Fun (and Terror) at the NNPN MFA Playwrights’ Workshop

I spent the last week of July in sunny Washington, D.C. attending the MFA Playwrights’ Workshop at the Kennedy Center. Sponsored by the National New Play Network, the Workshop was an opportunity for a half-dozen selected playwrights to work with professional directors, dramaturgs, and actors over a period of five days, culminating in semi-staged readings.

Back in the beginning of the year, when I had an opportunity to submit a proposed play for the Workshop, I decided (somewhat rashly) to send in a proposal for The Centipede King, a horror play I’d just started working on. It was structured a bit like The Glass Menagerie, with the protagonist inviting the audience to step into the story she is telling, except that (a) the story is about weird insectoid monsters rather than overbearing mothers, and more significantly, (b) the story our heroine tells begins to spiral out of control, as truths that she is not willing to face begin to slip out. I was excited about the piece, because I’d seen precious few horror plays on stage. Plus, it gave me a chance to work out my feelings about centipedes. Let’s face it, no one likes centipedes.

What made this proposal rash was that at the time I made it, back in January, I had about two scenes written… and I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going. As a playwright, I tend to do very little pre-planning. I’ve learned from experience that if I try to bend my writing towards a certain goal, it comes out forced and false. Instead, I make my discoveries in the process of writing, and I’m often surprised, usually pleased, and occasionally dismayed by what my characters do. This isn’t the easiest way to write, and it sometimes means that I get twenty or thirty pages into a play before realizing that it’s going nowhere and have to give it up. Life would be easier if I could proceed like, say, Edward Albee, who (allegedly) has everything in his plays fixed in his mind before beginning to set pen to paper. But that’s the way it goes.

So, knowing that the play could come to nothing, I had feelings of trepidation about submitting Centipede to the Workshop. But I did it. I sent in a rough outline of the play, and sent in the scenes I’d written plus a couple of new ones I quickly scribbled down. It was all a bit of a gamble, but I consoled myself with the thought that it was hardly likely to be accepted.

And then the joke was on me: Gregg Henry of the Kennedy Center called me up to say that Centipede was accepted into the workshop. Oh, no!

Okay, obviously I did not say (or even think), “Oh no!” It’s safe to say that I felt more delighted than terrified; at a guess, I’d say the delight to terror ratio was about 75/25. The fact that the NNPN and Kennedy Center were willing to sponsor the piece meant it had some potential, and I appreciated the validation.

But it did mean I had to write the damn thing, and that’s what I did over the spring. Having a deadline (I needed to send Gregg a draft by June 1) helped me put the proverbial nose to the grindstone, which is always a good thing as I am a painfully slow writer. I did a lot of working out as I wrote, and the story as I developed it was considerably different from how I’d originally planned (I’d explain more, but it would involve serious spoilers), meaning that I ended up not a couple of scenes I’d sent with my original proposal. However, the play was turning out more interesting than I’d originally planned, which is always a bonus.

In order to keep this post to a reasonable length (Ha! Too late.) I will jump forward to the last week in July when, clutching a copy of a complete draft of The Centipede King in my hot little hands, I flew from Boston to the wilds of Washington, D.C. for the workshop. (Artistic license has been activated here; naturally I did not carry a copy of the script on the flight; rather, I e-mailed the draft to Gregg in order to the Kennedy Center to make copies.)

At the KC I met my team; the folks who’d be developing the King with me over the following week. Reading a list of names can be a drag, but too bad because I’m going to pay my respects to everyone involved. My director was Stefan Brün of the Prop Thtr, Chicago, and my dramaturg was Gavin Witt of Centerstage, Baltimore. We had an assistant director, Robert Wighs, and two assistant dramaturgs, Georgia Young and Heather Sell. Also on hand was Christopher Baine, a sound designer. The lovely and talented cast of four were all local DC actors: Kimberly Gilbert, Rana Kay, Lee Mikeska Gardner and Alexander Strain. I cannot praise these people enough. They were all enthusiastic about the play (always gratifying for the playwright) and worked their collective tails off during the week. Each of them provided a wealth of insights and observations that helped to shape the play into a stronger piece.

