by Scott Horstein
What happens when a theater company that’s based in San Francisco hooks up with a playwright who’s based in New York, they all go on a cruise to Ensenada for research, then they do multiple workshops of a new play in New York, then the playwright moves to Los Angeles, then the company does a workshop at a new play festival in San Francisco, then the play is produced in San Francisco...and New York?
Technology happens. The peripatetic development process for foolsFURY’s “Port Out, Starboard Home” by Sheila Callaghan (“P.O.S.H.” in company speak, which we opened in SF last week and are moving to New York in November), for which I was the dramaturg over the last two years, is familiar to many of us, and particularly to those of us who do ensemble-driven work. Ensemble-based companies face the challenge over time of remaining committed to building a body of work together, even as company members relocate and their careers evolve. The Internet helps keep the web of collaborators intact, but the points of the web stretch farther and farther away.
Here’s one snapshot of New Play Development 2.0 for “P.O.S.H.,” a play about passengers on a strange, themed cruise ship for spiritual renewal.
Skype: The play began development five years ago, and had its final workshop at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival two years ago, after which the company began planning for the current production. In May of this year, two months before rehearsals were to begin, we organized a Skype script reading among cast members located around the country. The Skype call went the way that all conference calls go, with inconsistent connections and considerable energy put into simply connecting the call itself. Yet Sheila, the playwright, was able from this odd, live, Internet video experience, to hear what she needed to hear, and the first rehearsal draft of the script featured numerous deft adds, trims and tucks. “P.O.S.H.,” 1; Skype, nothing.
YouTube: In rehearsal one of our principal goals was to find a vocabulary for the non-naturalistic performance style demanded by the script, which features absurdly strained dialogue among cruise passengers. Should we call it “expressionism”? Does the word “subtext” have any value to us? Ben, the director, had a brainstorm to sit us down and view YouTube videos by other companies working in similar territory. Though none of these became a strict model for our work in the rehearsal hall, this impromptu exercise and instant access to information gave us a new language to describe some of what we were already doing. “P.O.S.H.,” 1; YouTube, 1.
Vimeo: When time and schedule and life didn’t allow for all of us to be in the rehearsal hall for a run-through, Ben would videotape the run and post it to Vimeo for Sheila and me to watch and send notes. Watching a bare-bones run-through from within the rehearsal hall always demands an act of imagination—trying to imagine what the action will look like in the theater space, on the set, with full costume and lights. Add now the extra layer of imagination required when you’re watching the run-thru via video and trying to imagine the kinetic impact of the performers’ bodies and voices. Fortunately, in the notes session that followed, it felt like director, playwright, and dramaturg were all talking about the same play, and that we had all seen the same thing. Did I miss things because I wasn’t in the room? Or (heresy!) did the distilled nature of the uploaded video actually help me to see the play clearly? “P.O.S.H.,” 1; Vimeo, 2 (in overtime).
As the play prepares to transfer to La MaMa in New York City in November and we consider nips and tucks to the play, we’re facing a new long-distance reality. Playwright and dramaturg will mostly be on the West Coast, and cast and director will rehearse and open 3,000 miles away. To quote one of the characters in our play, “Are you in touch with what you lack?” How will technology continue to impact, sustain, and inspire our new play development processes?
Scott Horstein is a freelance dramaturg based in Marin County. He is also Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy and Contemporary Theatre at Sonoma State University.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.