Tag Archives: Playwrights West

The Modular Play: An Act of Faith

19442In 25 years of writing plays, I’ve generally worked from beginning to end. I may have a final scene in mind—sometimes an image that spurs the play’s creation. Sometimes, for tightly plotted stories, I work from an outline. Even so, when actually writing the piece, the process opens with “lights rise” and closes with “end of play.”

About a year ago, an idea came to me arising from images and voices I’d carried around for almost aa decade: American soldiers during World War II basically trying to talk themselves calm the night before a battle.

The time and locale fluctuated. D-Day seemed a natural, but also had been extensively covered, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. I considered the Anzio or North African landings, but those required explanation—and exposition. More and more, I thought of the lousy winter of ’44 and ’45, when war’s end loomed but hadn’t yet arrived.

Then an actor friend suggested I write a Christmas play, which made me laugh at first. No one would immediately associate my dark, sometimes sardonic plays with presents and cheery lights. Plus, could anything new be said of Christmas? Still, I liked the idea of writing a non-sentimental Christmas play for adults. All too often, between Scrooge, nutcrackers, and elves, the holidays seemed a reason to stay home from the theatre. Not because the existing plays were bad—simply because they were tired.

Then somehow the long-smoldering World War II play latched onto the Christmas Eve, finding the German-besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. I’d long been fascinated by the town’s heroic effort to stave off Panzers as ammo, food, and medical supplies ran low.* And another image came to mind: a wounded civilian, a woman, in the midst of men trying not to fall apart. And If the Fates Allow took shape.

Or rather, it took shapes. I didn’t have an ending or a beginning. All I had were voices and a setting. The play stalled. I couldn’t find a way into it. I figured, what the hell, I’d write what I had—little scenes, snapshots, snippets of conversation. I had no idea where it was going. All I could do was rely on faith that I’d written a bunch of plays—too many maybe—and I could write another, hoping a piece would find its form as had happened so many times before.

It didn’t. A nervy process ensued, where, at any time, the play might go sideways. Plays do sometimes. You get into them and find out they have an unfixable flaw or they run dry. But increasingly, I began to feel comfortable with the characters. I could feel them pushing to have their stories told. So I started thinking of scenes—some so brief as to be blackouts—as pieces of a mosaic. I’d just keep writing until I exhausted the time and place, or until the play’s form revealed itself. No matter how it turned out, I was having a great time writing it. I liked hanging out with the characters and you couldn’t beat the circumstance for drama.

Siege plays—where a penultimate event shapes the action—have a form all their own. You just keep moving forward, and they get increasingly tense. The possibility of disaster colors everything, lending weight and urgency to otherwise ordinary conversation. If a character speaks of missing home, the question hang as to whether he’ll ever see it again. Sharing a cigarette carries a sense of communion—a rite to stave off emotional collapse.

Then, as if illuminated in a camera flash, the ending appeared to me, and it completely startled me—as I hope it will the audience, and I found most of the material written previously supported the resolution. Though my conscious mind seemed to float from place to place, my unconscious had been doing its job. I still needed to properly sequence the pieces and build transitions, which essentially meant rewriting the play from beginning to end, but a great deal of the original material survived the rework, and the beginning found itself. It said: start here. I’d just been warming up to that point.

I can’t say it’s the most relaxing way to work, but it wasn’t boring, and the results worked. I think.

Would I used the “modular play” technique again? Maybe. Plays have a way of telling you how they want to be written, and there’s something satisfying in taking your hands off the wheel and letting your instincts do the driving. In a way, it’s what writers do anyhow. Even when you’re carefully laying out a piece using an outline, you have to step back and let the imagination run. We’re never much more than nominally in control of a first draft. The rewrites demand all the writer’s craft and cunning.

Putting pen to paper is always an act of faith—faith in one’s self, in your intuition, and your need for discovery. Whether you leave the diving board with your eyes open or closed, you’re still going to hit the water. And you still have to clear the rocks.

*Despite my efforts to find a fresh World War II event to write about, after completing the play, I discovered that Band of Brothers had explored the same time and place, although they looked at if from a very different angle.

(At noon, January 26, “If the Fates Allow” meets the public as a concert reading at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, produced by Playwrights West as part of the Fertile Ground New Works Festival.)


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

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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.