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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Overcast
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Creating the next great play with Forward Theater
Company helps Wisconsin writers develop their scripts with staged readings
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Credit:Ross Zentner

Madison's Forward Theater Company often stages plays that have recently traveled through New York City's theater circuit. This has been a successful strategy for the four-year-old company, which sold 98% of its tickets for Red, a Tony-winning play about Mark Rothko that opened at Overture Center in January. But Forward also strives to produce work by Wisconsin playwrights. One vehicle for this goal is the New Play Development Series, which will showcase Angela Iannone's This Prison Where I Live on March 1 and James DeVita's Babylon on May 3.

Forward invites playwrights from around the state to submit new, unpublished work for consideration. Plays chosen for the New Play Development Series are assigned a director and given one staged reading at a local venue Forward has selected. This process is designed to help the writers develop their scripts with the support of the company and Forward's subscribers. And it works: Oatesland, a script by Sam White NPDS presented in 2012, is being produced by Madison's Bricks Theatre.

The power of the human voice helps move plays from the page to the stage, says Forward's artistic director, Jennifer Uphoff Gray.

"Plays exist to be done on the stage and not just be read silently," she explains. "I think any playwright would tell you that after you sit in your room and write a play, the next essential thing is to hear it out loud."

While playwrights may have friends verbalize their work, they often lack the resources to connect with a larger group of helpers. Forward provides NPDS plays with topnotch theater professionals who are paid for their time. It also handles administrative details, covers overhead costs and conducts audience outreach through its website, Facebook page and other marketing materials.

An eager audience is especially valuable for nascent plays. Gray says NPDS attendees come almost entirely from Forward's 2,500-person subscriber base. Plus, they're more engaged in the work than a more conventional audience might be. Gray describes them as "really smart" people who care about contemporary American theater and enjoy seeing how a play comes together.

Post-performance talkbacks let the audience dig into the material and provide the playwright with beneficial feedback.

"It's not like someone will rewrite their play just based on what one audience member says, but you see patterns," Gray says.

Reviving an actor's reputation

Forward searches for exciting material for the series. This year's selections are no exception. This Prison Where I Live is the second play in Iannone's trilogy about actor Edwin Booth. An actress and an acting professor at UW-Whitewater, Iannone became fascinated with Booth while researching Shakespeare scripts. Booth was the preeminent American Shakespearean actor of his day, well known for his performances of Hamlet and Richard II. Iannone stumbled across some of his prompt books, which gave details about his performances.

"I immediately fell in love with his sensibility, his scholarship, his fearless performance style, and him," Iannone says.

Iannone notes that Booth personified a critical transition in the 19th century. Older performance styles, like those exemplified by his father, British actor Junius Booth, were giving way to a new style of naturalism.

Booth may have been remembered simply for pioneering his craft if his brother wasn't John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin.

"In his own lifetime, Edwin was more famous and respected," Iannone says. "The unfortunate thing in the 21st century is if you mention Booth, John's is the first name that comes up. Part of my mission...is to resuscitate [Edwin's] reputation."

Though fans forgave Booth for his brother's sins, he received death threats throughout his life. This Prison Where I Live deals with an assassination attempt in 1879, while Edwin performed Richard II at Chicago's McVicker Theater. The would-be assassin took two shots during the final soliloquy. Both missed.

"It was unusual that they missed," Iannone explains, "because once Edwin had set down the blocking...he varied his performances very little. He did the same thing on every line, in every scene. For some reason, on the night of this attempt, he moved. That's what saved him."

The reason for Booth's sudden movement is a mystery he refused to discuss. Iannone's play is partially an exploration of why he did it.

This Prison Where I Live was written in about a week during the summer of 2012, while Iannone was performing at Door Shakespeare. The company gave the play its first staged reading. In January, the play enjoyed its first run off-off-Broadway at New York City's TITAN Theatre Company.

It's unusual for Forward to choose an already-produced play for the series. Gray notes that when Iannone submitted the play, it was still an unpublished, unproduced script. When asked what she hoped NPDS would bring to her script after it had enjoyed its world premiere, Iannone said she would work with Forward and the reading's director, Norma Saldivar, to fine-tune the details.

Examining class through comedy

Unlike Iannone, James DeVita submitted early drafts of his play to Forward. A core company member at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, he has continued to develop the play since then, recently changing its title from Truth to Babylon.

"I met with the director [Tyler Marchant] about eight months ago. He gave me his first feelings about the play and challenged me about certain things, which was really great. I did a pretty major revision after meeting with him, and I envision a pretty major revision after this reading, too," DeVita says.

DeVita's fame from APT should bring lots of people to the Babylon reading on May 3. And Forward subscribers will recall that he was the leading man in Red. Gray even credits Red's success to DeVita, saying he gave advance ticket sales a big boost.

Still, DeVita's script was chosen blindly for the New Play Development Series, like all of the other selections. Playwrights' names are removed from the scripts before Gray and Forward's literary committee review them. Babylon was one of about 30 works submitted for this year's series.

Though DeVita is best known for his 19 seasons as an APT actor, he's also an accomplished playwright and novelist. Babylon is one of 20 plays he's written. He also serves as the resident playwright for First Stage Children's Theater in Milwaukee and has received a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

DeVita says Babylon's title is a reference to his hometown of North Babylon, N.Y. It's "far from exotic," despite the exotic images "Babylon" may bring to mind, he says with a laugh. Set in this community on Long Island, the story centers on a working-class family that receives a big surprise. The man of the house is unaware that he fathered a child years ago. This changes when his illegitimate daughter and her mother show up at his front door. They are erudite and sophisticated, unlike his family, and this tension contributes to the play's humor.

Since Babylon is a comedy, DeVita hopes to hear laughs at the staged reading. But he also hopes the audience finds the play's reflections on class poignant.

"It's drawn from my life," DeVita says of the play's class issues. "There's often some very funny and awkward situations when I go back home and hang out with the guys at the bar, trying to explain what I do now."

Gray is enthusiastic about DeVita's script, especially its characters.

"What really grabbed me about James' play was his characters and how compelling they are," she says. "It's really great that Forward is able to go through this journey with him as he homes in on their stories."

Fortunately, DeVita's writing process lends itself to staged readings.

"The most important thing for me is that I really collaborate when I write a play. I need to hear the words out of the actors' mouths, and I need another point of view from a director I trust," he says.

But having actors verbalize your script isn't for the faint of heart.

"Some of [the script] is bad writing you do at 2 o'clock in the morning. When you hear it come out of someone's mouth, right away you know it doesn't work," DeVita says. "You have to make it public, even if you aren't ready. It can be really scary and devastating at times."

But taking this risk yields rewards that wouldn't be possible otherwise, he says.

"Between me and the director and the actors, we'll create moments that none of us would have thought of on our own. Those are often the best moments of the play."

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