From first draft to final production |
Autumn Phillips

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From first draft to final production

In the Julie Harris Theatre on Tuesday, chairs were stacked and there was no place for an audience to sit. The curtain was wide open, but the acting on stage was for one set of ears only — those of playwright Rinne Groff.

The stage was littered with water bottles and the marked-up pages of Groff’s recently completed play, “Spiced Danish Vodka.”

A group of six actors sat around a table reading the script line by line, dissecting it down to the sound and meaning of each word.

It’s a painful process for any writer — having your creation torn apart limb by limb — but it was exactly what Groff wanted.

Every year, artists are invited to bring their new works to Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp for the New Noises festival. Their plays, musicals and dance pieces can be in any stage of incompletion. Artists are asked to leave their egos at the gate of the school and prepare to have their works run and re-run through the critical minds of others in their field.

Groff came to Perry-Mansfield with director Andrew Leynse, who works in Manhattan as the artistic director of a successful off-Broadway company called Primary.

Their goal was to turn “Spiced Danish Vodka” from a 10-minute play, written for a festival, to a full-length production.

Knowing that people were waiting for a first draft of a full-length script, Groff had no choice but to sit down and write.

“I love deadlines,” she said. “They make you do it. You own up.”

She wrote the entire script in two weeks at the MacDowell Writer’s Colony. The story is revenge with an undercurrent of “Hamlet.”

Tonight’s audience will be the first to see her play staged.

As Groff worked through the lines of her story, lyricist Cheri Coons sat with a pencil and a copy of her “River’s End” script one building away. She crossed out entire lines as she listened to the actors work through her musical.

“River’s End” is scheduled for its first production in the fall at the Marin Theatre in San Francisco.

Since coming to Perry-Mansfield, Coons and composer Chuck Larkin and director Lee Sankowich have added entire songs to the script.

“Every cast teaches you something new,” Coons said. “Their questions get into your writer’s mind, and you start writing with that.”

“River’s End” is based on the true story of a newlywed couple that disappeared during their 1928 Grand Canyon honeymoon. The musical presents two theories about what happened — performed by two couples.

Coons got the idea while listening to a National Public Radio interview with the author of a book about the couple. He talked about two photographs he had seen of the couple taken three days apart. He said they didn’t even look like the same people.

With that comment, an entire musical was born.

While Groff and Coons work through re-writes for their scripts, choreographer Jessica Lang is working through the last technical problems in a work that was commissioned by the Miro Dance Theatre in Philadelphia. Three choreographers were approached with the same concept — to tell the story of the relationship between composer Gustav Mahler and his wife. Lang’s dancers are a bride and a groom. The bride wears a large white dress that covers the stage and becomes the centerpiece of the work. The dance is set to Mahler’s music as rearranged by modern composer Uri Caine.

“Mahler’s wife was also a composer,” Lang said. “Her told her he would only marry her if she gave up composing. She did.”

The dance explores with the movement what Lang imagines their relationship must have been like. “As a woman, I can’t imagine how she could give all that to him.”