Rain Follows the Plow director Laura Leffler-McCabe considers the stage directions in Rachel Nelson’s script, along with a few famous ones. She talks with Rachel, and Rain actor Tanner Curl, about how playwrights communicate through those passages in italics.
“Exeunt, followed by a bear” is probably the most famous stage direction in all of theatrical literature (thank you, Shakespeare). And when I read the first full draft of Rain Follows the Plow, it was one of many that popped into mind. Actually, the first was Antonin Artaud’s stage directions from Jet of Blood:
Silence. There is a noise as if an immense wheel were turning and moving the air. A hurricane separates them. At the same time, two Stars are seen colliding and from them fall a series of legs of living flesh with feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticos, temples, alembics, falling more and more slowly, as if falling in a vacuum: then three scorpions one after another and finally a frog and a beetle which come to rest with desperate slowness, vomit-inducing slowness.
How on earth do you stage that?!?
Then my mind jumped to Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, where “a sunflower bursts from the floor and grows above their heads” and also, “he takes Carl by the arms and cuts off his hands... Carl tries to pick his hands - he can’t, he has no hands.”
Both Artaud’s and Kane’s imagination-prodding directions remind me a little of what our own playwright, Rachel, is playing with in Rain Follows the Plow, though with less vomit and violence.
For a moment, the sky falls in. The cosmos pulse down at him. Eventually, equilibrium is restored. By the skin of his/our teeth.
Ingrid is in the dusty remains of the garden. It is unfolding around her in shadows and imaginings. She kneels in the grit, pulls odd things out of the ground. A flag. A donut. One tiny baby shoe. She takes a bite of the donut, chews thoughtfully.
Evocative. Troubling. Deeply interesting.
And I’m supposed to stage this play. Wha? How? Huh?
So I spoke with Rachel - and Tanner, who’s playing Clarence in the piece - and asked them a bit about stage directions and what they mean to a playwright and an actor.
LLM: Rachel, what inspires you to write these fantastical stage directions?
RN: I've always been fascinated by stage directions... the process of making plays is all about invisible communication and process; the actors read a text that includes information the audience will never know, which is then funneled into a rehearsal process filled with work that will end up largely invisible in the final production. Typically, this is really basic stuff: "the table is to the left of the blah blah blah" or "he took off his coat" or whatever. In general, the stage directions serve to create the container that the play lives in, and that is about it. As an actor, I've often struggled with the whole idea of "yeah, but what does this MEAN" about this character.
Somewhere in college I became fascinated with the idea of the invisible/visible text in a play.... what is the communication that happens between the playwright and the rest of a production? It happened for me when I was writing a lot of poetry and plays simultaneously. I started to think of plays as less of a container, more of a description of a spirit or mood. I am interested in engaging with this both because I think it allows for the playwright to have a continued presence in the play once they are no longer physically present, and also because I feel like it gives actors and directors more of an understanding of where the playwright was coming from emotionally.
LLM: Do you have any favorite stage directions from other playwrights?
RN: Lisa D'Amour comes to mind. D'Amour is doing something totally different; exposing and wrestling with the interesting lines of how characters move and interact physically/emotionally through her stage directions. In Detroit, she does this fabulous thing where she writes that a character will be doing something, and another character says something to them, and the stage directions become this sort of conversational aside to the actors, like.... "it's like that thing that happens where nobody says everything and everybody is like 'oh shit, did I just fuck this up?' and then somebody finally moves and it feels ok and everybody suddenly remembers that the hamburgers are burning but nodbody cares." THIS KIND OF STAGE DIRECTION blew my mind. She is creating a specific sculpted space inside her play, and it is accessible and gorgeous and feels good to roll around in. She allows us to expose/dissect the struggle of what we are doing when we rehearse a play. She's engaging directing with the process. She is writing for actors and directors, not expecting them to be psychic translators. This is especially important in SU's work, since it's semi-devised/group developed. As the writer in the process, the more explicitly I can explain the emotional reality of where the words are for ME, the easier it is to begin to manipulate/change that with the group.
