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Journal of American Drama & Theatre

Volume

Issue

35

2

Starting with the Space: An Interview with Patrick Gabridge

Talya Kingston

By

Published on 

May 19, 2023

 



Plays In Place is a Massachusetts-based company that collaborates with museums, historical sites and cultural institutions to commission plays that are fully produced in their space. While re-enactment on historical sites is not uncommon, this company contracts professional playwrights to pull historical information into fully realized stories that allow audiences to more fully engage with the human interactions that happened in different times and contexts. This engagement can bring new audiences in, and open new conversations, thus enlivening the site and making it more relevant in the life of its community. The commissioned playwright is similarly offered a fulfilling creative collaboration that they know from the outset will be both compensated and produced for an audience.

It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that a company that centers writers, both creatively and in the budget, is run by a playwright. Producing Artistic Director Patrick Gabridge’s own work is often featured in the repertoire, but as the company has grown, he has commissioned a cadre of other playwrights (including me). Through the creative process he connects us with historical resources, strongly advocates for our creative freedom, and pays us at every stage of development. I sat down with Patrick to talk about his company’s process for developing new works of theater.


 I’m curious about your original inspiration for starting Plays In Place.  Tell me the origin story of this playwright-led company.

Plays In Place was inspired from the production of a play called Blood on the Snow that I was commissioned to write for the Bostonian Society for the renovated council chamber at the Boston Old State House. I’ve always loved writing historical work, and I’ve always loved doing site-specific work. This gave me a chance to do both together. It was clear there was a strong hunger from audiences, especially in New England. We sold out that first run before we even opened. We added a week and sold out that week. We came back in the second year for a twelve-week run. Years later, people are still calling that museum regularly asking when the show is coming back!


Starting a company made it easier for me to approach other museums. Our goal is creating new site-specific plays in partnership with museums, historic spaces, and other institutions. I’ve founded theatre companies before, but in this particular case, I wanted to found a theatre company where we didn’t have to manage a space or raise money. I didn’t want a development department and I didn’t want a building.


Speaking of raising money, can you describe the financial model for playwrights that you’ve developed through Plays In Place and how it differs from the traditional model of play development in this country?

 There are a few dozen playwrights who operate on commission for larger theatre companies, and they make money that way, and they get their plays produced that way and that’s great. It doesn’t happen for most of us – not all the time anyway! So, the typical model is you write a play on spec, you send it out to a lot of theatres and those may or may not get produced. It’s a scattershot approach to doing your work. It’s nice that you have a lot of control over what you are going to write, but your possibility of getting it in front of an audience, let alone getting paid for it, is pretty small.

Even if you are in a position where a theatre company is commissioning you, they might be commissioning a bunch of different writers. They’ll do some development of your plays, and maybe they’ll pick one or two of those plays to fully produce, but maybe they won’t.  So, it is good that you got paid and you still have a play that you can shop around somewhere else, but sad if the commission doesn’t end up in a production.

What is different about our model is that the commission is part of the development process. We’ve learned to set up our contracts in multiple phases. Typically phase one is writers working with the institution on basic research, to come up with the storyline and structure. In this phase, the writer is paid upfront to come up with a proposal. This puts us in a good spot for phase two: the commissioning to write the plays and one or two in-house readings. And then phase three is rehearsal and production.

In general, the institutions we’re working with are not developing a lot of different plays and starting the project because they intend to produce the work. This phased model allows them to raise the money in steps. It’s easier for the institutions to say yes to the partnership if I say to them that phase one is going to cost them $5000 – they might have that money, or a way to get it. Phase Two is significantly more money but it’s not a huge amount, and once we have scripts in hand, it’s easier to raise money for the rest, for the production.

Plays In Place can commission playwrights at very competitive terms, especially for shorter plays. There are very few theatres commissioning one-act plays unless the playwrights are very famous. We don’t need our people to be famous, they just need to be good at what they do and willing to collaborate with the partner institution and keep their needs in mind when writing. For example, we are partnering with a historical site, so our production has to connect to the actual history.

I like talking about money with writers because I think we don’t talk about it enough, and then we go into our conversations with producers a little ill-informed.


Plays In Place mostly develops work in a community, which is different from the somewhat isolated traditional playwriting mode. Can you talk about the development process for writers and other artists, and how we work together with the sites? 

The process that you and I are involved in now [a partnership with Historic Northampton], as well as the National Parks Service’s Suffrage In Black and White, both involve three writers and we are all meeting somewhat regularly to talk about our work and to coordinate our presentations to the institutions. There is significant independence between each play, but also, I feel that it’s very important as a group to build that project together, so it has some liminal level of cohesiveness. They are plays that are going to sit together in an evening so whatever that meal is going to be for the audience it must be palatable and delivered in some stylistic framework. The model varies quite a bit from project to project.

The Historic Northampton plays are shorter and all have the same director, so there will be a unifying feel between them. We are already talking about what shared actors we’re going to use and what the handoff is going to be between the plays. Whereas the Suffrage In Black and White pieces are full-length plays that will each have their own director. Plays In Place acts as a Creative Producer. We work with the teams to kind of tie them together and the writers are part of that tying things together so that we each understand what the other is doing.

