Why would the Juilliard Drama Division, known for its superb classical training, ask students to experiment with untested—perhaps even unfinished—contemporary plays?
“Let’s face it,” says Onyemaechi “Maechi” Aharanwa, a fourth-year acting student, “we will never have an opportunity to ask Shakespeare what he was thinking. We can read tons of books about why people think he wrote the play, what they think a line means and how it was presented when he was alive, but we will never know.”
While Juilliard actors must know the set texts of Shakespeare, students about to graduate into a marketplace that values the new (and what marketplace doesn’t?) must have prior experience with live, available, creative, anxious, sympathetic playwrights. Likewise, playwrights can only profit from having at their disposal troupes of young, hard-working, daring, creative actors, full of ideas, feeling their own way through the collaborative process.
Aharanwa, already skilled at Shakespeare, recently appeared here on campus in a workshop of Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, a touching portrait of black sisterhood in a beauty shop-cum-boarding house in the 1940s by Katori Hall, a Juilliard playwright-in-residence. Hall was (unlike Shakespeare) “very accessible,” according to Aharanwa. “I could talk to her about the play, ask questions, jokingly ask for a few more lines, and then—there is a rewrite, and I have a few more lines!”
At the same time, another fourth-year acting student, Christina Moore, was wrapping her head around the lead in playwright fellow Zayd Dorn’s Reborning: a woman who creates lifelike dolls for parents who have lost infant children. Articulating perhaps the most rewarding experience a young actor could have, Moore says, “I got to watch how my work and dedication to the play helped Zayd clarify each character.”
For several years, Juilliard’s second-year acting students have appeared each winter in festivals of mostly new works by Juilliard playwriting students. The natural sequel to this arrangement was a similar festival for fourth-years, those on the verge of graduating into the messy world of live, human playwrights. The idea had been discussed before, but it finally crystallized in the spring of 2006, after Jim Houghton attended a Juilliard laboratory production of Kara Corthron’s Wild Black-Eyed Susans just before he became director of the Drama Division. Houghton wanted to seeBlack-Eyed Susans go further, with a group of more mature actors. And if some fourth-year students were going to have the opportunity to explore Corthron’s play in greater depth, why not open up this collaborative experience to allthe fourth-years? Houghton grouped the play with works by then-student playwright Adam Szymkowicz and alumnus Adam Rapp, and in September 2006, he had the first festival for fourth-year actors.
With an emphasis on catering to the real-life training needs of actors and writers, the productions are simple; performances take place in third-floor studios, and sets and costumes are minimal. (Dorn estimated his budget at $50.) The audiences come mostly from in-house. These festivals have helped Houghton and Juilliard to reinvigorate and refocus American theatrical training for the age of the theatrical workshop. The risks of mounting new work have led the professional theater world, over the past few decades, to create protective layers of readings and workshops in which actors, directors, and writers “mix it up” for days or even weeks on end, and every line remains, theoretically, subject to change. The “finished” product may then play regional theaters, with the playwright still tweaking right up to opening night and beyond. Says Houghton, “The process of making new work is going to be central for these young actors and for these young writers, and I think it is important to practice the craft of making that work.”
In addition to plays by Hall and Dorn, this year’s festival, which ran September 4 through 8, included scripts by current playwright-in-residence Sam A. Hunter and alumna Brooke Berman. (As it is not always possible to cast every fourth-year actor using plays just by current students, alumni plays—including some that are more “finished”—are sometimes used, and third- or second-year acting students may round out the casts.)
This year’s playwrights echo the positive feelings that actors Aharanwa and Moore have about the process. “They are phenomenally talented,” Dorn says of the Juilliard actors, “and they are able to handle very serious roles.” Says Hunter, “I'm absolutely ecstatic about the cast that we have assembled.” Casting of Hunter’s I Am Montana ideally hinged, for the playwright, on a specific actor; Hunter had seen former marine Adam Driver in last year’s third-year production of Julius Caesar and wanted him for the lead role of an American-born Israeli soldier. (Set in the U.S., the play took on issues Hunter had seen played out while visiting the occupied Palestinian territories.) To the delight of both actor and playwright, it worked out.
Katori Hall had a different but equally rewarding take on casting her play. “I wrote two new characters into the script last spring,” she explains, “expanding the cast to nine. I initially had written the beauty shop with no customers, but is a beauty shop a beauty shop if you don’t have anyone coming in? So I added the characters of Dot and Jackie. These ladies added another layer to the play, as they brought the outside world into the beauty shop. I’m grateful that Jim Houghton found the extra resources to have these talented students work on my play.”
Of course there are challenges to this kind of work, but they are ones that young playwrights and young actors must get used to early on, as these issues will only be magnified in the higher-stakes world of theater presented to paying customers. “The biggest challenge,” says Evan Cabnet—who directed Wonderland, Brooke Berman’s tale of a New York actress down the L.A. rabbit hole, for the festival—“is the actors’ natural eagerness to please, and the writer questioning the material.” (Cabnet was not speaking of Wonderland, which Berman essentially finished some years ago, but in general terms about this interactive process.) “Actors need time to ‘get it wrong’—for hours, days, even weeks,” he explains. “Bringing the writer in changes everything. The actors can become anxious to get it ‘right’; the playwright may think that any ‘problems’ are their doing, and they start writing new pages.” Playwrights, after all, do legitimately learn writing skills as they learn what actors need—but, as Dorn points out, “the first day, you tend to think everything that goes wrong is your fault.” Cabnet says his challenge as a director is “to create an environment in which the actors are free to play and experiment, and in which the writer can still get a sense of what’s working in their script and what needs attention.”
“Our playwrights program is one of the best in the country,” Houghton says. Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang, who direct the program, have, according to Houghton, “done an exceptional job of creating an environment where writers can mature and grow in their craft while having the freedom and luxury to take full advantage of a professional life at the same time. It’s a very interesting hybrid program, each writer coming with tremendous strengths and leaving with a more highly honed craft and shared experiences that enhance each student’s own development.”
Add to that experience some of the best young actors in the country, already schooled in Shakespeare and Ibsen but hungering for live artists to work with, and everybody wins.