout here in NYC, work the same way. TSP has a little more artistic freedom, I think, in the sense that the season is about the work; what will challenge the actors and the audience the most? While money is of course important, larger theatre companies must have to worry about that more, especially when it comes to classical theatre. Some modern day audiences simply don't want to sit through King John or Henry VIII! It will be interesting to see how TSP evolves their seasons as the company gets bigger and bigger (which it will, of course!)

    As for mind games, I sometimes swear I see things while driving at night. The way the light reflects off the pavement can sometimes create odd shadows and shapes.

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    1. I mean...we have total artistic freedom at the moment. We just have to make our money back after or we're screwed. :O)

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    2. I have that issue when driving at night too!

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  4. I wanna know about y'all's 'dream plays'. Mine: Saint Joan, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Venus In Fur, Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake) by Sheila Callaghan, Detroit by Lisa D'Amour, and The Children's Hour and Another Part of the Forest by Lillian Hellman.

    Ok - I gotta get on a soapbox real quick and point out that The Seeing Place has never done a play by a female. I know there aren't as many, especially Classic and Modern Classics, and it's hard enough to pick shows for a season, but I'd like to see the company commit to doing at one by a female playwright each season. I'd like to see all theaters do this. Public Service Announcement concluded.

    Mind tricks? Someone very close to me had a couple short psychotic episodes, which consisted mainly of delusions about a secret society made up of our friends and co-workers who had special powers, and she was being invited to join. She told me I could join, too. This person was so sane and smart, and had such a detailed, well-thought-out story, that for the first few hours of the whole ordeal, I thought maybe she wasn't crazy...maybe she was telling the truth. I halfway believed that there was a whole magical realm out there and I was gonna get to see it. It was really fucking cool and scary, and I was disappointed and relieved when it turned out my friend was just temporarily but literally out of her mind.

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    1. Magan:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I'm gonna get on a soapbox for a second, too.

      First of all, you are not correct. In our first season, we produced HOT CRIPPLE by Hogan Gorman (written and performed by her) - which has been turned into a national bestselling book, which you should read. We also produced a workshop production of SCARED SKINNY, a One Woman show by Mary Dimino, that ran on Off-Nights during first season. Our group also developed a play through improvisation, which involved five women and three men - I just officially wrote the story and decided on the final script.

      Secondly, we've applied for plenty of plays by female playwrights, and have just not been granted rights to any of them. Gina Gionfriddo's BECKY SHAW was supposed to be in our last season, but her agent decided to blanket pull the rights to all of her shows, because she had a production Off-Broadway and was hoping for revivals. We then sought to do Cindy Lou Johnson's BRILLIANT TRACES in rep with DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA; however, there's a major Off-Broadway revival being planned. We also offered a slot to Jean Walker to do her one woman show on Edith Wharton in rep with our last shows; however, she had to turn it down at the last minute, because she was cast out of town. I've been wanting to do a Beth Henley play forever, but her sets are more expensive than we currently have budgets to produce. It's not for lack of trying.

      All of that aside, I do not consider 'Plays by Female Writers' as being its own genre. It is my goal to do good plays with good roles for men and women. I don't pay any more attention to male playwrights than female ones. I'd love to direct NIGHT, MOTHER, as it's one of my favorite plays - but we don't have the right cast for it yet. I will in a couple of years.

      Now, it's fortunate that we've just welcomed you on board, because I'll bet you have a lot of plays in mind that would be good for us. I'd love to hear your ideas as far as plays you're interested in doing, so that we may start to read them on Monday nights and see if they'll work in our next season.

      :O)

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    2. Touche, touche. I mistakenly took "Hogan" for a man's name, but should've researched more before I assumed.

      I am not someone who thinks that plays by women and minorities should be done just for diversity's sake, nor do I think that casting should be that way either - and I know that my opinion on that differs greatly from most others, but that's a whole other blog post. We should perform great plays, period. But! Plays by men are greater in number and more produced and thus more present in our conscious/subconscious mind when thinking of plays that we want to produce, and so I like to give a little nudge and say "hey, what about the ladies?" whenever appropriate. And when it comes to classics - maybe we have an extra obligation to dig up historic female playwrights who never got the chance to become "classics" cuz it hasn't been that long since it was socially acceptable for chicks to write plays. And by "we" I mean all of us, not just you or Seeing Place in particular. Right now Seeing Place has 13 plays under its belt, with only 1 of those by a woman, for a myriad of reasons. I didn't mean to be accusatory, just to shine a light on a corner of theatrical literature that we might be missing.

