Just before arriving in Chicago for rehearsals, I spent a couple of weeks in Estonia workshopping a play as part of the Baltic Playwrights Conference. The conference was held on an island in the Baltic Sea called Hiiumaa, and I was there with playwrights from Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. As we all got to know one another, we discovered a few key differences in our new play methodologies. For one thing, in that part of the world the director is largely regarded as the final word, not the playwright. Directors frequently change scripts drastically to suit their own vision, something that is not generally done in the American new play arena. But perhaps more significantly, when I told these playwrights from Estonia, Latvia, and Russia that I was about to go to Chicago for a three-week rehearsal process and a four week run (by all accounts a typical rehearsal and performance process for a new play in America), they were shocked. They are used to rehearsing plays for upwards of three to six months before a production, and their productions could run for years. In some cases, after plays have been running for several years, the ages of the characters in the script are increased to account for the aging actors. The idea that I was about to rehearse and mount a production from beginning to end in less than two months was absolutely astounding to them.
I struggled with this for a few days. Why can’t we have these opulently long processes, too? Why should we be expected to figure out a play in such a relatively short amount of time? But as I walked into the rehearsal room at Victory Gardens, I realized that I was getting something that many writers at the Baltic Playwrights Conference never get: a second production.
To me, a second production isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Maybe I’m just slower than other writers, but I never “figure out” a play in one production. (My last play at Victory Gardens, THE WHALE, was a fourth production. I worked directly with Joanie and the team on that production and did a number of rewrites, and the published version of that script is the Chicago version.) An initial production of a new play is like using a recipe for the first time. Much of it is trial-and-error, you’re learning how to use these new flavors and ingredients. The second production is when you get to build on what you’ve learned the first time around, when you invite fresh voices into the room to reinvigorate and reinvestigate the play. I did a somewhat hefty rewrite of REST before our first day of rehearsal, and since then I’ve been working with Joanie and our cast on further changes, deepening the lives of the characters and massaging the dynamics of the storytelling. As a group, we’re rediscovering the play.
The great gift of this particular second production has been the team. When I first worked with Joanie on THE WHALE a couple seasons ago, I knew I had found an important new collaborator. Her keen instinct, depth of feeling and staggering intelligence pushes this play into new territory every day. In addition, every cast member has been filling out the intricate worlds of their characters in a way that allows me to see the character more clearly, and to better understand the dynamics of the script.
In America, playwrights may not have the luxury of rehearsing a play for months on end and running it for years. But, when we’re lucky, we do have the luxury of seeing our work get mounted in different ways, by different groups of talented artists. And in my experience, that’s the only way that my plays start to truly take shape.