MEET THE STAFF: Alexander Greenfield, Director of New Play Development

Merrimack Repertory Theatre is on a mission: become a national leader in new play production. Which is no small feat, since refining a new script to perfection might take years. And workshops for developing new plays are time consuming, expensive, and have tricky logistics.

Luckily, MRT has a secret weapon: Alexander Greenfield.

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Alexander Greenfield, MRT’s New Play Secret Weapon

Alexander has come a long way since he first got hooked on theatre in 2nd grade, appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his after-school Shakespeare club. He now boasts an eclectic and impressive director’s resume that includes work at theatres around the country and no fewer than eight Broadway credits as an associate/assistant director–mostly alongside his mentor, Tony-winning director, Doug Hughes (Doubt). Hughes has called Alex, “a prodigy; a great thinker with great heart who is wonderfully capable of translating bold ideas into richly entertaining and memorable theater.”

MRT’s Director of New Play Development since last summer, Alex has found that the connection to the community in Lowell has greatly enhanced his theatre-making in ways that his freelancer career based out of New York could not.

“As a freelance director, you spend a lot of time pitching plays,” Alex explains. “I’d read an amazing play, but then there would be a three-year process of reaching out to producers and saying ‘please read this script,’ and waiting in limbo. There can be a feeling of powerlessness.”

Now at MRT, that powerlessness is gone. Alexander spends his days working tirelessly on what we call our “pipeline” of new plays: works in various stages of development by some of the best artists working today. MRT invests in those plays and artists early, and gives them a home here in Lowell. Alexander’s MRT directing debut is Going to See the Kid, and it’s just the start; he’s already knee-deep in new projects with playwrights, composers, and actors that could land not just in the 2017-18 Season, but also the 2018-19 or even 2019-2020 Season.

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Going to See the Kid, Alexander’s MRT directing debut. Joel Colodner, Veronika Duerr, and John Gregorio. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Alexander doesn’t just direct new works; he walks them through their whole life’s journey, from hatchling writing stages to the productions that you’ll see on the MRT stage in the years to come. He finds the best talent in the American theatre scene, and gets that talent to our city—not just so we can see their work, but also so that those artists experience what a great town this is for theatre-making. From workshops in partnership with UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College, to enjoying dinner at one of our great downtown restaurants, to the free housing they enjoy at MRT: Lowell has a ton going for it from an artist’s point of view.

Raised in Atlanta, Alexander has been following Artistic Director Sean Daniels’ career from Sean’s early days as Artistic Director and co-Founder of Dad’s Garage. “When Sean took over at MRT, I was avidly following the press releases coming from the theatre,” Alexander remembers, “and think ‘Man, this is so smart… if I was taking over a theatre of this size, this is exactly what I’d be doing.’ It’s exciting and even moving to be able to champion these artists, to bring them here, to share their talent with the community, and to share the community with them.”

“I’m thrilled to do new plays,” Alex notes. “Here at MRT, we’re blessed with an audience that will come out and see a play no one’s heard of. At so many theatres, they’re doing classics, or something that was just a big hit in New York and already has buzz. All those shows are great—but how thrilling to be at an institution where the core and heart of what we’re doing is being the trendsetter.”

LOVES TO BINGE-WATCH: The Hannibal TV series: “If you’ve a strong stomach, it has fiendishly good acting and stunning art direction.”

FAVORITE PLACE TO TRAVEL: Dublin, Ireland: “The scale of the city is so wonderful, the people are so great, and there’s an energy. I have no Irish heritage whatsoever, but I feel a sort of honorary kinship there because of the literary tradition. People there, in general, love the theatre. I’d get into a cab to go to rehearsal, and the cab driver would know the whole season at the theatre, knew the artistic director’s name, and wanted to talk to me about how rehearsals were going. I can’t imagine that ever happening in a cab in New York.”

(But Lowell? Maybe one day soon.)

COUNTLESS LITTLE DETAILS by Lisa Arnold

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This past weekend, as a member of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre cohort club, I attended a tech rehearsal for Going to See the Kid This is a NEW PLAY commissioned by MRT for the 2016 Christmas Season. In August, I had attended an early reading of the script, or “workshop,” so I felt that I had a sense for the play but it turns out that the script is simply the amuse-bouche of a multiple course meal.

