Friday, December 11, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 99: Arlene Hutton

Arlene Hutton

Hometown: Gosh, I never know how to answer that question! Although I was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, I lived the first few years of my life in Mississippi. We moved to Florida when I was eight. But my parents always called Kentucky “home.” I’m the daughter of hillbillies. There’s a lot of material there.

Current Town: New York City

Q: Tell me about your recent readings at The Barrow Group and Ensemble Studio Theatre.

A: I like writing for specific actors. I wrote RUNNING some years ago, for Seth Barrish and Lee Brock, and put it away to work on other pieces, completely forgetting about it. Actor David Arrow reminded me of it and he did a wonderful reading for me at The Players which led me to more revisions. The first public reading was at The Barrow Group with Seth and Lee, on the day of the New York City Marathon, and we’re now discussing how to develop it further. VACUUM was begun in the Catskills a year ago, at a ‘pataphysics retreat with Erik Ehn, written for Polly Adams for Octoberfest at EST and we did a workshop at HERE. It’s quite different from anything I’ve ever written, so who knows what will happen with it.
For years I developed my work at New Dramatists and 78th Street Theatre Lab. Now that I’m an alumna, or “Old Dramatist,” and things have changed at 78th Street Theatre Lab, due to real estate and economics, I’m happy to have other sandboxes to play in, happy to be developing work at HERE, EST and The Barrow Group.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: I have a commission beginning in the spring of 2010, but I can’t talk about it yet.

Q: You and Craig Pospisil wrote a play together over email.

A: Yes, we did!

Q: Can you describe how that worked?

A: For years Craig and I have talked about working together, but we’ve always been too busy. In the late summer of 2008 I e-mailed him, saying “let’s write a play together on-line.” I would e-mail him a line of dialogue and he’d e-mail back. We started with nothing planned, just lines of dialogue, sort of like an e-mailed “T. J. & Dave.” I played two of the characters and he played two others. We had met years ago in an improv workshop and we’ve worked together many times on TheATrainPlays, so this was like improvising. We were having a good time, e-mailing back and forth. And then one day he wrote and said, hey, do you know what? We have forty pages. Let’s read it. We did and kept going. It’s called OUT OF THE FRYING PAN. It’s wonderfully silly, partly because of Craigs’ terrific sense of humor and partly because we would try to trick each other at times, or set up challenges to be fixed. Once I took both my characters out of the room so he had to continue on his own for a while. Craig is one of the smartest and funniest people I know, so it’s been like playing tennis with someone better than you and seeing your own game improve.

Q: Have you heard it out loud?

A: Yes! After we finally wrote “end of play” we had a reading with some wonderful actors, including Stephanie D’Abruzzo (AVENUE Q), Ryan Duncan (SHREK), Dennis Holland (DRIFT) and Margot Avery (NICKEL AND DIMED).

Q: What is the revision process going to be like?

A: We haven’t figured that out yet! We’ve both been busy, but we hope to get back to it.

Q: You are probably best known for THE NIBROC TRILOGY. Can you talk a little about those plays?

A: Well, first of all, I never set out to write a trilogy, but I loved the characters so much that I wanted to keep spending time with them. LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC started as a one-act, just the scene on the train, written for Alexandra Geis. I wrote two more scenes and produced the full-length myself for the second New York Fringe Festival, directed by Michael Montel. That production moved to the 78th Street Theatre Lab, traveled to Edinburgh and then ran Off-Broadway. SEE ROCK CITY was written years later, at the Australian National Playwright’s Conference because I needed to write something there and I knew the characters well. There were two extra actresses available in my time slot, so I wrote them in as the mothers. That play was chosen for development at the New Harmony Project. I wrote a proposal for the third play so I could go back there again as a writer-in-residence. Each play in the TRILOGY was written in less than two weeks and then revised and workshopped over a period of time, at New Harmony, at Orlando Playfest, at the Actor’s Coop. Director Eric Nightengale has been an important part of the process and we co-produced the TRILOGY at 78th Street in 2007. Several theatres around the country have presented the entire cycle, including B Street in Sacramento and Echo Theatre in Dallas. LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC has had, what, close to two hundred productions around the country maybe, most recently at The Kitchen and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. I’m not kidding myself, though. Its popularity probably has a lot to do with the economy. The play is two characters and a bench. Only a solo show would be less expensive.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: Anything with purpose and authenticity. It can be BLACK WATCH from Scotland or an elementary school doing FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

I like physical theatre – especially the sort of work I see from international companies at the Edinburgh Fringe, at BAM, at the Lincoln Center summer festival or at St. Anne’s Warehouse. Although some of my own pieces can almost be (and have been) presented as radio plays, what I especially seek out are strong visual works.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Well, I personally “started out” after working for years on and off stage, so I had a lot of experience in the theatre before I began writing my first play. So here’s what I say to young playwrights when I teach at colleges and conferences: Learn to do everything – act, direct, make costumes, build sets – and do it for other people’s plays. Work with the best people you can find, those that both support you and challenge you to be your best. See as many plays as you can see. See readings of plays (they’re usually free!) Read every play you can. Don’t be afraid to produce or co-produce your plays yourself. Take the Commercial Theatre Institute’s weekend intensive on producing and learn everything you can about the business. Keep applying to New Dramatists and the MacDowell Colony and the New Harmony Project and all those wonderful places that serve writers and give you community. Join the Dramatists’ Guild.

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