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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anna Renée Hansen and Bridget Kathleen O'Leary talk about New Voices @ New Rep

Around the table (L-R): Colleen Hughes, Anna Renée Hansen, Emily Kaye Lazzaro,
James McLindon, and Bridget Kathleen O'Leary. (Photo: Dana S. Hansen)

C’mon, you didn’t think we’d let Anna Renée Hansen completely out of the clutches of Playwrights’ Perspective, did you? Today, the alum and New Voices @ New Rep fellow talks with New Repertory Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary about the inaugural year of the program (which, in addition to Anna, includes Colleen Hughes, Emily Kaye Lazzaro, and James McLindon) and the first annual Festival of New Voices on June 9 and 10.

For more information (including a schedule) visit the New Rep Web site, and you may RSVP for the readings on the event’s official Facebook page. 

ARH: I would venture to say that a big question for the BPT blog readers may be: Why New Voices @ New Rep Playwriting Fellows? Oh, and what IS IT? (You do the spiel so well...)

BKO: I studied directing at Boston University and during my time in the program I spent a lot of time at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. My exposure to Kate Snodgrass and the work the students were doing led me to pursuing working with companies that had an interest in new plays and development. I chose to intern at New Rep in my final semester because of their relationship with the National New Play Network and as luck would have it, I got hired at the end of the semester. My time at New Rep has allowed me to get to know a lot of writers and participate in a regional dialogue about how we approach new work as an industry, but also gave me the chance to ask writers what it was they were looking for. Surprisingly, “a production” was not the first thing. They mostly wanted support, conversation and guidance. Nobody else works in a vacuum in this business – yet playwrights are often left to write alone and hope they get enough right to be noticed. It’s not fair. 

So, after several years of working, and reworking how we approached relationships with playwrights, this year instead of the usual one day of rehearsal followed by a reading, my managing director gave me permission to invite four Massachusetts based writers to join us for the season. We meet every three weeks to talk about what is going on in the world and hear each other’s work. We’ve had actors and directors along for the ride and we’ve even had sessions where design teams have been able to talk about the plays.

How has writing this play as part of a group, as opposed to by yourself, impacted your approach?

ARH: We are always writing alone! But I think for someone like me who generally has between three and five jobs going, it doubles as a support group and a dramaturgical godsend. I feel pretty confident saying on behalf of our group that we all need the deadlines. It’s too tempting to keep tweaking and it never feels like enough time. Or, I do the thing where I just stop seeing what I loved about the play and stop writing it for a while and start something new. I refuse to let that happen after the reading! I am going to work on it until it’s PERFECT. Actually, I don’t think that exists, but we have to let it go eventually and say “it’s done for now.”

A group like we have at New Rep helps to move us out of our neurotic writer moments and urges us to create, which by the way, is what we want if only we could get out of our heads and stop convincing ourselves that everything else is more important. I think that’s the “support group” side. And it’s funny because Emily, Colleen, and I went through BPT’s MFA program together, so we have a kind of shared language and can comment on each other’s work with a much larger view in mind. It’s also good we had James to balance things out more – he brings a wonderful Northampton-esque presence in the room and is such a great playwright.

The “dramaturgical godsend” side is having invaluable feedback from other writers who grapple with the same issues “What words are actually necessary? What the frack am I doing with this play? Do you get why the character is doing that right now?” etc., etc. Also, we basically have an awesome dramaturg present from the early, early stages which I think has totally spoiled me. I’m all about dramaturg-playwright teams, which started when I took dramaturgy with Ilana Brownstein.

What has this process been like as the dramaturg? Can you talk about a fulfilling "dramaturgical moment" that took place over the course of development for us four writers?

BKO: Watching these plays evolve has been a really interesting journey for me. All four writers were in extremely different places. James had a completed draft that he was tweaking as he heard it. Anna had a play she had already worked on for a while that she was doing a giant overhaul on. Colleen had a play she had thought a lot about for a few years and was finally tackling, and Emily wanted to get out of her comfort zone and write something completely different.

Being in these stages demanded unique responses for each writer. The most fulfilling moments for me have been watching the playwrights have the courage to kill the thing they love when they had to. I think listening to new work requires us all to be honest and direct about our experiences but ultimately the response is subjective – it is an individual’s opinion. So, you can’t demand or instruct a playwright to remove something or rework something. I think that impulse has to come from them and it takes a lot of guts to make major changes.

ARH: You've mentioned a few times how elements of the playwriting fellows program have been inspired by your experience at the O'Neill. Can you talk about that? Like, for instance, you did something extra super cool and brought in designers for us when some of us only interact with them at parties.

BKO: I was really fortunate over the past seven years to be able to spend time with a lot of different directors, writers and administrators who are focused entirely on the creation of new plays. Early on in graduate school I identified that I wanted to work with playwrights. Jim Petosa and Judy Braha, my advisors at the time, both encouraged me to continue having a relationship with Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and also suggested that I apply to intern at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. In 2007 I was able to spend the summer there and got to observe six processes. I got to listen to the different conversations playwrights were having with directors and actors.

It was wonderful – but my favorite part was the first day of rehearsal for all of the playwrights began with what they called the “Dream Design Meeting.” We would all gather around and listen to designers talk with playwrights about how they experienced the play and saw the world. I think we sometimes forget that designers have a way into text that is complex and asks a lot of questions about the themes of the play that directors and actors don’t necessarily think about. This year, the designer conversations were not entirely about design. (This is what the set would look like or this is what they would be wearing.) They were much more engaged in the stories and the style of the writing. It added a whole other layer to process and I think informed a lot of the playwrights as they moved forward with their work.

Your design group was extremely interested in discussing the themes and characters of your play and you described the experience as terrifying. Talk more about that.

ARH: I think what I said was that it was terrifying AND thrilling which is sort of how I feel about playwriting in general. That particular meeting – okay, I will preface this by saying that this play basically requires only a few chairs, a desk, and a Peet’s coffee cup to pull off. It’s pretty sparse. I describe the set saying, “There is a dream-like quality about this classroom.” The “problem” with that is a lot of the play is very realistic, sometimes gritty dialogue. So Cristina Todesco kept asking, “Why?” to my need for a dream-like set. And I was thinking like “Shit, it’s Cristina Todesco, I should let her tell me what the set looks like.”

But what I realized ultimately is that my text wasn’t supporting what I envisioned – the writing just wasn’t there yet. The terrifying part was “I have so much work to do!” but the thrilling part was starting to see what I could do to make the play stronger. And I was thrilled by all the thematic questions that came from that meeting. It was clear that even at its early stages the play was raising questions and feelings in these designers and it felt like we could have talked all night about it. It helped me to see what people were responding to, and what they weren’t, which helped me to let go of some plot devices that weren’t working. Not only that, designers think so differently about my play than I do! Which is awesome and opened up possibilities for me as a writer. I realized what great dramaturgs designers can be! 

Stay tuned for part two...

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