Friday, May 5, 2017

Keep writing, Austin: Cyndi Williams reflects on our first Festival of New American Plays

Stephen Mercantel, Jess Hughes and
Andrew Osborn Ginder in rehearsal for
Sarah Salwick's Low Hanging Stars
In the 1980's, not too many people in Austin wrote plays. Or maybe lots of people wrote scripts and tucked them into the back of their sock drawer, because Austin didn't have many development or production opportunities for playwrights at the time. For years I only knew one playwright, Marty Martin, who wrote wonderful historic dramas. The first time I was nominated for an award for a new play script, only two other original scripts were nominated. Randall Wheatley won for his very funny radio station comedy Billy's Last Broadcast, and he stood in front of the theater community and said this...

"If Austin wants a national profile as a theater city, it doesn't matter how many amazing new interpretations of Hamlet we present... it matters how many original plays we produce."

Not to slag Shakespeare, but a living theater calls for living playwrights. 

In the late 90's, ScriptWorks, a service organization for playwrights, was founded by David Mark Cohen, along with a small band of playwrights, including me. (Carson Kreitzer, the writer of Capitol Crime! is a Core Alum of ScriptWorks, and Sarah Saltwick is a current member who happens to also have a script in ScriptWork's Out of Ink Festival this weekend!). 

Director Cyndi Williams &
Playwright Sarah Saltwick in
rehearsal for Low Hanging Stars
By the early 2000's, I heard this figure: fully one out of three plays produced in this city was an original script. 

But Austin's more recent economic upturn has its downsides (traffic, anyone?) and one of those downsides has been the loss of affordable theater space. In the last few months alone, we have lost Salvage Vanguard's theater on Manor Road, and the Off Center, run for many years by the Rude Mechs. Both of these companies produce and promote new work, and have national profiles... but they don't have theater spaces in Austin, Texas, anymore.  

I am so proud of Austin Playhouse for stepping up with our first festival of New American Plays.  We had over 700 entries, and we read quite a few excellent scripts, including the lovely ghost story, Low Hanging Stars by Austin's own Sarah Saltwick. 

Keep writing, Austin.

For tickets and more information on Austin Playhouse's Festival of New American Plays, click hereAdmission is Free. If you would like to pick a price for your ticket it will support the actor salaries, playwright awards, and production expenses for the New Play Festival!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Interview with Silent Sky Playwright Lauren Gunderson

This week, we're gearing up to open Silent Sky, a magical and inspiring play that tells the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt who transcended her post as a real-life Harvard "computer" to make a revolutionary discovery about the universe. We were also lucky enough to have an opportunity to interview playwright Lauren Gunderson about her brilliant play. 

Read on and then join us at Silent Sky, running September 23 - October 16. For tickets and more information, click here!

Although this play wasn't written that long ago, do you think this play has a new message for today's audiences? 
We are still in the unfortunate rut of under-opportunity and under-representation for women in the sciences and tech (and Hollywood, and politics and on and on and on). This play aims to expose and challenge that angering trend with a true story of a woman who changed the course of astronomy and (to the extent that astronomy defines us as a civilization) human life. And she did it in a room with several other brilliant but underpaid, sequestered, unappreciated woman mathematicians that were not allowed to even use the telescopes that the men could. That sends a message across time to us to say that women aren't asking for special treatment, we are showing how special we already are and always have been. We're not asking anyone to let us participate, we are exclaiming that we have participated in discoveries, breakthroughs and wild achievement all along (despite being excluded, barred and presumed incapable). I also intend for the play to show more than one kind of heroine. Women characters are often (even if they are the play's protagonist) surrounded by men. This play reverses that making the male character the rarity. This creates a diverse sisterhood that will give every audience member (male or female) someone to root for. 

Do you have any rules for your plays?  
I do tend to follow Paula Vogel dictum to include one impossible thing in every play. This generally leads to some exciting theatricality. I also start with an image in my mind for the end of the play and write toward that end. I don't really know a play is worth writing until I get a sense of it's resolution. 