Until now, the cast have been learning their lines, blocking out where to stand, sit, and walk, as well as the timing of entrances and exits, all without the benefit of lighting, staging, props, or costumes. This all changes during “tech rehearsal” week, when the cast finally gets to rehearse on the same stage where they will perform, and everything starts to come together.

Inside the theater, the crew has set up five tables where the audience usually sits. There’s the director and assistant director on one side, and the costume and set designers on the other. Behind them are the stage manager, sound designer, and lighting designer. Each one is focused on the stage as a whole, but also on the specific role they play in bringing the scene together.

The actors rehearse the same lines over and over again, sometimes so the sound designer could time the scene and determine just how many seconds of a certain sound was needed; sometimes, to try a blue versus a green hue to light the stage. Or any number of scenarios that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t been watching it happen. Between takes, the actors would engage in conversations about the mundane details of what they had for lunch, or where they picked up a good bargain. And amazingly… they picked up right where they left off, with a simple cue from the stage manager for where to start again.

While watching as they repeated each scene multiple times, each time with a focus on a different detail, I realized that every minute of a performance requires at least 10 minutes or more to plan. The cast and crew only have 33 hours to plan and rehearse 80 minutes of stage time. That works out to 25 minutes of planning for each minute of the show!

So what goes into those 25 minutes? Decisions about when to cue the music, or where to shine a spotlight, or how long a background sounds should last. But even more impressive was the attention paid to the countless little details, such as when Veronika Duerr (playing Ellis) says the line “we turned a corner” and the director halts the scene, turns to the sound designer, and asks “can you add a sound that mimics a car going around a bend?” or when the set designer notices that a spotlight for a monologue is a little too big, and bleeds into the next scene as it is being set up, so the crew takes a few minutes to make the necessary adjustment, while the actor stands frozen in place.

I doubt that the audience would notice any of these small details in isolation, but added together, the sum of those same small details is what transforms the audience into the moment of the play and creates an experience that is theater at its best.

-Lisa Arnold, Cohort

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Going to See the Kid runs November 30 – December 24. http://www.mrt.org/Kid

Q&A: Steven Drukman and Alexander Greenfield, GOING TO SEE THE KID

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Playwright Steven Drukman
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Director Alexander Greenfield

Steven, you’re a huge Red Sox fan. How did you get hooked?

Steven Drukman: My father had season tickets to Fenway Park on the third base line. There was no way to not become a Red Sox fan.

I’d see something like a game a week, and I became a rabid fan. I memorized stats and numbers, and speculated about trades. Before fantasy baseball got big, I would construct ideal Red Sox teams that were made up of my favorite players from other teams, or historical Red Sox teams.

Is Ellis is a representation of your own fandom?

SD: Definitely: In her ardor, and extreme fandom. That’s one part of me. And then Simon is another part of me: someone who reacts to that fandom with a bit of chagrin at the clannishness that team sports can excite in members of our species.  While I am a Red Sox fan, I still don’t lose the perspective of seeing how obnoxious Red Sox fans can be.

Alexander, on the other hand—you were recently at Fenway Park for the very first time?

Alexander Greenfield: In comparison to Steven, I feel like a complete neophyte. I grew up in Atlanta and we went to Braves games, but I never considered myself a Braves fan. Then I lived in New York for ten years, but never became a Yankees or Mets fan.

But there is something special about Fenway Park’s placement at the heart of Boston. It feels more in touch with the community. Walking to the stadium alongside the throngs of fans contextualized for me a certain New England spirit. The rabidity with which people feel dedicated to their home team was very palpable.

When David Ortiz stepped out of the dugout, everyone gave him a standing ovation. And then when he struck out, they remained on their feet and applauded him, reassuring him that their love had not swayed. In the theatre world, this is something that even our greatest divas are rarely afforded.

What has this collaboration been like for the two of you?

SD: The pairing was sort of a shotgun marriage; we knew people in common. But it’s worked out really well. To speak candidly, it’s been the nicest part of the experience. Alex is not only a really generous collaborator and a gentle dramaturg, but he’s contributed to the script in a way that has made it what it is.

