Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nine Tenths: a process converation with Tim Carlson and Richard Wolfe

Dramaturg Heidi Taylor asked PTC Associate Tim Carlson and director Richard Wolfe to reflect on the development process for Tim's Associates project, Nine Tenths. We spent a few days in the studio in March with actors Craig Erickson and Sarah Louise Turner, while Tim delved into the meta-theatrical nature of the play. Nine Tenths investigates the rehearsal process, through four characters' journeys moving from development, through rehearsal, to technical rehearsal, to opening night.

HT: You two have worked together on Tim's new plays before in your longstanding partnership as co-AD's of Theatre Conspiracy (1995-2008) before Richard took the reins at Pi Theatre. How does Nine Tenths' process differ from your previous collaborations?

We used a similar methodology in the past working on short plays that had built-in deadlines similar to the goals we set for this workshop. In those scenarios we also ended up putting the plays on their feet during the workshopping process because they were written for specific events that had immediate production deadlines. For the full length plays we've worked on together, the time-line was much longer and in many ways, more like this process. The PTC workshop / residency process has became a kind of methodological hybrid.

TC: Yes, panic fed those early piece to a great degree. Often we would take a 12-20 page script, rehearse/workshop for a week and then put it up at a cabaret. Did this maybe a half-dozen times. It was exciting to write in that context. It was similar for two one-acts,
The Chronicle Has Hart (1999) and Night Desk (2001). Omniscience (2004) was written as my masters' thesis at UBC so it was structurally sound when we got to rehearsal but we still did a lot of discovery and rewriting in rehearsal. For Diplomacy (2006), I worked a lot with Martin Kinch prior to rehearsal but I was rewriting still in tech week, I think. I learned to feed off the rehearsal process as a playwright and Richard and I often talked of bringing an outline into a workshop and writing the whole thing in the room. The Associate program affords the opportunity. Rehearsal is the setting, largely, for Nine Tenths so I think it works on multiple levels as process.

HT: There's a thread in the piece about the relationship between autobiography and art; we all use our personal histories as source material for making theatre. How do you inhabit that territory and not get overwhelmed? Is it easier working with someone who knows the facts from which the fiction is derived? Is it challenging not to bring references into the room?

RW: Tim said there was a lot of me in the play. I'm not even certain which bits he's speaking about. I think I recognize some of the permutations, but I'm definitely not sure about all of it. And being such old friends, I recognize aspects of his story in there as well. But we never discussed any of that during the workshop. Ultimately Nine Tenths is a work of fiction and we wanted to work with the material as something that lived strongly on its own terms.

TC: There is a lot of Wolfe in the play, I think. His approach to working with actors and playwright. That's all I'll say at this point. Don't want him to think it's all about him. Nine Tenths is ultimately a play about relationships and there's a lot of my experience and thinking about the subject in the play. On one hand, I want to be brave and confront some things to see if this process and the resulting chemistry change my way of thinking — discover something new. At the same time, the relationships of lots of people around me can't help but inform the piece as well. And because of those competing influences, fiction is taking over. There aren't any moments in the piece that are strictly autobiographical.

HT: There's a pressure from our current context - and perhaps an attraction and benefit - to make process visible, to share the making of any "product" as a way to develop relationships with our audiences. What are the tradeoffs for you two in making process visible? What are the risks?

RW: Unfortunately our culture does tend to often look at art as "product" with all the commercial implications that word carries. I'm of two minds about inviting the public into the rehearsal room to view the creative process. The actors, director, stage managers and dramaturg enter into an unwritten agreement about the shared experience of a rehearsal room that's safeguarded by a professional familiarity with what it takes to make theatre. There's real risk and danger in it. Any given moment can be volatile and unpredictable. I'm happy to invite guests in to view a part of the process chosen for their benefit, but even then there's a certain amount of censorship going on in the room that comes from being aware that there are strangers in a very private space, intently listening and watching everything play out. This can put the creative practice into an artificial state to a greater or lesser extent. Families tend to behave somewhat differently when they have guests over for dinner. Because our Canadian rehearsal culture is so painfully short, it's difficult not to want to use every minute fully without worrying about what a stranger (possibly a potential sponsor) might be thinking about what they're seeing and hearing. At the same time I'm aware that most people recognize an invitation into a rehearsal is a kind of gift and, in my experience, treat it with the utmost respect.

TC: In the play, we see two actors working on a new script, from first read to opening night. One thing I've always loved about rehearsal is seeing how an actor's personality as well as talent shapes a character and my conception of the piece. Nine Tenths seeks to expose some of the magic as part of the story. I don't see a huge amount of risk there — it's simply a behind-the-scenes story. More generally, I like the idea of exposing process or trade secrets if it serves the work. The journalist part of me leans in that direction. I'm in rehearsals now for Theatre Conspiracy/GasHeart Theatre's Macbeth: nach Shakespeare and in terms of violence and sound effects we're taking about making the process or tricks visible in some senses — the discussion being what we can do in the theatre that's different from what we experience in mainstream film. Interesting in a piece that's a curtain-to-curtain bloodbath.

HT: This was the first of a series of workshops for Nine Tenths through Tim's residency with the PTC Associates. What's the next stage in the process?

TC: In our one-week workshop the script went from 20 pages of scenes to about 60 pages — almost all of the scenes are at least sketched out. I'd like to do another few days of workshopping in the summer. I'm jotting notes about the script and doing a little research but I wonder if I should resist reading it or rewriting before the workshop. My impulse, I guess, is to stick to the idea of writing in rehearsal and then doing detailed rewrites later.

Theatre Conspiracy/GasHeart Theatre's Macbeth: nach Shakespeare opens May 21. Go here for tickets.

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