August 17, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Time and Depth: Finding Weller’s “Beast”

In recent years (since my time in Providence, fittingly) I have run into small pockets of luck. I find 20-dollar bills in public bathrooms. I find outstanding apartments through Craigslist. The D train always seems to pull up when I reach the platform. Just last week I dropped and shattered my new iPhone, went to the Apple “Genius Bar” two hours later, and the Genius gave me a new one. Yes, gave me. For free.

Through yet another grand gesture of providence, I have been shuffled into the path of playwright Michael Weller, who hired me as his assistant on his upcoming play at New York Theater Workshop. Playwright’s Assistant positions are not overly common in the theater world, although assisting is a standard step on the path for upcoming directors. But Weller has two shows going up in New York this fall, NYTW’s BEAST and an Off-Broadway production of his levelling two-hander FIFTY WORDS, and so is required to be in two places at once. I serve as his approximate shadow in rehearsal, reporting on rough spots in the script as exceptional director Jo Bonney hefts this strange and beautiful piece to its feet.

To assist at a 35-year-old Off-Broadway theater like NYTW is fortuitous in any scenario–for a new playwright it’s incredibly illuminating. It presents a clear image of a production standard to work for; NYTW attracts the best theatrical talent the city has to offer. But my fortune is especially good in this situation; I’m in the room every day with a gorgeous, difficult, moving, and dangerously political new play, with a mentally agile and enormously perceptive director, and with an unusually generous playwright at the height of his craft.

For the next few weeks I’ll be chronicling the development of this project here, looking at the ways the rehearsal process affects and informs this tricky text, and vice-versa. But to give you a snapshot of where we are in the process: since our first read-through two weeks ago, the play has been rewritten day by day in response to the actors’ and directors’ work. Just today, between 10 AM and 1 PM, we’ve received two new drafts of Scene Six. Yet the actors are remarkably stable on this constantly-shifting ground– I’ll talk more about them next week. Technical problems are being solved–at this moment, Bonney has gathered a knot of tech and production people on the apron of the stage, solving an issue regarding live flame (curious? Come see the show)– and the set is skeletal but already imposing. Things are gearing up for the next phase of rehearsal that will lead us into two weeks of previews, another period of change for a new play.

Which leads me to what I’ve found most immediately striking about a production at this level: the practical issue of time. We early-career playwrights most often explore our work through staged readings and workshop productions (bare-bones production with limited runs, usually a few nights). For these, design elements are simple, if they are used at all; rehearsals and performances can occur in a range of small spaces, from conference-type rooms to university halls to small “black box” theaters to each other’s living rooms; the time the artists commit is often a donation to the project itself. Our rehearsal periods vary from two hours a day for a few days to about four hours for a couple of weeks. I’ve seen amazing theater created in this amount of time. But BEAST’s team is able to convene for eight hours a day, six days a week. And the difference this makes is not found so much in the raw quality of the work, but in the depth of it. Each theatrical moment can be dug into, examined, unfolded, decoded. We swim in the script for hours, day after day, excavating vast amounts of information hidden in the folds of this new play. I wonder if the result of a true, time-intensive rehearsal process constitutes a different theatrical form from the workshops I’m used to, like the difference between a sketch and the painting that a sketch becomes. It makes me want to push harder as a writer, to pay my dues, to earn this wealth of time with artists of this caliber, so I can see what my plays are hiding inside of them.