Let's Fix That

How New Plays Are Developed in Austin

Rod Caspers wears a crew-cut and projects a bossy demeanor that makes him seem as much a drill sergeant as a director. During a rehearsal for the new musical Branson or Bust, Caspers shouts the action to a halt: "Wait a minute! Let's just stop and fix that now." Striding to the stage, he not only addresses the actors who are still groping their way into the scene, he cuts his eyes toward the two writers on his left, who begin scribbling simultaneously in their notebooks. Because this is no ordinary rehearsal. This play is not even done yet. It's in development.

Development is just a fancy word for writing and rehearsing, and rewriting and re-rehearsing, alongside each other. These days, we're all used to behind-the-scenes exposés which reveal the Byzantine process of moviemaking, but even people who regularly go to the theatre can forget that for a stage play, the road from idea to opening night can be just as long, digressive, and treacherous. "New plays are not like a novel," notes Emily Cicchini, who headed the New Play Development program at Capitol City Playhouse earlier this year. They don't allow the artist the luxury of working out his or her singular vision on the page. "You have to work with so many people," she says. "It's collaborative from the beginning," and that means the vision of the writer is subject to alteration by producers, directors, actors, designers, and often a number of other parties before it's deemed "complete."

Every play is developed to some degree, but every play has its own walk to walk and that affects the way that it's developed. The process for an over-the-top musical like Branson or Bust (with 12 characters, a five-piece band, mobile props, and a projection sequence) may be very different from that for a one-man historical drama like The Confessions of David Crockett, which Remembrance Through the Performing Arts has been nurturing along for some months now. It so happens that these two new plays are both receiving full productions on Austin stages this month, and a look at each is instructive in what can be involved in new play development.

"The play's the thing..." Two years ago, local playwright Steve Warren thought he had written a play about legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett. He had a complete script, and it was being produced in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. But then he showed it to Marla Macdonald. When this veteran playwright, director, and head of new play development for Remembrance Through the Performing Arts saw his first version of The Confessions of David Crockett, she ripped it to pieces and sent Warren back to the computer. The latest revision on the PC in his disheveled office is labeled "DAVY20".

The play has come a long way. The version put on two years ago in Tennessee starts with "Davy" at a desk, talking to himself as he writes: "I was born on August 17, 1786 on the Nolachuky River in Greene County. My mother was poor. My father was dirt poor. . . ." After a bit of this, Davy breaks off, and like Yosemite Sam sets to cussing: "If this ain't the most dad-blamedest, dis-interestin' proposition tryin' to write a book about myself." Warren's first script was not only encumbered by a stiffness of style as rigid as Davy's writin' form, it was devoid of narrative progress and rife with what I call "rustic ventriloquism," that Yosemite Sam way of having countrified characters talk.

The new show, with David Crockett, has the adventurer bursting into a room where the audience is having a going-away party. Crockett is leaving the next day for "The Texas," and being well into his third hour of saloon-hopping, he has no trouble finding his style. And where the original script had Crockett confessing that he drank too much and recounting his less-than-thrilling time in the U.S. Congress, the current version places this material solidly into a dramatic context -- a man wrestling with alcoholism, lost love, and political defeat -- building toward the cathartic revelations of genuine tragedy.

Macdonald says that she hated the first script: "It was just a bunch of stories, strung together." Warren remembers, "She told me, `Give us the story of David Crockett, not a collection of tall tales.'" Macdonald said that there had to be a narrative progress, for the life story as a whole and for the play as a presentation. For Warren, that meant returning to his material again and again, to insert motivations and transitions, to link the parts of the monologue into a structured drama. It worked. After 20 revisions, Crockett doesn't bluster anymore; he lives and breathes, drawing the audience into his tales instead of simply talking them out.

Getting a new play to that point is the mission of Remembrance Through the Performing Arts. According to Artistic Director Rosalyn Rosen, "We want to focus on making new work and making it work." The company focuses entirely on new play, with Rosen and Macdonald taking on a group of new works each year, building each play from the writer's first script, through several months of revisions and readings, to the point where it could be staged as a work-in-progress production. Each season, they choose four scripts to take through the production process, but they stress that the job's not done, even when the work gets to the stage. There are rewrites and new elements introduced throughout the run. It's only when the script has gone all the way through its developmental production that, Rosen says, "the play is chiseled in stone. It's polished and ready for a world premiere." Then, Remembrance shops the plays to other theatres, opening doors at places like the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. or the Seattle Repertory Theatre, that usually don't accept unsolicited scripts.

For Rosen, the process of bringing a script to life is a good in itself. Macdonald says the reward is "a soul payoff, when you see the play complete for the first time, even if it's in a rehearsal, and you recognize it's done." The payoff is especially rich because by the time a show has been through six to nine months' worth of development, it's a cooperative labor.

Given that new plays must endure the input of many people, Remembrance strives to draw together as talented a group of participants as it can, so as to insure that the play gets input of the highest quality. Leading the group is Macdonald, who is widely acknowledged as a development whiz. In addition to being a playwright herself, she has spent 20 years in the field of script development, including seven at Capitol City Playhouse, where she helped found its New Play Development program. Rosen, who also knows playwriting from the inside (Red Sea, Repetitions, Why Is the Dog Howlin', Momma?), provides a source of direction and energy for the company. They seek out experienced actors such as Tony Howe and Kathy Fulton, who just appeared in Remembrance's production of 10 Feet Down and Looking Up, who can add new dimensions to a script through their interpretation of character. For example, Ernie Taliaferro's robust impersonation and comfort with Crockett's Tennessee drawl erases any lingering rustic ventriloquism from the script. Add an occasional turn by people of Jo Harvey Allen's stature, or sound designer Jimy Gunn, or Macdonald's daughter Julia, and the combination of talents can make immeasurable contributions to a play's evolution.

