The Long Incubation of the Incubus
How to develop a play, in six years and 11 versions
A play ain't Athena. It doesn't spring full-grown from the brow of its creator. Most often, the new drama getting its world premiere has gone through many preliminary stages, so to speak, on its way to the one under the mainstage marquee: stages of readings, rewrites, workshops, and the like. These are tools of the trade used in developing the play, that is, refining it from the playwright's embryonic vision into a script that is as tight, clear, and dramaturgically sound as the author and his collaborators can make it.
The amount of time required for this kind of development varies with the play and the playwright. In the case of The Incubus Archives, a new work by David Hancock that opened September 26 at the Off Center, the gestation period was long enough to make an elephant weep: six years. And during that time, the play wasn't simply fine-tuned; it was reconceived and reconfigured almost a dozen different ways, in local workshops as well as at the prestigious Sundance Theater Lab in Utah. To learn what was involved in such a lengthy creation, the Chronicle sat down with Hancock and Vicky Boone, the play's director and the person who commissioned the play from him when she was artistic director of Frontera Productions.
Austin Chronicle: When did the collaboration on this project begin?
Vicky Boone: [to Hancock] You were in town doing a Salvage Vanguard show, and we were doing Enfants Perdus, so it would have been the fall of '96. You and I met at Little City Coffeehouse, and we had a long conversation, and I told you about my grandfather's house, and the next day you and I drove there, and you sent a draft like a month later.
AC: What was the trip to your grandfather's house about?
VB: I guess it was my way of saying, "This is how I respond to your work. It makes me feel like the way I see your sets." Because this house was very dilapidated and ghostly and was just drenched with artifacts of this one man's life. He had been a geophysicist -- he was basically the guy who would figure out where you were going to drill the hole -- and one room was completely full of maps -- must have been 2,000 maps all rolled up. He had lots of little journals with odd little symbols and notes scratched out and rewritten.
AC: What was your impression of this house?
David Hancock: It was pretty intense. I mean, it would have been the perfect place to do a play. It was filled with this man's ghosts still, down to the details of what was in his desk.
VB: The cushions still had his butt print on them.
DH: His clothing was still in the closets.
VB: His pipe was still by the chair.
AC: Did anything from that trip propel you into the new play you were developing with Vicky?
DH: The original intention was to have a play with that character. I think the prospector's name was Boone. I don't know if it was going to be set in that house specifically, but certainly there were elements from that house that would have been used as part of the set.
AC: Do you remember what was in that first draft?
David Hancock: Yeah. It was about an oil prospector and a repressive government. I think it still exists. I mean, it's still hopefully going to be a play sometime.
VB: There's a medium who channels all these characters.
DH: There's a medium. There's a mass gravesite. Some state trooper types.
VB: An ornithologist.
DH: An ornithologist. Some psychics.
AC: So you start hatching this project. Did you have any concept of how long it would take?
DH: Not six years.
VB: I'm going to track it really quickly in my head: We got the draft in '96, then we did [Hancock's play] Deviant Craft in '97. In '97 we also worked on [Hancock's play] Race of the Ark Tattoo in Minneapolis, and then we worked on Race in Austin in '98, and at the end of '98 we segued back to this project. Then we went to Sundance in the summer of '99. You came down that fall, and you and I went to all those scary places, then in the spring you came down and did a bunch of writing, and we had money issues, so we couldn't really pay a group of actors, so we were having to work with volunteer collections of actors, and we did that in the AGE [Austin Groups for the Elderly] Building.
We went through a lot of conceptual versions of the play. It's had at least 11 shapes. One of them was Ordering Seconds, which we presented to the public last fall. One was the shape that we worked on at Sundance, which was the precursor to Ordering Seconds. At one point, we conceived of it as a haunted house. That was an idea that was there at one point and went away and cycled back.
AC: You say it changed shape. How did it do that?
DH: I'm a writer, and I do some things well. Some things I don't do well may be writing to deadline or finishing things as they stand. I'm constantly interested in exploring and changing and making new and odd forms. So sometimes your time gets off. I live far, far away [from Boone], and daily or even weekly communication can't possibly take place. So I would come down to Austin, and we'd have two weeks to workshop [the script]. We would really work hard, and we'd make some huge leaps in terms of form, and we'd ask some pretty major questions. Then you'd go, "Well, I gotta go back and rethink this." Since I'm not living in Austin, the next stage would be I have a week to do that, and I come back with some pages.
VB: But [the development process] gets elongated by six months or a year.
DH: And I have another play somewhere else. I'm the kind of writer whose life informs my work. From my end that's what happened and why.
AC: So there's a problem of the director and playwright living in different cities, and you have to overcome that separation of geography and time.
DH: For Sundance, the application was with the original draft of the play, but then we rewrote it. One of the problems -- and it's a good problem -- is you're in a room and there are a bunch of actors, and you start writing for those actors. [Then a new draft] is there, and you can't really ignore it. It exists and it has character names and actors attached to it, so even though you have the draft that you applied to Sundance with, suddenly there's this other character that's appeared that's embodied by this person you know, so you take that to Sundance and yet another person attaches to it, and this character has history, and it's hard to snip it off and kill it.
