Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli
You know those T-shirts that capitalize on the popular saying “eat, sleep, and breathe …” by finishing the phrase out with SOCCER! or DANCE! or “insert random sport name here!”? I propose we get shirts specifically designed for the New Works Festival … first names on front pockets, bowling team style and everything. No, seriously … nothing says “together” like matching T-shirts.
It’s 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and I’ve just started transcribing. Ahead of me is a brief nap, a 1000+ word article, half a bagel, two readings, three interviews, a small cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (one scoop half baked, one scoop cake batter), another reading, two more interviews, pizza, and one green room wrap-up session. Notice my day literally consists of eating, sleeping, (while it goes without mention, the all important) breathing, and theater.
Unfortunately, professional silk-screened T-shirts haven’t yet been factored into the budget, but in the blogosphere, my friends, talk is cheap and the play’s the thing.
In today’s marathon of readings, sisters come face to face with a past they never knew in Zakiyyah Alexander’s, 10 Things To Do Before I Die, miscommunication surrounding an innocent surprise party strains a friendship in Betty Shamieh’s, As Soon as Impossible, and neurotransmitters make their New York City debut in Sung Rno’s, Happy.
“All of my work has some flavor of science, whether it’s really overt or not,” says Rno, who earned a B.A. in Physics from Harvard University. Happy is a play that holds a stethoscope to the heart of depression, but underlying comedic elements maintain the pulse at its emotional core. When Leo (Joel de la Fuente), a pharmaceutical sales rep, comes down with a rather extreme case of ennui, we see how different characters cope with depression and anxiety. “My day job has been doing pharmaceutical advertising or healthcare advertising.” The idea for this play has been “something that I’ve been kicking around,” he says.
Instead, Shamieh found inspiration for As Soon as Impossible during a press performance of one of her earlier works, The Black Eyed. “The Black Eyed is a very body play. It’s kind of an X-rated play in some ways linguistically, though, nothing sexual happens onstage,” she explains. “There was a little old man on a walker who came and laughed at every single joke, and that gave me kind of the idea for my character, Arthur—somebody who could be a different generation and different background, could have your exact sense of humor.”
The play takes place at a camp site in California where long time friends, Arthur (Richard Masur) and Ramsey (Jamie Farr) have been vacationing for over 15 summers. Ramsey’s granddaughter, Layla (Tala Ashe), complicates matters with her teenage antics, and when festering assumptions and ethnic tensions come to a head, a colossal misunderstanding ensues.
“My works tend to be what I call tragicomedies, but I tried to keep it very light with this play, even though being an Arab American, the community is dealing with very serious issues at this point,” says Shamieh, herself a first generation Palestinian-American. “I kind of wanted to highlight the American-ness of the Arab American identity with this play.”
While Shamieh and Rno deal with some very loaded subject matter, both try to elicit laughter from the audience. “Happy is a really serious comedy, and it’s really smart, too,” says director, Jerry Ruiz. “A lot of the comedy you see now, especially in mainstream cinema, has gotten so dumbed down in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Knocked Up. You know, there’s kind of this very broad, humorous aesthetic. Here, some of these characters almost feel like a Woody Allen movies in some way.”
While Alexander is much more naturalistic in her approach, she too finds beauty in the breakdown. In her play, 10 Things To Do Before I Die, Alexander says that she aims to “make the humor work, because I think pain is really funny. I find a lot of humor in tragedy.”
“True comedic moments are out of pain and realness, but not slapstick,” adds director, Jade King Carroll. 10 Things To Do Before I Die is a play about two estranged sisters, Lena (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Vida (Rosyln Ruff), who are brought back together after inheriting 12 boxes filled with their late father’s belongings. One’s a writer, the other’s a teacher—one’s fiercely independent, the other hates to be alone. Together they learn from each other, and begin to view their past from an adult perspective.
“I’m interested in sort of exploring family relationships—why we make the choices that we make as adults,” says Alexander. “We look at what’s gone on in our past once we get old enough to sort of verbalize and aren’t necessarily angry at our families for the choices that they made, but choose to look at them a little bit more constructively.”
Writers, directors, and actors are keenly aware of the passage of time, and because one reading overlaps another’s rehearsal, a second studio at the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) is put into rehearsal.
“On something like this where we really only had 2 hours for an hour and a half long play, I had to figure out what are those little peppery notes to give an actor—and really we’re talking like one or two notes per actor—that are going to help guide them very quickly to the place we need to have them,” says As Soon as Impossible's director, Hal Brooks. “I think the fact that this is a comedy really worked to our favor in that we didn’t have much time, and the actors were aware of the speed. Speed is always good for comedy.”
Ruiz attributes Happy’s comedic elements to the world that Rno created—he describes it as an “amplified reality.” “At a certain point you have to find that balance—how real is it and how theatrical is it going to be?” explains Rno. Over the course of their month-long collaboration, the script underwent three major revisions, and a dialogue was established between Rno, Ruiz and the actors so as to determine out the most effect approach to making each voice jump from page to stage. “I was surprised in this reading that there were some characters who actually only came to life just a few days ago,” says Rno, laughing.
And while Carroll had only been working with Alexander for a little over a week, she phoned the actors and actresses to discuss their roles before the big day. “During the rehearsal, I just gave them little parcels of information that I thought would be helpful, so it was very bare,” she says. “Really, just hearing the play, that was my intention. It’s more about the playwright on a day like today.”
At the close of the final reading, the green room is open, providing food for thought on the strengths and weaknesses of each of the readings. Sitting in a room full of artists who have unveiled over ten hours of new work, and watching them scarf down a half dozen John’s pizzas through peals of laughter and conversation, I realize—by the close of day 3—they’re well on their way to forming an amazing community in their own little corner of the theatrical world.
p.s. I’m still all for the matching shirts.
10 Things To Do Before I Die is written by Zakiyyah Alexander and directed by Jade King Carroll. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Roslyn Ruff (Vida), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Lena), Carlo Alban (Jose), Albert Jones (Jason), Reg E. Cathey (Andrew). Stage directions were read by Bhavesh Patel.
As Soon as Impossible is written by Betty Shamieh and directed by Hal Brooks. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Richard Masur (Arthur), Brian J. Smith (Drew), Jamie Farr (Ramsey), and Tala Ashe (Layla). Stage directions were read by Crystal Noelle.
Happy is written by Sung Rno and directed by Jerry Ruiz. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Joel de la Fuente (Leo Park), Sue Jean Kim (Hope Shin), Lorenzo Pisoni (Roman Silver), Patrick Kerr (Sam Serotonin/Verlaine), Christine Toy Johnson (Dr. Lee/Mrs. Park/Francis), Carla Harting (Ophelia/Laura/Dana Dopamine, Various), Ryan Shams (Ben/Jimmy/Various), Erik LaRay Harvey (Dr. Happy). Stage directions were read by Bhavesh Patel.
In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor), Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor), and Roy Arias Studios (300 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor).
NEXT UP: Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson
Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph
Wash Your Rabbit by Cheryl L. West