The most recent Playwrights’ Lab Recital, a collaboration of Plan-B Theatre and Meat and Potato Theatre, was pleasant enough. However, in total, the four short plays by Utah playwrights fell considerably short of the bar established in previous editions of this program, the effective brainchild of collaborators Tobin Atkinson and Jerry Rapier.
The recital represents an evaluative benchmark for the playwrights who have gone through a year-long series of seminars and workshops, including other Script-in-Hand series readings, as part of their creative and professional development. Yes, progress was evident but the current crop of playwrights also erred significantly on the side of caution. Thus, it was difficult to be as engaged with the characters and the story lines as one would have hoped to glean from the brand of original works that often dominate these readings.
As The Selective Echo indicated in 2009 at the first lab recital:
‘New plays certainly are the life force of the theater and the playwright occupies a unique position among the industry of writers. For the audience to follow along and become engaged with the story being told on stage, the playwright’s responsibility and integrity must be borne out of passion and enthusiasm if the theatrical narrative is to transcend the superficial function of agenda setting in a community.
‘The playwright must learn to trust his or her own self. As Anthony Neilson has written, “the playwright is the natural descendant of the village storyteller. Why the playwright and not, say, the novelist? By the very fact that the nature of the theatre is ephemeral. When a production of a play is over, it lives on only in the memory of its audience. That’s the absolute beauty of theatre and that’s why it’s only in theatre that we find a form that truly captures the impression of our fragile and transient lives.”’
And, frankly, not one of the four plays was strong enough to linger in my memory. ‘Keep-A-Runnin’’ by Beth Bruner was a riff on the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a military event that actually was unnecessary because the end of the War of 1812 already had been decided. Yet none of that historical irony was clear in a scene that otherwise was well acted and directed by Christopher Glade, who handled similar duties for all four plays.
Bruner missed an opportunity to make a stronger contemporary thematic connection. In the absence of information, just why are individuals compelled to act against their more responsible selves and agendas of serving and protecting those who entrust their superiors, elected officials, and others to be stewards for their welfare and safety?
Likewise, Lucy Ridolphi’s ‘Leaving Sweetwater’ seemed good enough but even a thoughtful audience member would have been challenged to articulate the full impact of the take-away theme from her short play. However, I still remember Elaine Jarvik’s elegantly written pieces from the first lab recital about the awkwardness of filling a romantic void after 9-11 and dealing with grief in a beautifully titled scene ‘Diner Eulogy.’
Jim Martin’s ‘Tattoo Artist’ about a young gay man who decides to get a tattoo of his favorite animated character, a choice which surprises the artist, showed potential but fell flat because the tightly-written scene was far too inhibited to give satisfactory emotional impact.
The comedic possibilities in Carleton Bluford’s ‘Melange’ about four individuals on blind dates were explored much to the audience’s delight but not perhaps as well as Kyle Nelson’s ‘Eric, Kay, and The Two Lovely Kates’ from the first lab recital, which was a wildly funny, fast-paced scene that set up a never-ending cycle of the do-over in trying to start off a conversation on the right note.
Following the performance, there was a somewhat enlightening post-mortem with the audience, actors, director, and playwrights. There were some constructive exchanges but there also wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm for the works presented. However, polite appraisals do not benefit the writer’s development even while they might assuage personal egos. And, I believe it was clear enough that the audience, accustomed to seeing bolder examples during these types of readings, instinctively understood that more than fine brushstrokes would be needed to solve and fix these plays.
No doubt, these writers have to reach a bar that recently has been set quite high. Utah playwrights are gaining reputations that are spilling across the state borders into many other areas of the country. Their plays even when presented in this laboratory setting showed strong skills and promise at this work-in-progress stage. And, the Script-in-Hand series has shown just how evolving plays such as Aden Ross’ ‘Lady Macbeth’ and Jenifer Nii’s adaptation of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ already evoked their transcendent capacities before they were polished and put in final form to become critically acclaimed, sold-out productions at Plan-B.
Likewise, Matthew Ivan Bennett’s ‘Shark Week’ from the 2009 recital is another example. This lab piece focused on a couple of friends in the midst of their ritual celebration of cable television’s ‘Shark Week.’ Even at the time of its first reading, the comedy of the scene flowed so naturally as the starkness of the end of a friendship emerged in full force. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Monkeyman Productions group in Toronto presented Bennett’s piece as part of its annual short play festival. ‘The whip-smart script by Matthew Ivan Bennett is by far the deepest of the four (and the funniest), dissecting the dissolution of a friendship and the (sometimes juvenile) ties that bind old friends together,’ Kelly Bedard, critic, wrote in her review.
Because original work is the lifeblood of theatre groups such as these, we cannot afford to be complacent and willing to accept mediocre plays that leave us emotionally indifferent. The writing enterprise is brutal for its capacity to inflict doubt upon the aspiring creative professional but the writer must also be willing to trust his or her instincts enough to know that from failure and disappointment they ultimately can capture, as Neilson suggests, the ‘absolute beauty of theatre.’
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