Archive for January, 2011

A Technical Manual for Playwrights

January 4, 2011

As part of the recent PR-blast for Quiet Cowboy, I was interviewed by NEPA radio personality Erika Funke, known for her ArtScene interviews on WVIA FM and as a great warrior for the art community at large.  Her questions are insightful, her energy boundless.  In short, it is a delight to know that there is a welcoming place to promote and discuss the cultural events that our twin-cities and beyond have to offer (I’ve long thought of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre as “twin cities” – and in an archived Funke interview [FULL INTERVIEW AVAILIABLE HERE], friend Andrea Talarico wisely proclaimed, I’m paraphrasing here, that the future of America rests in the small cities, their independent businesses, and, as in Austin, TX, the ability to “Keep [the community] weird”).  During the interview, Erika asked about my approach to the page and stage – and again I’m paraphrasing here – how the gestalt of my theatre training has informed my writing.

I built the set for Gaslight's production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" in the basement of St. Boniface School - if you wanna talk work, let's talk converting a church basement into a blackbox theatre

It's a rare privilege to build a set and then perform on it - Wendy Popeck (L) and I in Gaslight's production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" - set in the Irish home of a poor family of sisters (design by Dave Reynolds)

Certainly, my approach to the craft of shaping a play is informed by my cavalcade of experiences as an actor, and yes, crewman.  I’ve constructed entire sets (see my pictures from “The Tempest” and Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” – both of which were Gaslight presentations); mastered sound (swing by the January residency Maslow Reading series, and you may spy me adjusting the levels for our authors, running sound-checks, and adjusting screens, speakers, and seats); instructed in and designed stage-fights (“Hamlet”, “MacBeth”); hand-crafted a stage mask or two (“The Tempest” again!); wired stage lights for Paper Kite Studio/Art Gallery (soon to be a comfy, creative bookstore, replete with couch and bookstore cat); and I’ve even pulled the curtain at the close of countless shows.

Yes, acting helps my writing -- here's an ancient looking shot that seems to reach out from the fog of the past. Pictured "swearing by his sword" in a King's College production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" are (L-R): David Weidler, Hinton (hey, that's me!), Al Vota, Carlo Ciotoli


Another golden oldie from the infant days of Gaslight - as Mercutio in a modern-staged version of Romeo & Juliet

Here, a short-haired Hinton and his pal ‘Mike’ call for an end to bad puns …

The benefits of this as a playwright?  Aside from the sense of accomplishment and Zen-like meditation that come with these labors, I’ve gained an excellent working knowledge of the rules and limitations of the technical schools of theatre.  To understand these rules well enough is to understand how to bend them, and in some cases even be bold enough to shatter them.  At the very least, it is possible to re-imagine the technical challenges of staging a play as functions, or avenues, through which I can explore themes, through-lines, and so on.  Just as every word of every line must go through careful choices in editing, so too is my approach to writing the stage directions (including character movements, light shifts, sounds and voice-overs, and elemental stage props) – to be sure, EVERYTHING in the script is written, kept, or thrown away by the will of the good playwright.  The execution of these things may change in the act of collaboration with designers, talent, and technicians – collaboration is the true art – but the meaning (and how it changes) behind each one of these choices should never be neglected.

In Quiet Cowboy, for example, sound is vital to the themes of the legendary western and the shifts in time, and tone, of the scenes.  There are sounds of the television (which I’ve often referred to as the 7th character of the play): the hum of an old set warming up, static, the crack of gunshots, trains, crickets, the wind, the waves, Indian hooting, drums, crackling logs and fire, announcer voice-overs, the trot of hooves, galloping, more gunshots, voices that reach into the room with long fingers from another universe – a universe of mythology.

Sean McKeown, the actor portraying “Wally” in the QC premiere, doubles as our sound designer.  With his recording equipment, some Gaslight posters from past shows, and the right amount of chairs, Sean has converted the 3rd floor of his home into an office and impromptu recording studio.  Sitting in the office with a digital board and headphones, Sean monitors as actors read voice-over lines from a music stand in the adjoining hallway.  It is cold.  But the chill in the air is motivating.  It’s a bit like camping; we gather ‘round the warm glow of the computer to hear the playback, much like hunching ourselves in a circle by the fire to listen to stories of the night and celebrate spirits of the past.  Here are some photos I took of the fun:

"McKeown is here to take your calls - West of the Rockies, you're on the air"

Rob Klubeck records some of his television "dialogue" in his role as the Cowboy

Meghan Fadden fights the chill of the hallway and gives a terrific reading as a female voice coming from the television

Dave Reynolds channels both Gabby Hayes and Slim Whitman in his portrayal of the television announcer

We even did some rehearsing at the Mellow Theatre before the holiday season shutdown.  This was key, as it gave us a sudden reminder of the scope of the space.  As the theatre saying goes, the Mellow is a “big hole” to fill, so giving the cast a chance to get a feel for the stage, the acoustics, and the house at large was a necessity.  On a separate day, director David Reynolds (see my previous post about his skills) and I ran up to Scranton to check out the light and sound equipment at our disposal.  Enjoy these pics:

Some of the cast get a feel for the Mellow stage. Pictured (L to R) are: Anne Rodella, David "Skippy" Isgan, Sean McKeown, and (in the shadows of the wings) Robert Klubeck

ADJUST! David Reynolds demonstrating his directoral prowess at the Mellow Theatre

David and I map out the lights at the Mellow

Posters of shows past line the hallway outside the Mellow's balcony entrance. Coming soon to this wall: a poster from Quiet Cowboy!

And finally, since my last post, we began constructing the set.  Here’s a brief look at some of the steps in our process, and even a rehearsal shot or two that show the “walls” of Wally & Ma’s home:

Rob and Skippy before the initial skeleton of the set - thanks to King's College for the rehearsal space (and flats!)

Here, Skippy Isgan (Ricky T.A.) brings along his prop gun and his eye-protection to fire off some test shots ... this was a fun rehearsal

That’s all for now.  Check back in soon for links to my interview with Erika Funke, sessions with other area reporters, and the general progress of Quiet Cowboy as we run through the holidays and into another winter residency at Wilkes University!  I promise to deliver some exciting video posts from campus …