Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli
“Nice to meet you,” Terrence Mann says, and plants a kiss on Adriane Lenox.
The time is just past 11 a.m., and being no more than an hour into its first rehearsal, Manifesto goes up before an expectant audience at noon. Behind closed doors and within Telsey Casting’s Studio 1, Kareem Fahmy’s direction is swift. He immediately jumps to his feet to provide movement for a written stage direction—imitating a kind of dance for Lenox, or providing a prop for Angel Desai. Periodically, he glances back at playwright, J. Holtham, to make sure he’s happy with the result. Holtham, meanwhile, is sitting in the rear of the room on a black folding chair. He’s silent except for a smile, perhaps a product of seeing his work take shape for the first time.
Holtham’s Manifesto is a play about an interracial couple, Roger (Reed Birney) and Louise (Adriane Lenox), who are forced to question themselves and their life together after finding a possibly anthrax-laced package in their mailbox.
“The play at first was way more about the event of the anthrax scare and just sort of throwing these characters into the situation. As it progressed it became a lot more about change and compromise.” said Fahmy. “During the very brief amount of time I had at the beginning of the rehearsals to talk to the actors, I said to focus on just that—‘how is your character dealing with compromise and change?’”
With only two hours of rehearsal time and a close to two hour production, the cast tries to wiz through as much material as possible. Given the time constraints, only select scenes get a test run.
“Of course, you know, you don’t get a chance to read it here, but it’s great,” says Fahmy in regards to Desai’s investigative scoop near the end of Act II.
Just before the weekend, Desai and her three fellow cast members had received copies of the script via e-mail after final casting announcements were made. Monday morning marked their first meeting, and their first reading.
“Sometimes you will just have a play where you read it once and then do it, but it’s usually over a 5 or 6 hour span. That extra hour really makes all the difference because then you can read the entire script the whole way through,” says Desai. “At the same time, we all know what we’re doing, and we’re all good at cold reads.”
“I knew, because we had such a limited amount of time, that I wanted to have a certain structure in place,” says Fahmy. “I went through it in detail with J. ahead of time, so that we were going to be on the same page with everything. Everything was very sort of mapped out.”
After an early quip between Roger and Louise about the state of their throw rugs, the audience settles into Holtham’s dialogue. The actors are at once animated in their portrayal and at ease with the script. And Holtham still has that goofy grin on this face, because unlike us, he knows what line is coming next.
After the reading, J. jetted out to the TCG National Conference in Denver, Colorado—but he was gracious enough to answer a few questions by email:
I see that you've written a lot of short plays (some 10-15 minutes, some 30-40 minutes) … was it challenging to write a full length play for this commission? What are the benefits and disadvantages of long form (as opposed to short form)?
I really like writing full lengths. Short plays are fun, but they're mainly set-up. With a full-length, you have a larger canvas to work with and a longer arc to tell your story. It's a challenge, particularly in this play, where the bulk of the play rests on ROGER and LOUISE. It's almost a two-hander, which is a play I've never written before. That was a big challenge.
In a video interview about this program you say that you write because you feel your stories need to be told, and they hold meaning for a diverse range of people. Why did you feel you needed to tell the story presented in MANIFESTO? What was it, specifically, that you wanted to convey?
This story for me is about the choices people make and the consequences of those choices. At some point, all of the characters have made a choice that may be personally gratifying, but it has consequences for others. One question that I often explore in my plays is "How do you balance your responsibility to yourself and your responsibility to others?" Marriage, a lifelong (hopefully) partnership between two people, is a great place to explore that. MANIFESTO, for me, is also a bit of a lament for old, dirty, messy, political New York. As the developers bury that history, I think we need to keep bringing it to light.
Plans for the future? What's on the horizon?
Mostly just working on new plays. I'm trying to start a community-based theatre group in my neighborhood (Inwood, in upper Manhattan).
How did you expect today to go? And did the reading exceed your expectations? Was this the first time you saw your play read (in a professional sense)? Do you ever get friends to read as you write?
I'd had a private reading of an earlier draft and that was very useful, but this reading was so much more. With a comedy, the audience is the key. Hearing the play in front of a nice, full room and hearing them laugh at the jokes and follow the plot was a great experience. Things that I wasn't sure would work did, and a few things that I thought would, didn't, which is why we have these readings. The play grew by leaps and bounds in just a couple of hours.
What major changes did MANIFESTO undergo during the writing process? I heard from Kareem that the anthrax scare had been much more at the forefront of the story when you began the play. Now, he said that the play is really concerned about the evolution of these characters – how they have changed and how they connect? What do you have to say in response to this claim?
I think that's a great observation. This play has gone through some pretty major changes in the last few weeks. Tone is so important to a comedy and the earlier drafts got a bit bogged down with the details of the anthrax and the reality of that and that wasn't the right tone. One of the bigger changes was adding the prologue and showing the audience the inciting incident, rather than referring to it. That freed up a lot of time and energy to keep the characters talking about what was actually going on between them.
Like I said on the phone, I really loved the dialogue – it really rang true for me. How did this dialogue come alive – was there a particular impetus that you always kept in the back of your mind? Or to put it another way, what do you think was the elephant in the room for Roger and Louise?
With this play, and these characters, there's so much that's gone unspoken and festered and that we're dredging into the light. The challenge is keeping the jokes coming, without undercutting the tension. Their marriage is in definite trouble, for a lot of reasons, and that has to feel real without verging too far into melodrama.
How was your writing shaped by your time as a member of Youngblood Playwrights Group?
Youngblood has the strongest influence on my writing and my work of any group or school I've belonged to. It's really where I matured as a writer and learned to trust my instincts. I also learned not to treat my work too preciously. Theatre is a messy, breathing, slightly chaotic thing. The most important thing is telling the story. Youngblood helped me learn to see the story first and keep it present.
Manifesto is written by J Holtham and directed by Kareem Fahmy. The Second Stage Theatre/Time Warner Commission cast included Reed Birney (Roger), Adriane Lenox (Louise), Terrence Mann (Rick Render), and Angel Desai (Olive). Stage directions were read by Steve French.
NEXT UP: Mothers on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh at 4 p.m. today, June 10.