Friday, April 17, 2009

Workshopping Ghostwritten, Part 2: The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab

Posted by Tiffany Villarin (Bea in Ghostwritten)

Working on Ghostwritten at The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab (or “Theater Geek Camp,” as I like to call it) was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had.

It was July 2007 and I had never been on a mountain, so I stuck pretty close to the recommended packing list: ChapStick, sunscreen, bug spray, flashlight, sweaters for the early mornings and late nights and hiking footwear.

I was part of a company of about 30 actors working on six new plays. Let me tell you, Sundance does not mess around.

Our first night at orientation, Producing Artistic Director Philip Himberg said, “We, the staff, are committed to maintaining an environment where you don’t have to think about living.”

There was maid service once a week, minivan drivers who did runs up and down the mountain three times a day and a big meal tent!

I stayed with my two roommates in the beautifully furnished Hillam House on the dark side of the mountain. (I could see Robert Redford’s property from our porch, and I still say I’d marry that man circa “The Great Gatsby.”) We only had Internet connection and cell phone reception in a few locations at base camp, so we really were isolated from the outside world and able to fully focus on our work as artists. What a tremendous gift!

It was comforting to return to Ghostwritten seven months after the Goodman workshop. But it was odd to come back to the play with the new group of actors and it was challenging to let go of comparisons to the previous workshop. We rehearsed every other day, and each time Naomi had new pages for us to read. There’s nothing better than new pages. It’s so exciting!

And Lisa kept our imaginations humming. Our first homework assignment was to improv the voice and body of the best cook we know. We had a barbeque lesson from Alabama, a “best hangover cure” from the Philippines and a spaghetti with clam sauce lesson from my dad in Indiana.

Our amazing dramaturg Jocelyn Clark coined us the phrase “fabulate,” and in another improv, we paired up to share a personal story—something secretive and dark, along the lines of Rumplestiltskin betrayal. (As actors, we tend to have those kinds of stories readily available.) Then our partner had to “fabulate” the story by retelling it with exaggeration, magic, twists and turns. That exercise tapped me in to the tone of Ghostwritten. For me, Ghostwritten is a fabulation of a fairy tale with the search for home and self discovery.

Naomi had written a solid Act One, and we spent our third week rehearsing it at music stands for the final presentation. We were the last cast to perform, and had prepared a surprise for everyon. After we read Act One, we arranged our chairs in a half-circle on the stage, and Lisa handed us the first three scenes of Act Two. Literally hot off the press, the pages were still warm as we did our cold reading. The raw energy of sharing new pages in front of an audience was the perfect way to end our time on the mountain. The audience was left hanging—and so were we.

Needless to say, I was a wreck when I boarded the plane to return to Chicago. The play still didn’t have an ending. And it would be another three months until I heard anything about Ghostwritten again.

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