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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Playwright Regina Taylor is currently in rehearsals with her new play stop. reset., which opens in August at Signature Theatre, but for months now, she's been working with students around the country to explore the show's larger themes.
That's why, earlier this month, she opened her process to students in Theatre Development Fund's Summer Playwriting Intensive.
These collaborations are not only valuable experiences for the students (and Taylor herself), but also distillations of what stop. reset. is about. Set in modern day Chicago, the play follows Alex Ames, the owner of an African-American book publishing company who feels crushed by the onslaught of new technology. Eventually, a mysterious young person forces him to confront his relationship to the future.
The premise roils with questions: How is technology changing society? What does it mean to communicate and stay connected? Can we honor traditional forms of expression without ignoring the possibilities of social media? Meeting with students for workshops and conversations, Taylor has started dozens of conversations on these topics, embodying the idea of two generations trying to learn what communication means for us all.
She's dedicated to incorporating the results into her production. stop. reset. will have its own website, for instance, that features student writing directly inspired by the script. "The students are part of this play," she says. "I'm looking for collaborations."
To that end, Taylor was an ideal match for TDF's Summer Playwriting Intensive, a two-week program for local high school students. (All thirteen students attended for free, but they were selected from a pool of applicants.) Led by playwright and teaching artist Crystal Skillman, the students wrote several short plays, and their final pieces were performed for an audience by professional actors.
Though stop. reset. wasn't part of every exercise in SPI, it did provide a unique throughline for the students. "We kept coming back to the main philosophy of the play being set now and dealing with the issues of today," Skillman says. "What's on the mind of these kids, both universally and personally? If you have all these great ideas, which one do you write about right now?" She adds that "transition was a very big thing on their minds"---going to college, changing grades, etc.---which is why one exercise had them write plays set in an airport, which is a permanent transitional space.
Students also wrote about characters who are mentioned in Taylor's play but never actually appear. "Sometimes, we think that we only write that which is seen on the page and on the stage," Taylor says. "But it's important to think about filling out the universe we're creating."
Along with discussing their work, Taylor also let the students see how she was revising her own script. "I thought it was beneficial to show them a couple of versions of the piece as I'm developing it, so we could talk about process and what the process might be," she says. Skillman agrees, saying, "I knew it would be very liberating for them to see a playwright at that level work on her play. To see the words change and characters change automatically makes you say, 'Well, I like to rewrite, too!'" The students will see a performance of the play during its run, so they'll also experience how it changed during rehearsal.
Ideally, SPI will have a lingering impact on the professionals and the students alike. Asked why she wanted to bring young people into the development of stop. reset., Taylor says, "For me, it's twofold. One is that I'm able to be interactive with the next generation of theatre artists, and the other is that they're having their voices heard. They're being published online with the idea that audiences who come see the play will have access to their voices."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor