The purpose of developing a new play or musical in a workshop is to make sure the story, the words, the music and lyrics are telling the story in the most effective way. The question is: What is the best system to make that happen? For some answers, I talked to playwright Constance Congdon (Moontel Six, the Automata Pieta, The Midwife’s Apprentice), composer Deborah Wicks La Puma (Elephant and Piggie: We are in a Play, Ella Enchanted, and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed), and playwright/composer/lyricist Chad Henry (Good Night Moon, Little Lulu, Doctor Doolittle in the Moon). To get a totally different perspective on workshop development, I’m happy to include Trusty Sidekick Artistic Director Drew Petersen, (Up and Away, The Cerulean Time Capsule, The Berlin Electric). And as playwright/lyricist myself (The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical and The Doll People), I have also thrown in my two cents.
QUESTION: I generally have a complete draft of my script when I go into a workshop. Do you?
DEBBIE: I usually like to have at least a first draft of the script and a vocal score/lead sheets (melody with chords to improvise off of) to most of the songs when I go into a workshop. But of course every project is different, and you have to be open to what is best for the particular piece. Sometimes the timing is tight, then I may have to go in without all the major writing decisions made ahead of time…which is exciting and terrifying in equal measure!
CHAD: I have always brought a complete draft to the workshop.
DREW: It is pretty rare to for me to walk into first rehearsal with a full script. I have done it before but generally I work in sprints. The first sprint is generally R&D without a script. Even if there is a script, we treat it as a source material/touchstone but not as creed. We might improvise around stage directions within it or figure out the rhythms and beats of it but generally we use it like a ‘back of the napkin’ sketch.
CONNIE: I go in with a complete script.
QUESTION: How many workshops or readings would be helpful for you to bring your work to the level it needs for production?
CHAD: Ideally, two to three workshops are good for me as a playwright/composer. When I worked with Linda Hartzell at Seattle Children’s Theatre, we didn’t really do workshops. Generally, there would be a couple of days of table reads, with Linda giving me notes, and me doing rewrites before the next read. Sometimes this was a little crazed, but the pressure generally seemed to be good, and I also knew that changes would always be able to be made in rehearsals.
DEBBIE: I believe two is industry standard. I find getting into rehearsals after two workshops is more productive for me because you can work on the nitty-gritty issues that affect the script, like, “We need time for a costume change here,” or, “How can we fly a giant puppet through the audience?” I also find you can workshop a piece to death.
CONNIE: I agree. I think more than one workshop can eviscerate a play.
JAHNNA: Malcolm Hillgartner (composer/lyricist) and I did an official workshop with CTC in Charlotte, then a table reading in our town, and another workshop over the course of the next year. We could really have used one more. So my magic number is three.
DREW: I find that spending about a quarter of the rehearsal/devising hours on the script and content/narrative development to be profoundly helpful. Often, with the help of devisers (actors), artists, and young people through developmental and dramaturgical workshops, I will have ‘Ah-Ha’ moments with a script later in a workshop process.
QUESTION: What is a good length of a workshop, where you really feel you can get work done?
DEBBIE: I find five days to be very useful, with MWF with actors, T and TH writing. It’s really hard to finish a six or eight-hour rehearsal day and then try to write a song. I need to time to process.
CONNIE: One read-thru will do it for me, and then I just want to go home and be solitary, holding the reading inside of me, THEN I rewrite. After that rewrite, I send it to my director and the two of us have a discussion about this new draft. Ideally, we’ll meet with the cast, have another read and then I want to hear from the actors. This happens naturally when I’m in production.
DREW: Again, it depends on the project but if we can devote half of our time to true devising, world building and creation, and script revision and adjustments, not only does the project end up being stronger but the actors who populate the world of the show will feel more connected to the content and be able to have a stronger engagement with the audience.
QUESTION: What are some experiences you have had with workshops, good or bad?
DREW: The best experiences I have had with workshops are usually in projects that break traditional art forms and theater conventions. More challenging experiences have been when the egos or agendas of those involved in the making and crafting of the show cause them to put themselves first, and not the audience. At Trusty Sidekick, the audience is first.
DEBBIE: When Karen Zacarias and I developed Jane of the Jungle for South Coast Rep, we had essentially three weeklong workshops the summer before it was produced. In the first we had a very preliminary script and a sketch of one song. We spent four days improvising and discovering the sound that would be best for the piece. For the second workshop we had a draft of the whole show. The third workshop was really a first rehearsal week for the production. That gave the theatre, director and actors a head start on the show, and allowed them to work out some of the kinks and technical problems ahead of time.
CHAD: In our Colorado New Play Summit here at Denver Center Theatre (Chad is a Literary Associate at DCT) the playwright, director, dramaturge and cast get four days of rehearsal, one public reading on the weekend, then go back into rehearsal for another four days, then have a second reading the following weekend.
