Feeding the Lake: Charlotte Miller’s Ugly Little Sister at Strasberg
“All of writing is a huge lake,” goes a favorite quote of mine by Jean Rhys. “There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” If theater is a lake too, then developing new plays is one of its most vital and important feeders. Once the job of the actor/producer heads of traveling companies, the responsibility for bringing new stories to the stage has shifted dramatically with times and tastes. Playwrights and theater artists have been talking for years about the inherent problems with current new play development. Many large institutional theaters put plays through their paces by doing countless readings with no guarantee of a production. Of course, economics play a huge role in these decisions, but do countless readings really help? If the cycle of readings goes on an on, does the stream of creativity get sidelined in a stagnant pool? How do we feed our theater lake when developing new plays?
For the past four years, The The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (LSTFI) has aimed at fulfilling a new model for developing plays while tapping into the collective spirit that lives in all art. 2012 marked the fortieth anniversary of a partnership between NYU and LSTFI, and the leaders of Strasberg were looking for a way to commemorate the milestone in congress with the school’s mandate of actor training. Aaron Schroeder, who serves as a creative consultant for Strasberg and was the initial conceiver of the commission, describes how this project came about for them, explaining that “despite our best efforts and the sincere belief in Lee Strasberg's work, the general observation of our students and faculty was that so much of that legacy was being passed over.” The community at the school mourned the loss of “plays developed as ensemble, utilizing the intimate relationships of a company to create authentic relationship on stage, a focus on the acting, the impulse towards real life on stage, direction that saw acting as the life and breath of a play rather than as pawns in its execution.”
Something must be done, they thought, to reinvigorate this legacy at the school, and whatever it was should also play a part in the cultural conversation of the city at large. This led the folks at Strasberg to start the Clifford Odets Commission. Each year two playwrights, many of them early-career New York writers who have been hammering away in the indie scene, are commissioned to write a play for a group of graduating NYU BFA acting students. The actors audition for Practicum courses, which are reserved for the most dedicated of students. Students in these courses form a company and then mount fully realized productions by the end of the semester. The students spend the entire semester working in class with various professionals including directors, agents, and casting directors.
The production serves as a bridge between academic theater and what the students will encounter once they get out of school. In turn, Schroeder says that this program “has introduced these emerging talents to the tenets of method acting—often pushing their work further. He cites Tennessee Williams’ work being deeply informed by method actors, and sees the potential for huge growth in the capabilities of the young performers as well, through exposure to new writers and writing.
At the same time that the actors are auditioning to be in the class, Strasberg solicits submissions of writing samples from various agents and other industry professionals. After a playwright and actors have been selected, the playwright sits down with the actors – either one on one or in a group – to get to know them, with the aim of the plays being tailored to the individual actors. These meetings usually take place over the course of the winter or summer break periods; the playwright writes a first draft over the break, then passes it along to the faculty for feedback. Strasberg also encourages the playwrights and directors to observe method acting classes throughout the semester to get a sense of how the students have been trained. The plays are rehearsed over six weeks, and the design is accomplished on a small budget, with the team challenged to create something that serves the play but is also flexible enough so that classes can still take place in the space during the day.
Past writers who have received this commission include Lila Feinberg, Sarah Gancher, Frank Winters, Crystal Skillman, and Steve DiUbaldo. The current production, of Charlotte Miller’s Ugly Little Sister, will run for a week in May. The play is a departure for Charlotte in some ways, a mash up of Greek mythology and the Kardashians, and an exciting expansion of her voice and obsessions as a writer.
The first time I saw Charlotte’s work was for a one night only performance in the cramped and cozy backroom at Jimmy’s 43. I remember the stillness of the thing, and sat mesmerized at each moment crafted and observed by all involved. We were one body experiencing something together; that communal feeling is why I do theater. I knew I had to meet Charlotte and asked her to go for coffee. She has since become a close friend and collaborator.
The characters in Charlotte’s plays are freaks, outcasts, people with soulful lives who are searching for ways to connect to a world that might not want to connect to them. She spoke to me about her approach to this play, and about grappling with something new for her—a massive cast. “I had to start thinking about big, simple ideas that would hold a cast of twelve. Of course the first thing I think about is the Greeks, but then working with a young cast like this and meeting them week after week I decided I really wanted to mine this idea of working with pop culture and marrying it to a classical structure, and doing it in a way that isn’t easy.” She goes on to articulate her hope for a play that is both outlandish in its mashed-up qualities and earnest, even classical, in its approach. She says it has been a process of “throwing in everything from the Kardashians to Rihanna and running with it, but also not allowing the thing to comment on itself – no cell phones, no selfies, no social media references.”
Charlotte is working with director and frequent collaborator Daniel Talbott on the piece. As artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep, of which Charlotte is also a company member, Daniel has always impressed me with his capacity to bring people together. He has fostered a group of artists whose bonds inside and outside of rehearsal are strong anchors for each other and the work. He puts the actor at the center of what he is doing in the rehearsal room. Through projects like Cino Nights, a series of new plays fully staged and presented in a bare bones style with a week of rehearsal, he and his company are constantly feeding the lake. “All you really need is game, huge hearted, un-jaded and exceptionally hard working folks who are looking at their own shit and making it about the team and not about themselves.” His goal is to work with “artists who are accountable, and searching, and family players who will come running into the middle of the room with you. And if everyone is humongous with imagination and fucking bravery, that’s what it’s all about in the end.”
In Ugly Little Sister, the actors are having an invaluable experience of what it’s like to work with a play that is still being developed. It’s a rare gift in an educational environment and a significant responsibility for a young actor—to have the freedom to create a role fresh but the duty to deliver as fully as possible each step of the way, even as the play develops. Alice Verderber plays Coco, and shares, “because Charlotte’s play is still changing and growing I have had space and time to focus in on building a strong character scene by scene.”
Writing plays from scratch with the pressure of a production looming overhead does affect the process, but Charlotte negotiates that tension well. “There's a huge demand between timeline and budget and cast size, and it forces you to get down to the basics of storytelling, if that makes sense. That's what's informed the process the most, is the need for simplicity so that this giant thing can roll forward.”
Even as the program is set up to give emerging writers the opportunity to write for a big cast, budgetary restrictions at many professional theater companies call for plays that have four characters or less. Given those realities, is there any hope for an Odets commission play to have a life beyond Strasberg? If not, are these plays really feeding new play development in a meaningful way?
Playwright Crystal Skillman was commissioned last fall to write Pulp Verité, which she describes as “the story of a filmmaker who comes back from being held overseas - but her sister is still being held in Syria.” Crystal had an amazing experience working at Strasberg, and has continued the development process after the short run in a way that simply would not have been possible after a reading. “Working with an ensemble made us want to explore what was highly theatrical,” she relates, “going from naturalistic moments to ‘break out’ storytelling where the ensemble got to bring to life the stories that one sister would tell the other. But it was a lot. Which I loved, but I was excited to take this raw animal and make it cleaner.”
Crystal made full use of the opportunity of a fully staged New York production to invite collaborators and industry people, who all had great ideas for the future life of the play. “Embracing what I learned from the three nights I saw, I was able to streamline the script, which has been requested by several theaters. I could talk through [my choices with] engaged producers and literary theater minds.” As she continues to develop it, Pulp Verité will be produced by Project Y Theater as part of their Women’s Festival on June 13 with director Adrienne Campbell-Holt.
Steve DiUbaldo, whose play Wayward was at Strasberg in the fall, enjoyed the experience immensely. “It forces the playwright to make quick decisions and collaborate with the strengths of the actors and director. I think more opportunities like this would not only make for exciting new work, but also provide playwrights with the most important tool for growth there is - produced work.” He’s also looking for other opportunities for the play in academic settings, saying “there aren't a lot of plays out there with ten ensemble roles for teenage to college-aged actors, onstage and active in all scenes they are a part of, so I'd like to see it next at another college or theater with an abundance of talented young actors. It was created to be a challenging piece for talented college actors to sink their teeth into.”
In fact, many playwrights have found a home for their Odets commission plays after the production is over. The 2014 commission, a Frank Winters play entitled Student Body (formerly The School Play), was produced at The Flea Theater this past fall. Some of the other commissions have had workshops and readings at festivals across the country. This brings Schroeder a lot of joy: “To us, that’s the greatest reward. That the commission has become a way to incubate in a manner that remembers the tradition on which it stands. And that feeds those artists with a unique platform for development. It’s exciting.”
Ugly Little Sister by Charlotte Miller, directed by Daniel Talbott, will run May 4, 5, 6, & 7 at 7:30 p.m. at The Lee Strasberg Theatre, 115 East 15t Street. Tickets $5/$10/$20, available at uglylittlesister.eventbrite.com.