It's almost midnight Oct. 29, and a final dress and technical rehearsal at Manbites Dog Theater is winding down. The crew and designers are gathering costumes and putting finishing touches on the set; most of the cast members have already said their goodnights.
But five stage artists gathering in the right audience bank aren't going anywhere. For a moment, actors Gil Faison, David Greenslade and J. Alphonse Nicholson suggest a group of basketball players huddled around their senior coaching staff. All eyes are on a legal pad sitting on a music stand illuminated by the soft blue glow of an improvised clamp light fixture. Its pages are lined with individual notes about moments in the just-concluded run.
Twenty hours from now, stage manager Karen Burns will call the first cue, the house lights will dim, and the opening night of Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders will begin.
But at this point, what that means for this group is that there's still time. Time to interrogate the artistic decisions that have brought them this far. Time to sharpen, refine, clarify and correct a stubborn set of moments that still aren't optimal, out of the hundreds they've enacted all night long. There's still time, in short, to make Caleb Calypso stronger.
These last intense moments come as a culmination of the Process Series, a unique program at UNC-Chapel Hill that, in less than two years' time, has taken developing playwright Howard Craft from the first drafts of a semiautobiographical work about his days in the military, through a staged reading in March to the eve of its world premiere. (Read our review.) Seated next to Craft in the theater on this night is Joseph Megel, the creator of the Process Series who is also directing this production of Caleb Calypso.
This will be a busy month for Megel. While Calypso plays out its three-week run in Durham, the Process Series continues with its stock in trade with three other artists. This week, multimedia artist Clifford Owens stages and films a group of edgy tableaus called Photographs With an Audience. Ten days after that, monologist Gregory Ramos presents When We Danced, a solo piece based on interviews with elderly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The following weekend, screenwriter Dana Coen, who was head writer and executive producer for the television dramas JAG and Bones, will be present for the first public staged reading of his new screenplay, Downriver, in which the Katrina-swollen Mississippi River carries an 88-year-old bluesman on an odyssey through his own past.
The ticket price for these cutting-edge works?
Zero. Admission is free. Still, one could be forgiven for wondering just how good a bunch of new, untested projects could be. Let's look at what the Process Series has accomplished in the single year of its existence. During the 2008-09 academic year, Megel's program, which is headquartered in UNC's Gerrard Hall, presented six works. All of them have since been picked up for presentation in venues far beyond North Carolina. In addition to Caleb Calypso's world premiere last week at Manbites Dog:
It's an impressive record of accomplishment. "You can spend a lot of time developing new work and never see anything go forward," Megel notes over lunch in Chapel Hill last week. "In our first year, everything went forward. And each of the creators used the Process Series to further their work."
Developing a new performing art work is "very complicated and delicate and very hard to do," Megel says. "It's very risky for a creator to listen to what an audience says in terms of what it thinks a piece should be.
"I've found that when you ask the audience specific questions about what a piece is doing, we actually get information that's helpful to the creator."
A number of programs across the country offer to help artists with works in development. But restrictions that border on the bizarre can limit their usefulness. One group presenting a Dellaira opera in progress would not permit its singers to be dramatically directed, or even allow them to move during the performance. "They couldn't even move their hands," Dellaira said. "It was unhelpful and unfair. You want the presentation to at least mimic a bit of what the performance will be."
Other developmental methods take inappropriate liberties with artists and their work. Trojan Barbie playwright Evans is wary of what she calls "prescriptive" programs. "Some think they can presume what a play should be and that playwrights somehow need guidance to get there," she said.
Howard Craft is more blunt: "I've never had this experience, but I've seen it happen. Some of these directors want to rewrite your play. They want to make it into what they want it to be."
Before coming to UNC in 2003, Megel was artistic director for seven years at a theater dedicated to new works, Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. During that time, he developed a strong philosophy for what does—and doesn't—work when it comes to works in progress.
"The first rule for me," Megel says, "is that I believe the people I'm working with know how to do what they do. I prefer working with people who are at the top of their game. I'm not telling someone how to write a play or write a musical. I think this is the problem in many models: If I wanted to rewrite their play for them, I should do my own writing."
Instead, Megel tries to create a place where artists can make their own discoveries—and then gets out of the way. "If I can give them an environment where they're allowed to see how their work can grow, and ask the right kind of questions, I expect that, given that information, they'll know the next step."
"He doesn't give you a bunch of answers," Calypso author Craft notes. "He asks you a lot of questions that can help you pull out what you're really trying to say." Evans calls Megel "very curious and exploratory. He doesn't feel the need to bash [a script] into shape too early. He's much more about opening up the text, having that conversation and building a relationship between actors, the play and the playwright. He explores the playwright's possibilities so they can see what they've done—and then imagine further into it."
The big difference, according to Dellaira, "is that he's a director. He's looking at the process from the eyes of a director whose job it is to put the whole thing together and make it make sense. He puts himself in the position of the 'virtual director.' What are the questions he'd need answered before he could begin to put this on stage. That's very useful."
The Process Series is only in its second year, and while it's been an unqualified success creatively, it has also had to be creative in securing funds. Prior to this season, the program felt the same economic pain as everyone else in the university and beyond, and was informed that there was no funding available due to budget cuts. Megel and Carolina Performing Arts director Emil Kang ultimately agreed that, if Kang would provide some publicity and the Gerrard Hall space, Megel would work with the Creative Campus project and other sources to raise the needed additional funds. Megel's committee then changed their focus to identify artists of national standing that were already coming to campus with other programs or projects, to see if they had other work that would be appropriate for Process Series. As in year one, he kept the September slot reserved for an exceptional student project—which After-images of the Disappeared, Carina Cortese's autobiographical account of four generations in a family of Argentinian dissidents, proved to be.
The program is clearly beneficial to artists, but it also benefits audiences—who are actually something of a secret weapon in the method. Post-performance discussions are the bane of most developing artists; in separate interviews, Evans and Dellaira agree that most of them are useless. But before the audience can interrogate the folks on stage in Gerrard Hall, Megel has some questions for them first. Process Series personnel distribute questionnaires throughout the room, with five or six specific queries about the night's performance. "I know you'll hate me now," he said with a wry grin to one recent audience, "but we're going to ask you the questions first."
The gentle grilling starts in an open conversation. How would we describe this show to a friend? Which characters did we connect most with—or the least? Did we follow the story or get confused along the way? At the end, did we feel we'd taken a complete journey through the playwright's world? In short, now that the actors have worked the performance, it's the audience's turn to participate. A lively conversation ensues.
"I ask questions that are open-ended and generally not judgmental," Megel notes. "And most of the time, the audience will tell us if they've received an idea that is crucial to the creator. When you ask a question about what they're getting, the answers are just true; no one can show they're the smartest person in the room, which you get a lot of times. What they can show is what they're feeling right now and what they're being left with; what's received. That's the most important and helpful thing."