LLM: Tanner, what do you think about Rachel’s stage directions?
TC: I love Rachel's stage directions. I think that stage directions, in general, can be tough. They can't be too specific from the playwright's point-of-view, so as to not stymie the directors, designers, actors, and other production team members, but they also can really help shape how the production team approaches the text and the work, and I also think they allow the playwright to show some of their own personality and style in the script and the process.
LLM: And as an actor, how do you try to fulfill what these directions call for?
TC: Through the stage directions, I think Rachel really helps create the world and adds dimension to the story and feel of the play, but they aren't too over-bearing or specific as to patronize everyone else in the process. They're also just well-written and enjoyable to read. For me, they help me think better about my character and the story without telling me exactly what to think, which I find helpful in the creative process.
LLM: Rachel, what do you hope a director will do with your stage directions?
RN: Ultimately, the issue of stage directions is absolutely bizarre: how do you encourage through text an understanding of an imagined space, to be translated into physical being by strangers? It is a complex and kind of hilarious problem. I'm a little obsessed with it.
A play is not a guidebook. It is not a how-to manual. It's a work of goddamn art, and its weird and smelly and confusing. As writers, I think we need the freedom to experiment, to use everything in our arsenals to pull actors into the psychic terrain we write from. The actors then, of course, pull the text back into their own terrain, and the tension of multiple people trying to figure out a fictional universe together and make it TRUE begins to emerge. This tension creates a vibration. Somewhere in the middle is the mess of the performed play. Sometimes it makes a chord. That's the thrill of it all. Amen, forever.
Hear the stage directions yourself at the Rain Follows the Plow workshop presentation and give your feedback to help shape the full production! Join us March 9 & 10 at 7:30 pm both nights. Donations at the door, suggested $5-15. Make a reservation by emailing savageumbrella [at] gmail [.] com
As Savage Umbrella gears up for our upcoming workshop of Rain Follows the Plow by Rachel Nelson, we wonder about others who workshop publicly. Here, SU company member Blake Bolan talks with Nautilus Music-Theater’s Artist Director Ben Krywosz about the long-running Nautilus series Rough Cuts.
BB: How did Rough Cuts get started?
BK: Well, it actually began as a concern - Karen Miller and I felt, the two of us who were co-artistic directors, and this was back when we were the New Music Theater Ensemble, and the idea of concern at the time was that we didn’t do productions very often, maybe one a year, and in between times, there was not much of a public presence. Although we hadn’t really defined ourselves as a traditional opera company, we knew that for funding purposes and support from the community, we needed to be more visible. At the same time, we had a lot of projects going on, amongst the activity, that was behind the scenes, training singer-actors or developing new pieces, so we thought if there was a way we could overlap these, maybe we could be more visible and in the public, so we started this concert series. Originally, we started with one night a week, it was either a Monday or a Tuesday, and we talked about calling it the Tuesday Night Series. For the first year, it was only one night, rather than two nights. We kicked around a number of different names for the series, what we would call it that would somehow capture the flavor of what it was going to be, which is simply to present whatever we happened to be working on at the time. At one point, for a couple of days we were actually thinking about calling it Foreplay. But I think cooler heads prevailed, and we came up with Rough Cuts. But that’s how we got started and the first one was a reading of a piece we were preparing for production, in January ‘95, and the production was scheduled for May of ‘95, called Hearts on Fire. That particular one had two nights, the very first one had two nights, by virtue of the fact that it was double cast. We had each of the two performers do one reading. From that point on, the rest of that year, ‘95, we had just one night a week, and I think we only did 6 that first year. There were a couple of projects that we had going, in fact one of them, I think in May, right before the production, we did a presentation about Hearts on Fire, that included the set designer and I talking with the audience about the designer and I devising our concept and so forth.
BB: I guess you’ve sort of answered my second question, which is how you define the series. It’s a possibility to show off whatever you’re in the middle of working on as a group. At this point, you’ve extended it beyond just what you are working on as Nautilus, and you go beyond that to Nautilus-related artists, and showcase what they’re working on as well?
