Readings and Read-dos
This is the third post in “A Balancing Act: Community, History, and Playmaking,” a series taking an in depth look at the process, start to finish, of working collaboratively on a site-specific theatre project with a community to animate a historical site. This series will explore some of the challenges of including all stakeholders, communicating a clear vision, translating work to non-arts partners, and balancing history with compelling storytelling.
New play readings are an inherently raw experience for everyone involved. Every reading I have attended has a palpable nervous excitement as the actors, playwright, and audience anxiously wait to see how the play will fill the room and sound out loud. Readings are certainly not the easiest or most glamorous part of the play creation process, but one of the most necessary—a chance to hear the way a piece of writing lands and to allow collaborators to weigh in. When collaborating with a community, readings are even more important as they make the progress of the project visible and allow community members to voice any concerns before major decisions are made.
The script was long and difficult to listen to. Actors and audience members will be moving and the piece will be partially interactive, and we had not figured out a way to achieve this effect in any tangible way. Although we had hoped the reading would be a clarifying moment after many months of trust, it instead made the jump from page to stage, or historical site in our case, seem even more abstract.
After months of research and several community visits, we were very excited to share the first draft of our script, written by playwright and director Joe Salvatore. We were eager for community members to see how their thoughts and ideas contributed to the script, but we also knew there would be changes to be made. This first reading was a big learning experience for everyone involved, and in that way, it served its purpose—but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow. We made a few mistakes that luckily did not derail the project, but that also didn’t allow us to put our best foot forward that day. Our first mistake was not allowing for adequate rehearsal time. It was our “artistic first impression,” and we did the script a disservice by not allowing the actors enough time with the material and the director. The script was long and difficult to listen to. Actors and audience members will be moving and the piece will be partially interactive, and we had not figured out a way to achieve this effect in any tangible way. Although we had hoped the reading would be a clarifying moment after many months of trust, it instead made the jump from page to stage, or historical site in our case, seem even more abstract.
Despite all of these setbacks, it became easy to discern what parts of the script worked and what parts still needed further development. Hearing the script revealed several flaws that can be a challenge in any historically based work—too much exposition, unnecessarily complex technical language, and scenes full of monological speech. The audience voiced these concerns, as well as perspectives they believed were missing. We agreed with most of their suggestions and feedback, but that didn’t make the task of making changes any simpler. It was hard enough to fit all of those perspectives in an already lengthy draft, so how could we continue to honor the history while making the most engaging and dramatically compelling piece of theatre? In the wake of this experience, Michael Rohd’s columns on translation come to mind, which examine some of the challenges and experiences of work that intersects with non-arts partners, particularly in the civic sectors. It is crucial to listen—to develop a shared a language and to become fluent in the needs and interests of your partners. Had we listened deeply enough or been clear enough in our intentions? We sat with these thoughts and the feedback received, and playwright Joe Salvatore began to edit. We hoped they would give us another chance to get it right.
Two months later we were back with many changes and grateful to see many familiar faces. We owe a lot to our main community partner and the initiator of this project, Diane Macris of the Gloucester County Cultural & Heritage Commission—it is so important to have someone working on the ground in the community who believes in the project, and who can continue to build on momentum and keep people involved and interested. Diane has been an invaluable partner, and this project would not have continued without her. We made many changes in the script based on what we heard and what was shared, tightening up the storytelling and making the relationships and characters clearer, but the biggest changes we made were in the actual presentation. For starters, we had both individual and group rehearsals beforehand since the script involves monologues from three actor/tour guides and a large group scene in the second act. Having the time to finesse and workshop the script allowed us to figure out some changes before community members heard anything. Additionally, we changed the format of how the script was read. Since site-specific work is often reliant on audiences moving around, we learned that it was necessary to modify the format of the reading in order to facilitate a more engaging experience for initial audience members—stage directions can only do so much work in making the experience come alive. And finally, we had been talking a lot about what a post-show experience might look like and how it could create a connection between audiences today and the history of yesterday. Without spoiling the ending, the characters are forced to make a difficult choice; we asked audiences to consider how they would respond if forced to make the same choice today. This connected them to the script and the project at large in a meaningful way, and I think was key in finally communicating what we were aiming to achieve.
This “read-do” was a big success and we finally felt that we had translated our intentions in a way that made the project seem both feasible and exciting to our community partners. It took many months of work, but was absolutely worth the careful consideration. Our next step would be a pilot production and the piece would finally have the opportunity to walk through the rooms and fields that had inspired it.
Photos by Amy Dion, Sweet Pea Photography.