VB: I think that's where your interest shifted. There was the draft that was fairly descriptive and almost site-specific in feeling, and between there and Sundance it turned into 40 characters. That was the big turn in the script.
DH: And Sundance, their only reservation about it was that we wouldn't be able to dig in the woods and do a lot of site-specific stuff. I don't know how that really affects the writing, but obviously I was aware that it was going to be a lot of table work in a rehearsal room, so in your head you go, "Well, then I better write a lot of dialogue." Maybe I'm too sensitive a writer, but those things always affect my writing process. They just do. And they're not bad things. Some of the things I'm most proud of have been affected in that way. You only have a limited amount of creative energy, so I'm not going to write a play that we can only work on if we're wandering through the woods and nobody really wants us to do that.
VB: From that point on, you've been coming to Austin once in the fall, once in the spring, for one week or two weeks.
DH: Working on that thing that I would call Ordering Seconds. That big ol' thing.
VB: You came in that fall, and we read it in Flatbed. And then it was the diner play.
DH: I reduced the characters to eight. After Sundance, there were 40, and I sort of partitioned them off into various plays. Then we got a play with eight characters that was all revolving around a truck stop. That was that fall.
VB: Then in the spring, you came down for two weeks and we had a workshop, again at Flatbed. Those were the scenes, not the glue. I think the glue really emerged in the fall when we actually performed it.
DH: Then we were going to do it the following fall, the fall of 2001, and that's when Frontera closed and we weren't going to do it, and then the Rude Mechanicals said they were going to do it, then it goes through Truck Stop, Haunted House, and this play.
VB: I think if we had turned around that spring and gone forward with Ordering Seconds, [this play] would have been more like Ordering Seconds [than The Incubus Archives].
DH: Ordering Seconds I really loved. I'm so happy with the play. I was so happy with the work in the reading. There's a central problem with that play: In the form it was, actors were not necessarily getting to perform every night.
VB: The audience has a choice at the end of each scene as to which direction they go, and in the workshop, to see April Matthis sit there all night and not get picked to act was really hard. It's too much loss.
DH: I think we could've figured that out in a week, but instead of working toward a production solving that, we can't because I'm gone. So that idea is in limbo. Part of what made this play work is that we really solved that problem.
AC: How did it happen that this was the final shape? Was it that someone decided to produce it, or had you hit on something that felt like this is it?
DH: When we didn't have the production [of Ordering Seconds] and then we were doing this with the Rude Mechs, we started [asking each other], "Well, what are we going to do?" It was sort of from scratch, but not really. Then we said, "Well, let's do the haunted house."
VB: When we started five weeks ago, it was literally a house the audience toured through. But it transformed from the literal haunted house into the form that it is now [a museum of human cruelty] in the last three weeks.
DH: I arrived the 11th of August with that synopsis.
VB: Then we went into rehearsal on the 19th, and we worked with that draft for two days, then we stopped.
DH: This draft was totally finished, no more changes, a little more than a week and a half [before opening]. The form was there a little earlier, but the whole text was not.
VB: Three weeks ago, we knew where the form was going, but we didn't know what pieces would be together.
DH: There was a moment where I smelled the prey ... [laughter] It was a good shift. I think everybody who was terrified and had doubts knew they would be terrified and have doubts but at least there was going to be a play.
VB: In the time when we didn't have material we did a lot of stuff to develop what we might do when we had material. People kind of knew who they were; they just didn't know what they were going to be saying. I think for everybody it was an exercise in winging it in a way that was fulfilling.
DH: Certainly some had more faith than I did that it would get [done]. And they were right.
AC: How did you feed off their faith?
DH: The actor-playwright relationship is always a strange one. You always try to navigate feeding from the actors but not feeding too much. What happened in the process was I just felt that they were willing to go on the ride with me. And that's the key. I know I can set up a pretty good ride, but lots of times the actors won't go on it with you. Here they all were willing to stick it out until the ride was over, and that gave me the confidence that I could indeed construct a ride without worrying about making it safer for everybody. They were very good about asking me tough questions, being fearless in their dramaturgy, being willing to tick me off. Of all the rehearsals I have been in my entire professional career, this was the most ideal.
AC: Was there a problem with the haunted house play the way there was with the diner play?
VB: The production elements were ahead of the script. So the script couldn't be written inside of the production elements; it was struggling to fulfill the production elements. We had to wipe the floor clean and let the script move forward and then create an environment around the script that was emerging. Again, I think if we lived in the same place and got together every Saturday and made a little something and added on, you could have a 16-room haunted house the audience tours through. But the house has to come out of the language. We had deadlines and had to move forward with production.