BK: Well, what happened was, things evolved pretty quickly, so that before too long, and I’m not quite sure, it happened pretty quickly, even during that first year, once we started doing it, it became an opportunity to use it as a stand-alone project. In addition to presenting works that we were working on ourselves, then we could create projects specifically for Rough Cuts, so that there would be an opportunity for performers to try things out for their own sake, or to offer the Rough Cuts venue for artists who were working on things not with us, that anybody who was working on any kind of music theater could then use the Rough Cuts as a venue to explore. And that’s what it has become. Now, we use it if we’re working on a project and want to present something, we do that - in the Rough Cuts in April we’re going to be presenting a piece that I want to take to full production. We may make some tweaks to it, but in general, it’s an existing piece. On the other hand, in the last Rough Cuts, with Empire Builder and Kingdom Undone, both of them are pieces we’re not directly developing ourselves. I will give them some input and ideas, but they’re not related to our particular developmental activities.
BB: You’re helping to produce them in a sort of workshop capacity.
BK: Yeah, giving them an opportunity to hear what they have so far. In that sense, it is a pretty altruistic activity. We don’t get anything out of it, on one level. Anything that we develop or support as a developmental project, we don’t take any kind of ownership over.
BB: You’re helping to strengthen community in a certain way.
BK: Yeah, exactly. In the long run, it benefits everybody that this work is done.
BB: Could you give a quick overview of what sort of variety there’s been over the years in Rough Cuts, what kinds of pieces you’ve seen?
BK: Well, we’ve had sort of classic musicals that we have produced, like Into the Woods, and Man of La Mancha, and Carousel. We’ve done readings like that. We’ve done readings of contemporary operas like El Nino, or Dead Man Walking. We have occasionally done more classical work, like Schubert’s Winter Journey or Janacek’s Diary of Ones Who’ve Vanished. We’ve done rarely performed work, like Evening Primrose by Sondheim. Gosh, there’s just so much. We’ve presented single artists who are working with producing music, like Gunnar Madsen from The Bobs, Leslie Ball, a local singer-songwriter, Gary Rue. We do song cycles, international music and classical music, we’ve done projects where the singers have initiated something that they wanted to do. We’ve done works that we’ve commissioned ourselves, like all of the Sister Stories, that we’ve done in Rough Cuts over the last ten years. When you go through the list, and start to categorize the various types of pieces, we’ve done presentations from the Composer-Librettist studios, we’ve done some projects that are thought of as audience development projects, in the sense that it’s providing - I don’t want to use the word academic - like in late ‘99 or early 2000, we did ‘100 Years in Musical Theater,’ where we took one song from one piece from each decade from the 1900s to 2000, and we did a sort of survey of Irving Berlin to Phillip Glass, giving a view of American music theater.
BB: From my perspective, I like seeing those things in that sort of context where you see how things grow and change. Not that each one of those pieces is necessarily the model of what was happening in that decade, but just to see how quickly things can change.
BK: Well, exactly. Certainly it’s audience education, initially, when we do that kind of a program. We’ve done classic works, full length pieces of recent works by Zoe Collins, or The Last Five Years, or Wings, various works in progress. We did do, in October 2006, we did a program called Rough Cuts 100, our 100th Rough Cuts, which was a survey, kind of a retrospective of Rough Cuts where we took 10 or 12 performers who’d performed most often in Rough Cuts and did a whole program of that, which was pretty interesting. We’ve presented work by artists from out of town, bringing them in from New York or elsewhere... Mostly it’s been work developed by local singer-actors. We commissioned Week 35 of a Suzan Lori Parks piece, part of 365 Days/365 Plays, and we’re going to do something in October or November for the President Project, a national thing.
BB: What interests you about doing new work?
