The Sweatermakers Weaves a Sly, Subversive Spell

Andrew Wardenaar: Playwright

Andrew Wardenaar: Playwright

The Sweatermakers by playwright Andrew Wardenaar is a strange play. I think Andrew would freely admit that. But it’s strange because of its innovation: it refuses to be a comedy or drama—in a big way—by essentially being both. When it’s funny, it’s wildly funny, really going for it, and when it’s dramatic, it’s as serious as…. Well, that would be giving things away.

The play takes the audience on a ride, and, if one thinks of that as strange, it’s because it honestly does something that we see too little on stage: it takes chances. Big chances. And the script, director, cast, and designers rock it. You can see it in the audience when the lights come up. Their faces wear that bemused, slightly stunned smile that says: that was…a trip. And you know they’re going to be carrying those words and images with them for quite some time. Those words not only entertain: they pose questions about the society we’ve been woven into.

Since 2011, Andrew has been a member of Playwrights West (a Portland theatre company created and operated by playwrights, serving as a collective to the produce its members’ work). Andrew’s play Live, From Douglas was featured in Portland Theatre Works’ 2009 LabWorks workshop. Another of his plays, Spokes, premiered in 2008 as part of a compilation of short works entitled Me, Me, Me and Ewe. His other works include The Next Smith, Anachronous, The Attendant and Good One, God. Mr. Wardenaar is also a director and recently graduated with an MFA at the University of Portland.

Director Matthew B. Zrebski helms the show. He’s a multi-award winning playwright, composer, script consultant, teaching artist, and producer-director whose career has been defined by new play development. He has served as the Artistic Director for Youth Could Know Theatre, Theatre Atlantis, and Stark Raving Theatre—all companies specializing in new work—and, since 1995, has mounted over 40 world premieres. He holds a BFA in Theatre from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

The Sweatermakers’ cast includes: Jen Rowe, JR Wickman, Ben Buckley, and Sharon Mann. Designers include: scenic design by Tal Sanders, lighting design by J.D. Sandifer, sound design by Em Gustason, and costume design by Ashton Grace Hull.

Though Andrew’s a thoroughly seasoned theatre professional, with The Sweatermakers, he’s experiencing something playwrights never forget: his first fully staged production. We talked, and here’s what he says about his own journey.

 

SW ADD 1How did the play change from the beginning of the production process to opening night?

I have been working on this play for several years now, and it has seen numerous changes over the course of its development, but when it was just me and my laptop, most of the revisions altered the plot, or planted character seeds. Going into the production process brought several practical issues to the forefront, however. The Sweatermakers had always been a very presentational piece of theatre and aspects of it were thoroughly cinematic. That becomes a problem in a space as intimate as CoHo Theatre. Originally, the play hinged on the ability to hide things, but with audience on three sides, mere feet from the actors, such a thing would have proven impossible.

In lieu of hiding, we featured. The blackouts, a convention introduced to disguise the movement of the actors and the placement of the props, became an essential part of the play’s rhythmic language, and the sudden darkness became an essential part of the audience’s experience. Split scenes, which in earlier drafts were supposed to show what was going in different locations, necessarily bled into one another and began to interact. Everything became more organic, as was the case when the playing of the clarinet was replaced by the human sound of whistling. The play became about the actor in a simple space, which I believe is what makes the medium of theatre so deeply compelling. The embracing of simplicity doesn’t just address pragmatic concerns, it betters the storytelling.

Through the production process/rehearsals, did your ideas or feelings about the play changeSW ADD 5?

Absolutely! One of the most rewarding things about being a writer is getting to hear what others take away from your material. I’ve had tastes of this throughout my career, but usually in the form of questions at readings, or comments from colleagues that have looked at my work. To be exposed to the interpretation of a roomful of thoughtful artists night after night, though, drove home the fact that the ideas we playwrights touch on are just the beginning of the discussion with our collaborators and our audiences. In earlier drafts, I was hyper-focused on what I was trying to say with the piece. In the rehearsal room, and in performance, I am solely interested in what others are hearing.

Was there a point where you felt like: “wow…this is really happening”?

Yup. I’m still there. Mind = perpetually blown.

How did opening night feel?

Opening night is always terrifying for me as a director or designer, but to experience as a playwright, to be the artist that has created the foundation that the show is built upon, raises the anxiety even higher. It was exhilarating and mortifying, a trip that I’m still coming down from. But there sure is a grin on my face.

Did the other artists show you things about the play that you hadn’t seen before?SW ADD 7

I learned more about the play in the past four months, collaborating, than I did over the course of the past four years of writing in solitude. Every design meeting, rehearsal, and performance has been a rich learning experience.

