Through a months-long matchmaking process, the Playwrights' Center and the Network of Ensemble Theaters work together to connect an interested PWC Core Writer with an enthusiastic ensemble group, laying the foundation for a unique new project and forging an artistic relationship that might otherwise not have existed. Playwright Kate Tarker was paired with the SITI Conservatory, and born from their weeks of collaborative exploration came her new piece HANG AND BURN: a play about a coven of witches (and their maid) who analyze the turning of a political tide and what it might mean for their own futures... but meanwhile, the devil is knocking.
Below, Kate Tarker and Megan Hanley, the Education Manager at SITI Company, discuss their collaboration.
KATE: What was surprising and rewarding for SITI [Saratoga International Theater Institute] staff, company, and conservatory artists about working with a new playwright?
MEGAN: Well, some context first: for the past four years, as Education Manager at SITI, I’ve worked with SITI Company members to help design a Conservatory curriculum that trains courageous theater artists who are making new work. The program takes place every other year, is 26 weeks long, and is relatively nimble, because it’s new—we’ve graduated three cohorts of artists since 2013. One of our big takeaways after our first two Conservatory years was that our artists were spending so much time devising new work that they were struggling to apply the technique that they are practicing every day in the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints [you can learn more at www.siti.org/training]. SITI attracts mostly actors, directors, and dancers/movers, and we try to train everyone to be a thoughtful thinker and a good dramaturg. But, most of the artists who work with us have spent little time training as playwrights or writers, so collaboratively developing new scripts has been quite challenging. Also, writing with/as an ensemble is just hard, no matter how much experience you have in it.
You [Kate] approached SITI at a key moment, when we were discussing how to give the Conservatory artists more performance experience, emphasizing the creation of new work while also avoiding getting bogged down in collaborative writing processes that weren’t artistically satisfying. Working with you was the first time in the Conservatory that we’ve collaborated directly with a living playwright. (SITI does work with playwrights on new plays within its own rehearsal processes; we just haven’t done this with the Conservatory artists.) So for me, the biggest reward was that the Conservatory artists were able to dig into new material quickly, and immediately get into the "How" questions, instead of spending most of their time trying to agree on the "What." And their "How" answers were wildly different and gorgeous. On the last day of our time together, three different ensembles performed three versions of HANG AND BURN. It was a weird and exciting afternoon of theater, and the actors and directors really shone, as did your script. I also think the experience of working with a playwright’s material really affected the Conservatory artists’ approach to devising. This crew of artists in particular was drawn towards working on more scripted material, and they ended up producing a Chuck Mee play together as their final project.
MEGAN: We decided to start our collaboration by asking you to present your initial sources of inspiration to a group of 18 artists from around the world in their first week of training together. Those artists then spent a few weeks devising short compositions in response to that material. Did seeing their compositions inform your writing? If so, how? If not, was the process still useful to you as a writer?
KATE: Yes, it informed and inspired me, but not in a linear way. (In retrospect, I wonder why I ever thought it would work in a linear way – when does inspiration ever do that?) The biggest thing I gained from our initial exchanges was learning how SITI works and thinks and makes, which was invaluable.
This is what didn’t happen: The Conservatory artists make up this image or that line of dialogue, and I steal them wholesale and smoosh them into a play. This is what did happen: It was an electric jolt to be around artists who were not placing text at the center of their making. Images and words filled me, lingered with me... as did the personality of the group. I got a feeling for what the students were great at and what kind of writing might serve them best. I got excited about the musicality of their varied dialects. And I got so very excited about the intensity with which they performed their daily, rigorous, Suzuki-based warm-ups – which felt like witchcraft to me! After we spent time together, the U.S presidential election hit me on the head and punched me in the gut, too. I scrapped all conscious thought, and wrote something.
I do wonder what would have happened if we had all used a text as a starting point (such as an older play, or work of fiction). Even though I shared images and spoke and gave the students a written proposal, I think “witches” and my thoughts on them was a bit of a loose cannon for launching us. It’s a funny paradox of ensemble work that having a structured, textured, and rich text as a starting point often leads to the most rigorous, irreverent, and meaningful non-text based work. If we had started with a text, we would also have always shared that secret game, that we were really deconstructing the Crucible or something.
MEGAN: What were your expectations going into the collaboration with SITI and our Conservatory artists? Did the experience change your expectations?
KATE: I expected to be surprised! So I’ll speak to the two things that surprised me the most. One was the atmosphere at SITI, which really blew me away. There is so much mutual respect and consideration, in every part of what you do, including just sharing tiny quarters. I was also struck by the sustained interest and curiosity and rigor that everyone kept bringing to the table. I felt so welcomed by all company members, and the passion with which SITI mentors their students (and learns alongside them) is immense. I found myself frequently reflecting on how much thoughtfulness must go into cultivating an environment where you can happily spend so much time together, training and making and being alive.
The second surprise was realizing just how American my writing and thought is. Even calling it American (and not U.S. American) is so American. I’m so American. Even though I grew up in Germany, my jokes and sentences mark me.
MEGAN: We spent two weeks together in our studio, reading your play and then splitting into three casts to stage your script. Each cast staged a radically different version of your piece in about 10 days. Did having three casts working on HANG AND BURN separately make your job harder, easier, more interesting, or just weirder?