Did you find the lack of personal information on the real Henrietta frustrating or liberating?
Liberating! I tried to honor her spirit even if every detail isn't biographically confirmed. The science is accurate as is the history of her various discoveries and publications. And I think that's what she would care most about. I took details that were particularly beautiful or ironic or inspiring and included them faithfully. She did travel on a ocean liner to Europe. She did insist on being identified as an astronomer on her final census. She discovered thousands of cepheid stars from that wallpapered Harvard attic. A member of the Nobel committee did call her for a prize. Before the premiere of the play a few years ago I went to her grave in Cambridge to say thank you for not haunting me for making up parts of her life. So far she has kept to that arrangement. :)

In our research, Henrietta's siblings were seldom mentioned. What inspired you to give her a close companion in a sister? 
I wanted to write about women not just one woman. And I thought the contrast between the life that Henrietta, Annie and Will chose and the life of most women of the time would best be juxtaposed in a sister for Henrietta. That way they are in the exact same generation but choosing very different lifestyles. In reality it was Henrietta's mother who was her companion and even moved to Boston to be with her until she died. Also I have a sister and felt that it was about time I wrote about her a bit, too.

Silent Sky, it is intimated that Will and Annie have a romantic relationship. Is this fiction based? 
Mostly yes. But the women that worked there tended to go unmarried (Annie was and Will never married after her horrible husband left her when she was young). I also borrowed from the concept of a "Boston Marriage" (the play is set near Boston after all), which at that time meant a loving sometimes romantic relationship between two women who spent their lives together.  

What question do you wish you were asked about 
Silent Sky
About the music. I knew this play could be a play as opposed to a short story or blog post because the mathematics of her stars contain music: pattern, volume, rhythm. It quickly became a way to dramatize an idea, to theatricalize her science. The music is another way to connect science to art. More on that here:

If you had to write a play about a one of today's female scientists, who would it be?

I write about a lot of women scientists (Ada Lovelace, Emilie du Chatelet) and find it better to write about science after a generation or two has time to digest what the discoveries become. It's hard to write fiction about today's science because we can't know what it means. Does it change the world or quickly become obsolete? So I tend to write about science history and trust that, as with any historical story, we apply its essential ideas and lessons to ourselves in the present. 

What research would you want audience members to do before seeing this show?

They needn't do any! Just come ready to have fun, learn a bit, and fall in love with these amazing, funny, passionate women and the stars they love. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Stage Manager's love for The Philadelphia Story

I first saw the The Philadelphia Story as a teenager. I fell hard and instantly for the dialogue - spending time with these characters made me feel worldly and intelligent, which I think is exactly how every 16-year-old girl wants to feel. Their words seemed to effervesce around me, a snapshot of American culture in a very interesting time - the sparkly, cultured breath before the plunge into the gritty, rationed waters of the 1940s. But over the years, though my feelings about its themes are complex, I have discovered more and more to love about this story.

Tracy appealed to that younger me in particular. At the time, all I wanted was to surround myself with fast-talking, confident dames in the style of Rosalind Russell - sharp-tongued women who held their own and gave the fellas a run for their money. Don't get me wrong, I still love those scrappy characters, but I now see that what drew me to Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of Tracy Lord was that she's a gentler model of this archetype: strong, but feminine too, and not competing with the boys so much as operating in her own league completely. She's unflappable, but we get to watch her get flapped, and THAT is compelling.

The story behind this play and the subsequent movie also colors and deepens my affection for them - Philip Barry wrote the play for Hepburn specifically to star in after she was labeled "box office poision" and her film career was widely believed to be kaput. She rallied, bought the rights to the movie, starred in it and influenced the rest of the casting.

This play, for me, is about gumption, redemption, and the kind of strength that's tempered with mindfulness and warmth. It's a study of a time and place in our national history - where intelligence, wit and the implementation of these were highly valued. It's about kindness and understanding across social and economic lines - something to think about, in this time of closed borders and partisan everything. It's about giving yourself, and others, a break sometimes. Couldn't we all use that?

- Rachel Dendy

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Don's Treehouse in France

So what does Don do when he doesn't have to build a theatre? Well he heads over to France to visit his grandkids and build them the best treehouse ever!
This April, Producing Artistic Director, Don Toner, took a well-deserved vacation during the run of Roaring to visit his grandkids in France. My mother and brother went along too. While there, Mike and Dad worked their tails off building an incredible treehouse for the kiddos.

Here's the family posing on the staircase of the treehouse. That's right, it was built 14 feet up around a Sequoia.
It took them some time to select the right tree, then they had to clear a lot of bamboo and prep the tree.
Then they built the deck. This was slow going as they were using a lot of reclaimed lumber from the property and were working 14 feet in the air. Once the base was stable they built a pulley system to haul up supplies.
Didi the terrier was an excellent supervisor.