AG: As a Jewish guy who didn’t grow up in Boston or as a sports fan, there seems to be a sort of perversity that I’m directing the Christmas play about the Red Sox. But in some way I see it as my greatest asset to the process.

It enables my chief interest to be making the backbone of the play and the core of the story as strong and as interesting as possible. Because Steven and I are not identical in our extracurricular interests, I can allow my ignorance to point out ways we can strengthen or add connective tissue, or further explanation – so we can satisfy the many who share Ellis’ fandom, but also create a theatre experience that doesn’t leave anyone out.

Is it a challenge to have Ted Williams, this larger-than-life icon, at the center of a play?

AG: One of the first things we instinctively agreed on when we first met, was that we didn’t want to hang our hats on an emulation of Ted Williams—or of any notable Red Sox player of the past or present.

We needed an original story, with original characters. And when we do encounter Williams, there had to be some kind of theatrical conceit which makes it about our protagonists’ encounter with him, through their lens, which can play on our own perceptions. People like Williams are icons and heroes to us. The efficacy of the endeavor couldn’t rely on how virtuosic or precise an actor’s impression was. We couldn’t just rely on having auditions to find someone that looks and sounds exactly like him.

SD: To add to that: I’ve written a sports biography play, about the boxer Joe Louis. And I learned, in the process of rewrites and rehearsals for that play, that what always happens is that biographical minutiae are removed from the play, more and more and more, as you get closer to opening night. Because if you have intelligent people in the rehearsal room – actors, directors, dramaturgs – maybe an intelligent playwright – you’re concerned about the theatrical event.

You have to do as much research as possible – then let go of that research as you’re making the play.

Alexander, how much of the physical design stems from your vision?

AG: I remember Steven saying to me, “how do you do a road trip onstage?” It’s gonna mean a lot of locations, but you don’t wanna have to haul out naturalistic scenery for each one, which stalls the proceedings and eliminates the fleet-footedness of the play.

At the earliest stage, we didn’t really know what the story was yet. We just knew it would involve two reporters—and that it was going to be a road trip of some sort. Our scenic designer Jason Sherwood and I had to cook up a space that puts us inside the world of these two journalists, but also can transform readily to recreate different locales.

And flexibly –because the play’s still being written. I want to be able to go into rehearsals, and discover “Oh! It would be great to be able to have another location.” Or “Oh! It would be great for this thing to be able to move here.”

So it’s really about creating a container that sets you up with the arsenal, so that the lighting designer Brian Lilienthal and I can go in and carve up that space with light, and if we need to add a location, Brian and I can say “Let’s use the tools we have to create a new location out of shape and light,” instead of “Oh no, we didn’t think to order a giant I-285 sign for when they get trapped in traffic in Atlanta for a scene that’s yet to be written.”

Steven, why do you write for the stage?

SD: I was a journalist before I was a playwright—and an actor before that. And I think both of those jobs were gateway jobs to playwriting, which I didn’t know at the time.

To me, what playwrights are are actor-journalists. They use the body of an actor to report concerns to our species. Even if it’s not factual journalism, it’s emotional journalism.

Perhaps I’m lucky that I don’t really have the facility to write novels and short stories – because playwriting forces me out of myself. You have to be somewhat social, which is something for a real extreme introvert like myself to be. And so I just love writing for the stage.

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Going to See the Kid
opens November 30. http://www.mrt.org/kid

CAST AND DESIGN FOR “GOING TO SEE THE KID” REVEALED, by Sean Daniels

As we get started on the Steve Drukman holiday tale of Red Sox, road trips and learning that we don’t have to all be on separate teams, Going to See the Kid, it’s time to share the cast and design.

Returning from being the dastardly villain in Home of the Brave it’s crowd favorite John Gregorio…

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John Gregorio with Karen MacDonald in MRT’s Home of the Brave, Photo by Meghan Moore

 

From starring in 45 Plays for 45 Presidents, Home of the Brave and It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s Veronika Duerr…

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Veronika Duerr with Nael Nacer and Celina Dean in 45 Plays…, photo by Meghan Moore

and from the holiday smash hit It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s Joel Colodner…

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Joel Colodner in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, with Celeste Oliva, Nael Nacer, Veronika Duerr, and Jason Bowen, photo by Meghan Moore.

And THE SET.

