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Friday Phone Call # 37

Ed Sobel of the Arden Theatre Company


Portrait of Edward Sobel.

Today I get a chance to talk to one of the people who was a consistent contributor to the early thinking behind the American Voices New Play Institute and the whole notion of the #newplay initiative. Ed Sobel is now the associate artistic director of Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, and prior to that was at Steppenwolf. At the Arden Ed continues to experiment with play development processes and programs and he's got an important one going on right now. The Writers' Room is an experiment in rapid prototyping in new play development. He's creating residencies where the playwright starts and completes a draft of a new play, the play is designed, cast rehearsed and performed—all in the space of four months. Throughout, the writer is embedded in the institution and in the artistic community. We get into the details of this program, just now heading into the performance part of the first residency with Wendy MacLeod (to see Wendy’s thoughts on this process, check out her Artistic Home blog post here). I am very eager to see what Ed and the playwrights learn from The Writers' Room and will be checking back with him regularly.

Listen to weekly podcasts hosted by David Dower as he interviews theatre artists from around the country to highlight #newplay bright spots. You can subscribe to the series via iTunes or this RSS Feed (for Android phones).


David Dower: Ed?

Ed Sobel: Yes, hi David.

David: So, my guest today is Ed Sobel, who's the associate artistic director at the Arden, correct?

Ed: That is correct.

David: Good. As I was saying that title, Ed, I suddenly realized, I never checked that. I've always thought that's what you're doing and I never actually looked to be sure. Yeah, there are so many different titles. Great. Well, Ed is the associated artistic director at the Arden, he said, definitively. And you've created this thing, and I really wanted to talk about today, because I know we had so many conversations over the years about process, especially the developmental process. You've done this thing now that you're calling The Writer's Room.

Ed: That's correct.

David: That I wanted everybody to be able to hear directly from you about. So could you talk about what you're doing there?

Ed: Sure, and I really appreciate the opportunity to do it, to talk with you about it. To very briefly describe what the program is. Then I'll talk about the rationale behind it and what I feel like we're trying to learn. The program is a playwright residency and play development program that culminates in production. So a writer is in residence in Philadelphia at the Arden for about six weeks completing the draft of a play. Then three or four weeks later, we put the play into a workshop and rehearsal process that culminates in a limited scale, but full production for a two-week run here at the Arden.

David: So wait, let me make sure I understand the timing of that. So there's a six-week residency for the writing process. Then there's a gap period and then there's the workshop to production process, or it is a six week process all ...

Ed: That's right, and the gap period is about maybe three or four weeks.

David Dower: Wow.

Ed: Just enough time to start a design process, rolling from what will become the limited scale production. Then the workshop and rehearsal period is four weeks with two weeks of performances. We don't have an official opening, per se. We treat those performances more like reviews, so the first weekend of performances there's rehearsal time during the day and performing at night. Then there's rehearsal time following the first weekend leading into the second weekend. We'll try, I think, to allow for the script to be frozen, at least, in its current form sometime for that second weekend. But there's opportunity for the playwright to make revisions all during that process.

David: So it's like a four-month process, beginning to end.

Ed: Yeah, you're exactly right.

David: Wow, okay. What a great, great way to study this stuff. How many have you done?

Ed: Well, this is the first one, which I'm in the midst of now. We're in technical rehearsals. We have our first public performances on Thursday night.

David: Wow, I'm catching you right at the ...

Ed: Yeah. So I have no idea what I'm talking about at this point.

David: Thanks for making the time Ed. I caught you when you're bleary, you're liable to say anything.

Ed: Yeah. It's probably best that way. So the basic ideas behind it, obviously, this is growing out of the conversation that people like you and Carl, and Todd London, and I, and other folks have been having over the last number of years about-

David: Decade.

Ed: What is ... I'm sorry.

David: A decade now.

Ed: Yes. A decade, yes, right. And looking at what are the processes that we use and how is that serving the work and how is it best serving writers. So part of the impulse behind this was me kind of ... It grew out of a bunch of things. One was talking with playwrights who were frustrated by the ongoing, never-ending development process that we've all talked about so much. And also talking to some writers who had gone off to start writing for, primarily, for TV. Obviously, money is a big part of that choice and I don't mean to diminish it, but when you drilled a little deeper with some of those writers, talking to them, there was also some other components to it, including immediacy. Which is that, you have the opportunity to write a TV episode, and within a couple of months, it was shot and in the air, then you moved onto the next thing.

So the idea of trying to find a way of capturing some of that immediacy got sparked in me. Thinking about artistic processes and saying if a writer is writing a play, and then goes through a year and a half of development, and then waits another year before it actually lands on somebody's schedule. So you're looking at, in an optimistic way, maybe it's two or three years since you actually wrote the play before you see it in front of people. I'm thinking is that necessarily the best, or only, way to go about making the work?

So we thought, well, let's try the opposite. Let's try to find the process that allows for the writer to stay very immediately connected to the initial creative impulse that generated the work. So let's shorten the timeline. Let's have our development process be production oriented. And let's see if, essentially, it's you write the play, we do the play, and let's keep going. So that was a big part of the impulse behind it and the residency component came out of stuff that you and I had been talking about a bit around the time that you were forming the institute and thinking about the relationship between playwrights and the larger institution. And were there ways of making that relationship feel more like an artistic hum. So that's where we started circling around, making it more of a residency and less like a remote commission. And looking, then, to try to find ways to involve the playwright while they were in residence in the life of the theatre in a more integral way. And also to share, what I think is, a tremendous resource, which is the artistic community here in Philadelphia.

So we gathered a group of five or six artists who work regularly at the Arden and we call them our Artistic Circle. These are a playwright, a couple of designers, a couple of actors who served as kind of a welcome committee for the playwright, for Wendy when she came into residence here.

David: And it's Wendy MacLeod you have there?

Ed: Yes, Wendy MacLeod is the first writer who's doing it.

David: Alright, great.

Ed: So the idea was to allow for Wendy to feel more introduced into the community. These people are all working. She has an opportunity to connect with them. To see shows that people are working on. To have somebody to go to plays with here. There's a lot of activity here and it was trying to get Wendy, who had not had a lot of experience with the Philadelphia art scene, to be able to make her feel more of a part of it and not just sitting off in a corner somewhere writing a play.

So the idea of the residency paired with this kind of development/production process were the major artistic impulses behind it. Then building on some of the work, again, that I've done at Steppenwolf and that we had done some out at Arena with the transparency for audiences is something also that we've been working at here. So there's a group of people, members of the general public who can buy what we call, An Inside the Writer's Room Pass. And they are given access to various touch tone points during the whole process. They come to the first reading of the play. They come to the first day of rehearsal. They have been at a number of, almost weekly, open rehearsal days that they come and watch rehearsals. They came to someone's tech and then they'll see the play and performance.

But the idea was to ... That's what some of those other programming was to provide an educational opportunity for the audiences to allow them to gain a greater and deeper understanding of what it takes to make a new play and, really, to make any play. So we have a group of about forty five people who have been following the process that way the whole way through.

David: Wow. That's so great. I don't know. We all get so busy with our own stuff that it's hard to know who's doing what. I'm so glad to be able to point a flashlight over there, even if it's just for me. I knew what you were doing in broad terms Ed, but I didn't know how many pieces of it you were touching on. So it's a million questions I have for you in here too, but go ahead. Make sure you've got it out there.

Ed: Yeah. I think that's a pretty good overview of it. And, you know, this is an attempt to build on the work that the Arden had been doing. The Arden's been able to form really terrific artistic partnerships with a couple of writers, particularly a couple of local writers, here in Philadelphia. So they're writing-

David: Is Bruce, no Michael Hollinger's there, right?

Ed: Michael Hollinger and Bruce Graham, both of whom-

David: And Bruce Graham, yeah, okay.

Ed: And kind of looking at that and saying but clearly the Arden is able to create a sense of home for writers, so how can we build upon that and widen that pool too, of writers with whom we're working. Audience engagement, I think, is something that the Arden has also been working toward pretty significantly. We offer a fair number of salon type events. We have post-show discussions. We have, after every performance of our children's programming, we have post-show discussions after every single performance. So there's been a lot of foundation upon which to build, in terms of trying to move a certain event work forward.

David: Alright. So I'm just going to start peppering you with practical questions about how it's working. Then we can get into the ideas of what you think you're discovering. So you said they come with a draft. Did I hear that part right, that this is based on ... The start of the six weeks is actually based on a draft, it's not based on an idea?

