Creating New Work with UTNT (UT New Theatre)

The creation of new work is challenging for many reasons. Over the course of its development, pages are written and rewritten; scrapped and embellished; characters change, finding new paths through their newly-imagined lives and plot lines take unexpected turns. UTNT (UT New Theatre) celebrates the emerging voices of the American stage with works by third-year M.F.A. in Playwriting candidates; but the creation of new work goes far beyond the script. We sat down with Megan Tabaque (playwright, Galactic Orphans), Graham Schmidt (director, Galactic Orphans), Elizabeth Doss (playwright, Slumber Party), Lirit Pendell (costume designer), Tucker Martin (“Simon Levinson,” The Bigot), Jade Jackson (“Amber,” Gondal) and Adam Sussman (director, Gondal) to learn more about the challenges and thrills of cultivating new works of theatre as they move from ideas to the stage.

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How does working on a new piece differ from other things you’ve worked on?

Tucker Martin: The luxury of having the playwright in the room cannot be overstated. There is something particularly fulfilling about being a part of a piece that is alive; changing and evolving as we discover more about the world and the people in it.

For The Bigot, this process has been very much alive. Entire sections have been cut, characters change and grow through new pages almost every day for much of the process. It has been incredible to see the world shifting into place around us and a wonderful challenge as an actor to work towards knowing your character well enough to adapt as the world adapts. What I admire most about William [Glick] is the fact that his loyalties are to the story we’re telling, not the words he’s worked so hard to write.

Jade Jackson: Working on new pieces are very different to established plays because you have to learn to keep an open mind and rely on instincts to bring a particular character to life. Rewrites happen frequently, but usually add to the complexity of the play.

Lirit Pendell: My absolute favorite part of working on these pieces has been the need for ingenuity in keeping up with changing scripts and changing deadlines – as an artist, too often we stagnate if we don’t feel challenged, and UTNT (UT New Theatre) provides a constant canvas for revision, for creativity and to let yourself be inspired by the artists around you, as well as the privilege of helping bring s brand new vision and a brand new play to life for the first time.

Adam Sussman: With a previously-produced play, your task as a director is clear: interpret the text as written and guide the cast and designers along your vision which is a pretty fixed point. A new play is a moving target and while you have a strong idea of the world of the play, the characters and their relationships, you’re always changing and adjusting as the playwright makes discoveries.

The most exciting thing about a new play is it provides a unique opportunity for the company of performers to have an impact on the script. We had essentially completed staging of the play three weeks into our rehearsal process and then we had three successive weeks of rewrites to Act II (in fact the last set of rewrites turned the play from a two-act play to a one-act). The rewrites improved the play immensely and many of the changes came from performers’ ideas and improvisations. This means while we had to completely re-stage the second half of the play, everyone involved had a much greater sense of ownership of the text, and could see their fingerprints on the final script. 

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Talk me through this process of creating new work in this way. What have you learned from this process?

Graham Schmidt: I’ve worked on a lot of classic texts (Chekhov, Shakespeare, Ibsen), and those cakes are already baked. With a play in development, I’ve learned to listen much more deeply, because where a scene feels creaky or falls flat, the play might be whispering something, opening itself up. I’ve also learned that revelations happen bit by bit, a page or two at a time, rather than through entirely new drafts. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to resist the urge to “fix” a problem. That can be deadly. Instead I’ve learned to embrace what a play’s trying to do, give it full voice and passionate expression, even if I don’t understand it. Finding out how to put myself in play in this way has been the process’s greatest challenge–and reward.

Elizabeth Doss: Creating a new requires a symbiotic exchange between scrutiny and certainty. You have to know on a gut level what is essential while staying open and flexible about needs to shift and change. The work itself is a dialogue between collaborators who are trying to discover how the play works and what ingredients must come from each discipline to feed a moment. The possibilities are discovered through experimentation. But experimentation is not efficient. You have to be wrong many more times than you’re right. And in the process of failing, you have to maintain the morale of the creative team. Everyone’s gotta be energized and on the same page to make a new play come to life.

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Megan Tabaque: There were a lot of adjustments I had to make in myself and my work habits to let go of my text and allow Graham [Schmidt] to bring his expertise to it. But once I did, it was such a joy. Graham brought so much insight to the table and what a privilege it was for me to focus on editing and writing and then walk into the room the next day to have another artist ready to work with actors, ask the right questions, and move the play forward in its development at lightning speed. We developed our own special language, communication style, and a shared attitude of badass-ness in rigor in the rehearsal room that was a great unifying force for everyone involved with the show from the actors to our production team.  I am so grateful to Graham and for the UTNT model for teaching me the value of a strong director-playwright collaboration.

Lirit Pendell: In terms of process, you have to let your bias go. You have to realize everything won’t be neatly arranged and your paperwork won’t be perfect – and that can be stressful but also rewarding. The biggest thing I have had to keep in mind is that creating new works is a search and a discovery, not simply a “production.” Putting ego aside and focusing on both process and result.

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What has been the most challenging thing about working on a new play?

Tucker Martin: You don’t get to take a break. You don’t get to fall into an idea of what this character is or what the story is because no one knows yet. There are no past productions or preconceived ideas of who these people are. Every day has to be a discovery, every performance an introduction. It is such a singular experience to be playing a character that would be challenging in a normal process, but then you add constant changes in plot, character and direction on top of it. You don’t get to rest and it is so indescribably invigorating. The actor is vital to this process, not just as a performer but as an investigator of truth and character.

Jade Jackson: Definitely having to remember everything that’s been changed and being prepared to shift different things around in an instant, specifically line changes. With the playwright in the room, it is important to remember and be precise. It adds to the pressure a little bit to be “word perfect” when memorizing lines.

Adam SussmanSometimes you get new pages to stage right before rehearsal. As a director, you’re used to time to sit with the text, familiarize yourself with it and work through your ideas until you land on the best one, which only then do you bring to the performers. Getting new pages right before rehearsal means your thought process is much more transparent. They see you working through the text, working through your ideas. You can’t play the director who always magically has a perfectly thought out idea.

Lirit Pendell: The biggest challenge has probably been having so many voices coming from so many places. Four playwright, four directors, innumerable advisors and faculty members and shop needs, being aware of different communication methods – it’s a dive into the deep end of the collaborative process, but in the end, collaboration is what we’re here to learn.

UTNT (UT New Theatre)
March 2-12, 2017 
B. Iden Payne Theatre 

Photos by Lawrence Peart

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