Did the experience change you? If so, how?

Yes. Irrevocably. But I’m honestly not sure how to articulate it. To simply say that it improved my writing skills and producing knowledge is insufficient. There’s been a spiritual shift. One that I have not yet grasped.

 

Portland, Oregon, theatregoers have but three more chances to see the world premiere of The Sweatermakers: it closes Saturday, August 30th. The Sweatermakers plays at CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St, Portland, Oregon) at 7:30 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Friday and Saturday tickets are $25, or $20 for students and seniors. This Thursday’s show (August 28th) are at a special $10 for both online sales and walk-ups, in an effort to make new work accessible to all audiences. Tickets can be purchased through CoHo Productions, at www.cohoproductions.org (503-220-2646). For more information see Playwrights West: http://www.playwrightswest.org/sweatermakers/

 


An Open Letter on Playwrights West’s “The Sweatermakers”

Sweathermakers - BenA number of years ago, I banded together with other professional playwrights in Portland to launch a theatre company: Playwrights West. We operate using a unique model—over a ten-year period, we fully produce a play by each playwright member, one play per year. And we feature some of Portland’s best talent, striving to create plays that rise to the playwright’s expectations—basically, giving that writer a chance to fully realize their vision. (We also do some cool group projects that incorporate all the writers’ work…watch for some stuff coming up Fall 2014.) Staging all world premieres, we present original work that Portlanders will see first and can’t see elsewhere (that is, until other theatre company snap up the plays…because they will).

We’ve produced fine plays by Patrick Wohlmut (“Continuum”) and Ellen Margolis (“Licking Batteries”), and this year we embark on our third production: “The Sweatermakers” by Andrew Wardenaar (opening Friday, August 8, 2014).

And here’s where that “original” part comes in. You can’t call “The Sweatermakers” a comedy—though parts of it are very funny—and you can’t call it a straight, typical drama, given its slightly skewed, absurdist feel that’s both grounded and somewhat…magical. It plays its own individual tune.

In brief, the story goes: a brother and sister make beautiful sweaters that mysteriously arrive to comfort the recently bereaved. The two live in their own, sheltered world, and though it’s comforting, it can also be confining. When especially beautiful material arrives for an obviously special sweater, Brin—the sister—can’t help herself and ventures out to find its recipient. And things…get…weird.

It’s a thoughtful, beautifully calibrated story, with a fine cast, designers, and director (Matthew B. Zrebski), and it feels like one of those shows that haunt you for years. The ones that you suddenly find yourself thinking of, out of nowhere. Plays that won’t leave you alone.

Obviously, I urge you to check it out (formal show information follows below). All of Playwrights West’s shows have been excellent (and all entirely different from one another). But this one feels like it’s got a little bit of special…mojo. It’s quirky, but it has gravitas. In Portland, we know quirky. And memorable.

With Playwrights West, Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, the Fertile Ground Festival, and the many gifted (and adventuresome) writers in town, along with a highly literate audience and a great talent pool that loves working on new shows, Portland feels more and more like a home for developing new plays. Sure, we’ve become famous for gourmet roasted coffee, microbrews, farm-to-table food, and great independent stores, like Powell’s Books, Music Millennium, and Portland Nursery. But what could be more unique and artisanal that cooking new original plays? In our own little laboratory. One of these days, we’re going to open up the Sunday New York Times to see an article on Portland’s original theatre scene. It’s happened with our indie music. It’s coming with new theatre work.

I invite you to be there first and check out “The Sweatermakers.” Plus it’ll be Andrew’s first full production, and, man, there’s nothing as wild as that. If you’re not from Portland, keep an eye on this guy. He’s got chops.

(And, yes, I have a show coming up. On Saturday, September 6, Willamette University will present a reading of my play “Immaterial Matters,” which won a new play contest at CoHo Theatre a couple of years ago and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. It’s damned quirky. http://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/life/2014/06/14/new-theater-enters-summer-three-free-staged-readings/10455975/)

Best,

Steve

—————————–

The Sweatermakers

A World Premiere Production Written by Playwrights West’s Andrew Wardenaar

Playwrights West in association with CoHo Productions presents The Sweatermakers, a world premiere drama by Andrew Wardenaar. The Sweatermakers marks the third year in Playwrights West’s ten-year mission to present quality, professional productions of its members’ works.

