A Writer Prepares - July Blog 2014

by Sam White

When I learned I was commissioned to write a monologue for Forward Theater's upcoming festival, I was overwhelmed. Looking at the list of commissioned playwrights, I was honored, humbled and significantly freaked out. All tremendous writers, I... completely unworthy! Then, when I discovered the festival's literary theme – "Banned Books." The bottom dropped out.

Do not misunderstand. I think it's a marvelous idea. The issues surrounding banned and challenged books are fertile territory to explore, full of important issues, and limitless "dramatic" possibility. Today, besides being in danger of possible extinction, books are still in danger of censorship! There are even in our day and age – the 21st Century – books that some people don't want you to read. Astonishing!

Regardless, what really made me balk at this clever and important theme – and this is a frightful admission for a theater artist – I am not literary person. Don't tell anyone, but I do not very well read. I'm not a "good reader." Credit that to a mild case of undiagnosed dyslexia and a state of perpetual motion. I'm a slow reader and I find it challenging to sit still long enough to read anything... especially fiction. It's not that I don't read. I do. But when I pick up something to read, it is invariably either a play or research about a play.

So when I reviewed the background material Forward supplied – a list of the 100 most banned, challenged, or censored books, my heart sank even further. I'd read maybe two – One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest and Catcher in the Rye – one because I was directing the play and the other because I had to read it in high school. I never even read any of those Harry Potter things, which are on that villainous banned book list, too. Yeah, I'm not normal. And all those books I was supposed to read throughout my forgettable scholastic career? Well... perhaps another confession I should not make. Suffice it to say, I was not a studious youth. There was too much adventure to be had to waste valuable time sitting in a room reading something.

So, looking at the list of infamous and often revered books I was lost. I wasn't about to read Slaughterhouse-Five just so I could write a monologue about it. Despite the fact it would be undoubtedly good for me, I'd enjoy it immensely and come up with a lot of ideas, that's not what I wanted to do. Reading a book just so I could write about it would take too long and I probably fall asleep – which invariably happens when I try to read a book. Bottom line, I had no idea what to write. NONE! Not only was I faced with I subject I felt was over my head, I was issued a deadline! I've lived deadline life before during a brief, shining career as a journalist, but a deadline for a creative work? Heaven forefend! Yeah, well, welcome to the real world, dude.

So almost immediately I exchanged a few ideas with Forward's dramaturge, Kimberly Megna Yarnall. She quickly became my muse, my Melpomene, my Thalia (primarily the later). One of the primary ideas to come out of our correspondences, which eased my anguish, was that I didn't have to write something profound and deep. The main goal, as a commissioned playwright, was that I needed to write something more specific. Something that worked with the rest of the pieces – see, the other writers got their stuff done before the deadline – jerks. Then it clicked.

I stuck to what I know best, being a character... I mean creating a character. I didn't need to, nor should I write something based on profound literary themes or a great piece of literature. I needed to write something character-based. What better character to create for this particular project than a portraiture of a librarian. Someone who is on the front lines of the banned book war, a battle that is essentially over our freedom of speech. Librarians are truly in the trenches on this battlefield. They are the generals in this fight.

Ironically, they are not all on the same side. And there lies one of the keys in writing stuff – where there is irony, there is often great theater. So here is the origin of my piece, "Bad Librarian." I wanted to explore the idea of being in the midst of combat. So Miss Helberschlaben was created. Kimberly was delighted and encouraging – frankly something I desperately needed. Being an actor by nature and a writer by necessity (long story there), that's all I needed to throw myself into the project. Often, one "atta boy" goes a long way. Doesn't it for all of us?

She also affirmed we absolutely needed that type of representation in our festival. A librarian was a perfect fit. To add even a little more texture to the festival, we decided a comic bent would be nice – like I can help writing anything that isn't humorous. When I get serious about anything, it's generally droll and pedantic.

The first draft is now done, only a few weeks behind deadline. We have several very fine actresses in mind for the role and I am looking forward to developing the piece further. Nothing is more enlightening for a playwright, than putting a work into the hands, or rather the voice of a good actor. That is where things really come to life.

So mission mostly accomplished and lesson relearned. Write what you know. I know crazy, fun characters, because I are one. However, by writing something from the perspective of a combatant in this war against censorship, it has given me something to say. Because, bottom line, if you don't have something to say, how can you write anything?

