by Mark Peikert
After a show has premiered, the script and staging are usually locked into place, no matter what the critics or audiences might say. But when a show gets another life, the new production becomes a blank slate. The playwright can go back and tinker or streamline to his or her heart’s content, tightening the show or even completely overhauling it. But with so many voices and suggestions, how does any playwright choose whom to take seriously?
“Knowing how to differentiate between suggestions is the life’s work of an artist or an entertainer,” says playwright Aaron Loeb. Loeb himself has been hard at work on his script for Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party a FringeNYC hit last year that is enjoying a commercial run on Theatre Row this month. He says, “In my day job, I make video games. And I have a co-worker who has this great expression: ‘You can hear the bad news now, or you can wait until the game comes out and hear the bad news from the reviewer.’ It always amazes me that people in the creative arts don’t want to hear negative feedback because it might mess with their mojo or whatever. I listen intently to feedback and try to hear things that are counter to my intention.
And not all feedback matters, but all feedback is interesting.”
Fellow playwright Jonathan Tolins concurs. His insider-y Secrets of the Trade starring John Glover as a prickly director who takes a young admirer under his wing—is currently enjoying its New York City premiere at Primary Stages after a Los Angeles production in 2008. He says he absorbed many suggestions as he prepared for the new run, but he does offer a caveat.
“You don’t want to throw things out too quickly,” he warns, “because you need to maintain the moment of inspiration that led you to write the play in the first place. You have to trust your ear for how people talk and how these characters sound and who they are.”
Both playwrights received rave reviews for the earlier versions of their shows, but both have been tinkering all the same. Tolins returned to the script, determined, as he says, to “smooth out every transition and eliminate every extra syllable.”
One minor change shines light on the mundane choices that can make a major impact: He reworked some dialogue, spoken by a character near the end of act one, who is disheartened to discover that she’s no longer the “cool teacher.” To pre-empt the feeling that the dialogue was turning into an unnatural, stagey speech, Tolins simply added the phrase “I didn’t tell you this” to the beginning of her confession. As he says, “It’s just a little thing, but it makes a difference.”
Loeb and his director Chris Smith—who has directed Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party at the Fringe and in an earlier San Francisco run—also found themselves rethinking parts of the show. A gimlet-eyed blend of slapstick and biting political commentary, Dance Party traces the fallout of an elementary school pageant that announces the sixteenth president was gay. The creators are intent on striking the right balance between humor and serious thought.
“We’ve got a couple of places where we’re like, ‘Yeah, that just wasn’t good enough,’” Loeb confesses. “The opening of one of the acts, we did a lot of improv silliness in the first production. And in this production, it’s much more planned and choreographed, and we also introduced a highly theatrical element of having a jug band of Abraham Lincoln’s appear on stage. So it becomes a much bigger theatrical moment now.”
Tolins, too, is reteaming with the same director on Secrets of the Trade, and he stresses the value of finding like-minded collaborators. “You have to trust the people you’re working with,” he says. “[Director] Matt Shakman and I have developed a very close working relationship, and I trust his taste level. And the actors often have great insight into how it feels to be that person in that moment.”
Loeb notes that during rehearsals, egos must be left at the door. “I’ve learned whole new sets of things about the play based on a whole new set of accomplished actors,” he says. “The thing about good actors is that they can make even bad dialogue sound good. And with a new cast, the play is new to them, so they’re going, ‘Why on earth am I saying this?’ And you’re like, ‘I don’t know!’”
Those reactions just inspire Loeb to get back to work. “New moments stick out,” he says, “And I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t wait to rewrite that!’”
Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for New York Press.