Ed: No, it's actually ... It can be anywhere and my initial intent was that people might just come with an idea. That in talking to writers, there were ... Different writers work different ways. So there are writers, I think, who kind of write over an extended period of time, but I've encountered a lot of writers, from my time working, that essentially wrote a play in about a month, or a strike. There was a lot of termination time that went in and thinking is doing, but when they actually sat down to write, it happens quickly.

So trying to sort of offer an opportunity to a writer who works that way. In Wendy's case, I think, she had an idea had been cooking for a while and I think she might have started some pages before she got here. But, I think, the majority of the play was written in that sort of six week span. From April 3rd, when she got here.

David: What's the daily life then of that six-week span? Obviously, if you're saying connecting the writer to the institution and the local artistic community, there's things that are going on. I'm imagining, because you're you, that things that are ... They fit the personality, maybe even chosen by the writer, and then guided by you as to what that schedule looks like. Right? You're making up the schedule.

Ed: I've mentioned also that there's another person who's been involved in this, a woman named Rebecca Wright, who was the former literary manager at InterAct Theatre here in Philadelphia. She's been serving as a kind of producer for the program, also she's shouldering a lot of the responsibility.

David: Which is nothing and I think it's important for people who are contemplating these kinds of things to understand that there ... You're using her as a producer. I think that term, it's important to really understand that, that's what it takes, a kind of mentality for the developmental residencies. They can't ... These things that they require the same kind of focus and attention and somebody to make sure it comes, happen as they're producing a play.

Ed: Right. I mean, the daily life, certainly during the residency Wendy was writing in the morning, mostly. Obviously, she and I had talked about the idea and at some point along the way, she sent me some pages. But we didn't really ... I didn't give her a lot of feedback about what she was working on because, in the initial stage, because again she's just writing the first draft essentially.

So she was writing a lot in the morning. She was going out and seeing shows at other theatres and seeing shows at the Arden. And had some meetings with other artistic leaders here in town. She came to some of our staff meetings on Tuesdays. She's having dinner a couple of times with some of our supporters or board members. The idea was, again, was for her to feel a bit more connected to the Arden, as an institution, then just a straight commission would allow for.

David: But these, that's she's doing, are toward developing that. They're not actually ... We often get these residency requirements that are as heavy as ... Heavy enough to eclipse the possibility of actually spending on writing. We're going to manages the ethics of program.

Ed: Yeah, so trying to find the right balance was exactly part of the challenge. So trying to be protective of Wendy's time and allowing for her to really deal with the focus, or primary energy, on writing the play. Then some of these other things, which were, I think, helpful fertilizer in some cases, in terms of the work that she was doing.

David: It's funny because some of the stuff that we discovered in the residencies at Arena was they were ... And those are still going on and have different kinds of experiences, as one would expect, but one of the things that emerged is there's a continuum looking for what's the successful mix for each writer, in terms of how much involvement and how much space. There can also be this kind of unbearable likeness of a residency where the writer doesn't even feel the institution or feel the community in any way, if there's not some; for making those connections.

Ed: Yeah. To give just a couple of concrete examples for how that's played out. Wendy has been into meet the staff and spent a little time both formally and informally and being at some of those staff meetings had an idea about how the play that she ultimately wrote would be marketed. And under most, I think, conditions, I don't know how well that would have gotten expressed within the institution. But because she already had this relationship with our marketing team she was able to go and say, "Hey, have you thought about XYZ, in terms of marketing the show?" Which, I think, was very helpful, in terms of how we've been able to talk about the piece. Another kind of more minor example, but still illustrative is, Wendy's husband is a painter and he has been with her in the residency. We have a couple of things in Philadelphia called First Fridays, where the whole area that we're in, in Philadelphia, in old city. It's a very vibrant artistic community around us. There's lot of art galleries. There's music venues and so forth.

So on the first Friday of each month, particularly during the summer months, all the galleries stay open late and there are some sidewalk exhibits of art work and music. We open up our lobbies for people to be coming in and having beer and that thing. Wendy said, "You know what, do you think would be fun if we exhibited some artwork on one of those First Friday nights to help draw people into the building?" Again, it was that kind of thing where because she knew who our marketing team was and who our development team was, that she was able to feel comfortable to approach that idea. Then we're going to do it this Friday night.

