Posts Tagged ‘Cleveland State University’

NEOMFA Play Festival

February 14th, 2012 No comments

Went to the NEOMFA festival on February 4 and February 9 at convergence and had a blast.  First of all, there were so many faces there that I recognized that it literally was like walking into a holiday celebration at a family house.

Mike Williams’ piece Plant Life was up first.  While it felt a bit unfinished, it was a yearning piece that sought and looked forward with hope to the possibility that the future might bring.  Alan’s (Tom Kondilas) wife Leslie (Liz Conway) has liver disease and needs a new liver.  The waiting list game isn’t working for the pair and they opt in to the possibilities for a new liver presented by a research scientist (Michael Regnier) whose work with plants has yielded intriguing possibilities.  Combined with this, the deterioration of Alan and Leslie’s relationship begins against the disease and the financial stress on the pair (he is a poor artist, she is the bread-winner).  There were two real highlights, I felt. The first was the rapid succession of wake-up-we-have-to-go moments when the phone rang announcing a possible liver donor had been found.  The succession demonstrated the frustration, terror, and effort that is involved in dealing with transplantation and accomplished the task of moving the play forward both in time and in plot.  The second was the work of convergence in using their trap to allow the birth of the plant Leslie from the pod. Having planted and tended the seed given him by the mad scientist, Alan receives the fruits of his labors in the form of a “new” Leslie who holds within her the liver that the real Leslie needs.  While at first an innocuous plant, at the end it is a massive pod that breaks open revealing: Leslie.  The effect was incredible and the audience rejoiced in seeing it—showing again that to a certain extent spectacle is what drives entertainment in a theater.

Jarod Witkowski’s play Nothing Funny was quite different from Williams’ piece, which was primarily plot-driven. Witkowski’s play’s concern is innocuous enough, a son (Benjamin Gregg) and his relationship (or lack thereof) with his parents played by both Amy Bistok Bunce and Wes Shofner—whom it was great to see at convergence again.  The play begins with the mother shoving dinner to her son saying, “I never liked you much as a kid.”  From there the play explodes in an onslaught of strange and rambling monologues, songs, dislocated scene sequences, jumps in time and space, odd interludes, and startling uses of the space that create a highly expressionistic and subjective emotional dissection of a family’s dysfunctional life together.  A television and colorful old pump assembly (put together by Wes) allowed for movement through time at the push of a…handle.  So the play jumps between the present, the future, the past, funny interlude, monologue, etc.  By focusing on these three people and their relationship with one another, Witkowski does a highly effective job of excavating the emotional life of the family: the resentments, disappointments, yearning for connection, and inability to connect or even express themselves—comically highlighted by the constant refrain of both parents: “grammatical error” as their son speaks.  That is, it’s not enough to strive sincerely to express yourself clearly to another person, but to have to do it in precisely correct grammar—as that seems to be what the person your talking to is focused on—well, that just makes it all the more difficult.

Both of the plays were challenging and fun to see and convergence really came together to put on a wonderful set of shows for the NEOMFA playwrights.

Jeffrey M. Jones @ CSU

December 5th, 2011 No comments

Jeffrey M. Jones

Trying to catch up on my happenings, as a lot has been going on and I’ve been negligent in my posting. A few weeks ago I went down to Cleveland State University to sit in on a class whose guest was Jeffrey Jones. It was a pretty interesting time just sitting and listening to the stories that Jones was telling about all sorts of things, including his own writing process and current project to tales of his days with and around the Wooster Group in New York and earlier days when theater was just breaking out in the 60s with folks around like Sam Shepard and Fornes and even an early encounter with David Mamet, etc, at the theater door: “It’s Mamet, the writer.” (Sexual Perversity in Chicago). I should make clear, right away, that I’m talking about Jeffrey Jones the playwright (Seventy Scenes Of Halloween) and NOT the pederast movie star of Amadeus fame.

I also heard from David Todd, my one-time professor who now works down south at Otterbein, who had recently referred me to Jones’ blog:, which is quite interesting, revealing, and often aggressive: with Jones not being shy about his opinions when it comes to things theatrical. To tell the truth, I wish he posted more often. One entry that I found especially of this type was entitled “How Theatre Works” from 2008:; and at some point I’ll post a response to it as I found some of what he had to say quite surprising given his own style of play creation and works.

