Editor's Note: There has long been a tradition of new work created by theaters in North Texas—after all, this is where the pioneering theatermaker Margo Jones (our namesake!) helped jumpstart the regional theater movement in 1947, and championed living writers, including Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. But in the past five years or so, new plays and musicals have exploded on the local scene. The big difference in recent years is that our theaters with larger budgets, notably Dallas Theater Center, have been investing in new work (and some by local writers!), which hasn't happened with such frequency for that company since the days of Paul Baker. And while midsize theaters like Undermain Theatre and Kitchen Dog Theater have been devoted to new work for decades, the efforts of developing new projects has grown in many theaters here, of all budget levels. Local writers are even getting national recognition, such as Jonathan Norton's Mississippi Goddamn, which premiered at the South Dallas Cultural Center in 2015 and recently won the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award. Norton picked up that award, and $1,000, at the country's most prestigious new play showcase, the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival. And DTC will soon open a major production of a new play, Deferred Action, created by local writers David Lozano and Lee Trull.
It's important to dedicate space to this forward motion, so we're introducing a new column called Work in Progress. Twice a month, Shelby-Allison Hibbs will explore new work development in this column, which replaces her previous column Teacher/Artist. For the first installment, Hibbs talks to Katherine Owens about a new way of working with New Yorker Len Jenkin, a playwright who has had many premieres at Undermain Theatre. Enjoy, and please give us feedback and suggestions! You can contact Shelby-Allison Hibbs at email@example.com or TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Mark Lowry
Dallas — I have a tremendous amount of optimism for the new work happening in DFW. Even though every couple of weeks I hear about an actor, director, or playwright making plans to leave Texas for bigger cities or new opportunities, I believe that the potential for funding, finding space, and audience is rich in our cities. From Dallas Theater Center, WaterTower Theatre and Teatro Dallas, to Hip Pocket Theatre, Stage West and Kids Who Care, to small emerging companies, if you want to see world premieres or works in progress, you don’t have to look that far. And, the quality of new productions here rivals that of any other theater market.
However, new plays are risky. It’s a challenge to give the “go ahead” on an untested work of theater, even by playwrights with decades of experience or outstanding pedigree. There are financial risks and no guarantees for box office success. But is that really how we should measure new theatrical work? For the theaters that make the leap into the unknown, I’m starting this Work in Progress column for you. Twice a month in TheaterJones, I’ll attempt to peel back the layers of months, sometimes years of development. What’s it like to step into the rehearsal room of an uncharted play? How do we create new worlds and articulate untold or neglected stories? How are these companies finding new aesthetic forms for theater to resonate with a 2016 audience? I’ll attempt to explore these questions and more via conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the exciting process of realizing new work from page to stage.
I sat down with Katherine Owens last week to examine her longtime collaboration with playwright Len Jenkin. Jonah is currently in previews and opens Saturday, April 16 (here’s our listing). Unlike other Len Jenkin world premieres at Undermain, this production had a boost at the Sundance Festival in Utah. Owens and Jenkin spent three weeks workshopping the script, which proved to be valuable to the rehearsal process as their two minds could form a more solid “shared vocabulary and pool of references.” Owens and Jenkin also received feedback from advisors and other artists as they observed rehearsals. Owens remembers Phillip Henberg specifically, “Phillip from Sundance came to rehearsal, he’s a big fan of Len. And he said ‘This is a very unusual rehearsal, because it looks like a rehearsal for a devised piece and yet there’s an entire script there.’” These three weeks away may seem to be a luxury, particularly since many DFW artists work full-time elsewhere. You may get to do readings in living rooms or one night in a theater, but to go away and focus on a play for weeks at a time is priceless for an artist.
Owens has developed many world premieres at Undermain, and she still discovers new ways of interacting with playwrights. She says, “Even though we worked together for many years it’s a very long period of time to talk and eat meals together and climb up the mountain.” With their discussions, Owens and Jenkin created a more complex panorama of juxtaposed images for this play of biblical proportions.
