David M. White
playwright. director. scholar.
Yesterday I spent two hours in the front window of the Drama Book Shop in NYC starting a new play as a part of TheatreSpeak’s Write Out Front NYC. A “playwright happening” in which 125 playwrights will practice their craft in 2 hour shifts at the Drama Book Shop during the month of August.
In preparation for this event, the previous week, I took suggestions on facebook and wound up with “bringing home a dog + a secret,” “two friends long lost friends catching up + tequila,” “thesis paper,” “checks,” and “writing about people watching me through the window.” In addition to these suggestions, I also took along an envelope filled with artifacts that wound up in my parents yard after a tornado that happened 60 miles away from their house (some books scraps, a tattered photo, a bible verse).
After percolating on these ideas for a few days, I spent a bit of the morning on the Highline (the fantastic above ground walkway running near 10th avenue in Chelsea) formulating a plan.
When I arrived at the Drama Book Shop and was welcomed by Micheline, the face and spirit behind Write Out Front 2014, I was ready to go. So I sat down in the window, typed the title page, and dove in. My goal: to write the first scene of a new play, a new comedy.
Two hours and many pages later, I wrapped up my shift energized and inspired. Below you can find what I wrote: warts and all. I have not edited this work, other than the revisions and edits I did at the Drama Book Shop, but I did reformat it to save space. Thanks to those who gave me the ideas, and the friends who dropped by to show support. I will reflect further on this experience via blog, but for now here’s what I worked on:
A new play
Written: August 7, 2014 at Write Out Front, NYC
PLACE: first floor apartment in a city.
TIME: Soon or now
NOTE: a single punctuation mark indicated a look or gesture.
First floor apartment, Window looking out onto the street. Curtains, but occasionally people pass by and look into the room.
The room is a shambles.
LINCOLN is propped up against a door.
There is incessant barking from the other side of the door. SYDNEY stands in the middle of the room in a bathrobe, clearly surprised by the barking)
SYDNEY: Why in the hell did you bring that thing home?
LINCOLN: I saw it in the window and the price was right.
SYDNEY: The price was right? You know that purchasing animals is…there are so many abandoned—
LINCOLN: Not this again. You volunteer for the SPCA for one month two years ago and now you’re holier than—
(A particularly vicious bark from the dog)
LINCOLN: Holy crap!
SYDNEY: Holy crap is right. Why did you bring that goddam animal into our home. The boss said no animals and now you have a seething, snarling, ball of canine terror locked in your room.
LINCOLN: He’s a good boy. He told me with his eyes.
SYDNEY: And he’s telling me something else with his bark.
(The dog quiets down)
LINCOLN: There. See. I told you…it a dog, but it also has a home—
SYDNEY: And also a secret…apparently.
LINCOLN: I read my horoscope today and it said—
SYDNEY: Horoscope? Like signs and visions falling from the sky?
LINCOLN: Yes…and they said that today I would make a new friend.
SYDNEY: And you think that dog is your new friend.
LINCOLN: No one else wanted it.
SYDNEY: And that’s the qualification for a new friend.
LINCOLN: You’ve got a better idea?
SYDNEY: I don’t know why I ever suggested that you come a visit.
LINCOLN: I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
SYDNEY: And now you have a dog, which means that you have even fewer options.
LINCOLN: But I thought you’d like a dog.
SYDNEY: I do like dogs. You might even say I’m a dog person, but I don’t want a dog now…I want a dog later…like when I’m ready to settle down.
LINCOLN: Maybe I am ready to settle down.
SYDNEY: You don’t even have a place to live.
LINCOLN: All the more reason to settle down.
By the way…Dahlia called.
SYDNEY: Dahlia called?
LINCOLN: Yeah…she’s back in town.
SYDNEY: Back in town? But we haven’t talked in…years.
LINCOLN: I know. You missed her wedding. That was not well received.
SYDNEY: You think it was any easier on me?
LINCOLN: You could have at least shown up.
SYDNEY: I was busy.
LINCOLN: You were not. You were making excuses.
SYDNEY: I can’t stand up for something I don’t believe in.
LINCOLN: You didn’t believe in Dahlia?
SYDNEY: I couldn’t see their happiness.
LINCOLN: Did you need to? Isn’t that making it about you?
SYDNEY: You’re a bastard.
LINCOLN: I’m sorry, but we all knew each other for so long…and then you…you went and ruined it my making it all about you.
SYDNEY: I’m trying to be better, I really am.
LINCOLN: I know.
SYDNEY: I let you live here.
LINCOLN: A selfless act if there ever was one.
(Dog snarls and growls through the door)
SYDNEY: And now you’ve brought home a dog.
