Theatre Department Hosts "From Page to Stage" Panel

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By Alexandra Ley

On September 21st, 2011, drama enthusiasts gathered in the Glicker-Milstein Theatre of the Diana Center for a panel of theatre professionals in the “From Page to Stage” event. This panel, hosted by the Barnard Theatre Department, was organized to kick off the department’s new program “New Plays At Barnard,” which intends to connect the Barnard community to downtown theaters and their new works. The members of the panel included Susan Bernfield, the Artistic Director of New Georges (a downtown theater that focuses on female playwrights), Emily Morse, Director of Artistic Development at New Dramatists (a center for playwright development), Lauren Feldman, a playwright, and Sylvan Oswald, a playwright and an adjunct lecturer at Barnard College. Alice Reagan, an assistant professor in Barnard’s Theatre Department, moderated the forum.

The professionals spoke to the room of theatre aficionados about the process of developing new plays for the stage in today’s artistic climate. The panelists dove right into the matter of finances describing how contemporary plays tend to have smaller casts, sets, and overall expenses than plays that premiered twenty years ago. At the same time, the number of fresh and experimental works seems to be growing; Bernfield remarked that creating original work is encouraged much more than when she was an undergraduate. At the same time, the major question Bernfield sees playwrights struggling with is “can you find an audience?” Feldman and Sylvan remarked that their own artistic dilemmas often arise from this question, leaving each of them with two piles of plays: those that are marketable, and those that are unmarketable, but that they feel compelled to write.

Another hot topic of the night was the playwright’s role in the development of his or her works. Playwrights often have to assume the role of the producer for their own works because producers pick which shows they produce, and many do not gravitate towards experimental pieces. The playwright’s authority over his or her own text can be challenged or diminished throughout the production process, according to the panelists. Feldman, who has experience working as a freelance playwright for directors and companies, talked about having unbalanced “give-and-take” relationships with her own scripts.

During the Q&A session, Oswald mentioned a need for plays to be looked at from multiple angles, a quirk of plays that other literary pieces do not have. Theatre, as a highly collaborative art form, always features the convergence of multiple viewpoints at some point, so the literary basis of a piece does not need to evolve in solitude. Morse discussed the writing processes she identifies in some of the playwrights at New Dramatists, which provides residencies to playwrights so that they have an environment to work and concentrate on their craft. She explained that she has seen many playwrights who can only write in total solitude with their laptop, some who tend to develop their plays with dramaturges, and others who like to observe people in coffee shops or parks while they develop their characters on the page. As she put it, “artists develop their work in whatever way they need to.”

The Q&A session eventually turned into a discussion of the place of new plays in the classroom, an area typically reserved for intellects such as Brecht and Aristotle. The panelists seemed to agree that it is possible for students to find themselves in both classic and contemporary plays. Perhaps one of the next steps of theatre education will include allowing the two to engage in a constant dialogue with each other in class, and as new plays are performed and old ones are revived—after all, Morse added, “all old plays were once new.”

Before the night concluded, the panelists were asked to give some advice to the students and aspiring artists in the room. Oswald’s advice to young playwrights was “don’t wait” and to “keep doing other stuff.” Bernfield suggested straight-fowardly to “go to the theatre for the rest of your lives.” The panelists also shared performances opening on Manhattan this semester that they are most excited about, which included The Select, performed by the company Elevator Repair Service, Big Dance Theater’s performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the New Wave Festival 2011, and Oswald’s new play Nightlands at New Georges. New Georges is currently developing a new play titled The Egg-Layers, which Reagan will direct at Barnard College during the spring semester.

Alexandra Ley is a junior at Barnard and Contributing Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing. She is majoring in Theatre and American Studies. She tried to adapt an E.L. Konigsburg book into a play this past summer and couldn’t get past the first line.

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