Go Deeper

The Writer’s Room

Posted May 16th, 2012

Prarthana Jayaram is a Philly-based writer and regular Festival Blog contributor.

Shakespeare is briefly mentioned in this article, so we've decided to put a picture of him up here.

Four hundred years ago when Shakespeare was writing plays, he never had to wonder if his hard work would go to waste. Once he had completed a piece, his theater company began the production process without delay. Not only was the bard guaranteed the opportunity to see his finished work on stage, he also had a stable position with his theater. Fast-forward to theater production today: once a playwright finishes a piece, s/he must find a theater company to produce it (if s/he is lucky) and it is not uncommon for production of the play to take several years to yield a performance. Worse, many plays get stuck in workshop purgatory, where they are continually changed and edited but never actually make it through the production process.

Playwrights of Shakespeare’s time would be confused.

To address some of the problems with the lengthy production process, Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre is implementing an innovative new program, The Writer’s Room. Over the course of this spring and summer, playwright Wendy MacLeod will write a new play, which the Arden will immediately put into production; the play will be cast, rehearsed, and open for audiences by mid-July.

Edward Sobel, associate artistic director at the Arden, spearheaded The Writer’s Room and is leading the program. Alongside Sobel, Becky Wright serves as the program’s producer, acting as a liaison to both the playwright and the audience members who will be involved with the process.

“We want to provide production-oriented development that keeps the writer close to the play,” explains Sobel.

Playwright Wendy MacLeod (middle) sits between Arden folks Becky Wright and Edward Sobel in a workshop with audience members.

Sobel’s work has focused on the pitfalls of the production process for several years now. His work has been driven forward by conversations with writers about what is missing in the field and what their needs are. He finds that even when a show does make it through the hoops to get produced, many plays suffer from a condition Sobel brands “premiere-itis,” in which there is a great deal of pressure on the first production of a play but not as much artistic momentum for additional productions.

Through the support of the The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Cultural Management Initiative and the Independence Foundation, the Arden was able to move forward with The Writer’s Room, which Sobel hopes will give playwrights a taste of a shorter production timeline and allow the company to experiment with how the playwright fits into the production process. The Writer’s Room will offer a sense of immediacy and instant feedback for the playwright in seeing his/her play performed for an audience.

MacLeod was indeed drawn to the program by the immediacy it promised. “What appealed to me about [The Writer’s Room] is that you know your play is going to see the light of day, which is very motivating,” she says. As a playwright-in-residence at Kenyon College, MacLeod is no stranger to the tedium of the production process; she was glad for the chance to avoid it.

Another big draw was the chance to sign on with a theater that was invested in following through with the show. The Arden’s commitment to seeing the play through the initial production process is original and indeed welcome throughout the theater community.

“It’s unusual for a theater company to commit to producing something before it’s written and before it’s been tested, so having it all happen in a single stretch of time like this is special,” comments Wright.

And part of that commitment is that MacLeod can enjoy being a part of the Arden community while she is in Philadelphia, allowing her to meet new people and learn about a new city.

“The relationship between artists and artistic institutions is a bit murky. The idea of doing a residency is to make the writer more a part of the community and also to be invested a little bit in the artistic community that is local to Philadelphia,” Sobel says.

For her part, MacLeod is grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the Philadelphia art scene. She arrived in the city just last month and has already seen eight plays and visited the art museum.

“I am excited to feel like I have an artistic home – just to feel like I belong to a theater, even for a limited time, is really great,” she says.

Besides offering a unique commitment to the show’s production and supplying the playwright with the opportunity for immediate trial and feedback, The Writer’s Room is also focused on the audience. A major goal of the program is to create greater transparency in the production process, thereby fostering deeper audience engagement with the work. To this end, a small group of people will receive “Inside the Writer’s Room” passes, which allow audience members a behind-the-scenes look at the whole production process, including meeting the playwright and crew, attending rehearsals, and seeing the finished play.

Sobel hopes that the insider pass “begins to create an audience that is more deeply engaged with the material and more willing to accept risk.” He wants pass-holders to hone in on learning to appreciate the artistic elements of the show, ultimately enriching their experience of theater.

Designing this aspect of the program was tricky, as the objective was making the audience feel included and thoroughly involved in the development process without overwhelming the rest of the crew.

“The goal is to give them a window into how the process actually works, rather than perform a process for them,” explains Wright.

It would be difficult to pull this off with too many audience members in the room at rehearsals, and the show would miss out on diverse opinions if the pass-holders were too similar. They have invited forty-six students, board members, and miscellaneous theater-goers to become pass-holders and enjoy the insider experience.

Though he may wax philosophical as he explains the many facets of the project, Sobel tries to keep the process in perspective and maintain fun and humor as his priorities (the play is a comedy, after all).  As he puts it, “It sounds very intellectual when you’re talking it all out, but the idea of it is to be fun; it’s in the summertime and we’re letting audience members into our room—we want it to be a good time.”

–Prarthana Jayaram

MacLeod’s play will debut July 5th–15th , 2012, at The Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia.