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In the Garden

June 29th, 2008 No comments

I have been trying to figure out just what the point of this play is, really. I mean, one of the strong points or over-arching facets, I’m sure, is something that I, too, have been thinking about for some time: namely, how much of the crap we put up with during our daily lives do we really need? That is, the cell phones, the wireless phones, the laptops, internet connections, dvrs, dish tv, gps devices, home design, redesign, clothing, furnishing, and so-on—and all the pressure that comes with this ‘stuff’ (to quote Carlin, God rest his soul). Always there is the incessant pressure to communicate, to be available, and to be “on” 24×7. It is as if we live lives with no downtime, ever.

One of the main points of In the Garden is that Gabe (Tony Thai) lives in the park (a garden, of sorts, for the city). Of course, here it is reduced to a refuge for the homeless (possibly insane), for sexual trysts, etc. It is a place that people visit, briefly (jog through), but not for any real measure of time. Gabe is the only one who lives in the park (in this play) and the only one committed to experiencing life as lived in the park: some of his better lines involve his observations of the changing light, the clouds and sky, the different pace at which life moves in the “outdoors.” One of my favorite lines has Gabe saying that the Gods were invented at twilight—and through my own personal experience I could see very clearly how—more accurately, perhaps—feel very certainly how. It is at twilight, with the thinning of light, the sun sinking behind trees and casting shadows, sunlight filtering and slicing through the jagged puzzle pieces of leaf, the temperamental transition of energy from that of the active day to that of the hunkering night—that delicate time when a tenuous balance is formed for a moment of eternity; it is at this moment that I can see the Gods walking across the meadow at the edge of the forest; or appearing by a stream in the wood. And perhaps, more broadly, the question of what have we lost that now we spend so little time just out on the land, experiencing the weather and the passage of time—not in cycles of a processor, but in the movement of sunlight and shadow? It is the quiet time that allows us to be in touch with our soul: the element of us all that is most sound and sturdy. And this point, too, Norman Allen makes in one of his more dystopian moments: that we are on the cusp of lives lived as machines (automatons), not as human beings.

Other clues to the meaning of this play involve the obvious parallels with the title and the strong Biblical and Christian themes that run through In the Garden: 1) Eden 2) Gethsemane. The mythic parallels between the two Gardens are strong, of course, and here my reading and understanding of Joseph Campbell comes happily into play: Eden gave us the two trees which actually are one tree: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life; Gethsemane gave us the new Tree of Life—the Cross, on which Christ was Crucified (hanged and thus was the fruit of tree). The Garden of Eden is a place of unity, a place where the pairs of opposites are joined, and thus is likely also the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from whence the knowledge of opposites comes. The mythic significance of this is well known, too, and its representation is everywhere and varied. This is why at the liminal spaces of temples one usually sees a pair of monsters or creatures (guardian figures): one with mouth closed and one with mouth open: representing desire and fear. Those who know fear and desire will not be able to fully enter the temple (unity) as they cannot see beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world is filled. This is why the Buddha’s temptations were of fear, desire (lust), and dharma—or social duty—thou shalt be this and do this… Where Christ’s temptations were food (physical hunger, desire), power (social hunger, duty), and fear (of death, cast yourself down). According to Campbell it is not coincidence that Christ experienced three temptations and had twelve apostles and that the Buddha experienced three temptations and had twelve followers either—Campbell also remarks that you can see the similarity in the personalities of all the apostles. The significance also is that the Buddha lived 500 years before Christ and raises questions about where Christ went for those 30+ years that are absent from this story. But I digress. The point here is that the Garden (Eden) as a symbol shows the hope of eternity (eternal life and a place in unity with the world) and the place of loss (where knowledge of the world is gained); and we see these represented in Allen’s piece. The Garden (Gethsemane) represents a moment of eternity (calm away from the world) and a place of betrayal (loss of that moment).

