Interview with Jill Rafson

Jill Rafson, Director of New Play Development at Roundabout Theatre Company

I met Jill years ago through her sister Debra, who I’d worked with in Boston at New Repertory Theatre. We hit it off immediately. Over the years, she has introduced me to the work of some of my favorite living playwrights through her work curating the Underground at Roundabout Theatre Company.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH): How does it feel to be the person who picked a Pulitzer Prize nominated, Tony Award Winning playwright?

Jill Rafson (JR): It’s a little crazy. Stephen’s reaction to being a two time Pulitzer Finalist was a series of emojis. Where my response was “Really? You’re supposed to be a words guy.” It’s funny, he said “Who would have imagined at the first Speech and Debate reading when we were rolling a projector down a rehearsal hallway that this is where we were going to end up a couple years later.” I feel really psyched about what’s happening with him, and my intention this year was to commission him to write a new version of The Cherry Orchard and that would be his Broadway debut, since I’ve been searching for ways to get new playwrights to crossover onto Broadway within Roundabout, since we don’t really do new works there. But then The Humans got there first, so –  champagne problems really.


Jason Fuchs, Sarah Steele, and Gideon Glick in Speech & Debate (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BMH: I feel like you’ve had a chance since starting Roundabout Underground to hire just about any actor you want. What do you find yourself looking for in actors for the Underground Reading Series versus full productions?

JR: It’s interesting, because Roundabout is so big, all of our spaces serve different purposes. When you’re trying to get people in the room for a reading for say, a Noël Coward revival you might try to get the to American Airlines Theatre, you’re trying to get names, talented names with stage cred because you are trying to sell tickets. The great thing about the Underground is that the second I say “yes, we’re going to do your play,” I’ve just lost the company several hundred thousand dollars. Because even if we sell out the run at $25 a ticket, we’re not going to make a lot back. So it’s a safe space where you get to try things and you don’t care what the names are in the play, which gives you a lot more freedom. So for the reading series in particular I try to say to people “Listen, I want you to get the best possible actors in the room who are going to be helpful to you in this day” because it’s mainly just a day. But very often with young playwrights they get this list from our casting office who have access to basically every person in the world and they start to say we might get this fancy person and we have to go through this discussion of what do you want to get out of this experience? Do you want to find out if this “name person” is capable of acting in a play whose never been onstage before OR do you want to get some killer theatre actors in a room who can for sure give you a solid reading and might actually inform the process a bit. So that’s a big discussion we have every time.

BMH: What is it about Roundabout that values new work so much that they are willing to invest so much in the Underground even when it’s a huge expense?

JR: Here’s the way I look at it: we are a theatre whose bread and butter is producing from the canon. We do revivals, and you have to refresh the canon. So what I think we’re doing at the Underground is starting to build the canon of the future. So I don’t want to find just a good play when I’m choosing writers to be produced in the Underground. I want to find a writer whose career I believe in and who I think we should support in the long run.


Jared Gertner and Kate Wetherhead in Ordinary Days (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BMH: That’s awesome. I’m going to change directions now. What skills do you look for in an actor for the reading series?

JR: The Underground Reading Series really is just rehearsing around a table in the morning, then you read it for people at night, and that’s the entirety of it.

So I just try to get the writers people who are going to be helpful to them in the room. So we often have “repeat offenders.” The writers can really only come through once because that’s the nature of the program. But the actors can come back over and over again. So what I like to do is sit in on that first table read and see, how do they react to the piece? Are they able to ask questions of the writer? Are they asking the right questions? What are they doing to inform? How is this going to develop? So there are people who are definitely my favorites, who I will try to get in the room on new plays because they’re awesome and ask all the right questions. Like Cassie Beck, I think she is the best person you can put in any reading ever if you’re working on a new play, because she asks the best questions of the playwright.

BMH: Can you give us examples of best questions an actor can ask?

JR: What the writer needs is for somebody to ask questions from the perspective of the character. Here’s something you might not have seen from looking at the big picture, and here’s something I can see being in it. Because it’s almost the same role as a dramaturg – my role in a lot of plays is to not get in as deep with them as the playwright is because then I become less helpful. I need to be able to go in with unbiased eyes for as long as possible; inevitably I start to lose that to some extent. But I like to go in and say Here’s something I’m looking at and you’ve read too many times and you can’t see anymore. So for actors we need someone to go through the first read and say Okay, here are the questions I have from the point of view of this character. Here’s why I had trouble navigating and why I am or am not reacting this way. Or I lost track, am I even in the room for this scene, and if I am in the room shouldn’t I be doing something, or what does it mean that I’m not? It’s people just being able to narrow it down honestly.

BMH: And, what’s less helpful?