KATE: I’m still sort of flabbergasted by what came out of that. One version of my play was set in a seductive, femme beauty parlor. Another was a brutal minimalist landscape of TV screens. A third was the most faithful treatment of my script, but it still took things I had suggested and transformed them into physical gestures and images I won’t forget, such as a maid sweeping, and then (spoiler alert?) using the end of a broomstick to deliver a stand-up routine of jokes about rapists.
They were all equally unforgettable productions of my writing. Unforgettable, that’s a stupid and forgettable word, but it’s the right word! At this point in our process, text and ensemble merged into something magnificent. For me, there was a lesson there in the potential rewards of letting go of control in order to have fully empowered directors and actors working on the script. I did not authorize all the choices, but I was stunned by them.
MEGAN: Do you think you’ll keep working on HANG AND BURN?
KATE: I have no idea. I’m still interested in the subject. I do wish we could have kept going and expanded the piece for the spring. It’s easy to lose momentum on a project, and if I keep working on the play without SITI, I can’t really keep building on the choices and discoveries that we made together. The piece would inevitably turn into something very different. I would probably make choices that make it less ideally suited for an ensemble, but more readily producible at a theatre that does new plays. The large cast size would be the first thing to go.
KATE: Let's talk about struggles and challenges, too. If we were to do our exact process again, what would you change?
MEGAN: Because it was our first time inviting a playwright in to work with the Conservatory, we didn’t have a model. I was never sure if we should step back and let you lead—it was your script, and the idea for the project came from your interest—or if SITI should be driving the process, since we were hosting you and had a deep responsibility to the Conservatory artists as well. So the first few weeks of sort of sniffing each other out were a little confusing. You’d come to watch the Conservatory artists show their first few devised pieces, or to share some of your research, but I didn’t know if you were getting what you needed. Once you brought in the script, I don’t know if you got to workshop it with the ensemble in the way you would usually want to, or if it was helpful to hand it over to the three directors and group of actors and let them run with it.
From my perspective, the week of table work and dramaturgy with your first draft, followed by a week of rehearsal on your new draft, worked pretty well, in terms of getting a very new script up on its feet.
If we did this again, I would set aside more planning time together: ask one member of SITI’s ensemble, one Conservatory artist/director, and you [Kate] to work together to plan the time, and check in with you more often about whether you were getting what you needed from the three simultaneous rehearsals. We also should have had a stage manager, which we just didn’t budget for because we were treating the collaboration as Conservatory training time, not a production week.
KATE: What about if you radically re-envisioned our time together. If I came in a second time, how else might we go about it?
MEGAN: I wish we’d treated our time together more like a series of short residencies. So rather than slotting “Rehearsal with Kate” into the regular Conservatory schedule, we would have said: “October 5-8 is HANG AND BURN development time.” For instance: what if we’d set aside several days to build together early on, with little agenda other than to train, figure out how we wanted to collaborate, and dig deeper into your initial idea? Also, what if we had invited you to come train with us in the mornings so you got to become more integrated into the ensemble? Would you even have wanted to do that?
KATE: I would have been happy to come train with you! Of the changes you mention above, that’s the one I most wonder about, in terms of how it might have changed our work and way of being together. The development time is a good idea too, but I think we would have only wanted to do that with a starting text.
MEGAN: It would have been interesting to ask you to come back to write a full-length piece expressly for this group of artists after we finished working on HANG AND BURN, and to work with them on it in the spring. I think we run into questions of time and resource scarcity, though, for everyone involved. SITI was just grateful that NET [Network of Ensemble Theaters] allowed us the time to begin to work with you. It would take some work to fund an even more robust collaboration period.
KATE: Can you talk about the role of trust in ensemble-playwright collaboration? (Or any other essential virtues you want to talk about...)
MEGAN: I think this comes back to some of the big questions we were asking when we first met you: is the ensemble’s role to focus on the "How," while the playwright focuses on the "What?" Or, are we trying to train artists to be good at answering both questions (and then some)? If so, how can a playwright guide or be part of that process? The answers to that question are going to vary wildly based on the playwright’s interests and work style, and the ensemble’s culture. Sometimes we make decisions laterally at SITI, and I know that can be confusing or slow. My sense was that we trusted you to take the lead in the artistic decision making, and that you trusted us at SITI with figuring out the "When" and the "Who" (rehearsal schedules, logistics, casting). Did you feel that way, too?
KATE: Yeah, I was grateful to SITI for creating a very clear container for the work we did together. We had limited time, almost anathema for work with an ensemble, which can notoriously get quite sprawling and take as long as it needs to take. I’m sure the students felt like they didn’t have enough time, but the pressure led to something crystalline.
MEGAN: My wish that we had spent more time experimenting with process at the beginning is one way of thinking about building trust. Making time to train together tends to build trust as well, because you have to take care of each other’s bodies. I do think the Conservatory artists trusted you, your ideas, and your work, in large part because you were very open and honest with them, and you took an interest in how a group of artists from around the world might respond to your work differently than a group of artists who were all from the United States.
KATE: What advice do you have for other ensembles hoping to collaborate with playwrights?
MEGAN: Articulate the questions that you’re asking as an ensemble, especially when you invite a new collaborator into your group. Be honest with each other about how much time you are able to devote to determining the process, and then assign who is going to do take the lead administratively or artistically based on who has the time to do so. Follow the playwright’s nose. See where it takes you. Also, hire Kate Tarker; she’s good at what she does.
If you'd like to learn more about the Core Writers program or this collaboration opportunity, please contact our Artistic Programs Administrator, Julia Brown at juliab