Roll On, Strange Little Plays. Roll On.
I will start off saying this: rolling world premieres should be the ONLY way plays premiere. With consecutive and distinct productions a new play gets the essential time and community to mature rapidly, thoroughly, and cradled by friendly forces. Awww.
A play becomes itself in production, less so in readings, and even less so alone with my laptop. Alive onstage is where plays belong, become, grow, and fight for their lives. The rolling premiere of Exit, Pursued By A Bear gave me and this play the truest place to create something that I think is important, bizarre, and theatrical. Without Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta, Crowded Fire in SF, and ArtsWest in Seattle this play would have stayed quiet and young – now its loud, proud, and rolling across the country with stops in Orlando and Dallas already made and stops in NYC and Chicago on the books.
Lessons of The Roll
The first production is always about “realizing the vision and reality of the play” – truly seeing the shape, character, logic, and functionality of the play for the first time. Synchronicity Theatre’s production in Atlanta (directed by Rachel May) did that perfectly in a 100+ seat house with a wide stage and audience raked up in risers. The amazing actors were serious troopers – diving into this play from the start with energy and intelligence. This is a no-holds-barred kinda play and they went to the limit. The play is set in North Georgia so we had a built-in safety in the form of southern-friendly audiences. This production was swift, deeply moving, and perfectly ridiculous.
The second production, about to open here at Crowded Fire in San Francisco, has been about fine tuning, cutting dead weight, asking myself the serious question like “I know the line is funny but is it worth the 5-line lead up?” and “Is this scene self-referential and awesome, or self-referential and confusing?”. This production is in a 50-seat black box space with audience on 2-sides. The very real and inherent intimacy of this space is redefining how this play works, how far we can go with the funny and the violence. Desdemona Chiang’s vision of the play is dynamic, churning, and sexy.
In between the SF production and the Seattle production this fall at ArtsWest, I may continue to tweak the show. There’s a few things I’m still waiting to see if we’ve perfected. And Arts West is a larger, wider black box thrust which will continue to push my conceptualization of what the play demands.
There are so many reasons that rolling premieres are helpful and necessary that I might just make us a list. Actually lemme give you some background of how Bear started rolling… and then make a list. The list will be the denouement. Or the climax. Whatever. Begin.
This play has rolled since it was born.
Exit, Pursued By A Bear started as a rogue idea had while working on another play. (That always happens to me.) It was the brassiest voice I’d ever attempted, but it felt so good that I slammed out the first ten pages (including a stage direction with the phrase “meat fort”) and then… tucked it (rolled it?) away. Actually I think I submitted it for a commission award or something, was not picked up, and then tucked it away.
A few months later I met with Amy Mueller at The Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco (I was again, working on a totally different play) and she asked what I was working on and the first thing that popped into my mind was: “This crazy feminist bear play about domestic violence. But its a comedy. So…”
So. Amy read the first 10 pages, encouraged me to finish it, and offered my a spot in their Rough Readings Series – 8 hours of rehearsal, 4 great actors, smart director, and 2 public readings.
After that reading, I immediately sent it to my friend and wonder woman Rachel May, Artistic Director of Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre – who immediately put it in their new play reading series happening in a month.
The dual Atlanta and SF readings/reactions to the play were really great and enthusiastic. Rachel was choosing her upcoming season. She chose Bear. And she said “I want to do a rolling premiere of this.” Synchronicity had done co-pros before with a lot of success. I was so ready to see what we could do together.
Marissa Wolf at Crowded Fire had seen the reading at Playwrights Foundation and she and I had a great talk about the play after. Her company is a collective so all the artists had to read and support the play before going further – luckily they did and actor Erin Gilley, who is actually from North Georgia (near where the play takes place), gravitated toward the lead role. So Crowded Fire included Bear in their reading series, connected with Rachel, and jumped on board to produce it next. The play was officially rolling.
ArtsWest got on board after I sent the play to Alan Harrison (who heard me babbling on about it on facebook – god bless the internet). ArtsWest had produced my play Emilie last season (a really fabulous and full-hearted production I might add) and was looking for a fresh comedy. He liked the play, I now had a relationship with his audience through last season’s production, this was in fact a comedy, and now we were rolling to three cities.
The amazing thing to me is that all of this happened because of personal connection, friendships, and previous professional relationships. These were seasoned friendships, not brand new “you don’t really know me but take a risk on my crazy play please” relationships. History helps.
Everyone asked right away if this was an NNPN project but it wasn’t. The National New Play Network rolling premiere program is totally on it though, and has helped great plays become greater. But these three theaters weren’t NNPN member theaters. So. They just made it up themselves. There was no grant involved for these theaters. None of the theaters got any money outright for doing the premiere. It was excitement about the play and excitement about producing something in a national and immediate way that got everyone on board. The only rule was to produce the play within one year of the first production. Boom. You can see why I am the luckiest lady in the land, or certainly feel like it.
Though this all might have really happened because of the play’s curious yet recognizable title referencing a seemingly cute yet actually terrifying wild animal.
THE LIST OF WHY ROLLING PREMIERES ARE GETTING TO BE ESSENTIAL
1. Plays are designed to be on stage (yeah duh), alive in actors bodies, in the company of reactive audiences. That’s new play development. Plays and playwrights need a second/third production to really understand the play’s true realized self.
2. Writing is hard. Producing is hard. Give us a break, y’all, and let’s share and develop all that thoughtful work so it doesn’t stop in one city with one audience. Rachel’s work is alive here in SF, Crowded Fire will be a part of ArtsWest. Play it forward (eeeesh. sorry.).
3. The play/production has momentum, scale, conversation on a national level now – we were even featured in American Theatre Magazine and I’m thinking its not just because of this awesome picture (awesome picture here). Its because 3 companies who’d never worked together before were converging interests and resources around a subject and play in which the believe.
4. 3+ theaters share marketing, language, twitter hashtags–specifically #prepareforbear–and this awesome site donated by Synchronicity to whoever produces the play next, prepareforbear.com. Even props were shared as our sweet dead deer is getting quite a tour of the USA.
5. Playwrights really appreciate productions. We really do. We hope you like our plays. But we really hope you DO our plays. That’s the truth. And having 3 in one year of the same play is not just an honor but a lifeline to the my best creative working self. Thank you Spirits of Smart Productions.
6. All of the companies get world premieres.
7. The 2 and 3rd companies get world premieres that have had the deep benefit and lessons of a full production.
8. No matter what critics say, the play is buffered by future productions and faraway advocates to continue the play’s best journey to its best self.
9. You don’t need extra funds to do it. But that helps. In fact can we start a Rolling Premiere Fund for which anyone can apply? Huh? Yes?
10. Y’all know this is a great way to produce if you can afford/arrange it.
11. Roll on, strange little plays. Roll on.