Talking about Writing: The Playhouse Page to Stage Series Premiere

By on 30 August, 2013 in Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

“If he had one wish, it would be to spend 18 hours a day writing for the next 100,000 years. If that were granted, he might scratch the surface of all the things he wants to write.”

-Evan Guilford-Blake

Sometime last fall, I believe it was, we were chatting at the Playhouse about a new play I had just read. It was suggested that we ought to do a staged reading of a new script, if one came along that piqued a real interest. What developed from that conversation is the Page to Stage Series. It’s a playwriting contest that has few rules other than the script submitted must be a full-length, unproduced play. There are no restrictions as to content, setting, or the geographic location of the author. We did set an age limit- 18 and older – and we did decide not to consider musicals, at least, at this point.

The deadline for the Page to Stage Series was June 1 of this year and the winning play will receive a Staged Reading on September 9 at 7:30 p.m. on the Playhouse stage. A “staged reading” pretty much consists of a cast of actors, with scripts in hand, standing at lecterns or sitting in chairs, reading the play to an assembled audience. There is no set. There is minimal movement or “staging.” There is the play, in its germinal stage, having a chance to breathe and speak out loud, often for the very first time. It is a chance for a playwright to hear it, gauge its effect, and take its temperature.

I know for an actor having a new script in hand, being the first to take on a role, working with a writer in the very early life of a play is a fascinating experience. I have been truly lucky in my career to be involved in many of these projects, a good number of which became full productions. The Humana Festival in Louisville, the O’Neill Conference in Connecticut, and Montgomery’s own Southern Writers’ Project at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival are just a few of the places to which writers, directors, designers, and actors gravitate partly in the hope of being part of the next great new play and wrap their arms around a play for the very first time.

Our Page to Stage series is in its nascent period, having received some interesting new scripts to consider. We had requested that the scripts would have no author’s names attached as we began our readings and we had the great assistance of our terrific intern, Daniel Teale to keep us all “on the same page.” Our committee settled on Family Portrait by Evan Guilford-Blake from Stone Mountain, GA. Family Portrait is a truly strong and honest play from a writer who has a successful career in a very difficult profession. Evan shared some thoughts about the play and his life as a writer:

Greg Thornton: First of all, congratulations on being our first writer in this series. We are thrilled to have you join us for this project. You have written a slew of plays and short stories, and now a novel, Noir(ish). Clearly, you are comfortable with many different genres. Does one appeal to you more than the others?

Evan Guilford-Blake: Thanks, Greg. I’m honored and delighted. I love writing; it’s the reason I get out of bed in the morning and, the truth is, I don’t much care what I’m writing, only that I am. I tend to switch off for variety, and I always have several projects in various stages of incompletion. Right now, I’m in the middle of three novels, two plays and a handful of short stories. Kafka once said “I consist of literature and am unable to be anything else.” I empathize, and if something doesn’t get finished (and, sigh, a lot of things won’t), well, at least I’ll have enjoyed myself.

Thornton: Can you talk about your background for a bit? What got you started and in particular, the influence that the Chicago Dramatists has had on you?

Guilford-Blake: My parents both wrote. My Dad was a journalist (and teacher) and, when I was very young, my mother wrote children’s radio plays — two or three 26-minute script a week, for about two years. She later switched to children’s stage plays and short stories for adults but, surely, she was my greatest influence: I started writing when I was five. Though I’d spent most of my life in theater, primarily as an actor, I didn’t start writing plays till 1980 (and didn’t start seriously till 1989). In 1992, a friend guided me to Chicago Dramatists, where I got the education I needed and began to make some contacts. Dramatists, and its AD, Russ Tutterow, were absolutely essential to my development. In the nine years I was Chicago-based and affiliated with them, I went — with their help — from writing contemporary, purely naturalistic, plays to ones which experimented with form, theme and subject matter. And I learned a great deal about structure and editing a script.

Thornton: So, in your play, as in any play, the seed is planted, an idea, an event, perhaps real, perhaps not, what next? Do you do a lot of research, or note-taking before you actually write “Act One, Scene One?”

Guilford-Blake: Depends on the play. Usually I just start writing and worry about what I need to know to make the events and characters credible when I come to a bridge that needs crossing. Sometimes I research beforehand but I’ve found, in my case at least, if I spend a lot of time researching before I begin to write I won’t begin to write. I can’t tell you the books I’ve read, the places I’ve visited and the notes I’ve taken for plays that will never be written: The research became an excuse for not starting the writing.

Thornton: Family Portrait deals with a very real, very honest family situation. The father/son rift, the artist returning home, as well as the mother, who seems to provide the ballast in the home. All of this and much more (without giving anything away) makes for a combustible mix. How do you go about crafting the dialogue, the tension, and remain true to each character?

Guilford-Blake: I don’t create characters. It may sound facile, but they create themselves. They talk to me, and to each other, and I edit what they say and organize it. I’ve found if I try to put words in a character’s mouth, s/he’ll will just turn his/her back on me and stop talking at all. I firmly believe characters are people, with their own wills and senses of self (and self-determination). The end of Family Portrait, for example (without giving anything away), is not the way I want the play to end, but how it ends was not my decision. It was Robbie’s and Brandon’s and Eddie’s.

Thornton: How does having the actors reading from your script and an audience listening to it for the first time affect what might happen next with your play?

Guilford-Blake: Actors distort, but it’s sometimes to the play’s advantage. Thoughtful, prepared actors should bring their unique perspectives to each role they read. I love being surprised when an actor comes up with a line reading (that works) I never considered. It opens up doors and windows through which I can see a lot of possibilities and, when I go back to make revisions, I can consider the questions those possibilities prompt. Similarly, I learn from listening and watching an audience — whether they laugh at something I think is funny, whether they’re quiet and attentive, if they are clearly moved or angered by a moment or a character’s behavior.

Thornton: We are truly looking forward to you being with us, working on the play, and thanks for agreeing to sit and talk with our audience after the reading. You mentioned that you are looking forward to being in Montgomery. Your first visit? Anything in particular you’d like to do or see while you are here?

Guilford-Blake: Again, I’m delighted to have the chance to work with Cloverdale. There are way too few small theatres in America that demonstrate serious interest in helping develop a play or in working with unknown playwrights. More theatres need to do that so new works for the stage will continue to be written and new playwrights can find and establish their voices.

This will be my first visit to Montgomery. I’m looking forward to it very much, especially since I’m a die-hard devotee of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I hope to see the Sayre house. Before I come, I’m going to sit down and (like a good playwright) do some research into other things the city has to offer, and places that may be useful to me in my writing. (One of the plays I’m working on, for example, deals with the life of an ex-slave 70+ years after the Emancipation. If Montgomery has a museum that deals with issues related to slavery, I’d love to spend time there.)

COMING UP AT THE PLAYHOUSE

FAMILY PORTRAIT Reading of the Winning Play in our Page to Stage Contest

Monday, Sept. 9 – 7:30 p.m.

Free admission   Open to the public

The Joe Thomas, Jr.  3rd Tuesday Guitar Pull

Singer/Songwriters perform original music

Sept. 17 7 p.m.

Admission at the Door: $10

Playhouse School Fall Session

K-2nd, 3rd-5th, 6th-8th, High School & Adults

Classes begin Sept.24

WAIT UNTIL DARK

A thriller by Frederick Knott, Directed by Eleanor K. Davis

Sept. 26 through October 6

Performances: Th/Fri/Sat 7:30 p.m. – Sunday 2p.m. Tickets: $18

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