by G Riley Mills
Creating and developing a new work is never an easy task for a playwright but it is hardly any easier for a theatre or producer. It can be risky business and it takes a special commitment on the part of a producer or artistic director to take a chance on a play that has no brand name or built-in audience.
Which is why the work that Polarity Ensemble Theatre does with its Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays is so extraordinary.
I had the great fortune of having my newest play, Deaths and Devils, selected as one of the four scripts chosen for the 2010 Dionysos Cup. To me, new plays are like lonely little orphans in the world, wandering through the wilderness looking for someone to take them in and give them a home. In Polarity and the Dionysos Cup, I found just the warm safe place I was looking for.
I first came across the inspiration for Deaths and Devils a few years back when I read a blurb in a magazine about John R. Brinkley, a curious and colorful character from the 1920s who made $12 million during the Great Depression by claiming he could cure impotent men by replacing their testicles with the healthy glands of the goat! Of course, being drawn to history and historical figures, I was immediately intrigued and began reading every book and article I could find about Brinkley. What I discovered was amazing. Not only had Brinkley been a wildly successful doctor in his lifetime, he was also a politician, a filmmaker and a pioneer of early radio (as well as a serial killer, of sorts)! I immersed myself in the world of John R. Brinkley, researching and sketching out the bones of what would eventually become Deaths and Devils.
Every playwright’s process is a little bit different. For me, I start writing the scenes that come to me first (the low hanging fruit, as it were). This meant, in the case of Deaths and Devils, that I began with the final courtroom confrontation between Brinkley and his nemesis. After about a year or writing and rewriting, I had finally completed the first draft of the script. Now (as any playwright knows) the most painful and difficult part of being a playwright really comes after the play is finished. There you are (at last!) with this exciting new work. But where do you go now? What do you do with it?
The sad truth is that few theater companies have the resources available to dedicate to the staging and development of completely new works. Also, new plays don’t generally come in neat little packages like the crisp, new scripts ordered from Samuel French. By their very nature, new plays are flawed, ugly little beasts—often overwritten, with characters that are underdeveloped and scenes that drag on too long or are simply extraneous. Of course, these are negative aspects to some, but for me, these are the attributes that make a new play so beautiful. New works need to be developed, read out loud and given the opportunity to be rewritten. It is this essential refining process (just like with diamonds) that makes a new play sparkle.
I have been fortunate enough over the years to have had plays commissioned and produced by such theaters as Lookingglass, Prop, Timeline, Emerald City and Chicago Children’s Theatre, among others. Each development process is a little bit different. With the Dionysos Cup, we had only four rehearsals before presenting the play to a paying audience at Polarity. Not a lot of time. Plus Death and Devils is a big show, with a large cast, that sweeps through time, much the same as a movie like The Aviator or There Will Be Blood. So the pressure was on from the start.
Fortunately, in Darren Callahan and Polarity, I had some very ambitious partners.
As anyone who has attended any previous Dionysos Cups knows, these are not run-of-the-mill play readings with actors sitting around a table. These are ambitious staged readings with lighting cues, sound cues, costumes and props. Darren Callahan—our brilliant and talented director—was a machine, pushing not only the cast, but also me as a playwright to go further in these four rehearsals then I had probably ever gone in any other new play development process. What was also exciting and inspiring, was that Polarity (specifically Richard, Ann and Laura) allowed us to do the work we needed to do while supporting us every step of the way. Add a scene? Go for it! Cut a character? Why not!
The process of the Dionysos Cup allowed me to continue to refine the script even between the first public reading and the second one. After each reading, there was a brief talkback. Though painful in some instances, talkbacks are essential in the process of new play development. To be able to hear firsthand what audience members took away from the story and characters (that for so long have been living only inside of your head) is invaluable. Audience feedback can be very eye opening and can provide a playwright with entirely new ways of thinking about a scene or character that might never have dawned on them before.
I am extremely grateful to have been a part of the 2010 Dionysos Cup New Play Festival. Death and Devils took enormous strides forward because of its inclusion—becoming a tighter, richer, and more exciting play in the process. There are few theatres in Chicago that display the level of commitment that Polarity does to the development of new works (especially new works not written by a company’s ensemble member). For that reason, we should celebrate by raising a glass to both Polarity and, more specifically, the Dionysos Cup itself. Without the support of incubators such as these, where would the great new plays of tomorrow come from?
–G. Riley Mills