PENNY MIDDLETON, INTERVIEW 2

POST BY DREAMER: RYAN SPRAGUE

Okay, Penny… so the last time we spoke, you had just began work on your first draft of your script. Now that you’ve submitted the draft and received feedback, the real blood, sweat, and tears begins!


Interview: Saturday, May 4, 2013

Ryan Sprague (RS)

Penny Middleton (PM)

RS:How did it feel to get the first draft done?

PM:You know, I honestly didn’t have a moment of finality. I just kept thinking of the next draft…but taking a step back, I guess I’m just excited that there is something there! Forward motion and all, it’s great.

RS:What was most challenging aspect of it?

PM:Allowing myself to stay fluid was definitely the most challenging part. As we talked about, the biggest pitfall for a new writer is the “edit-as-you-go” theory as oppose to just writing. I would find myself editing portions before I even had 30 pages written- terrible! Also, I kept worrying about the staging; I think that’s the actor part of me. For example, I might spend an hour trying to map out an actor’s quick change. I was cutting myself sort, not allowing the flow to naturally occur. It’s not all gold, but there is something to be said about not interrupting your own imagination.

RS:How did the feedback session go with DreamCatcher? How did they react to the story you told?

PM:That was a great day for me! Kelly and Patrick were incredibly helpful and positive about the piece. More importantly they were vocal. There were kinks that I had been sitting with for months that in the meeting were immediately resolved. Just a great process for a new writer, to have that support is invaluable. Also, they liked it! It was great to know that the blueprint made sense and that they were excited for the next phase of the story.

RS:Going in to your second draft, what do you think is crucial at this point moving forward?

PM:Trusting in the foundation and implementing the critiques that I received from the first draft. Just going for it, and getting out of my own way. I have to commit to the story that I want to tell and tell it. Simple. The perfect polished pristine piece is not where I am at now, it’s not the goal. The goal is to live in that world, to be present in my story…and have fun!

RS:Were there any revelations you had during your notes sessions with producers?

PM:So many! It was interesting because a lot of their thoughts and suggestions were concepts that at one point or another I grappled with. Writing is a very solitary exercise. I had anxiety about the clarity of my story because up to that point, it lived in my world and it made sense. But as you if all goes according to plan, it’s not going to just live in “your” world! The team becomes your third eye, they are able to see your vision but also keep the overall vision in mind. It’s the perfect combination- I saw the areas that need to be fixed but I was also not weighted down by it. The “what’s to come” element is still thriving!

RS:How do you find the script evolving now that other people have read it?

PM:It’s become more flushed out and full. I had “moments” but now I have scenes! I left the meeting, just full of energy and ready to work. I use to think in terms of the final product, but that’s not the way to do it and the team reminded me of that. This draft is a bit braver in terms of exploration. I’m not limiting myself or worrying about the logistics of staging. I’m in the moment.

RS:What is the most exciting and most terrifying part of having people read this for the first time?

PM:I think the two were entwined for me! I was excited and within the same breath my knees were shaky. The best part had to be realizing that I could have a discussion about the piece- that meant it existed. This idea had become its own entity, for better or worse it was happening.

RS:What is your plan of attack moving in to the second draft?

PM:No editing as I write! Zero. I also love this part because I get to add details, which makes it more real. There isn’t a whole lot of major changes from the first draft to the second, again it’s about feeding the story and making it round, solid. Details, yeah I am excited about this part.

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PENNY MIDDLETON, INTERVIEW 2

Expanding Horizons

Theatre as a necessity cannot be a selfish artform.  A painter may paint an image that’s appealing only to the artist.  A musician may play melodies that only exist to soothe the musician’s soul, but a theatre artist must have a collaborative team and must appeal to masses.  When DCE offered me an opportunity to join in on this collaboration with a brand new play, I jumped at the chance.

“We want to add a design element into our Talent on Tap series,” Company Manager Patrick Marran pitched me over drinks one night.  I had never seen a staged reading with technical elements added in before.  Come to think of it I had never heard of anybody who had attempted such a feat.  But I have this tendency to say, “yeah I can do that.”

demonstrating the set model for Robin Rice Lichtig’s “Frontier”

 As with any design the first job was to read the script.  Ms. Rice Lichtig’s play “Frontier” was quite intimidating in this regard.  With a voice that echoes that of Fredrico Garcia Lorca “Frontier” had more than twenty locations, which flow in and out of the script without warning.  As a designer a play that moves as much as Ms. Rice Lichtig’s is a blessing, in that it grants the designer the ability to have a vast range of sets, from a South Florida nightclub to the beaches of Valdez in the height of the oil spill.  In this freedom there also lay the peril of trying to do too much.

When I read the play I just kept seeing shipping containers falling from the sky like bombs.  Every scene change was jarring when I read it.  The script is not one about  elegance and grace, it is a story of human destruction.  I wanted to contrast the beauty of Denali’s constant presence throughout the story with the imposition of the masses all saying in unison, one McDonald’s burger won’t destroy the world.  So this became the theme of my design, the world falling out of shipping  containers.