In his talk at CSU, Jones touched on how he created plays: for instance, that he has a strong interest in creating a “pastiche” of other materials, such as Harlequin romances (bodice rippers) and Nixon’s White House tapes, etc. That is creating a collage of materials and seeing what comes out of it. In terms of his process, he says that he likes to set up a rule or process and to follow it to see where it leads. For instance, on the Flea Theater website Jones has a workshop listed which discusses a process that he uses for play creation. For an even more elaborate discussion of Jones’ approach, take a look at Broadway Play Publishers.

In some ways, the very act of creating plays in this manner flies in the face of the traditional notion of the playwright as authority or playwright as author. The notion of “author” has been a subject of much speculation in general over the past thirty to forty years (See Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, etc.). For instance, what to make of a playwright such as Charles Mee and his (re)making project. Me, who does not “write” the words of his play, but instead “orchestrates” the words of others (found texts) into a play. But beyond this, the question was raised in the discussion regarding the “new trend” of “devised theater”–that is, plays being created using a physical process or a theatrical/spatial approach, rather than a scripted approach. Often you’ll find actors and a director working to create plays as an ensemble, possibly using myth, fairy tale, or other found texts as a guide that is then reinterpreted or re-constructed. This approach to playmaking often cuts out the playwright or, in some cases, has been seen by playwrights as a direct attempt to cut the playwright from the process. Jones’ thoughts on this–while being familiar with this approach under various names–including that used by the Wooster Group, or even Shepard/Chaikin–are that playwrights create story and pattern. Playwrights are responsible for the orchestration of events, and Jones felt that this is not a likely outcome from devised theater or spontaneously created pieces. Jones felt that, while actors may be able to create a character or even a series of actions that have some meaning in a given context, they are, in his experience, not likely to be able to create an overarching story, a grand pattern, and that the pieces are unfocused, and thus lose power, energy, and possibly meaning over the course of the event. Playwrights, as the name implies, are supposed to be master builders of story. Playwrights should be familiar with how story works and the energy potentials of its various constructs, rhythms, and events–be they in a beat unit, a scene, or in larger blocks across the play–even if they intend to violate these rules or work against them. Some actors may have an understanding of the constructs, rhythms, and events in story, but most do not. Directors had certainly better.

I have taken steps into this arena of playmaking by pastiche or collage, though not to the extent that Jones has, nor do I have his track record, pedigree, etc. My thesis play, Patterns, for instance, was a collage of generic forms, as well as a collage of various texts brought together to reflect and refract one another: an effort to force meaning to be created by the audience who experiences the play and, in some ways, to deny that I as the playwright am the sole source of meaning with regard to the text. (That is, not to deny my importance entirely.) My play Andrew Jackson ate my Homework: A racial farce, is another example of this approach to playmaking. The problem that I have run into, or have noted to myself, when writing plays that reject the Aristotelian dramatic structure–or at least one of the issues–is where does the play end? Or how do you craft the ending without falling into the trap of “forcing” the ending or dulling the play, somehow–that is, as Jones might have it, without killing the energy, power, and meaning. This is a question of editing and has been addressed in many locations by playwrights smarter than me, one of which I have pointed to before: an interview with Wallace Shawn in an issue of American Theatre. For Jones, the question of where or when a play ends is when you, as playwright, have exhausted the material or your ability to create new things with the material. Or, to use the words from Jones above, when you set up a rule or process and trace it out to see where it leads, it is precisely when you have run out of leads that the play must be done–in one sense. Then there is the cleaning up. For Jones, this represents the other important facet of playwriting, which he posited in a question: “is it tight”? That is, have you gone back into the work and edited every line to make certain that it is as tight and clear and clean as it can be? That there is no fat, no laziness, nothing imprecise? Has the waste from each line been removed?

The event at CSU was lively and important for me, and I look forward to my efforts at revising the plays mentioned above using Jones’ guidance and thoughts for both ending and tightening plays.

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