The room is silent at first, despite the eight of us sitting around the conference table. Save for one or two regulars, who chit-chat with staff as they find their way to preferred seats, the rest of us are pure strangers, brought here only by a love of new plays and our memberships at the Playwrights’ Center.
The clock ticks down the last few minutes until 2 PM. We smile shyly at one another, nodding and taking tentative sips of water as we flip through the newborn script pages lain before us. There’s an inexplicable, bubbling tension in the air, something akin to stage fright (if one could experience such a thing in absence of a stage).
A bespectacled brunette – a newbie to the process, like me – breaks the silence to whisper, “This one looks hilarious,” gesturing to one of the short plays on our docket. The man sitting next to her grins and whispers back, “I hope I get to play the robot!”
Then, after a brief round-robin introduction, our small audience becomes the cast, and the play reading begins in earnest. The laughter erupts before we even get through the title – The Quick Start Guide to Booting Your Man-Bot by Phil Darg. All previous quiet awkwardness evaporates in the face of sudden warmth, enthusiasm, and surprisingly boisterous performances all around.
This is the beauty of the Member Open Play process, where writers come together voluntarily – both locally and via the magic of the internet – to read, perform, and discuss one another’s work. The program, which is free for Playwrights’ Center members, offers something incredibly rare for playwrights, both budding and experienced: a chance to hear their work read aloud (by people other than our ever-patient family and friends, of course) and get detailed, focused feedback.
“It’s great fun to watch this process unfold,” says Darg. “It’s very revealing to observe the reactions of the readers themselves – who in effect become the first audience for the piece.”
Darg is a prolific local playwright, producer, and librettist, and the author of this evening’s readings: the darkly-funny examination of human nature throughout the ages, Evolution, and the hilarious high-tech-nightmare-turned-romance, The Quick Start Guide to Booting Your Man-Bot. He has been a member of the Playwrights’ Center for two years and although he has attended Open Play sessions in the past as a reader, this was his first experience participating as a writer.
“It’s fun!” Darg says, with a smile. “It’s a welcoming environment, and I really do believe that everyone here takes a strong interest in dramatic writing, and also seeks to play a supportive role in the development of new works – which is exactly what any writer wants.”
The last lines of Man-Bot echo through the room, and the reading concludes with laughter and a round of applause. Then, everyone scoops up their pencils and scribbles down their thoughts, preparing for the next stage of the process: feedback.
For this section, an experienced Playwrights’ Center staff member acts as moderator, guiding the group through a four-part talkback process. The questions are modeled after the Liz Lerman approach, and are designed to keep the conversation positive and constructive. As the readers discuss the play in depth – the discussion branching off from questions like, “What is this play about? What stood out for you or was particularly effective? Was there anything that was confusing or took you out of the play?” – Darg sits, listening intently and taking notes.
Afterward, when asked if the feedback was helpful, Darg enthusiastically agreed. “I went home that same night and worked on the pieces immediately, incorporating at least two major points I’d gleaned from the talkback.” He went on to say that the energetic laughter from the room taught him something else very important about Man-Bot; it was indeed funny!
That’s the heart of this process: the room. A play is not like a novel, although they both start on the page; a play cannot function in isolation. It has to live and breathe. It has to bounce off the walls. It has to have human interaction. And that is what the Playwrights’ Center provides.
“This is something that you want to do,” Darg notes of the process. “Take your work as far as you can on your own, but then recognize when you need to hear your words read out loud. If you seem to be ‘stuck’ on some aspect of your piece, doing a reading may be just the thing to stimulate you to continue working and/or to solve a specific dramaturgical problem.” Since his Open Play session, Darg reports that he has extensively rewritten both pieces and sent them out for submissions. In fact, he was recently informed that The Quick Start Guide to Booting Your Man-Bot has been accepted for production by the Old Library Theatre in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and will see its premiere in January of 2018.
Back in the Rehearsal Studio, the clock flicks over to 4:00 PM. With that, the session over. Just as quickly as we coalesced, we depart: less shy, this time – with toothy smiles, warm goodbyes, and shouts of, “See you next time!” ringing out across the parking lot.
For one night, through this handful of hours and a stack of freshly-printed scripts, we eight strangers founded the most momentary of theatre companies, with a single unspoken mission – encouraging one another and fostering the growth of new work. But the truly wonderful thing about the Playwrights’ Center and their Member Open Play Program is that new plays are always blooming, and the next one-night collaboration is only a few weeks away.
For more information about the Playwrights’ Center, including memberships and upcoming events, check out their website at pwcenter.org.