Hitting the Road

Shifting a Playwright’s Perspective

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see productions of a number of my full-length plays in different cities, each time produced by a different theatre company. This is an invaluable part of the process of continuing to refine and develop the script and also to see how different audiences and communities react to the material.

Most of my work is done by small companies, so they rarely have the resources to tour a show from city to city. Which means that when I see one of my plays produced in Washington DC and then later in Chicago, yes, the audiences react differently, but the productions are completely different, too. As with any play performance, what I witness is a fascinating mash-up of the interaction between the cast, script, design, direction, and audience. It’s hard to know how much of the differences come from each aspect.

As a playwright, I’m hyper-aware of audiences during performances. I see as many performances of my shows as I can, just to be there when the alchemy happens of adding that final ingredient to a production and the script is fully alive.

Recently, I had the privilege of working with the Brown Box Theatre Project on my play Lab Rats. This is a fun two-hander about young people living on the margins of society who make a sparse living as experimental test subjects. It’s also an interracial love story—Mika is a white woman and Jake is a black man, and both face some pretty serious challenges when it comes to navigating through the world.

Artistic Director Kyler Taustin comes from the eastern shore of Maryland, though he lives in Boston now, so all Brown Box shows end up starting out with free public performances in Boston, and then move down to venues in Maryland for additional shows. Their mission is to bring high-quality theatre to communities that otherwise lack access to the performing arts, and there are very few theatre options in the areas of Maryland where they perform. They also tour some shows to Mexico.

two actors in hospital gowns on stage
Brenna Fitzgerald and Marc Pierre in Lab Rats. Photo by Nile Hawver.

When Brown Box produced Lab Rats in November in Boston, we had full houses and enthusiastic audiences and reviews. The show was warmly received and seemed to come across as a heart-felt, quirky love story. A fun evening out. Then we packed up the set and drove down to Maryland, first to a small venue in Salisbury and then to Ocean City. Normally, playwrights don’t get to go on tour, so when they asked me along, I jumped at the chance. I figured I could earn my keep helping assemble the set (I’m pretty handy with a screw gun), and I’d have a chance to get to see how different communities react to the exact same production.

Kyler, who directed the show, gave us a heads up that audiences in Maryland would be a bit more conservative than those in Boston. The actors and I, of course, said, “All right.” Not quite sure what to expect.

As a playwright, I’m hyper-aware of audiences during performances. I see as many performances of my shows as I can, just to be there when the alchemy happens of adding that final ingredient to a production and the script is fully alive.

As soon as the show opened in Salisbury, we could feel the difference in reaction right away. At first it was just to the language—Mika swears a lot, and I could sense some of the older audience members tensing up. It’s not proper for a young lady to swear like a sailor. But then when the relationship turned romantic and physical, parts of the audience were clearly uncomfortable. I watched one man in the front row who might just as well have been frozen. The actors told me that during the performance, there was one man up front who cleared his throat every time Jake touched Mika.

two actors holding hands on stage
Brenna Fitzgerald and Marc Pierre in Lab Rats. Photo by Nile Hawver.

This community and audience was creating a very different play with us, one that was a lot edgier and less comfortable. There’s a section where Mika talks about having had an abortion, and in Boston that part had kind of skimmed by the crowd. But as I was watching in Salisbury, I suddenly remembered that it was coming, and sure enough, when it got there, I could feel the audience react. Oh, she had an abortion. That’s terrible. What do I feel about a woman like that? How do the people sitting next to me feel about her choice?

Afterward, we had an audience talkback. Of course, as often happens, the people who were most uncomfortable or most disapproving left right away, so the post-show discussion was now steered by people who weren’t pushed so negatively. One woman actually wept when she raised her hand to make a comment, grateful, she said, to finally see an interracial relationship portrayed on stage in their community. A young black man came up to me after the talkback and asked, “How did it feel to write about Jake’s problems with the medical community?” I hadn’t really thought about how it, I told him. “How did it feel to watch it?” I asked. “Like a breath of fresh air,” he said.

two actors kissing on stage
Brenna Fitzgerald and Marc Pierre in Lab Rats. Photo by Nile Hawver.

After that first night in Maryland, I suddenly had a very different perspective on the play. I also felt a bit jolted out of the complacency that I might get with having most of my work produced in Boston, where I’m quite comfortable with understanding (usually) how audiences will react and to having them often share my political/social views. As Kyler pointed out to me, these kinds of audience reactions are exactly why Brown Box does the work it does—to challenge audiences and offer new and different styles and themes.

My time on tour made me feel like my writing was actually doing something positive and interesting. I felt more awakened to the importance of experiencing work with different communities, when possible, to better understand the script I’ve created and to better understand how theatre works and has an impact on the people involved. I encourage any playwrights who have the opportunity to tour with their plays to give it a try.

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I love that you were able to see the same show in two completely different venues. The very different audience reactions will no doubt go into your creative mind, and something wonderful will most likely come out of it.