Works in progress

For anyone who has tried to read plays, it is likely that at least some difficulties have arisen. It’s hard to imagine the italicized stage directions, to hear the dramatic lines of dialogue like “Stella!” or “Romeo, Romeo,” or to envision the costuming, set design, lighting, music, or anything else that makes theater what it is: an event to be seen.

And for anyone who has ever tried to write a play, this is more than an annoyance — it’s a problem. But students at the School of Drama’s MFA program in dramatic writing suffer no such difficulty. In fact, each is required to write a full-length play to be performed in Purnell’s annual New Plays Festival.

The 2008 festival features four plays, each of which run for two weeks. Rob Smith’s Tightrope and John-Paul Nickel’s Past Perfect/Future Tense were on stage through Feb. 9, while Carol J. Godart’s Grae Matters and France-Luce Benson’s Fati’s Last Dance opened last Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, and run through Feb. 23. Both of the two-week time slots feature one comedy (Past Perfect/Future Tense or Fati’s Last Dance) and one drama (Tightrope or Grae Matters).

“Once you have a draft, you really have to put it up on its feet,” Benson said. “It is crucial. There’s only so much you can do by yourself.”

For Benson and the other writers, seeing their plays on stage helps them to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The playwrights continue to revise their works throughout the process, even making small changes in between performances.

“Often there are many rewrites. It’s a long process,” added Godart, who has gone through at least 10 drafts of Grae Matters. “Really, [the festival] is to benefit the play and the playwright.”

The play and the playwright (and the process)

“We call it a workshop, which means it’s not fully produced,” said Kate Pines, an MFA student in the School of Drama’s directing program and the director of Grae Matters. “The idea is to really limit our resources and really focus on the play itself.”

New Plays productions have significantly smaller budgets and production staffs than most of Purnell’s other shows. Though the lack of resources can be challenging, it helps to bring the body of work to the forefront.

The four MFA playwrights began writing their plays last summer and paired up with directors in September. Pines described this pairing up as a “speed-dating process” — the four playwrights and four directors had quick one-on-one conversations, comparing styles and perspectives. For Pines, Grae Matters offered an exciting challenge.

“It was definitely the one that I read and was the most scared of,” she said. “I read it and was in over my head.” Pines described frequent meetings with Godart at Shadyside’s Jitters Café to discuss the meaning behind scenes in Grae Matters.

“It was a priority of mine in grad school to open myself up to failing,” she said. Before entering the MFA program, Pines worked on several plays in New York, where concerns for marketing and critical attention were paramount. The New Plays Festival afforded her an opportunity to take risks that she’d been missing while working on her own.

Like Pines, Fati’s Last Dance director Dana Friedman enjoyed being paired with her playwright, Benson.

“I was relieved, excited. I felt like I won in a way,” she said. “This is the experience we’ve been waiting for. We both love the play. We trust each other. We have the same goals with the play.”

The playwrights and directors rehearsed with actors from the School of Drama for four weeks before showing their plays. During their shows’ two-week runs, the playwrights have to strike a difficult balance between changing too much and changing too little; the actors need time to learn new lines and directions, but the playwrights must take advantage of the festival as a venue for experimentation.

“Because we have performances next week, I can’t do much [right now],” Benson said.

When the festival is over, each playwright will work with a different MFA director to benefit from a new perspective. The writers also benefit from several critiques along the way, from informal after-show talkbacks, to in-class critiques, to feedback from visiting respondents.

The playwrights will turn in their “final” drafts along with the rest of their portfolios to complete their MFA theses. But even at this point the plays will not be complete.

“I think most of us will probably keep writing,” Smith said.

“Yeah, it’ll be fine once it goes to Broadway and it’s published,” Nickel joked. (It will be fine until the revival, he added, at which point he’ll revise it once more.)

The portfolios include all of the students’ finished work from throughout the two-year program. The playwrights have created plays and screenplays of various lengths to fulfill their requirements, providing them a more diverse education than other graduate programs.

“You don’t do one [type of work],” Smith said. “You get a good mix of it all.”

“Our portfolio will probably be close to 1000 pages,” Nickel added. “We kill a lot of trees.”