It’s designed by the unstoppable Jason Sherwood, who just got back from doing Frozen for Disney – yes, that small thing.

Check out some of his renderings below:

Can’t wait to share this play with you.

I’m so glad to be working right now on a play that reminds me to look for similarities in other, to be reminded that we’re all on the same team, and to celebrate the holidays. Can’t wait to share it with you.

To learn more about Going to See the Kid, go to www.mrt.org/Kid

You can learn more about Jason Sherwood’s designs at http://jasonsherwooddesign.com and on Facebook and Instagram @JasonSherwoodDesign

MEET THE STAFF: Marianna Wood, Special Events Manager/Development Coordinator

rosieEveryone loves an amazing party. But it takes a Marianna Wood to throw one.

She’s multi-talented. Her enthusiasm is infectious. And boy, does she know how to take a room full of people and get them to have a great time.

IT ALL BEGAN WITH A QUESADILLA

She’s an old pro by now, but Marianna’s first bash was for a bunch of high school friends.

“I had just figured out how to make quesadillas,” she remembers. “And I was really proud, because they tasted just like the ones at Friendly’s.”

It’s all been uphill from there. Marianna’s penchant for throwing a mean party landed her more and more gigs: her own family started tapping her talents for wedding showers and other gatherings. Before long her client list grew to include more and more people and companies.

WOODEN SPOONS, MEDICAID, AND PURITANS

Marianna keeps her events exciting, and her favorite way to do that is with a great themed activity.

Take, for example, her cousin’s wedding shower: they celebrated marriage proposal traditions across the world (and across the centuries) – some of which (like carving a wooden spoon for your beloved, or attempting to recognize your future spouse by the feel of their leg) make for great party games.

Or for the woman who was celebrating becoming a senior citizen: “We made the cake look like a Medicaid card,” Marianna remembers. “And she really wanted dancing, so we did themed dances through the decades, starting with the Bunny Hop and the Twist, and ending with the Macarena and the Stanky Leg.”

Marianna’s next big shindig? It’s this week’s Puritan Party, our fundraiser at Smolak Farms, which will feature delicious farm-to-table foods, an interactive performance from historical folk musician and entertainer David Coffin, and even a 1702 dress-up photo booth station.

RIGHT AT HOME IN THE THEATRE

Before joining the MRT team, Marianna worked for many years as a professional actress, from Boston to Florida to Utah to London. She’s racked up an impressive list of theatre stories (the time she fell from a stage during a blackout, for instance – or working with an

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Marianna’s dogs Toby and Banjo

actress who broke into a nosebleed mid-performance, much to the audience’s horror).

 

You can find her singing more often than acting these days (she’s a regular on local rockabilly circuit), or hanging with her adorable dogs Toby and Banjo – but her love of theatre runs deep. It makes perfect sense that she’s found a home as our Special Events Manger. She’s one of our chief assets – and anyone who’s been to a Marianna Wood event knows why.

Hidden Talent: “I am great at picking locks. I am also quite adept at getting dogs to howl along with me when I sing. Please note, this is not a reflection of my actual singing voice”

Best Theatre Memory: “Playing Salt & Peppa’s “Push It” on a recorder in The Awesome 80’s Prom. It’s doubly awesome and I can still play it.”

Deep Dark Secret: “As soon as I live in a place with a garage, I am going to buy a rat rod and then give it a chop top and suicide doors. Less of a secret. More of a life goal.”

 —

Need to throw a party? Learn from the best:

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Photo by Todd Collins

 

Marianna’s Top Five Tips for Throwing an Amazing Party

  1. 1. Consider your guests. What may work for a group of people in their 20’s may not be appropriate for a group in their 50’s. I went to a bridal shower that had a lingerie theme. It would have been great for a bachelorette party, but some of the older ladies in the crown were a bit shocked by some of the activities and gifts. Find activities that include everyone and encourage involvement

2. Steal ideas from other people and improve on them. Pinterest is a great place to start.

3. Do something unique. Tried and true ideas work, but for a memorable party, do something people haven’t seen before. If you think it’s fun, chances are other people will think so too.

4. Whenever possible, include inflatable sumo wrestling*. (Personal preference. It’s not for everyone…)

5. When taking a picture of a couple, ask them why they love each other or about when they fell in love. Their faces will soften and they will smile naturally. You will get a much better picture.

