We’re halfway through the season nine Welcome Mat, Partial Comfort’s annual reading series of original plays. This Sunday at 7pm is THREE, a new play by PCP's Jonathan Caren, directed by Victor Maog. Last week, we featured THE SUBJECT by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by company member Erica Gould. In the spirit of the Welcome Mat, we interviewed Erica Gould on the subject of original plays and how she moves the process along as a director.
Erica has directed a number of new works in Welcome Mat readings and given shape to many plays at during our company retreats each summer. You might also remember her direction of KIDSTUFF by Edith Freni back in season six.
Erica always has a number of new plays she’s contributing to, outside of the company and within. She’s directed a number of world premieres, including Neil LaBute’s AUTOBAHN and also his one-act STAND-UP, as well as MAX AND THE TRUFFLE PIG, an original musical in the New York Music Theater Festival. She’s the founder and co-artistic director of The Fire Dept. Theater, with which she directed SpeakEasy, a site-specific piece that featured works of Neil LaBute, Theresa Rebeck, Rajiv Joseph, and Anton Dudley.
The first thing we like to ask – since it’s what links us all together – is about Partial Comfort. What brought you to the company?
Two things brought me to it. The first being Peter O’Connor and Sarah Hayon. They recommended me to Chad and Molly and they asked me to do – I think it was three or four – I think it was four of the 365 Suzan Lori Parks plays? And then they asked me to come up to the retreat that summer and it was an amazing experience and kind of love at first sight. I did I think five play in five days. The first one was really short and it took place in a motel room and we thought since it’s so short anyway, why don’t we work in one of the cabins and make it sight specific as if it’s in the motel room? Everyone just sort of crowded around.
Once we did that, each play we would read in the morning after breakfast and we would scout out a location since we were out in the country, you know barns, porches, cabins. And we would find a location and we would literally get it up on its feet, and present it that evening. I had a complete blast. It was a great joy because it was just about the work…and it wasn’t about product. And it was about exploring things with people…and having a really great time while doing it for its own sake.
Personally, I think it’s very hard to see what you have in a play if you just present the reading sitting down because a play is a three-dimensional thing. For the actor, trying to decide why is this character doing what he’s doing, why is he saying this, does this make sense…is very difficult for the actor to explore in the artificial context of sitting around a table when that’s not what the character is doing. So even if the staging is sloppy, I like to just throw it up on its feet and we work off each other’s impulses… and we put something together. And they were all really great that first summer. And some of them were really complicated and some of them had music in them and we actually choreographed a couple of dance numbers! I fell in love with the company that summer. Absolutely. And then they asked me to become a member and to direct a show for them the following fall.
Which was KIDSTUFF by Edith Freni?
Exactly. And I remember when I got the phone call from Molly and Chad – I guess they asked me to call them and I had a suspicion as to what it was, even though I was out of town working on a musical. I actually saved that message on my voice-mail for quite awhile because it made me happy to know that that was the call asking me to become a member. And to direct for them.
I remember that actually two of the plays I had directed at the retreat were in the Welcome Mat that following season. And I was doing a show in Buffalo, so I actually flew in twice from Buffalo to direct these readings because I couldn’t miss them. So I flew in in the morning, we’d rehearse, perform, and I flew back just in time for rehearsal. I really didn’t want to miss those plays and the company…it was kind of nutty.
You work with a lot of brand-new scripts. How do you personally work with the playwright to distill the meaning of the play, whether the draft is in its infancy or much further along?
I think the first step really is to listen, to listen to the text. I try to have all of my antennae up. Often, I won’t even have the chance to read the whole play before I begin working on it, which was the case that first summer at the retreat. I’m learning the play as I’m listening to it and we’re asking questions and figuring things out. And then I start getting a feel for what it wants to be and I start listening for things that feel like they’re not playing well together, when elements of the text are colliding. So then I would ask the writer “What are you going for here? Is it this or that? Or in fact do you want these things to work against one another?” A lot of the questions that we ask end up being challenging and provocative to the writer and opens up the play for them.
My experience is that it’s not about the audience. If there are things that clearly aren’t working, I see no value in keeping the piece that way and presenting it to an audience that night. It makes a lot more sense to us to move things around, and rewriting on the spot, cutting that, and moving this there. We just dive in while effacing it and end up with something that is really informative and very exciting. And that’s been my experience each time with all these plays. What I know dramaturgically about script development, it’s really an intuitive process for me.
Time limits really do help, don’t the? I think people surprise themselves with what can be discovered in a six-hour rehearsal period, like at the retreat.
Restriction is the friend of creativity - having set parameters. Specifically at the retreat. You’re in an environment that’s so creative, that’s so nurturing, and you’re in the country somewhere and everybody’s just there to make art together. It’s really a joyous thing; you’re not worrying about the trains not running on time or an audition for Law and Order and the garbage you have to deal with in the city. We’re all captive together. We just know that we have a set amount of time together. And we’re going to make a play.
We make fast decisive choices. There’s no time to add too much insight about it. It’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s a very visceral and creative exercise, which is really much better for birthing the play. I think these plays can get a lot out of that six hours.