The sexual escapades with all of the characters, excepting Lizzie (Laurel Brooke Johnson, who, as Tony Brown points out, serves as a sort of Mary Magdalene figure–the irony being that she is chaste in this rendition), represent a sort of odd Garden of Eden for the other characters: John (Vince DePaul), a Philosophy Professor; John’s wife Muriel (Lucy Bredeson-Smith), head of a fashion magazine; and Lizzie’s fiancé, Walter (Arthur Grothe), a narcissistic businessman. For Lizzie and Gabe, the park is likely the Eden of the piece. It is ironic, however, that in this carnal Eden for three of the characters, Gabe entices them to reveal their most raw spiritual moments. In this way, Gabe serves as a sort of touch stone for them—drawing them out of their personas (or put on selves) and back to their souls (or true selves).

As one might expect, with the Biblical overtones and references to Christ, a crucifixion has to come. This aspect of Allen’s piece is difficult for me for several reasons. The first is, from a writer’s perspective, I feel that Allen must have felt forced to put this in. Force is a word I choose carefully because I felt the whole lead up to the end of this play was precisely that: forced. I felt that too much consciousness went into its design and calculation. The reason I feel this is based on my own experience: my own piece, coming up at the end of the season, also contains crucifixion as a metaphor; which brings me to the second difficulty. In my piece, the crucifixion came out unconsciously in the writing and I didn’t even realize it. Unfortunately, later I did realize it. When I did, I tried to use it and force that fate on everyone. It was Clyde, con-con’s artistic director, who pointed out to me that this was predictable and a let-down. I knew this to some extent, having discussed just this issue in the work shopping of the piece in Geither’s MFA class. Though I digress, this problem is still one that troubles me greatly—what the unconscious writes, the conscious will tamper with (edit). So, back to the second point, I realized that the writing had been unconsciously done and was in many respects dreamlike. If there’s anything the conscious mind can’t stand, it’s something that doesn’t make sense—and thus this part of my mind tried to “arrange” the writing so that is was sensible and lovely. The effect was disastrous. For Allen’s work, I don’t know that I would say disastrous, but the crucifixion certainly was expected and was a bit disappointing. As well, as soon as I saw it, I began immediately rummaging through the whole length of the play attempting to find all the other parallels with Christ’s story. An even worse consequence, perhaps, is that I have come to imagine In the Garden as a sort of re-write or re-visioning of this event. As a writer, I wonder more seriously if Allen didn’t get into the middle of this play—letting it go it’s merry way with Gabe and all the bed-fellows—and then wonder one terrible night just what in the hell he was into, and then, just as I mentioned above, force it a direction that seemed palatable and conclusive. The temptation to do this is great and, as I see now, more writers than me have to deal with the challenge it represents.

Ultimately, as many other reviewers have pointed out, the play is often confusing. There is too much philosophy and talkiness pummeling the audience and at times it was ridiculous to think of people having the conversations that these people were having. And in this case, it becomes more seam-splitting for Allen’s piece that the one character is a philosophy professor, which then justifies (or attempts to justify) the elevated level of conversation. That is, this character was created precisely so these conversations could take place: it is less organic. Another difficulty was that sometimes it was difficult to understand what Thai was saying, which muddled the meaning and slowed and strained the pace of the dialog. I think this play is good, but in my heart I feel that it is not finished. If this were my play, I would feel that very strongly—that something else needed for clarification or definition or that something needs examined more closely. Maybe it is because I, in some ways, feel that about my play that goes up in November—maybe I am projecting. I’ll have to get a copy of Allen’s play and read it to be sure. In the end, though, all five actors were strong and convincing. I give special kudos to Lucy Bredeson-Smith, who looked stunning throughout; and to Grothe who created a believable and smarmy Walter and who, with unbelievable grace, stopped the cap of a window blind cord from tapping incessantly against the wall (where the central air was pushing it). Complements also go to the set design, especially the multi-colored floor, which was very pleasing to look upon. I wish I would have seen this play earlier (the run is over), as I would like to see it at least one more time.

Regional Dramatists Guild Meeting

July 25th, 2011 1 comment

The following post is a summation of notes that I and several other playwrights took at a recent gathering of local playwrights where-in we shared our experiences and thoughts on each of our trips across the country to national events. The events included: the Dramatists Guild’s first ever conference: “Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation” at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia; One Theatre World 2011, a conference on Theater for Young Audiences hosted by Seattle Children’s Theatre; the WordBRIDGE Playwright’s Laboratory at Towson University near Baltimore, Maryland; and the Theater Communication Group Conference: TCG at 50: What if…, in Los Angeles, California. In addition to reporting back on our experiences at the conferences, thoughts were shared on other topics throughout the evening.

