The artists who bring a script to life share their experiences – and performances – with students
The visiting director cues a student, who reads a single phrase over and over again.
“I work in jazz clubs, not sock hops…. I work in jazz clubs, not sock hops….”
A second student intones different words from the same script, and then three other classmates chime in.
Suddenly their syncopated readings resolve into song, a sort of jazz improvisation. And with that, the script that seemed puzzling on the page leaps to life.
The riff evokes the story of Willie “Cool” Jones, a jazz musician caught between stardom and addiction in the drama Lost Tempo. It’s one of four plays the students will see performed as part of “The Playwright and the Stage” class.
Omar Robinson as Willie "Cool" Jones in Lost Tempo. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston Playwrights' Theatre.
Robin JaVonne Smith as John Wesley Powell in Men on Boats. Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots for Speakeasy Stage Company
Lydia Barnett-Mulligan and Samantha Richert, with Amanda Collins in the background, in Elemeno Pea. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston Playwright’s Theatre
Suffolk student actors in 3 Sisters. Photo by Stratton McCrady for Suffolk University Theatre Department
Evelyn Howe and Omar Robinson in Lost Tempo. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston Playwrights' Theatre
The students read, analyze, and experience each play through this Seminar for Freshmen class, one of a collection of courses offering exciting opportunities to engage in depth in the world outside the classroom while focusing on an inspiring topic.
After reading an early draft of Lost Tempo the students told Professor Richard Chambers it was tough going. Thus the impromptu performance of the play’s opening lines.
He asks: “Who struggled?” Hands go up. “Good, you were supposed to. This will limber up your mind. If it’s hard at first, you will make your way through.”
“When I read Elemeno Pea I was chuckling, but when I saw the play I was practically crying I was laughing so hard. That’s why I love to see plays in person. You have an idea in your mind of what the characters are like, but when you see it, it’s something new.”
Today they are getting a firsthand look at how the play developed from Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, who’s had a voice in the 10-year evolution of Lost Tempo from a student thesis to a staged production.
“When you read a script, it’s not the play; it’s a blueprint of what the play can be,” says Snodgrass. The director, designers, actors, and other artists “help the play come to life. A play is a malleable creation. It changes day to day in performance and beforehand in rehearsal.”
The curtain rises
Two days later, the students settle around cabaret tables at the Boston Playwrights’ Theater. Shaded lamps shed soft light on their notepads. It’s the final rehearsal of Lost Tempo before opening night, and the theater is set up as a nightclub. A jazz group plays off stage, and the play begins with the same song-like sequence the students had vocalized in class.
Afterwards, Lost Tempo playwright Cliff Odle chats with the group.
“Plays are a skeleton. They’re ideas on which you have to build flesh and blood. It’s never really done until it’s performed.”
“The play can be challenging to read because of the time changes,” says Odle. Lost Tempo shifts among three time periods in the 1950s and early ‘60s. “I was trying to create a metaphor for jazz itself.”
The students pepper him with questions: What was the inspiration for a play about jazz and heroin? Is it hard to let go of a character? Are you satisfied with how it’s turned out?
He says that he originally thought Lost Tempo would be a long play.
“Someone forced me to cut it,” he says, nodding toward Snodgrass. “There were a couple scenes with Cool that I had to cut out. You weren’t learning anything new; they weren’t moving things forward. It was just pretty words.”
As Odle leaves to confer with the cast, Snodgrass tells the students: “It was a big help to have you here tonight. These actors need an audience.”
Data mapping reveals plays’ patterns
Computer Science Professor Dmitry Zinoviev presented a data map of the Chekhov play Three Sisters to the Playwright and the Stage class, which later saw Robert Kropf’s adaptation, 3 Sisters, at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre, with a set designed by Professor Richard Chambers.
Zinoviev’s initial analysis offered a surprise: Irina, one of the sisters, has a diminished presence in the data map because she speaks primarily in short sentences rather than the longer speeches the program looks for.
“I read the adaptation after I saw the computer graphics and really paid attention to Irina’s lines,” said student Donyka Dumornay. “She doesn’t say as much; she shows more through what she does.”
This was not the first revelation from Zinoviev. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the traitor Iago appeared most prominent on a data map created for a previous Chambers class.
“At first I thought: This can’t be right,” Chambers told the class. “But part of the racism of the play is that Othello is called many things – negative names such as ‘the Moor,’ and ‘the old black ram.’ The data map raises questions as it presents patterns.”
Zinoviev also showed some more complicated maps, including one for The Da Vinci Code.
Said Dumornay: “This demonstration inspired me. Now I want to sign up for a computer science class.”
Gaining confidence as writers
While seeing performances and interviewing actors, directors, and playwrights are important to the class experience, Chambers also encourages the students to push their writing to new levels.
“High school is rote; I find I have to shake them up a bit and really challenge them,” he says.
Instead of merely analyzing motifs as they likely did in high school, the freshmen are asked to synthesize as they think and write about themes, such as the similarities and differences between two plays.
At semester’s end they have produced a binder, similar to those created for professional theater productions, that includes final revisions of assignments about the play of their choosing.
“It’s cool to meet the writers and get to hear what they have to say. It’s influenced me in my own writing … I hope the rest of college is like this.”
Mitchell Bussiere didn’t like writing in high school, but Chambers’ class has given him a new perspective.
“There were too many rigid directions in high school,” says Bussiere, a Psychology major who writes sketches and standup as a member of a Suffolk comedy troupe. “A good teacher like Chambers wants you to learn … to hear what you think instead of just feeding back the facts. And he lets you revise. These are the best papers I’ve done in a long time.”
Donyka Dumornay, a Sociology major, enjoys the challenge of tackling many different kinds of writing through Chambers’ assignments, including a point-of-view piece on Lost Tempo. She takes to heart his advice to revise, revise, revise.
“He will love this; I had to rewrite a couple of times because I hadn’t really articulated what I wanted to say.”
Teacher as mentor
“On the first day of class, Richard had us fill out a worksheet about ourselves. I wrote that I’m awful at writing,” says Lindsay Belair, who is studying Public Relations.
Chambers’ questionnaires help him get to know the students. He follows up with a chat in his office, and these introductory talks are, for many students, the beginning of an unofficial mentoring relationship that can last for years.
Says Belair: “We talked about my weakness in writing. He said to bring in drafts and then revise them. I love having that kind of professor, a person who is helping me. His reassurance makes me want to try harder.”
“It’s so cool picking apart a play and trying to understand it. And then you go and see you’re all wrong, but it’s OK to be wrong. I learned that.”
The students saw Men on Boats, a gender-bending take on John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River, at Speakeasy Stage Company; Elemeno Pea, a comedy centered on ambition and regret, and Lost Tempo, a jazz-infused look at addiction, both at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre; and 3 Sisters, Robert Kropf’s adaptation of the Chekhov masterpiece, at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre.
Traveling together to performances and sharing their reactions afterwards helped the students form close ties during their first college semester.
“We all really love each other. We wait for each other before class, and we talk across the room,” says Dumornay.
“Everyone seems to have fun hanging out and going to plays. We talk a lot more together than other classes do,” says Bussiere.
And a month after seeing Lost Tempo, with the play’s run over, Belair notes: “They probably have no idea that we’re still talking and writing about their play.”
Lead photo: Men on Boats. Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots for Speakeasy Stage Company