LINCOLN: I think it’s going to be a good match, besides, we’ve needed someone to complete our trio.
SYDNEY: Our trio?
LINCOLN: You, me, and …we’re always better when we have someone—
SYDNEY: That dog is not a someone—
LINCOLN: Something—to round us out…to balance us out. Like Dahlia used to.
SYDNEY: And now she’s coming to visit.
LINCOLN: She’s back. From Hong Kong.
SYDNEY: Hong Kong?
LINCOLN: You really don’t keep up with facebook.
(The dog begins to bark again. The door shakes as the dog tries to twist the handle and open it)
LINCOLN: Damn dog.
SYDNEY: Is it trying to open the door?
LINCOLN: I think so.
SYDNEY: You think so.
LINCOLN: (holding onto the handle) It’s definitely trying to get out.
SYDNEY: I’ve never seen a dog open a door.
LINCOLN: Neither have I.
(LINCOLN steps back to let it happen. SYDNEY watches)
SYDNEY: What are you doing?
LINCOLN: How often do we get to see something we’ve never seen before?
SYDNEY: Are you mad?
LINCOLN: No, but if we’ve never…maybe we should. I need your help.
(Dog shakes the door again. Quiet)
SYDNEY: So…when is DAHLIA getting into town?
LINCOLN: Yeah. Soon.
SYDNEY: When did you find out?
LINCOLN: A few weeks ago.
SYDNEY: A few weeks?
LINCOLN: Okay. A month.
SYDNEY: A month! Why didn’t you—
LINCOLN: Because I figured you’d blow town again.
SYDNEY: Blow town?
LINCOLN: Your excuses are abundant.
LINCOLN: Shut up!
SYDNEY: You brought it home.
LINCOLN: For you.
SYDNEY: For you.
LINCOLN: It’s self-preservation. Pure and simple.
LINCOLN: You love the dog. You love me. You keep the dog. Maybe you’ll keep me.
SYDNEY: Keep you? I don’t want to keep you. You are not worth keeping.
LINCOLN: That hurts.
SYDNEY: It’s 8:45 in the morning.
LINCOLN: Yeah…and that hurts.
SYDNEY: Where did you even find a dog at this hour?
LINCOLN: The pet store opened early.
SYDNEY: The pet store?
LINCOLN: Guy on the corner. He told me that he got the dog from a friend.
SYDNEY: And what kind of friends do you think the guy on the corner has?
LINCOLN: Sketchy friends.
SYDNEY: That’s right…sketchy friends.
LINCOLN: But they’re interesting.
SYDNEY: He’s a guy on the corner. Of course he’s interesting…
LINCOLN: And he told me that this dog…this dog was a winner.
SYDNEY: You bought a dog fighting dog!
LINCOLN: I’m not going to fight him. He needs a good home. He needs love.
SYDNEY: You are loyalless and impossible. You are the opposite of this dog.
LINCOLN: The opposite of dog. Is that god?
SYDNEY: Why are you home? Shouldn’t you be at the library?
LINCOLN: Yeah, but I can’t work there anymore. The lights…they hum at a constant b-flat. It’s driving me batty. Why are you up? Shouldn’t people be watching you sleep?
SYDNEY: That’s not funny.
LINCOLN: Last night I was out at this bar…and this woman in an Eskimo Joe’s shirt was dancing with her Marlboro…alone…on the dance floor…Some Ten Years After song is playing and she’s dancing…Red coal her only partner…her connection to reality.
And as I looked at her, I realized that behind her…Just behind her…At a table…Drinking a beer…Was a clown.
And not a clown like a person being silly…A clown with 8 colors of hair and white makeup and overalls and big shoes and too many handkerchiefs and a Budweiser.
And that’s when I lost myself…I wondered, what am I doing in this bar…with this clown?
I brought you a present.
SYDNEY: Besides the dog?
LINCOLN: Oh…the dog. Right. Yes…besides the dog.
(LINCOLN produces a bottle of tequila)
SYDNEY: Tequila? But it’s 8:45 in the—
LINCOLN: Dahlia is going to be here this morning. This is for you two—
SYDNEY: So…let me put all this together: You thought I needed a surprise.
SYDNEY: But you didn’t know how I’d respond to one surprise so you—
LINCOLN: Brought you two.
SYDNEY: I know you probably thought that you were being considerate, but–
LINCOLN: This morning I woke with a start, horrified at what I’d done…hours must have passed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that clown–
SYDNEY: You were going to bring home a snarling dog,
A bottle of tequila,
And my old friend whom I haven’t talked to since, since she married that, that—
LINCOLN: You can really hold a grudge.
SYDNEY: What were you thinking?