CONNIE: As for the Summit experience: time in rehearsal, rewrites, cuts, all that good work means nothing when a play is rejected based on the audience’s (workshop) opinion of a work in progress.
JAHNNA: That’s a good point, Connie. After recently going through what you just described, with a less than ideal cast, as a sort of try-out, I would much prefer not workshopping a show for a theatre unless they have some commitment to the piece.
QUESTION: So how do you feel about working with dramaturges in a workshop?
DREW: I love working with dramaturges. I am currently working on a series of narrative rock concerts for middle schools about unsung women in music and working with our dramaturge on those shows is so important for blending the history with aesthetics. It is also wonderful to have objective eyes and ears on a project.
CHAD: I’ve been paired many times with a dramaturge who I’ve never met, didn’t know anything about, and we didn’t have a working aesthetic. I prefer working with a dramaturge/director I know, who asks the right questions and doesn’t try to be a co-writer.
DEBBIE: I also love dramaturges and for the most part have had good experiences with them even if we’ve never met before. Of course it helps that I’m generally working with a collaborator, like Karen Zacarias. We always have each other’s backs.
CONNIE: Dramaturges are okay but they can be irritating. I’ve felt manipulated by them and boy, do I hate that. I’ve been a dramaturge so I do know what that job entails. A lot of times, dealing with them and their thoughts is a huge waste of time. I prefer the director’s thoughts—that’s the essential relationship.
CHAD: At DCT’s Summit, playwrights are allowed to choose their dramaturge and director.
JAHNNA: It makes total sense. You already have a mutual trust and you can get right down to work.
QUESTION: When your play is read at the end of the workshop week, how do you like it to be presented?
CHAD: I prefer actors to stand and deliver at music stands and sit when not in the scene. If some passage is better understood with movement that’s fine, but just reading is good.
DEBBIE: I agree. My purpose is to focus on the words and music, and trust it to do the storytelling. At Seattle Children’s Theatre we did a workshop presentation of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed with four and five year-olds in the audience. Once we explained the set and what was happening, they were content just hearing the story and songs.
CHAD: And table reads are fine with a small audience in the room, even if it’s a musical. Just having the actor move to the piano and sing tells me everything I need to know.
DREW: This depends on the project but in many of my shows I rely on seeing and feeling the world and forms on their feet. Often our workshop will culminate in something that looks close to the final production. Perhaps it isn’t fully costumed or scenic designed, but the closer we can get to what the actual thing will feel like, the better.
QUESTION: What are your feelings about directors in a staged reading or workshop?
CHAD: I’ve had bad experiences with directors who, in just a few days, try to put it on its feet. They stage the entire show including having the actors do blocking and juggle scripts and props. The play gets lost in this nether world of sort of being a reading and sort of being a performance.
JAHNNA: One director tried to stage and choreograph our musical in 10 hours of rehearsal. He wasn’t able to teach all the songs, so he simply cut the ones they hadn’t rehearsed. I was flabbergasted.
DEBBIE: Maybe it’s because directors think in a spatial way, but I feel it’s difficult for some to keep staged readings simple, even though it is usually what is needed for something as complicated as a new musical
DREW: Within our company Trusty Sidekick, our playwrights can also be directors, but it is so wonderful to turn a play over to an outside director and see how they bring it to life.
CONNIE: For play development, nothing is better than being in production with a good director. The pressure of production leads to really good decisions.
QUESTION: What advice would you give actors who will be reading your play in a workshop and staged reading? Do you like ad-libbing?
CONNIE: I want actors to read exactly what is on the page. Ad-libbing? God! I write plays, not outlines for improv.
CHAD: I agree. I don’t like ad-libbing.
JAHNNA: I’ve had many experiences with actors paraphrasing to make the words more natural (to them). I want to hear my words, as stilted as they may be, and then I’ll fix them.
DREW: My advice to actors who work on shows I write, or create, is to populate the world with idiosyncrasy, commitment, and empathy.
QUESTION: Do you want to hear actors’ thoughts about the play?
DREW: Actor’s (or any artist working on the show) feedback is invited and then there is a beautiful moment where we ‘freeze’ the show. It can get muddy when you are in a tech rehearsal and an artist says, “OR we could do …”
DEBBIE: One of the best parts about workshops is getting feedback from the actors—their ideas and energy are an incredible asset to the process of creating new work. They are on the front lines of making the story speak.
CONNIE: I love actors notes. And designers! Who sees the most plays, nationwide? Designers.