The finished tree house has a roof, siding, and shutters that open and close.
Here's the view of the tree from the lawn for a little perspective!

And here's the finished treehouse! Some of the lumber will be stained and the bamboo railing will be replaced with rope. 
I missed my family a ton during April, but it was definitely worth it. When dad got home he needed another vacation from all the hard work!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Roaring Rehearsal: A Special Treat!

Last Saturday, our playwright Cyndi Williams' nephew Christopher came and surprised everyone with a special treat.  Christopher is a long-time lover and supporter of Austin Playhouse and has been eager to volunteer for us in some way.  When he found out that the theatre has a Keurig machine, he very graciously offered to come serve us all coffee before rehearsal.  
Rehearsals are in full swing and director, writer, cast and crew have been working very hard so this was a very special and much appreciated delight!  Thank you Christopher!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Developing a Play: Roaring by Cyndi Williams

What do I really want to write about? I asked myself, about three years ago.  
Make a list, I decided, of things I can't stop thinking about.

A few things on the list seemed to fit together:
* A romance with older people
* Seeing the ghost of a living person
* Living in a society under the ground
* The way we make assumptions about people at different stages of life, especially the way young people sometimes tend to infantilize and patronize older people
* Coming of age in different decades
Doing research on the idea of ghosts of living people, I came across a possible scientific explanation: the double-slit light experiment.  Only half-way understanding the science, it lit a fire under me.  SCIENCE and the SPIRITUAL!  And I was off!

About 30 pages in, my brilliant idea began to feel awkward.  So I did what I have done many times: put the pages into the hands of trusted dramaturg and friend, Lara Toner.
As a young actress, Lara appeared in several of my plays, including CowpeopleA Name for a Ghost to Mutter, and Fish.  Then Lara decided to add awesome director to her resume.  She directed an excellent production of my play Dug Up for Austin Playhouse's Larry L. King stage a few years ago.  She would tell me if these awkward pages held any promise.
Female firefighters at Pearl Harbor
Her response was that I should finish the play so Austin Playhouse could produce it.

When the first draft of Act One was completed, we gathered actors for a reading of it, and everyone got excited.
I completed the first draft of the script.  We had a reading, and everyone was disappointed.
Armed with many notes, I killed my darlings, cutting three characters out of the script.  Continued to research the double-slit light experiment till I 4/5th's understood it.  Developed an odd theory about the color blue.  Revised, rewrote, and wondered if I was smart enough to write a play about science and spirit. 
We had another reading, and everyone was relieved.

More rewrites.  Another reading.  This time... there weren't so many notes.  Everyone was excited again.

Now the rewrites are less a re-imagining a story, and more fine-tuning what we have.  I'm looking at each character's journey through the story, one by one. 
This is the process that we've used to develop Roaring.
I think of this play as a Valentine to all the people who have brought us to where we are, and as a toast to hope for our future.  -Cyndi
Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Prize Winner

Friday, October 4, 2013

Behind the Scenes: Properties Design for Man of La Mancha

Helmets and Horseheads

Gathering properties for a production often involves lots and lots of thrift store shopping. With Man of La Mancha it's hard to find horse heads, golden helmets, and broken lances in a thrift store, so almost everything that appears onstage had to be built. We built shields, rakes, lances, gauntlets, and much, much more.

I spent several evenings working on The Golden Helmet of Mambrino and the horse and donkey heads. The helmet is cardboard and papier mache with lots and lots of acrylic paint. The acrylic paint creates a flexible plastic shell. The hat got severely dented during a fight on stage and popped right back into place at intermission!
-Lara Toner

Balloon inflated to the size of Rick Roemer's head? Check. Cardboard circle with wedge removed to create a "shaving basin"? Check.
Can you see it?

Papier mache!

After 3 coats of newspaper the balloon is removed.
The helmet is base coated in gold acrylic paint, then sponged with several different metallic shades to create depth.

Almost done! The hat needed drying time between each coat of papier mache and paint.
Rick Roemer as Don Quixote de la Mancha.
The horse and donkey heads started out as felt hats, a wire frame from a large bell ornament, and baskets. They were covered with hand-sewn burlap and fabric. The ears are a floral mesh with hand-sewn moss.
The bases of the donkey and horse.

Base coating of fabric and ear frames.
First dress rehearsal. They still need moss, manes, eyes, and lots of burlap fringe to hide the human heads.
Finished donkey head hanging backstage.

Finished horse head.