David: Great.

Ed: It's that kind of synergy, I think, is going to happen. I won't say we've been 100 percent successful. It was the first time out for a new program. Obviously, learning lessons about things that we can do better, but in terms of trying to capture the spirit of creating an artistic home for a writer, I feel like we've made some steps.

David: So the writing period takes place, the six weeks. Then the ... Was Wendy still in Philadelphia during that period? Did she go back to Kenyon?

Ed: Wendy was in Philadelphia through the six weeks. She was also taking some time to write some up in New Hampshire where she has a place. Then we did a table reading of the draft that she created during that time. About, I'm going to say, it was May 20th maybe, might have been May 13th. Then we had auditions, actually, kind of as she completed the first draft. So we needed to book actors before they got booked elsewhere. This is a play, it's a comedy, about the single women, divorced women, one of whom starts dating a man, the other two friends believe he's a serial killer.

So we knew we were three strong comedic actresses in their forties, so we wanted to try to cast that sooner rather than later. So we did some casting. Then we started workshop and rehearsal process the first week of June. There was a span of a couple of weeks, I think, where Wendy went back home for a week or so to deal with some stuff. Then she's pretty much been here since April 3rd. Then the rehearsal process, the first week, I would say, more closely resembles what we would think of as a workshop of a new play. It was a lot of us sitting around a table reading the play, reading scenes, Wendy taking time to do revisions, going home and rewriting a scene, restructuring something, coming back and hearing that out loud. It was very sort of workshop.

Then the second week was a bit more transition. The script was starting to take more solid shape and I would take some opportunity to have actors walk things and try to get to the physical life of the thing going. Then the last two weeks have been more closely resembling a more conventional rehearsal process. So it's a bit of a hybrid. You know, from an external footprint and my description, it may sound like, "Yeah, that's what you do with a new play," but the difference has been kind of emphasizing the play development side rather than the production side. Allowing that kind of time for Wendy to be able to do the rewriting that she wanted and needed to do either way.

The questions that we've been asking, partly, are production based and they're also, partly, what's the play really about and what did we discover about it now? It's been a little qualitative than just mounting a new play.

David: Wow. Questions going so many directions. Are these things going to open to review?

Ed: Well, we've asked that it not be and, so far, the press in Philadelphia has been seeming to understand that.

David: Great.

Ed: I mean, first of all, the production values are lower than what most people would normally expect at the Arden. Our production budget is lower and so forth. We're charging fifteen dollars for tickets for the performances, as opposed to thirty-five or forty. We're trying to find ways to signal people that this is a different thing. That this is worth seeing, but you ought not to the expectation that this is what you would get with an Arden subscription show. Press, after some direct one-on-one conversations, seems to be understanding that now.

David: Are you finding ... I'm sorry to interrupt. I'm just remembering you and I were in this conversation around theatre, around First Critic 101 with Chris Jones. About when do you and when don't you review. Chris was sort of staking out his own place in that regardless of the input of the theatre. But, of late, I see Chris is much more present in the conversations online. Peter Mark, certainly, has taken on a whole other personality, in terms of his relationship to the institutions and the artists of the community. Kris Vire, is it Vire from Timeout, in Chicago?

Ed: Right, right, right.

David: I see critics all over the conversation now engaging in these ideas about what's the appropriate role, where do we come in, how do we talk about these things. The critical community is kind of developing in its own sense of how to engage with this stuff, it seems, or is it more broad than ... I mean, am I in a little echo chamber of my own?

Ed: No. I mean, I think that's true. I mean, it makes sense because as the conversation among the artist grows and gains volume. One would hope that critics have taken notice of that too. I mean, that's the nice thing about it.

David: It's also growing with the audience. I mean, again, it's something you started, we should say, that this Theatre 101 program that we've been doing at Arena and I'm going to be modeling here in some way. That I basically called you and asked you if I could rip you off and you were generous enough to say, "Go for it." And not only did I ...

Ed: You paid me to do it, I don't know if you remember that.

David: I took the program, I made you come do it. But I think the audience is also getting more sophisticated, in terms of its expectation in relation to how critics talk about plays and process.

