Director of New Works, Laura Brueckner, talks about the thought process behind selecting this year’s Matchbox Reading Series plays.
Selecting new plays for a reading series is truly a fascinating process. It’s quite different than selecting new plays for full production, and that difference is actually exciting and liberating in many ways. When your staging considerations are stripped down to finding a room big enough and getting hold of enough music stands, a whole world of creative possibilities can open up that would be frankly impossible with a bigger or more expensive production.
The main shift, of course, is how complete or developed the script needs to be. For full production, the play must be either finished (whatever that means at that time) or must feel finish-able by the time the lights go up for that first night of tech, where the designers map the visual and aural world of the play onto the completed script.
The Matchbox Reading Series, however, contains a strong component of development. The Series’ most important function is as a vehicle for investing all of our available resources in supporting the writers to investigate their work, hear their work in new ways, and take that work further – in whatever direction they feel is the most important. We give each script we select a professional director, dramaturg, and a full cast of professional actors – plus eight to twelve hours of working time that can be used in any way the playwright wishes, and a public reading.
Another substantial (and wonderfully fun) difference in selecting for a reading series is that no matter how inventive or challenging the content or technical aspects of the play are, they are no barrier whatsoever to staging a reading of a play we find compelling. Does something so deeply intense happen onstage during the play that many playgoers may not rise to the challenge of fully metabolizing the artistic perspective that moment delivers? No problem! Does the play contain a waterfall, a cat that talks, or a woman that is a snake from the waist down? Splendid! We take unabashed joy in plays like this, which contain creative elements that might deter companies seeking “producible” scripts, and love to give them air and light and time and audiences to further their development.
Because of the Matchbox Series’ focus on development, and because the staging logistics are simplified, we have profound freedom when choosing scripts for inclusion. Frankly, we’re not limited by box office appeal or by tech budget. With only music stands and the creative team’s talents, we can expose audiences to the writer’s creativity without the trappings of a full production And when the only important selection criteria are how startling and fresh a play is, and how much it makes us crave more of the world the writer has shown us, some pretty exciting things can happen. The result is that Matchbox scripts are often formally or thematically challenging and evocative rather than flawless and set.
Of course, some Matchbox plays can be polished pieces that we simply want to nourish with thought and sweat as we build or deepen a relationship with the playwright; this is the case for Thomas Bradshaw’s The Bereaved (March 12th). We have loved Bradshaw’s writing for a long time, and were truly excited to be able to offer The Bereaved a slot in the Matchbox Series. The fact that it’s a more finished piece doesn’t mean it’s simple to present, however. On the contrary, it’s an aggressive, highly stylized, and genuinely challenging work, so its Matchbox development process involves supporting the members of the creative team in exploring the complex world that the play presents, and to fully steep the actors in that world’s merciless logic and precise tone in order to deliver a knockout reading.
Matchbox Series scripts can also be quite developed pieces that the playwright simply needs to hear afresh, to allow him or her to pursue specific questions about the characters, narrative, or form. One example of a playwright using the Matchbox resources in this way is Michelle Carter, with her play, How to Pray (March 6). During this development push, Carter’s chief pursuit is to refine the play’s pace, carving the narrative down to a precise machine that can move, dash, and maneuver to deliver the play’s profound resolution with the impact she envisions. Another example of this hot-pursuit development is Kate E. Ryan’s Mark Smith (March 13). Though the play reads beautifully and enigmatically as currently written, Ryan plans to devote her Matchbox time to developing specific formal elements in order to make the play more responsive to powerful aspects of media culture that have arisen since the first drafts.
At the far end of the development spectrum is Eugenie Chan’s Snakewoman presented last night to a group of theater and opera enthusiasts. We knew that we wanted to work with Eugenie no matter what; we find her work daring, intense, deft, and poetic. We decided to give Chan herself the option to choose – to bring any unfinished piece she wanted to the Matchbox Series for development. That decision, which we are still excited about, is how we are able to offer you a new Eugenie Chan opera-in-the-making, Snakewoman. Chan is using her Matchbox time and support to develop the opera’s libretto, which is in a very early stage and, as such, still likely to fluctuate wildly as she experiments with each scene: first in rehearsal, and then in front of an engaged, live audience. Providing Chan with this crucial early step in the development process, where she is hearing her words spoken aloud by actors who are absolutely invested in supporting her vision, in front of an audience who believes in the value of new work, is the kind of support that Crowded Fire is thrilled to give.
I hope you’ll come see any or all of the readings that are part of this series. Come to be able to say, “I saw it first;” come to see unique, provocative new work unfettered by pedestrian marketing considerations; come to see how a simple reading of a damn good play by damn good actors can move, excite, and challenge you. Once you see how delicious the experience can be, you’ll be back.