The Play

It’s one of the worst days of your life. A package arrives. It contains a beautiful, handmade sweater, perfect for you. And maybe, for a moment, you find solace. But where did it come from? Who made it? Confined to their own secluded world, Brin and Henry—a remarkably close sister and brother—craft beautiful sweaters, designed to comfort those in need. One day, exquisite material arrives. It’s so striking that Brin can’t help but wonder whom it’s destined for. The question haunts her until she breaks the rules and ventures out to find its recipient. And the siblings’ perfect, self-contained but restrictive world, begins to unravel….

Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, The Sweatermakers—woven with humor, psychological insight, and magic realism—affectionately explores our need for human connections, the change those connections bring, and their sometimes painful consequences.

The world premiere of The Sweatermakers marks Mr. Wardenaar’s first full-length production. In 2012, the play won the Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s playwriting contest, and they subsequently presented it as a staged reading during the 2013 Fertile Ground Festival.

The Details

The Sweatermakers opens August 8, 2014, and runs through August 30 at CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St, Portland, Oregon). It plays 7:30 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday tickets are $25, or $20 for students and seniors. All seats on Thrifty Thursdays are $15. Tickets can be purchased through CoHo Productions, at www.cohoproductions.org (503-220-2646). For more information see Playwrights West: http://www.playwrightswest.org/sweatermakers/

The Artists

Playwright Andrew Wardenaar has been a member of Playwrights West since 2011. His play Live, From Douglas was featured in Portland Theatre Works’ 2009 LabWorks workshop. Another of his plays, Spokes, premiered in 2008 as part of a compilation of short works entitled Me, Me, Me and Ewe. His other works include The Next Smith, Anachronous, The Attendant and Good One, God. Mr. Wardenaar is also a director and recently graduated with an MFA at the University of Portland.

Director Matthew B. Zrebski is a multi-award winning playwright, composer, script consultant, teaching artist, and producer-director whose career has been defined by new play development. He has served as the Artistic Director for Youth Could Know Theatre, Theatre Atlantis, and Stark Raving Theatre—all companies specializing in new work—and, since 1995, has mounted over 40 world premieres. He holds a BFA in Theatre from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

The Sweatermakers’ cast includes: Jen Rowe, JR Wickman, Ben Buckley, and Sharon Mann. Designers include: scenic design by Tal Sanders, lighting design by J.D. Sandifer, sound design by Em Gustason, and costume design by Ashton Grace Hull.


Revisiting “The Twilight Zone”

Zen PathReading, of late, about one Rod Serling. Writer. Producer. Creator. A man who seemed to have everything going for him. And then….

Yeah, well…and then shit happens. Apparently, he pretty much worked and smoked himself to death, and he died early. Just like his father. A fate that always haunted him. There’s an object lesson for you: sometimes you can’t see the obvious because you don’t want to see the obvious. Or because it scares you too much. And, because you can’t see it, you doom yourself to it. The kind of thing that happens in…the Twilight Zone.

Man. That’s one hell of a voice the guy had. Every writer follows a different process, but, once I hear a character’s voice, a door opens into the story. I can’t explain it—that’s just how it happens for me. And if you hear Serling or watch his work, that voice sticks to you. Pretty soon it won’t let you go. And then people wonder why you’re talking so weird. So ironically. Snapping off every word. Holding for dramatic effect. Like…this.

Which is a kind of genius. It’s a brand. If you like Rod Serling and the strange world he became associated with through his remarkable television show The Twilight Zone, then you know what you get when you hear that voice. The poignant side? With time, that’s all anyone wants to hear. You’re stuck with it. They won’t let you change it and grow. It can also become cruel when your audience tires of that voice. If it becomes too familiar. Some in the audience just wait for Dylan’s old songs. Some won’t listen to the Stones because they don’t sound as good as they used to. Why? They repeat themselves. And because the listeners themselves aren’t as young as their memories.

It’s a tough choice: give people what they want or risk repeating yourself and burning them out. It seems the artists who transcend that operate with very good compasses: they know who they are, and part of their brand is trying new stuff. You like them because you don’t know what you’ll get, but it’s likely to be good. It’s said Picasso could own anything he wanted if he could paint it, but he continually tried new forms, excelling at them and putting his “Picasso” stamp on them. Part of Tom Waits’ genius seems lie in the continual search for new sounds. It doesn’t always work, but, a lot of times, it’s very, very good. And there’s always that little bit of that Tom Waits DNA that keeps you coming back. There’s magic, and there’s tragic magic, and you have to risk one to achieve the other.