Had this been a full scale production, much of my design would have been thrown out.   Perhaps all of it, but do to the nature of this project the long hours of 2am collaboration with directors, lighting designers, costume designers, et al were not needed.  I was able to present my own impressions and my own thoughts independent of the needs of the production.  It was great; it was like being in college again.

The Talent on Tap series also grants the designer with a gift very few are ever given- letting your creativity run free without the tyrannical constraints of dealing with a budget, or wings that are too small to store scenery, or loading docks that are too inaccessible to move large objects, or even the laws of physics.  Most designs, in my experience, start huge and must be constantly trimmed down to play nicely with the aforementioned forces.

It is my belief that a play is just ink on paper until a dozen (or more) different minds work together to bring a collaborative interpretation together for a performance.  Once you have actors reading the lines and interacting with one another the words, as if by magic, become something bigger, something special, a play.  But as the scruffy guys dressed in all black and hiding in the shadows of the wings will tell you, the difference between a play and a show is in the staging.  The subtler elements, or sometimes not so subtle, of sound, light, set, costume, etcetera (etcetera etcetera) are what make the spectacle.

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Expanding Horizons

Meet Ghostlight Series Playwright, MS. PENNY MIDDLETON

POST BY DREAMER: RYAN SPRAGUE

“While we enjoyed reading your work, it just isn’t what we are looking for at this time,”

This is what I expected as I opened up an email from just another of countless rejection emails I was to read that night. But as I clicked on the email and began to peruse its contents, there actually seemed to be substance to the countless amount of paragraphs that lay before me. As I continued reading, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was like the submission Gods had come down from the heavens and said, “This one’s on us, Ryan. You enjoy that.”

The e-mail stated that I had submitted a play to this company about a year prior, and although it was in fact not what they were looking for at the time, they really enjoyed my characters and style. The email went on to say that the company had a project that had unfortunately not worked out, and that they were looking for a piece to replace its Halloween(ish) time-slot. They were offering me a commission to write them a story around a topic of their choice. That being a tale in some way relating to the mysterious case of Jack the Ripper. I soon began work on one of the most rewarding writing experience of my professional career to date.

Julia Menn in the World Premiere of "East in Red"

My play, East in Red, was received with great feedback, enthusiastic audiences, and cemented me in to a special place with a wonderful up-and-coming theatre company. That company was none other than DreamCatcher Entertainment. And thus, the Ghost Light Series began. It would become an annual event of commissioning a new playwright to write a piece, but first, that writer had to put a short piece of terror through the gauntlet of competition amongst a handful of other writers. The winner of the competition would then go on to be the commissioned playwright. And the winner this year, and the Ghost Light Series commissioned playwright was the poetic and fresh new playwright, Penny Middleton.


Penny's Stages of Writing

This is the first of four interviews that will be conducted between Penny and I. A sort of ‘passing the torch’ scenario. I will keep you all up to date with the progress of her work on her play, from winning the Terror Tales competition, to creating her story, to the rehearsal process, and ultimately, the production. Bare in mind, at this time, I know nothing of the subject of her play, keeping me completely on an objective side of interviewing her not about the play itself, but more on the process. I will then be invited to attend a reading of the work and we will then dive deeper in to the content of the play itself. So sit back, Dreamers. Here is Interview 1 with Ms. Penny Middleton, your Ghost Light Series Commissioned Playwright.


Interview: Friday, January 11th, 2013

Ryan Sprague (RS)

Penny Middleton (PM)

RS: Hey Penny. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. So, to start, where are you originally from? Did you attend college?

PM: Of course! I’m originally from Lansdale, PA. I graduated Cum Laude from the University of Central Florida (UCF) with a BA in Classical Humanities.

RS: What got you in to playwriting? Have you had any plays produced and/or developed before this?

PM: I’m an actor and a logophile (lover of words) so I think it was bound to happen. As an actor, you are more often than not, at the mercy of others. Ie: casting directors, producers, playwrights, etc. Realizing that I could have some control over that, is what inspired me to write. I figured, if I am not working as an actor, whose fault is that? Mine! I want to be a working actor, so that means I have to get work or make work. Also, I have some incredibly talented friends so I thought how great it would be to create work that we could all participate in. This is my first play that will be fully developed. Also this is the first full length play I’ve written. There are a lot of “firsts” with this!

RS: How did you hear about DreamCatcher Entertainment, and what first got you involved with them? Had you seen any of their previous work?

PM: I worked with Kelly Feustel, the Artistic Director for DreamCatcher Entertainment, on my first production in NYC. She was the stage manager for the show. I’m sure I was talking her ear off at a rehearsal and she mentioned the company. I thought the concept was great, but at the time I wasn’t thinking of writing. I had just moved to NYC (this was a little over a year ago) so I was busy navigating.

RS: Had you already written your Terror Tales piece before the competition, or was it a brand new piece specifically written for it?

PM: It was a new piece. It was the second short play I had ever written so I felt a little (a lot) out my element.