BK: Well, part of it is that it’s interesting to work on something without a history because it opens up more creative possibilities interpretively, than having to resort to the ways things are normally done with a particular piece, but I think more importantly it has to do with connecting to the world in which I live. These contemporary artists are my colleagues, my peers, and they’re the ones that are making these new pieces, and as much as I love traditional opera and musicals, I often ask the question, what kind of work is being created by the people that are in my life now, and it just makes a place for a more immediate connection to my own time and place.
BB: You’re not having to go all the way back the dramaturgy and history of the original piece to connect with the people right now.
BK: Well, those pieces were created in a very different time and place, and not my time and place, and there’s much to be learned from that, it’s not a matter of an either/or situation. I think then when you see the whole list of things we’ve done, you’ll see that what we’ve done is honor the past in order to explore the future.
BB: If you had to take a stab, how many people do you think that you’ve worked with - writers, composers, performers - within Rough Cuts?
BK: When we did Rough Cuts 100, we made a list of everyone we’d worked with, and that was in the program. Just as an example, we worked with about 280 singers as of the 100th Rough Cuts, which was in November of 2006. We’re at somewhere around Rough Cuts 137 or 138 now.
BB: So, can you tell me about any Rough Cuts piece that eventually became a fully realized production?
BK: One of the things that’s happened, of course, is that many of the pieces we’ve done have gone on to a production by other companies, and that’s a good thing that should be acknowledged. Hearts on Fire, Silver Tongues:Poison Lies was done by the Illusion, Three Visitations we produced, Rites of Passage we produced, Inner-City Opera was produced by History Theater, Photograph was produced by Actors’ Theatre, Kalevala was produced at the Southern Theater and then later at the Guthrie, Conversation Hearts was produced by Illusion Theater, we produced Into the Woods...
BB: I’m also curious about something that you produced later, after having done it in Rough Cuts, what it was like having those two experiences with the same material.
BK: Every show that we’ve produced since 1997 was performed in Rough Cuts, at least excerpts from it were. I guess in terms of the differences, doing it in Rough Cuts first is a great way to learn the piece, and to figure out what it was, if it was an existing piece that needed some research and understanding and conceptual problem solving before we got into rehearsal, or if it was a new piece that needed hearing while it was being created. So some of the pieces that we’ve done, all of the new pieces we’ve developed that have gotten full productions have gone through Rough Cuts; all four Sister Stories, Untold Lies, Twisted Apples, those are all pieces that were done in Rough Cuts. The existing pieces that we’ve done like Orpheus and Eurydice and Alice Unwrapped, those were all done in Rough Cuts, in order to understand the piece, to get the cast familiar with the material, and mostly the cast, 95% of the time the cast will go on from the Rough Cuts to the full production, because it was part of our development process either making the piece or making the production.
Coming up in April’s Rough Cuts:
The View From Here by Timothy Huang, performed by Joel Liestman and Jerry Rubino
Yarrrgh! The Lusty, Busty Pirate Musical by Daniel Pinkerton and Chris Gennaula
April 9th, 7:30 at the Nautilus Studio, 508 Prince Street, St. Paul
April 10th, 7:30, location TBA (in Minneapolis)
$5 suggested donation, free milk and cookies from the Cookie Cart at intermission
We feel very lucky on many counts. We're lucky we get to work with such an incredible production team. We're lucky so, so many wonderfully talented people came out to audition for Care Enough. We're lucky that our casting choices were so difficult to make. And we're lucky we get to work with these awesome folks:
By Carl Atiya Swanson
Directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe
The Chorus of Participants:
Stage Managed by Claire Nadeau
Production Managed by Blake E. Bolan
Fight Choreographed by Adam Scarpello
Technical Direction and Set Design by Abbee Warmboe
Lighting by Rachel Nelson
We're counting our lucky stars for sure.
This Valentine's Day we're reminiscing about our most loved shows, including recent crushes and lasting loves of the past. So we offer up a dozen roses and a big box of chocolates to everyone from Red Resurrected to Ruthless, from Spalding Gray to Shakespeare. Which show would get your conversation hearts?
