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One. But he really has to want to share.
For the past seven days, ten writers from around the country and within the Telluride community have been hunkered down at the Sheridan Opera House or gathered in Jennie Franks’ living room for a post-supper salon and informal reading. The event is the Telluride Playwrights Festival, a glorious blend of featured playwrights and theatre professionals existing in a fluid blend of rehearsal, response, reflection and rewrites with the goal of making good scripts better. Now in its fourth year, Ms. Franks has made impressive strides, attracting extraordinary talented writers, garnering support of the community and providing an experience unlike any other. As we lean into our public readings, tonight James McLindon’s DEAD AND BURIED and tomorrow’s offering LOVE ME SOME AMNESIA by James Still, I asked our two Jameses about this Telluride experience:
“I find the Telluride Playwrights Festival unique in that it’s such a small, intimate group of artists working together on these plays. Here, you have an opportunity to get to know everyone and to build relationships and trust. These are essential ingredients for any playwright seeking the constructive criticism necessary to take his or her play to the next level. I’ve also been impressed by the intelligence, artistry, kindness and generosity of the people Jennie Franks has gathered, and the result is, I think, a much better script that will performed Monday night than the one I arrived with last Thursday,” James McLindon told me over cocktails at the TPF funder at the Onyx in the Capella Telluride.
My personal experience two years ago was much like what I learned from listening to James Still. “Unlike a typical one-day reading/workshop… Being given the gift of immersing yourself in your play for 10 days is like finding yourself in a waking dream. The dream is the play you’ve written and are most often rewriting. There’s a tension for me in the fact that the writer’s creative life is a strange combination of the ‘private’ and the ‘public’. Unlike novelists who spend almost all of their writing lives alone (and then later go on book tours and readings in which they interact with their readers), a playwright spends a lot of time alone with his play, and then suddenly finds himself spending time with a big bunch of people and his play. It’s in that moment that the play becomes something else, something more. And that’s what’s happened to me this week in Telluride… I’ve spent time around a table with actors and other TPF members listening to LOVE ME SOME AMNESIA being read aloud, asking it questions, poking it, prodding it, begging it, threatening it, loving it, being mystified by it… And after several days of that, I took the play and retreated back to myself for a couple of days, shutting myself up in the condo where I’m staying and going back to that original relationship: just me and my play. It’s kind of like that moment when you’ve had house guests and you stand on the front porch and wave goodbye, watching them back out of the driveway. You go back inside the house and it’s… quiet. And different. So I’ve been back inside the quiet house that is also my play and is also not so quiet anymore. And I’ve cleaned up some messes, changed some wall colors, rearranged some of the furniture, and even discovered a few rooms I didn’t know were there! Rewriting. Tomorrow I’ll throw the doors open and invite people back in… more time around the table with actors where we’ll read the newest draft, more changes overnight, and then the reading on Tuesday. Private to public to private and back to public. It’s this writer’s life.”
This is the question slated for the Telluride Playwrights Festival Open House on Thursday, and a conversation that circulates through the theatre community like a five dollar bill. I’ve popped this and a few other questions to some of the TPF participants. Grabbing a post-rehearsal snack at Smugglers with director/playwright William Missouri Downs, in from Wyoming to direct Telluride Rep actors in Phillip Gerson’s This Isn’t What It Looks Like. A prolific author and playwright, Bill has eight upcoming productions around the country and just closed the Denver hit, Books on Tape.
T- “Why do you think we keep asking this question?”
B- “To justify our existence.”
T- “Do we ask if new songs should be written, or if fashion should be recreated seasonally?”
B- “Good point. There’s been so much talk over the past few decades about theatre being dead or irrelevant. And with the Internet, we’ve got so many forms of public dialogue and expression.”
T- “Yes, but it’s not in 3-D.”
B- “We’re the original 3-D. If for no other reason than the disconnect of the internet, we’ve become more relevant. Those who want to participate in the intimate reflection of life that only theatre offers crave it. We are like books printed on paper, and campfire stories; not commonplace as the world changes, but essential nonetheless.”
T- “Like art museums. People still go to them but now they take a picture of the art and move on to the next masterpiece. We exist for those who actually stand there and look at the painting.”
B- “Theatre has got to tell stories which are universal, I believe that more and more. When your medium is about being physically in a room with a group of people for a shared experience, the observational story is less effective. Save that for film and television. Just the fact that you can’t talk in the theatre changes things.”
T-“Really, you’re not supposed to talk? What about texting?”
On the gondola with Denver actor Paul Page. “What do you like about being in Telluride?” I asked.
P-“It’s really exciting to be involved in the thought process of a new play. I’ve done many world premieres with script tweaks and changes before opening, but this is a much more raw discovery of the characters as the playwright is solidifying them. The festival really gives the script and the artists a chance to incubate.”
T-“How do you like the play you’re working on?”
P-“Oh god, it’s fascinating. James Still has created these really interesting characters and put them in a highly charged situation. We’re working through the script slowly, moment-to-moment, asking questions of each other in a process of discovering what the play is.”
T- “Plays do write themselves at some point. If you let them.”
P-“And James is so open, so talented. It’s great to work with artists from other markets. After New York I’ve spent the past twenty years in Denver.”
P- “Well, yes. But it’s nice to shake it up a bit.”
We’re only a third of the way through the Festival and the energy is building steadily. Hunkered down in our rewrites and rehearsals, meeting up for dinners graciously hosted by TPF supporters, eyeing the mountains for a chance to hike, my experience of Telluride is always a balance of risk and safety. I feel held, which gives me the power to create. And I feel that is terribly important.
Regarding the nudity, or lack of it, in the Aurora Fox’s production of “The Graduate”, John Moore’s mention of it in the Sunday Denver Post and the current dialogue… The decision about the nudity was made before I signed on to do the show. I was aware that the script called for it when I auditioned and as a professional actress and playwright, I would have bucked up (or should I say ‘buffed up’?) and done it. Frankly, I am not a fan of alterations to theatre (that’s for you John) scripts, and I’m not sure of a playwright who is. I find additions, subtractions and ‘improvements’ to plays by other theatre artists disrespectful at the least, hubris if I’m being dramatic. As an actress/playwright I must remember which hat is on my head to avoid conflict, though we writers actually have unions and guilds to prevent these decisions from being made and recourse for them when they are. But that’s a discussion for another column, another blog.
Basically, disregarding the author’s intent is equal to the actor not honoring the director’s directorial notes, or the costume designer blowing off the agreed upon color palette, you get the idea. It says that you may have your job, but I know better. What if, for example, playing Mrs. Robinson I chose to take the same liberty and come out one evening stark naked? The hierarchy of theatre has always been skewed. We claim to serve the play and mouth that the playwright is king or queen, then make changes as suits our needs. Happens in film, happens in TV… where there’s a writer, there’s an editor. The line of demarcation here is in intent. Does deleting the stage direction of her nudity alter the action of the scene or the impact on the characters? Does it make my Mrs. Robinson more or less seductive, powerful or desperate? I don’t think so. Would it be more shocking and intimate if I were standing naked in front of Jack Wefso as my Benjamin? Yes. But the real vulnerability would have happened between us, in rehearsal, long before the audience filed in. I’m sure there are many theaters in Aurora and in Glendale for that matter, where the nudity of the woman on stage would be critical to the quality of the show. I don’t think that would apply in this case. Theatre ethics and theatrical risk aside, the real and most important question here is this: would the show receive more stars if I showed my tits?