This October, three playwrights will dive deep into the playmaking process during an intensive weeklong session at the Playwrights’ Center’s Playlabs. Working with a director, designer, and actors, the writers will have the opportunity to bring their play one step closer to production. But, there’s an additional component to the process that gives non-theater folk a chance to see behind the scenes – public readings.
Attend a Reading: Each of the three plays will have two free public readings. Readings are scheduled for the week of Oct. 21st at the Playwrights’ Center. Visit the Center’s website for details and to reserve your free ticket.
“The public reading is a huge boon for playwrights because you don’t usually have the opportunity to see your play in front of an audience,” explained associate artistic director Hayley Finn. Playwrights can “see what’s working or what’s not and see how people are leaning into the play or pulling out of the play. What’s great about the Playlabs is that there’s time in between the plays so that the playwright can work with the design team and director and actors and make changes. So you might come to these two readings and they might change in between the two public readings.”
Bringing the plays to life is crucial to the development of a play at the Playwrights’ Center. “The idea [of the Playlabs] is that plays aren’t meant to just be on the page, they’re meant to be in the bodies of actors and on stages collaborating with designers, so it gives writers a chance to really enter into a conversation into how this play might exist on stage,” explained associate artistic director Hayley Finn. “It’s our goal is to give it that nudge forward and the support and development that it needs, because ultimately what we want to do is help develop the play, so it can be the best play possible and then also connect the playwrights with theaters.”
The plays slated for the Playlabs week explore a variety of themes from surrogacy to racial conflict to what it means to disappear. We had the opportunity to talk to two of the playwrights about their plays and what they hope to get out of the Playlabs experience.
Exploring What Money Can Buy
“Angel Fat” by playwright Trista Baldwin dives into the world of the super-rich and surrogacy, examining what money can buy and how fertility can affect identity. The play was inspired partly by a news story of surrogacy that surfaced following an earthquake in India and partly by her own work at a hedge fund in New York. “I had been wondering about surrogacy and money and what we can buy and who’s fertile and who’s not fertile,” said Baldwin.
Exploring these ideas, the play follows the hedge fund manager (who is notably absent throughout the play) and his wife, who is struggling with fertility, the lawyer they hire to find a surrogate and his wife, who is working to keep her own pregnancy, and the surrogate. The close examination of the women in the play provides an opportunity to look at how motherhood can affect identity and power. “I am interested in things that we don’t always see, and a lot of things about women are not necessarily very visible in our society,” said Baldwin. “Plus, I feel like a lot of things in my life have happened because of my gender, and on a personal level I’ve had to analyze a lot about things related to being a female.”
This is Baldwin’s second experience in the Playlabs, and she’s looking forward to the intense process. “I think the rehearsal process is so joyful to me, I’m just so happy when I’m in a rehearsal, I love it,” said Baldwin. “When the audience comes in after that it’s all part of the flow.”
Seeing the audience watching her play is the other element in the creative process, noted Baldwin. “I always think of the audience during a reading as the other playmaking ingredient,” she said. “I just learn so much from just feeling the response in the room [as well as] the individual conversations that happen afterwards. It takes the play away from my concepts and puts that critical ingredient in there. [I can ask myself] ‘is it happening where I want it to happen or hoped it would happen?’ I never judge an audience beforehand, because I’ve always been surprised by their response.”
“It’s a funny ride, it’s such an ephemeral art form,” said Baldwin. “You build it up and then it lives on stage or it lives in this room and then you try to pitch for it to happen again.”
Uncovering a Hidden Past
“Scapegoat” by playwright Christina Ham examines the bloody history of Elaine, Arkansas and what is now considered one of the deadliest racial conflicts in our nation’s history. It’s in this charged setting that Ham explores this little-known conflict and what it means a century later. She explained, “I wanted to look at this horrible incident through a current-day lens in which we claim to live in a post-racial society and what does that really mean (and, is it even possible)?”
She added, “Part I of the play takes place on the eve of the conflict as we see the sharecroppers attempting to organize themselves as a union and the whites busting into the meeting and a murder occurs setting off the chain of events that lead to the riot. In the second part we see these same actors playing present-day characters who stumble upon the town and discover its ugly history and the impact that the history has on the world of their relationships and their post-racial dialogue.”
While the subject matter is difficult, Ham believes that by dealing with the past, wounds can begin to heal. “As a writer I see my job as an artistic anthropologist, and I’m really curious in uncovering this incident that most of the residents in that town won’t even talk about to this day.”
Taking risks on the stage is one thing that most interests Ham. She commented, “I feel like I’ve taken chances with “Scapegoat” by creating a play that tells the painful truth about the history of our country…. For me the risk-taking comes in giving voice to characters and a painful incident that has remained a footnote for far too long.”
Ham will be collaborating with sound designer Dan Dukich during the Playlabs. “Dan’s one of the best sound designers working in the Twin Cities right now, and I’m interested in what he has to bring to the table in terms of an aural landscape for the play where past and present collide,” she said. “It’s not just about interpreting the sounds that I might have in my play but building beyond that…. I think the great thing that sound can do a lot of times is help you figure out what’s necessary in terms of dialogue and what can be conveyed utilizing production values. I think the sound design will also help draw a clear line in the sand between the time periods and also help blur them when necessary.”