Ed: Yeah. I think that's true. At least, I mean, that's part of the hope of what we're doing. We don't have to spend ten minutes talking about the state of the press and media and what's happened to it over the last decade, but I think that's all part of the context of this. The rises, the sort of citizen critic, and what that says about the more established sort of critical mechanisms that were in place. They're having to adjust too, so it's a cultural shift. It's wider than just us.

David: It's very interesting. It's a very interesting moment around all this stuff. You feel like the artist, especially, and then also, to some degree, the press that I am most familiar with, or seeing most actively, participating in the conversation, at any rate. That there's something about the democritization of that conversation, the spread of that conversation, or amongst people who normally had sort of a space in it. I don't even know if it's a space, but haven't had the microphone. Starting more and more to find ways to talk to each other, for each other, and create coalitions outside of the old structures and it's becoming really shrill in certain quarters around this change. I don't even know. In fact, I have to figure out how to write about it, because I'm alarmed right now about the ... I don't know if you've been reading the last few days, the conversations-

Ed: The conversation, Michael Kaiser's blog, you mean?

David: Yeah, that stuff and the tone of a couple of the addresses at the TCG Conference. That I feel like there is a change taking place and it's uncomfortable, but it is happening. Like when this stuff, that you're talking about, even with these artists getting together to talk to each other in the Philadelphia community and hear Wendy ... I imagine I'm going to do one of the shout outs to my favorite Philadelphia actors, I imagine Grace is one of the comic actress that you're working with? Right?

Ed: Yes. She's in the show and she's also a member of this artistic circle of people that were here to welcome Wendy.

David: You mean, it's so her personality to be this person and there hasn't been for somebody like a Grace. Gonglewski is her last name, right?

Ed: Yes.

David: There's somebody who's been sort of the cure and anchor of an artistic renaissance in Philadelphia as an actor, spent her whole career there. And yet, there hasn't been a place for her, or somebody like her, in conversation or even in institution, a meaningful place, but they're finding ways to make those places for people and you've done that with her, obviously, and with playwrights. I mean, Michael and Ruth have a home there. That change is, I know, I can't see that there's anything but positive, but I feel like there's a backlash of concern that I'm alarmed by.

Ed: Yeah. Well, I think there's a lot of things to which that is attributable. We all know change is always hard.

David: Yeah, it is hard.

Ed: And it's difficult to break old patterns sometimes, but, the fact is, I think, look the culture is definitely changed in all kinds of ways. It's part of what's exciting to me is to try and understand some of that change is and what it means for the theatre.

David: Right.

Ed: The whole shift for me around this idea of transparency for audiences really comes out of the notion of that people see, have a much stronger interest in the self-curated and in co-creative participation in the arts. So without ... I'm trying to sort of thread a needle, I think, by saying ... Look, we're not going to just throw the doors open and say, "Anybody that wants to come into can make theatre, go right ahead." But to say that it's important to understand that, actually, your role, as an audience, you are a co-creator. That by participating in the new play process, in this way, you are actually being part of the creative process. I talked a little bit about how my hope is that it's for them, but it's also true that, and especially when you're working on a comedy, so this is particularly true, but it's also true that their presence is a constant reminder that this work has to be turned outwards.

I think one of the dangers of doing play development is that it gets very internal and you're concentrating primarily on an inward conversation. And the sort of constant reminder, that no, actually, in a few days this is going to be in front of people. Is actually helpful and useful to us. So it actually is, in certain ways, sort of a creative process and that, of course, goes to what the theatre is to me, that whole notion of it being different every night and being alive every night. To point audiences to that, in a way, because it is what makes us different. That's what we have on offer ultimately.

David: Yeah, exactly.

Ed: Is that kind of experience and if we don't highlight that, then why should anyone go through the convenience of getting here at the time that we say they have to be here and in the way that we say they have to be here. So we have to make the case for why that type of convenience is worthwhile. And I think framing it in a way that says, "You're being a co-creator when you do that," seems important to me. It's not just about language. It's about genuine acknowledgement that, that's the heart of what we do.

David: I think the part of what's changing, as well, is that it can't just be rhetoric. It can't just be spin. In this world, people are very, very quick to point out empty rhetoric, or online, it's often, that's a shill, that's not actually a conversation, this is a commercial. People are really quick to jump to that and they want actual content and actual engagement and not something that is managed and spun. You have to come with an authenticity in these things.