Dramatists Guild

Playwrights in Mind” convened at George Mason University, June 9-12, Fairfax, Virginia. Under the dynamic leadership of Gary Garrison, DG’s Executive Director for Creative Affairs, the conference was judged a huge success. Estimated attendance: 350. This number included a stunning array of national talent: among them, Craig Carnelia, Kirsten Childs, Christopher Durang, Carol Hall, Mark Hollmann, David Ives, Greg Kotis, Emily Mann, Susan Miller, Marsha Norman, Jeffrey Sweet, Stephen Schwartz, Georgia Stitt, and Doug Wright. All of the presenters, including several DG staff and artists from all over the country, kept the momentum going, sharing a generous mix of craft/career advice and creative inspiration.

Faye [Sholiton]:  The first national conference of the Dramatists Guild was truly a national celebration of playwrights, composers, musicians and creators of live theatre. The organization (with 22 regions and more anticipated) is now a major presence around the country. Each region hosts meetings, workshops and other events, many of which draw national officials as presenters. Regional reps exchanged ideas on programming and ways to utilize local resources and visiting artists. The guild is committed to building a supportive and enthusiastic theatre community. It was made clear that the goal is not so much about membership recruitment as it is about community building – and that we are more concerned about providing service and support than setting attendance records.

Faye mentioned that she would like story ideas for the Dramatist; she has recently written about Mike Oatman and the Cleveland Arts Prize.  The story is told of Oatman’s new black T-shirt for the event.

Discussion turned to reporting some things about the DG conference, including that of the DG website upgrades, and comments were made regarding the session at the George Mason conference about the website.

Mention was made that the restrictions on membership in the Dramatists Guild have been loosened.  I am not sure about this area of the notes as I am not familiar with the former requirements regarding Broadway productions, etc.  But, as I understand it, one now need only show a program and pay an increased fee to be eligible for higher membership levels.

There was general agreement that Gary Garrison is a dynamic and vibrant leader, and that leaders determine or predict the success and direction of an organization and that Gary is a positive force.

Here Deb took over and started discussing her experience at the Dramatists Guild conference with an initial discussion of Jeffrey Sweet and his talk “Improvising your Play.”  And the encouragement to improvise your play off of an outline.  Lots of sessions, interviews, interactives, lectures, a mix.

On Christopher Durang: “This is your life” and his talk never got past 1978. 

A lot of talks and sessions on craft and theory, nuts and bolts of the business, working with and agent, without an agent, negotiation techniques, mythology in playwriting.  Karen Hall was there and on the panel and she really knew her business.  Adaptation panel.

Deb [Magid] came back extremely energized.

Deb mentioned America Now and Here: and Marsha Norman, Jon Robin Baitz, twenty-one playwrights. Arts at the center in dealing with the consequence of 9/11 and the subsequent effect on the American psyche – xenophobia, etc.

Deb discussed how Todd London depressed everyone with his talk, but then lifted everyone (or attempted to) in the last 5 minutes, with regard to the state of the theater and the playwrights in it. (Outrageous Fortune)

Deb went to the Haiku Project.  Very engaging as it was a playwright and a visual artist.  Looked at the visual perspective: forms, rhythm, structure, color; and then at the storytelling perspective.

Everyone was massively energized by the event.  Another workshop or session used clippings in a bag as the writing prompt: color, name of a relative, etc.  Deb noted that something there spoke to someone—there was a great array offered such that all comers had the opportunity to get something out of the conference.  Play readings, Theater of the First Amendment.

