In the Room with a New Play: How A Boy Falls

by Northlight Theatre

Collaborators play a variety of roles in the new play rehearsal process. Assistant Director Ben Ranaan takes us through the team surrounding Steven Dietz’s How A Boy Falls:

Playwriting is one of the loneliest professions in the theatre. On any given production, there is an ensemble of actors, a team of designers, and a staff of theatre administrators… but there is only one playwright. This, of course, can create processes that are quite the isolating experience for the playwright. Surround yourself with collaborators too eager, and suddenly there are too many opinions to actually be useful. Surround yourself with collaborators too hesitant, and suddenly you don’t have anyone to speak frankly with about your work. Luckily for playwright Steven Dietz, Northlight has assembled a crack team of collaborative artists to create the world of How A Boy Falls (HABF).

The dramaturg is one of the key artistic collaborators in the new play process. The dramaturg’s job is to advocate for the text and story. Mark Bly, affectionately regarded as “The Father of American Dramaturgy” for his teaching at Yale and dramaturging over 200 productions, talks about how a dramaturg’s main job is to constantly ask questions, rather than give answers. In the process, the dramaturg’s job is to ask questions to help the playwright specify their goals with any given scene or character.  For a thriller like HABF, dramaturg Tanya Palmer was constantly asking Steven Dietz questions about the various plots, clues, and red herrings in the script. The team was especially lucky to have Tanya in the room given that she is an expert in new play development and one of the foremost dramaturgs in the country. Tanya previously served at the Goodman Theatre as Director of New Play Development and is now at the helm of a new MFA program in dramaturgy at Indiana University Bloomington. If dramaturgs were rock stars, Tanya Palmer would be Mick Jagger.

Acting in a new play process is very different from working on a traditional text. Actors must be nimble in their work, because lines can change throughout the rehearsal and preview process. In fact, it is not uncommon for the playwright to rewrite the text of an entire scene in the hours before it is performed for a live preview audience. The actor’s job is to advocate for their characters. Whereas the playwright tells us what the characters’ actions are, the actors must fill in why their character performs that action. This can be a challenge when working on a thriller like HABF, since characters in a thriller don’t always make the most logical choices. (Why didn’t the terrorists in Die Hard simply cut the power rather than spend the whole movie trying to electronically get into the safe!?) Working on HABF, there was a careful balance that needed to be struck about what the characters’ motivations to perform an action would be, and what was needed for the plot to be exciting.

Along with the actors, the designers must create a world that responds to textual changes. For HABF, a playing space on the set was originally designed for three characters, but then it was re-written to include all five. The designer’s job is to advocate for the sensorial world of the play. They will frequently ask the playwright questions about how the play sounds, tastes, smells, looks, and feels. For a thriller like HABF, the team knew they had to highlight the big reveal in an exciting and dynamic way. For the sake of not spoiling anything, I won’t mention how they did that here. Look for it when you see the production.

So who pulls these sometimes differing ideas together? The director. Directing a new play is a very different job than directing a published script. The director is in constant communication with the playwright, translating the discoveries that are being made in rehearsal into questions about what may need more exploration. A director must be nimble in their ability to know when to give a note. If a line isn’t connecting, should the director talk to the playwright, or should the director continue working on it with the actor? The director is the leader of the team, and therefore must advocate for the production as a whole. Halena Kays leads our team on HABF, and she brings a generous collaborative spirit to the entire group, making this new play process feel like the momentous and exciting team effort that it is.

As you can tell, putting on a new play can be quite the challenge. So why do it? Because as our world changes, our art must change too. The issues facing our society fifty years ago are different than the issues facing us today. Heck, the issues facing our society last month are different than the issues facing us today! As an art form, we must be malleable and respond to the world around us. Luckily, at Northlight, we have assembled an awesome team to take you on this new play journey. We hope you enjoy How A Boy Falls by Steven Dietz.