On Being Philomena
A few years ago my friend Mark Scharf said to me, I'm basing a character on you in my new play. Well, believe it or not, I had heard this from a playwright friend before, but was flattered and excited nevertheless. "She's a math professor in Richmond", he continued. Oh, okay. I used to like math, simple math, geometry, in high school, was pretty good at it. And I like Richmond, although I knew little of it at the time. It's a ghost story. Well! That's new.
So, I filed this information away, and went on about my life. Now, don't think I was nonchalant about the whole thing, I really was honored. But by then I had worked with enough playwrights to know that good plays take time. The first was Mimi Teahan, in 1996. It was only my third time being on stage, I played Twila in her play "Real Time". We, cast and crew, were presented with a new script as a fait accompli, and rehearsed for about four weeks before opening night. I think I did an okay job. Director Regi Davis did his best to correct my natural tendency towards being overly dramatic. It must have worked, because we took first in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival that year.
That began a long succession of roles in new original works produced by theaters all over the Baltimore area, usually as part of the BPF. All of them pretty much followed that four week pre-opening rehearsal process. A couple of them may have had public readings as part of the BPF's new play reading series in the spring prior to the production. In that case, there was audience feedback, and the playwright may or may not have revised the script accordingly. In one or two instances, if the playwright was local and attended rehearsals, he/she may have tweaked the script a bit here and there. Most productions were good, one or two very good and a couple, yeah, well. Not so much.
But, I digress. I don't remember how long after my conversation with Mark( a year or two? ), but he called me and said, "I finished my new play. We are having a few people over for an informal reading and I want you to come." That was the first time "The Quickening" was read out loud. If I remember correctly, it was pretty long. I know my part was longer. (Wry smile) And I think the fate of a certain character was different (no spoilers here!) On the whole, it was positively received by the small audience of theater enthusiasts.
We've read it three more times publicly since then. At The Baltimore Book Fair in 2015 (only one scene, I think), at the Dramatists Guild Footlighters Series hosted by the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theater later that year, and at the Comparative Drama Conference about a year later (both of the latter being full script reads). Each time, there has been audience feedback, which Mark has used in one way or another. And I've been Philomena each time. So, naturally, when I saw the audition notice for this production I had to step up.
Well, here we are, a little more than two months from opening. We've had two full workshop readings, a presentation of set and costume designs by the designers, and one or two actual on-our-feet rehearsals. What's this elongated process been like? To tell you the truth, I didn't take to the whole idea at first. Although Mark has made a couple of small changes since our first table read workshop, I thought the script was pretty tight already. After all, it won Mark some Maryland Arts Council award didn't it? Plus, who ever heard of starting the rehearsal process for a local theater production nine months ahead of time?! But now, I'm surprised to say, I'm kinda diggin it.
It hit me as we walked through the very end of the second act at the last workshop rehearsal. In spite of being told, repeatedly, that it was my voice Mark heard in his head when he wrote Philomena, and that basically she is me, I've realized she's not. She's kind, generous, and open-minded. Okay, so we have that in common. She's also just a teensy tiny smidgeon of sassy black friend. Ummm, okaaay, I prefer to think of it as being a sarcastic smartass. But she bakes fabulous cookies, and is a deep, deep thinker. Well, I eat fabulous cookies, and remember that high school math I mentioned earlier? That's about as far as it went. She is rubbing off on me a little, though. I went through a New Age phase twenty five years or so ago, and was introduced to the concept of quantum mechanics. I managed to get halfway through "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" by Gary Zukav, then, and I'm a little more than halfway through now. Not sure I'll finish it, unlike Philomena, it makes my head hurt. But more than that, now that I am far more physically infirm than I have ever been, and am surely closer to the end of my life than the beginning, Philomena has brought all my questions about the after-life front and center. Questions we all ponder at some point in our lives. Questions we take a stab at in this production. What happens to us when the life of this physical body comes to a close? Does everything just fade to black? Do we (hopefully) go meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates on our way to the streets paved with gold? Do we join some sort of Well of Consciousness like that shape-shifting character in Deep Space Nine? Are we reborn as some other inhabitant of this Earth in some other time?
Wouldn't it be a comfort to know?
I was asked to opine about staged readings from my point of view as a playwright; which can be dangerous as they are sacrosanct to many people and theatres. I want to say up front that I have been extremely pleased and gratified with the staged readings for THE QUICKENING – in particular, those we’ve had during our production process due to the people involved. Our workshops have been diagnostic and not prescriptive and have provided me with information instead of dictates.