Deb mentioned that, and then undertook a serious effort to find, all of the sessions that were recorded from the DG conference. (See links)

Tom [Hayes] talked next.  The big take away for him from the Dramatists Guild meeting is that playwrights need to get off their butts and start producing their own work.  There is too much reliance on old models, which aren’t working any more for the majority of playwrights.  Theaters have piles of scripts/synopses that they can’t get through, they rarely select works that are new and look for playwrights with track records for success or “old” playwrights or adaptations or other means of getting people into theaters that don’t take into consideration new voices and new perspectives—so, if you want your work produced you better get rid of any passive notions you have about sitting back while a director and actors and others create your play because increasingly it will be the writer finding space, finding a director (or directing), running the lights or sound, etc.  The do-it-yourself era is upon us. And in many ways this is a good thing—a freeing thing.  And it offers the possibility of getting in touch with the “let’s pretend” portion of our psyches that existed when we were children and making plays and acting in plays and staging them was something that was fun and not something drab and political and merciless.

Tom went to quite a few talks by Ralph Sevush, Executive Director of Business Affairs for the Dramatists Guild.  Sevush talked quite a bit about copyright, other people’s property, and subsidiary rights.  All of these talks Tom discusses at length on his blog (  The conversation at the meeting took off a bit on some issues, including the claims by director John Rando that he owned the stage directions to Urinetown; and the way subsidiary rights can eat away at the production potential of plays.

Tom also discussed the keynote talk by Julie Jordan on Gender Parity in the theater, which was an emotional talk that stuck with him.

Finally, Tom briefly mentioned the notion of creating Web Series (Susan Miller’s talk); that is, writing television for the web and a project that he is working on with a peer to create episodic pieces for the theater (i.e. television for theater); working under the name Illiterite Theatre (with the tagline “theater that will rot your brain”).

Faye discussed her interview with Doug Wright and said how it killed her not to be able to take notes while he was speaking. She highlighted some of his insights, including his statement about the role of the artist: that we are the most uncompromising moral force today, more than all those institutions set up to give us guidance. Wright talked about how he initially feared that a stage production of Grey Gardens would destroy the very thing that made the movie so wonderful: its verisimilitude. And how two years later, the collaborators had a draft of the play. On Quills Wright noted that the positioning of Jesse Helms and Robert Maplethorpe was very influential—that they were painted as opposites and yet their antagonism (from the perspective of the press) worked out very well for both of them.  Here was one of Wright’s true zingers, that the “censor is the most reliable muse.”  Also, Wright talked about the importance of The Little Mermaid to the transgender community because they can identify with the fact that you have to change what is below your waist in order to find true love. (Quotes available at

Faye attended the Dream Workshop and is a big proponent of writing down dreams.  She mentioned that she received a worksheet on dreams and creativity which perhaps she will share.

Faye noted the Spirit of Giving that was present.  That staff would race to get copies of materials that ran out.  There were troubleshooters everywhere.  There were instances when there were too many people for a space and so the location was immediately changed and everyone just got up and moved. 

Faye mentioned that she has some of Doug Wright’s scripts which are signed and that perhaps they can be raffled off to raise $$ for local DG programming.  Faye is adamant that there will be no $$ charged for any DG event.

General commentary from those who went to the DG ensued discussing how impressive it was that each of the notable writers went to each other’s sessions and sat in the audience.   That they were very approachable and open to people when they came up to talk with them.

Several speakers addressed how to self-produce theatre, noting this is becoming a national trend. Faye is hoping to organize a DIY workshop in the coming months for the Ohio Region.

There was general discussion about whether or not it is permissible to use your own student’s life in your plays…that is, a student whom you’re teaching tells you his/her stories, can you use them?

Faye discussed David Ives approach to playwriting, which apparently includes his knowing the ending of the play before he starts.  Lively discussion followed with speculation as to whether or not Shakespeare knew the end of his play before writing…or Stoppard, for that matter.

One Theatre World 2011

Jacqi Loewy, Assistant Professor of Communication and Theatre, Notre Dame College, discussed her trip to Seattle for the One Theatre World 2011 conference on Theater for Young Audiences, hosted by Seattle Children’s Theatre.  Besides Tim Webb (who was the Keynote Speaker), workshops/speakers of note: Steven Dietz, Laurie Brooks and Garry Golden. It’s iTheatrics who produce the Musical in a Day workshops.

Jacqi, being responsible for a theater program, felt that NE Ohio did not need another theater program, per se, but could use a theater program for Young Audiences.