"A kingdom for a stage. . ." In the Prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare tells the truth about what every play-making personality wants: not just a muse of fire, but

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.

Well, that's what the creators of Branson or Bust have, or the Austin equivalent, anyway: UT's B. Iden Payne Theatre for a stage, a robust cast of talented students to act, and a Heart o' Texas populace to behold the garish scene. Given the project authors Chan Chandler and Steve Adams have created -- a big silly musical set in a small Texas town, celebrating the allure of big hair, big stars, and glitter-filled productions that have turned Branson into Missouri's country-music paradise -- you could hardly imagine a better set-up for developing this play. After all, isn't Austin where a tiny Texas town called Tuna was turned into a thriving theatrical industry? What with the sequins, the novelty songs, some audience participation (in a chant called "Big Hair-Done Right") and a "fromage factor," as Chandler calls it, that runs off the scale, this show is ideal for Austin.

Yet the development of Branson or Bust almost didn't happen here. After Chandler and Adams came up with their idea to do a musical about the little town that could -- they were inspired by a TV ad for Branson, and a visit confirmed their desire to do a show -- they threw in with a New York production company. The company raised several hundred thousand dollars toward the project, but the deal was scrapped because the creators felt that the company's development plan was too ambitious. Chandler says that the backers were putting so much money into a high tech, high-energy premiere that he and Adams were afraid the play would suffer in the shuffle. For one thing, an opening that tries to come out too big too fast can make for a big fast flop. So the authors and the company parted ways. That led Chandler and Adams to their alma mater and old mentor, Rod Caspers, who is now an assistant professor and director in the UT Theatre & Dance Department. It's a sweet arrangement, according to Chandler, who points out that if they were doing the show in New York, "we'd be working in some dark Manhattan loft" instead of staging rehearsals and developing the show in the expansive atmosphere of the Payne.

More importantly, though, given the creators' plans for their show, developing the play at UT makes more sense. From the beginning, Chandler and Adams scripted and wrote songs with an eye toward making the show producible in as many venues as possible. "Theatre's always a local event," Chandler quips. "No matter how big or how small the town, the show is put together by and for the local audience." Working on Branson or Bust here allows them more freedom to craft a work with the local event in mind: to adapt the script so that the cast can range from 10 players to 15, depending on a theatre's needs and resources, and the special effects palette can run the gamut from multimedia to a set of slides. Branson also accommodates regional desires. It's set in Leon, Texas, whose mayor wants to create a "Branson of the Southwest," and the show borrows liberally from classic Broadway, though it owes more to Oklahoma than Sunset Boulevard.

That doesn't mean the development process here has been any easier than it would have been elsewhere. There have been long rehearsals, each followed by a script summit with Caspers, and then rewriting into the night. During one session, Adams says, "I realized, `It's 3am.' My hands were shaking, my head was spinning, I thought, `This is insane.'" Much of the development attention was focused on the opening number, even up to a few weeks before opening. Chandler says they needed a beginning that grabbed the audience, told them what the play was about, and moved smoothly into the rest of the show, essentially a musical revue staged as a small-time musical revue, á la Nunsense. "But then we realized it's too long, it's clunky, trying to do too much." Adams's late-night freakout was prompted by a particularly strenuous list of demands from Caspers to make the opening tighter.

But Rod Caspers isn't the only person who's been on their case. Chandler and Adams have had to face a gaggle of actors, musicians, prop shop workers, lighting people, special effects technicians, and dance coaches, all of whom have their own demands, ideas, and contributions to make to the burgeoning script. And since UT is paying the bills and their salaries as guest artists, the dynamic writing duo also takes time out to work with students, and not just college students, either; rehearsals have been opened to junior high and high school classes, and Chandler and Adams are even now doing field trips to drama classes throughout central Texas. While the position of developing Branson or Bust in Austin at their old school has many obvious advantages, it also puts these two artists face to face with a problem that sometimes confronts playwrights in the development game: Is there a point when the program stops helping the writer develop the writer's play, either by including so many editorial voices that the play stops being the writer's or by asking the writer to do things other than write a play? It's a source of debate in theatrical circles around the country now -- particularly among playwrights who feel they have been abused by the process at some theatres -- and the next few years may find a whole new school of play development evolving out of it.

That's one of the things about this process. Development takes as many forms as there are productions. It has one shape with the playwriting professors in the academic setting of UT, but it is another animal entirely with Salvage Vanguard Theater in the smoke and shadows of the Electric Lounge and another with Emily Cicchini helping the teenage writers in the Texas Young Playwrights Festival. It's hard to say that one program or process is or should predominate.

What you can say is that the development process is important to Austin theatre and it bears watching, if only because of the amount of new plays that are developed here. In addition to Branson and David Crockett, three other new plays hit Austin stages this month: Pale Idiot, by Kirk Lynn; Oscar Snowden and the Magic O, by Lisa D'Amour, and Enfants Perdus, by Erik Ehn and the Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre company. Some 50-60 new dramatic scripts have their world premieres here every season; that's between one-fifth and one-fourth of all the theatre produced locally. And when you factor in the original work given readings or staged through FronteraFest, you come up with a staggering amount of original stage work. Some of it -- the Tuna plays of Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, and plays by Marty Martin, Tom White, David Mark Cohen, David Bucci, and Amparo Garcia -- have connected with the larger theatrical scene. It is only natural to expect that more will. And how they came to be developed here will reflect on this theatre community and this city.

So keep an ear open and listen for the proof in the play. n

Brett Holloway-Reeves is a freelance writer who is about to celebrate his seventh anniversary of residing in Austin.

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