JR: It’s sometimes less helpful on the day of to hear from actors the bigger questions of the play. Because when I’m in a reading situation we usually have to get it up that night, so if you raise that question that the playwright might be inspired to answer, but has absolutely no way of accomplishing in the next two hours, that’s not as helpful. It’s great if you talk after, but in the moment it’s about how do we answer things that keep us all on the same page for this event and help us accomplish what we need to.


Rebecca Henderson and Phyllis Somerville in Too Much, Too Much, Too Many (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BMH: How would you prioritize some of the skills required of an actor in the rehearsal room?

JR: There’s nothing worse than a boring reading, and that doesn’t teach the playwright anything. Especially in a cold read, because sometimes we do that – although for this series we don’t ever go in unrehearsed – but just on the occasion we do a reading unrehearsed we say just make a choice and go with it and we’ll see what happens. And whatever their instinct is about the part will probably teach us something about what’s on the page. So that can be helpful. I will say if you’re doing a reading in front of people and there’s no rehearsal, maybe read the play first. 

BMH: I would assume that even for your reading series your actors get the play in advance.

JR: They do. I can’t promise that they always read it in advance, but they always get it. But we’ve certainly had occasions where halfway through you see someone going Ohhhhhh, as in they don’t know the twist that’s coming yet.

BMH: Sometimes an actor is hired for a reading of a new play that would never be the right type for the full production for the reading, is that true at Roundabout?

JR: For us it’s rare because we have access to a lot of actors. We try not to do what I call “unproductive readings.” I like to do something that is always going to move the process forward, but every playwright’s process is different. We’ve certainly done the thing where the playwright is not ready to attach a director to the piece and just needs to hear it out loud for the first time, and that’s the case where we don’t need to get the casting office involved. The writer and I will call in some people we know and we’ll just sit around the table and very often those people are intentionally the wrong type so that they know they’re not getting the part later down the line. You’re here because you’re a smart actor and you’re helpful to be in the room and we don’t want you to feel like we’re rejecting you. This is not an audition, this is just to help the process. But most readings we really are trying to cast who we cast.

BMH: I think it’s very kind of you to say you’re not trying to lead actors on, because I’ve always kind of felt also that actors who work in new plays understand a reading doesn’t mean you’re getting your Broadway break.

Bad JewsRoundabout Underground

Tracee Chimo and Michael Zegen in Bad Jews (Photo by Joan Marcus)

JR: Yeah, we’re using readings to figure stuff out. And we’ve done readings for plays where we say Oh we cast the mother as 60 when maybe the woman should really be 45 and that changes everything from there. Sometimes that happens, and you don’t know that until you’re in the room. But we do really try. When you’re in a company like Roundabout, where Todd is always saying there’s not a whole lot of Rep left in this country, and so companies like ours are really as close as you’re going to get to that, because we do have a lot of the same artists come back over and over again. And so when you have this family of artists, the last thing you want to do is lead people on in a way you can’t fulfill later.

BMH: When you see actors coming in for Underground auditions is there anything different you think they need to bring to the table as opposed to if they’re going to a different type of audition?

JR: Just being able to take an adjustment, because guess what: the play’s going to change. So two things: you have to be able to respond to the director in the room because that’s important, and as the script changes, things about your character are going to change, so you have to be malleable.

The other thing is don’t paraphrase on a new play. It’s one of those things where people think they don’t have to respect the text the same way with a new play that they would with a classic and I’ve yet to sit in a room with a playwright next to me who didn’t freak out when the paraphraser left. They’re not going to hire that actor. They want somebody who cares about their text. And it’s one thing when you go in under-prepared, fine. People can walk in the room and say I just got this 24 hours ago, I haven’t had time, but I want to be off the page so I’m probably gonna paraphrase a little, great. But if you don’t give us the context it just feels like you don’t think the words really matter. I’ve had people basically talk their way out of a job that way.


Chris Stack and Mamie Gummer in Ugly Lies the Bone (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Hannah Herbert-Hunt (HHH): What are some of the qualities a writer may have that make you think they’ll have promise in the future?

JR: Mostly it’s making sure you’re not just getting a fluke play. Generally I’ll have read more than one piece from a person before we end up putting them in the Underground. It’s also just an aesthetic where I want to say to you Hey you’re writing a play that we can do in this Black Box right now. Are you going to write a play that I can put in a 400-seat proscenium in front of our subscribers two or three years from now? Are they going to grow into a “Roundabout Writer?” My main goal is to find people who are going to continue with us.

BMH: If you were to write a syllabus for training actors in new play development, what are three things you would put on it?

JR: I would say to read something that is super traditional in a fresh voice, read something that is super non-traditional (meaning form or content), and make sure you’re actually looking at comedy. I mean teaching people how to land a joke can really kill a new play. Everybody focuses on dramas, and yes I get more dramas submitted to me for sure and it is a battle, but guess what? People like watching comedies, so hopefully people will keep writing some, which means people need to know how to act them.