I like to go into the process with innocence. I feel that’s really good – you need to know exactly what you’re going to do and then know that you probably won’t do that so that you’re open to what’s happening in the room. I’ll come in with a plan, but it’s just a place to start. I will check in to see if the writer has a specific agenda for that reading – like if there’s a particular question that they would really like to explore – and I will try to veer our process toward answering that, in addition to putting something together for an audience. Sometimes they just want to see what it is.
With THE SUBJECT by Chisa Hutchinson, had you been communicating since the original draft?
With Chisa’s play, she wasn’t able to make it to the reading at last year’s retreat. So without her, we did a preliminary read through in the morning. It’s such an amazing play, we read it and kept saying “Oh my god, look at what it’s doing.” There were so many issues that came up that were really provocative. I had a few questions for her and called her over our lunch break that day, and then we put it up on its feet, and she actually watched the whole thing over Skype. So we actually had never met! We did talk about it a little bit since then. The draft that we worked on for the reading is not the same draft that we worked on this summer. But the fact is that even during the retreat, I think we put more than just a rehearsal in front of an audience since the play is so wonderful. I think we presented something with its own cohesive reality.
You’re in the middle of a few things right now. What’s in rehearsal, what’s in the works…give us a little preview.
I’m working on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera at Pace University, opening on February 16. It’s my first time directing there – it’s where I teach Shakespeare. I have also taught mask, restoration…but it’s my first time directing a production for them and it’s enormous. We’re working on the original script from 1728, following the exact punctuation. I love doing classical work, I’m a Shakespeare freak – and so I like doing really big shows. I think this is going to be really provocative. I think people would be shocked to see how much that Brecht and Weill did not create and how incredibly modern – shockingly so – this play is. The word on the street is that OKLAHOMA! was the first show to use songs to further the narrative, but this show does. You can’t take some of these songs out because what will happen after the song makes no sense. It’s an extraordinary satire about corruption and the evils of capitalism – from 1728! There’s corruption everywhere, but only the poor suffer for it. And on top of that, the relationships are intoxicatingly complicated, much more so than I originally thought they would be. We’re also setting it sight specifically so that we can explore the meta-theatrics of the play within the play.
At first, we thought that we’d just adapt the music – we didn’t intend to write it. Some of the songs from the original are awesome and we have retained them in total, maybe changing a note here or there. But most of it we’ve now written from scratch as the play is taking shape. The music director and I will sit together and he’ll hum something, and I’ll hum something and we’ll say, “Oh my god, that’s it!” I think this is bringing us something so much more extraordinary because we have to understand what’s happening in the play emotionally, physically, and tonally. And then we create a song that’s out of that knowledge, and I think that’s why we’re writing everything so fast. The students are learning so much – I’m teaching about classical text while creating the peace with them.
I’m also doing a play that I’ve been working on for a couple of years by Chiori Miyagawa – A Winter’s Captive. We’ve done a couple of workshops on it and I’m doing a reading of it at New Dramatists on February 3rd. Then I’m directing a staged reading of an Adam Szymkowicz play called Temporary Everything at Hudson Stage Company on February 11th.
I’m in love with both Adam and Chiori’s plays, and now that I’m doing so much work on classical texts, it’s nice to find that these plays actually compliment one another really nicely. I’m also directing this one person show at LaMama – MAY SHE REST IN PIECE. It’s been done in Europe and has caused a lot of brew-ha-ha, people protesting theater and so forth. This would be the United States premiere. They’re working on a new translation of it, but it’s been done in Spain in France and in both cases created riots – I don’t know, do people still do that? I’m not sure I know of that since, I don’t know, RITE OF SPRING in like 1912…I’m not sure that American audiences would be as shocked. But we’ll see. Those are the big things that are upcoming.
There’s another play that I’ve worked on for a couple of years – RITE OF SPRING by Kate Maracle and we just did a presentation for interested investors and producers with Brian Dennehy and Kyra Sedgwick, which is pretty exciting. And I guess the only other thing is a play that I’m very excited about is THE MINOTAUR by Anna Ziegler. We just did a pretty full workshop production of it and we’re still working on that and hoping to get it produced in New York. I think Anna is brilliant. I’m madly in love with that play – it’s gorgeous and funny and heartbreaking….and like gossamer.
Thanks for chatting with me - I know it’s hard to find the time with all that you are working on! Any thoughts you want to add?
Yes – I just want to reiterate that Partial Comfort is a very, very special group. It is a joy to be a part of that. I look forward in a very king of aggressive way in the summers to our retreat. It feels like a way to recharge and reconnect with why you do theater in the first place. Molly and Chad do such a great job putting together a group of artists that are exciting and talented and smart and collaborative. They’ve created something amazing and it’s an honor to be a part of it.
Coming up this Sunday, January 23 at 7pm: THREE by Jonathan Caren, directed by Victor Maog, the 3rd reading in this year's Welcome Mat! The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd Street between Avenues A and B. Free Admission!