Go Deeper

TONIGHT: Anonymous Theatre Exposes Itself to Raise Money for PDC

Posted August 9th, 2010

You’re an actor. You’re asked to act in a new play. You’re given the full script. But all you know about its creation is that it has more than one writer, local playwrights whom you may or may not know, whose work you may or may not like, but whose names you’re not given. Your only rehearsals are for your lines, and you rehearse them only with the director, one-on-one.

You do not know who your fellow actors are, until they step out of the audience and join you on stage.

Welcome to Anonymous Theatre.

“It’s fun to watch the train wreck,” says Richard Kotulski, “but it’s even more fun to be a part of it.”

After the jump: playwrights are sadistic, and Uncle Vanya meets Viola.

Richard was first exposed to the idea of anonymous theater in Portland. A group of theater students from Brown University had moved there en masse, and Richard saw three anonymous productions there, including The Importance of Being Earnest, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Richard came to Philadelphia to direct a production of Cabaret at the University of Pennsylvania. Like many theater professionals in Philadelphia, he wears many hats—he’s currently the casting director at Wilma—but he considers himself a playwright.

“I got involved with PDC [Philadelphia Dramatist’s Center]” after moving to Philadelphia, Richard says. “In my first meeting with Wally [Zialcita, PDC’s director], we talked about a fundraiser of some sort. Wally loves stuff that pushes the bounds of theater.”

A fundraiser for PDC, the first year of anonymous theater offered Under the Gaslight, the play that made famous the cliche of the villain tying a woman to the railroad tracks. The second year, they offered One at Last, a 19th-century American play with over twenty characters.

“Last year,” Richard says, “we decided to do something that hewed closer to our mission. We decided to add a play anonymously written.”

That first original anonymous work, according to Richard, was inspired by the plays of Tennessee Williams. This year, they play is about the confluence of two secret performances of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. And the worlds of the two plays collide.

“You get to really see what goes into making a piece of theater,” Richard says. “The actors don’t rehearse with one another, so they don’t always have their lines down perfectly.”

And to make their jobs harder, the playwrights seem to look at actors for this type of show even more as playthings than they usually do.

“One of the playwrights,” Richard says, “had the sadistic idea of loading the play with music. There’s lots of music in Twelfth Night, the guitar from Vanya. I think we’ll have seven amps on stage.”

Working with the music was a special challenge, according to director Carol Laratonda.

“Vocal arrangements don’t just happen,” Carol says, so got some actors to record the music, and brought the recordings to the one-on-one rehearsals of other actors. But they still don’t know who’s who.

Another playwright, whom I’ll call Dana Scully, also has tried to make the actors’ jobs a bit more challenging.

“I put a lot of things that are hard to do—go make out with him, go sing with them. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that! But Philly actors are up for it,” Agent Scully says.

But the playwrights have their own challenges as well, according to Agent Scully.

“You have to drop what you feel like doing, and deal with what is,” says Agent Scully. “You have to say ‘yes, and . . .’ to the givens that you’re given, and respond creatively to both Vanya and Twelfth Night.”

After the drafts of the script were complete, Agent Scully says that Carol, the director, had some problems with its lack of dramatic action.

“The director wanted less of a surreal journey,” says Agent Scully.

For her part, Carol says she got a little lost on the way through the first draft, trying to find the through line for each character.

“There not a lot of subtext in the play,” Carol says, “so the objectives are at the forefront of what they’re doing. The interpretation is going to be found in what actors give [the characters]. There may not be a lot of subtext, but we’re playing with characterization.

“The only background info is the plays themselves,” she says, “and everybody looks at those characters differently.”

The intersecting worlds of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night may not be quite as odd as it seems at first blush.

“I was really interested in where these characters are yearning for slightly similar things. Using real text from Twelfth Night, and a character from Uncle Vanya falls in love with [a character from the other play],” Agent Scully says.

“The themes of misdirected love are big there,” Richard says. “What if Uncle Vanya and Viola meet? What does that look like?”

“There are so many characters that love the wrong person in these plays,” Agent Scully says. “Just the act of wanting something you can’t have, on stage with somebody who wants that too, can create a kind of harmony.”

Anonymous Theatre, a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Dramatists Center, reveals its secrets tonight for one night only at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. 7:30 pm, $16 in advance at or $20 at the door.

–Nicholas Gilewicz