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“What did you think the play was about?”

Person A: “Finding the transcendent virtue in everyday things — Beethoven in the beer-hall waltz, and the mother and her daughter, who is content to be ordinary.”

Allen ran down the list, her pen twitching away over the clipboard. “Were there any particular scenes that will stay with you? Were there any points that weren’t clear? What did you think of the nudity? What was done particularly well?” Then she asked for general feedback.

Person B: “I thought the first act was very slow — it didn’t go from emotional beat to emotional beat. Instead, it went from intellectual point to intellectual point.”

And so on. Toward the end, Allen pulled back the curtain a bit: “The play, from the playwright’s point of view, is about obsession. Beethoven’s obsession with the waltz, and Katherine’s obsession with finding out why he was obsessed with it — it’s her life’s work. The daughter is the metaphor for the secondhand waltz. Katherine’s daughter does not meet her expectations because Katherine knows what she wants and is very driven. She’s devoted her whole life to one thing, and her daughter wants to try out different things.”

Person B: “But the mother is not obsessed with the daughter.”

Allen: “No, she’s obsessed with her own life’s work — she neglects her daughter.”

Person B: “How does one illuminate the other if she’s not obsessed with her daughter?”

Woman: “The daughter craves the mother’s approval. She feels she’s never met her mother’s expectations.”

Person A: “Beethoven is obsessed with the minor work. But Mom is not obsessed with the parallel minor work, which is the daughter. That’s why Person B is saying that the one doesn’t illuminate the other, because Beethoven is obsessed with the waltz, but Mom is obsessed with Beethoven.”

Person B: “If Mom was obsessed with making the daughter into what she wanted the daughter to be, maybe we would be able to make that emotional connection between the two more easily.”

Woman: “That’s interesting. No one I know of has made that observation. I’m sure that will be very fascinating to the dramaturge and to the playwright himself.”

“The audience feedback always got back to me,” says Kaufman. “Those were my questions. I put it all in my head. When you begin to hear over and over that something is fantastic, you know that that part is working really well. When you hear over and over that there is confusion around a character, you had better look at that character. It’s not that specific comments made a difference, but I read and studied everything. The whole ending of the play changed between the second and third preview in La Jolla. That was based on feedback from both the audience and the collaborators.” The audience joins in the creation of narrative; the art becomes the starting point for a kind of conversation.

That fits nicely with Ashley’s vision for his role at the Playhouse, and the Playhouse’s role in the community. “When you do freelance shows, you start over every six weeks — new actors, new audience. I was ready to stop dating and have a relationship with a theater, put down some roots with the audience. I wanted to talk with them, not just for two hours, but across the seasons. For an individual show that we do, we have about half single tickets and half subscription tickets. What’s great about a subscription audience is that they’re loyal to you, and you get to have a conversation with them over time.”

Subscribers bring stability, and stability brings with it a certain luxury of time and range. You don’t have to make every show a blockbuster; in fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. Getting back to that wall of index cards and how Ashley went about paring it down: “I try to make sure that no play is like the others in the season; along every axis you can think of, you make sure the plays oppose each other — that there’s small and large, funny and upsetting, musical and spoken, spectacle and just a person sitting in a room under a beam of light. There’s room for political plays that look outward and for plays that look inward and ask what it’s like being alive in a specific moment. We’re committed to being a safe harbor for unsafe work, and by that I mean that we’re always restlessly struggling for what’s new, either in form or content — taking the audience someplace unknown. Hopefully, that’s going to mean a big range as far as the kinds of experiences you have when you walk in the door.”

The season opened with 33 Variations — a small-scale, spoken-word drama. Then came the single-person show, Charlayne Woodard’s Night Watcher, which told the story of a woman and the 30 children living under her care. “Charlayne has had a long history with the Playhouse,” says Ashley. “This is her third show here.”

The Night Watcher served as this year’s Page-to-Stage performance. According to the Playhouse’s website, the program allows audiences to “experience the ‘birth’ of a play. Throughout the rehearsal and run of the show, the playwright and director make constant changes in response to audience reactions and feedback.” That’s the model for making the audience a member of the creative community, says Ashley. “I want to be doing more and more preshow discussions, along with the postshow. I don’t want audiences to just come and see what we’re doing; I want to talk to them about it. I want to invite the audience into the early stages of the play, to see the first reading, see the workshop of the third draft. That way, they get to see that a play is not just a final draft; it actually goes through this whole journey of self-discovery. Hopefully, the audience gets out of the ‘liked it/didn’t like it’ idea and starts saying, ‘Oh, wow, so that’s how those ideas developed over time. How that character pays off at the end is not a random choice; that’s a choice the artists have discovered and developed through the drafts.’ ”

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a2zresource Sept. 1, 2008 @ 1:58 p.m.

“Theater matters because it’s the only place where one can find hope. Films are manufactured for us, but in the theater, the actors and the audience are getting together to manufacture a narrative, and to me, that’s where hope resides.”

— Moises Kaufman, playwright, 33 Variations, The Laramie Project, etc.

This appears to be the same rationale that drives video game sales.

As for social commitment, there has to be something said for turning the audience into actors without scripts. Potentially, there's a lot of authenticity there... or maybe just bad acting? "The play is the thing..."

Union wage scales just conjure up images of Model Ts rolling off the assembly line... Instead of union wage scales in theater, why not pay actors and other theater workers a percentage of the gate? Union wage scales seem to make sense when the play is just another freedom of speech forum, where the general public has mostly exercised its freedom not to show up.

A play is a work of art, but there are reasons why the New York Times gushes over a Broadway attendance record of 11.5 million while the motion picture industry moans that 1.4 billion tickets sold are merely a symptom of flat sales.


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