JILL RAFSON is the Director of New Play Development at Roundabout Theatre Company, where she also serves as Associate Producer for Roundabout Underground. Jill has worked with The Broadway League, New York City Center, and ART/NY and has been a Dramaturg and member of the Artistic Council for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, in addition to reading scripts for Vineyard Theatre and Deutsch/Open City Films. Jill is a Dramaturg for rising theater company CollaborationTown and for the Flea Theatre’s 50-playwright project, The Mysteries. She has served as script consultant for “The Importance of Being Earnest HD” (screened worldwide), lectured for the Commercial Theatre Institute and guest blogged for World Theater Day. She is a nominator for Off-Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Awards, a member of NYFA’s Emerging Arts Leaders program, and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

Interview with Gary Garrison


Playwright Gary Garrison

I first met Gary when my good friend and collaborator M. Bevin O’Gara cast me in the Boston Theater Marathon 10-Minute play Verticals and Horizontals directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Little did I know, Gary and I would meet many years later in NY and this play would reoccur in my life over the following years.


Brooke M. Haney (BMH): When I worked with you at NYU in the playwriting program, you would bring in a director and actor to work with your students; what do you think the value was for the students in having both an actor and a director look at their plays?

Gary Garrison (GG): With a director you have to learn how to negotiate a relationship that is advantageous to the work that’s being done. For example, how do I sit in the room? How do you want me in the room? How do you see the writer in the room? What do you see as the writer’s position in the process? There’s that kind of negotiation between writer and director.

And actors become the articulation of the director’s vision of how he or she likes to work. You will have one director say I like to work with a writer and the actors all together, all at the same time, all in one stroke. And there are some directors that say, “I’m gonna talk to you (the writer), I want an understanding of what you are trying to achieve, what you want, need, desire, etc… Now I’m gonna go translate that to the actors. And you can witness, and respond.” So there’s a simultaneous approach, and then a kind of compartmentalized approach.

I don’t think either is right or wrong.

BMH: When you work as a playwright do you like to be in the room all the time?

GG: I don’t like to be in the room. I’m a control freak. I started out as an actor, so I know what it should be, so I want you to get there fast. So get to where I see it, and then let’s go further. And that’s not fair to the actors. It took me you know, 6 months to 2 years to write this story, and it’s not fair to expect that of the actors, you know they’re not a chip in your brain. They don’t know what you know, they have to discover it on their own and you have to allow them that discovery. And I found that I am impatient to watch their discovery, because I know what it should be, I think. That could just be my arrogance or assumptions, but it’s better that I come and talk, then you go have your process and bring me in whenever you have questions. I don’t need to witness the discovery, I need to witness a little bit further into the development.

BMH: At the reading phase of new play development, what are the things you need most from an actor in knowing where your play is at?


GG: For me, I want you to make a big bold choice, then we’ll talk about if you’re in the ballpark with that choice. Because you know time is precious, so there’s no time for your discovery. Your discovery is at home, eating soup, with your cat, it’s not in the rehearsal room. Because we don’t have any time. You come loaded and I will tell you whether or not you have the right ammo in that gun or not.

BMH: I know Stephen Karam, in Speech and Debate, a play I teach from all the time,  has a note to actors and directors that specifies that the play isn’t meant to be super broad, it’s meant to be grounded and that the actors should heed that. Do you think there’s a value in putting that in a script, as a playwright?

GG: I mean there’s a part of me that thinks you shouldn’t have to do that but there’s also a part that believes you should. You know it’s the same thing as saying, “he’s Italian I’d really like an Italian accent.” It has an influence on the rhythm and the wording of the place. As opposed to just the casual reference that he’s Italian. Since so much of our careers happen when we aren’t present, the clearer and more specific I can be with the writing and stage directions…

BMH: If you’ve asked an actor to do an accent for a workshop and they know they aren’t great at it, do you have feelings on what would be more beneficial for you?

GG: I just wrote a play that has an English woman in it from a very specific part of England, and it is not only where she’s from, it’s part of her moral code. Not only do they sound a certain way, they talk a certain way. And if that actress can’t nail the accent, she’s not telling the story of that character. Or, there are some cases where you can say “He’s from London, who gives a shit?” Sometimes it’s not integral to the story and in that case I wouldn’t care.

verticals and horizontals

Hannah Herbert-Hunt (HHH): How do you see the actor’s involvement in the collaborative and feedback process?

GG: I think actors are indispensable to this process, and they’re not thanked enough. They’re not just tools of an expression, they are collaborative artists that should be acknowledged for their collaboration. They’re not puppets is what I’m trying to say. Of course you enjoy that process and you love learning how to inhabit a character, that’s all great fun: it’s play!