This is a little older, but I loved Seven Shot Symphony by Live Action Set. It was so engaging, all the way through. I loved that they could make a believable horse galloping across the landscape out of fingers and some shoulders. They did all sorts of silly things (including slow motion) so earnestly and well; it made the whole production delightful. And the music? Heart-wrenching and gorgeous.
I think the show that will stick with me the longest is the Minnesota Opera’s 2000 production of Turandot. It was the first live opera I saw, and it overwhelmed me a little. So much visual and aural beauty surrounding 15-year-old me felt like the best kind of magic. It really was a beautiful production, but the only specific thing I can remember was this huge staircase that rolled in for “Nessun Dorma”. They’re doing it again this year, and I wish I could see it.
I saw The Idiot, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky, last summer in Seoul. Sublime choral movement, live instrumentation, lovely costumes. I started watching the play keeping one eye on the English surtitles, trying to follow the intricacies of plot, but ended up forgoing the story for the spectacle.
The Wooster Group's House/Lights. I loved it because of the beauty in strangeness, a room full of echoes. The intersection of two disparate stories. And Kate Valk knocked my socks off.
I loved Red Resurrected, the 2011 Fringe entry from director/creator Isabel Nelson and the ensemble. With no set and a little lighting and sound design, this production established an incredibly textured and rich world. The performances and story felt very big and very immediate at the same time.
In story, it’s not my favorite, but as far as a theatre-going experience, my all-time favorite was Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter. I had, for whatever reason, quite low expectations for this production, but from the first instant, when one of the main characters walked into a seemingly solid projection screen and magically popped up on a video projection. (That’s an awful description, but it was really amazing, and the production utilized technology to tell a very theatrical story.)
The Water Play by Sarah Gubbins at Playlabs. I loved the realism with a burst of the magical.
The Ice Fishing Play by Kevin Kling - it has such a distinctly Minnesotan voice.
Seven Shot Symphony by Live Action Set. There are literally no words that can describe how that show grabbed me, shook me, and left me wanting more, more, more
My favorite show of all time is still Fishtank by Jeune Lune. Before that show I had never had a new work move me like that. That show is what got me excited about creating something from scratch rather than working from a well-known script. I don't know how eager I would have been to work with Savage Umbrella if it wasn't for Fishtank.
Untitled Feminist Show by Young Jean Lee. I loved it because it had me falling in love while simultaneously breaking my heart over and over again. It’s the kind of thing that gets inside my bones and never lets go -- like, literally, I think about it every day. The production moved me from hysterical laughter to the verge of tears within seconds. That’s good stuff.
Oof, this is a tough one. I think I fall in love with a new play every day. If I had to pick one right now, it would be Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman. I have never seen it, but just reading the text is an experience all its own. That script is definitely on my bucket list.
The Ravagers. I was amazed that even though I knew the basic plot I STILL was totally engaged. I also love watching all of my SU babies' successes on/off stage. Proud mama right here.
Ruthless by Marvin Laird and Joel Paley. It started my love affair with dark comedy.
Hands down, El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco by Mariano Pensotti. I can’t remember the last time I saw something that had innovative staging (rotating set!) plus playing with a format (narration) that wasn’t just formally interesting (it was), but also related to the theme and plot (how does telling the story tie in to your memory of the event?). And the narration allowed for some moments of really fine silent acting. Plus, hot Argentinians making out...
I’ve been lucky enough to see tons of amazing shows. So. I kinda can’t believe I’m saying it, but the first thing that popped to mind was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC in 2005. It’s such an overdone play, but that was a really perfect production - magical, lush, and actually funny. I was rolling. Here’s a clip!
I know I'm a little bit biased but... I loved, loved, loved The Ravagers! Hands down! It totally rocked! I loved The Ravagers because it took heavy, politically charged themes, images, and metaphor and presented them in a beautifully constructed and executed story of life, death, and hope. It was full of stark images, graceful contrasts, and tantalizingly pointed audio. And... I loved that I was part of creating that!
