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5 Weeks 5 Plays

Playwright Idris Goodwin on Collaboration, Infamy, and Making Time

T. S. Eliot said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Playwright Idris Goodwin might have seemed intent on testing those limits earlier this year, when he spent the wetter part of the late winter flying back and forth across the country to no fewer than five different workshops, readings, or productions of his work; in five different cities; in only five weeks. This whirlwind of work, which Goodwin calls “5 weeks 5 plays,” had its ups—a board member’s condo, well stocked with wine; an artistic director’s garden guest house known as “The Shire,” complete with movie screen and surround sound; and quality time with the Rocky statue—but it was also an experience that tested him, both as a writer and a person. I caught up with this hardworking, vigorously honest artist of the word in late May about what this journey had meant to him.

5 Weeks 5 Plays

Week 1: Philadelphia (Feb. 19 & 22)

InterAct Theatre Company’s 20/20 New Play Commission, with Kittson O’Neill

Play: Sanctity (in the first draft stages)

Workshop: 8 hours of rehearsal

Main development goal: “Put the play in the air with actors, solicit response from InterAct, inform/spark revision toward production-ready draft, see the Rocky statue.”

Week 2: Minneapolis (Feb. 25–Mar. 3)

Playwrights’ Center, Ruth Easton New Play Series, with director Wendy C. Goldberg.

Play: The Realness: The Second Break Beat Play

Workshop: 20 hours of rehearsal; two public readings

Main development goal: “Make further strides balancing the romance and the drama, the beat and the rhyme. Make as many hip-hop references as possible in the rehearsal room. Make sure we’re ready for the 2016 world premo.”

Week 3: Chicago (March 6–8)

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with director Lisa Portes

Play: This Is Modern Art (co-written with Kevin Coval); world premiere

Production: watch two performances, participate in post-show talkbacks

Main development goal: “Leap into the controversial fray, celebrate with cast and crew.”

Week 4: San Francisco (March 12-15)

Crowded Fire Theater Company, with director Mina Morita, CFT artistic director

Play: Blackademics; West Coast premiere

Production: First week of rehearsals (20 hours of rehearsal participation)

Main development goal: “Keep sharpening the text!”

Week 5: New York (March 19-22)

The Lark Play Development Center, New Black Fest, with director Jenny Koons

Play: Bars and Measures (commission for B Street Theatre in Sacramento)

Workshop: 10 hours of rehearsal; one public reading

Main development goal: “Fine-tune the script towards August production, explore the musical thread, further flesh out secondary characters.”

I have been cultivating a mode of working in the room where I don’t get precious about anything but the concept. If a line is off, or a scene ain’t working, we can tell. And when it’s off I can feel it. So I just fix it.

Laura Brueckner: When you realized that you were heading into a “perfect storm” of development: five solid weeks of work on five different plays in five different cities—what were your thoughts?

Idris Goodwin: I knew two things going into 5 weeks 5 plays: one, I was going to come out of it a little different as a writer, and I did; and two, this was only something to do once!

Laura: What was the first thing you noticed changing about you as a writer?

Idris: Well, week three was the production of This Is Modern Art, which garnered a lot of heated discussion and controversy right out the gate. Honestly, I was kind of surprised by the whole thing; we're living in a post-Exit Through The Gift Shop world. But as an artist, it was exhilarating to see something I co-wrote (Kevin Coval was the other scribe) spark so much thought and energy. It definitely reminded me that what I am doing can have real resonance, of what is possible with theatre, and that there are real opportunities to engage in conversation broadly. The funny thing is, we didn’t set out to have that happen...we just thought the story was cool and hadn’t been done. So that's the other thing that I came away with: you never know [how critics will react], so why bother trying? Just write.

five actors on stage
Kelly O'Sullivan (Selena), J. Salomé Martinez Jr. (JC), Jerry MacKinnon (Seven), and Jessie D. Prez (Dose) in Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval's This is Modern Art, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago, March 2015. Photo by  Michael Courier.

Laura: Did the conversations around This Is Modern Art influence your approach to the next play, Blackademics? I remember you remarking on the Oakland graffiti as we were driving for coffee.

Idris: The TIMA experience did two things: one, it made me feel a little infamous, which is fun; and two, it definitely made me feel more defiant. Like, “Oh, that ruffled your feathers? Okay, wait’ll you see what’s next!” Because their beef with TIMA, to me, was based on sociopolitics and this [cultural] notion of ownership. But even deeper, the question of what and whose stories are worthy of the stage—whose crimes we are willing to let slide in the name of “drama” [versus those] we can’t get down with. So that made me perhaps more confident in my convictions with Blackademics. And yeah, it totally made me love and appreciate the tremendous graff in Oakland!

Two actors on stage
Lauren Spencer (on left) as Rachelle and Safiya Fredericks as Anne in Idris Goodwin's Blackademics at Crowded Fire Theater, San Francisco, March 2015. Photo by Pak Han.

Laura: One thing that stands out to me is that the plays were in very different places in the development process. What was that like?

Idris: I think it truly deepened and stretched my revision skills to new levels. It also kept things fresh and fun (albeit disorienting as hell!). It also really reminded me how much I truly need collaborators, even in the process of working toward a “final draft.” I can’t write a final draft without actors.

Laura: Did that disorientation lead you to rely more on your collaborating teams/theatres than you normally would have?

Idris: It’s kind of hard to describe, but in the last couple years, I have been cultivating a mode of working in the room [where] I don’t get precious about anything but the concept. I just want things to stay fluid, you know. If a line is off, or a scene ain’t working, we can usually tell, because the flow of things is off. And when it’s off I can feel it. So I just fix it.