DH: And I'm writing in a vacuum in St. Peter, Minnesota, trying to remember what the Off Center even looks like. I think one Saturday morning wandering around the space and going "Where is this? Where is this?" would have solved a lot of problems. I take 95% of the responsibility for this. I created a play that was probably impossible to do in that space.
VB: So we made the decision to just let the words come out and then we'd make a world around the world.
DH: And Vicky and I have been working long enough on this that we did have a common vocabulary. So if I said to Vicky, "I'm really worried, I want to make sure every actor has a full trajectory," Vicky understood that in terms of seeing April sitting there. That got through a lot in terms of what the form would be.
AC: In conventional play development, there are issues of structure and the like that the process is designed to fix, but it's keeping in line with what a play has traditionally been through the centuries: getting the climax right, making sure the characters have dramatic arcs, or whatever. With this play, it doesn't sound like those issues really apply. The central problem of the diner play was that the choice might never come around a particular actor on a given night. Well, that's not going to happen with a conventional, plot-driven play.
DH: Part of that has to do with the fact that I am unwilling to make the decision about which character's journey or trajectory is more important than another. Most plays that I go to, I'm far more interested in the characters that seemingly get minor stage time. I mean, with Shakespeare the main characters are really great, so I don't mind as much, and I'm not saying it suddenly needs to be Ophelia's play or something like that. I'm saying that now it's hard for me to imagine writing a play that doesn't take into account that we're in a polytheistic, multicultural climate and world and universe. So to do that, I have to say, well, I can't tell you if this is the waitress' play or the trucker's play. I think that has to be given to chance a little bit because that's the world we live in. Because somebody in the World Trade Center is dead, and I'm not, and that's by chance. That's the world we seem to live in, the world I live in certainly.
AC: In the play's long journey, has that caused friction with people who are part of the process?
VB: I think we were lucky. We've been really blessed by having the right people in the room. The actors are the bravest people I've ever met. Their willingness to try anything and to do things they've never done before, at the drop of a hat, with no preparation, has been stunning. It's amazing what they've said yes to.
AC: What did you get out of this six-year process?
VB: What I personally got from it is a real ability to be in the moment in a way that I could never be as a director or an artist prior to this. I was always ahead of myself, thinking about where I was going to be, whether it was in a theatre company or in six weeks with a production, and what I had to challenge myself to experience on this was working with exactly what I had in a given moment, to make the play without necessarily knowing where it was going, and each day adding to what I know as opposed to obsessing on what I don't know. That for me was the gift of a lifetime, because I had never been able to do that.
DH: I think Vicky articulated it in terms of living in the moment. It's wrapped up a lot in getting older as an artist. Trying to make the process of theatre work is very difficult, and for me personally it gets more difficult every year. If I add up the time I have been away from my family for this project, it's been probably six months of my life. I did it at that time willingly, but I think I was not really able to see the cost of that, and if I've learned one thing about myself personally as an artist, it's that I'm not going to go into situations that take me away from my family. I mean, that's a heck of a lot of time to be away from a kid.
And it's not just this project -- that's what I also want to be clear on. Other projects were also involved. It's trying to exist as a playwright. It's flying here, flying there, flying there. I don't know anymore in my life exactly what purpose that's serving. I'm re-evaluating a lot of why I make theatre, what I'm going to do with the next 10 years of my life. It's got nothing to do with the experience being bad or good. It's like, wow, I'm 39 now and I've had some success and some not-success. What can I do to shape the process so I am in the moment a lot more? And it's hard, because there are institutions and people and grants and cycles and stuff that are totally out of your control and are very unnatural to making art. But I don't think that's explicitly tied to this development. It's bigger.
AC: Vicky, it seems like you've gone through a similar thing. In the midst of all this, you decided to give up Frontera. Are you continuing to work through the kind of things David talked about?
VB: For me, now, just talking about my life as opposed to this specific project, this last year has been incredibly liberating. I was living in a situation that was suffocating me as an artist, and this last year has been a process of stepping out of that and going back to basic questions of who I am, what am I doing, what am I interested in, what propels me into the moment. It's been a really invigorating year for me artistically. It's been the best year of my life since high school, where I can feel that complete freedom moment to moment that you can feel only when you're old enough to have a driver's license but you don't have any real responsibility yet.
AC: Do you have any sense of that contributing to this play finally coming to a point of production?
VB: Yes. I think that without the experiences that I created for myself in the last year, I wouldn't have been able to do the work I just did in the last three weeks. I would have been freaking out. [Laughs] There is no way that I would have been able to have the confidence to endure not knowing. But now not knowing is just a lot better. It doesn't have the same ridiculous stakes. It's a lot more interesting not knowing.
DH: You know, it's weird, this has been different. It's been hard, but it's been different. There's something different about it that makes me hopeful -- which scares me a little bit. I wouldn't want to re-create it or anything ...
VB: I figure if I can stay in the moment for this, I can stay in the moment for anything!
The Incubus Archives runs through Oct. 20, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. Call 476-RUDE for information or visit www.rudemechs.com.