One of my favorite questions to ask playwrights during interviews is “how do you know when the play is finished?”
They can spend months (or more likely years) crafting their story and characters. If they’re lucky, after sending their scripts to dozens of theaters across the country, they find one interested in producing it.
And then the work begins again, as the director, producer and actors add their opinions on how to best get the play ready for the stage.
Sometimes, playwrights do so much work, you might not recognize the opening night script from what it looked like months before, or even yesterday.
Consider the example of “For the Ages,” a new project commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre for playwrights KJ Sanchez and Emily Ackerman.
The theater’s staff spent months interviewing area residents about the many aspects of aging, the good and the bad. Sanchez and Ackerman then turned those notes into a docudrama.
They came to Sarasota a few weeks ago with a script for two staged readings during the theater’s new play weekend. They left with something quite different.
The first reading had an audience made up of what the theater referred to as “stakeholders,” people interviewed for the project whose stories may have been included in the script.
They didn’t sound happy during the post-show discussion.
There were a few nice comments, but overall they said the play was too negative, had too many facts and didn’t have enough of the good things about getting older. (Curiously, I thought the play was more positive than I expected.)
Aging is a big subject to tackle in one play considering the fact that none of us are getting younger. It could touch on almost any subject and there’s an aging aspect to it.
It was clear that some were disappointed that their stories didn’t make it into the play.
At one point, Sanchez, made forlorn by the negative (and occasionally hostile) response, said she just wanted to go sit on the beach and cry.
I don’t know if she actually did that, but I do know that s<NO>She and Ackerman got back to work and rewrote 30 to 40 percent of the play in time for the second reading the next day. That performance had a more general audience without any connections to the project.
The authors were relieved and excited by the more positive reaction.
I asked Sanchez why she didn’t wait until after the second performance to rewrite the script. After all, maybe it was just that one, personally connected, audience that would react that way. Now, the authors would never know.
But with just a weekend visit to try out the script, Sanchez said she and Ackerman, along with artistic director Richard Hopkins, agreed that some things needed rewriting and refocusing and they set to work to make improvements.
And it’s likely there will be lots of other changes before the project gets a fuller production.
It was relatively easy for them to rewrite the script in this development process because the actors were performing with the scripts in hand. It’s more complicated to change the show once you’ve got a lot of actors, sets and costumes involved.
The creators of “Hero: The Musical” at Asolo Repertory Theatre decided after a couple of previews and the opening night that they wanted to make changes. They didn’t expect to introduce the alterations until the next production.
But the commercial producers who have provided enhancement money to Asolo Rep for the production, spent thousands of dollars to bring the cast and crew in for a long day of rehearsing. They changed the opening, the ending, and some things in the middle.
They all rehearsed on a Friday and put the changes into the show that night.
The creative team said they have more ideas that they will incorporate wherever “Hero” is next staged. It just wasn’t feasible to make even more changes in Sarasota.
Playwright Mark Brown said he’s going to take some time to ponder how he wants to change his new play “Tom Jones,” which had its world premiere at FST. He has some ideas, but has several other projects in the works as well.
So when does the work end? For some writers, it never does. There’s always a way to make it better.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.