New York Theatre Workshop brings new plays in 25th year

by Kaina Chen | 8/11/16 5:30pm

From watching a play on a small stage to viewing a projection in a large arena, audiences experience the unfolding of original — or adapted — stories. Harry falls for Sally, Valjean transforms from convict to hero and ambition consumes Macbeth. These characters will remain what their creators intended them to be.

But how did Nora Ephron, Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare find the inspiration to create their most famous characters and their respective stories? Were they created in a moment of ingenuity or developed over time?

Students in Theater 65 may only be able to speculate at the development of these works, but this term they learned about the writing and workshopping process for works-in-progress through a partnership with the New York Theatre Workshop.

The NYTW is a “laboratory for theater exploration” that produces plays which challenge, provoke and push boundaries for artists and audiences alike, according to their website.

This year, NYTW celebrates the collaboration’s 25th anniversary, an occasion that will be recognized and celebrated at NYTW’s spring gala next year, said Margaret Lawrence, director of programming at the Hopkins Center.

Each summer, directors and writers from the NYTW participate in a residency program in August to workshop selected plays. Over the span of three weeks, groups from the NYTW will live in Hanover and workshop plays in a one-week increments. During their time at Dartmouth, the artists hold a “Brown Bag Lunch” event every Tuesday at the Bentley Theater as an open forum for people to interact with the directors, writers and performers about the current works-in-progress. At the end of each week, NYTW stages readings and other presentations of the works-in-progress. This year, the NYTW brought six works to workshop and present.

Last week, Becca Blackwell performed “They, Themselves and Schmerm,” a comedic and reflective piece they wrote in solo show format. Following Blackwell’s work, the NYTW presented Mfoniso Udofia’s “Her Portmanteau,” an emotional piece depicting the reunion of an estranged daughter and mother, one of nine plays chronicling a Nigerian family.

This Saturday, Daphne Rubin-Vega’s “Frequently Unanswered Questions” will be staged at 4 p.m. followed by Clare Barron’s “Dirty Crusty” at 7:30 p.m.

“Because of the nature of their work, and the artists being here for one week, there are 10-hour work days or sometimes longer,” Rebecca Bailey, Hop publicity coordinator said. “Time is so precious.”

This collaboration is particularly special for students taking Theater 65: “New Plays in Development.” As a part of the course’s curriculum, students get a front row seat to the creative process and can serve as assistants to the visiting playwrights and directors. Sometimes, being a fly on the wall can lead to novel insights.

Sadhana Puri ’18 praised the director she worked with, Ed Sylvanus Iskander.

“Every comment he made was razor sharp,” Puri said. “He taught us to be critical in our responses and have more meaning in the things we say and the way we think about theater.”

By taking on the role of an active observer, Puri witnessed interactions among the playwrights, directors and actors, noting that everyone had a very essential voice in the process.

Each Saturday, those involved with that week’s show attend a “critical response process,” a method of critique developed by American choreographer Liz Lerman. The method guides works-in-progress through a four-step process aimed at facilitating open conversation and discussion between artists, peers and audiences.

Even with the short amount of time, a play can change tremendously from the first rehearsal to the final performance.

“[‘Her Portmanteau’] was such a powerful performance,” Puri said. “It almost felt like the artists were saving their best performance for the show, and each actor embodied their character completely.”

Even after 25 years, Lawrence praises NYTW’s ability to bring and showcase completely different works. She noted how remarkable and memorable Blackwell’s performance was.

“[‘They, Themselves and Schmerm’] is an unabashed and physical comedy, yet very thought-provoking and moving,” Lawrence said.

After the presentation at Dartmouth, the work may continue to be workshopped before being finalized. The possibility of this perfected piece returning to the College after seeing success in New York is a particular asset to this partnership, Bailey noted.

For example, five years ago, Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader’s “Food and Fadwa” came to Dartmouth as part of the NYTW’s residency, and it later took the stage in New York.

This partnership with an education-focused theater organization provides students with a unique experiential learning, Bailey said.

“To work in various capacities with nationally and internationally-recognized theater artists is a pretty unique opportunity that [‘New Plays in Development’ students] have,” Bailey said.

Moreover, this partnership frequently hosts artists from outside of New York. This year, NYTW invited artists from Chile and Bulgaria, providing insight at how new theater works across the world can be compared and contrasted with those in America and specifically at Dartmouth.

“It is a rare and exciting opportunity for undergraduate students to have exposure to this quality of professional work,” said Jamie Horton, “New Plays in Development” professor. “NYTW is one of the premiere organizations dedicated to fostering new works. For our students to have a part in that equation for three weeks is just remarkable.”

This week’s performances will be held in the Bentley Theater. Student tickets are $5.00. Tickets for the general public range from $6.50 to $13.00.