There aren’t many festivals in Telluride where the outcome is uncertain. Musicians know exactly what they’ll be playing on stage; vintners who come to the Telluride Wine Festival have chosen their bottles with care; Yoga Festival instructors arrive in full-on teaching mode. As relaxed and convivial as these get-togethers are, everything is more-or-less buttoned up well before the audience arrives. Rehearsed.
Contrast that with the Telluride Playwright’s Festival, where improv is integral, mutation – not recitation – is key, and the works onstage have only begun their journey. Indeed, audiences get a say in their outcome, and what they have to offer has been clearly helpful: plays incubated in Telluride have gone on to be produced in Denver, Detroit, Chicago and New York.
This year’s Festival includes a curious new play by TPF’s founder and Artistic Director, Jennie Franks entitled Ayn/Sister. Franks had planned to collaborate with another writer on a work about the novelist Ayn Rand. The artistic collaboration didn’t work out, “as often happens with these things,” Franks said philosophically, “and I was left with all this information” about Rand. One detail in particular stood out: “During the 70s, her sister visited her in New York from Russia. She came and she went. No one knows why.” Rand never wrote about the visit, but Franks has; Yury Urnov, who was born in Moscow and is a graduate from the Russian Academy of Theater Art, will direct a staged reading at the Sheridan Opera House next Sunday, July 27.
Also on stage next week: How to Not Get Turned Into a Tree, a “modern-day myth” written and performed by Daniel Glenn, in which “Climate change, gun control and the Tea Party wreak havoc” on the play’s four main characters, “but it is an illicit affair that changes them all forever.”
There’ll be discussion with the playwright following the performance, as well as an improvised scene from a new play written by Franks for Glenn and actors Lori Garden and Richard Cowden. The thing is, none of these actors knows what role the others are playing; each person is only familiar with his own lines. “I live in Telluride,” Franks pointed out. “It was impossible for Lori and Daniel, who live in New York, and Richard, who lives in Vermont to get together with me and rehearse.” More to the point, “I wanted to create something out of nothing, with actors. As far as I know, this hasn’t been done around here before.” The whole thing comes together next Thursday night. “I’m very excited,” Glenn said. “I think I’m going to laugh a lot. I’m a little nervous. Jennie told us it would be OK to create characters that weren’t such a far cry from who we are, so that it might be easier to move about in those skins. My person is a mixture of who I’d like to be, in that he is more peaceful than me, and who I fear becoming, in that he is a bit of a loner.”
Emotional nakedness in service of your art–whether you are acting, or being willing to let your script be “picked apart,” as Franks put it, in rehearsals all week, and then have the audience “throw their two cents in” following a staged reading–is difficult. (On the other hand, “You are there to serve the public,” Glenn pointed out. “Otherwise you should become a poet or novelist!”) As a playwright, “you have an immediate relationship to feedback in that it can be much more immediate, which be painful,” he went on. “The blessing that comes with that is that your editing can be much faster and more direct. The audience either gets the joke, or it doesn’t.”
Jeff Tabnick, whose Tonight At Noon gets a staged reading next Saturday, agrees: “You can hear it when a line dies.” He has never been to Telluride, and can’t wait. “Any chance you get, you leave everything else behind so you can really focus,” he said. “It especially helps that this is out of town. Usually in New York, you know people. You can anticipate their reactions. These are people I don’t know. It’s an opportunity to hone jokes and fine-tune plot points, but also to find out if an audience cares – if you’re reaching them. That’s the bottom line.” Tabnick’s play, a comedy about a young couple grappling with the decision to start a family, involves a fair number of “absurd, non-linear” situations, potentially straining credulity. “But if we earn the audience’s trust,” he pointed out, “they’ll go with us.”
Here’s a sampling of what’s on next week:
Wednesday, July 23 Opening Mic/Karaoke at the Steaming Bean
Thursday, July 24 How Not to Get Turned Into a Tree starring Daniel Glenn, and a new, improvised scene from the acting company, written by Franks. Talk back with the playwright(s) afterwards.
Friday, July 25 volunteers join the acting company for “an evening of improvisations and surprises.”
Saturday, July 26; coffee and an informal reading of a Broadway-bound play in the morning; a staged reading of Tabnick’s Tonight at Noon in the evening (talkback with the playwright follows).
Sunday, July 27; coffee and a discussion with directors Yury Urnov and Eric Nightingale on the state of theatre in the East vs. the West; a staged reading of Ayn/Sister (talkback follows).
Many of these events are free; attending all of them costs $50. By contrast, orchestra seating to a Broadway show – not nearly as up-close as you’ll get at the Sheridan Opera House, where TPF stages many of its readings – can cost $199, which is the tariff for seats to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre this weekend.
“We sensed there was an appetite for this sort of thing,” Franks says of her decision to found the TPF, now in its 14th year. Look for the black T-shirts emblazoned Made in Telluride around town next week. “We hope you will go away talking and thinking,” she said. “We like to be a little provocative.”
For complete information on the TPF and SPARK Productions’ other programs, including National Theatre Live at the Palm, visit playwrightsfestival.org.