LOCAL Lab: a participatory theater festival

LOCAL Lab focuses on soliciting and receiving feedback from the audience.

Writing a play is courageous and I really mean that,” says Pesha Rudnick, co-founder and artistic director of Local Theater Company. “Writing is one of the most vulnerable things that you can do and giving it to other people to interpret is like standing in front of a bunch of people naked.”
The Boulder-based company is hosting its fifth annual LOCAL Lab, a participatory theater festival that aims to grow new works. This year, three new plays will premiere with professionally-staged readings, selected from an adjudication process that included 120 scripts. This year’s selections are different enough in style to create a diverse offering for an audience member who is going to spend the weekend at the festival, but are also complementary, coming from young playwrights ready to tackle some of life’s biggest questions and eager to crowd-source feedback for the development of their new works.

LOCAL Lab brings the playwrights to Boulder for a bare-bones workshop. There are no costumes, no lighting designs, no sets — just a couple of actors on stage, dressed in regular clothes, reciting lines that they read from the page. With just 10 hours of rehearsal under their belts, the actors are only a step ahead of the audience, who is seeing the characters for the first time.

Meanwhile, the playwrights are perched just behind curtain, this being one of only a few opportunities they have had to see the world that they created come to life on stage. It is also the first time that they get to see people watch their play, and without the layers of production and staging, all of their attention and reaction is attributable to the script alone. In such a setting, the parts of a play that are normally hidden — the stage directions, the scene changes, the actor’s notes — are exposed and vulnerable.

In this day and age, Rudnick says that it’s not just the playwrights that are courageous, but the theatergoers, too.

“It’s much more palatable to take in a story in the comfort of your own living room at the time that you choose,” Rudnick says. “Whether it is two in the morning or eight at night, you sit down to just fall in the narrative, whether it’s TV or film. Theater is more awkward, it requires that you put clothes on, show up, be together. LOCAL Lab offers a community to do that with — to get out of the house and make eye contact with one another as you talk about what you just observed.”

For Local, there is no theater without community. Inviting the audience into communication with the artists initiates the kind of friendship that can make both the writers and the watchers better at what they do — improving the theater experience for everyone.

The three playwrights featured in this year’s lab all came to playwriting through different avenues and have different approaches to their art. The result is three very different stories that undertake varied considerations of community.

Amelia Roper
Amelia Roper Courtesy of LOCAL Lab

Amelia Roper didn’t have an academic introduction to the arts, but a practical one. She started her career in theater as a lighting designer, working her way to a stage manager and later a playwright. Not only did this provide insight for her into the collaborative effort that is theater, but it put her in a position to watch the audience react to a show, over and over again, as each production traveled from city to city.

“One thing that playwrights miss out on is the audience,” Roper says. “We can even pretend that we are more intelligent than them, which is absolutely not true. My years of working with audiences every night mean that I have more of an awareness of things like pace or what performances mean. I write in a way that is specific, but not prescriptive because I understand that in theater everyone has a different job, including the audience. I respect that and that makes for better work.”

Her play, Lottie in the Late Afternoon, tells the story of four friends in their early 30s trying to have a fun vacation. The characters are oblivious to their problems, which are largely emotional and self-reflective. As they bubble up, the tension created exposes the spaces in between — the space between one another and between who one is and who that person thought they would be. The pace is slow, with a lot of space that echoes the theme of the play — full of awkward pauses, frustration and ripe with the sadness of trying to be happy when nothing seems to go as planned.

Roper writes the script in such a way that the characters can’t help but express their feelings, no matter how inopportune. Her stage directions are almost poetic. Usually directions are something only the actors and crew get to see, but at LOCAL Lab it all hangs out — open and raw for the audience to see, not just the world created on stage, but the process of its creation.

“Setting: New England, early twenty first century, perhaps 2013; A small vacation house with a wide porch; The house is a short walk from a seaside town; The house is a short walk from the seaside; The house may look like an Edward Hopper painting; On the porch there are some very comfortable chairs; The chairs look very comfortable but are very uncomfortable; There is also an upright piano, on the porch; And a cliff, perhaps.”

Michael Crowley Yates
Michael Crowley Yates Courtesy of LOCAL Lab

Another of this year’s playwrights, Michael Yates Crowley, is a Juilliard-trained playwright, performer and entrepreneur who spent years traveling through Europe with his company, Wolf 359. These tours left an impression on Crowley. As he trouped from city to city, he realized that theater served as a basis for the culture of the communities that he visited.

“In many parts of Europe, towns have state-funded theater and it is really more a center of social life there. They go on to theater on Friday nights, they know the actors, they know the people; it is a regular sort of scene. It just occupies a little bit more of life and becomes a real source of dialogue within each town. To see how theater could matter to an audience like that encouraged me to take bigger risks in my own work.”