The Twilight Zone was wondrous. I don’t even think we knew how good it was at the time. I was too young to remember its debut seasons, but I grew up with it in syndication. I was not, however, too young for Night Gallery, Serling’s kind of reboot of The Twilight Zone. By the time that came out in the Seventies, Serling’s outlook had darkened, and the show reflected that darkness. He wasn’t entirely in charge of the program, as he was with The Twilight Zone, and sometimes it slipped into camp. But I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to Night Gallery evenings. (They always seemed to be rainy.) You didn’t know where you would go, and sometimes you went to very dark places indeed. Very dark. Which, to me were the coolest, most mysterious places to be, and very different than…than being a geeky kid in a small town. In the Pacific Northwest. Where it seemed some winters that the sun never made it all the way across the sky. Where the rain and the fog blurred the edge of everything. Blunted the colors. You didn’t realize how fabulously beautiful everything around you was until the sun came out, but sun didn’t last long. I came to like images with a little blur to them. Where you couldn’t quite be sure of what you were seeing. You had to guess, relying on your imagination to complete the picture.

What did the Night Gallery look like? Like an actual gallery, it varied. They hung a lot of paintings in three years. Sometimes, they didn’t turn out that well, and, looking at them now, you kind of shrug, shake your head. Yeah…well, they tried. And they were on deadline. Sometimes they retain their power and mystery. If that sort of darkness interests you (and it’s okay if it does), take a look.

Somewhere in there, Night Gallery stamped me with its mark, and I came to enjoy diving into that deep place where it really gets strange and frightening. I don’t give a damn about slasher pics or much of the stuff that passes for horror. But the fantastic, the uncomfortable, the…haunted, where the hero doesn’t always walk out in the sunshine at the end: it took ahold of me. In some ways, I’ve been writing about ever since. A writer friend says my work is haunted. (Maybe it’s me that’s haunted.) But that darkness, that blur, seems to distinguish my writing and photographs. Maybe that’s my brand.

To me, it just feels like beneath the surface of ordinary life, things remain hidden. Jung called it the unconscious—he was a scientist; so that’s kind of antiseptic. But there’s nothing clean or classifiable about the genuine intersection of the hidden and the ordinary, between dreams and reality. Some pretty good stories happen there. And maybe they show us that the world is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.

That’s paraphrasing Einstein, whose brand became synonymous with genius. He died four years before The Twilight Zone went on the air. Would he have watched it? I like to think he would have. Marking Twilight Zone nights on his calendar. We’ve come to find that when you take apart the smallest operating particles of reality, they don’t always act as suspected. Sometimes they’re here, but only for the briefest moments, and, in those nanoseconds, they don’t play by the rules. It appears that a twilight zone occurs within every thing. Within all of us. All the time.

There’s something to walk away with…Serling. You did good.

 

 


Vox in a Box

Paranoid VoxoidFirst, the bad news: the real thing will set you back at least $1,600 new. At the low end. A true, working, vintage model will cost considerably more. Much more. And there’s nothing like the real thing.

The good news: you can fake it for considerably less.

We’re talking about the Vox AC30 amplifier, particularly the Top Boost model. In a field that seems dominated by Fender, Marshall, and Mesa/Boogie (the sort of holy trinity of clean, crunch, and gonzo) and their “inspirations,” Vox amps kind of sit off to the side. Which is funny because if you run an AC30 light, you get the lovely, clear, chimey midrange and sparking treble associated with the amp. Turn it up, and you get a rich, soulful crunch. Crank it over, and you get this fantastic, singing overdrive. The trinity, all in one. And none of it sounds like anything else.

That’s where it gets tricky: what exactly is that Vox sound? You’d think you could nail it by listening to AC30 players, but the amp’s versatility and quirkiness complicates that. This is an amp serving the Beatles, the Shadows, the Stones (in the Decca years), Tom Petty, Peter Buck, Ray Davies, Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Thom Yorke), Matt Bellamy, Dave Grohl, Braid Paisley, Tom Verlaine, the Yardbirds, and Brian May.

If one player serves as a Rosetta stone, it’s The Edge. Famously he’s said to have played a battered, 1964-era AC30 (in a Seventies cabinet) on every U2 album and concert. Not every cut, of course. At this point, The Edge can pretty much own any amp made, and he’s known to use Fender Deluxes, Fender Blues Juniors, Roland JC120s (like that’s a surprise), and a 50-watt Marshall. But, if you say his name to a guitar freak, an AC30 comes to mind. And there’s probably no better example of the classic AC30 sound as “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There’s the delay, of course—part of The Edge’s signature. I believe he’s playing a Fender Stratocaster: those single-coil pickups add to the chirp. But it wouldn’t have quite the same…shimmer without the Vox. Chime, jangle, ring—whatever you want to call it: it’s more than just a clear treble. There’s a fullness and a warmth to a sound that otherwise could prove piercing. Somewhere, there’s a piano hiding inside that box.

