“It was like going on a first date and finding yourself engaged to the Prince of England,” says Leslie A. Kobylinski, artistic director of First Draft. “We never dreamed that we, this fast, would be matchmaking audiences to a theater and a theater to a playwright and a play to audiences.”
Launched last summer, First Draft is the play-nurturing wing of Charter Theatre, which has stopped doing full productions and devotes its stretched resources to developing new work through readings; it then tries to forge links between theaters and playwrights. Charter Artistic Director Keith Bridges put Kobylinski, herself a playwright and director, in charge of First Draft. They’ve held 16 readings of 10 new scripts this season, all free to the public. With “Jack and the Bean-Stalk,” they got their first nibble.
At last September’s Page-to-Stage festival at the Kennedy Center, Mark Krikstan, artistic director of 1stStage, attended a reading of “Jack.” He says, “I just thought it was wonderful. . . . We jumped at the chance.” So 1stStage, a small theater devoted to giving fledgling theater artists their first professional experience, is mounting the show, with Charter/First Draft covering some of the development costs. Kobylinski is directing, and Baldessari will play the cranky narrator. The play will run through June 19.
Baldessari says he’s not a fan of plays that stick to the stage and observe the fourth wall. Hence his narrator, Pricklebumm, grumps at kids in the audience and threatens never to tell the story. “I like the theater experience to start as soon as you walk in the door, and you never know exactly what’s going to happen,” says the playwright.
Krikstan added “Jack and the Bean-Stalk” to the 1stStage schedule after his season was underway, so it will run between performances of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “By Jeeves.” Some Saturdays will involve two “Jacks” and two “Jeeveses” in alternating succession.
“That’ll be pretty exciting,” Krikstan says. “I hope we’re all standing at the end of this.”
Neither Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company nor actor Steven Culp in Los Angeles had time to meet for an audition. So, in a technological leap forward for Kahn, they convened via Skype in the New York office of casting director Laura Stanczyk in March. Kahn needed to see whether Culp was right for the role of Deeley in Harold Pinter’s three-character play “Old Times,” running through July 3 at the Lansburgh Theatre.
Kahn wasn’t comfortable using Skype alone, so Stanczyk set up the computer/video connection between Kahn and Culp. As anyone who’s used Skype knows, such confabs don’t always go smoothly. “He kept freezing and going, and freezing and going,” says Kahn of Culp’s reading of a monologue from the play. “It looked a little bit like somebody doing break-dancing . . . but it seemed, in the middle of all of that, that he was doing a good job.”
Though Culp, a Virginia Beach native, has a long theatrical resume, he’s best known for his TV work as a hapless husband on “Desperate Housewives,” the deputy mayor on “The Chicago Code” and, for those who remember, the hardboiled Republican speaker of the House on “The West Wing.” Culp had never used Skype, either, so he practiced with it and took the advice of colleagues who told him to put a light above his computer to illuminate his face, and to sit on a high, straight-backed chair to avoid the weird, fisheye view offered by built-in computer cameras.
In Pinter’s 1971 play, Deeley and his wife Kate (Tracy Lynn Middendorf) play host to Kate’s long-ago roommate Anna (Holly Twyford). An evening of sexually charged verbal one-upmanship ensues. The script challenges both actors and directors with its constantly changing realities, says Culp.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever done a play quite like this one before,” he says. “The more that you play realistically moment to moment, that reality is shifting around you. It’s almost like being in a waking dream sometimes.” But, he adds, “when it goes well, there’s something about the language. It just seems to soar.”
Next season, Synetic Theater will bring back three of its wordless, movement-focused Shakespeare adaptations. The mini-festival will be a test run for a touring rep that the company hopes will raise its profile outside Washington.
The Synetic 2011-12 season:
l “Speak No More — The Silent Shakespeare Festival,” at Synetic’s Crystal City venue, will include revivals of the company’s 2007 “Macbeth” (Sept. 14-Oct. 2), 2010 “Othello” (Oct. 19-Nov. 6) and 2008 “Romeo and Juliet” (Nov. 25-Dec. 23), all directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, Irina. The three shows received a total of 26 Helen Hayes nominations and 10 wins.
l “New Movements” will showcase work by Synetic company member Ben Cunis and a “physical theater” troupe from the Czech Republic. Cunis will write and direct two one-acts — “Last Tango With Rosie” and “Genesis Reboot” (Feb. 9-March 4, 2012). Tantehorse, the Czech company, will bring “Light in the Darkness” (March 8-25, 2012). Mirenka Cechova, who played the Fellini-esque Fool in Synetic’s recent “King Lear,” founded Tantehorse.
l “The Taming of the Shrew” (March 31-April 22, 2012), staged at the Lansburgh Theatre, will be the Tsikurishvilis’ newest Shakespeare adaptation, performed without words.
l The final show of next season, back at Synetic’s Crystal City venue, will be “The Father of the Soldier” (May 23-July 1, 2012), a stage adaptation of a 1964 Georgian film. Tsikurishvili will adapt the World War II-era father-son tragedy to the circumstances of present-day America and the Iraq war.
l Arena Stage has switched time slots for two shows next season to allow its world-premiere musical adaptation of “Like Water for Chocolate,” billed as a “pre-Broadway” run, to develop further. Adapted by playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes from Laura Esquivel’s novel, with music and lyrics by Lila Downs and Paul Cohen, the show now will run June 8-July 24, 2012. “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress will run Sept. 9-Oct. 23.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.