We Americans love us some Shakespeare. Or, at the very least, we recognize the profound importance of his oeuvre. Rare is the high school student who hasn’t rolled her eyes while reading aloud from Romeo and Juliet in class and then fantasized about the totally unreachable guy whose locker may as well be on the other side of the orchard wall. Scarce are the American cities and towns that cannot muster even an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where people who normally sell insurance or work at Sears become fairies and lovers. And perhaps most uncommon is the established American regional theater whose seasonal subscription base has not come to expect or even demand a bi-yearly production of Othello or Macbeth.
Shakespeare’s plays are awesome, huge, and complex. They frequently switch locations, demand 20 person casts, and ask a lot from the audience in terms of imagination. But there’s a serious disconnect between our national theatrical roots and the current state of new plays. In spite of the prevalence and largeness of our big, fat, theatrical Daddy-Bard, new American plays seem to be shrinking. Perhaps it’s the recession. Maybe it’s an audience that’s seeped in the formulaic cop and doctor shows on TV or producers who are less willing to take risks. But it’s become increasingly clear to most mid-career playwrights that if you want your new play to see the light of a stage, it better not have more than five actors, it better not take place in too many different places, and it better be well made. As a playwright, actor, and theatergoer who writes, loves to act in and patronize wild, inventive new plays, that’s a serious bummer.
“Writers who have reached a certain level of success in their careers get asked all the time by their agents to write plays with small casts and unit sets,” says Susan Bernfield, artistic director of the downtown theater company, New Georges. “They’re asked to abandon the craziness of when they first started writing and scale things down or risk losing their audience. They end up getting boxed in.”
It was out of this theatrical Dark Age that the Germ Project was born. “About two years ago we had a meeting of the Kitchen Cabinet (a council of New Georges affiliated artists),” she explains, “where we talked about the fact that we were just not seeing submissions of the big, messy, demanding new plays that we wanted to be producing. About how the scope of the plays we were getting was so much smaller. And so we ended up conceiving this idea of which became the Germ Project.”
Bernfield and her company eventually decided to commission four burgeoning playwrights to create new plays that were scopeful, adventurous, and would challenge them as producers. They asked for plays that had atypical relationships to the audience, unconventional narrative structures, music, and magic. And the four new plays they were handed delivered big time. This summer the Germ Project will take the stage at the 3LD Arts and Technology Center, featuring four distinct new worlds: Kara-Lynn Vaeni directs Kara Lee Corthron’s Alice Grace Anonymous, Beatrice Terry directs Anna Ziegler’s Evening All Afternoon, Portia Krieger directs Kate Walat’s This is Not Antigone and Shana Gold directs Lynn Rosen’s Goldor & Mythyka. As an actor in two of the plays going up, I am biased but deeply delighted.
“When I first found out from Susan that I got commissioned to write for the Germ project I was totally psyched and thought, ‘Yes! this is exactly what we need to be doing in theater—we need to be going bigger not smaller and braver and not more scared,’ says playwright Kara Lee Corthron. “Then as I started writing I thought, ‘Oh no. This is really hard. There’s a reason why we often scale back, because it’s just challenging to go big and adventurous and wild.’ But then when I got into the room with the wonderful Kara-Lynn and the awesome actors that have been in all the workshops and our productions, I thought ‘Yes.’ And it’s been really amazing to get so many ‘Yeses’ from Susan and the New Georges company.”
This play is decidedly scopeful and wild. It includes a house band that plays Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick, characters from Alice in Wonderland, and the doomed diarist and central character of the 1971 teen novel Go Ask Alice. Over the course of 20 minutes, I get to play a psychedelic band member, a speed freak, a wayward San Francisco-bound flower child, and the Cheshire cat. Pretty freaking sweet.
Below is an excerpt from Corthron’s new play:
(The floor opens up in ANONYMOUS’S mind and she is falling, falling, slowly; her dress is a parachute.)
