Monday, September 19, 2016

Long Division Workshop

I don't know why it's taken me so long to announce on this blog that my new play is being produced this fall. I guess I didn't want to jinx anything. But after last week, one of the most intense and rewarding of my writing life, I think I can finally let Schrödinger's cat out of its box (bad inside joke).

My play is called Long Division and it is being produced by Pi Theatre in association with the Gateway in Richmond, where it will open on November 17 (get your tickets here). We don't begin rehearsals until October 24, but as part of the creative process our director Richard Wolfe had blocked off a week-long workshop with the actors in early September so that we could collectively dig our hands into the script, and so that I could respond to their comments and queries with rewrites as needed.

I can't disclose just yet who those actors are (I believe an announcement from Pi is imminent), but I can say that there are seven of them. For a long time I thought the size of the cast meant the play would never be produced. But now that I've met our actors--all of them amazing talents whose past work on stages across this city I've so admired--and heard them speak my lines, I can't conceive of having written the piece any other way.

The ensemble nature of the play is closely tied to its subject matter: a chain reaction of events that has thrown seven otherwise mostly disconnected characters into an enforced relationship with each other and, consequently, an accounting of what role they each may have played in precipitating--or not forestalling--said events. To do so, they use the language of mathematics, and the play has been partly constructed as an equation to be solved, with characters addressing the audience in a series of monologues that alternate with choral scenes that attempt to offer further lessons in what one of the books I consulted in the course of my research has called "the science of patterns."

One thing became immediately clear after Richard, the actors, our stage manager, Jethelo Cabilete, and several of the designers gave their feedback following the initial table read last Monday: some of the mathematics in the play had to be simplified and, more to the point, couldn't just be included in a "hey, isn't this cool" manner. It always needed to be in the service of the story and both the actors and the characters delivering the math lessons needed to understand what they were saying, and why. The actors' questions on what this or that concept meant forced me to explain things in more concrete, real-world ways, and often that very language found its way into the play.

As useful was the consensus note to create more of a balance between the cool and somewhat analytical feel of the math lessons and the warmer, more emotionally involving human stories that were being shared. I needed to find a way to make the structural dialectics of the play more compelling for the audience, to both suggest why these characters (only one of whom is a mathematician) might turn to numbers and geometry and the like as a way to abstract and make sense of an event that is still too painful to contemplate fully, and when and why the weight of that pain refuses to fit into neat and tidy patterns. In the course of these revisions, especially, I was able to begin refining the connections between the characters, tweaking each of the monologues to add greater individual clarity and depth, but also collectively to suggest how these folks are constellated as parts of a whole.

On this front, what was most exciting for me was to see how the actors responded to my new pages each day, discovering in my revisions added layers of complexity and vulnerability for each of their characters and, most thrillingly, bringing that out in their subsequent readings. It is such an amazing thing for a playwright to hear his or her words lifted off the page for the first time, and with this play in particular there are lots of choral moments where very conceptually and emotionally loaded lines have to be lobbed quickly and deftly back and forth between characters. Fortunately this crackerjack ensemble is more than up to the task.

After a shorter day on Thursday, which was mostly devoted to a publicity photo shoot with David Cooper (who is a wizard with the camera), Richard and I met with the dramaturg who has been working with me on the script for the past several years, my friend and colleague DD Kugler. Kugler's notes were, as usual, spot-on, and combined with what the actors and Richard had already given me by way of feedback, I had lots of material to attack in a more holistic way a comprehensive revision of the entire draft. This I undertook via a late night of writing on Thursday and some early Friday morning tinkering. Richard and I stopped to make some photocopies on the way to the Gateway and as I distributed the new scripts to the actors I held my breath a bit in anticipation of how this version would land. It was clear from everyone's reactions after the last line was spoken that I had definitely cracked a nut and that while there was still more work to be done, a corner had been turned and we were heading in the right direction (which is not just a metaphor in the context of this play).

We did one more reading on Saturday morning, this time with almost the entire production team present, including choreographer Lesley Telford, composer Owen Belton, costume designer Connie Hosie, lighting designer Jergus Oprsal, and set designer Lauchlin Johnston (only projection designer Jamie Nesbitt was absent). A great luxury of this extra workshop time is that it has allowed the entire team to bounce ideas off of each other and, what's more, to do so within the very space--Studio B at the Gateway--where we will be performing (a big shout-out to the Gateway's Jovanni Sy for making this possible). After the morning read and some time for the actors to do some movement exercises with Lesley, the production and design team then had a conversation of what might be possible to achieve within our space (which is intimate) and, as crucially, within the show's overall budget (also not huge, and with such a large cast, most of it needing to be allocated to human resources). Still, the ideas discussed--which I'm not at liberty to reveal--were so exciting. When I started writing this play, I conceived its visual design and movement score as being absolutely integral components--and ones, moreover, that would aid immeasurably in getting across or helping to supplement various math concepts referenced. I'm happy to say everyone else seems to agree.

So, now the ball's back in my court. Over the course of the next week and a bit I've got to turn around a new version of the script. I pretty much know what I have to do, and I'm anxious to get to work. Stay tuned for rehearsal updates beginning the end of October. And I hope to see you at the show.


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