My work would never have improved without the help of intuitive actors, I don’t care what kind of director I have. This isn’t to say that actor’s don’t miss the mark sometimes, of course they do, they’re not robots. They are people who are hungry, who broke up with their boyfriend last night, whose mother died the week before, who are dealing with issues of sobriety, I don’t know what it happens to be but they are people.

BMH: Part of that is also on the actor to learn to communicate with as many people as possible, to learn to take in a particular type of communication and figure out how to translate in themselves to what that means to them. That’s an important part of our job.

GG: Here’s where I think we fall down in the actor’s education in this country: they’re not taught how to really walk into an original work.

BMH: If you were to write the syllabus for that class, what kinds of things would you teach?

GG: Cold reading. Bold choices. It would have to be a scene study in that class to some degree, because you’d have to analyze that text when you don’t have a frame of reference. You have to make a choice off of a cold script in an audition or a callback: you have to be able to sight read. And you have to sight read with accuracy. There are too many people who can do it really well, who can scan and rarely miss a word. And then there are people who butcher the thing as they can, transposing and dropping words: that’s the quickest way to become unemployed if the writers are around.


I would be in real favor of putting something into rehearsal with the actors in the room with something that’s under-written and something that’s over-written and teach and talk about how the actors navigate those scripts. It’s the difference between something that is so prescribed where there’s little to no interpretation and then there’s something that’s so underdeveloped you could go in 100 different directions.

BMH: When you are working with actors at any phase, how much do you want them to be the advocate of their character? For example, where they come in and say “okay everything makes sense to me but this one moment, what was your intention?”

GG: Absolutely, right on. Ultimately the actors are the ones standing on that stage with the lights on their face. They are the ones carrying the character onstage in front of a live audience, it’s not me, I sitting in the back somewhere. They have to make sense of it for their safety and well being. At some point the actor’s should become the authority of that character, at least in that moment and the writer needs to shut the fuck up.

BMH: Do you appreciate or dislike actors asking for a line back that you’ve cut or asking to cut a line?

GG: I’ll always consider anything someone says, but it’s not a given. Writers forget they have this kind of glorious authority to say no. I usually ask why someone is asking the question, because I’m curious to know the reason behind why they want it. I think that what I do is irrefutable as the writer, what you do is irrefutable as the actor. So I think there’s nothing but love here, I don’t hold my position any higher than you should hold your position; we’re in it together.

BMH: What’s the question I haven’t asked that I shouldn’t have asked?

GG: Here’s a question, it’s not for us, but I’m going to put it into the universe: There’s something going on in American theatre and it’s been going on for a while, it’s devised theatre. When actors help create and there’s an author in the room and you have to ask: who’s responsible for what? It gets really muddy really quick, unless there are ground rules, and ground rules are usually set by the theatre company and not the creative team. How the writer functions in that environment is different from how a writer functions in a traditional environment, same goes for the actor. Some actors are helping write the script, some are not, some are just improvising. It’s crazy and we need to get ahead of this process and figure out what are the ground rules and best practices for creating this so that everyone feels safe, appreciated, supported, respected, and that everyone feels they have contributed whatever they have and that their contribution is acknowledged.

BMH: Yeah the contribution acknowledgement is an interesting thing because I have worked in devised work where I don’t get any kind of a writing credit, I just get to perform it later. And I’ll think “you know I really did help write that, in some ways.”

GG: Or in significant ways. In some ways where it was just improvised and then I went and wrote something and brought it back to you. And then you might think, “But those were my words, you helped create that scene, you transcribed that, did we create this together?” I don’t know the answer to these questions because they are complicated but I do know that in the American theatre we better start paying attention to it. 

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GARY GARRISON is the Executive Director of the Dramatist Guild of America. Prior to his work at the Guild, Garrison filled the posts of Artistic Director, Producer and full‑time faculty member in the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Garrison’s plays include Ties That Bind, Skirting the Issue, Caught Without Candy, Game On, The Sweep, Verticals and Horizontals, Storm on Storm, Crater, Old Soles, Padding The Wagon, Rug Store Cowboy, Cherry Reds, Gawk, Oh Messiah Me, We Make A Wall, The Big Fat Naked Truth, Scream With Laughter, Smoothness With Cool, Empty Rooms, Does Anybody Want A Miss Cow Bayou? and When A Diva Dreams. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, The Playwright’s Survival Guide: Keeping the Drama in Your Work and Out of Your Life, Perfect Ten: Writing and Producing the Ten‑Minute Play, A More Perfect Ten and two volumes of Monologues for Men by Men. He is on the Tony Administration Committee for the Tony Awards and the program director for the Summer Playwriting Intensive for the Kennedy Center. In April of 2014, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts instituted the National Gary Garrison Ten-Minute Play Award given to the best ten-minute play written by a dramatist.