The other layer to this cake is that after every trip but one, I was coming back to my family in Colorado. The switching back and forth of playwright-in-process to husband/father/college professor really made me dizzy. It also gave things a sense of urgency. So when I was in a city for a few days, I really pushed and got a lot done. I learned to not waste time and to really trust my collaborators—cuz the clock is tickin'!

[Like] week one, working on Sanctity with InterAct in Philly—the first draft was barely a first draft. I brought in something very plot-driven with flourishes of theme; a raggedy mess, but on purpose. I knew I would get smacked around because everyone from Philadelphia is smart. And sure enough, they took the play apart on that first day—but the next day I came back with heaps and heaps of rewrites, informed not only by the previous day’s conversation, but also the actors themselves. And now I know what the play needs to be, and what InterAct responded to in my initial proposal, so now I know how to write it.

Laura: Getting to know each company and team on the fly must have been pretty emotionally demanding.

Idris: I’m built for it, though. I get on with people pretty easily. I've taught in all types of environments for more than ten years. I also perform as an MC and Spoken Word dude. I like travel and parties. And again, we’re all there with the common goal of making something.

Laura: Did you ever worry that, because of the compressed schedule, you might not be doing your best work?

I felt this most during week one, in Philly. I knew what I was bringing was rough, and that day one would be spent talking about what it needed and what wasn’t working. The second day, we took a step closer to what the play actually is (or should be)—but then it was over. This was due to my own limitations, not InterAct’s. Sometimes with a play that is further along, two days is plenty. For a rougher, newer play, two days is nothing.

Even as we become more digital and automated and virtually connected—artisans still gotta be in the workshop, sanding the rough spots and sharpening the edges. And the reality is that for we writers who dare live outside New York, Chicago, or cities of the like, the workshops are all over the country.

Playwright Idris Goodwin and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia, February 2015. Photo by
Idris Goodwin.

Laura: How about outside of the room? Did the different cities and living arrangements influence how you worked?

Idris: I have gotten pretty good at writing in hotel rooms. Because I sort of reward myself: “The sooner you get these rewrites done, the sooner you can go explore the city!” Or, “If you stay up all night and knock these pages out you get to order room service in the morning!” But—Philly and Minneapolis and Chicago and New York in February and March? Not ideal. Snow and cold and wet. San Fran was of course a dream. [Although in] Minneapolis, I brought my family, so the PWC hooked us up with a condo belonging to one of the board members. That was pretty sweet—their place was full of wine. In the Bay Area I got to stay in the Shire! And Chicago is always nice because my good homie and co-writer Kevin Coval lives there, and I usually stay at his spot, and so we get a lot done.

Laura: Any nasty travel surprises?

Idris: The night before I was supposed to fly out of Philly back to Colorado, I got a message from the airline: YOUR FLIGHT IS CANCELLED. Just like that. And this was only week one. The entire structure of the five weeks was built around me being back when I said I would be; me coming back a day late would not inspire much confidence. I had to just buy a brand new flight, less than twelve hours before takeoff. But there was no way I wasn't coming back. Rule one of 5 weeks 5 plays: gotta come back.

Were there any instances where a breakthrough in one play’s development process led to realizations or discoveries in one or more of the others?

You know, the work I did on Blackademics, which of the five plays has had the longest and most challenging development life, stands out the most in my memory of those five weeks. On one hand, it’s very much like the others, in that it deals with race/class/power issues, but of the five it is the weirdest formally. That play I originally wrote in grad school, before transitioning into the world of commissions and regional premieres. So working on it with really sharp people like [CFT artistic director] Mina [Morita], [dramaturg] Lisa Marie [Rollins], [and actors] Safiya [Fredericks], Lauren [Spencer], and Michelle [Leavy]—hearing them respond and build on the work only helped to justify and strengthen what I was after initially. It reconnected me to the more adventurous spirit I began with. So now I am looking toward further evolving/blending/distorting what is traditional.

Laura: You mentioned that it was sometimes challenging to transition between your writer self and your husband/father/professor self. Can you speak to that?

Idris: I’ve come to the conclusion is that life is all about making time. People say, “I can’t find the time,” but I don't think you “find” time; you make time. And the more responsibilities I take on, the greater the challenge in trying to make time for everyone and everything in my life. Balance is important. Everything is in conversation with one another. So trying to be equitable with the time necessary to keep all parties (myself included) fed is challenging. All family men and women have to negotiate this, but for what we do as artists—it’s a very unique situation. Even as we become more digital and automated and virtually connected—artisans still gotta be in the workshop, sanding the rough spots and sharpening the edges. And the reality is that for we writers who dare live outside New York, Chicago, or cities of the like, the workshops are all over the country.

Laura: At this point, what advice would you give your younger (say, 2014) self about how to handle these five weeks?

Idris: That's a tricky one to answer. One part of me says, “Don’t do it!” It definitely took a toll on me and my family, beyond the expected challenges. Mice showed up at our house in Colorado around week two! (We moved after I returned from week five.) But the other side of me wouldn’t say anything, because it was necessary. The room is a necessary part of my process. And it takes a mix of humility, focus, confidence, and patience that can only be acquired by doing. Trial and error, different personalities, being offended, being offensive, accepting that the actor’s improvised line is better than the one you wrote but also sticking to your convictions and saying, “I see what you mean but you’re wrong.” I am glad I did it, but I won’t ever do it again!

I think many working writers do this kind of extreme development, plane hopping, hotel revising—I hope this conversation we’ve had will prompt peeps to share their own adventures.

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