Staged readings have become de rigueur if you hope to see your play produced. The romantic in me longs for the days of out-of-town tryouts when your play was performed in front of audiences in different towns to see what worked and what didn’t before you officially opened. I imagine myself working at a fevered pitch staying up all night in a hotel room fueled by smoke and bourbon as I struggle to address whatever issues an audience’s reaction presented – like in Moss Hart’s play LIGHT UP THE SKY. Those days are gone; too expensive. Now, there are staged readings.
I think there are different kinds of staged readings – each type determined by its goal. There are theatres for whom a staged reading is a hoop you must jump through if you hope to get to a production – sort of an out-of-town-tryout-lite. I also think there are theaters for whom staged readings are only “political acts” to justify the mention of “new work” in that theatre’s mission statement. Many theatres only present staged readings of new work and never produce any new work – only work that’s been proven elsewhere.
A lot of theatres try to place as sure a bet as they can when they pick what they produce. They don’t want to risk scarce money on a play that has not been proven elsewhere. They ask questions like: Who’s ever heard of this play? Who’s ever heard of this playwright? Who will come to see a play they’ve never heard of?
Well, I think you’d be surprised.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m in the majority in believing that. So, I know how lucky I am to get this production; the stars aligned on this show. And some of those stars that aligned were staged readings.
Regardless, of how, when, where or how they occur, staged readings can be a double-edged sword for the playwright; the same medicine can help or kill you depending on how it’s handled and administered.
Some plays read great on the page but sound terrible when read aloud. And some plays sound great read aloud but are terrible on their feet; you have to envision what the audience sees and hears and nothing else. So, I think that taking the pages out for a test ride is a good thing as long as you hold onto what you want.
What I want is to hear and observe what's there (not what I think is there) so I can make better informed decisions to create the best script I can. Some of the best information I get from any staged reading comes from observing the people involved and watching. Did they lean forward or sit back in their seats? When were they doing this? Did they roll their programs into telescopes or sneak looks at their phones?
The danger of a staged reading is the possibility that the response can become an open season session during which others attempt to rewrite your play. There are three basic human drives: food, sex, and to rewrite someone else’s play. It seems like the first words out of many when they hear the words, “new play” are “let’s fix it.”
So, in the end, an important skill is the ability to ignore bad advice, which can come from anyone. So, how do you know when the advice is bad?
All I can tell you is that you know it when you hear it. Bad advice violates your gut instinct of what you want your play to be.
Remember, a change can be made for the worse. Change itself does not mean improvement. What I want from feedback are impressions of the work – not fixes.
I would encourage a notion of play evolution versus play development. I say, let a play find itself and to let a writer find themselves within a play. Ultimately, you have to decide at what point you're willing to please people in order to get your play on and at what point you don't care if they do it or not.
We all get opinions from others about our work in the theatre – but as a writer, the theatre is one of the last places where it’s still the playwrights work and not the product of a committee. The focus should encourage writers to listen to the impulse that's inside them and to honor that impulse.
To quote David Wright & 34 members of New Dramatists in NYC:
'A writer's voice is as individual and marked as a thumbprint, and is a playwright's truest imprimatur. It is as innate as breathing, and can be as unique as any genetic code. By its very singular nature, it is seldom born in the act of collaboration. True authorial voice always pre-dates the first rehearsal of a text. And it is -- and will always be -- an author's most distinguishing and valuable feature.'
Sometimes change is good and sometimes change is bad – but some workshops reward change regardless of whether or not it is good or bad. If every day the playwright brings in new pages in response to feedback, the sheer activity of all this creates the impression of productivity: when people say that a given script was torn apart and rewritten in the course of a workshop, they generally believe they are praising the workshop.If not much rewriting is happening, the verdict is that the playwright is not taking advantage of the process, though it may be that the process confirmed the playwright’s preference for what was already written.
Another potential problem is in the mix of personalities and the varying degrees of experience, talent and power each brings to the project. If the play is about factory workers but the actor playing the supervisor is dominating the conversations, guess who the play might be about when the workshop/feedback session ends?
Most playwrights have enough self-doubt that it’s easy to give into clearly expressed and/or sincerely felt criticism about something we feel insecure about.
Playwrights need observations and not suggestions. An observation is open-ended feedback that asks for reflection; a suggestion asks for acceptance. It is more helpful to hear things like, “I got confused in the second act because…” than to be told, “You need a flashback.”
The trouble is, the more I write, the less I feel I can articulate what is going on when I’m doing it. And the more suspicious I become of any “rules of playwriting.”
