Setting The StageAug. 31, 2009
It's no act--professors take the stage in NYC, networking with alumni and bringing their experiences home to share with students.
By Carl Hoover
In his years of acting and leading Baylor University's theater department, Stan Denman hadn't come across the answer to this question in any of his texts: What do you do when you've cut yourself onstage and are visibly bleeding? Nor had Thomas Ward, his onstage co-actor, found how an actor should react when his speech is so horrific that audience members turn their heads away. Lisa Denman, who directed the two and Steven Pounders in Craig Wright's "The Unseen," encountered different questions in the same production: Where does the director fit in when the playwright is changing the script days before opening night? And how do a director and a producer make decisions in territory criss-crossed by Actors' Equity and Teamsters union rules?
University professors bring a living textbook of their experiences to their classes, and for six Baylor theater faculty members, the latest chapter of their textbooks was written off-Broadway. The six--theater department chairman Dr. Stan Denman, his wife and theater lecturer Lisa Denman, assistant professor Ward and associate professor Pounders, dramaturg Dr. DeAnna Toten Beard and audience development administrator Sherry Ward--produced and performed Wright's three-man prison drama "The Unseen" at the 179-seat Cherry Lane Theatre in West Manhattan for a two-week run in March.
The Baylor production arrived in a New York theater season chilled by the cold wind of economic recession. Reviews were mixed, though generally favorable. But the project honed a sizable part of Baylor's theater faculty with the real-life challenge of mounting a production in the hub of the theater universe and gave a handful of Baylor alums a rung up on their career ladders.
"It was like a crash graduate course for six faculty members," recalls Stan Denman.
Baylor's "Unseen" project began at the 2007 Humana Festival, known for introducing new plays and fresh work. Pounders, Lisa Denman and Toten Beard attended the new play by Craig Wright, a playwright and television writer with a growing following for his work on HBO's "Six Feet Under," ABC's "Lost" and his plays "Orange Flower Water," "Recent Tragic Events" and "The Pavilion."
In Wright's play, prisoners Valdez and Wallace, held in nearby cells and tortured for 10 years without knowing why, try to construct what's happening in the world they cannot see outside their cells. A guard named Smash occasionally drops in to abuse them or to talk, but is starting to feel the strain of torture. As the darkly funny play progresses, Wright shows he's more interested in how people find hope and meaning in the worlds they assemble from limited observation than the nature of torture.
Intrigued by the play's spiritual thread and provocative tone, the Baylor theater faculty secured performance rights to "The Unseen" for the 2008 Out of the Loop Festival at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, an annual Dallas-area festival known for fresh, edgy and occasionally experimental fare. They pulled together a production team: Pounders (Wallace), Ward (Smash) and Stan Denman (Valdez) as actors, Lisa Denman as director and Toten Beard as dramaturg. While staging was minimal, due in part to festival requirements, the play impressed Dallas-area critics.
After the festival, Lisa Denman figured they were done. "We got good, good feedback and thought we should do it again. Stan thought big, but we all scoffed," she says. Stan's big thought: What if Baylor took Wright's play to New York and staged it off-Broadway?
Baylor had done something similar in recent years, re-forming Horton Foote's the American Actors Company to bring his "The Traveling Lady" to the off-Broadway Ensemble Studio Theater. That production, directed by associate professor Marion Castleberry, won a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Revival of a Play. Denman outlined the case for a Baylor-produced off-Broadway play and landed an Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement grant to underwrite much of the $150,000 project.
The challenges were considerable, from the high cost of theater production in New York to the difficulties of securing a theater, hiring production designers, arranging publicity and finding places to stay, all largely done long distance from Waco. Then there were the departmental adjustments needed to allow six of the department's 16 faculty to spend three weeks away from their classes, though scheduling the production to fall during Baylor's spring break lessened that disruption.
The Denmans opted to build their production staff from Baylor theater grads in New York and found four: scenic designer Sarah Brown, lighting designer Travis Watson, costume designer Carl Booker and sound designer Dustin Chaffin. After ABC's unexpected cancellation of "Dirty Sexy Money" in the fall, Wright surprised the Baylor producers with his decision to move temporarily to New York to work on "The Unseen" and shipped a new script to the cast in January.
The six Baylor faculty members hit the ground running when they arrived at the Cherry Lane Theatre in March. "It was intense," recalls Stan Denman. "We moved into the theater March 2, had previews on March 5 and we opened on March 8." Not only was the space different than that at WaterTower Theatre, but the older venue had its own shortcomings despite a recent renovation: an antiquated sound board, malfunctioning equipment, tiny sound booth and drafty stage. Wright also was actively involved in rehearsals, tweaking lines and editing his script mere days before the production began.
