CHAUTAUQUA - Being present at the first public display of a work of art is a bit like being present at a baby's birth.
You have an opportunity to be present for just such an occasion at Chautauqua's beautiful Bratton Family Theater, beginning Friday, and running through July 29. More than a year ago, the Chautauqua Theater Company commissioned playwright Kate Fodor to write a brand new play for the company and their attached conservatory of young artists to perform. And, she has - here it is.
The new play is called "50 Ways," and the title is a tip of the hat to singer-songwriter Paul Simon's 1975 classic hit song "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," which rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts for several weeks, back when it was the new work of art in question.
So, the company will be performing their new play, beginning in the coming week. I've been driving back and forth from Jamestown to Chautauqua to talk with the playwright, the director, and the leading actors, to help you to learn what an opportunity is available for you to experience.
This is the fourth time I've published an interview with the gifted writer of "50 Ways," and while I have begged my editors not to make me talk to beautiful, intelligent, young women with a stunning gift for words and ideas, they are relentless, so here we go again.
We first encountered Ms. Fodor when her second play ever written: "100 Saints You Should Know," was one of the early New Play Workshops, which the company began doing shortly after Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny became the co-artistic directors of the Chautauqua company.
That play so beautifully captured the complicated emotional interplay between parent and child, across several generations, across religions, across genders and cultural backgrounds; it went on to be performed professionally in New York City's off-Broadway scene. So our first interview came in a small cafe on West 42nd Street.
But, soon she was back at Chautauqua with play No. 3, with the unusual title "Rx." On the surface, it was funny. While "100 Saints" had a lot of humor, it largely dug into complicated inter-personal relationships. "Rx" dealt with people trying in ways that went just beyond what normal people might do, to cope with the power and scope which the pharmaceutical industry has come to have in modern American life.
Her heroine was the editor of a glossy magazine which required her to write or edit stories which bored and depressed her so much; it drove her to the department of a large store near her office which sold extraordinarily large underpants for ladies. Recognizing that few people entered that area of the store and all of those who did left as quickly as they could, her heroine found it one of the rare places in which she could weep without being disturbed. That's funny, but it isn't funny, and yet it is.
Now she is back at Chautauqua, guiding the first of what will undoubtedly be a great many reincarnations of her fourth play, "50 Ways."
"It's always a shock, when people and events which have never existed outside of my head suddenly develop voices and faces and feet, and they move around in three dimensions and say my words with inflections I hadn't expected and begin to take on a life of their own," she said recently.
Because our deadlines are so early, we had to talk with the principals at the stage in which they were still sitting around a table, wearing their own clothes and reading from their scripts, getting to know their characters and first experiencing their interaction. But even that early, the creator of the new play was experiencing events not unlike a parent who finds his adored child sometimes insists on doing things the parent doesn't want, or refuses to do things on which the parent insists.
"There are five members of the cast," Ms. Fodor said. "The leading roles are both being played by the actors I had in mind when I was writing the play. Michael Gaston and Vivienne Benesch play a married couple in their 40s who are parents of two nearly grown children. Both have reached a place in their lives in which they need to cope with the fact that they may well need to go separate ways from the person who has been the center of their lives for many years, and it's going to take adjusting in dozens of different ways. There is a lot of humor in the play, and we've been laughing out loud often at rehearsals, but the tone of this one isn't the exaggerated comic tone of 'Rx.' "
The writer cautions that while Chautauqua's program is largely built around events of interest to the entire family, this play may not be the one to which audience members may want to bring their young children or grandchildren. She described it as being "Rated PG-13 or maybe even R, mostly for language."
I wondered if her process of creating plays has evolved since she created "Hannah and Martin," which was her very first one, and the only one never to be performed at Chautauqua. She said that it has. "Probably the main difference is that I have reached the place in life in which I can make my living from royalties of my earlier plays and from commissions such as this one, and essentially from my writing. Up until fairly recently, I was a writer and an editor for the Reuters News Agency, and I wrote my plays when I could steal a few moments away from that, plus my life with my daughter, who is now 6 years old."
While the earlier plays typically took her approximately two years each to write, this one was completed in a year. "I have braced myself for the fact that the writer's life may not last," she emphasized. "There was a period in recent months in which I had no more than $27 in my checking account, for example. Even arts organizations don't have 'Let's send the check to the writer' as their highest priority," she said.
"But, even if I have to go back to traditional work, I'm glad I've had the opportunity to live with my ideas. It used to feel as though I was throwing darts at these situations about which I was writing, and now I know I can focus on them," she said. "I've grown in self-confidence. I've learned that it's important for the playwright to contribute to the creation of a production of her works. Mine isn't the only point of view, of course, but it's pretty important. I made these people and events inside my head."
I wondered if, now that she is earning her living from being hired to write plays, she can just make a play on any subject someone wants. She says she cannot.
"I don't think at this point, anyway, that I could adapt a novel by someone else into a play, for example, or build a play around a specific event, such as a person going bankrupt. I never know what I'm writing about until I write it. But I'm learning and growing and it might be possible in the future."
"Kate's play doesn't take place at Chautauqua, but it could," said the play's director, Ethan McSweeny. He was back to Chautauqua only a few days after creating the dashing production of "The Pirates of Penzance" which is lighting up the 2012 season at Stratford.