I do believe that you must have a good sense of what works and doesn't work on the stage. You need to recognize when well-meaning advice is useless, and, as sometimes happens, when spiteful advice is useful.
A play requires an audience and fellow theatre artists to go to the deepest parts of themselves in order to see if there is a link between them and the text.
For me, staged readings/workshops naturally flow into the rehearsal process where that link is forged. So, I believe that staged readings/workshops should be focused on presenting the characters and the play as written.
There are other ways to create theatre pieces/plays. But for me, I believe in the power of the idiosyncratic voice of the playwright to move people to feel, think, remember and understand in a way no other art can. And I know that staged readings can be an important tool – but like a double-edged sword, you need to handle it carefully!
In my daily life, I long for the new. I change my hairstyle every few months, I never watch television reruns, and (much to the chagrin of my friends and family) I'm loathe to reminisce. I am too busy looking for what's next. Give me the fresh, exciting, and unexpected every time.
In grad school, I focused on dramaturgy for new play development. It was at once wonderful and emotionally exhausting. Surrounded by playwrights (the most exotic of creative creatures!), I was continually amazed at both the height of their imagination and the depth of their insecurity. Someone told me once that writers don't like to write; they like to have written. Writing itself is painful and personal and incredibly difficult to do. If you've never tried it, I actually don't recommend it--unless you enjoy feeling vulnerable, frustrated, and generally unsatisfied on a regular basis. It can be hard, and often thankless work. Sometimes I think of all the plays that have been dreamed up and never written down and get really sad. Then I think about all of the great plays that have been written, and are just sitting there unproduced and I get...sadder.
[This is the part where I say hooray for things like the National New Play Network: http://nnpn.org/, which exists to play matchmaker to awesome plays and the theatre that might produce them. Here in Baltimore, we have the Cohesion Theatre Playwrights Fellowship: www.cohesiontheatre.org/the-playwrights-fellowship/, Footlights Readings produced by our chapter of the Dramatist's Guild: https://www.dramatistsguild.com/event/baltimore-baltimore-footlights/, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival: http://www.baltplayfest.org/, and FPCT's own 10x10x10 festival. Have you noticed a pattern though? None of those opportunities allow for a fully-supported, fully-staged production of a new work.]
As the playwright, you write, you revise, you revise again, and then usually, you send your carefully wrought masterpiece of word art out into the void and wait. You wait and wait for someone in an office someone to see it, and like it, and consider it worthy of production. Here in the middle of an inherently collaborative art form, playwrights are siloed. They have writer's groups and table readings, which are both great, but only take you so far. Plays, after all, are meant to be seen in action, not read on a page. Workshop readings can be great for beginning playwrights to hear their work out loud, or even for established ones to work out the kinks on a new script, but what happens after the workshop reading and the subsequent draft?
Playwriting is a peculiar art form. There is a reason, I think, why it's spelled playwright. They are craftspeople of both words and images; they dream bodies into space. They're creating the outline of an event, and handing it off to strangers who will animate it for three-dimensional reality. It requires a balance between breathing room and specificity. When I teach playwriting to kids, I talk a lot about intention. The ideas in your brain need to make it to the page, and then to the actors and then to the audience. If the audience doesn't receive them, it's often you that hasn't done your job. A good play (and one that directors get excited to direct!) finds a sweet spot where the structure and intention are strong, but leave plenty of space for actors and the production team to play.
The Quickening strikes that balance, and when TCT founder Anthony Lane Hinkle read it, he felt strongly that it deserved the care necessary to take it from page to stage. Theatre companies depend on ticket sales to survive, and giving a brand new, unproven play a slot in their season can be an incredibly risky proposition. This process is a real luxury. We in the cast and crew have the time to get to know each other, to weigh our design options, and to ask Mark--our primary source--about the script he has brought into being. I feel honored to shepherd it through that process.
I began the first draft of THE QUICKENING in earnest in 2013 and completed it in 2014. While working on it, I took a side trip to write a film treatment based on the play at the invitation of my friend, the actor Dylan Walsh whom you may know from TV's Nip/Tuck. I know him from U.Va. and performing together with the Heritage Repertory Theatre. He liked the treatment and passed it along to someone in the business. He also gave me the excellent advice to now: forget about it, don't waste time waiting for something to happen. And, although I was (more or less) able to bury my daydreams of a film option, I could not forget about writing the play. I think writing the treatment helped me explore and clarify the story, which helped me finish the play's first draft.