Carnegie Mellon’s dramatic writing program is unique for two reasons. First, the New Plays Festival guarantees playwrights a chance to see their work performed, an opportunity that many other programs fail to offer. Additionally, the dramatic writing MFA is a two-year program, although most comparable programs are three years. The School of Drama’s curriculum fits in the allotted time, the playwrights agree, but barely.

“It’s non-stop for two years,” Nickel said.

“We put in 90 or 100 hours a week,” added Godart, who also teaches Introduction to Playwriting for undergraduates through the School of Drama.

Still, the playwrights believe that all the revisions, rehearsals, and even meetings at Jitters are worth the struggle. The New Plays Festival, in particular, helps to bring their work to fruition.

“It’s been great,” Benson said, speaking of the festival. “This is pretty much what I wanted coming to the MFA program here.”

Fati's Last Dance
Benson’s play Fati’s Last Dance is one of the first comedies of her career. “A lot of the plays that I’ve written recently have been really dark and really serious,” she said. “I think [comedy is] a more effective way to get a message across.” Fati’s Last Dance tackles significant issues in a lighthearted manner, producing a style comparable to movies like Little Miss Sunshine or The Royal Tenenbaums.

The play centers on the unfortunately named Fati (drama junior Brittany Campbell) — short for Fatima — a former dancer frustrated by insecurities about her body and the underlying guilt of her father’s death. Fatima is living at home to care for her mother, Gislene (Shammen McCune, a member of the Actors’ Equity Guild), a professional dancer. Other characters include Patrick (AEG member Joshua Elijah Reese), a lovable friend of the family who has a history with Fatima, and Ronielle (drama junior Victoria Ward), Fatima’s slender and beautiful sister who — as fate would have it — can’t dance to save her life.

In the story, Gislene rushes to prepare a dance scene to be filmed for a documentary on her late husband. As usual, Fatima refuses to dance, which leaves the klutzy Ronielle and Patrick, who turns out to be a natural. As the dance’s deadline approaches, Gislene tries to convince Fatima that it is she who should be dancing.

On the surface, the play may seem a little like Save the Last Dance — dancing, dead parents, a romantic subplot, and race (Gislene is Haitian and often recalls her bleak past) — but, through several twists and turns in the characters and plot, Benson was able to create a truly unique story. The comedy is spot-on and a talented cast of actors helped the script shine through.

This alone would make for an entertaining play, but the added presence of Fatima and Ronielle’s dead father is enough to take the story from entertaining to excellent. Throughout the play, the father’s jacket, hat, and tap shoes are on display in the corner of the stage, emphasizing his continuing role as the head of the household. Both Gislene and Fatima are able to communicate with him — they speak aloud while the audience hears the father’s responses as a series of tap-dance noises. The effect is at once poignant and ingenious, speaking volumes on life and death within a family.

Grae Matters
Perhaps the polar opposite of Fati’s Last Dance, Godart’s Grae Matters is a serious, introspective work. The story revolves around Mrs. Grae (drama senior Jessica Waxman), described on the show’s poster as “a Jung woman.”

As this label might suggest, Grae Matters is a play rooted in Jungian psychology, developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 20th century. The story encompasses many of Jung’s ideas, including the collective unconscious (the basic emotions shared by most people) and the shadow (the repressed aspects of an individual’s personality).

As a result, Grae Matters is on the surface a very confusing play, especially for audience members without some knowledge of psychology. Still, director Pines noted that each aspect of the script is there for reason — it is not art for art’s sake, but rather a reflection of Godart’s perspective. Pines described how Godart was able to field questions about the play from the cast.

“Whatever [the actors] asked, she had an answer,” Pines said. “I think the cast really respected that.”

In the story, Grae wakes up alone and disoriented, at first unable to remember her name or anything about herself. As certain facts slide back into place — her name, her marriage — Grae struggles to navigate the strange world she finds herself in. Grae meets six oddball characters (or, to be Jungian, six archetypes), which often appear in the same two groups of three; each group is composed of the same three double-cast School of Drama students: senior Nick Levine, junior Nic Cory, and junior Emma Galvin. Of these, Galvin was the highlight, especially when portraying the hilarious facial expressions of Sonya, an aggressive 12-year-old.