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Programming with Personality

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Clarence Coo talking to actors

Each program at The Lark, like each playwright, has its own personality. Some of this has to do with the length of the program, (Playwrights’ Week will inevitably be intensive), whether the program is public facing, (a Roundtable does not feel like a Studio Retreat), or the make-up of participants (different people are different, which is wonderful)! A program’s personality varies from year to year, rendition to rendition, and artist to artist. But, regardless, there is always a unique and specific tone that can be felt.

This May, The Lark presented its annual Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop Reading Series, the culminating, week-long event after nine months of workshops for five fellows. The group included playwrights Clarence Coo, Martyna Majok, Robert Askins, Jeff Augustin, and Lucy Thurber (who chose not to participate in the reading series, as she was busy getting married).

Clarence Coo and Jesse Jou
Clarence Coo and director Jesse Jou in rehearsal for CHAPTERS OF A FLOATING LIFE
There is one word that jumps out in describing the personality of this year’s program, and that word is “comfortable.” The idea of a comfortable process may hardly seem unique within the scope of an organization dedicated to supporting playwrights. However, the design of the Workshop creates a comradery that permeates the event, and while sitting in the BareBones Studio, it quickly became apparent that everyone – from the artists and audiences to administrators and Arthur Kopits – was at ease.

Lloyd Suh hugging an actor
One element of the program that largely contributed to its feeling of comfort was its marathon nature. These playwrights had been in the same workshop for nine months – talking, writing, and playing. They were on the same deadlines, working with the same actors and the same mentors, ultimately allowing them to forge a connection that fed the energy of their rehearsals, and powered the pages they produced. The people fuel this program. Ask the playwrights. When Jeff and Martyna were asked to describe the best part of the workshop, they independently and respectively answered “The People” and “Good People.” A sure sign of the program’s synchronicity.

Andrea Hiebler hugging Clarence Coo
Most importantly, in becoming comfortable with one another, the writers were able to step out of their comfort zones. “The fact we were always guaranteed a slot to bring in pages, and we only had to bring in however much we wanted . . . it made taking a risk more . . . welcoming,” said Martyna. “It didn’t feel like your ‘one chance to present.’ If it didn’t work, you could try again next time.” In essence, the duration of the program and the consistency with which the writers met enabled them to experiment with their writing, and this experimentation allowed them to boldly take on challenging themes and scenes throughout their plays.

Watching the playwrights tackle these risky moments in front of us all was exhilarating in a way only work in progress could be. In the case of Clarence’s Chapters of a Floating Life, it was exhilarating to see scenes between characters juxtaposed and interplayed with descriptions of Chinese characters. In Queens, Martyna grappled with epic, interwoven stories that crossed oceans, states, and boroughs. Robert’s Prosthesis dealt with a bloody intersection of technology, the human body, and the burden of parenting. And Jeff’s Untitled New England Play presented a deeply personal work that tackled the sense of a region through a specific family’s story.

Despite the risks they were taking in their work, on the nights of their readings the comfort of the writers was thoroughly evidenced by the way each of them remained unabashedly in process. Every Lark reading is preceded by a curtain speech (delivered by Andrea Hiebler if you’re lucky) during which the audience is reminded they are not hearing a performance, but have rather been invited into the next phase of a rehearsal process. However, not every reading owns this premise quite so boldly as these four Workshop readings did.  In the case of Chapters of a Floating Life, Untitled…, and Queens, simple descriptions of unwritten or unfinished scenes were included and read aloud by the actors. Martyna’s reading even concluded with the end of Act One, and a lingering “to be continued.” But perhaps the week’s clearest example of owning an artistic process took place during Prosthesis, when playwright Robert Askins stood up a little more than an hour into the reading, announced himself as the artist, and declared the night’s reading complete.

Robert Askins
Robert Askins
That individual playwright, at that specific place in his process, had a particular reason for making the decision he did, and it is in the name of embracing those particulars The Lark’s programming is intentionally varied. Attending these readings provided a glimpse into the way the Workshop enabled the artists to approach their work in a challenging, yet supportive environment over the course of their fellowship. And leaning back in my chair, surrounded by wonderful artists, administrators, and audience members, and hearing these wonderful plays-in-process read aloud, the program’s personality permeated the room. It was a comfortable week at The Lark.

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