RS: When you learned of the timetable you were being faced with (Topic in December, first draft in February, what went through your head about a plan of attack?

PM: I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a thing now!” My initial fear was that the words wouldn’t come. I would be struck with writer’s block. So I just began to write. Anything that came out, found its way on to paper. After many long phone calls with my friend Angie, I realized that it was an unfounded fear. The words were there. This, of course, led me to another obstacle… I had all this “stuff” written and no fully developed structure or story. I know I’m new to writing, but I think having a story is pretty important!

RS: Is your approach to writing different when given a specific topic to write about? What would you consider your process of researching the topic, creating a world around it, and writing a first draft about it?

PM: My writing style and technique is based on what I know; Academia. My major in college was Classical Humanities, so I am no stranger to writing and research. I like structure in the beginning. The more I write, the less rigid it becomes. I think it’s too early to say if I’ve developed patterns, but I do find myself spending hours in the library researching… which I love!

RS: Were you at all familiar with the topic they gave you before-hand? Or did you go in to it completely blind?

PM: As you are quite familiar with, Ryan, the DreamCatcher team loves the “reveal moment.” I had no idea what my topic was about. During my first meeting with Kelly, she waited until the very end. Surprisingly, without knowing, they picked a topic that I in fact had some pervious connection with. I think that’s what makes this company so great. They listen and they get your voice. What more could a new playwright ask for?

RS: What would you say was the biggest challenge with this first draft?

PM: How do I honor the world in which I was commissioned to write for, make it entertaining, and use it as a platform for something palpable? That’s been the challenge. Something tells me that in itself, may always be the challenge.

RS: What influences you to write? Did it change with this certain type of project?

PM: People inspire me, or more specifically the connectivity that we share. For this particular project, I’ve been trying to do just that. Finding moments of continuity while still creating something new and fresh. It’s this innate need to show the similarities that we share in hopes that the differences don’t seem as grave.

RS: Who would you consider playwrights that inspire you? Screenwriters? Authors?

PM: The list is long and varied ranges. Let’s start with Tina Fey, Spike Lee, Lynn Nottage, Kay Cannon, and my personal friends, such as Amina Henry, Joshua Conkel, and Jack McGrath. I’ve always respected and admired anyone that puts pen to paper. It’s an extremely scary thing to do.

RS: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

PM: I hope that by the end of this project, I will be able to recognize myself in it. That’s all I can ask for. I try to stay in the moment. And in this very moment, all I can focus on is the rough draft I have due in February!

 

Well Penny, from a former Ghost Light Series playwright to another… I wish you all the best in getting that first draft done. It takes an ambitious writer to be doing what you are doing. So from both myself, and the entire DreamCatcher team, we wish you the best of luck in the beginning stages of this wonderful journey. Stay tuned, Dreamers, for Interview 2, in March.

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Meet Patrick Marran (Company Manager)

Once upon a time, there was a young man who wished to become a Lawyer. He worked hard in his classes, and occasionally was cast in his high school productions. One day, he realized that everything he loved about law, everything he did well, came from his passion for the performing arts. He completely changed tack and went to college, graduating with a BFA in Theatre, a minor in English, a whetted appetite for Shakespeare and a cunning eye for Set Construction.

 

How the heck did this guy become an Admin?

Well, it’s been an interesting trek but folks my passion for theatre is not able to be pidgeonholed to one form. I love what I do with DreamCatcher Entertainment. I put in odd hours throughout the week, and I try and help put two people in the same room so good art can happen.

As Company manager my job has no one simple description; it changes from project to project depending on the company’s needs. As we stride forward on our Production-Company-For-Hire facet, I will be the correspondent to Actors’ Equity to help push our programs forwards to the next phase.

Primarily though, I am the mouthpiece of our key staff members. I tend to be the one networking and heavily-invested in our search to work with new clients. I am the first face an artist will contact, be they writer, actor, director, etc.

I work in casting, I do project setup, I correspond with playwrights and I orchestrate the Talent on Tap series. Afterwards, I keep our databases running and begin contact emails with those artists who attended our Talent on Tap series and express interest in our program. It’s a lot of coffee, and some really fun brainstorming ideas. I like to put the best people together with each possible project.  It’s been almost a year and a half now since I took the position and we’ve grown so much as a company that my job requirements change as new members come and go, and as new Staff join the core Dreamers.

When we speak of DreamCatcher as a company, we’re really talking about the people who constantly come back for more—we are the ones who catch the impossible. We weave the netting over some impressive dreams and it’s an honor to help bring so many projects to life. Be they readings, productions, or just letting circumstance create new friendships. The theatrical community is a small one and we’re glad to have impacted so many returning faces.

As I tackle the new added title of “Literary Manager” it will be my honor and challenge to continue providing quality pieces to our Talent on Tap roster, as well as bringing the fully staged pieces to you with the kind of story content that DreamCatcher always delivers. These next few months will be far more than I can sum up in one paragraph…but if the scripts on my desk are any indication you’ll have plenty to say at our talkbacks and I am more eager for that than I can put into words right now!


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