Jacqi noted that the first person she saw at the conference was Colleen Porter from Playhouse Square.  Jacqi described the experience as energizing and amazing.


A workshop with Tim Webb, from Oily Cart, in England. ( ) They work with kids with profound disabilities, using all the senses.  Seeing many live performances and enjoying talkbacks. Learning about groups with success stories. Of note: Book It Productions (, teaches literacy through drama. And one group mounted a memorable one-time performance of ANNIE – in a single day.

Plays tend to revolve around “issues” i.e. drugs. TYA identified bullying as a theme deserving of everyone’s focus. Every company pledged to create a program on the subject over the two years, until they convene again. Anti-drug plays continue to be a theme as well.

There were teachers teaching literacy via theater (i.e. theater of the people or People Theater, a la Augusto Boal.

Jacqi was enthusiastic as she met people who are doing what she wants to do and that they were very open to sharing and she felt compelled to hit the ground running before someone else “does it here.”

There were a lot of performances. Wed – Sat. Every day, every hour – a play was being done.  Sign up. See. Feedback, talkbacks. Kaiser Permanente was convinced to give $$ up front for a theater group to write whatever.  Corporations want in on the education bandwagon. Arts are the way to educate.

There was the question as to who owns the work (art) once it’s done.  Essentially and up-front question: is it work for hire or is the artist being given a grant to create work.  Many corporations want to re-use the work, so it is work for hire and branded and once the piece is done it belongs to the company that paid for it.

Jacqi mentioned that she started her career as a TYA actor in New York (Bugs Bunny and Wonder Woman)—many equity actors get their start this way. Academic perspective she was prepared…?

Commentary about Seattle being a big theater place in the 90s; that Seattle was big for everything in the 90s (Microsoft, grunge music, theater, arts, etc).  Jacqi was blunt about the notion that B-City people view themselves as being deprived, but she is impressed at how much opportunity there is—in both Seattle and Cleveland and that artists just need to get up and motivate and do-it-yourself. Which brings us back to one take away from the Dramatists Guild conference.

Not a lot of TYA is being taught at the university level, although University of Texas (Austin) has a large program. They invited others to come and see what they do. This participant attended the conference to begin a program at a Cleveland-area college.

Although finances remain the biggest obstacle to presenting children’s theatre, there is one hopeful trend: the corporate world is discovering the value of theatre/arts in education, and corporations are getting on the education bandwagon. Playwrights are being awarded commissions from $3,000 to $20,000 to write for kids. Sometimes this means that the playwright must relinquish ownership of the work and many have done so. Companies want to use the work to establish a brand.

The final message of the meeting: collaboration: look for other companies for co-production. An out-of-town match is best. Share designers, directors. Great creative possibilities as well as cost savings.

For more information on Theatre for Young Audiences, visit


This program is organized annually to grant its full resources to a handful of selected MFA candidates working in playwriting. This year (for the first time), it was held in Towson, MD, under the direction of David White. The event lasted about 2-1/2 weeks.

WordBridge invites a small group of playwrights annually – this year, it was four. They bring work in need of development, doing rewrites, consulting with experts in multiple disciplines. They revise some more, rehearse, under the guidance of a dramaturg. What sets this program apart is the consultant list: more than 40 people with expertise in everything from music, movement, theatre, and design to mathematics and psychology. All of them offered insights into the works in progress and fueled the creative process.

Our participant, a WordBRIDGE alumnus, was one of the dramaturg/mentors. He described how a mathematician created a three-dimensional vision of one of the plays, allowing the writer to see the work in new ways. A psychologist weighed in on behavioral issues. Multiple actors read the same words so the playwright could hear different interpretations. Graphic artists offered program designs to demonstrate how the story could be illustrated.

And then the artist could keep returning to the drawing board. Said the mentor, it’s the one chance you’ve got as a playwright to have total control over your own work: you have the power to replace the director, the dramaturg, the cast.

The process ended with readings of the revised works. Said the mentor, “I never thought I could feel so proud of a play that wasn’t my play.”

Committed to making the program as free from the pressure of making a “final product” as possible, WordBRIDGE keeps the process private. No public feedback mars the creative process, at least in this stage of development.