Interview with Stan Richardson


Playwright Stan Richardson

The first Representatives Show I saw, The Rakes: An Introduction, was in 2012. I was hooked. I’ve seen every show of theirs since and even had the extreme pleasure of acting in their Summer 2015 show, Cut The Shit. Stan Richardson is the playwright of this collaborative team which includes actor Matt Steiner and often involves productions in unique spaces, like apartments, churches or a nail salon. Their current production, The Rakes Die, opens Thursday March 24th and runs through April 3rd.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH): How did you and Steiner start working together, and what was it about Steiner that drew you to think “he is the actor that I’m going to write for, for years?

Stan Richardson (SR): He auditioned for a play of mine at Dixon Place. He came in and read like a five second scene and the way that the words came out of his mouth, his cadence’s, just perfectly matched the sort of everyman cadence of my plays. I don’t know how to characterize it, but there’s a standard way, that’s maybe just how I speak, and then a bunch of deviations, but they all come back to this way of speaking that is effortless to me. I hadn’t had this experience before of this perfect match. It wasn’t that he was exactly what I had expected, but that he did something more interesting than what I had expected.

BMH: In my personal experience with The Reps, there are two different ways you work on play:: Workshop Pages and World Premieres. Is there anything else you deal with or are those the two main things?

SR: Veritas would be the only exception to that, with a remount.


Matt Steiner and John Garret Greer in Veritas. Photo: Joshua Paul Johnson

BMH: What’s the best thing an actor can do in the “workshopping pages” part of the process?

SR: I guess they can relax. We ask people to come in usually because we already know they are talented and interesting. Part of the experience of workshopping pages, is people being willing to share their experience of those pages and how they relate to the World as they see it. I have a hard time when actors seem “on” in a professional sense. Because I sort of immediately feel that I don’t know how to help them, because really we are just a bunch of people sitting around drinking wine with these very uneven pages. So when people come in with a professionalism that is above and beyond what you would do when you are visiting someone’s house – what I really want people to do is come over as if they are coming to dinner. You can just read in the moment and don’t worry about how you are coming across. Yes, I generated this but I am not the authority behind it, and you are not the authority behind it, none of us are the authority. Basically, until the play is fully written, people are both the artists interpreting this and witnesses to it. But then for the bulk of the rehearsal process they are collaborators.

BMH: What type of feedback do you like to hear from the actors in the discussion part of the workshopping pages process?

SR: I really enjoy when people are both actors and storytellers. So, there’s the double awareness of the fact that you have to simulate this experience, but you are also a storyteller so you can’t get lost in your performance. You have to always be in a private moment and a public moment at the same time. And, I think that can be hard; people a lot of the time are much more drawn to performance or pain. There’s something really nice about somebody coming in and both inhabiting this character, but also bringing themselves. Come in with all of your talents and limitations, don’t try to hide it.


Meg McQuillan and Caitrin Kelly in The Rakes: an Introduction. Photo: Dorvit Avganim

BMH: What are the most useful things an actor can do in the rehearsal process for the World Premiere?

SR: (Have) a sense of humor. Because, I go into any production assuming there will be a lot that goes wrong, that won’t be ideal. And so for people to go into accepting every complication, and having the grace to say “Okay now we’re doing this instead” that’s great because I’m not always that way so it’s a really great thing to have others be more chilled out than I am. I call it a sense of humor, but maybe it’s flexibility.

A self-possession is also a really important thing, to not be afraid to speak up, but also realizing that most of the time if we can not process too much, that’s probably better.

BMH: The rehearsal process for Reps show are very brief.

SR: There’s something I really like about being in front of an audience before we’re ready. The technical elements should obviously be worked out before, whether they be sound cues or knowing your lines. But in terms of choices being calcified or blocking being fully set, it works to present before assumptions are made.

BMH: There are a couple of times during Cut The Shit where a line that I was attached to would be cut and I would ask for it back. How many times can an actor ask for a line back before you tell them to back off?


Zachary Clark and Brooke M. Haney in Cut the Shit. Photo: Jan Wandrag

SR: If someone remembers a line from a previous version that’s usually a really good thing. So I take that very seriously and usually I will reinstate it. Usually people remember things because it was valuable somehow. Maybe that line wasn’t 1000% essential in the dramaturgy in some sense, but it is useful for the actor and becomes a step for them. Usually the actors I work with are very smart about the lines they want to bring back. They usually want lines because they are useful, they provide a build, or because they are just fucking funny, which I might have forgotten about. I don’t often have someone say “My character wouldn’t do this” because I think that’s something we’ve learned not to say very early on.

