New Theater, Playwrights Local 4181, To Produce Local Writers’ Scripts

PLaywrights

The Cleveland-Akron area has many, many theaters. They each fulfill a mission.

Dobama states its purpose is “to premiere the best contemporary plays by established and emerging playwrights in professional productions of the highest quality.” The Tony Award-winning Cleveland Play House, the first professional regional theater, states its goal is “to inspire, stimulate and entertain diverse audiences in Northeast Ohio by producing plays and theater education of the highest professional standards.” Ensemble’s function is “producing American classics.”

David Todd, artistic director of Playwrights Local 4181, recognizes that some theaters have writer’s units that work on the development of new plays, and on occasion, stage or do staged readings of original play scripts. However, he states, “No local organization is dedicated to solely producing new scripts.”

Todd and his supporting group present themselves as “a playwrights’ center,” which means they will “develop plays (and playwrights), produce plays, and otherwise provide our dramatists with a long-needed home.” They also intend to “offer classes, host projects in the community and arrange special events.” They intend to “provide a style of playwright-driven theater” similar to those “found in New York and Chicago.”

The theater’s battle cry seems to be, “all-new, all-locally created work.”

Those unfamiliar with how a play gets on stage should be aware that the starting point is usually a script. It may be the sole creation of a writer or writers, inspired by an idea, an incident or some source such as a book or poem or even a work of art that has inspired the writing of a script with the intention of getting it presented on a stage.

On the other hand, a writer may be hired by someone, usually a producer, who engages the writer to create a script. In some instances, an organization may encourage or employ someone to produce a document which places the spotlight on the organization’s purpose or some cause they wish to place in the public’s attention.

Once the script is written, it is common to have others read and comment upon the material. Sometimes an expert, a dramaturge, is hired to work with the writer on developing the project. Often, in order for the playwright to hear what the script sounds like, a group of actors read the material aloud and breath life into the characters. The writer may find that the script holds up well or that it needs rewriting.

Often, the next stage in the production process is to have a staged reading where actors, usually using scripts and podiums, prepare an oral presentation, usually under the guidance of a director. That reading is usually done before an audience. A discussion often follows, which allows for additional evaluation of the material. The play may also receive a staging. This process may be repeated again and again until the script is “set,” vetted to the place that the playwright is satisfied that it has jelled into a final product, ready for staging, with no expected changes to be made.

In rare instances a writer prepares a script and, without any evaluations or readings, it is staged. This is rare, but does happen.

Playwrights Local 4181’s first staged production is Les Hunter’s To the Orchard. According to a representative of the organization, Mr. Hunter’s play is set “in its final form.”

To The Orchard, according to Kelsey Angel Baehrens, who plays Rachel Bergman, the central character who is a young gay Orthodox Jewish writing student at Brooklyn College, is “about seeking the courage to live your own truth …It’s a sad show.”

Author Les Hunter adds, “All of the characters are wrestling with their pasts and who they are, and looking for ways to go forward.”

Dale Heinen, the play’s director says, “The play deals with the aftermath of the death of Rachel’s mother and what it means to her husband and her daughter.” She adds, “There’s an element of magical realism to the play, and a lot of humor.”

As for the production itself, Heinen indicated she needed to understand the world that the author, Hunter, constructed.

“There is a lot we didn’t know, that we had to learn in order to give the world its proper dimensions … The life of this community [Orthodox Jewish in Brooklyn], the life of this family [who recently lost their female lynchpin], the way the religion is practiced [often turning to their rabbi, their religious leader, for guidance and wisdom], the set of beliefs that go with it [how to honor the dead, what foods to eat, what the philosophy of Orthodox Judaism is regarding homosexuality], the history of the religion [the theory of the wandering Jews, the Eastern European roots of this particular family and religious leader].”

As a former dramaturge, professor of theater, director, actor, playwright and theatre critic, I found the script to be wanting, in need of further refinement. The script is mainly a dialogue. There is little to no action. The way the script was staged, or since I didn’t see the script, it may have been the way the writer formatted the material, the staging was static. Scene stage right, scene stage left, often simultaneous stage left and right staging. It often felt like we were watching a tennis match.

There was much movement of stage furniture, breaking the flow of the action. Much of that seemed  unnecessary. Use of spotlights to accent certain areas would have fulfilled the same purpose. In fact, this is a script which doesn’t appear to need a staged production. A reading would have done just fine as this is a word play, a closet drama. Very little of the stage action added much, if anything.

The staging left much to be desired. The use of electronic graphics to create the set was interesting, but often disconcerting as the actors often were absorbed by the visuals or cast shadows on the “scenery.” The actors (Baehrens, Andrea Belser, Robert Branch, Michael Regnier), though they clearly knew their lines and put out full effort, didn’t always stay in character or texture their parts to the point of making the people real.

Some of the dialogue seemed forced, unnatural, a written rather than an oral style. Whether this was the script, the director or the actors’ fault, is unclear.

The script contains many concepts of Orthodox Judaism with which many in the audience were probably unfamiliar. Even I, brought up in a tradition almost identical to that of the characters in the play, found myself confused about some of the speeches and actions. Giving the audience a list of vocabulary words did little to help. It is the responsibility of the author to invent ways of writing dialogue to take care of this problem.

One might ask, who is the audience for this script? To whom does it speak? For whom does it speak?

Capsule judgment: Playwrights Local 4181 should be lauded for filling a void in the Cleveland theater world. Their goal of producing locally written and developed scripts is admirable. Their initial production, To the Orchard, was a valiant try. Though the final outcome left much to be desired, every new undertaking has to have a place from which to grow. The organization has laid its foundation and it should be encouraged to showcase what hopefully will be a successful and fruitful future.

To The Orchard runs through Sun 6/12. Playwrights Local 4181’s next production will be Objectively/Reasonable: A Documentary Play on the Shooting of Tamir Rice. It will be directed by Terrence Spivey, the former artistic director of Karamu in August, 2016. For information go to playwrightslocal.org/.

[Written by Roy Berko, Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association]

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