OhgodohgodohgodohgodOHGODOHGODOHGOD what is happening to me? I can feel cell regeneration happening in my anus and it doesn’t feel good. The beautiful burning brown liquid Coke stings my crying esophagus instead of kissing it. My grandmother wearing her sunhat sitting on the porch of my stomach. This is when I learn most internal organs have porches because the spies inside are always watching you. They know when you stay out too late.
And THEN President Kennedy runs towards me with his arms open and his head wound crawling with maggots. I scream! And I cry like a stupid baby! And then…he touches my hand and I’m suddenly in the room, at the party, but I don’t feel safe. I can smell him. He smells like a wet sheep. I like it.
Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.
I believed him. I give him what’s left of my virginity as a thank you.
(BOY smiles. BOY leaves.)
He doesn’t say, ‘You’re Welcome.’
I’m safe now. I hope. But I’ve been tuned in, Diary. My love for Coca-Cola will never be the same.
Anna Ziegler, author of Evening All Afternoon took Bernfield’s call for challenging new plays in a very different but equally scopeful and bold direction. “When I heard the play was supposed to push boundaries, and be adventurous, I took it as a personal challenge to write something outside of my comfort zone,” she tells me. “I landed on the idea of writing about an ethnic group that isn’t my own. So my play focuses on a family of Dominican immigrants in Florida—and as I’m neither Latino nor an immigrant (nor do I know any Spanish), this has proved to be a true test, and a totally fascinating, expanding experience.” In Ziegler’s piece I am transformed into a young woman coming of age on the desolate west coast of Florida who is struggling between following her heart and pursuing her dream of a better life. This wonderful new play juxtaposes the deeply tender emotional life of these characters and the bleak reality of their sometimes violent surroundings. And in doing so, it reveals just how vital dreaming is to our own identities and narratives, onstage and off.
Below is an excerpt from Evening All Afternoon:
(Domanique’s mind goes back to San Cristobal now, and we see video of her smiling and laughing, and dancing with a much younger man, who isn’t Mickey. This is Ramon. She is totally carried away by this fantasy.)
One day I’ll take us to the Keys and we’ll get married. After Luiza goes to college, after we’ve given her all the money she’s gonna get, then we’re going to the Keys and I will give you a wedding to make all the American women jealous. A white dress. A bouquet of roses. Champagne at the altar…And we’ll have a priest too. We’ll have Father Rolando marry us. Well get him a room at the hotel and tell him he can watch as many movies as he likes. And we’ll get a room too. And it’ll have an enormous bed. And my wife and I will stay in it all day and all night and eat peanuts and the shells will stick between our toes. Right, D? Can you imagine that?
(The video stops. Domanique snaps out of her reverie.)
You and your fantasies Mickey. I don’t know.
New Georges’s the Germ Project includes excerpts of the following large-scope new plays: AliceGraceAnon, by Kara Lee Corthron, directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni; Goldor $ Mythka: A Hero is Born (based on a truly true story) by Lynn Rosen, directed by Shoshana Gold; This is Not Antigone by Kathryn Walat, directed by Portia Krieger; Evening All Afternoon by Anna Ziegler, directed by Beatrice Terry. Featuring actors Carolyn Baeumler, Maggie Bofill, Juan Javier Cardenas, Jorge Chacon, Jackie Chung, Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Anna Kull, Peter Levine, Garrett Neergaard, Thomas Pecinka, Charise Castro Smith, Jenny Seastone Stern, and Danny Wolohan; alternating house bands Mike Ferraro & The Young Republicans, and The House of Leaves; set by Nick Francone; lights by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew; sound by Marcelo Anez, Asa Wember; costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay; video by Piama Habibullah & Jared Mezzocchi; props by Rachel Schapira; movement by Melissa Riker; fights by Lillian Vince; bandleading by Ralph Capasso; and composing by Cristian Amigo; (whew!).