By Patsy Isenberg
Five playwrights and musicians from various places in the U.S. and one from Ireland came to the Flint Repertory Theatre (The Rep) Jan. 18–20 to offer staged readings of their new unpublished works in front of a live audience. The free event included a panel discussion with The Rep’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Lluberes and the writers of the “New Works” on Sunday, Jan. 20.
This was the second year the New Works Festival was presented to Flint audiences. Local talent gathered to do the readings. Many familiar faces from previous Rep and Youth Theatre productions were involved. They rehearse the readings for only a day or two before they simply come on stage with folding chairs and music stands to hold their scripts. There’s a narrator, often the director, to indicate when a new scene begins or add clarification since there is no curtain to close.
The five playwrights were Greg Kotis of New York City, Amber Palmer of Kalamazoo, Abbie Spallen from Ireland, and a writing/music team of Gordon Leary of Brooklyn and Julia Meinwald of New York City.
The first reading, “The Wayward Bunny” by Greg Kotis, held on Friday evening is the puzzling story of a mystery writer’s visit to his “boyhood home.” Events occur and characters show up that baffle the writer and the audience. As one audience member pointed out during the panel discussion, Kotis inserts some of his knowledge and experience of writing into some of the dialogue in “The Wayward Bunny” when the writer character describes his own and his father’s very different method of writing to his son. Kotis who lives in New York City is a Tony Award winner and the author of many plays and musicals.
Saturday offered two readings.
The first was “It’s a Small World (or the Robot Play),” the only play by a Michigan native, Amber Palmer of Kalamazoo. Palmer has had her plays read at many other festivals. Her play “The Speedy Gonzales Memorial Turtle Sanctuary” was a regional finalist at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
Palmer’s “It’s a Small World (or the Robot Play)” is the surprising story of “Anne, a recovering drug addict (who is) back in contact with her childhood best friend after he abandons his robot son/coffeemaker at Disney World and asks her to send it back to him,” according to the program description. A long road trip takes place with eventual contacts with other people/kitchen appliances who are all “reminded of what it means to be human.”
Palmer expects to receive her M.F.A. in playwriting from Western Michigan University in Spring 2020.
Later Saturday Irish playwright, Abbie Spallen’s play “Tower: The Album” was read. This one’s set during “the height of the Celtic tiger in Ireland” when money seemed to pour in. For this play Spallen has written lots of witty, often sarcastic banter that goes on among two couples who work in the music industry. But, as it says in the program’s description of the play, “…every boom must be followed by a bust.” The actors were challenged with reading the lines with an Irish accent.
Spallen has won many awards for her writing including the Stuart Parker major award and the HALMA Foundation award for excellence in the European arts as well as seeing several of her plays on stage in cities here in the U.S. and Europe.
On Sunday afternoon there was a panel discussion with the Rep’s Artistic Director, Michael Lluberes, and the five writers. There were five because one play was written by the collaboration team of Gordon Leary and composer Julia Meinwald which was scheduled to take place Sunday evening. At the panel discussion, the writers gathered amongst themselves, to share stories, talk about the writing process and answer audience questions. But there were only three people in the audience for the panel discussion, probably because of a snowstorm that had hit Flint that day.
Lluberes kicked things off with a story of his about small audiences, recalling a production two nights after 9/11 in New York City, with 12 people in the audience. It was Gershwin musical. “Everything below us was closed,” he remembered. “It was a painful experience… I played the Bert Lahr part and was not getting a lot of laughs…I had all these lines about how beautiful the city was… you know that song ‘they’re writing songs of love, but not for me…’ the ingenue sings this and the Bert Lahr character sings it back to her doing impressions, like ‘turn that frown upside down’… well, she starts bawling and I don’t know what to do, fresh in New York… and so I sang the song and it was like I was mocking her. So I’ve experienced worse than this!”
Spallen talked about having performed in a prison, Kotis related times he performed to audiences of two and three saying of one, “it was one of those magical theatrical experiences and we said ‘we’re gonna do it because we love it.’”
They then moved on to how they became playwrights. Kotis started acting in high school and “did it for fun” in college. He met some people from Second City in Chicago and in doing skits found out it was rewarding to get laughs. He then found out it was even a better high to get the laughs from his own writing.
“Acting, I guess, is sort of like opium and writing is heroin,” Kotis said. But, at the same time, he says he hates the “vast desert” of actually doing the writing.
Spallen said she started out acting as well. She eventually got lots of voice over work but “felt bad because it was all so corporate and advertising and my morals began to be (affected) by it, so I decided to do something with it and began to write.” She was successful with her first play and left acting behind.
Palmer said she didn’t begin theater by acting but instead as a “techie,” (scene design and a lot of sewing) and “decided to focus on lighting design as an undergrad–except I was terrified of heights… and a professor said ‘oh, you’re not afraid of heights, you’re afraid of falling.’” After a while she told herself that she just couldn’t do it anymore and ended up taking playwriting courses and fell in love with it.
Composer Julia Meinwald said she always loved theater and music and was a music major as an undergrad and always thought she would go into film scoring. However, she said, “In film scoring you’re so much subjugated to the director’s vision, you’re really just executing what they want to hear, but in theater you get to be the owner of the sound a little bit more.”
Meinwald and her partner, playwright Leary, met in a class at Yale, where, Leary said, “We wrote our second assignment together.” Luberes asked about their collaboration which Leary said “was kind of epic.” He described their process: They never write in the same room, “too much pressure,” he said. They allow for “a lot of solitude” and discussions. Leary said they “are fortunate” to attend writers’ groups. The two have been collaborating for ten years and have written five full-length musicals.
That’s a good place to describe the last reading of the New Works Festival, written by the Leary-Meinwald team. This one was very well-attended. Lluberes directed this one as well as the first, “The Wayward Bunny.” “The Magnificent Seven” concerns the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where the women’s gymnastics team won the gold medal for the U.S. The “seven” in the title refers to the seven gymnasts who received it. In addition to the gymnast characters there are a few commentators on the sidelines, John Tesh for one. The songs and words are those of the gymnasts through talk amongst themselves at the meet and what they might be thinking. The characters are based on the real people who were there, but the musical “imagines their inner lives,” showing what might have gone on behind the scenes and revealing their personalities. There were between 15 and 20 songs performed that night and the actors had only about 12 hours to rehearse. The musical director and keyboard accompanist was Ron Silverstein. Leary and Meinwald were creating songs right up to the day of the reading this reading at The Rep was the first time they’d heard their new musical start to finish.
The New Works Festival is sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. David E. Wood, Ginanne Brownell, Dr. Daniel and Donna Anbe, and The Whiting Foundation.
Next at The Flint Repertory Theatre will be “Wolves” in the Bower Theatre. This play will open on Feb. 8 and run through Feb. 17. Call The Ticket Center at 810-237-7333 for tickets or visit FlintRep.org for more information.
Banner photo by Patsy Isenberg: From left, Leary, Meinwald, Palmer, Spallen, Kotis, Lluberes
EVM Staff Writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.