Writing the treatment was closer to prose in that I described not only what characters said and did but what they thought and felt. I could also dictate what an audience saw at any moment -- whereas in the play, I wrote only what could be seen and heard on a stage.
I was excited enough about the first draft to put together an in-house reading of it -- in our house. I can't think of a safer space in which to hear a new play read aloud. We invited actors and provided food and drink to thank them for their sharing their time and talent on a Saturday afternoon. At this point, two actors in the current TCT production joined the cast, truly originating their roles: Marianne Angelella as Rosemary and Debbie Bennett as Phil. Another notable thing about that reading was the reaction to the dog in the play. Buy me a drink sometime and ask me about that.
I kept working. During the summer of 2014, a new draft received a staged reading at the Sewanee Writers Conference which I attended as a Participating Playwright. The reading was followed by discussion with other conference playwrights both officially and casually. I also received notes from playwriting faculty Dan O'Brien and Daisy Foote and met with Daisy for a one-on-one discussion. I kept working.
In spring of 2015, I learned the play had won for me a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Playwriting, which included a staged reading during the 2015 Baltimore Book Fair. Later that year, the play was accepted by the Comparative Drama Conference and given a staged reading during their 2015 Conference. This opportunity gave me the chance to work on the play with Dramaturg Janna Segal and, in another stroke of luck, David Shoemaker joined the cast where he continues to play the part of Matt. In the fall of 2015, the play appeared as a staged reading presented by Dramatists Guild Baltimore Footlights Series at the Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore. It was there that Anthony Hinkle and Steven Shriner from The Collaborative Theatre Company heard the play and expressed an interest. I kept working. In 2016, the play was a Finalist in the 5th Annual What If? Playwrights Festival and Competition in Charleston, South Carolina, where it received a staged reading, and was a Semi-Finalist in the 2016 Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition. I also learned that The Quickening had been selected to close FPTC's 2017-18 season as a co-production with TCT directed by Ann Turiano. As part of Anthony's vision, the production process was launched with workshops designed to share the process with interested audience members. The show now became very real with the creation of our production staff and the final casting in which we received the gift of Amanda Spellman in the pivotal role Beth.
So far, there have been seven drafts by my count on the way to this production. And there are several important voices who came aboard and stayed. One of whom was TCT's Anthony Hinkle who we tragically lost in the spring of 2017. But I believe his vision for the production process lives on. For all this, I am grateful and excited as we move ahead. All involved, artists and audience members alike, have been wonderful and I think we âre in a great place to be with the play -- as humbling as it is exciting. Having actors who have inhabited their parts for years over so many drafts is as rare as it is invaluable. Thanks to everyone involved, I think we âre ready for the next steps!
by Mark Scharf
THE QUICKENING is a result of the confluence of many impulses, experiences, and I guess you could say tastes. I wanted to write a ghost story that works on the stage, that used its limitations as a strength to create an event that could engage and frighten; that relied on the power of suggestion and ideas to make tangible what cannot be seen.
I was brought up believing I have a soul – the intangible “me” existing independently of, yet somehow in, my body. My body would die but my soul – the “me” without a body – would live on. And where that soul would go after my body died depended on what I did while inhabiting my body.
So, for me, it wasn’t a great leap to believe in the possibility of ghosts. I thought if we saw or experienced a ghost what we experienced was some visual manifestation of a soul of someone who was dead.
As I have lived my life, my religious beliefs fell away while at the same time I have had experiences I cannot definitively explain. When family pets gather and stare into an empty corner of the room I cannot say for certain there was something there I could not see that was visible to or sensed by the animals. I can tell you that the space – the air in those empty corners seemed somehow “thicker.” But I can also say I have a very active imagination.
I put my stock in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
When I was twelve years old, my parents let me stay up to watch a movie while the rest of my family went to bed. Alone in a darkened room, I watched THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE made in 1963 and based Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. It scared the hell out of me earning a permanent place in my heart and head. And it did so by suggestion – by relying on my reactions and thoughts to create fear. You never saw a creature or apparition; you saw empty rooms and stairs and the reactions of people to sounds. You saw writing that had appeared during the night on a wall. You heard banging on a door echo like timpani on steroids and watched as a door knob ever so gently turned, but the door never opened.
The technique and the effect stuck with me and I have always wondered if I could write a play – a ghost story for the stage that employed the same approach to engage and frighten. It was an idea that kept appearing in my notebooks, but one that always ended up taking a back seat to a different play; I think now it hung around until I was ready to tackle it.
Next time, I’d like to share the history of the play before during and after writing the early drafts…