No Joke: We Play For the Gods at the Women’s Project
Kristen Palmer (Playwright)
If the demands of collaboration are infinite and unpredictable, so are the rewards. For over a year, the playwrights, directors, and producers of the Women’s Project Theater Lab have been creating We Play For the Gods, a full-length, five character, collaboratively authored play. The play opens in June at the Cherry Lane Theatre with 14 creators credited on the program.
Sitting in rehearsal last Saturday, with a stack of notes passed on from the playwright who was in the room Friday, listening to one director choreograph actors while whispering with a second director about the relative merits of the emotional build on page 81, I had a moment of sheer, glorious amazement. Our play has taken over, after the long road to getting here, and we are happily in its thrall.
WE PLAY FOR THE GODS with (L-R) Annie Golden, Amber Gray, Alexandra Henrikson, Irene Sofia Lucio and Erika Rolfsrud. Photo: Chasi Annexy.
Our characters Susan, Marla, Simi, and Lisa have come to life after a year of collective creation. They begin their workday and, as little cracks appear, something new—or very, very old—slips in and nudges, cajoles, bullies, and seduces these women to the other side of ordinary. We Play For the Gods has emerged from our hive mind as a dynamic, chaotic journey of four women—a scientist, a temp, a C.E.O., and an administrator—and their public and private battles with the timeless forces that demand their attention.
To give some glimpses into the process, seven of our collaborators agreed to weigh in on the experience for the Rail, in a series of mini essays that mirror the journey as we’ve experienced it.
WHERE WE STARTED
Nicole Watson (Director)
We always knew there would be some sort of culminating event for the WP Lab. A night of readings, perhaps, or a site-specific project that took us around the city. Instead, last May, Producing Artistic Director Julie Crosby announced that our culminating event would in fact be the third slot in Women’s Project’s 2011-2012 season. To start she posed a question, “On Whose Shoulders Do We Stand?” As artists? As artists who happen to be women? Where do we find inspiration? While our answers were varied (and perhaps this was our first indication that trying to find one idea that fourteen artists will agree upon is a challenge), we did notice that we were drawn to similar qualities: imagination, tenacity, grace, and intelligence. This was a beginning. We continued. We brought in images. We listened to music. We had “splats.” We had e-mail exchanges. We talked about the theater we loved. We talked about the theater we hated. Finally, we landed on a question: “What secret chaos are you hoping for when the lights go out?” I think on some level we were all drawn to the idea of chaos, to the idea of big sweeping magnificent change. Could we find in our collaboration a way to honor the variety of perspectives? Creative chaos—an artist’s best friend.
Sarah Rasmussen (Director)
Confession: I hated group projects as a kid. I always seemed to end up in charge, due to a responsible streak that I could never quite shake. Well, that and I was super stubborn and more than a little bit bossy. And when I’d complain, my dad would quip, “The best committee has three members, two of whom are out of town.”
There are four ambitious women directing We Play For the Gods, and we are all in town starting rehearsal this week. I’ll admit, I had my reservations going in. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the question, “So, how is that working out?” It’s usually followed by a knowing look, one that simply says, “YIKES.” But it is working.
Why is it working? By admitting that it’s impossible. And by assuming goodwill. We can’t all speak with the same voice. We can’t avoid conflict. But we can carve out space for each woman to lead, and trust that she’s making choices for the greater good. And by practicing that on a macro level, I find it now manifests on a micro level. Finishing each other’s sentences is collaborative, rather than combative, and leads us to ideas we would not have discovered alone.
Strong woman director x 4 = a superhero with a big brain and the ability to be in four places at once. But my favorite thing is dropping our super forces to raise a glass and talk about what we’ve learned from each other’s processes, share our struggles about the often lonely, crazy-making road of being a director, and laugh together.
I have a feeling we’ll be talking, laughing, and asking for each other’s advice for many decades to come. And that is a rare gift. That being said, I’m not sure I would have wanted to be on a group project with these fierce women in 4th grade. We might not be here to put up this show today. Then again, maybe we would have started a nationwide elementary school regional theater movement.
Stefanie Zadravec (Playwright)
Before our first company retreat last August, the seven writers of the WP Lab were sent an e-mail containing a question: “What is one action you do (or imagine doing) in private but stop short of doing in public?” The mission, should we choose to accept it, was to answer that question and attach an image we felt related to our answer and e-mail it back. We were then sent someone else’s response and asked to create a character sketch in the following manner: Create a one-page character symphony with four movements. In the first movements our character is alone. At some point during movements two to four our character inhabits a public space.
We could use additional images, music, or movement, but should not write any dialogue. The seven characters created that day eventually became the five you will see on stage. The many public spaces they inhabited became the setting for the play. The bargain we made was that there was always permission to add, to rewrite. Overhaul, even.
For that first assignment, I created a character named Marla Breen. Methodical and neatly dressed, a half-step out of fashion, and just old enough to be invisible. That exercise, given to writers from producers, became scenes that were handed to directors, actors, then back to writers. Hardly a line of Marla’s existing dialogue was written by me, yet miraculously, in the hands of 13 other artists, Marla remains both meek and glorious. And she still packs egg salad for lunch.