That broad, balanced clarity carries through to AC30 players who run their amps hot. Brian May runs a whole backline of them, and obviously he cranks the hell out of them for that overdriven, “violin-like” sound, but, despite the gain, you can still hear the notes. You have to work pretty hard, slathering on the effects, to blur the AC30’s crystalline qualities (that’s you I’m looking at, Kevin Shields…even though even Shields dirties it up with Marshalls).

And maybe it’s no surprise that “effects” and “AC30” go together: there’s something the amp loves about delays, tremolo, reverb, and other modulation effects. A touch goes a long ways, but the amp holds its sonic fingerprint even…if you’re The Edge.

The amp also weighs about 50 pounds and can get seriously loud—very likely more than you’ll need in smaller venues. So it’s not really the amp for open mic night.

The good news is that the modelers and pedal designers have long had their eyes/ears on the AC30, and digital approximations have been built into many multieffects units—high and low end. Ersatz, perhaps, but it’s a start, and the technology continues to improve.

A better option, especially if you already have a tube amp, is to set it up to run as clean as possible and add a stompbox dedicated to replicating an AC30. Tech 21 make a well-regarded Liverpool box, and similar boxes include: the Martin AC-tone , the Menatone Top Boost in a Can  (come on, that’s a great name), the Xotic AC Booster, the Catalinbread CB30  (note: one of many gifted Portland guitar effects companies), and the Joyo AC (which only runs about $40…Joyo’s a whole story in itself).

I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the Boss BC-2 Combo Drive. They seem to have bottled a bit of the AC30 mojo in a unit that rolls from sparkle to roar (with a sweet crunch in the middle), and I think I hear just a bit of compression to add a tube dynamic, because AC30s are known for their responsiveness. It works okay by itself or with a solid state amp, but pair it with a clean, neutral tube amp, and you might find yourself wandering down Abbey Road. For a couple of hours. This video from guitarist Pete Thorn lays it out quite nicely: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nJZUU_ZJHzc (Hint: crank it up.)

Plus, you know, it’s hard to toss an AC30 in your gig bag. Your ears may be a little bummed, but your back will thank you.


What’s New with the splatterverse?

Extensive entries have been added to the Theatre Resources section, and most of my play pages now include excerpts. Plus the page for my play Bombardment includes links to posts that serialize the entire play (which, unfortunately, is stark raving daft).

Thanks,

Steve

 


Samples from the Other Side

The Splatterverse now includes excerpts from some of my plays, in case anyone wants to do some casual reading.

Rather than pick the most dramatic points in the works, I thought it more interesting to find moments that caught the flavor or spirit of the play, the characters, or the situation. If nothing else, I hope they’re vaguely entertaining:

 


Why Write for the Stage?

photoFor a change, money is not the answer.

Oh, one can make a buck or two writing plays, and there’s a refreshing point in one’s career where the contracts rise to the four- or five-digit level. And, if you write a hot play that does well at the Humana Festival and becomes a favorite among the regional theatres and you get a write-up in American Theatre magazine and make a dozen other perfect bank shots…you could see a pretty good year or two. Until the next flavor comes along. Winning a Pulitzer helps. Maybe.

But even the folks ostensibly making it usually have to supplant their incomes, often through teaching or, lately, writing for television…which is one reason why the writing quality for non-broadcast programs has increased so…well, dramatically.

What do you have left if you take money out of the picture? Control. And love.

Continue reading


Uncovering New Territory in the Splatterverse

As noted on the Splatterverse home page, this site, like the universe after which it has been named, continues to expand. To wit, new territories have been discovered in The Writer’s Life section:

Here’s hoping you find something worthwhile out of the new material. Shoot me a note if you have suggestions for other, applicable listings.

No sites were harmed in the gathering of these resources.

Steve


Instant Play Mix

Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times this morning that one of America’s first priorities this year should be seriously addressing mental illness because it affects everybody to some extent, and we won’t talk about it openly. A noble premise, certainly.

But, when he’s talking about how it touches all of us, he offers this paragraph:

“A parent with depression. A lover who is bipolar. A child with an eating disorder. A brother who returned from war with P.T.S.D. A sister who is suicidal.”

And, honestly, no disrespect intended, I thought: there it is–the modern American play. Just add a catalyst. They buy a dog–a comedy. They lose their house–a drama. Or, on the Pattersonian stage, they develop shape-shifting abilities. Which is why my plays get called weird.


How Many Again?

It appears Splattworks now has broken the 500-post mark. Time flies when one babbles incessantly.