This is a letter and email that went out to our donors a few weeks ago detailing our new play work over the summer – as always, we give our donors the inside VIP scoop on what’s happening. Glad to share it with all of you now…but, seriously if you all became donors, you could have already read this, and be on to the next exciting thing in your life…so….
just think about it….and now, the letter…
Given Geva’s strategic emphasis on placing patrons and artists at the center of organization, I lured Sean Daniels to join our staff a year ago. He began a new position titled “Director of Artistic Engagement /Artist-at-Large.” You may have seen him at various Geva events doing artistic engagement activities, but the following letter from Sean explains what the other half of his title means: his life as a Geva Artist-at-Large. – Mark Cuddy
The Summer of (Workshop) Love
An update from Sean Daniels, Geva’s Artist-at-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement
This year Geva is taking some huge steps forward in the national new play world by producing three world premieres, and several second productions of new plays—all of which will most likely go on and have long lives in the American Theatre.
Often, picking what new plays to produce is a bit like drafting athletes out of college: it is part research, and a lot of checking your gut. So one of the things that theatres tend to do once the play is chosen is “workshop” it – as in we spend time with actors, and designers, reading it, working through it, making adjustments to the script – and very often doing this in front of small audiences, so they can see what lands and what doesn’t. Very similar to how focus groups tell movie makers about how people are reacting.
We’d love to do all of that here but it can get very expensive to do it for several shows, so Geva has smartly partnered with organizations and universities all over the world to help to make this kind of necessary work possible. The only drawback is that it requires our artists to be on the road a good bit but, hey, we get frequent flier miles. (And really, some of us are obsessive about collecting them, mainly me…).
For me, this summer has mostly been consumed with Deb Zoe Laufer’s Informed Consent, which I found at our new NYU partnership. We’ve literally worked on it all over the world to get it ready for its Rochester premiere in March – seven workshops: Rochester, Denver, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Estonia, Sarasota, and New York City (twice).
If you don’t know, the play deals with a lawsuit that happened between the Havasupai Indians and Arizona State University. The Sloan Foundation, interested in plays about science, offered to send Deb and me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to meet with the Havasupi—so we kicked off our summer in July by doing just that. It was a profound experience to see firsthand not only how beautiful the land is, but to see the cycle of destruction that traps them. They used to have the entire Canyon to farm and roam, but eventually the vast majority of that land was taken from them by the US Government, and now they have a very small amount of land to grow crops on. As a result, weight gain, diabetes and alcoholism are wreaking havoc on them, and their numbers have dropped to under a thousand.
They used to teach their children there on the reservation, but laws like No Child Left Behind caused them to have to send their kids away hundreds of miles, so most of them dropped out of school to stay with their families— thus leading to generation after generation existing with limited education. We saw firsthand how the food that is shipped in is mostly processed foods that can survive the heat and be delivered via helicopter.
We also saw how fresh and present the sting of racism is for them. Their only source of income is Tourism, so they’ve been forced to fetishize their own culture (selling dream weavers at the top, courting the backpackers). In doing a play about how people’s stories were stolen from them, this only made us want to work even harder to make sure that WE in turn were not also stealing their story. We wanted to accurately and clearly tell their story—not just the white guilt version, not just the American manifest destiny version either.
Upon returning from the Grand Canyon, we went to Philadelphia to digest what we had found—spending two weeks at one of the country’s top new play development workshops called PlayPenn. Having two weeks made this our most successful workshop so far. We pulled the play apart and start to really look at what works, and how can we take what we learned at the Grand Canyon and put it into the show. Deb played the lead role, which was a little unorthodox, but very worthwhile. She got to see and feel the parts where it had been hard for other artists, where the language felt clunky, and where she felt the most connected to it. (Deb used to be a soap star and an amazing actress, so she was also just pretty amazing in it).
Our play isn’t just about the Havasupi, it’s also about the Genome, and the question of how much info do we want to know when it comes to science – so while in Philly, we spent our days off at the UPenn Cancer Science labs. Deb and I pulled cells, split DNA, looked at how you would trace things on a genome, and each of us even got take home some DNA with us. Also, the Cancer Center sent us home with Watson and Crick bobble heads! Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?
When it was time for the big reading, we invited our designers to fly into Philly, so that they could hear the play aloud and add their voices to the collaborative process. Only recently have new works theaters become aware of the benefit of involving the playwrights (who envisioned the world), with the designers (who will end up creating it). It’s a holistic way to start the conversation earlier as to what we’re looking for. Our reading in Philly was a smash success. Lots of laughs, lots of tears, and even better, a clear sense of what portions worked and didn’t.
And Informed Consent was just one of the shows we developed this summer.
Currently, I’m in Baton Rouge working on a comedy I found in Estonia last year when I was there with the Eugene O’Neill Center. Deb is over in Estonia now, giving Informed Consent one last tune up with American actors before the season gets going (another partnership that we’re using to develop more new work). It’s crucial to use these summer months to work on the script before the wonderful chaos of artistic collaborations hits it.
Soon, Informed Consent designers will begin to put pencil to paper, and we’re already starting to cast. In February, the first rehearsal will be upon us, and then it’s time to share our summer’s work with the actors, the team, Rochester and the world.
It has been an exhausting developmental summer, I’m pretty sure that all my plants at home are dead and that the New Yorker has arrived 208 times since I was last there, but I believe we’ve made some really exciting work, and even more importantly, we’ve made some really exciting work better.
I can’t wait to share it with all of you.
Artist-at-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement