LA STAGE Times has posted three previous dispatches from the annual Directors Lab West Lab, which began May 18 and ended last Saturday, based at Pasadena Playhouse. Today’s report covers events on the lab’s final two days, Friday and Saturday. Go here for the report on the lab’s first two days. Go here for the report on the lab’s third and fourth days. Go here for coverage of the lab’s fifth and sixth days.
Friday May 24
Brown Girl in the Ring, by John R. Lacey
“I don’t believe in writer’s block” — Velina Hasu Houston
We started Day 7 at Directors Lab West with a visit from playwright Velina Hasu Houston. Of Japanese and Afro-Cuban-Blackfoot-American heritage, Houston runs the MFA playwriting program at USC. Among her plays are Tea, Cinnamon Girl, Cause Celebre, Intuition of Iphigenia, Provinces and Calligraphy. Her new musical Brown Girl in the Ring (music by Nathan Wang) will receive a reading by East West Players next Monday. She has worked with the L.A. Opera and is a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism. When asked how she can work on so many projects, she said: “I don’t watch television. And I hate going shopping! I stick to the work and make sure my voice is heard.”
Social Media Lightning Round, by John R. Lacey
“Sharing is your social media currency” — Cindy Marie Jenkins
Then Cindy Marie Jenkins resumed her excellent social media tutorials in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse. During lunch breaks throughout the week, she would answer any questions participants ask. Cindy touted the benefits of using Google+, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. “Find other people’s posts and comment on it. Reach out to them — many people don’t do it.”
Dos Corazones by John R. Lacey
“There’s a play that exists at the sub-atomic level of the text” — Richard Hellesen
In the afternoon, we were visited by Joann Maria Yarrow and Teatro Prometeo from Miami with a performance of Dos Corazones (Two Hearts) by Richard Hellesen, who also came to meet with us and discuss the development of his one-act play for two actresses. Cristina Ferrari from Venezuela and Colombian-American Sara Cordoba played a Spanish-speaking mother and a Latina English-speaking mother. Both characters have just given birth. Yarrow purposefully cast against type with the blonde, blue-eyed actress playing the Spanish-speaking part and the dark-haired actress playing the English speaker. They have different emotions about the experience of giving birth, and struggle to communicate with each other despite language barriers.
Who the Hell Are You? by John R. Lacey
“No one knew where Ethiopia was until ‘We are the World’. I was the hungry one. I knew I had to share more than that one story” — Weyni Mengesha DLW ‘13
On this next to the last day of the lab, we did introductions. After getting to know each other as colleagues, it was so much more interesting to find out all the experience we had in the group. This was followed by great debate on the shows we’ve seen around town — Scottsboro Boys at the Ahmanson and Chess at East West Players and then on to the first preview of Sleepless in Seattle, directed by Sheldon Epps at the Pasadena Playhouse, our gracious host of Directors Lab West.
Saturday May 25
Gender Imbalance: “Carey”-ing the Torch, by Megan Kosmoski
“We don’t have the answers but it is important to keep asking the questions” — Carey Perloff
Every year Directors Lab West holds an open session offered to SDC members and lab alumni. This year’s was hosted by the inspirational Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She started with her journey as a theater artist, the successes and challenges of being an artistic director and led into a discussion on gender imbalance in American theater — the bottleneck preventing gender equality in higher positions.
To sum up her remarks, theater offers no specific career trajectory, and therefore it has become a field based on relationships. So those appointed and hired have cemented trust and solid relationships with the people hiring. The main problem with this is that the same people, groups, and types keep coming back to leadership positions. This re-cycling of leaders isn’t the only factor preventing American theater from moving forward. Another ingredient is the psychology of women. Many women apply only for jobs for which they meet at least 75% of the qualifications, while men more often apply even if they meet only 40%. Perloff urges women to “step up!” and “stick with it because life is long.”
According to Perloff, leadership positions at theaters offer more freedom to manage time for family than lower-paying free-lance positions, yet many women seem to be stuck in unpredictable free-lance positions — the biggest hurdle in the path of gender equality in American theater. She is currently conducting a study to learn more about the gender disparity in theater leadership. The question all artists should continually ask is “how do you keep growing?” as a person, an artist, and a community.
