Creating Community, Developing New Plays

I cannot decide which story to tell, as I think about Geva’s Festival of New Theatre, which ended just Sunday. Do I tell the story of collaboration and creativity that happens in the rehearsal room? Do I tell the story of new plays out in the world, or of 5 teenage writers who had their plays produced over the weekend? Do I tell the story of playwrights, sharing their works in progress, and bravely accepting the challenge to write something brand new to read to audiences in just in a matter of days? Or do I tell the story of a bowling competition between artists so fierce and fun that the trash talk inspired new friendships?

toyota picMaybe the reason I can’t decide which story to tell is that they’re all so fun – and for different reasons. Chuck Lundeen, a long-time Geva patron, said to me when he came into the theatre last week, “I feel like I’m coming into Geva’s living room.” I was so happy to hear that I nearly jumped for joy. You can almost see me, can’t you, in one of those old ads for Toyota, leaping into the air, while a jingle croons, “You asked for it, You got it!” Because that’s exactly what we wanted the festival to feel like this year – an opportunity for our audiences to see what writers are like and how they work, and for our writers to meet our audiences, for everyone to feel comfortable together. (I don’t think anybody paid Chuck to say that – or if they did, I hope I never know…) So, how does a theatre become a living room? And why would we want that?

When our audiences glimpse the process of making theatre, when you know who the artists are that make the work onstage, you get a clearer picture of who “Geva” really is. And when Geva’s staff and artists get to know our audiences, when we work together, laugh together, maybe even cry together, we create community. And when we have a community, we all belong in the room together, making and talking about art.

We’ve been talking a lot about the process of theatre making for almost a year now – in our brochures, our playbills, our press releases, and on this blog. Because we want to make it clear that every play or musical you see onstage has been through a process – plays don’t just spring to life, fully formed. They have to begin as an idea, the spark of a story, in the mind of a writer. Even those great classic plays were new plays once upon a time. And yet, it’s the writer who our audiences see the least, and probably know the least about. So, last spring, Geva began to invite five of the playwrights whose new work we’re producing in our season to Rochester, to get to know our community and Rochester’s rich history, and to give our patrons an opportunity to connect with each of them. (Those writers are Deborah Zoe Laufer, Greg Kotis, Eric Coble, Mat Smart and John Cariani.) We held events throughout the summer, called The Author’s Voice, which included a conversation with each writer, and the writer themselves reading excerpts from their work. And we brought them all back for a portion of the Festival of New Theatre. They were joined by Nora Cole, a writer and performer who was in residence during the festival; Cass Morgan, who developed her new musical True Home in the first week of the festival; and Bill Caposere, a Rochester area writer selected from our Regional Writers Showcase.

Here are a few things I, personally, learned from this festival, from inviting our audiences into our living room.

True Home Photo by John Schlia
True Home
Photo by John Schlia

From the workshop of Cass Morgan’s True Home, I learned that musicians are incredible dramaturgs, that they ask the best, most thought provoking questions. And, comments from the audience confirmed for me that no matter who we are, as Americans, we’re always looking to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Nora Cole Photo by John Schlia

Nora Cole
Photo by John Schlia

From Nora Cole, who joined us for a conversation about her process writing about the relationship between her aunt and uncle during World War II, I learned that we can never really separate personal experiences from our political stances, and that the past is always present.

From Theatre in Progress: Excerpts of New Plays (in which our 5 writers shared a scene from the unfinished play they were working on RIGHT THEN), I learned that no two artists’ processes are the same, and that an evening of excerpts is extremely intriguing. After that reading, I walked into the lobby and saw writers and audience members in real conversations with each other, and what I witnessed was an artistic community in the creation.

From the reading of Bill Caposere’s Galileo’s, I learned that when worlds collide, new possibilities appear.

From the rehearsals and reading of John Cariani’s Love/Sick, I learned that heart ache, the physical pain you feel in your chest, is universal, and yet it doesn’t stop any of us from chasing love and happiness.

The Bake-Off Photo by John Schlia

The Bake-Off
Photo by John Schlia

From the Bake-Off Plays (Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, I challenged our writers to write something to share with audiences in four days. It didn’t matter what they wrote, but pieces had to include these three elements: a song, flowers or flour, and an invention), I learned AGAIN what I’ve been learning over and over again throughout my artistic career – that playwrights are fierce artists, and that sharing your writing is an intimate, scary, beautiful experiment. 

From our Young Writers Showcase, I learned that artistic bravery comes to some fortunate people at a very early age, and that it’s our job, as adults, to encourage those sparks of self-expression into a full-blown flame.

I could – and probably will another day – go on and on and on…But I’ll stop here today. Did you attend one of the events during our Festival of New Theatre? What did you learn? What new thoughts or questions occurred to you?

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