JAHNNA: My takeaway from this discussion is there is more than one path to developing a new play or musical. As long as we each understand what works best for us, and can convey that information to the company that is workshopping our piece, the happier the outcome. Thank you all for your time and talent. Live long and prosper.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHTS
Constance Congdon has been called “one of the best playwrights our country and our language has ever produced” by playwright Tony Kushner in Kushner’s introduction to her collection Tales of the Lost Formicans and Other Plays. In addition to Tales of the Lost Formicans, which has had more than 200 productions world-wide, Ms. Congdon’s plays include Casanova and Dog Opera, both produced at the Public Theatre; Losing Father’s Body, (Portland Stage, Maine); Lips, (Primary Stages); and Native American, (Portland Stage, Maine), (Lyric Hammersmith Studio). Her latest play, Paradise Street, is being developed at New York Theatre Workshop. A Mother, starring Olympia Dukakis, and a new verse version of The Misanthrope, are both commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater. Moontel Six, was commissioned by the A.C.T. Young Conservatory and subsequently performed at London’s National Theatre, followed by another production of the two-act version at San Francisco’s Zeum, directed by Young Conservatory Director, Craig Slaight. The Automata Pietà, another YC commission, received its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2002; Nightingales went to the Theatre Royale Bath’s Youth Theatre. Ms. Congdon’s No Mercy, and its companion piece, One Day Earlier, were part of the 2000 season devoted to Ms. Congdon at the Profile Theatre. She has also written a number of opera libretti and seven plays for the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. Ms. Congdon’s plays have been produced throughout the world, including Cairo and Berlin. Her plays are published, mainly, by Broadway Play Publishing. Samuel French published Dog Opera. A collection of four of her plays has been published by TCG, Inc. Her new verse version of Tartuffe will be included in the next Norton Anthology of Drama, as well as in a single-volume Norton Critical edition. She’s been writing a long time and can thank the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Arnold Weisberger Award, the Berilla Kerr Award, and, most recently, The Helen Merrill Award for making this more possible. She’s an alum of New Dramatists, member of The Dramatists Guild, and of PEN. Ms. Congdon has been teaching playwriting at Amherst College for eleven years.
Chad Henry may be best known as the composer/lyricist of the popular rock musical Angry Housewives, which played for seven years in Seattle, as well as Off-Broadway, and in every major and many not-so-major U.S. cities, as well as Canada, Japan, England, Germany, and Australia, and was optioned twice for film. It is published by Samuel French. In Seattle, his hometown, he wrote songs and scripts for productions at Seattle Rep, ACT, Empty Space, Intiman, the Group, and others, including Articus and the Angel at the Group, and The Sacred Water Cross of Lourdes at Pioneer Square Theatre. He co-authored the musical Labor of Love for Seattle’s One-Reel and Tokyo’s Furusato Caravan, a theatrical collaboration that toured throughout Japan, the U.S., and played at the Olympics Arts Festival in Barcelona. He has authored many musicals for Seattle Children’s Theatre, including the much-produced Good Night Moon, Hello Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, and Little Lulu. HIs work for youth theatre has been performed nationally at The Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis, and at The Ford Theatre in Washington D.C. among many other theatres. His work has won awards from the Washington State Arts Commission and other organizations, and his songs have been performed in cabaret and theatre settings.
Drew Petersen is a New York City based artist and educator. He currently is an educator with Park Avenue Armory, The New Victory Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music and City Center. As an artist, he is the Artistic Director for Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, a theater company devoted to creating high quality, original work for young audiences and their families. He has been commissioned by and has created original work with Lincoln Center Education, The Kennedy Center, Park Avenue Armory, New Victory Theater, Cleveland Playhouse Square, PACE University, The Tank and Curio Theater Company in Philadelphia.
Deborah Wicks La Puma is a composer, music director, and orchestrator. Her works include Elephant and Piggie’s: We are in a Play! (Kennedy Center) and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience (Seattle Children’s Theatre) with bestselling author Mo Willems, and the upcoming She Persisted (based on the book by Chelsea Clinton) with Adam Tobin fro Bay Area Children’s Theatre. With playwright Karen Zacarias she has created OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist on Dickens (Kennedy Center), Frida Libre (La Jolla Playhouse), Einstein Is a Dummy (Alliance Theatre) and Ella Enchanted (First Stage Milwaukee, based on the book by Gail Carson Levine). Other favorite projects include Nobody’s Perfect, a musical in English and American Sign Language, with creators Marlee Matlin and Doug Cooney, and Perdida, a Mexican folk musical based on Shakespeare’s “Winters Tale”, with playwright Kathleen Cahill. Her honors include the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, a National Endowment for the Arts’ New American Works Grant, two Parents’ Choice Awards, an iParenting Media Award, an LA Ovation nomination for best original score, and two Helen Hayes nominations for Outstanding New Play. A proud Mexican-American who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, she is also a member of the board of directors of TYA USA/ASSITEJ International, ASCAP, and The Dramatist Guild.