I love The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh! I have only seen the play performed once, and I was not that impressed with the execution and interpretation of that particular public performance, but it is still my most loved play! The Pillowman takes tragic, heart-wrenching content and themes, and very uniquely and slightly sadistically dares to answer the question of why. If you are unfamiliar, I apologize, but I can not bring myself to give away any more plot details, metaphors, or themes. It is just an absolute must read! If I have to choose my most loved play in script and public performance it would be the Guthrie's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Patrick Stewart. Why did I love Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Patrick Stewart? .... it's Patrick Stewart, man! Need I say any more?
My favorite play that I've seen in the last year was actually a student dance showcase at Hollins University last spring. It was weird, fresh, bizarre, inspirational, and the perfect lead-in to a year of movement-heavy shows with SU.
My most loved play of all time (in this moment) is Nine Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo. I saw the original production in DC. Nothing like seeing a strong writer perform their own work, especially in a gorgeous production, and especially when you're Heather Raffo.
There was a lot that I saw that I liked, but one that I really loved was the Penumbra Theater production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. That script. That script which is so heavy and sharp and funny and that cast who carried it all the way through in their bodies and in the slightest flicked hand and cocked head. If you are going to go for realism on stage, it takes a surreal amount of commitment from the actors and that was all there. Plus, it was just as the Occupy movement was kicking off and there were a lot of thoughts swirling around the correlations between those moments in time that I tried to articulate here in my blog, Cakein15.
Spalding Gray’s Swimming To Cambodia. I wrote Beckett and Shakespeare first, other writers whose plays that I will get a chance to see performed by actors working from scripts, but I love Gray in the absence. With his storytelling, all I’ll ever have is the Jonathan Demme film and the book, yet I can imagine him doing the play with infinite subtle variations and insert myself and my day at an appropriate moment.
Here's a little sneak peek into our upcoming workshop, Rain Follows the Plow by Rachel Nelson. Watch this trailer, and then join us March 9 & 10 at the Playwright's Center for a workshop presentation. We want your feedback, ideas, and opinions, so come join in the conversation!
Trailer by Carl Atiya Swanson
And a press release!
Savage Umbrella Continues New Play Development with Rain Follows The Plow Public Workshop
Workshop opens up new play process to public feedback and involvement
Minneapolis, MN – Savage Umbrella is pleased to announce a public workshop for Rain Follows The Plow, written by Rachel Nelson and directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe. To be held at The Playwrights’ Center March 9th and 10th, the Rain Follows The Plow public workshop follows the successful script development pattern that Savage Umbrella used for their 2011 hit, The Ravagers (“Top Ten shows of 2011”, Lavender Magazine; “Best Use of a Venue”, City Pages). “By opening up the script-writing process to public critique and comment, Savage Umbrella is better able to reflect the relevant conversations of our time and live up to our mission of engaging artists and audiences in vital discourse,” Artistic Director Leffler-McCabe says. “This kind of work invests audiences early as they become part of process of making new work.”
Rain Follows The Plow investigates Manifest Destiny, masculinity and American exceptionalism through two parallel stories of relationships in flux. In the Dust Bowl, idealistic radio personality Clarence and his wife, Ingrid, struggle to reconcile idealism and the exhaustion brought on by the Great Depression. In the present day, Clara attempts to reclaim her lost childhood home, with the help of Jack and a plot to blow up a dam. “Rain Follows The Plow is knee-deep in the grit we call guts,” notes the playwright Nelson. “With the help of a truly fabulous cast, we are examining the ways that big concepts in politics, history, and identity play out in our most intimate relationships. In other words, what does it mean when manifest destiny worms its way between the sheets?”
The public workshop will feature actors Seth Conover, Adelin Phelps and Eve Tugwell, as well as Savage Umbrella company members Tanner Curl and Amber Davis. Rain Follows The Plow is slated for full production in the Savage Umbrella 2012-2013 season.
Rain Follows The Plow, A Public Workshop
Written by Rachel Nelson and Directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe
March 9 & 10, The Playwrights’ Center
2301 East Franklin Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55406
$5-$15 Suggested donation, no-one turned away