LINCOLN: I was hoping that you would be distracted enough by the dog and the tequila, that perhaps you and Dahlia would forget about the past and start dealing with the present.
SYDNEY: Deal with the present? You come in here before 9:00 in the morning talking about gin-soaked clowns.
LINCOLN: Beer-drenched clowns.
SYDNEY: And you want me to start dealing with the present. How about you start dealing with reality?
LINCOLN: I start to move. Then I stop. We see each other at the same instant.
DHALIA: (from outside the window) Hello!
SYDNEY and LINCOLN: She’s here!
(SYDNEY runs to out of the room)
(LINCOLN answers the front door)
DHALIA: Hi. It’s been a—
LINCOLN: Long time.
DHALIA: Yeah. I…uh—
DHALIA: It’s barely 9 in the morning.
LINCOLN: Just trying to—
DHALIA: Trying to get me drunk?
LINCOLN: No…I just—
DHALIA: Is she here?
(DAHLIA goes to the door)
LINCOLN: Not in there!
(The dog begins to go crazy)
DHALIA: What do you have in—
LINCOLN: I got a dog.
DHALIA: Sounds like a big dog.
LINCOLN: Yeah, and Syd’s not too happy about it.
DHALIA: When did you get it?
LINCOLN: This morning.
DHALIA: This morning?
LINCOLN: I went out to get the tequila, and the guy on the corner—
DHALIA: Nothing’s changed with you.
LINCOLN: That’s not true. I’m working on my Master’s Degree.
DHALIA: By going to buy tequila at 8 o’clock in the morning?
LINCOLN: 7 o’clock. And it was a surprise for Sydney.
DHALIA: I’m sure she loved it.
LINCOLN: You know her as well as ever.
DHALIA: I thought I heard her voice when I—
LINCOLN: Yeah, she had to—
DHALIA: You still making excuses for her?
(VOICE FROM STREET comes in the window)
VOICE FROM STREET: Can you tell me where a bodega—
LINCOLN: Down at the corner—
VOICE FROM STREET: Thanks!
DHALIA: The master of distraction has returned.
LINCOLN: Look, I just wanted us all to get along. How was Hong Kong?
LINCOLN: The photos looked amazing. What were you doing there?
DHALIA: You know, this and that.
LINCOLN: This and that?
DHALIA: Nothing nefarious.
LINCOLN: Did I say nefarious?
DHALIA: No, but you were—
LINCOLN: I was.
DHALIA: I’m not in college anymore.
LINCOLN: Hey, that’s not—
(SYDNEY enters from her room. She is dressed: half-presentable)
DHALIA: Hey. How are—
DAHLIA & SYDNEY: Shut up!
LINCOLN: Ok. Fine.
DHALIA: (simultaneous with SYDNEY ) So are you—
SYDNEY: (simultaneous with DAHLIA) What have—
LINCOLN: Anybody want—
LINCOLN: I’m going to my room…for a minute. Let you two catch up.
(LINCOLN touches the handle and the dog goes crazy)
LINCOLN: Easy. Easy buddy.
(LINCOLN gets pulled into the room. Dog is snarling)
LINCOLN: Easy buddy!
DHALIA: It’s been a long time.
SYDNEY: Yeah. It sure has.
DHALIA: You been–
SYDNEY: You’ve been living in Hong Kong.
SYDNEY: That’s incredible.
DHALIA: It was. And now I’m back.
SYDNEY: Back for what?
DHALIA: Back forever. I think.
SYDNEY: But why?
DHALIA: Parents. Stuff. Unresolved stuff. What’ve you been up to?
SYDNEY: Ya know.
DHALIA: Yeah. You working?
SYDNEY: Yeah, my boss, he—
DHALIA: Are you okay?
SYDNEY: Yeah, my boss, he—
DHALIA: He what?
SYDNEY: Hong Kong must have been incredible.
DHALIA: Yeah. It was. What about your boss?
SYDNEY: I work from home.
DHALIA: That’s great! I dream of working from home!
SYDNEY: Not like this.
DHALIA: What do you mean…
SYDNEY: Talking about it makes it weird.
DHALIA: Weird how?
SYDNEY: I haven’t left the house in three years.
DHALIA: You what?
SYDNEY: This is my job. People watch me live.
DHALIA: And your boss…
SYDNEY: I met him once. When he set up the cameras—
DHALIA: So I’m…
SYDNEY: Being broadcast live.
(Long pause. DAHLIA looks around for cameras)
SYDNEY: What’s wrong?
DHALIA: Nothing…I…uh…didn’t know.
SYDNEY: You’ve been in Hong Kong.
DHALIA: Do people watch you?
SYDNEY: Lots of people. Why?