Hannah Herbert-Hunt (HHH): When you are hearing an actor read the lines for the first time and you encounter them saying a line different from the way you had envisioned it when you wrote it, do you most often find yourself wanting to correct them or liking their interpretation better?

SR: I encounter my own personal difficulty with how someone interprets the line less and less. Because if it’s not a matter of just making sense, then it’s a piece of the actor’s interpretation of the role. Usually their choice is more interesting than what I would have imagined. I like the idea that even after I’ve watched somebody with the “perfect” performance in this role, I also know that somebody else will pick it up later and do something different with that. I used to guide a lot more with my punctuation and/or italicizing but I don’t do that as much now because I think there is always a compelling argument for why a line could be said differently.

BMH: What advice do you have for an actor going through the casting process?

SR: The reasons you might be right for something can be really weird and the reasons you might be wrong for something can be completely arbitrary, but there’s so much that factors into casting that has nothing to do with talent. Part of what works really well with Steiner is that he can be an everyman when I want him to be, but he changes as a person a lot, and since he’s my best friend I witness those changes and the things that obsess him. When I’m writing for people who I know are going to be in the show, in some ways I’m writing for our shadow-selves. It’s very personal and obviously I want the roles to be repeated by others. I’m the sole author of the plays, but they are all touched by human hands, nothing that I do comes out of nowhere.

STAN RICHARSON is a Playwright and Director from St. Louis. A graduate of Tisch School of the Arts and Edward Albee’s Playwrights Workshop in Houston, TX, Stan’s plays, which include Veritas, The Children (with composer Hal Goldberg), wHormone, and The Tale of the Good Whistleblower of Chaillot’s Caucasian Mother and Her Other Children of a Lesser Marriage Chalk Circle (with composer Rachel Peters), have been developed at such venues as Second Stage, Ars Nova, Classic Stage Company, Dixon Place, PS122, The Brick Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Interview with Mark Brown

Playwright Mark Brown

Playwright Mark Brown

I met Mark Brown at Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s PlayFest: The Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays, in 2011. We were doing a Workshop of his new play, Don Quixote – The Reckoning and he was our Key Note Speaker for the event. Previously, I had enjoyed his play The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge at Orlando Shakes in 2008. He has also written China – The Whole Enchilada and Around the World in 80 Days. I was very excited when Mark agreed to talk to me about how Actors have influenced his work.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH): What traits to some of your favorite Actors have that really help you when you’re working on a new play?

Mark Brown (MB): Some good Actors when I give them a line, they will ad lib a little or riff on it. I’ll hear something good and write it down. Some will find a line that is difficult and tell me they aren’t sure if it will work. If I think it’s a mediocre line, I’ll cut it. If I think it’s good, I’ll ask them to try it for a few more days. A good Actor will struggle with it for a few more days, and often have a break through.

BMH: What are the best things an Actor can do to help your process in a workshop?

MB: Be fast on their feet. Get off the page quickly, and make strong full choices. I do a lot of rewriting, so it’s great when an Actor can forget the last draft, and jump forward with a new draft immediately. It’s really helpful when he or she says yes to any direction and goes full-out, so that the Playwright can see a choice at it’s full potential.

BMH: What are other tips you would give actors who are working on a new play?

MB: Don’t have an ego and trust the Playwright. I try to build a relationship with Actors who I work with a lot. I find that they trust that I’m not going to put them out there and make them look stupid. In return they have the attitude: I’ll do whatever you ask so you can see it, the best that I can.

Desiree Bacala, Mark Brown and Ron Schneider in The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo by Tony Firriolo

BMH: Is there any communication that you and Jim (Helsinger, Director of Don Quixote) set up in the rehearsal room?

MB: Jim has always done a really great job of mediating communication. One thing he always says that I find helpful is that he encourages the actors to feel free to give suggestions without taking ownership. He says that they shouldn’t expect to get anything for it. Other than their name in the published script possibly, but they aren’t trying to be Playwrights and get a percentage of the revenue from the show.

Interview with Kathleen Cahill

Playwright Kathleen Cahill

I met Kathleen when she came to Orlando to see the Orlando Shakes production of her play Charm. I am understudying the main character Margaret and was very excited to have coffee with Kathleen and learn a little more about her.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH):  Tell me a little about your process as a playwright.

Kathleen Cahill (KC): Finding my blood… playwrighting is finding my blood, the veins and capillaries are like rivers and tributaries of memory, all the things I ever saw, or ever learned, or felt, all the people I ever knew, plus all that I’m learning and feeling at the moment, every day.  When I start thinking about writing a play, everything becomes attached to it.   I get a lot of ideas when I’m taking a walk.  Walking seems to be essential to the process. And I start writing down whatever comes, even if I don’t know where it’s going to fit, or if it’s going to fit anywhere.  The process of writing a play is wonderful because my life becomes much more intense.

BMH:  For you, as a Playwright, what is the most valuable part of the new works process? Reading, Workshop, or World Premiere? Why?

Kathleen Cahill (KC): Hearing it is everything.  Hearing it and hearing it and hearing it. The play I just wrote (COURSE 86B IN THE CATALOGUE ) I first read out loud to my husband, the whole play, twice.  And I learned a few interesting things.  Then I had a reading in my house and I learned some more, and then I had a public reading, where I learned that the audience liked the play.  Which was heartening. Table readings are always helpful, but workshops are better because the actors can get into it a little bit so there’s more to hear.

Katherine Michelle Tanner (Margaret Fuller) and Walter Kmiec (Count O). Photo by Tony Firriolo.

Rehearsals are the best. It’s like being in a creative factory turning out ideas.  The world premiere is very exciting of course, but its also kind of a let down, because the play has become “a thing,”  and for awhile, the process is over.

BMH:  When you go into rehearsal for one of your shows in one of these capacities, what is the best thing an actor can do to help you?

Kathleen Cahill (KC): To commit and to be open.

BMH: How much does one of your plays tend to change from before a Reading to the World Premiere?

BMH: I noticed that several of your plays seem to have an influence from Opera. What is it about Opera that inspires you?

Kathleen Cahill (KC): I come from an opera/ musical theatre background.  I went to NYU Grad School in their musical theatre program.  There’s magic in music and I hope some of that sense of magic comes into my plays.  The intention of both opera and musical theatre is to create a lift.   When it works, it’s thrilling. And beautiful.  And unrealistic.  And true.  I like thrilling, beautiful, unrealistic and true. It suits me.

BMH:  What do you see as the Actor’s role in developing new plays?

Katherine Michelle Tanner (Margaret Fuller) and Allison DeCaro (Old Woman). Photo by Tony Firriolo.

Kathleen Cahill (KC): The actors role in ANY play is to be totally brave and not boring.  That’s my job too. When we can work together, openly, wow.  It’s one of the most exiting experiences in life.

BMH:  Are there any particular skills that you think are important to cultivate if you are an Actor interested in working on new plays?

Kathleen Cahill (KC): I guess I don’t think actors should limit themselves to new plays.  Acting is acting. I think the idea of “creating a role” is phony.  Good acting is always about  creating the role.  But I do know that actors bring a treasure into the rehearsal room. Sometimes it’s a buried treasure, that we have to search for.

BMH:  Are there specific communication styles or techniques that you find helpful in the rehearsal room?

Kathleen Cahill (KC): Clear communication.  I’m afraid I’m a words person.  If something can be put into words, it’s a big help to me.

Charm runs thru April 17, 2011 at Orlando Shakes. Tickets can be found here.
More info on Kathleen Cahill can be found on her website here.

Interview with Andrew Russell and Sonya Schneider, Director and Playwright of THE THIN PLACE

I was in Seattle for the summer working for Last Leaf Productions on The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had the wonderful opportunity to see Intiman Theatre’s production of The Thin Place. I was moved by the production and excited about the process that must have occurred in the unique way in which this play was devised.I was thrilled with both Andrew Russell, the Director, and Sonya Schneider, the Playwright, agreed to talk with me.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH): I understand that The Thin Place was conceived from interviews done by Marcie Sillman. How was that different than a regular process?

Andrew Russell (AR): It wasn’t the typical sitting alone at a computer. Sonya really had to do justice to 15 interviews, a set that she knew she had, and an actor she was writing for.

Sonya Schneider (SS): I admitted to Andrew that I was terrified, but instead of considering that an obstacle, he admitted that he was terrified too.

BMH: It sounds like you guys were a great team.

SS: There were so many incredible people working on it. It was amazing.

BMH: I’m curious how Gbenga Akinnagbe, as the actor, influenced the script or your process.

SS: I think he influenced it very much. Everything from his sex, his race, his voice, his background – all of that – I couldn’t help but consider that as I was writing, and as we were shaping the narrative.

Having him in the room for the first of two workshops, I think it was very influential: to see what he jumped into immediately, what seemed foreign to him.

Gbenga Akinnagbe in The Thin Place at Intiman

BMH: What were things Gbenga did that were helpful to you both in your different capacities?

AR: He was intelligently challenging in a really useful way. He would try everything, but if it wasn’t working, he would let you know. Some actors will show you exactly what you want with out anything underneath it, and then some actor’s can’t do it until it really feels genuine, and Gbenga is that kind. So, we could tell pretty quickly what would definitely work and what wouldn’t. This is very useful in a new work.