Owens describes the work as a Medieval mystery play but with a modern aesthetic. “It’s sort of like it’s made out of the things of the street, but it’s a mystery play.” As you take a seat in the tropical tent with lobster sconces on the formidable pillars of Undermain, it may not seem like a mystery play is a reference point. Jenkin’s transformation of the genre is unique: “So sometimes you see him in the biblical period and then most of the time you see him in the modern period—as a seafarer and sometimes on a Carnival cruise.” Time is fluid, or perhaps circular is a better way to describe it and that reflects the protagonist’s state as he chooses to ignore God’s commands.
What Jonah has in common with the mystery play has primarily to do with the presentation of an original narrative and making the invisible visible and apparent. For example, God and the whale are characters and interact on stage. Like a mystery play, the supernatural becomes flesh and blood in front of the audience, much like drive-thru nativities and even nonreligious pageants like Texas the Musical in Palo Duro Canyon. Sure, we know the stories, but making them physically alive and embodied offers an immediate, melodramatic experience that encourages the audience to emotionally invest in the protagonist.
As with many of Jenkin’s works, a unique visual aesthetic permeates the stage and the poetic language as Owens notes, “Being in one of Len’s plays to me is like driving at twilight through a series of small towns where you can still see the outlines of the buildings but you can also see the interior of the houses. There’s a sense of an America panorama but also maximal visibility, of the exterior the interior, the outline, the whole thing.” Both Jenkin and Owens have an interest in folk theater, and while the biblical story of Jonah contains an epic scope, the play contains a familiar American soundscape. Owens mentioned listening to Jenkin’s entire iPod at Sundance, noting that it contains practically every noteworthy tune in the American songbook. Jonah contains several song selections from the 20th century, including doo-wop, gospel and even a Carter Family tune. The collection made Owens suggest that, “This is the old weird America, like Bob Dylan and Len said ‘Yes! The old weird America where the poetry is!’”
The juxtaposition of visual, aural, and narrative forms make it difficult to describe the aesthetic system Jenkin employs in plays like this and Abraham Zobell. The traditional forms in American theater revolves around illusion, either creating a scenographic vision that reflects a poetic but realistic version of a real space to a fine point or offering just a few pieces to suggest a leap into an imagined world. And on the other side of theatrical convention doesn’t line up either. Jenkin’s work doesn’t contain a Brechtian alienation effect either—the audience doesn’t view the action with a critical, objective eye. Jenkin’s work is a living, breathing, visual poem—images and sounds that contain an internal logic. To explain further, collage and juxtaposition are the immediate words that come to mind, but that suggests a randomness and sense of inner conflict.
His work combines the illusionistic and metaphoric in ways that many contemporary playwrights only hint at. This unconventional coordination of imagery and narrative structure pulls from many diverse resources of performance and storytelling. Owens notes the benefit of utilizing many resources, “Aesthetic systems are really interesting. I think too much we assume our aesthetic system is the way art is made. And yet, it’s changed so much. For me, things like Butoh and some of these ideas from the Dadaists are really helpful. They’re different from the system we normally assume is a way to put things together.”
Partnerships like Jenkin’s with Undermain on one hand benefit the theater (by saying that they produce new plays or work with nationally recognized writers), but they also foster more potent creative voices over time. The sense of company and decades of collaboration allows a playwright to fully develop their visions, and that is important for a poetic crafter of worlds like Jenkin. There is a significant amount of risk taken, because the performances truly become the vision of the artists rather than simply another production.
After the Sundance workshop, Jenkin participated in the first week of rehearsals at Undermain. Then, Owens set out to assemble the play with a keen eye for the momentum and movement of the play. She prefers to work in long stretches to get a broader sense of the trajectory of the performance, noting that transitions are of utmost importance to her process. All throughout the development, her working relationship with Jenkin remained very collaborative. Owens describes Jenkin as a very open-minded playwright, who constantly questions, “I wrote this but what else can I do with this thing? What other kinds of theatrical things can come from it? So that’s a very unusual process.”
Unless the playwright is local, it can seem like the production team is left to their own devices in solving problems or interpreting the script. However, Owens notes that simple conversations with playwrights, even over the phone, can resolve difficult moments in the rehearsal room. Owens says, “You can get on the phone with them and they can be extremely helpful from a distance, which I didn’t know. A couple of cases a playwright has called me and said ‘Have you had trouble with this scene?’ and I’ll say ‘How did you know? You read my mind!’ They sort of know in a way.” That’s another important benefit of producing new work, the creative mind behind the script is just a phone call or message away. You can pick their brain for more insight and a clearer shape to the performance.
