New Arden Theatre Program Experiments With Play Development and Viewer Interaction

The Writers' Room presents "Women in Jep," a production by Wendy MacLeod.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jul. 3, 2012

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Friends till the end: Genevieve Perrier (left) and Karen Peakes play two women who fear for their friend’s life.

The Arden Theatre Company is giving theatergoers the unique opportunity to participate in the process of creating a play as part of its new Writers’ Room program, which culminates this week with a developmental production of Wendy MacLeod’s Women in Jep.

Funded by a two-year grant of $150,000 from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and a three-year grant of an equal amount from the Independence Foundation, the Writers’ Room began in April with a four-month residency, during which time MacLeod developed Jep, a dark comedy about divorce, dentistry and murder.

Best known for her hit The House of Yes (which became an award-winning film starring Parker Posey), MacLeod now gives us the story of a middle-aged woman named Liz (Barrymore Award-winner Grace Gonglewski) who, much to the chagrin of her two best friends (played by the delightfully charming actors Karen Peakes and Genevieve Perrier), is dating a dentist (the excellent Joe Guzman)—who may be a serial killer. Also in the cast is the promising Laura Giknis as Liz’s teenage daughter and the fabulous Aubie Merrylees, who portrays Amanda’s on-again, off-again boyfriend.

The Writers’ Room program is led by Arden associate director Ed Sobel, who says it’s meant to spare the playwright the torturous process Sobel calls “development hell,” which subjects a new play to endless workshops and readings, often at more than one institution. “Writers felt like they were auditioning their play,” Sobel explains.

It’s also intended to increase audience engagement. Forty-five passes were sold to theatergoers interested in witnessing the creation process. Stopping by a recent rehearsal, it was obvious that the viewers were fascinated by the collaborative process between the playwright, cast and director; they were able to witness the essential role the actors and director play in developing a new work.

The program also connects MacLeod to the city’s robust theater community. Part of her residency includes regular meetings with a group of local theater artists who not only provide professional support (giving feedback on the script) but who also accompany her to the many local productions she’s attended over the last few months. The hope is that the orientation will give MacLeod an idea of the audience she’s writing for and that she will spread the word about the city’s theater scene.

MacLeod is effusive in her praise for this new development model. In addition to being able to bounce ideas off of Sobel, she says that when an actor had a question about the play or his character, it provided her invaluable feedback and a “great opportunity” to rewrite a section of the play. Not only does MacLeod believe the process has greatly improved the script, but it has also allowed her to work much faster. “If I was working on my own,” she says, “this four-month writing process would have taken two years.”

Speaking to pass holders following a recent rehearsal, Sobel said of MacLeod’s play: “I can’t remember an example of a play that has read and played so differently.” Unlike a conventional reading in which actors stand in place and read from the script, Sobel’s staging is closer to a finished production. The six-member ensemble will perform the play without script in hand, permitting the actors to embody the characters both vocally and physically. In addition, the production is more fully realized by employing various design elements including set, costume, lighting and sound. Not only will MacLeod get a clearer idea of the play’s strengths and weaknesses than a conventional reading would reveal, but so too will the audience, which will include a number of artistic directors from around the country who are attending the production at the Arden’s invitation.

But even with all this support, there is no guarantee that Women in Jep will go on to have an official world premiere, either at the Arden (which has right of first refusal for the play) or another company. What is does guarantee is that MacLeod will have the opportunity to see the play “on its feet” immediately after the play is completed. Whatever the outcome, the Arden’s Writers’ Room provides an exciting alternative to the old model of play development in which scripts were being subjected to years of readings and workshops that too often robbed plays of the vitality, topicality and sense of urgency that makes live theater so electrifying.

July 5-15. $15. Arden Theatre Company, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org

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1. Anonymous said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 07:37PM

“Saw Women in Jep today (7/15.) I'm so sorry it was the last day; I would love to tell more people about it. I thought it was fantastic! I can hardly believe it was put together in only 4 weeks. It is fantastically written - extremely witty and the cast was stellar. I have been an Arden subscriber for almost 20 years and am thrilled they are taking on this type of venture.”

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