SS: And he was immediately intrigued by particular characters. He would ask to see more about those characters. So, Andrew and I would examine them further. I’ve never seen an actor grow in the way that he did. Through the whole process, he reinvented himself so much. Also, he came in with so little prejudice around the piece, maybe because there wasn’t a script at the beginning.

Andrew worked with him really, really well. They found a really good vocabulary. And one day, Andrew decided that Gbenga had to take it and it was right around the same time that Gbenga was like, “I have to take it.” The timing felt right. It was great.

AR: And it’s funny how that ownership totally shifted.

SS: I think it was empowering for Gbenga to be there as it was being built. There is something really unique in new work. There are some really deep connections you’re forming with your characters, with your team, your designers, your director. And then the stakes are so high, for everybody, but in theatre that’s a good thing.

BMH: Where is that balance between being the challenging actor? When do I try to make the words work as they are, and when do I say, they aren’t working for me, can we try this instead?

AR: Sometimes the playwright will say, I’m changing that, it’s ju

st not working and the actor will say, just give me some time, I can make that work. And I’ve gone through moments when the actor says this isn’t working, can we change it. I think it comes down to whether or not there is someone who can own it. If the playwright

The Thin Place at Intiman

can say I really believe in this, or if the actor says I’m really behind this moment, you keep it.

But if you encounter a problem and no one really knows why it’s there, then that’s the kind of time that we trust ourselves that it isn’t working. So, you have to kind of give it a chance.

BMH: It seems like such and amazing project to have the opportunity to be a part of.

AR: I was so excited to talk to you, because it was such a personal process.

BMH: And, I think it was pretty personal for the audience too.

AR: One audience member told me she hated it. And I said that was too bad, but okay. Then she said that she hated it, but she talked about it for five hours afterward with her husband. And I thought: “that’s great.” I’d rather you hate it if it means you talk about it afterward!

BMH: Right? Isn’t that what we want good theatre to do?

Interview conducted July 2010.

Interview with Sean Daniels

Sean Daniels Associate Artistic Director of Actor's Theatre of Louisville

Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been a bit enamored of Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and their great dedication to new play development. I contacted Sean Daniels, Associate Artistic Director of ATL, because I knew that he has a personal tie to new play development as well.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH): Why Does Actor’s Theatre of Louisville (ATL) have such a commitment to new works, and what does that commitment look like?

Sean Daniels (SD): We support new works by producing new plays. It’s important because Theatre is supposed to be a conversation with the audience about what is going on right. It feels  a little antique and precious when you only produce theatre from the 50’s and 60’s. We’re a culture obsessed with what is new and happening, and these are the writers of out time. ATL chooses to nurture them.

ROCK AND ROLL: THE REUNINON TOUR @ Actor's Theatre of Louisville directed by Sean Daniels (co-creator)

BMH: Why do you think new works are so risky?

SD: Theatre frames it as risky, music frames it as essential. The risk level changes where you live as well. For example, in New York there is a hunger for new things. Of course it is not just marketing, but training the audience. Music has done that, through the decades.

BMH: What is the value of the actor apprentice program at ATL?

SD: It is part of our duty to train the next generation of artists and administrators. We can trade them expertise and experience for work. Also, it’s great to have 40 new young people running around the building; makes a great energy.

MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR @ Cal Shakes directed by Sean Daniels

BMH: What is the actor’s role in developing new works?

SD: In a workshop, you can use a smart actor who might not be perfect for the part. The goal is to find what is working and what is not working. Ii is important not to cover up the flaws. In Production, everything is product oriented. We do what we can do to get this show in the best place possible. Of course, this is just one way. There are lots of different models for doing it.

Sean Daniels is in his 4th year as the Associate Artistic Director of Actors Theater of Louisville He is the former Associate Artistic Director/Resident Director of the California Shakespeare Theater and before that spent a decade as the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Dad’s Garage Theater Company in Atlanta, Ga. He is also an Associate Artist of the Geva Theater Center in Rochester, NY. Has also directed for Cleveland Playhouse, Alliance Theater, Neo-Futurists, Crowded Fire and developed work with the O’Neill,
Playlabs, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Magic Theater, Kennedy Center, and others.

Directing highlights: Brink! (2009 Humana), Hedwig and The Angry Inch, Rock and Roll: The Reunion Tour (also co-creator), 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, All Hail Hurricane Gordo (2008 Humana), O Happy Day and Out Of The Trees (both world premieres by former Monty Python member Graham Chapman), and Cannibal! The Musical (world premiere by “South Park” creator Trey Parker). He was named twice named “Best Director” in Atlanta and the Bay Area. American Theater has named him ““One Of 7 People Reshaping And Revitalizing The American Musical” and “ One of the top fifteen up & coming artists in the U.S., whose work will be transforming America’s stages for decades to come.”

Interview conducted Summer 2009.