Having parameters for a writer can be a very stimulating part of the puzzle. We’re solving puzzles. In the traditional theatre the puzzle presented to us is pretty much “here’s a blank stage” and we act like all blank stages are the same, which I think is a fallacy, but it also causes us to create a somewhat generic version of our play. The business model in the traditional theatre is: get your play done at a professional company, have it be very successful, and have it be done by a bunch of other professional companies, and then have it be done by a bunch of community theatres, and then by a bunch of schools, and together that’s going to make you a bunch of money. Which is true when it works out, but you’ve also had to design a play that fits in all those different spaces.

Our model is much less practical in some ways, in that if we do our jobs well the play can’t be done nearly as effectively in other places. For example, I just ran Moonlight Abolitionists, which is designed to be done under the full moon at Mount Auburn Cemetery as a concert reading in the dark. A friend of mine saw it and wanted to know if she could do it in her theatre in London. She could, of course, but it would lack the context that the cemetery brings and the atmosphere the moonlight brings. I wrote it for this place and time on purpose. The specificity of what we create as an artistic team is exciting to me. And I’m more interested in that than the ability of it to be done a thousand times elsewhere. It’s a tough question to ask yourself as a writer: would you be ok if this play was only ever done twice? Would it be worth the work? I will say so far, the answer has been yes. The production experiences are so intensely rich that it is worth it.


Walking around the site at Historic Northampton before I even had a story was such an inspiration. As a writer, how is the development process different when you are writing for and from a specific place?

It depends on what the place is bringing. The plays are still going to be driven by story and character, but how are those stories and characters related to this place? Often the physical action and visual nature, even the sonic nature of the play, is already influenced by the setting. The question I’m always asking as a dramatist is: what is active about this place? As opposed to just a setting. In the plays that we’re writing for Historic Northampton what is interesting is the historic homes, we are in someone’s yard and so there is a familial sense that is going to inform all our writing, as our characters inhabited this neighborhood.

The plays that I did at Mount Auburn Cemetery were different. Cemeteries sound like great places to write plays, except for the fact that the things you know the people for are not things they did in that place. This makes it difficult to create present scenes in the space. I wrote ten plays for the cemetery, in two sets of five. The first set was about the natural world, so that involved things that were there like salamanders and mushroom hunters and birdwatchers, all really rooted in the place. The second set of plays tended to be about people who were buried there. So, there is a play that starts out at this giant sphinx monument that is a memorial to the Civil War, but the scene is between the sculptor and the man who commissioned that piece, Jacob Bigelow, who was old and blind at the time. The scene takes place at the arrival of the sculpture, and then the way we made it active is that we know when he arrived, he inspected it with his hands. So, we got permission to bring this old wooden ladder on and the actor is actually feeling the sculpture and asking all these questions and they are in conversation about this object that is there.




The action of the play is strongly influenced by the physical environment, and that in turn determines the structure. A good example is Moonlight Abolitionists. I knew I wanted to write a play to be done under the full moon, and I knew I wanted to write about abolition. So those things come together but then under the full moon, it’s going to be dark, so structurally that sends it towards a concert reading. It wasn’t going to be safe to move people around in the dark. I decided that it was OK if the characters were static physically as long as it was dynamic relationally between them. This decision also allowed the play to encompass a broad range of times. It is performed in the dark and the characters are lit only by their music stands lights, which casts this really eerie glow on the giant sphinx behind them.

Lisa Timmel, who was the Director of New Work at the Huntington when I was a Playwright Fellow there, used to say, “structure is destiny” and I think place informs the structure. My mantra is “Don’t fight the site”. Understand where the site is guiding you and use it because you have so much, but if you try to go against it, you can’t win. I could do a play at Mount Auburn Cemetery set on the moon, but why? The audience will have spent all their imagination jumping to this new place. There are things that I can do in these spaces that I could never afford to pay to do. In a theatre I could make a full moon but it’s not going to be the same as a real full moon with the wind blowing on you at 9 o’clock at night in the middle of a cemetery. We also did this play about the Armenian genocide in the Mount Auburn Cemetery and when someone died, they would exit and they would walk away from the action, but the exits would take five minutes! The play would be continuing, and these people would be just walking way off in the background.  When we performed at dusk when characters died, they would just wander into the gloom and disappear, in a lighting effect that would take a huge amount of money to replicate in the theatre, but the earth was doing it for us!


You also have the dramatic tension in the fact that these events happened in the same place that they are being reimagined and that your audience knows this.

 Yes! The audience has that feeling, but so do the performers. When we were at Mount Auburn, I knew one of the actresses had gone to visit the grave of one of the people that she had portrayed in the Armenian play, this young woman who had died in childbirth shortly after arriving in America. It’s impossible for that not to deepen your performance as an actor. There is this richness that you feel. When we did Blood on the Snow it was intense because the play depicts this meeting that happened the day after the Boston Massacre, but you’re in the room where this meeting took place 250 years ago and there are 50 audience members crammed in with a dozen cast members but they are all in the room and you can feel the bones of the place all around you. The people feel so alive, and the audience soaks it in.



References

About The Authors

Talya Kingston is a playwright, dramaturg and educator working primarily in new play development and theatre for social change. She is the Associate Artistic Director at WAM Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts.

JADT publishes thoughtful and innovative work by leading scholars on theatre, drama, and performance in the Americas – past and present. Provocative articles provide valuable insight and information on the heritage of American theatre, as well as its continuing contribution to world literature and the performing arts. Founded in 1989 and previously edited by Professors Vera Mowry Roberts, Jane Bowers, and David Savran, this widely acclaimed peer reviewed journal is now edited by Dr. Benjamin Gillespie and Dr. Bess Rowen.

Journal of American Drama and Theatre is a publication of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.

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