Creating Theatre - An Artist's Journey

Posted on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 2:20 PM

 By Susan Gaspar

When Tara told me about this year's Fresh Produce, I was immediately intrigued. I had participated in Fresh Produce events in past years and had always had an inspiring and invigorating experience, so I was pleased to again be a part of this annual Rivendell Theatre Ensemble tradition. And after our first group meeting in December, I thought about the themes surrounding women in combat and tried to find a way to do an interview with a female soldier, which we all agreed might be a good place to begin.

I thought of a woman I knew from high school---someone I had not seen or spoken to in almost 30 years. She had joined the Army Reserves after graduation, had and had later chosen to make the Army her career. We had recently reconnected via Facebook and when I found out she currently lives in Los Angeles, I messaged her about a short phone interview, describing in brief the Women at War project. She agreed. I prepared a series of interview questions---questions I thought might illicit detailed, emotional responses---so that I could keep myself on track during the phone call and hopefully get some rich, personal insights that could be later transformed into a series of theatrical "moments."

The phone call went well and she answered my questions as best she could, but I quickly realized that some of them didn't really apply to her, and that she had a different story to tell. I put them aside and just let her talk, and asked leading questions when necessary to fill in the blanks. In our time on the phone, I took several pages of notes, which were vital in creating the piece. The honesty and openness I received from a woman I had not seen or spoken to in so long was extremely moving. She was very passionate about the military and it was clear she enjoyed making it her life's work.

But how to create something theatrical from it all? There was so much information, all of it interesting, but much of it was stream of consciousness so I worried I would be overwhelmed. I figured I had to choose one small portion that might connect with an audience and then somehow flesh it out so it would work for the stage. I decided to take a section from one of the soldier’s stories about her family and write it down as though I was a reporter telling the tale to an outsider.

The story dealt with the pressure felt by the soldier’s family and her internal conflict every time she had to leave home to serve---having to say goodbye to her husband and children and taking on the non-traditional role of bread-winner. It was something about which I had never given much thought, because we almost always see men as the ones who leave, and they are made to feel OK about that---if not made to feel like outright heroes---because they are doing it for the good of the family. But when the roles are reversed and the woman is the one to pack a bag and leave behind a spouse and children, it seems they can be judged and even vilified. Why? What would cause this, and why would supportive, loving family members turn on someone that way during such a stressful time? It seemed worth exploring.

Even though I was glad to have narrowed the interview down to something manageable, I was still worried it wouldn't translate theatrically and have the impact I'd felt as the story was being told to me. This was where Megan Carney worked her magic.

Megan is a theater artist with more skills and talents than I can list---and she has a keen eye for what will work in any given circumstance. I knew the minute I passed her my excerpt that she would know what to do to make it lean, precise, and alive. After some discussion, we decided to build three roles and found actors to portray them (one of whom ended up being me). We also chose not to write a hard script---we decided that since mine was the only character who really verbalized in the scene, and since I was comfortable with improvisation, we would just come up with a few scripted beats and see what happened.

That approach is one of the reasons I love working in theater, and why I adore improvisation: "Let's just try it and see what happens." I feel my heart skip a beat whenever I get the chance to create that way, so the rehearsal we had was very exciting. I can only hope that the other actors, the fabulous Rebecca Spence and Michael Szeles, felt the same. It was such a joy to be in the brand new Rivendell theater space that day, rehearsing what would be a one-time-only, who-knows-what-will-happen scene. And without Megan's guidance we could have ended up with a murky idea that never left the ground.

Instead we found a rhythm for the piece, quickly embraced our characters and relationships, and let those be our guide and safety net. We were able to take one aspect of a specific past incident between people we don’t know and breathe life into it in the present. It seemed like such a small, fragile idea----but it was one that we all felt should be shared. And it was so satisfying to be able to show just one of the struggles faced by women in the military in such an intimate way.

I feel honored to have been a part of this year's Fresh Produce. The new theater is just what is needed to showcase all the dedication, skill and passion that is wrapped up in Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. The building and its occupants can indeed create magic, and hopefully artists and audiences will feel it for years to come.

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