Now, I need to thank Kimberly for her guidance and encouragement. I also hope you come out to the libraries where the commission pieces will be performed this fall. As well as to the festival in February, which is part of FTC's season. The monologue festival has become a semi-annual favorite of our audiences, and it's an exciting and unique type of theater experience. We'd love to see you there.



Future Forward Seasons - July Blog 2014

by Karen Moeller


One of the things I'm often asked is, "How do you pick your plays?" I love to hear this question. It means our audiences are engaged and interested in the plays we present, or that they were surprised to discover and fall in love with a play they had never heard of before and are wondering where in the heck we found it. To that end, we work hard to read and consider as many scripts as we can so that we can continue to present the plays that will truly speak to you, our audience.

A key part of this process is our Literary Committee. Made up of actors, designers, writers and dramaturgs, this committee reads and discusses in depth over 60 plays a year. We check out the Pulitzer and Tony Award nominees and winners; look at what other top theaters in the country are doing; comb through reviews and research playwrights; read new works; and take suggestions from our audience, staff, cast members, Board members, creative and production teams, and fellow artists. I've always enjoyed reading scripts -- I was that annoying student in lit class who always wanted yet one more play by Shakespeare or Chekhov on the syllabus. (Actually, I've still managed to remain annoying in this regard, as I often read many of the plays we are considering twice.) And it's even more fulfilling (and fun) to read scripts with the purpose of helping to find the plays that might make their way into a future Forward season.

Each play is read and evaluated by at least three members of the Literary Committee, then discussed at the monthly meeting. And the discussions don't just concern the scripts themselves. We talk about the success and reviews of past productions, as well as other works by the playwright. We even put some writers on our "to watch" list, in order to get an early look at any new works they create. If the reaction after this initial discussion is positive, it's then read by the committee as a whole (currently seven permanent and two rotating members). From there, plays needing further consideration are read by our Advisory Company, where Artistic Director Jen Gray weighs in as well. A short list forms, and in time, a new season begins to take shape.

Without the Literary Committee, the number of scripts to which we could give this much consideration would be significantly lower. As a member of the Committee since it began, I've treasured the opportunity to read so many great works. There have been dramas that have left me sobbing, or that have made me run to the computer to research a particular topic. There are the comedies that drive my husband crazy because I keep interrupting whatever he's doing to read him another funny bit. There are the plays that I've wanted to turn around and read again the moment I finished because I just can't bear to say good-bye to the characters. And when I read a play that makes me think," This could be perfect for Forward and for our audiences in Madison," it's magical.



In the Beginning... - June Blog 2014

by Celia Klehr

There are times when it is important to stop for a moment, reflect on the past, contemplate the present and dream about the future. June marks the beginning of our fiscal calendar and a brief window of calm before the exciting rush of our 6th season. As I clean out my desk, organize files and make initial contacts with all the folks that make up the "Forward Family," I find myself thinking about our first full season with fondness and gratitude for the progress we have made. To begin with, this desk! In an actual office! During those beginning months, the Forward Theater "office" lived in everyone's home and in the little black bag that was attached to my side. I toted that bag everywhere. In it were contracts, founding papers, my ledger and the all-important checkbook. Today, I sit in an actual office with desks, file cabinets and our checks are "cut" instead of being hand written.

In 2010 and 2011, a lot of time was spent moving to different locations. Sometimes it felt as though all I did was pack boxes, scour sinks, mop floors and clean toilets. Today it is an absolute pleasure to have our "home" at the Overture Center for the Arts. Not only are the spaces lovely, but we are surrounded by a professional staff that goes out of their way to make things run smoothly. I am often met at the door by an Overture staff person eager to tell me of a new idea they had that would make things "just that much better."

The first full production that FTC presented was Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang. At the time we didn't have a Production Manager because, well, who knew? This meant that our design team, Stage Manager and Director worked together as a unit to solve everything from working within the budget, timing of production, transportation and to final production. That collaboration set the tone for the way we work today. Happily, we now have an outstanding Production Manager and yet managed to retain that spirit of open communication and truly working as a team. I am especially proud of the fact that the professionals who work with us find the working atmosphere of Forward Theater to be one of genuine collaboration. There is a deep respect and understanding of the work each individual brings to the stage. From the carpenter to the backstage hand to the lead actor to the board operator to the director, there is an open flow of communication and creativity. The end result shows in the quality of work we have been able to present on smart, tight budgets in a short amount of time. Our "Tech Week" is a time of calm excitement. Not something that can be said all the time. I am constantly pulled aside and told that working with us has been a joy both creatively and professionally.
The most wondrous part of the last five years has been watching our audience grow. We sold single tickets that first season. It was anybody's guess as to whom, and how many people would actually come. And come they did! Today, we have a subscription base of over 2,300 that is lovingly processed by hand before it is turned over to the Overture Center's Box Office. From the very first performance, we have greeted the audience in the lobby. We have made it our mission to create a sense of "family" and the audience is a huge part of that. I love that our lobby feels like a celebration. I love that over the last five years, the audience members have been making new friends amongst each other. And I REALLY love that the "audience" has become individuals that I look forward to seeing.