DHALIA: I need to go.
SYDNEY: But you just got here!
(LINCOLN enters. Scrambling out of the room)
LINCOLN: What’s happening?
DHALIA: I have to go. You should have told me about—
LINCOLN: You can’t go…we’re just catching up…old times and all that…
SYDNEY: If she needs to go, she should go.
LINCOLN: No. I’ve worked hard to make this happen, and now—
DHALIA: We may all be in trouble.
LINCOLN: If you leave…I’ll…I’ll kill the dog.
SYDNEY: You will not.
LINCOLN: I knew you’d change your mind.
VOICE OF THE BOSS:
DHALIA: We take her mighty ideas along quietly so that we may come right.
Last spring, I was approached by a group of former students eager to begin their lives as artists and hungry to make art. I am lucky to work with students whose art I respect and I was honored that they would look at the work of a professor and be eager to make it their own. So during a series of meetings over coffee at the Evergreen Cafe, a plan was hatched to present weekly readings during summer 2014 of several episodes in Last Chance, my theatre serial. Only one hitch…they didn’t have a space. So I did what I thought was the logical thing…I offered them our house.
Our house is a rowhouse in Baltimore (basically three single-wide trailers stacked on top of each other–a basement and two upper floors 14’x40′) with a backyard roughly the same size as the footprint of the house. We often entertain and our home has been featured in an article in What Weekly Magazine and in an article by Moscow critic John Freedman on the Trust for Mutual Understanding website, but this was a weekly commitment to using our home with the potential for invited audience…our central air was out…and it was summer in Baltimore.
A bit of backstory:
Last Chance: tales from a broken heartland is a series of episodes about life in the fictional rural town of Last Chance. I began writing the series in 2001 with the episode “Trash” and every year or so have written additional episodes. There are currently 10 episodes about Last Chance:
- “Ain’t Nothin’ Quik ‘n Easy”*
- “Ninjas & Squirrels”*
- “Cut Once
- “Measure Twice”
- “Trailer” !
- “Tall Buildings”
Each episode looks at a different aspect of the community. In this series, there is no central character, and people have commented that the town is the protagonist in this series. Some episodes (*) stand alone and have been produced at festivals, universities, or community theaters. One episode is new for summer 2014 (!). Only once before, at Generous Company’s Gumbo 2012, had anyone attempted to present more than one or two episodes as an event; at that time seven episodes were presented.
I worked through scribbled notebooks of notes from the 2012 Gumbo event and began to think of this as Last Chance and not a bunch of separate plays.This summer I worked to make these full length plays part of a series; part of a new whole. I worked to give each episode a greater sense of focus and urgency from the plays that had previously seemed a bit meandering.
I learned many things from this process, but here are a few that stand out and reflect the reward for taking the risk:
- The deadlines were great, generating a new play and strong revisions of other plays.
- As a small, but faithful, audience gathered we found our community growing…new friends welcomed into our home to see an evening of theatre.
- The energy and thrill of having a performance in our home must resemble the joy that people hosting house concerts feel, but there’s another energy with theatre: risk and danger… and the heartpounding reality of people fighting in your living room when you have a 90-pound dog.
During their six week residency at our home, the Show and Tell Collective presented seven episodes from Last Chance: Trash, Ain’t Nothin’ Quik ‘n Easy, Loser, Ninjas & Squirrels, Cut Once, Measure Twice, and Trailer. Charlie Herrick also penned an article about the summer called Home Theater, and it captures much of the spirit of the Last Chance experiment in presenting theatre in our home.
As a culminating event to this summer series, the Collective rented Church and Comany, a dynamic and homey space in the Hampden area of Baltimore. A great end to a great summer.
From Building Bridges, an article I contributed to the TCG Crossing Borders online blog/salon:
I can now act and think both globally and locally, creating theatre that is vital to more people because it is theatre that bridges communities, finds connections, and waits for society to catch up.
One month ago today, (exactly one month ago down to this minute) Rebecca and I drove from Baltimore to Dulles International Airport, boarded a plane for Istanbul, transferred to a plane to Tashkent, and arrived there in the wee hours of April 27th. In many ways, our journey was all leading up to the evening of May 1st, when the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil and The Seagull Project would present their collaboration, an improvisation around my new script Dance On Bones. As you may remember, Dance on Bones was initially supported by the Likhachev Foundation with a cultural fellowship in St. Petersburg (see blog posts from May 2013), and was in an early draft when selected by The Seagull Project and the Ilkhom so I had arrived not knowing exactly what forces we were mingling with in this script.
Dance on Bones is 37 interlocking poems inspired by the jazz scene in St. Petersburg, Russia (see my Dance on Bones research page as well as numerous posts from May/June 2013), but set in a world in which cities have disappeared: are we in St. Petersburg or New Orleans or St. New PeterOrleansBurg?
An early draft of Dance on Bones was prepared for the Festival of American Culture at the Ilkhom Theater of Mark Weil, Tashkent, Uzbekistan in April/May 2014.
Cast of Characters:
1 – 4 actors; 1 – 4 musicians; Shadows, puppets, and advertisements
The pages of the script are the template for performance.
Some can be performed as monologues. Some can be performed as dialogue with indentation indicating changes of voice…Some of the pages may be stage directions. Some of the pages may be told through images, movement, or puppetry.
The pages included after this point can be rearranged or shuffled into a random order or performed in a different order each time or arranged to articulate different ideas.
Read around a campfire. (from blogpost dated May 12, 2014)
The Ilkhom Theatre paired the four actors and co-directors from The Seagull Project with four Uzbek musicians who were well versed in jazz idioms. Watching these ten artists, plus lighting designers and costumers, dive into Dance On Bones, was an invigorating experience. Tyler, with his insights from living in Uzbekistan, chose to underscore the piece with specific references to Soviet history, while Gavin worked with the actors to connect the numerous dots that the script presented. The set was a group of staggered, stacked, square platforms, and X-rays spun in the air above the platforms, an homage to the origins of Dance on Bones
Speaking about my own work is a challenging prospect. Naturally having one’s work brought to life by interested and interesting artists who dig deep is a humbling experience while also being a moment of tremendous pride. Rather than reflecting or waxing poetic (or simply waxing my own ego), here is what I learned from this experience:
- Music is a character in this play. Music shapes the structure and themes of the play. I can imagine a version in which a Superman-esque theme is played under the Adverts rather than a Stalin-esque theme; they are, after all, both Men of Steel.
- The connections between many of the poems in very clear, some connections really opened up my eyes to possibilities: such as the pairing of “Gavri’s Losing Voice” with “The Invention of Jazz,” making that her story. But there are whole arcs that remain muddied, that I can work to strengthen the connection now that I’ve seen where the gaps are and how clear connections provide the network by which artists and audiences navigate this piece.
- This is a funny play and a sad play. I knew it was dystopian and political, but I didn’t know how funny it would be, or how the totalitarian aspects of the script would draw sadness from the actors.
There are many more ideas, but it is with these ideas that I now head back into work on this script. So here are three segments from the Improvisation of Dance On Bones at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; a glimpse of the live experience via the reductionist form of video. The video contains three excerpts: “The Man With the Ham Part 1,” “The Floods, Part 1,” and “The Man of Steel.” This video was recorded and produced by the Ilkhom Theatre.
Directors: Tyler Polumsky and Gavin Reub
Actors: John Abramson, CT Doescher, David Quicksall, and Alex Tavares
Musicians: Sanjar Nafikov (piano), Saidmurat Muratov (sax), Andrey Prosvirnov (bass), Alibek Kabdurakhmanov (drums)
From the Program note (which I did not write): Dance on Bones is a fragmented glance at a dystopian world, where authoritarian control reigns supreme, the world fights back against the loss of culture and memory, and jazz remains the soul and saving grace of the people. Inspired equally by George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, American Poetry, and Miles Davis; Dance on Bones is a unique look at the importance of humanity in a world of lost souls.
Special Thanks to the Ilkhom Theatre’s tech and design staff whose quick work and acrobatics helped everything come together quickly, and especially to Boris Gafurov and Irina Bharat for opening up the Ilkhom Theatre to Dance on Bones.
After the presentation of Dance on Bones there was a talkback with Tyler, Gavin, John, CT, David, Alex, and me. Here’s a few highlights:
- An audience member compared the work to that of Ken Kesey, esp Cookoo’s Nest world populated by the inmates.
- Another audience member asked why jazz music and I discussed the connections of New Orleans and St. Petersburg (built in swamps, the heart of jazz in their respective countries, cities of cultural amalgamation and European roots)
- Someone asked if I wrote this piece about Uzbekistan, because they have their own stories of the Man of Steel and Trees and Jazz.
- The actors spoke about their work on the piece: a journey from disorientation to connection.
Then we journeyed down the street to Chez Aziz where we used every table and ordered so much beer they ran out of mugs (new mugs were there the next day).
Sanjar Nafikov and Jazzirama
Sanjar Nafikov was the musical director for Dance on Bones and was working with the team from my first rehearsal. He is a versatile musician who in a member of a quartet that blends jazz ideas with Uzbek instruments and tones. Below is a video from their concert at the Ilkhom Theatre celebrating the release of their eponymous CD.
The day after we the presentation of Dance on Bones, Rebecca and I joined The Seagull Project folks for a trip to Samarkand, a mystical city filled with magical architechture. We managed to get the high speed train there which arrived in 2 hours. On the way home we took the regular train (3.5 hours), which was enough time for a remarkable conversation. The train cost round trip was $40 and the tour of Samarkand with a guide and bus was $55/person. But that trip will have to wait until the next post.
As part of my residency at the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil in Tashkent, I offered a workshop on Playwriting in the 21st century as well as Playwriting in the U.S.. I prepared to talk about many things, and then the evening before realized that, “What I want to talk to people about might now be what they want to learn about.” I prepped my thoughts, put them into a presentation on my laptop, figuring photos would help cross the language barrier, and knew that tomorrow when I sat down with the Ilkhom’s students and community that I would let them ask me questions and if any of their questions and my prepared ideas crossed, then we could have an interesting conversation AND visual aids.
As Irina (our host at the Ilkhom and translator!) and I greeted the audience of 20 or so people, I told them a bit about myself and my work as a playwright and with WordBRIDGE. I then opened the floor up to questions:
“Where do you get your ideas for plays?”
This was a long-winded answer that I’d rather not recount here, but suffice it to say that the answer touched on three of my favorite playwriting tools and inspirations:
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme,
Gustav Klimt’s use of molecular structures in his paintings,
And The Price is Right (the Bob Barker years), from which I adopted the structure for a play.
And after that, we talked for the next 90 minutes about writing, life, and how we turn our writing into work for others to interpret.
Some of the questions included:
“What to do if your writing doesn’t get the response you desire?”
-Keep writing. The only way to know what different responses you can get is to keep writing and getting different responses.
“Do you have a special diet when you write?”
-Anything quick. If I take time to cook, I stop thinking. If I write all night I must continue to eat or I cannot keep working.
“Do you ever try out your stories on the people you know, creating conflict to bring into your work?”
-That’s tough. With my early plays there’s definitely things that were drawn from conflicts I was acting out, but I learned pretty quick that creating conflict to put in my writing was a good way to lose my friends.
“Do we even need scripts, or fixed scripts, can’t actors or ensembles work without them?
-Sure they can work without a script, in many cases very well, but I’d like to think that there’s still some artists that would like to create within a structure and engage with some shared ideas, because if these artists aren’t out there, then I’ve got nowhere for my art to go; so I try and write differently each time to keep myself on my toes and hopefully collaborators trying new ideas right alongside me.
The audience asked good questions, personal questions that probed my routines, my ideas, and my relationships, as well as my work. I can only hope that a few of those in attendance discovered an idea or two in what I was saying.
I’m also very grateful to Irina for bravely translating my crazy ideas, looking at me with a cocked eyebrow when I became to ephemeral or specific in my jargon. Somehow I love thinking this way, figuring out clear, direct ways to discuss elusive, nuanced concepts.
So now that my workshop was over, I jumped back into the final tech hours before the presentation of Dance on Bones.
The Festival of American Culture Part II (Improvisations of Archipelago and Worse Than Tigers)
The Reading of Dance on Bones was bookended by the presentations of two other new plays by playwrights from the U.S.: Caridad Svich’s Archipelago and Mark Chrisler’s Worse Than Tigers. As discussed in my previous post (and Gavin of the Seagull Project points out on their blog), these presentations do not resemble readings in the U.S. any way other than the actors have scripts in hand. For this particular trio of plays the decision was made to present Archipelago in Russian, Worse Than Tigers in Russian and English, and Dance On Bones in English.
The improvisation of Archipelago was helmed by Boris, Ilkhom’s Artistic Director, and featured two actors that are part of the Ilkhom’s company. As with all of the improvisations the design focused on one major theatrical accent, in this case a dusty, plexiglass wall that separated the space (and that the actors could draw on).
This was an intense presentation from the actors, punctuated by gravely rock ‘n roll and video projections of revolutions, battles, and departure announcements for distant lands. The actors played these nuanced scenes off of each other finding their moments of connection and disconnection during their brief moments together. I read the script before seeing the reading in Russian, but I also enjoyed the distance another language put on this play, no less poetic but my moments of investment lay solely with the actors finding their moments of investment and not on my understanding of their words over-riding the connection these actors found with this text and Svich’s ideas.
A few nights later, we saw the reading of Mark Chrisler’s Worse Than Tigers presented bi-lingually between American and Uzbek actors from the Ilkhom’s company. Tyler (one of the directors of Dance On Bones) was featured in this reading as the uber-American-macho-cop, performing his role in English, while our upper-class couple performed their roles in Russian (stage directions were also divided bi-lingually). This dynamic added an interesting outsider-invader/insider feel to the already potent script about the empty lives of the top 1%.
It really is remarkable what these artists (director, actors, designers) are able to accomplish and pull out of a script in such a short period of time. This also wouldn’t be possible without the work of John Freedman connecting the Ilkhom to American playwrights.
The third improvisation featured was Dance On Bones, which I will get to in the next post…I hope it’s worth the wait.
Travel Tip Bonus
During dinner break on tech day, Rebecca and I caught a cab from the Shodlik Palace Hotel to Cafe Shashara, a restaurant recommended by the woman at the front desk. The 5-minute ride cost 5000 SOM (about $2) and when the driver turned off the main street onto a dirt road we wondered where we were headed.
As the driver stopped at the gate, we began our descent by the waterfall and realized two things: 1. This was a beautiful, cool outdoor restaurant 2. This was a restaurant that would probably be very expensive to the locals (it felt a bit touristy) and would not be serving the more down-home cuisine.
The waiters didn’t speak much (any) English, but with my few words of Russian (and photos on the menu) we ordered an elegant dinner of Lagman (soup), Bread, Pickle Salad, Lamb Kabobs (from the ribs), and Sarbast beer. The lamb was so tender, I can’t remember ever having better. The dinner and atmosphere was lovely, with waiters in crisp shirts and bow ties running entrees from the kitchen to the tables, but the bill for two was about $45, extravagant for an evening in Tashkent (where we regularly ate very well for around $5 per person), but in our minds well worth it for the experience. Our waiter called us a taxi back to the Shodlik and a few minutes later we were back at the hotel and I’m back in tech, but this would not be our last visit to Shashara.
As part of the Festival of American Culture at the Ilkhom, my script Dance On Bones was presented as an improvisation (fully staged, script-in-hand readings). Gavin, one of the Dance On Bones directors and member of The Seagull Project, does a nice job of talking about this process in his post about Dance On Bones on The Seagull Project site:
A big part of this festival is something that the Ilkhom Theatre calls “improvisations.” Mostly they just call them readings, but it would be hugely misleading to an American theatre-goer to give it the title of such. It is only a reading in the sense that people have scripts in their hands. Other than that, there is mostly full tech, blocking, and heavy acting. Everything is not at full production quality, but it’s enough to give form to not just the words, but the ideas.
As for my work, I arrive at the gallery for the first day of rehearsal about 45 minutes early and one of the actors is already in the space working on one of the more challenging passages in Dance On Bones. I sit down in a chair and watch him work for a few minutes, my mind reeling: If he’s putting this much time and effort into my work, what can I offer to enrich that? If he’s thinking about my script his much, then any questions that are raised are gaps in my work, because an actor working that hard would have found the needle scattered through the many haystacks.
After this realization flashed through my mind, I quickly realized that having the playwright watching you make discoveries might be offering a bit of pressure, so I went downstairs at the Ilkhom and perused the graffiti from artists from around the world (Peter Brook is in there somewhere).
When I return to the gallery, the other actors had arrived and, indeed, Alex, CT, Dave, and John are all working, digging, and exploring the textures of Dance On Bones.
For the next several days, I sit, offering little other than what was asked of me. I was learning, seeing what other people saw . Seeing how my work spoke to people with an array of tools at their disposal. Tyler, the other Dance On Bones director who is an alum of the Ilkhom training program, works as the liaison between the American artists and the Uzbek artists; fluidly translating hours of rehearsal and artistic choices between actors, directors, designers, and musicians. This is an amazing talent to behold and made me eager to brush up on my Russian and start learning some Uzbek.
When Sanjar, the pianist, was added to the mix the work began to take a definitive shape and I could see all of our wheels begin to turn.
The rest of the Uzbek musicians were added during our technical rehearsals, the piece began to pop and crackle, pieces began t fall into place. The musicians riffed on Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good the Bad and The Ugly filling out the “Showdown at the End of the World” with a distinct American flair.
The days went by fast and I was amazed at how quickly these artists (actors, directors, designers) were making bold choices and bringing this work to life.
And while I am in rehearsal, Rebecca is out exploring Tashkent, wandering the bazaars in the Old City, where women beckoned her into their shops with invitations of “Beautiful Sister, come see, come see.” She would return in the evening with stories and photos, a few of which are below:
As the days quickly disappeared until May 1st was upon us and it is time to present a playwriting workshop as well as Dance On Bones as part of the Festival of American Culture.
What is the Festival of American Culture?