      I will be emailing you a Lillian Hellman play that might good for us shortly. :)

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    3. That's great. I look forward to reading your suggestions.

      Might I also point out that of our 13 plays, eight of them were directed by women. And also, aside from me, this company has been run by women. They've all had a great deal of say in what we do.

      That's just for the general public out there that might be thinking we run a Good Old Boys Club here or something.

      :O)

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  5. Hey, Brandon, thanks for the insight! Every time I have gone into your place, I admit I gaze a little sheepishly at the elephant-sized-being of plays you have stacked up, and dream longingly of a day when my own collection might be as vast. I have been very inspired by how much theater you and Erin consume, daunting as it may be to someone who feels far behind. But it has certainly encouraged me to become more versed about this industry and craft I claim to love.

    I am also a big fan of how you choose to fill your season with plays geared towards specific themes/genres (urban play, modern classic, etc.). I was wondering if you could elaborate on the "Americana Play"--what kind of stipulations do you use to define a play as an "americana" work? Does Eugene O'Neill fit into this category? (And if so, how do you feel about his work?)

    So, my memory is truly bad--even remembering a game my mind plays on itself is a tricky task. So, perhaps this is the trick. My memory is awful!! I know a great deal of people say this in a self-effacing way, meaning rather that their memory is not as good as they'd like it, but mine is truly 100% flawed for a 23-year-old. For instance, I have a very strong ability to memorize lines, movie titles or quotations, celebrity names, or phone numbers; but the most difficult question that can be posed to me is "what did you do yesterday?". My mind is extremely selective to the information it maintains, and while it is great at picking things up quickly and memorizing them definitively for a short period of time, my mind so often chooses not to remember rather large events in life. I have begun thinking of it as less of a crutch, though, and more of a unique opportunity. Now, every time I come across a beautiful moment in life, I tell myself to experience it fully because in a few months it will surely be gone.

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    1. I remember one day that I was speaking to Fran Gercke and Kristianne Kurner of New Village Arts Theater, very much envious of the head start they had on me - except for the fact that they were in their mid-thirties, and I was 22. I'm 30. You'll get there. :O)

      And an Americana Play is something that speaks to our life in America. It's usually also a Modern Classic, but we make sure that it's something that is by one of our great playwrights...

      So, like Williams or Odets or O'Neil or Shanley or Shepard or Miller or Kingsley or Sherwood or Wilder or Albee or Gilroy or Wilson or Henley or Wasserstein or Margulies or Baitz or McNally or Greenberg or Saroyan - or anyone else that's really spoken to our country or won a Pulitzer.

      And I have a terrible memory for similar things, too - especially when people hurt me. I really do tend to forget about it in light of what I wish were true. I'm a little bit of a dreamer that way.

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    2. I find your comment about memory to be fascinating, Javan! Can't wait to learn more about that...

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  6. Wait! I told you in our first meeting that I would love to do 'Night Mother:P Did you tell me that I was too young! Really, how old does a person have to be and still have the energy, the memory and the sanity to be in such a play?
    Do we consider two character plays?

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    1. Of course we consider them - in rep with something else.

      And I didn't say you were too young. You're probably fine. But I don't have anyone to play Jessie quite yet.

      :O)

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  7. My favorite part of this blog is when you talk about how you have to summon up the courage to select a play to produce. It can't be easy. To make a comparison (and maybe not a good one) I would equate producing a play to giving birth. My friend once said the best way he could describe seeing his son's birth could be summed up in the first two thoughts he had, which were, "This is great, this is beautiful, this is a miracle" followed immediately by "Oh shit what have I done?!?"

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  8. I love that your bookshelf is overflowing. Mine is the same way. And even if I never get a chance to perform / read everything, I like having great works in my work space. It is constantly inspiring.

    A trick my mind has played on me: anytime it tricks me into thinking the present moment is just some crappy hotel I just happen to be held over in.

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