One of the most unique aspects of Undermain’s development process is the fact that they rehearse in their theater space from the beginning of rehearsals. Since many other companies rehearse their play in another location and rent their performance space a few days before they begin performances, it’s always a jarring experience. The technical elements are tacked on at the end of a long process where the performers have been working alone with the director. Then, within a span of a few days, all of the other elements are added through long hours of work and countless decisions on the part of the director. The ability to slowly layer in tech greatly assists in this desire to create in other directions. With only a weekend to truly integrate and finesse technical elements, there’s little room for questioning or discovering new forms. There’s simply no time.
In traditional practices, we see costumes, lighting, sound, projections as the icing on the cake, something extra to offer a professional polish to the work of the actors. From the way Undermain approaches their plays, these other parts of theatrical language are introduced in the early days of rehearsal—leveling the hierarchy of theatrical elements. Owens notes that sound design and the actors go hand in hand, and it seems that aural element is the most important one that has a living relationship to the actors. Scenery is built early and utilized in blocking rehearsals, lighting is gradually integrated as well. Owens describes this as a clear choice to help the actors intuit the world of the play: “They look at the environment they look around them they look what they have on and they hear the music and they think ‘Oh! It must be that kind of scene.’ …It’s directly accessed the intuition of the actor.”
These discoveries take time. New work takes time, prolonged exploration. You shouldn’t jump ship or make decisions too quickly. You need as many pieces of the puzzle as possible to make creative choices. Undermain’s process demonstrates the importance of taking your time and consistently questioning the whole performance as it is being put together. Perhaps this is also why Owens has found such a rich creative life in Dallas, as she continues to seek out new worlds with new plays.
» Jonah opens April 16 and runs through May 7. More info, including performance times, address and ticket info, is here. Katherine Owens directs, with scenic design by John Arnone, lighting by Steve Woods, costumes by Amanda Capshaw, sound by Bruce DuBose and properties by Linda Noland. The cast includes Jonathan Brooks, Katherine Bourne, Patrick Bynane, Whitney Coulter, Bruce DuBose, Courtney Mentzel, Kelsey Milbourn, Jeremy Schwartz and Marcus Stimac.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her new bi-monthly Work in Progress column, she'll explore many angles around new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Temple Spirit by Susan Felder, presented by Echo Theatre at the Creative Arts Building in Fair Park, through April 16 OUR INTERVIEW WITH FELDER
- The Empress and the Pearl by diannetucker, presented by Theatre Three in its basement space, Theatre Too!, through May 1 OUR REVIEW
- Tommy Cain, reading of a new work by Van Quattro, presented by L.I.P. Service at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth, April 15-16 OUR LISTING
- HPT3, three new solo works by Chris McCreary, Justin Lemieux and Taylor Harris, presented by House Party Theatre at a warehouse in Trinity Groves. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 16 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORKS
- Echo Theatre reads Brynne Frauenhoffer's Bury Me, which was a finalist for Echo's 2015 Big Shout Out playwriting contest, 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19 at the Bath House Cultural Center OUR LISTING
- Deferred Action by David Lozano and Lee Trull, co-presented by Cara Mía Theatre Company and Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre. Previews begin April 20, opens April 29 and runs through May 14 OUR LISTING
- Animal Vs. Machine, a wordless devised piece by PrismCo at the Green Warehouse in Trinity Groves, April 22-May 8 OUR LISTING
- 365 Women a Year Festival, readings of new works by women playwrights across the nation, at Rover Dramawerks in Plano, May 5-14 OUR LISTING
- The Tribe presents Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater at the Yellow House Art House in Dallas, May 13-23 OUR LISTING
- De Troya, developmental readings of a new play by Caridad Svich, presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth, May 15-16 OUR LISTING
- Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, featuring the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres of Steve Yockey's The Thrush and the Woodpecker and Blackberry Winter, which will run in repertory, plus readings of new plays and PUP Fest with Junior Players, May 20-June 25 OUR LISTING