And that he did. His play, The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias, is a comedy about the rape of a young woman in high school. As the small town grapples with the rape in its aftermath, the incident itself falls away as the reactions of various townspeople steal the spotlight and take on a life of their own.

In large part, Crowley is inspired by the role that media plays in our societal experience of rape. There is so much talk, debate, accusation and fan fare that the actual event is overshadowed and largely forgotten. Among the many consequences is that the big picture of the pervasiveness of sexual violence in society is lost.

“It is a head-in-the-sand attitude,” Crowley says. “If there really are this many attacks, then we can’t pretend that it is some lone, crazy person out there and the best that we can do is find ways to protect ourselves. That’s not really going to deal with the problem when it is so widespread. That is the way you deal with a terrorist, something that is so rare and unlikely that it makes sense to try to minimize your exposure to that risk.”

Despite the serious tone that he tends to use to talk about his play, Crowley’s work is a comedy, a pairing of hard and soft that can be hard to handle for an audience, but it is crucial to the way the play operates. The humor helps the audience get past its own notions of rape to allow for a more open-ended consideration of the epidemic of sexual violence throughout history.

“It is a bit like a coal mine fire,” Crowley says. “You look under the ground thinking it is this one tiny thing, but really it is a giant thing and you are just seeing a piece of it.”

Charlie Thurston
Charlie Thurston Courtesy of LOCAL Lab

The third playwright in this year’s lab is Charlie Thurston, an academically trained actor with a burgeoning career. He says that being an actor first gave him unique access to the relationship between the writer and the spectator. The countless hours he spends reading, analyzing and enacting scripts leaves him with a strong understanding of the elements of a good story and helps him to write it so that it translates to live theatrical experience.

His play, The History Room, is about the family and friends of a woman with Alzheimer’s and the promise she once made her dear friend keep — to kill her if she ever lost her memory. It is an exploration of the honor of a promise, but more pervasively an experience in memory as something uncertain and ever changing.

“Writing the script got me thinking about the integrity of memory,” Thurston says. “When I try to picture an event years and years before, there is like a flash, and I realize that I can’t really hold on to that memory, it becomes blurry and misshapen and loses its detail. But that is really all we have, besides our iPhones.”

The History Room is being presented in partnership with Creed Repertory Theater, which will present the world premiere of the play this summer in Denver, directed by Rudnick. With Creed’s interest in the play, LOCAL Lab saw an opportunity to grow the local theater community with some like-minded makers, only increasing the impact of the work the lab will undertake on the script as it readies for production.

As the curtains close on stage and the house lights turn on, the focus moves to the audience. The playwrights will take a minute off stage for a few deep breaths before asking the audience a few, very vulnerable questions: Did you get bored? Was it too long? Where did you get lost?

“You can’t just put a play out there and then close the door,” Rudnick says. “You have to open the door and then walk through it and hear what and how something has landed. I don’t think that you have to change your writing or necessarily adjust it, but it’s important to hear it.”

The play becomes a platform to talk about the stories told, the themes that may have hit or missed and even the structure of theater itself. For Rudnick and LOCAL Lab, this is exactly what theater was created to do, dating all the way back to Aristotelian drama in ancient Greek society when it wasn’t so much about entertainment as it was about education.
The word school comes from the Greek word schole, which translates to leisure today, but back then, the word was understood a bit differently.

Aristotle wrote that work and leisure were both essential to living a “good” life. While work was defined by labor, leisure was defined as the search for the wisdom of life. In the Greek polis, life centered on a civic duty and the auditorium in each town center served not just as the home of democracy, but for theater.

Local Lab is a return to this idea of theater asking the audience to take the leap from spectator to engaging with the art and to help push the progress of the plays forward.

“I can sit there and rewrite a sentence for four hours, sure, but someone is going to come along who asks me, ‘Why is this like this?’ — which is why workshops like LOCAL are so important,” Roper says. “In theater a lot of very intelligent people sit around and come up with a remarkably intelligent answer as to why we should choose the most boring answer. We tend to want to settle on the first idea, but the second or third is always better.”

For the first time this year, there is also an opportunity for the audience to be a part of making a play, to build it from the ground up. Over the course of the weekend, LOCAL is offering three master class workshops that explore this issue of tone. Using improvisation, original writing, source text and music, the company will lead the audience in creating an original, crowd sourced production.

“This idea of crowdsourcing or bringing everyone to the table, not assuming that they are experts, but that if you have a story you are welcome,” Rudnick says. “And I think that in a world where everyone is a reviewer, crowdsourcing is a way to cross over into the creative experience. It is a good way to actually get to the underbelly of a story as opposed to these four people who went to grad school sitting down to write a play, which can be really useful but also really biased.”

LOCAL Lab isn’t just talking about community, they are creating it by opening up the processes of theater and asking what is possible if we all show up, get vulnerable and work together.

On the Bill: LOCAL Lab. eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St., Boulder,
720-379-4470. March 11-13.

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