Category Archives: the lonliness of the long-distance playwright

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/

 


This Writing Thing


This may seem weird, but when I think of my sometimes complicated relationship with playwriting and theatre…and believe me, it’s complicated…these lyrics from The Band sum up my feelings nicely. All the times I’ve quit, sworn it off, said goddamn it…walk away. Then picked up the pen again. And quietly thought: Smart people believe in you…maybe this time, you’ll get it right.

Out of the Blue

Out of this world
Out of this mind
Out of this love for you
Out of this world
Out of the blue
Out of this love for you

Sometimes I don’t know you
You’re like someone else
But that’s all right
I’m a stranger here myself

She don’t shed a tear
When I walk out that door
She knows, she knows
I’ll be coming back for more

Out of this world
Out of this mind
Out of this love for you
Out of this world
Out of the blue
Out of this love for you

It’s in the cards
It’s written in the stars
It’s in the wee-wee hours
In some lonely bar

She don’t stay up all night
And walk the floor
She knows damn well
I’ll be coming back for more

Out of this world
Out of this mind
Out of this love for you
Out of this world
Out of the blue
Out of this love for you


Airing the Laundry

Fascinating post from the Parabasis blog. My first read of it left me cross-eyed and despairing (especially since I’m trained as a journalist), but another part of me feels defiant: fuck that shit. Let ’em get their MFAs…I got plays to write.

Life is short, baby.

————————

The Delusion Driving Much of American Theater

The Artful Manager has athought-provoking post up about The Amateur Vs. Professional divide in the arts in the age of the internet. He also quotes Clay Shriky’s Here Comes Everybody, which I happen to be reading right now (and really, if you care about blogging or want to understand the internet’s impact on society, is a must read). He ends it by asking this question:

what is the role of the expert and the excellent in a distributed world? How do we preserve space and return value to those who are extraordinary (by whatever measure you pick)?

I don’t think that’s a professional/amateur question — although that’s the frame we tend to use. In fact, I think the professional/amateur debate in the arts is clouding the deeper conversation.

This is worth thinking about in theatre, because our current system largely rewards club-house membership, not excellence, and it’s because we have increasingly established and codified paths to being deemed a professional that have to do with attendance of the correct schools, interning at the correct summer festivals, (and having the money to be able to do so) etc. and only somewhat to do with doing good work. This is only growing more problematic as many cities have LORT “professional” theaters that are outnumbered by “pro-am” theater companies (and by Pro-Am I mean theaters and artists doing professional quality work for amateur wages and largely in an amateur environment). Portland, Oregon has two LORT theaters and over a hundred Pro-Am companies. LA’s theatre scene is almost entirely ProO-Am, as is San Francisco’s. A large percentage of DC theatre is Pro-Am, as is Chicago’s and New York’s. In fact, I’m pretty sure in terms of number of productions, the majority (or at least plurality) of theatre produced in this country is probably Pro-Am (and i use this term to distinguish it from truly amateur productions such as community theatre).

And here’s the thing: most of the artists working in the Pro-Am circuit have very very little chance of crossing over. They are, essentially, pursuing a delusion as a result of a category erorr, namely that the Pro-Am circuit and the LORT/Institutional circuit are part of the same system. They are not, or at least, it’s more helpful to think of them as two sepearate systems. The path to working at LORT/Institutional theaters lies not in the Pro-Am circuit. it lies (largely, i know there are exceptions) in the institutional circuit, in interning at Humana, Apprenticing at Williamstown and going to UCSD or Yale (there are other paths out there, but this one is the clearest). Why is this? Because as theater has professionalized over the last fifty years, it has also adopted a Shadow Professional Certification System. It’s a shadow system because it’s largely social in nature; you don’t have to pass a writing bar exam to be a playwright, but if you want to make a living doing it, you probably need to have gone to one of seven graduate programs. And I’m not going to say there’s no relationship between Shadow Certification and Quality… there is, it’s just not 1:1. There’s plenty of terrible artists out there with MFAs from Yale (and awesome ones too, don’t get me wrong).

If we want to understand what’s going on in theatre in this country, we have to start looking at the Pro-Am circuit as its own beast that interrelates but is separate from the LORT-Institutional system. For one thing, we need to start studying it. There are very few studies out there of this world. The NYTIF is doing yeoman’s (or, I suppose yeowoman’s) work in documenting the scene here in New York, and I know David Dower will be presenting findings on this at the NEA NPDBlog over at Areana’s website.

I also think (and I’m trying to develop this into a larger and longer piece to be published elsewhere) it’s in the LORT systems’ best interests to try to find ways to learn about, be more involved with and collaborate with the Pro-Am system and start to break down the walls a bit. Why? Because, well… we have the audiences they want, the creative energy they need and the next generation of artsits likes working with us. I don’t recall The Vampire Cowboys ever complaining about their audiences being too old, or too white, or not passionate about the work they do. And Youngblood doesn’t have any problem getting people of all ages and races to come watch ten minute play festivals on Sunday mornings in the middle of winter and their space is a brutal, windy walk from the C/E train and roughly an hour away from where most of their spectators lives. In discussions with playwrights, they indicated a strong preference for working with theatre companies like Crowded Fire in San Francisco, who perform their shows in a space with less than fifty seats for fewer than twenty performances.

… adding I should also say that on some subconscious level artists working in ProAm know this already. When you talk to your friends in New York who want to quit New York and move to a smaller city, it is generally NOT to work at a LORT theatre there but rather to found their own theatre in the hopes that it will become a sustainable endeavor someday.


Fire on the Horizon


Leave it to Robert Brustein to mix it up and take no prisoners in the ongoing new play development/prodution debate. This from the current edition of American Theatre:

It’s not that there are no playwrights in this country–I think there are more playwrights in this country of high quality than ever before in my memory. They just don’t have a place to have their plays produced. Broadway has turned away from them altogether, as has even the resident theatre movement, which is no longer supported by the National Endowment for the Arts or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation…. Therefore, [the resident theatres] have begun to turn themselves into commercial producing organizations. And they’re putting on things that have been successful elsewhere and ot taking chances on the new. As a result we have succeeded ourselves out of existence, I think.

Which is enough of a shot across the bow, but Brustein can’t help himeself; he goes on to say:

And if that playwright does write that play, he or she is told, “We’ll give you a reading, a workshop, another reading, another workshop.” They never get productions. Richard Nelson wrote a very inflammatory speech about this recently, in which he complained that the playwright is always being helped to write his play by dramaturgs and by artistic directors, but he or she is never allowed to put the play on.

Ahh. I can’t help it: I love the guy. Makes me feel better about the stack of rejections on my desk too.