March 2, 2009

Strutting and Fretting Upon the Stage

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Playwriting is simultaneously one of the most visible and neglected roles in the theatre. On the one hand, all the effort of directors, actors and designers traditionally starts with a vision they have uncovered in a script; on the other hand, playwrights frequently get shuffled off to the margins of theatre departments that concentrate on producing well-established plays or they get outsourced to English departments where they don’t quite fit. Moreover, new plays require so many resources to mount that even “successful” playwrights have trouble getting their work beyond the developmental process of workshops and staged readings, and only a small fraction of theatres have a playwright in residence.
This past weekend the Schwartz Center celebrated Cornell’s alumni playwrights by inviting five of them back for a series of readings of new excerpts, a question and answer session and a workshop with students. The weekend began on Friday with a staged reading of Will Wiseheart’s ’09 A Kingdom of Salt, winner of the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance’s Heermans-McCalmon Annual Playwriting Contest. Wiseheart’s script re-envisioned the tale of Job as a form of Midrash on contemporary consumer fetishism.
With fast-paced and often overlapping dialogue, the actors told stories about a doctor whose family life is falling apart when a hurricane hits, braiding metaphors about the eye of a storm, angioplasty and Happy Meals to convey the spiritual precariousness of our bodies. Chunks of phrases get mashed and regurgitated in the script, creating a kind of “protein spill,” which the play tells us is a euphemism for throw-up at Disney World. By the end, the storm itself is re-imagined as bloody vomit hurled by a cruel deity; we’re left emptied, heaving with the full sense that “God is a prick who works in mysterious ways.”
On Saturday, student actors and directors put on entertaining 15-minute snippets of new works by alumni playwrights. The students had the unique opportunity to be part of the developmental process, as playwrights mentioned they were changing and cutting the script even in rehearsals, as well as using audience feedback for their revisions.
Sherri Wilner ’91 presented a piece about two adolescents, one provocatively outgoing and the other with a purity ring, who get cast in their high school’s production of The Crucible. Jennifer Maisel’s ’87 play centered on a mother who worked on the Mars rover mission, working on “Mars time” and growing slowly out-of-touch with her daughter.
Drew Brody ’94 had evident fun with his cast working on his frolicsome sex farce about a teenage porn director who eventually sues her parents when they get rid of her tape collection. Madeline George ’96 showcased scenes where a linguist and a gorilla who knows sign language, both assaulted by mindless chatter, bond with each other by providing a critique of — and ironic paean to — language’s opacity. Finally, Lauren Feldman’s ’01 excerpt investigated conflicting narrative strategies and myths of origins, using intergenerational tensions in the Jewish community as a metaphor for the community of the audience and performers themselves.
During the question and answer session, the playwrights acknowledged that, despite each of them having numerous awards and plays with successful runs, they all had day jobs. Brody and Wilner both suggested that playwrights and actors need to find a side-career — whether it’s tutoring, dog walking or going into academia — since their chosen “profession” offers little money and less stability. George, a member of the playwright collective 13P, mentioned that playwrights need to produce their own shows if no one else will do it for them. Yet despite, or precisely because, theatre audiences are dwindling and support for playwriting is scarce, playwrights have so few expectations or constraints placed on them by the marketplace. The weekend proved that those who are committed to writing plays have a liberating, almost anarchic opportunity to do anything they want.