Plays are meant to be performed with living people in front of a living audience. Joan Lazarus, executive director of the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, is proud that the school can continue this tradition this year as it has for the past 100 years since the camp was founded. This weekend, the 2013 New Works Festival, a collection of three unproduced plays read aloud in front of an audience, opened the door to the process that culminates with an actual play production.
The three original works — “Bronx Bombers,” written by Eric Simonson; “Over the Waves,” written by Noah Haidle; and “Appoggiatura,” written by James Still — may never reach a Broadway stage (though “Bronx Bombers” is scheduled for a fall opening in New York), but the only way to determine if they are worthy in the first place is to let skilled actors pick up the pages of script and start reading. Those of us fortunate to have had a seat in either the new Chief Theater or the Julie Harris Theatre were witnesses to this first step.
What was most striking about this process was the newness, the freshness and the vulnerability of the pieces. All the thoughts and ideas of the playwrights are untempered by producers, critics or even well intentioned actors and directors. It’s the pure imagination of the writer on full display. The playwrights were all witnesses, as well, audience members just as we were, but undoubtedly a lot more nervous about how their work would be received.
Without set, costumes or any movement to communicate, the writers depended heavily on the ability of the readers to interpret their words vocally and of the audience to willingly open their minds and imaginations. The experience is more like listening to a radio play or a book on tape, with stage directions read aloud. Without the visual cues clearly portrayed in a stage performance, the audience is dependent on the power of the words and a willingness to suspend even more disbelief than usual. We were not sitting in a crowded, and sometimes hot, room; we were losing our way in the narrow streets and piazza of Venice (“Appoggiatura”); or imagining a houseful of New York Yankee baseball heroes from the past 80 years (“Bronx Bombers”); or audiences to the final stages of a dance marathon in some other dark and crowded room in the distant past or future (“Over the Waves”).
The actors presenting the new works bear the reputations of some of the finest regional theater companies in the country, including the Denver Center Theatre Company, the South Coast Repertory Theatre and Primary Stages. Their abilities to evoke the sounds, images and atmospheres (including smells) of the texts were extraordinary. Equally as revealing were the thoughts of the writers listening to their works. James Still (“Appoggiatura”) hoped that his piece revealed the need to get far away in order to find oneself and reconnect with loved ones. Noah Haidle (“Over the Waves”) saw his work as an exploration of the line between our public and private lives. “Bronx Bombers” seems to be a reflection of the importance of tradition and the need to question a culture that seems so solid, but like the malleability of time in performance, can turn liquid with a knock on the door.
As audience members and theatre-goers, we rarely get a peek at the men (and women) behind the curtain who create the movies, television shows, and theatrical performances we have grown to love and even depend on. We see the finished product and choose what we like, usually returning to those we know. We become rabid fans of Beckett, or “The Sopranos,” or “Phantom of the Opera.” The New Works Festival offers us an opportunity to see performance art at the earliest stages of creation, and perhaps, to broaden our perspective on what is means to be part of the living audience at a live performance.
Stuart Handloff is the artistic director of the Great American Laughing Stock Company.