Alexandra Collier (Playwright)
Two female characters sit and eat donuts. Or so was the action of a scene that existed somewhere in the numerous drafts that were written in the last year of this process. After some debate during a morning coffee meeting in Columbus Circle (somewhere near where ladies probably lunch), we cut the scene. We couldn’t, it was reasoned, have a play created by 14 women with five female characters, where one worries to another that she shouldn’t be eating donuts. “We just can’t have a play full of women with characters talking about eating…” the sentence drifted off. We all screwed up our faces in agreement over our coffees. No one needed to say anything further. We all understood what that scene would imply. We knew we would be branded and dismissed with the f word: feminist. Or perhaps even worse: antifeminist. Either way, the donut scene was a lose-lose: hint at a “women’s issue” and be dismissed as dictatorial feminists or hint that women always worry about food and be dismissed as a narrow-minded hater.
That conundrum is what we face every day as we create the play. We mumble it to each other in the elevators on our way home from meetings: “But are we/aren’t we writing a feminist play if it’s about women and created by women?” The real question is: Why do we feel so conflicted and embarrassed and in disagreement about the answer? Because feminism is a weird and dirty word now that none of us can grasp hold of—she’s such a slippery fish. I can say this in agreement: we think women should have more (and equal) opportunity to write and create and direct plays. So here we are making one because someone gave us an opportunity, because we’re good at it, and because we can. So go suck on them donuts.
LETTING GO/HOLDING ON
Charity Henson-Ballard (Playwright)
We pledged that we too would play for the “gods of good theater making.” We dedicated our earliest meetings to hammering out what would be the protocol for this new creative process. We had to ask ourselves, how would we share this developing baby? How would one communicate that something was working, or wasn’t working in the best interest of the play and in respect for her fellow artist? How would one shake off the constructive criticism when consensus revealed that a display of individual genius crashed and burned? How would one “fight” for great ideas deserving of further exploration?
We came up with a survival guide based on our wants and needs for this process. Then the time came to taste the pudding: putting it all into practice was a different animal and responsibility rested entirely with each individual.
Our greatest mantra was that we would always assume that comments were spoken with the best intentions. When one of us would forget that, we luckily had sister artists remind us that we swore to let go and let the “gods of good theater making” take control. Even during unavoidable tensions, someone could remind us that we could choose to implement grace and curiosity in order to keep the work afloat.
In the final stretch of this process, we face new questions. How will we hold on to one another once we close out our two years in the WP Lab? And what projects will emerge from this one?
THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT MYSELF WHILE PLAYING WITH OTHERS
Melisa Tien (Playwright)
1) The ego is the easiest thing to hold onto and the hardest to let go. With this project, the creators possess equal status, and many, the same title. Communal creation versus the impulse to individuate oneself. A good way of managing this turned out to be diving in headfirst: one of our earliest rules was to cease individual attribution of work.
2) Not every battle is worth fighting. As a minority female, I often feel the need to speak up. But everyone wants to be heard. And sometimes it will keep a five-hour meeting within five hours if you let others speak. (The trick is to keep them from rambling.)
3) Everyone else is as smart, creative, and well-intentioned as you. Trust in this, and the work will flourish.
4) Everyone else is as ambitious, hard-headed, and strong-willed as you. See number 1.
5) Nothing exceptionally good ever came out of a process that was easy, predictable, and clean.
6) The more things change, the more they stay the same. From a broad perspective, ours is a project like any other; it began with an idea, led to a text, and is being brought to life by actors, directors, and designers.
7) Remember, also, this is a project unlike any other. No two are the same, but, to our knowledge, no other project has had multiple writers, directors, and producers working on it simultaneously. We’re getting to do something that hasn’t been done before. Right on.
Mia Rovegno (Director)
After spending the last year working so intimately on this project together, it’s become clear that the 14 artists of We Play For the Gods have embarked upon an unparalleled polyamorous artistic relationship. I think we’re still in the honeymoon stage. You know, anticipating the glorious journey, ignoring the possibility of a painful one, delighting in every uncanny yet romantic instance of predestined synchronicity. Fourteen people could make for a lot of drama. As a colleague so eloquently declared in our rehearsal room today, things could “get real real” real fast. But, turns out, this group of crazy artists also happen to be relatively well-adjusted adults. Who knew?
So it’s safe to say the romance is going pretty well so far. This dawned on me after a seven-hour directors’ meeting in which no one felt the urge to hurl things at one another by the end of the night. I genuinely like being around these people all the time. Guess it’s getting pretty serious. I think we’re ready for commitment. Good timing, ’cause we just started rehearsing together 40-plus hours per week.
I think this relationship is gonna work out, though, and here’s why. We’ve kicked our egos to the curb in the name of mutual respect and generosity. We give each other the space we need to thrive. We listen. We ask for what we need. And frankly, a lot more gets done when a superhuman brain trust can collectively call up the details of 50 previous drafts or some crazy dance break you staged in a workshop before the script even existed. So far, every minute of this polyamorous affair has opened my eyes to a kaleidoscopic scope of vision. I just said kaleidoscopic scope of vision. Yeah, we’re totally still in the honeymoon stage.
We Play For the Gods by Alexandra Collier, Elizabeth R. English, Charity Henson-Ballard, Jessi D. Hill, Andrea Kuchlewska, Manda Martin, Dominique Morisseau, Kristen Palmer, Sarah Rasmussen, Mia Rovegno, Melisa Tien, Nicole A. Watson, Stephanie Ybarra, and Stefanie Zadravec runs through June 23 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, Manhattan). For further info and tickets, visit weplayforthegods.com or call Ovation Tix at (212) 352-3101.