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Blog Less Traveled: A talk with Vivienne Benesch

Vivienne Benesch is artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company and an acclaimed actress herself.

blog by Scott Behrend  • 

Fans of Road Less Traveled Productions are no strangers to RLTP’s Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop (NPW), where RLTP Literary Director Jon Elston and NPW Director Kyle LoConti support and enable the development of world premiere plays by Western New York playwrights. I’ve certainly expended some digital ink on our NPW in past blogs. This week, though, I thought I’d spotlight another new play workshop that is of similarly major significance to the theater scene in this region…

In the summer of 2011, Jon and I visited Chatauqua Theater Company’s NPW at the scenic Chatauqua Institution. We enjoyed a lengthy and very informative symposium featuring CTC Resident Director Ethan McSweeny and CTC NPW Playwright-In-Residence Kate Fodor.

A quick nite—Fodor, who had recently developed a national profile with her play 100 Saints You Should Know, spent CTC’s 2011 season writing her newest effort, 50 Ways, which just wrapped a well-received NPW production at CTC this past week.

Jon and I also caught one of CTC’s remarkable, no-expense-spared workshop productions last summer (which we felt any playwright would be thrilled to receive) and were blessed with a half hour to meet and chat with Vivienne Benesch, CTC’s very busy artistic director. Vivienne was nice enough to make some more time this week to talk to me about the rest of CTC’s exciting summer season, about working with Kate Fodor and how scripts are selected for development in the NPW.

SCOTT BEHREND: Naturally, RLTP commends Chautauqua Theater Company’s commitment to new play development (and compliments the title of your development program!). Tell us about the inspiration for this facet of CTC’s mission and how the CTC New Play Workshop has evolved since its inception.

VIVIENNE BENESCH: Part of the vision that Ethan and I had in accepting the artistic directorship at CTC was to make the company a home for new play development.  This had always been a priority in both of our artistic lives. Chautauqua itself is rooted so heavily in history and tradition and we wanted to make sure that the theater company contributed to a new set of Chautauqua roots being planted for the future voices in the next generation of the American theater.

We also specifically have an incredible audience that is adventurous and curious by nature. They are here partly to engage in the Institution’s mandate of lifelong learning and dialogue, and new play development seemed to be a perfect addition to that aspect of the Institution. The Chautauqua audiences took to the NPW series faster than we could have imagined and it has become our most consistently popular programming of the season.

SCOTT: CTC treats its NPW signature-staged readings with care, attention and lavish production values on par with full-season productions at many other theaters and allows them for multiple performances during the summer. In what ways do these deep and generous treatments of works-in-progress help support each playwright’s process? And how much do texts tend to evolve during the run of a NPW production?

VIVIENNE: I do believe that the CTC NPW series holds a unique place in new play development because we are offering the playwright a chance to view their play in the security of the development process—with scripts in hand and with no critics.  Within that, we are also able to give the author the ability to change anything at any point during the workshop process.

It is a priority that we are always producing at a level where the writer is able to see the play without stage directions being read and with some elements of every production department, including scenic, lights, sound and costumes. We do get a lot of people saying that, if and when the play is produced in New York, it should be done “just like this.” It is not so much because it is actually that fully-produced, but it is because there is a suggestion of or gesture of what the production elements should be and the audience gets to fill in the blanks, which they do.

What CTC offers is a real step between (staged readings at music stands) and full production. That is where we live. In regards to the evolution of the text of the play during the workshop—some playwrights coming in are really still restructuring their scripts, and this opportunity can be their first experience hearing the piece with an audience, so there is a significant amount of rewriting that occurs. For other plays, the rewriting has been much more surgical and the changes are focused on adjusting singular lines and moments rather than changing the piece as a whole.

SCOTT: Having Kate Fodor in residence in 2011 and 2012 was quite a coup. How do you feel Kate and her play (Fifty Ways) benefited from the NPW process—and how also, perhaps, did the NPW and the Chautauqua Theater community benefit from Kate’s presence?

VIVIENNE: Kate put it beautifully when she said, “There is nothing like writing a play knowing that at the end of the journey was a family waiting with open arms to receive the work.” That she had trust in us as producers, as artists and as friends was one of the reasons for the success of the collaboration. That relationship was earned over time. Two of Kate’s previous plays were part of The New Play Workshop signature staged reading series, so when we had the opportunity to grant our first commission, she was the obvious choice. Both of those new plays went on to off-Broadway productions.

SCOTT: We’re never less than impressed by your selection of topical and daring material for the NPW slots—Zayd Dohrn’s upcoming and very timely WikiLeaks-flavored mystery, Muckrakers, is no exception. What does CTC look for in a NPW submission? Are you particularly partial to socially and relevant political material—or is it just a happy coincidence that your best submissions are so often of bleeding-edge significance?

VIVIENNE: For the first several years of The New Play Workshop signature staged readings series, we solicited scripts that spoke directly to the Institution theme week that the workshop was being produced in. Because of that, we started to draw submissions that automatically had—at their center—topical, political, social and cultural issues. I remember the year that one of the week’s themes was urban planning. We received fewer submissions, but out of it we actually ended up bringing in Rinne Groff’s wonderful play, What Then? The obligations of citizenship week also brought us the powerful script Aux Cops by Quincy Long.

If, however, we fall in love with a play that is not directly attached to a specific week’s topic we have been able to find a way to still make it a part of the series. So, the theme weeks were how we started the solicitation of plays for the NPW series, and because of that, we are known as somewhere that is attracted to plays with a topical center. Now we are no longer limiting ourselves to a singular theme week, but rather to any of the nine themes of the season.

SCOTT: Finally, please allow us a tiny sneak preview of what audiences might be able to look forward to from CTC and the NPW in 2013.

VIVIENNE: 2013 marks the Chautauqua Theater Company’s 30th anniversary, and we are delighted that, as a part of the lead up to that season, we will be announcing our next commissioned playwright this August. The selected playwright will be in residence in 2013 and the work produced from that commissioned piece will be presented in 2014.  In addition to our three full productions and the two signature staged readings in The New Play Workshop, 2013 will be the third year that we will be producing a continued part of our new play development, our Chau-Talk-One series, a solo performance series where our conservatory and guest artist alumni can develop a wide range of solo performance pieces.

Chatauqua Theater Company presents the New Play Workshop signature staged reading series production of Muckrakers by Zayd Dohrn on Thursday, Aug. 2 through Saturday, Aug. 4, and As You Like It by William Shakespeare on Friday, August 10th through Friday, Aug. 17. Tickets are available online.

The Chatauqua Institution is always beautiful but especially nice this time of year—drive down and check out the Theater Company! Special thanks to to Vivienne Benesch and to CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy for facilitating this Q&A session.

TAGGED: kate fodor, new play workshops, road less traveled productions, scott behrend, vivienne benesch

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