Why do a play?

Posted on December 10, 2012 by Haymaker

Carl Martin in 70 Scenes of Halloween. Photo by Alan Dehmer.

Many of you know that we’re running 70 Scenes of Halloween right now for Manbites Dog Theater’s 25th Anniversary season. Dan and Emily are acting in the production, which was co-directed by Akiva and our friend Adam Sobsey. It’s not a Haymaker production. We don’t usually work from existing scripts. But this one is fantastic, and it’s written by Jeffrey M. Jones.

So why do a play written by someone else?

The kernel of the idea — “putting on a play” — was bumping around in our head last winter, when we were plotting out our schedule for the year. We knew we didn’t have a Haymaker show to produce this fall, but we wanted to put on something for the community and for ourselves. And then we met Adam at Six Plates in Durham. We had just read his article on the Duke Performances blog about Shakespeare (to which Akiva had responded with this article). After a few drinks, our conversation turned to the similarities between Shakespeare and modern experimental theater: non-naturalistic scenes and monologues, lyrical language, and fantastical events happening within the story. Adam recommended that we read a set of playwrights from the 80’s to compare the two. So we started getting together every few weeks to read these plays out loud. We read a small sampling of plays from Mac Wellman, Wallace Shawn, Len Jenkin, and then we read Jeffrey Jones’ 70 Scenes of Halloween. After reading 70 Scenes, Adam told us that seeing the play twenty-five years ago – in a production which happened to be Manbites Dog Theater’s first show –made him want to be a playwright. Soon enough, the idea to put on a 25th Anniversary remount gained momentum. (Check out our last blog post and listen to last week’s The State of Things for more on the show.)

For us, working on 70 Scenes gave us the chance to learn from an existing script that was better than what we can write while also allowing us to work on aspects of the process that we normally don’t get to focus on:

An existing experimental or ‘avant-garde’ script: Written in the 1980, 70 Scenes is what we constantly strive for our texts to be: accessible yet challenging. It experiments with structure and form in a way that really fits with our own aesthetic. The story of the play is simple, and the characters and the initial world are very recognizable. However, the scenes are mismatched, reordered, imaginary, and repeated with slight variation to keep the audience – and performers – ever-guessing at what’s really going on with Jeff and Joan.

Defined roles: Not only did we want a chance to focus on a single role, we wanted a chance to try a less democratic process. For a Haymaker piece, we’re often finishing rewrites to the script just as we’re opening it. A well-written script by a great playwright gave us the freedom to have a completed text, and to focus on the performance and the final product. It gave us the freedom to concentrate on our single, individual roles on the production (acting or directing). When you’re not wearing a bunch of different hats, or all trying to wear the same hat, the experience is much different.

Working with others: When we work on a Haymaker original work, we try to bring artists into the room as much as possible. But our four-days-a-week-for-a-year-or-two schedule is a bit restrictive for other people – you know, people with lives. So we wanted to do something where we could work with more of the awesome talent in the Triangle. And – wow – we are truly blessed for it. Amber Wood and Carl Martin knock our socks of with their acting chops, great attitudes, and incredible professionalism. Shaun Jamieson and Karen Burns are two technical gurus that have our back at every turn. Liz Droessler, our lighting designer, and Sarah Widgeon, our costume designer, amazed us with their patience, artistry, quick work, and great attitudes. Adam Sobsey shined as a playwright/director, and really instilled his passion for the play into this production. And that’s just to name a few people who signed on for the ride. We’re lucky, ever-grateful, and we hope to continue to work with them and more in the future.

We’re so fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to play, to work with great people, and to perform at Manbites again. Durham, you’re awesome!

Come see us, this final week: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:15pm. Tickets available online, over the phone (919.682.3343), or in person (703 Foster Street).