The Ilkhom Theater of Mark Weil presents Days of American Culture in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from April 27 – May 9, 2014. Featuring readings of Caridad Svich’s “Archipelago” (in Russian) Mark Chrisler’s “Worse than Tigers” (in Russian/English) and Dave White’s “Dance on Bones” (in English) the festival also included workshops by visiting guest artists from the United States; a presentation of The Seagull by Seattle’s The Seagull Project; and a concert of American classic rock music performed by Uzbek and American musicians. In 2013, the first Days of American Culture was curated by John Freedman, critic of the Moscow Times and featured improvisations of works by Nilo Cruz, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Deborah Zoe Laufer.
Arrival @ the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil (Enter The Seagull Project)
We didn’t set an alarm. Waking up after breakfast (which the Shodlik served until 10 a.m. each day included with room), we were thrilled to have saved our extra muffins and bagels from the flight (and also that we remembered to pack a quart baggie of nuts and dried fruit). It was late morning and we could see the mountains from our room.
Our phone rang and Irina (our gracious, brilliant host from the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil), was waiting in the Lobby. We left the hotel and walked around the corner to the Ilkhom (it’s in the same complex as the Shodlik). As we entered the theatre, the cast of Dance On Bones are just wrapping up rehearsals in the gallery located in the lobby.
We shake quick hands (I did my best to remember names: CT, John, Dave, and Alex) and Gavin, one of the directors promised to connect after giving notes. We were thrilled to find a bustling coffee shop in the lobby of the Ilkhom Theatre and ordered two espressos to take the edge off of the jetlag. Thank goodness it worked.
After a brief chat with Gavin talking about my sitting in on rehearsals, questions about the play, and a general excitement to get to know each other, we head from the theatre to a Kafe on Navoiy that becomes affectionately known as Chez Aziz because of the waiter, Aziz, who charms us all with his passion about being an interpreter and tour guide (also the Kafe has very reasonable prices, good service, and cold beer). Our lunch of tomato, cucumber, and onion salad; kabobs; and Shurpa (a soup) tastes wonderful eaten in the spring sunshine.
We meet more members of The Seagull Project at the Kafe and chat through lunch. Then Rebecca and I take a long walk through a beautiful park alongside a flowing river, kids jumping off the Navoiy bridge, folks picnicking, and just across that river was more park to be explored. Find a bodega (just a couple of blocks up Navoiy), buy some juice and Q-tips, and get back to the Shodlik Palace before seeing that evening’s show: Mark Weil’s musical adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat in which Tyler, the other director of Dance On Bones and an Ilkhom training program alum, was going to be acting.
The following day I was going to sit in on rehearsals (we had 3 rehearsals and a tech day before we presented Dance On Bones), and as excited as I was to get to know everyone, I was also nervous…nervous that this script, this wild idea wrought in the spirit of jazz and the shadows of capitalism/fascism and ecological disaster, would be just that…a disaster and because of that people wouldn’t like me. I was ready to work, and hoped that everyone else would be too.
What is the Seagull Project?
The Seagull Project was formed out of a passion for the works of Anton Chekhov, particularly his play, The Seagull. Having met and collaborated on Seattle Shakespeare Company’s wildly successful Threepenny Opera, the founding producers immediately set about creating a new collaboration, one formed around a long-form, actor-driven workshop of Chekhov’s play. They began assembling an ensemble in 2011, and finally completed their cast in spring of 2012, when they began meeting regularly at the University of Washington, and later at Seattle Children’s Theatre, for weekly sessions in which they trained physically, and began to revisit the fundamentals of their craft as actors.
These sessions began in a free-form model in which ensemble members shared their personal training Seagull Reading and Luncheon 046regimens, methodologies, and made dramaturgical presentations on a wide range of topics, from transportation systems in Russia during the 19th Century, to the history of the great Russian estates under the czars, and explorations of Russian music. Gradually, with the addition of Seattle actor and University of Washington theater professor Mark Jenkins, the sessions matured into open explorations of The Seagull itself, beginning with very slow readings of the text and progressing to scene work in which the entire ensemble offered feedback for one another. When Ilkhom Theatre (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) veteran Tyler Polumsky joined the ensemble in the spring of 2011, the final element of the workshop crystalized. Tyler’s highly physical approach to theater allowed the ensemble a rare opportunity to explore in a purely physical and kinesthetic way the world of their characters. Later, the process of creating “etudes,” or inventive character sketches, deepened the ensemble work, and allowed them to creatively approach off-stage moments, or moments from the character’s past.
In December of 2012, the ensemble began working with their director, John Langs (The Adding Machine, Hamlet) in daily sessions in preparation for the full production, which opens on January 25, 2013 at ACT Theatre in Seattle.
The Seagull Project founding producers are Brandon J Simmons, Julie Briskman, John Bogar, Alexandra Tavares and Gavin Reub.