Previously in this column: The members of Bright Alchemy Theatre, a very young devised theatre company based in Washington, DC, have spent the last nine months working on its new project which began with the question: Why do we as a species feel the need to tell stories about our own destruction? This weekend, for three PWYC performances, the company will test-drive its new play in front of an audience.
The beginning of production is when devised theatre starts to get weird. For me, at least. It’s like changing gears. In different cars. While juggling. A group of theatre artists who had, until now, simply been friends chatting in somebody’s living room congeal into more traditional roles. Actors are learning lines for roles they helped create. One deviser who has been with us from the start of the conversation takes on the role as director. Another becomes assistant director/stage manager. And the playwright starts letting the text go and takes on the role of producer. There is a brief amount of awkward negotiation that ensues as we all settle into the mechanics of rehearsal.
There are also the usual roadbumps. One actor has an unavoidable conflict arise and has to drop out, and we have to bring in someone who wasn’t there for the devising process, but who is enthusiastic and a great fit. The composer who has worked with us since the first show we did gets a job in Austin, but leaves us in the hands of another composer who is doing incredible work. We have to scramble to find a lighting designer, but acquire a fantastic one, who happens to have a day job at NASA (really appropriate considering the content of the play).
And a reading at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival goes over great and a review of it sparks a debate about the role of critics in developing work.
All this in preparation for a three-performance workshop production. Think of it as a rough-draft production of the play. We test drive it (fully teched, everyone off-book), and elicit frank, honest feedback from the audience. That feedback will be taken into account, along with everything else we learned in the production process, when revising the show for a full run next year.
Yes, it’s a lot of work. And, yes, it is worth it. In my experience, having time in the space to experiment with design elements, and then seeing those elements in production can add whole new layers of understanding. Also, audiences can see things in your play that not only didn’t you see, but are incapable of seeing, with the entire company being close to the material.
It helps that this time we have funding and a really wonderful space. Around this time last year, I applied for a residency at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint and an attached grant from the Cultural Development Corporation’s Creative Communities Fund, both of which I was awarded. Basically, we get two weeks in a small but well-stocked black box near Chinatown in DC and a healthy chunk of change that will allow us to pay all the artists involved.
This was back when we were calling it “The Apocalypse Project” and all we had was a central question: Why do we as a species feel compelled to tell stories of our own annihilation?
That question is still somewhere at the heart of this play, now titled When The Stars Go Out. But it’s a much different piece than what I expected—more intimate, more about one woman’s anxiety than about the collective conscious of the human race. Oh, we’ve still got some big bad weird. Like zombies and the afterlife and a giant wolf eating the stars. But the horror of all that seems to pale in comparison to one character’s battle with cancer and another who doesn’t know if she’s ready for motherhood.
One of the joys of devised theatre is that, even though I’m in the room from day one, and I’m the one creating most of the written text, the heart of the story is never what I think it’s going to be.
A side note: Sometime early in rehearsal, an actress who is new(ish) to Bright Alchemy tells me how she was explaining our process to another actress who works in devised theatre. The other actress was surprised that there was a playwright attached to this project and asked if that didn’t cause problems as the piece evolved. Our actress said that it wasn’t a problem at all, and that the playwright (me) seemed more than able to get his ego out of the way of the art. This makes me happy and suggests that I’m doing something right. Even if that something right is totally faking being ego-free.
Because this surely isn’t an entirely ego-free process. I mean, come on—it’s theatre. Everyone’s worked hard on this and, in a few day’s time, we’ll get to show it off. So, if you’re in the DC area and want to help shape a new work in process, consider yourself invited. You can find all the info here.
And, if you’re looking for a teaser, here’s the first minute and a half of the play.