Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Residency at the Inge House with Magellanica

Fall 2011 Inge Residency!  Top: Program Director Peter Ellenstein.  Next row: Director Stephen Brackett and his playwright, Ken Urban, actors Chuma Gault and Ben Corbett, and playwright EM Lewis.  Bottom row: actors Heather Alicia Simms, Mark Pinter and Mina Kim, and my director, Laura Savia.
From October 27 through November 12, 2011, I was able to spend some wonderfully focused time working on my play "Magellanica: A New and Accurate Map of the World" in Independence, Kansas.  I was the lucky recipient of a residency in William Inge's childhood home, thanks to the William Inge Center of the Arts.

I met Inge Center director Peter Ellenstein several years ago, when we were both attending the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.  I was receiving the Steinberg Award for "Song of Extinction," and he requested a copy.  He liked it!  And ever since, we've been communicating back and forth, trying to find a good time for me to come out to Kansas and do a residency.

The timing we finally decided upon couldn't have been better.  I'd been having some trouble finding my way into part 2 of the epic play that "Magellanica" is proving itself to be.  The prospect of working in depth with a director and a bunch of actors on the play for a focused week sounded like just the thing.  And I'd never been to Kansas!  I love seeing new places and meeting new people.

I flew directly from Oregon, where I'd been the Host Playwright for the Ashland New Plays Festival, to Tulsa, Oklahoma -- the nearest airport to little Independence, Kansas.  Peter picked me up, and we drove the ninety minutes back to the small town where William Inge grew up.

I was the first to arrive; Peter allowed me to come early and stay on after our workshop week, in order to smooth my travel arrangements -- going from ANPF to Inge to HotCity in St. Louis, without having to schlep back to New Jersey between.  Being the first to arrive meant I got to pick my room.  I knew instantly which one I wanted: the first one I saw.  It was at "the dark at the top of the stairs" -- with windows on three sides, looking down on the back yard and neighboring houses.  I loved it!

The beautiful Inge House in Independence, Kansas.  What a place for a residency!
The sign by the front door.  Historic house.
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright William Inge.  He wrote Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Splendor in the Grass.  Many of his plays and films were set in small towns in the mid-west like the one he grew up in.
William Inge's childhood home is just beautiful -- graciously sized, with a big porch and a nice yard.  I stayed there with my director, Laura Savia, who flew in from New York, and the other resident playwright, Ken Urban, who flew in from Boston (where he teaches at Harvard).  The other director, Stephen Brackett, and the out-of-town actors -- Mina Kim, Chuma Gault and Mark Pinter, all stayed over at Peter's house, two blocks away.  The rest of our casts were made up of local actors -- and by local, I mean actors from Independence Community College, where the Inge Center is housed, actors from the community of Independence, and actors from as far away as Tulsa.

On the first day of our workshop week together, we had table readings of both plays with everyone in attendance.  The two casts would be working separately through the rest of the week, but it was nice to begin things as a single, cohesive group.  Ken's play "The Correspondent" is a tight, three-character play about a man who is haunted by his past.  My play, "Magellanica: A New and Accurate Map of the World" is a sprawling Antarctic adventure story, about a group of scientists wintering over at the South Pole station in 1985.

Ellen and Laura by the Verdigris River.  (Photo by Chuma Gault.)
The Verdigris River.
Fourth and Locust -- our street corner in Independence.  All the leaves were golden, and we had beautiful crisp fall days while we were there.
Through the week, we alternated rehearsal days and writing days.  Several of our trusty group liked to cook, and we ended up sharing meals more often than not.  Is there anything more bonding for a group than breaking bread together?  And washing dishes together afterwards?  We worked hard, but there was time between for walks to the reservoir with Laura and Chuma, drinks with some visiting theater artists from Canada, a visit to the local "Neewollah" festival (Halloween spelled backwards), and a stop at the local library to hear one of my actors, Gary, talk about his experiences as a Peace Corps worker in Fiji.

Laura and I took a day trip out to the Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site.  Such fun!  We both read and loved all the books when we were kids.  (Laura had to, since her name is Laura, after all...)
We gather around the table.  Stephen, David, Heather, Mina and Mark at one of our big family-style dinners.
The writing challenge I was facing with my play was how to begin part two of a play that I believe is going to have five parts in all, and cover eight and a half months in the lives of my eight characters.  It was a time-traveling problem, really.  I couldn't cover every moment of every day in those eight and a half months, while my characters were locked in at the South Pole during the winter season.  And I wanted to write the play in such a way that I could reach outside that time and place when I needed to -- back to the Antarctic explorers like Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton and Byrd, and forward to the questions of climate change that are a major focal point of polar science today.  I needed a pliable structure that would allow me to do everything I needed to do, and how I began part two was going to tell the audience -- and me -- how I was going to do that.

There is nothing like some good table work with a smart director and cast.  And it was fun to have my director, Laura, staying there in the house.  Several times, I printed out pages and took them into her room, sitting on the end of her bed while she read them.  Or she'd make tea for us, while I was working on rewrites.  Actors came in and out.  Sometimes they brought libations.  It was a friendly, fruitful week. By then end of it, I'd figured my way into part two, posited a new structure for part two, and answered my structural questions about the play as a whole.

My desk, in my room at the Inge House.  I loved my room so much!  It has windows on three sides, and was full of light and inspiration.
The reading went very well.  I was so proud of my cast!  The discussion after was lively.  We had a pair of little girls in the audience who asked wonderful questions... and one of them showed me the tooth she had lost during the reading when I talked with her afterwards!  Everyone wanted to know what happened next... which was great feedback to receive, and great encouragement for me to keep writing.

It was awfully quiet in Independence after everyone else left.  But I was happy to have some extra writing days before i left for my next gig in St. Louis.  And I was able to make myself useful, teaching playwriting workshops at Independence High School, Labette County High School and Independence Community College.  I also visited the William Inge collection at the college, where many of Inge's books, paper and memorabilia are housed.

Many thanks to the Inge Center's Peter Ellenstein, Hannah Joyce Hoven and Bruce Petersen for all their help during my residency, to my director, Laura Savia, for her excellent direction and dramaturgy, and to my splendid cast:

Chuma Gault as Captain Adam Burrell
David A. Lawrence as Freddie de la Rosa
Hannah Joyce Hoven as Dr. Morgan Halstead (USA)
Mark Pinter as Dr. Vadik Chapayev (USSR)
Mina Kim as Dr. May Zhou (USA)
Ben Corbett as Dr. William Huffington (Great Britain)
Peter Ellenstein as Dr. Lars Brotten (Norway)
Gary Mitchell as Dr. Todor Kozlek (Bulgaria)
Heather Alicia Simms - stage directions

Magellanica reading at the Inge Center.  From left to right:  Heather, Peter, Gary, Hannah, Chuma, David, Mina, Peter and Ben.  Directing: Laura Savia.
I hope I'm able to return to Independence some time, and share the rest of the story with them!

1 comment:

Claudia said...

What a lovely, gracious post. I look forward to seeing the play when it flowers.