Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cultivating a Theatre to Grow Plays

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, ML Kinney.

I have been around the OOB block more times than I care to admit. Through the years I have discovered a diverse community and an amazing wealth of talent. I am happy to say that I consider OOB my home. I live, I work, I create, and I thrive within this community. I am fed daily on its spirit.

I have been involved with The Milk Can Theatre Company since its inception in 2003. I believe in its mission, I helped to form it, and I have worked towards strengthening its purpose to the OOB community and to itself as a producing theatre company. The Milk Can’s work is primarily new play development. We work diligently to foster an environment where plays can grow. We examine and change this process yearly to help improve, not only the end result, but the path taken to get there.

As a playwright I know just how difficult it is to get an idea onto paper, into dramatic form. I also know how difficult it is to get that idea off the paper and into a living, breathing theatrical entity. Before 2003, when I started working with the Milk Can, I had acquired file folders full of first and second drafts; I had badgered my friends and family into reading and critiquing beyond politeness; and I had received enough rejection letters to wallpaper my bedroom. Yes, once or twice I was lucky to have some group take pity on my pages and allow me to hear a group of actors sit in chairs and speak my words. I even had the luck to be commissioned twice for projects, where I actually got to witness my ideas take form and play to an audience with costumes, lights, sets, and music. I know that this is an amazing thing. I know there are playwrights who have not gotten that far, and I also know that some of my work was produced before it was ready for prime time.

In formulating our mission and methods at the Milk Can, we agreed as a group that this phenomenon happens more times than not when producing new plays onto the OOB stage: most are just not ready to be in the spotlight. We decided to wrestle with the problem and came up with some solutions that have worked very well for us. We not only continue to produce quality new works, but we also help develop the artists creating them.

The Milk Can as a company takes an innovative approach to developing new work. We believe and think a play must have a fertile environment and time to grow. We provide artists with the opportunity to work on their plays in a no-pressure environment. We provide money, space, and time. Our seven-week "Scene Herd Uddered (SHU)" workshop series is the perfect opportunity for artists to develop an idea, and to concentrate on process rather than product. The end result is a solid foundation where a play can blossom.

The SHU process is divided into three phases:

In the first four weeks, a team -- usually composed of a playwright, a director, designer, and a group of actors -- goes into rehearsal and development. At the end of this period, there is an in-house run-through of the project. Extensive feedback is given to the creative team. The focus is on script development.

The playwright/director team is given a "quiet week" -- one week to write, re-write, and consider how to deal with feedback before going back into rehearsal.

Over the next two weeks, groups rehearse and continue to polish and refine the play. The focus is on performance, though the process of script development continues.
After the performance, there is always a talk-back to get audience feedback.

I have had the pleasure of experiencing this process five times as a playwright, with the end result being five scripts that are stronger, more focused, and workable as a theatre product. It is amazing to have the time to write, listen, re-write, listen, and write some more. The ability to be in a room with actors, director, and designers working on a script is the most amazing experience I have had, and to do it without the pressure that it must be perfect for a performance gives you the perspective on how the play works and doesn’t work. The final stage of the SHU is a staged reading, where the community is invited in to see the work and comment -- the final piece of the puzzle.

We all know that the process of theatre is collaborative, yet as playwrights, we are most often working alone. We sit with the voices in our head creating theatre; theatre as an art form that is three dimensional, a living breathing entity, which does take a village to create. Writer, director, actor, designer, and audience all make the art of theatre. So doesn’t it make sense to have everyone involved in the process of developing? The Milk Can’s answer is yes! We have produced twenty-three SHU workshops in the last seven years; from this group we have produced six new plays, world premieres, for our mainstage, and we still have projects under consideration for the future.

As a playwright, I have found that the SHU experience has helped me write better plays, and has allowed me to form bonds with directors, actors, and designers who now share with me a common language and a style of working. It has also allowed me to take risks and grow both personally and creatively.


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