Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Guest blog: The Meandering Journey of ‘My Occasion of Sin,’ by Monica Bauer


Playwright Monica Bauer
Monica Bauer is a BPT alum from the class of 2006. Her play My Occasion of Sin is currently in its world-premiere run at The Shelterbelt Theatre (tickets available on the Web site) in Omaha, NE, where it has received glowing reviews, such as this one. The story of how this production came together is a terrific reminder for all of us that the pathway from the page to the stage can often be a winding one, and I'm so glad she was willing to share it here. 

Congratulations, Monica!


Every once in a while, I try to make a plan for the development of a play. “My Occasion of Sin”, a play about the 1969 race riots in my home town of Omaha, Nebraska, was supposed to launch me into the world as a successful playwright, five years ago.

My original plan was to finish it during my year at BPT, where it would be my Thesis Play, and go on to sweep the Kennedy Center Awards. Instead, I was stuck trying desperately to find the tone between tragedy and comedy, and ended up sticking the play in a drawer for several years.

It might have stayed there forever, if I hadn’t read in American Theater Magazine that Johnny Carson had left several million dollars to his alma mater, the theater department at the University of Nebraska. I cold-called the head of the department, who put me in touch with the Artistic Director for Nebraska Repertory Theater, a summer professional theater allied with the University (and the only Equity company in the state). The Artistic Director wrote a grant, and gave me money to fly out to Lincoln, Nebraska twice over a 4 month period to workshop the play, re-write, then have a staged reading for the Nebraska Rep subscribers. The reading was scheduled for the summer of 2007.

I was still floundering around trying to figure the play out. The director and I had disagreements over the ending: she wanted a happy ending, hand-shakes all around, racial tension resolved, huzzah! So, although the staged reading was well-received, and the audience seemed pleased during the Talk Back, Nebraska Rep Theater and I parted ways. I had recently been at the Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha with a different play, and that’s where I heard Edward Albee speak about “defending your play” against others in the development process. I felt Edward was speaking directly to me.

So, by the fall of 2007, I had “blown my chance” to have a production of “My Occasion of Sin.” However, I had heard something during that Talk Back that would change the life of the play. That made the entire difficult experience worth while.

The audience of Nebraska Repertory Theater subscribers was almost 100% white. One African-American man had driven up from Omaha, responding to the newspaper account touting my play as based on the history of Omaha’s deadly 1969 race riot. During the Talk Back, he raised his hand, and said that he was disappointed. Where was the black perspective? Where was his neighborhood?

That voice stuck with me for the next year, as I once again put the play in a drawer. There was a black character, but he wasn’t quite the protagonist. Something else was needed. As I got ready for a table reading with actor friends back home near New Haven, Connecticut, that something else started to show up. Turned out to be someone else. A sassy, opinionated 14 year old girl from the segregated North side of town began talking to me. Her name was Vivian Strong, the same name as the real 14year old black girl whose death kicked off the 1969 riots.

Now I started to really see my play; a comedy with a tragic ending, but an ending with a seed of hope. That’s when I tried a new Plan: I’d send it in to the Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha. They’d choose it for a Main Stage production; I’d get critiqued by David Lindsay Abaire, who would then introduce me to his agent. Sweet!

Of course, the Great Plains did not invite the play in as a Main Stage production. Instead, they gave me a lowly Playlab slot. This meant I wouldn’t get the best director or actors. I’d get whoever was available. And David Lindsay Abaire would not be in attendance. Still, I came to Omaha with another Plan: someone from a local theater group would see the reading, and decide to premiere it where the play is set, where it has tremendous resonance as part of local history, and where it actually might play a small part in starting dialogue in a town that remains bitterly divided over race.

That was the Plan That Worked! Partly due to the cheerleading of Kevin Lawlor, the amazing Energizer Bunny who is the Artistic Director of the GPTC, the word was out: this play should be produced in Omaha. Members of the Board of the Shelterbelt Theater, Omaha’s off-off Broadway style home for new work, were at the reading. I met more of them at the end of Conference party. And I met Roxanne Wach, who is another Energizer Bunny, a freelance director who asked me for the script, because she couldn’t get to the reading.

Rox fell in love with the script, and spent the next several months talking it up with Shelterbelt. Shelterbelt agreed, and Rox worked on a grant. I got enough money to pay my plane fare to do Talk Backs, and they got enough money to put on the local premiere!

Now, the perfect plan would have been to rehearse the show when the playwright could be there! But that wasn’t in the cards. They offered me the Spring slot, and I was stuck in Connecticut teaching at Quinnipiac University. I couldn’t see early rehearsals. I couldn’t be there for questions from the actors or designers. Everything had to be done by email.

This required a great deal of faith on the playwright’s part. It helped that Roxanne Wach had done a number of premieres, and was well known among my pals on the International Center for Women Playwrights’ list-serve. It helped that we agreed on casting three out of the five actors who were in the Great Plains reading. It helped that Rox and I seemed to be on the same page about everything, including the ending!

Still, I wanted, needed, to revise. Rox asked if I could add some depth to a particular character, who had been fairly one-dimensional in the script. I wrote two new scenes, she tried them out, and told me they worked. But the ending, that was a problem.

The ending required a lot of physical business; it took place as a riot was raging outside, and there had to be a credible threat that one character would force the other out the door. A baseball bat was involved, and the threat of burning the old historic building to the ground. And two weeks before opening, it still wasn’t working.

Finally, Rox let me know the cast was getting increasingly upset. The play would chug along like a freight train, until…And nobody knew what to do about it, except to let me know what wasn’t working.

I spent an entire day sending possible fixes to Rox, which were almost all cuts. I cut the scene to the bare bone. I took out repeated beats; I found places where the action stopped building, because I wanted to make a speech about racial injustice through a character.

In the end, I cut nearly two whole pages of dialogue, one week before the play opened. Poor Rox wasn’t sure she could get the actors to deal with all the changes. Then she was smart enough to call me during rehearsal, and put me on Speaker-Phone with the cast. We talked through lines, and I made changes on the fly. Here my experience rewriting a huge musical three days before it opened at the New York Musical Theater Festival served me very, very well. I wasn’t defensive when actors asked questions. I made sure I listened to my director. And then I listened to my gut.

That was a turning point. The actors ended the night extremely pleased, all the frustration drained away. They were chomping at the bit now. They opened a week later, with an ending that I had never actually seen!

When I was finally able to come, over the Easter break from teaching, I saw an amazing production. The new scenes worked, as my director had told me they would. The ending landed. People in the audience cried real tears. The reviewer called it a play “with an emotional wallop.” And lots of other good things, too.

What did I learn? Sometimes plays take time. Sometimes plans fall through, but other plans can be made, and these will fall through as well. A good director is worth everything, including your trust. It is possible to communicate important things in a Conference Call, if you can’t be there in person. And, the biggest lesson of all: re-write. Re-write. And re-write until your actors and your director can honestly tell you that they are ready to put the baby on its feet. Listen and they’ll tell you. If you don’t listen, the audience will tell you, or the critics will tell you, or the Artistic Director will tell you that the play doesn’t work. Much better to hear it before you open, and fix it.

P.S.: There was another important person who saw the reading at the Great Plains Theater Conference, James MacLindon, whose play had been one of the chosen few to get a Mainstage reading. James and I became friends, and he recommended that I send “My Occasion of Sin” to a theater where he knew the Artistic Director’s sensibilities. Penguin Rep Theater, in Rockland County, New York, is giving the play a staged reading on July 11th. They often pick one of these plays in their reading series for their season. I am not making any plans. But we’ll see! What did I learn? We get by with a little help from our friends.