Ed: So walking the walk is like, yeah, we can't sugar coat. If they're going to watch me struggle over how to stage five pages for an hour and a half, that's what they see.

David: Exactly, and that's what they want to see. At least, my experience with Theatre 101 is I was terrified of bringing people to tech because that just seemed like that's going to be so boring, first of all. And it also is really people don't necessarily behave well sometimes. Tech stresses everybody's nerves and maybe we don't want that. The audience that have participated in it, so far, that's one of the most engaged events for people. They see the meticulousness of what we do. They see the collaboration and it's there in the tech process. The way that little conversations result in little tiny changes. There's a fascination with that process. And a total understanding and acceptance of how it creates that work or whatever else is showing are earned in that way.

Ed: Right.

David: But if we were to sort of gloss over and do some sort of hour of performance of teching for a show, people would be bored out of their minds, but the actual tech, they sit there for four hours.

Ed: Right.

David: I haven't thought about this and tell me if this is what you're experiencing or what your hope is. It seems like what you're also making possible Ed is, a process by which writers, in particular, than theatres alongside those writers, can actually be much more responsive to the moment in a culture too, to a micro-moment. If you're able to do this whole thing, in a four-month period, then people can actually be making very responsive plays, or they could be.

Ed: That certainly wasn't necessarily the intent behind the program, but thinking about what are some of the challenges or deficits with the more protracted process, yeah, that was one of them. You can write about something now in the immediate if you're not going to see it for three years. Listen, I think I'm just artistically probably more, generally more, attracted to work that is probably less time strained than that, but so the driving for me is like you're on fire about an idea and about something and most smart people, like really good playwrights are really smart people, they are passionate and excited about something. Then they can get passionate and excited about something else. Wanted to kind of keep that passion alive during the whole process really. Wendy, I don't think, wasn't attempting to write a world changing play. This is a comedy, but she's going after some territory that is pretty unusual.

It's talking about when, in middle age, confronting some of the challenges of being that age. Not that there are no plays like that, but that's something that is fairly underrepresented in most of what gets produced. So this was an opportunity for her to have the confidence to tackle that subject knowing that the production was going to happen.She didn't have to pull punches about what she wanted to write about, in a way, because of the guarantee that we were going to do it.

David: Right. Well, I have to stop because this call has gotten so long, but can you and I come back to this then after this closes? Because one of the things, Ed, that I really want to figure out with you is, how does what you're learning here get shared more broadly? Because it's such a great set of experiments, that you're running. So can we come back to this after, sometime after it's over, this first one, and let's think out loud about what you learned and what you would suggest if other people want to pick up the experiment and run with it? I guess, I should just say, I know you well enough to assume that's part of what you're thinking. Is that this experiment is taking place in the context of a field of people trying to experiment.

Ed: Right. That's my hope, which is part of why I'm so grateful for the conversation today is because, yeah, I hope that we're able to share what we learned. That this is a very exploratory experimental process. We're trying to figure out if this is even helpful. It might be that the year and a half, while people complained about it, actually served some very, very important needs. So let's talk about what those things are and then to look at what happens if you don't have that time? What does that do to the process? What did we learn about it from there? Absolutely.

David: And there's always the danger, and this is part of the ride we're on. There's always the danger of something becoming so a fad immediately, and then replacing ... becoming a template quickly. So the more we can talk about these things, as we learn, and we can be more precise about where the right circumstances, where the circumstances that call for this, or actually would frustrate this kind of thing and what are the outcomes we're after when we do this?

Ed: Right.

David: Can really move the whole conversation forward. Well, great, I'm going to call you then in a few weeks after you're through this process. I know you're directing it, as well. I can't believe you had the time to talk to me, but I have missed talking to you. Those of you who are listening in, Ed and I have had hours, and hours, and hours of conversation that don't get anymore personal than this. We just talk about ideas, and theory, and what we're learning, and then we go and do our thing. So, way to go, I'm really delighted to be hearing what's going on, and to be watching what's going, on and I can't wait to hear how it went.

Ed: Well, thanks. I always love talking about this stuff David and I appreciate talking the opportunity to share a little bit of it.

David: Alright. More soon, and best of luck in the next couple of weeks.

Ed: Great, thanks.

David: Okay.

Ed: Bye.

David: Bye.



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