From Monday the 23rd through Friday the 27th, we had a four-hour rehearsal from 2:30 to 6:30. We’d always start with a reading of the current draft, and then Gavin would lead a discussion about the play in its current version, and we’d have the actors work through some of the scenes that I wasn’t happy with. When the proverbial whistle blew at 6:30, I’d amble back to my Georgetown hotel with Stefan and Gavin (we were all at the same place), talking as we went — sometimes about the play, sometimes not. I’d get dinner somewhere, and retire to my room to do battle with my current draft.

This was always a challenge. As noted, I am not a fast writer, and sometimes it’d take me all night just to make a few cosmetic changes. I was lucky that the play did not require major revising. (A couple of the other playwrights at the workshop had actually brought plays that were only half-written, and had to do much work to get a complete draft in time for the end-of-week readings. If I’d been in that position, the pressure would have caused me to spontaneously combust.)

In the morning, I’d continue revising, but I had to send my current draft off to Gregg by 11:00 in order to have copies for rehearsal. Then I’d have a little time to breathe before going off to the KC for the daily lunch with the other playwrights at 12:30. These were all hosted by Jason Loewith of the NNPN, and gave us a chance to meet the directors and dramaturgs who were working on the other plays. Then I’d go to rehearsal, and the whole cycle would start again.

Yes, it was a lot of work. But it was exhilarating to see my play slowly come to life, like a Monarch butterfly emerging from its cocoon, wings still wet, almost ready to fly.

The presentations came at the end of the week. All of the involved playwrights presented readings of their plays in various degrees of stagedness. The other playwrights in the program (Crap, he’s not going to give us another list of names, is he? Why, yes, he is.) were Chris Weikel, Amelia Roper, Nathan Davis, Johnna Adams, and Andrew Hindracker. We were joined by three other playwrights, Daniel Sauermilch (a selected undergraduate), Mike Lew (winner of the Kendeda Award), and Jennifer Fawcett (who was there as an alumnus playwrights, having been in the MFA Workshop several years previously). I went to all of the presentations but Mike’s, which was at the same time as on of my rehearsals. (I’ll get to see it in October in New York, when it will get a reading along with the Kendeda runner-ups, which just happen to include my play Absence.) And I can say that this was a talented bunch of playwrights. Each of the plays was a knockout; there was not a ragged dog among them. (Even the ones that had only been half-written a week previously!) One hates to play favorites, but I do want to particularly single out Andrew’s Colossal, the story of a football player crippled in a game; the play was structured like an actual football game, played out in four quarters with a clock ticking down, and complete with halftime entertainment; and also Johnna’s Skinless, the other psychological horror story on the roster, albeit one very different from The Centipede King — Johnna’s use of language was just beautiful. But, really, all of these playwrights are up-and-comers. Check back here in five years, and I’ll bet you that they’ll all be names by then.

As for The Centipede King, that had its reading on Saturday afternoon, the last of four straight readings. Quite frankly, I was a bit of a wreck beforehand. I am always anxious before the first presentation of any play of mine, and in this case I was afraid that people just weren’t going to get it.

But I needn’t have worried. Kim, Rana, Lee, and Alexander were all magnificent, and were able to carry the audience away in their pockets. They were assisted by Chris’s eerie sound effects (including the scuttling of centipede feet) which wonderfully established a mood of danger and unsettlement. Robert read stage directions crisply and efficiently. After a few minutes, I could just relax and enjoy the play.

After the reading, Gavin led the Q&A session that followed. The first thing we asked was what people thought actually happened in the play, and as we expected we got a number of different answers. Did I mention the play was imbued with ambiguity and uncertainty? Fortunately, this was a crowd that loved ambiguity, and they responded to the intellectual and emotional challenges of the play. Whew!

I returned to Boston the next day, feeling gratified. I was — and am — confident that The Centipede King has a future, though there are still many revisions to be made before it’s fully ready for production. But more than that, upon my return for the workshop, I felt as if my batteries had been recharged; I was more stoked about being a playwright than I’d been in quite a while. Being at the Kennedy Center not only jazzed my play, it jazzed me as well. And for that I can only be deeply thankful for all of those who were involved in the program.

All of which goes to show that sometimes taking stupid risks actually does pay off.

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