McSweeny's growing appeal to major, international theatrical venues such as the Stratford Festival has resulted in his taking a step back in the current Chautauqua season. Formally a co-artistic director with Vivienne Benesch, he has left that burden in her lovely and very capable hands, while claiming the title "director in residence." In that capacity, he is directing the world premiere production of his third play by Kate Fodor. That means he has directed three of her four inventions.
"Kate's writing is always a challenge. She operates on a great many levels, and it keeps me hopping to decide whether to be subtle or overt with one aspect of her plot points, as it passes around all the other things she has packed into her play," he said. "The great thing is that she never writes the same play twice, so there are always new challenges and new ideas."
One common aspect of Ms. Fodor's plays has been the fact that she likes to move the action often and on short notice from one location to another. McSweeny shows me the model of the set for the coming production of "50 Ways," by designer Lee Savage.
"The main set is the living room of a vacation country house, in Woodstock, N.Y.," he demonstrates, showing how characters can make use of a loft which hangs above the "chic but not wealthy" central family. "But this whole room can roll upstage, away from the audience, and small set pieces can be brought in to represent other locations, without needing to keep the audience sitting in the dark while we carry furniture on and off," he said.
McSweeny recounts his first encounter with Fodor's writing, when he was reading scripts which had been submitted by writers who were then total strangers for the Chautauqua company's first New Play Workshop. "When I picked up Kate's script, (for "100 Saints,") it jumped off the page at me, and I could see how it could be staged in a moment. I found myself laughing out loud again and again. That just doesn't happen very often," he said.
Having directed two of Fodor's plays in the tough arena of New York City's theater scene, McSweeny says he's ready and willing to direct anything she is willing to let him approach. "Kate's plays are just packed with integrity and honesty," he continued. "She is such a wonderful observer of people, and she is profoundly aware of how many things are going on in a moment which might seem to a casual observer like just another minor interaction."
People who have seen one or more of their joint productions have often told the director that the playwright had stolen something crucial from their personal lives which she couldn't possibly have known and put it into her play. "In this play, for example, when two people have been together for a long time and begin to feel themselves moving apart, it isn't just a single situation. Many different forces work on them, pulling them apart and pushing them back together, before they finally resolve the situation. They may not even be aware of all of those forces themselves, especially while they're happening," he said.
McSweeny reports that this play is being produced at Chautauqua in the manner all plays were once produced - straight from the page to the stage. "It's common now that when a playwright creates a script that it is workshopped, usually several times. Different directors and different actors and different designers and different audiences mold and shape the script before it has a professional debut. Obviously that can add a lot to a script, and it's why we do the New Play Workshops, but I'm amazed at how much I'm enjoying just digging into a work which didn't exist outside Kate's head a few weeks ago. We're getting to work on it while we and she are still excited about it. It hasn't gone through all the twists and bends."
I asked if McSweeny found it a challenge that the central characters were created to be played by the specific actors who will be playing them. He said that he expects that "50 Ways'' will be performed by hundreds of actors, in hundreds of productions yet to come. "I never once have thought of the central characters as Viv and Michael," he said. "However, Kate writes lines which not only mean what they say, but which have rhythm and attitude and symbolism which an audience can't possibly catch consciously, because the words and actions pass so quickly. But, the subconscious mind can interact with those elements, and they make the characters live for the audience like real people and the events of the play are like real events. The fact that those rhythms and attitudes are already integral to the actors in our production is already making them especially vivid and especially real, just two days into rehearsal."
The director concludes with the suggestion that the original Paul Simon song which gives the play its title ends with the narrator suggesting that the person she is advising to leave his lover should just come to bed and postpone making his big decision until after he has slept on it. "Some of the people who are working on the play have told me they think it has an upbeat ending, and about the same number have told me they think it has a despairing ending. Naturally everyone brings his own beliefs and experiences to a play and views it in terms of his or her own experiences. Like the man in the song, we'd probably all do better by sleeping on it and thinking some more," he said.
Had he stopped there, it would have made a dynamite conclusion, but he went on. "It's funny, when I was just a tiny child, my mother used to sing me to sleep with that song." Those of us at the home will be pondering that, while we're gumming our rubber chicken.
"50 Ways" by Kate Fodor will be performed in the Bratton Family Theater, beginning Friday, through July 29. The play is intended for an adult audience. Curtain times vary significantly, with some performances beginning as early as 2:15 p.m., and others not starting until 6 or 8 p.m. There is a pre-play talk about the production on July 22 at 7 p.m. If you purchase tickets in advance, be certain that you know the correct starting time for the production you plan to attend.
And speaking of advance purchases, I strongly recommend that you do so, if you want to attend. There is still a small number of tickets available for some performances, at the time of this writing, but by the time you get it to read, they might well be sold out.
In addition to the playwright and director, I interviewed the two leading actors, but I'm out of space, which is a shame, because they were both terrific. I am eagerly anticipating this play, and hoping to get to see it in New York, where it is almost certain to make the transfer, in months ahead. Of all the experiences an individual can have, I think creation is one of the very most thrilling. A person just has to jump when the rare opportunity to experience it is offered.