Monday, July 18, 2011

Master Playwright Residency

The Atlantic Center of the Arts in New Smyrna Beach has a master artists in residency program. Residency #142 put students in touch with three talented playwrights, Annie Baker, Heather Woodbury, and Dael Orlandersmith. The Mad Cow Theater opened its doors so these women could discuss what it is like being a playwright in America today. I arrived at the Mad Cow Theater rather sweaty and worn around the edges from several other sketch assignments that day. The lobby was packed and the room hummed with conversations as people enjoyed wine and finger food. There was a table full of name tags and I didn't see my name. This was a much bigger event than I expected, and for a moment I thought I might not get in.

Exhausted I sat on the windowsill and observed all the excitement in the room. I heard a woman say, "let me grab my wine." She reached behind me and grabbed a cup. I had almost sat on it. Thank god it didn't spill. A young woman sat next to me to relax. Mitzi, a perky young mom, started talking to her and I discovered I was sitting next to Annie Baker, one of the playwrights. Mitzi was talking about one of her children and Annie who is 30 wondered if she would ever have time for a family. Mitzi's husband, a handsome man in a light suit and dark spiked hair joined the conversation. He thought Annie was just in her mid twenties and he said, "You look too young to have written five plays."

The cow bell rang letting everyone know it was time to enter the theater. Peg Okeif was the moderator. The Mad Cow Theater will be moving this year to Church Street Station which will put it in the midst of all the new nightlife being generated thanks in part to the new arena. Excerpts were performed from each of the three women's plays. I discovered that I was seated next to all the actors who performed that night. I moved aside each time they went on stage to read. Each of the readings had an amazing blend of humor and serious drama. I was left wanting more.

The moderated conversation with the playwrights afterward inspired and charged me. Annie Baker who wrote "Circle Mirror Transformation" said, "Art is about holding up a mirror, that mirror can be smooth and representational or distorted. We try to show what peoples lives are like and what the inner landscape of peoples minds look like. Art is about chronicling." I was surprised when Dael, who wrote Yellow Man, pointed out that several college professors discouraged her writing. Heather had similar experiences. Annie spoke about a professor who wanted to share the true secret of great playwrights. The students leaned forward with bated breath. He said, "The best playwrights are the ones who read the most." Annie noted an alarming flood of people who want to write yet they have no interest in reading. Dael pointed out that the more she reads, the more she humbly realizes what she doesn't know. When asked about the artist as recluse Annie pointed out that she has the best of both worlds. She writes for months at a time alone and focused then she gets to work with the actors offering plenty of interaction. Asked how she knows her play is done, Annie said, "The play is never exactly what I hoped it would be when I started. But even though it might have a swollen eye and be misshapen, I still love it like a child."

Heather Woodbury's plays are created on the web allowing a full view of her creative process. Her serialized ongoing online videos create a world she hopes people will want to return to again and again. She plays every roll. I'm fascinated with the way she is embracing and recreating her art for this new digital medium. There was concern that only the rarefied elite go to plays anymore since ticket prices are so high. Great plays speak to everyone. By the end of the evening I felt a glowing kinship with each of the playwrights. I wish I could have talked to each at length but when the evening ended they were surrounded. I rushed out of the theater after grabbing a card from Heather and walked the streets downtown feeling rejuvenated.

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