Once the curtain went up on "The Unseen," the company found New York audiences a bit different from those they'd found in the Dallas area. Many connected the subject matter with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and assumed the play would be more political. Viewers' reactions also varied night to night, though most came in anticipation. "It was exciting--the audience knew what they were coming for," Ward recalls. "I have done Shakespeare in small towns where sometimes the audience didn't know what to expect. New York audiences are used to going to theater a lot."
Critical response tended to fall along two lines: those who saw the play as commentary on American torture and found "The Unseen" didn't measure up to that standard, and those who recognized its philosophical and spiritual arguments, who felt Wright's work thought-provoking and stimulating. Even unfavorable reviews praised the company's acting, and many singled out Ward's performance as the conflicted prison guard Smash.
While theater performances consumed their nights, the Baylor faculty used their days for a classroom beyond the classroom, connecting with Baylor theater alums. In some cases, the faculty introduced graduates to each other. "We had two graduates working in New York theater for 16 years and they had never met," Stan says. A play reading for grad Mary Laws linked her to another Baylor grad interested in producing her work. Pounders met with MFA directing graduates Stephen and Chris Day, whose fledgling production company, Firebone Theatre, will stage "Emily," a new play by Chris in September. A look at the life of poet Emily Dickinson, "Emily" will feature several Baylor graduates in its cast.
The spring visit to New York enabled a strengthening of the relationship with Rachel Reiner, managing director of Resonance Ensemble Theatre and a staff member of the League of American Theatres and Producers. Pounders and Castleberry worked with Reiner during the RET's 2007 production of "The Coffee Trees" by Arthur Giron, and that connection has opened the door to several League internships for students in Baylor's Entrepeneurship program. "There were lots of seeds planted with Baylor's investment, not just classes, but in careers helped," the theater chairman said.
Back home, the Baylor company found their students eagerly awaiting the details of their time in the Big Apple. How do I find a place to live? What's the sound and lighting equipment like in the smaller theaters? How do I network, and with whom? Pounders informed students not to take their Baylor facility and training for granted and assume New York theater is rich in resources and technology. "It's a bit of a wake-up call for them to realize that professional theater is often running on a shoestring," he says. Lisa Denman agrees, noting the real-world experience helped provide context for the opportunities her students have at Baylor. "It was an invaluable experience to tell them, 'You're spoiled here at Baylor. In New York, you'll probably have a small space. The (lighting) board may be antiquated. You have Equity rules, Teamster rules,'" she said. "You could just see them all soaking this up."
Ward said much of the Baylor company's off-Broadway experience reinforced what they had been teaching all along, to their satisfaction. "It wasn't like we returned with a big bag of secrets," he says. "I tell my students, 'I'm teaching you the stuff I do.'" At the same time, faculty members did learn some new twists in theater marketing to share in their classes, from papering services to social media. Papering services negotiate tickets from productions that they then distribute free or at reduced prices to their members; what a production loses in discounted ticket prices it may gain in larger audiences and increased word-of-mouth. Baylor theater professors also got first-hand experience in how to integrate the social media application Facebook into a play's formal marketing plan.
Baylor theater students will get their own time with playwright Craig Wright this fall when he comes to Baylor as the 2009 winner of the Horton Foote American Playwrights Award. Wright intends to bring some of his Los Angeles acting colleagues to the festival and the Baylor company will reprise "The Unseen," although likely for a limited audience due to language and subject matter, Stan Denman says. Pounders plans to use Baylor's history with "The Unseen" as a real-world example of a script that changed not only from production to production, but rehearsal to rehearsal. "Working with a play this malleable is both exciting and frightening--'Will I remember the line changes from the last rehearsal?!'--and I'll certainly be discussing the process in acting class," he says.
Will Baylor try to stage another off-Broadway production in the future? Perhaps, but not anytime soon. "It gives back to students, but it takes a toll on students, too," the department chair explains. Still, in an art form that traditionally has transferred much of its information in personal interaction, there's no substitute for experience. "As most of us on the downhill side of 40 know, experience is the best teacher," says Stan. "I think that all of us will be using these real-world examples for many years to come."
More photos from "The Unseen," Click Here
This year's Horton Foote Festival, Nov. 5-7, will feature a performance of "The Unseen" by Baylor's American Actors Company. For details, visit www.baylor.edu/hortonfootefestival.