There’s one obvious difference as Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop continues this season: No more music stands.
CTC’s New Play Workshop will feature fully realized productions of two works in rep over five days. At 8 p.m. on Tuesday in Bratton Theater, Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle will open under the direction of former CTC artistic director Vivienne Benesch. Then at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Bratton Theater, Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan will open under the direction of Katherine McGerr.
The new plays come on the heels of CTC’s production of Detroit ’67, notably by a living playwright with a growing reputation, but before closing the season with Shakespeare, CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba said. A mix of visiting professional and CTC conservatory actors will present the works with scripts in-hand, and the CTC design fellows will handle scenic, sound and lighting design.
“We’re never going to find the next Romeo & Juliet unless we continue to invest in these new plays,” Borba said.
Before the season started, Dan Cody’s Yacht by Anthony Giardina appeared as a staged reading at Bratton Theater under the direction of Doug Hughes. The playwright’s schedule meant CTC could only fit in the reading before the season, with actors performing from behind music stands. But this too fits in with CTC goals, as it is a step toward more off-season offerings, Borba said.
CTC will be presenting the New Play Workshop in rep, and later in the season than usual, since season opener Noises Off had an extended run. The set for Noises Off required a turntable and CTC considered using the turntable to flip between New Play Workshop sets, but ultimately decided against it.
Borba said CTC has a good history of moving new plays along, and CTC leadership questioned what more they could do. Meanwhile, CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy had a discussion with playwright Haidle, whom she knows through her work at Detroit Public Theatre, talking about how theaters could better help playwrights.
CTC wants to go beyond nurturing a play for six days, Corporandy said.
“We want to use what we have at Chautauqua to launch new plays more directly into production,” Corporandy said.
Now, Borba and Corporandy are looking at CTC as a sort of “launching pad.” Birthday Candles will appear on the Detroit Public Theatre stage this coming spring, and Corporandy said it will be a huge help for both theater and playwright to have this early workshop production done.
CTC tends to produce unpublished work for the New Play Workshop — and the production of Birthday Candles will be the first time the play is seen by an audience. That’s not the case for Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter. When another option for CTC’s New Play Workshop fell through, Borba and Corporandy considered why it might be worth adding Building the Wall to the lineup.
“It’s a new play by a very established playwright, but it’s immediately responsive,” Borba said. “It is his response to what he saw was going on in the current political environment.”
The dystopian drama is a direct response to Donald Trump’s candidacy and subsequent presidency. The play was first produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, in which three or more theaters chose to mount productions of the same play in a 12-month cycle. It opened at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles in March.
Although the CTC production is not part of that national rollout, it is one of several productions happening concurrently.
“Even though it is a very present art form, playwrights oftentimes have to be a little prescient to hit the nail on the head at the exact right moment because play development takes a little while,” Borba said. “With this play, because Robert Schenkkan was already established, it made it through that pipeline much faster.”
Chautauquans can continue to participate in the play development process by attending the plays and CTC talkbacks. Early audiences can grow interest in a play, and Borba encouraged Chautauquans to follow the new plays as regional theaters hopefully mount their own future productions around the country.
Borba said tickets for the New Play Workshops generally sell well. General admission tickets for Birthday Candles’ opening night are already sold out.
“I’ve been delighted by the openness of our audiences to join in the process of the creation of a new play,” Borba said. “They’re willing to come, and they’ll certainly express their opinions as to which ones they like better than others.”