27 July 2010

The Southampton Writers Conference

I had no idea this thing existed until I was invited by The Ensemble Studio Theatre (thanks entirely to Tom Rowan) to participate as an actor this year. But that's what a lot of my acting career is like, so it's tough for me to judge whether or not I should have heard of it.

Imagine you're at a party where you don't really know anybody. You're supposed to be there, and yet no one would miss you for a moment if you slipped out the door. People are buzzing about, trying to connect with very specific intentions, and tremendous drama and change is unfolding all around you. You, meanwhile, are just sort of holding your arms out, hoping someone will pick up on your invitation to a hug. That, my friends, is an apt metaphor for my experience as a career actor, my general attitude toward parties, and frankly the beginning of my experience here at The Southampton Writers Conference.

It was cool, I don't mind telling you. I am a huge writing nerd, and love excuses to hear writers talk about their work and processes. I've been to another writers' conference twice before, the CVWC in upstate, both times as something of a tourist. I was just a shade closer to being an actual participant this time, working there as an actor for their playwrights, which means I get to attend readings and rub elbows with Emily Mann and - yes - spend a little time cloistered away in my room working on my own playwriting. Pretty sweet, and those strange party feelings always fade eventually (but must they always appear in the first place, galdurnitall?). More on that in a future post, I think.

To sum it all up (because Blogger ate a good three paragraphs that it told me it had saved yesterday [Blogger, you jerk][just kidding love you mean it never change]): social difficulties were surmounted, the quality of work was astounding, and the level of talent of my fellow actors was simply inspiring. I'm not just blowing positive-attitude smoke here. Without dropping names, the actors I got to work with were - across the board - professional, talented and fun. Most all of them were working, many you'd probably recognize, and just about all of them (with the exception of me and I think two others) had some previous association with EST. So in some small way, I checked off a personal goal in getting to work with that theatre (see 11/17/08). I hope, of course, to work with them again someday.

The work itself involved reading two plays twice - Tom's Burning Leaves and Ben Rosenthal's Neptune Kelly - in a cycle in which the first reading gave the playwrights material with which to revise, and the second came after two days' revisions and a brief rehearsal period, and was presented to whomever from the conference wished to attend. It was a good structure, and left us with time to sit in and do readings for Emily Mann's playwriting workshops, and on Saturday night her attendees presented some of their work to the rest of the conference in the form of our performing readings of about five minutes of each playwright's in-class creations. Any time I had spare from this schedule was generally spent in my room mulling over and revising my own much-neglected play-in-progress Hereafter.

(PS and also: Dear Reader, I'm certain that if the occasion arises in which I announce I'm going to once again write a bunch of interconnected scenes and see if after-the-fact they can be melded into a cohesive whole, you will of course come to my apartment, knock on my door and, when I open it, shout "NOT AGAIN," and punch me square in the nose. Hard. Because you love me. Anyway: I'd appreciate it if you could.)

It was interesting to be working on Burning Leaves again, particularly because I felt it was already a rather finished product the last time I performed it in November of 2008. Tom, fortunately, is a much smarter playwright than I, and had already made some significant cuts to the play before I read it again for the conference. In particular, he cut a monologue for my character in which he explains what traumatic series of events led to his fleeing New York. He had gotten feedback suggesting that this was one of the more irresponsible and less admirable things the guy does, sharing the burden of such personal history with his student. I missed it of course - it was a heart-breaking story to tell - but a great edit. In the course of the week Tom did more to streamline the play and adjust the balance of ethics and plot logic between characters, and I felt good about the final reading. I always want to do better, but I felt good. Again: my fellow actors were amazing; just committed and specific and true as all git-out.

Neptune Kelly is a cracker of a script. I had zero experience with this one before they sent it to me, and I have to admit that on first read I flinched a bit from it. It has a combination of earmarks of the kind of material I'm usually not too keen on: highly stylized, allegorical, verbose. Normally this makes for the sort of trying-too-hard off-off-Broadway showcase that's out there to MAKE a STATEMENT. As soon as we got in the room, though, I knew I had let prejudice in on my initial judgment, because the play rocks. It's not as allegorical as it first may seem - for one, it doesn't wrap anything up neatly - and the beauty of its verbose style is that it stems from committed, crisis-filled characters. It's funny, bold and poetic in the least pretentious way, and we had a ball with it. I had only one scene in Neptune Kelly (once again playing a teacher, somehow) but it sort of made up for my lost monologue in Burning Leaves, being an explanatory story for why my character committed and extreme and self-destructive act. I got to make this vaulting little journey from resolution to profound regret over a couple of pages, and in so doing propel another character into direct action, and that's just the kind of smarts and specificity that Ben's working with which allows him to create such a weird-but-true world.

Finally, the presentation of Ms. Mann's students' work was great fun, and surprisingly fulfilling. I've always been a fan of short-form presentations of theatrical work and the way its informality can invite more audience involvement and great spontaneity in the actors' performances, but you often have to take a certain lackluster quality into account for such undertakings. Timing may be off, words may be stumbled over, etc. Such was the quality of the writing and the acting of this little presentation that it lacked no luster. I laughed, I cried, it was better than lots and lots of the fully produced shows I've seen in my life. I was lucky to be a part of it (particularly, extremely lucky, actually, because my scene partner is an amazingly good actor). We had fully-formed, five-minute segments of passion, manipulation, Alzheimer's, shuddering regret and even loving cannibalism. Egad I love theatre.

Perhaps the most uplifting thing to come out of the whole experience for me is that I was asked to return this Friday, to participate in a staged reading of one of the attendee's plays, Wild Animals You Should Know. Thomas Higgins penned the script, and I'm a big fan of it. (Very odd: Thom had a script in The SFOOBSPF, in which I just participated.) It has a lot to do with the Boy Scouts of America, so that's a like a little visit into my childhood, and it is working with some of the same themes as Burning Leaves does. And, somehow, the reading is being directed by Joe Mantello.

So, you know, um: WOW.

3 comments:

Quotidien Critic said...

Jeff, it was terrific to meet you at Southampton and see you in action. Appreciate your encouragement on my just-budding play with the weight-challenged character, her crazy mom and that loving Todd. I'll keep you posted. All good things. Janice
P.S. - break a leg at Thomas' reading.

Jeff Wills said...

Great to meet you too, Janice. I hope you take that play (and in it's turn, it takes you) far. I really enjoyed what I got to hear. And thanks for the good wishes!

Jeff Wills said...

Dah! "It's"? And I just got back from a writer's conference...