One flew over the cohort club, by Megan Kosmoski
“Artists were able to make bolder choices because they had a supportive group in the room. The town was there to support them” — Sean Daniels in reference to the Cohort Club at Geva Theatre Center
Sean Daniels, artist-at-large and director of artistic engagement at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, NY, conducted an audience engagement experiment last year, inviting 20 community members into the creative process of producing a developing play. Geva had called Rochester its home for 39 years and there were still staples of the community who had yet to see a play. In addition many community members who had seen shows were uneasy about any new play productions. Daniels found the key to reaching these audiences was being able to curate and create discussion about theater.
He emphasized that discussion starts with understanding. When audience members are allowed to be educated on the process and production, they become invested and excited about it. There is no exact path but what has proven true, Daniels said, is that “everyone wants to know how the sausage is made,” so he set off to show them. He asked the local shop owners, artists, moms, and average community members to sit in the rehearsal room of a new play going up at Geva. He created a diverse group, all rooted in Rochester, and called it The Cohort Club.
With everyone tweeting and Facebooking, no theater has control over the all the information that is going out into the world, but the theater company can give its audience the right information and help shape and curate the discussion. As artists we often complain about the misconceptions of theater and the lack of investment from the community. Daniels pointed out that we have the advantage of a live art form to let the community in — “Tell me, I may forget it. Show me, I’ll take an interest in it. Let me be part of it, I’ll understand it.”
Hello, I started the Directors Lab by Sara Fenton
“All theater that matters is created by people who are friends or peers in some way who don’t like the theater they see around them” — Anne Cattaneo
In keeping with the unconventional order of this year’s Directors Lab, we were introduced to Anne Cattaneo, the founder of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab that inspired our lab, in what might ordinarily be a welcome address that served as more of a wrap-up session.
She spoke of feeling the need to create a meeting place for directors in a time where meeting places are scarce. Using the philosophy that “out of the power of many comes change”, the lab was created as a forum to galvanize directors, encouraging discussion and connection.
Each lab has had its own personality, created largely by the make-up of the group. Cattaneo feels that as long as a lab has an interesting application, the participants will be all the ingredients necessary for a great lab. Add a theme of whatever seems to be in flux or controversial in the current theater conversation and then get out of the way.
The Burglars of Hamm, by Sara Fenton
“Entertainment, when done right, has the power to transform” — The Burglars of Hamm
The Burglars of Hamm shrug at being classified as “devised theater”. In their session, we followed a slideshow describing their body of work, which creatively re-frames the theatrical event, casting the audience as a character or otherwise playing with the conventional role of the audience.
It was fun to hear about their offbeat ideas and antics, but things really got exciting when we joined in their writing process.
First we brainstormed and shared our worst experiences of theater. It was a gleefully horrifying experience. From there we picked one of the horror stories to further expand on — the awkwardness of being one of the only people in the audience. Abiding by the Burglars’ philosophy of “writing to start a conversation, not writing to make something good”, we got to work on our laptops writing a first pass at a show about Abraham Lincoln, at which only a handful of people are in the audience. A few of our drafts were shared with the group, and the Burglars talked about the writing and why they found certain ideas funny and why they would want to explore certain ones further. They talked about hypothetical homework to more fully flesh out a scene idea before our theoretical next meeting.
Out came a slide with a spreadsheet, which struck fear and overwhelm into the hearts of some, and awe and wonder into the hearts of others, charting the life of scenes that were written for their The Behavior of Broadus. The spreadsheet showed the vast majority of scenes not making it to the second draft, let alone all the way through several drafts to the final production. No one’s work or idea is precious or sacred, and each company member has to be willing to be bad and to “kill your babies” in order to arrive at an excellent final script.
Wrap-up, by John R. Lacey Jr.
And then it was time for us to say goodbye to our new friends and colleagues, led by a screening of the brief Threnody, a moving tribute to 9/11 by Vincent Paterson (“The Man Behind the Throne” who gave us the choreography for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal, Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis and the movie version of Evita.) So we thanked our steering committee members Ernest Figueroa, Kappy Kilburn, Che’Rae Adams, Cindy Marie Jenkins and production coordinator Doug Oliphant and bid farewell to our hosts at the Pasadena Playhouse, as we pledged to “continue the conversation” about the future of the American theater.
**Photos by Cindy Marie Jenkins