As for the future? I love big dreams! Personally I am aiming for the regional
Tony Award ☺



Playwright Notes: This Prison Where I Live - March Blog 2014

by Angela Iannone

FTC New Play Development Series

Notes on the Play

"This Prison Where I Live" is set in 1879, on the stage of the McVicker Theatre in Chicago, where Edwin Booth was performing in Shakespeare's "Richard II", a play he had performed briefly with Augustin Daly's company in New York in 1878. The play itself had not been performed in America since the time of Edwin's father, famed tragedian Junius Brutus Booth. It was an unpopular play, neither critics nor audiences liked Edwin in it, and no one liked him in a blonde wig, which he adopted to more realistically portray the blonde Richard Plantagenet. By this time in his life, Edwin is 10 years into his disastrous marriage to his second wife, Mary McVicker, whom he had met playing Romeo to her Juliet in 1868, at the McVicker. Mary McVicker struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout their marriage. She had bouts of calm and efficiency alternating with wild fits of rage and sorrow. They lost two children, the first in 1870. Their son Edgar, a large and healthy infant, proved too large for a normal birth, and his head was crushed during extraction. He lived 20 minutes. Mary was kept in a drugged coma for two weeks after his death, and never fully recovered. Edwin had the boy buried with his first wife. In late 1878 Mary McVicker and Edwin lost another child, this time there wasn't enough to bury. Edwin's first marriage, to his beloved Mary ( Mollie) Devlin, also an actress, and whom he had met when playing Romeo to her Juliet in the company of famed American icon Joseph Jefferson, had ended when she died of tuberculosis in 1863, shortly after the birth of their only child, Edwina. Two years later his adored younger brother John shot President Lincoln, and Edwin never spoke his brother's name again, nor allowed it to be spoken in his presence. Edwin spent eight months in seclusion, teetering on the edge of sanity and suicide before returning to the stage in another triumphal production of Hamlet. Hate letters continued to follow him throughout his career, but he had been forgiven. Or so it seemed. In 1879 a dry goods clerk named Mark Grey took aim at Edwin while he was onstage performing in Richard the Second and fired two shots, either of which should have killed the actor. For some reason Edwin, who never varied his blocking once he had set it, changed his position on the stage, and both bullets missed. Edwin would never speak of it afterwards, would never tell why he had moved or what had prompted him in that moment to rise and get out of the line of fire. He came out of the experience with a renewed sense of purpose. And he never performed Richard II again.

It has been seven years since my relationship with Edwin began and I am delighted to share my passion for him. Enjoy the show.

Production history for The Edwin Booth Trilogy

The first play of The Edwin Booth Trilogy, "The Edwin Booth Company Presents" was written for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Theatre Department. The production premiered in 2012 and went on to American College Theatre Festival honors in that same year. In 2013 "The Edwin Booth Company Presents" was produced by Titan Theatre Company as a staged reading at The Players in NYC, the home of Edwin Booth. The original production and the New York production featured the actor for whom the role of Edwin was written, Jake Lesh . The second play, "This Prison Where I Live" was originally workshopped at Door Shakespeare Company in 2012, given a staged reading by the same company in 2013 and produced Off Off Broadway by Titan Theatre Company in January of 2014 to critical and audience acclaim. The Off Off Broadway production featured the two actors for whom the roles of the Booth brothers were written, Reese Madigan as Edwin and Tristan Colton as John. The third play, "Irving & Booth in Othello" was workshopped at Door Shakespeare Company in 2013 and produced as a staged reading by G&M in Milwaukee that same year. Both featured the actor for whom the role of Henry Irving was written, Richard Ganoung. The staged reading also featured Simon Provan as Edwin.