A special bonus was meeting foreign visitors who brought a different aesthetic to the process. They also gave updates on theatre abroad. The group learned that colleagues working in Hungary, for example, must deal with a right-wing government that has begun outing gays and Jews. The constitution, newly rewritten, has legitimized this sentiment, leaving theatres latitude to produce plays with only one theme: “All theatre has to be about hope,” said one visiting director. Small theatres cannot sustain themselves under the new restrictions. For updates, visit:

WordBRIDGE provides travel, housing and meals for all participants. Funding comes largely from alumni of the program. This year, Center Stage provided actor housing. 

And the work of local artists was also featured, a nod to the huge community effort that produced the program.


TCG had its biggest-ever conference, with 1100 attendees. A pre-conference meeting brought an estimated 125-200 participants. The setting was citywide, with the central venue the Biltmore Hotel. This did not always work in the conference’s favor, since the events were widely scattered and the neighborhoods unfamiliar. 

Among the highlights:

RADAR L.A. was in full-swing, the West Coast’s answer to the Under the Radar Festival in NYC. Ten plays ran in rep and featured Western and Southwestern themes.

Julie Taymor was celebrated in an interview that included film of her astonishing body of work. Few had seen what she created in Japan, for example. And it was enlightening to see how she transferred what she had created for stage to the big screen. Looking past the recent Spiderman debacle, one could only marvel at her contributions to the art of scenic design.

For one attendee, the highlight was a session about measuring the value of live theatre. Following the earlier model (“Gift of the Muse”) study in 2004, which was largely anecdotal, they are now evaluating audience response by examining the “intrinsic impact.”  (visit

Audience members in several theatres have been asked to fill out surveys following a live production. They are asked to evaluate what they have just seen using several criteria:

  • How captivated they were
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Aesthetic growth
  • Spiritual connection
  • Emotional resonance
  • Social Bonding

These questions should be asked with any play under production consideration as they look at so many levels of impact. Moreover, the list makes us think of our own work – how would we score on the scale with any given script? One participant returned to Cleveland to distribute the questions to the artists involved in the season just ended and to the resident playwrights’ group.

One attendee noted that breakout sessions sometimes devolved into grousing sessions. Artists remain consumed with getting agents, whom they assume will assure them productions.

On the other hand, there were sublime moments. At the top of the list, an appearance by Mrs. Smith, a performance artist who (when the dowdy costume comes off) is David Hanbury. His character, matron/patron of the theatre, dropped in on a session entitled “You Call That Theatre?” that featured non-traditional forms in unusual venues. She feigned outrage at all that this so-called “theatre” is doing to ruin her enjoyment.

How dare they destroy the only art form that can deliver “the act of communal sleeping,” she railed.  Don’t ask her to turn her chair around, or go sit in an abandoned garage. Audiences like coming to a place where they are safe for two hours – to sleep.

Hanbury, who tours his solo shows, also appeared on behalf of a telethon for people and cats with severe and persistent emotional challenges. His appearances, as much as any, reminded everyone of the thrill we experience when we are taken by surprise and don’t know how something’s going to come out.

Much attention was paid to getting younger people interested in attending theatre. To set that scene, experts spoke of the current generation of teens who now send some 4,000 text messages per month (if they’re female, anyway). A key speaker was David Houle, author of The Shift Age. He spoke about the future – a time we already know has seen time and space broken down. We are digital now.

Think of people over 20 as the new “immigrants.” We will never get back the distinctions of the pre-digital era. Kids under 15 are the “natives.”

It’s not all bad news for us immigrants. There is an unprecedented awareness of what’s going on in the world, and how it relates to “me.” Kids have a sense now that “I am important, but so is that kid in Bolivia.”

And for all the seeming disconnection, look at how teens now express affection. Years ago, guys would hug only after a touchdown. Kids now hug A LOT.

The trend is moving toward devised theatre, according to those who attended the pre-conference. For some time, that kind of writing was being done in an ensemble, coming out of improvisation, with no author listed. Now, these groups are trending toward using playwrights and giving credit.

Follow these and other trends in upcoming issues of American Theatre magazine. 

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