*Please note: There will be no inflatable sumo wrestling at the MRT fundraiser – this year, anyway.

GHOST LIGHT

This is MRT’s ghost light:

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MRT’s ghost light on the set for Abigail/1702, design by James J. Fenton

 

It’s a simple white light bulb, inside a metal cage, sitting on top of a pole, and it stays on whenever there’s no one in the theatre.

So why do we need it?

It depends on which MRT staff person you ask. Some will tell you it keeps mischievous spirits from entering the building.

Others will tell you the spirits are already inside – but the ghost light appeases them, keeping them content so they don’t wreak havoc on a show. Some will even tell you the spirits are those of actors past, always in need of a stage to play on; the ghost light gives them the light they need to perform when the living actors are not around.

And still other staff members will tell you the ghost light is for safety concerns, so that any person who needs to enter the theatre unexpectedly will not trip over scenery or fall off the stage.

We’ll let you decide what the real story is. Happy Halloween!

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Veronika Duerr uses the ghost light in “45 Plays for 45 Presidents.”

 

 

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On the set of Abigail/1702, design by James J. Fenton

Q&A: PLAYWRIGHT ROBERTO AGUIRRE-SACASA

roberto-headshotRoberto is a playwright (American Psycho, Say You Love Satan, The Muckle Man), screenwriter (Carrie, Glee, and the upcoming Riverdale), and comic book writer (Fantastic Four, Afterlife with Archie). He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics.

Did you always know you wanted to include supernatural elements in this story?

That element of the piece evolved as I was working on it. At first I was surprised when it started going that way, but I don’t know why, because often my plays start in a realistic world and then, at the fringes, supernatural or genre elements start creeping in—ghosts, aliens, sea monsters—so in a way, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when the devil walked in to Abigail/1702.

What made you say “I’ve got to write this play?”

Abigail/1702 came out of two impulses. The first is my deep, abiding love of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Years ago, I was doing a play at Steppenwolf, and I was watching their production of The Crucible, and I was reminded what a great play it is. In the lobby afterwards, they were selling copies of Miller’s script with his annotations, and there was a section in the back detailing the historical people the play is based on. At the end, there was a single sentence about Abigail that read something like: “Legend has it Abigail turned up years later in Boston as a harlot.” I read that sentence, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I thought, “That’s a play.”

The second impulse, which flowed from that revelation, was how drawn I was to the character of Abigail, who is an agent of chaos in The Crucible, but then leaves suddenly and you don’t know what happens to her. I wanted to take one of the most irredeemable characters in theatre, up there with Iago, and try to redeem her.

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Jon Kovach, Rachel Napoleon, and Mark Kincaid in Abigail/1702. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Did you take on any research while writing?

When I started writing Abigail/1702, I thought it was going to be a history play. I did a lot of research about the Salem Witch Trials, Puritan life and religion, and the way women functioned and lived in that society. I researched everything from the pirates of that time, to smallpox, to Samuel Sewall’s public apology to the young nation about his role in the Trials, which galvanized me. I read about Arthur Miller’s writing of The Crucible, and the real people he based his characters on. When I’m writing, I often like to expose myself to works of art that are of the same world, so I started reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. He wrote two, “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown,” that both featured the devil as a character. When I read them, something clicked, and I realized that I wasn’t writing a history play, but a ghost story. The play is a Gothic folk tale set in the New England woods.

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Both Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne influenced Sacasa’s writing.

Were there places you felt you wanted to fill in gaps in the history?

When I was younger I used to confuse The Crucible with historical fact. In high school, when I studied the Salem Witch Trials in history class and The Crucible in English class, I thought they were one and the same. It was only later I found out that Miller had taken huge liberties in writing that play. So for this piece, it was less about finding historical gaps than just giving myself permission to use artistic license, to allow myself to tweak events. Like Miller’s play, Abigail/1702 is not purported to be historical fact, because I changed things as well.

You’ve done a lot of horror writing – does that genre excite you? Do you see this as a horror story?

Of course horror excites me. Those are the movies I like to see, the stories I like to read. A lot of my plays flirt with horror. With Abigail/1702, there’s a way this play could have easily been a psychological horror story, a character study about the way this woman was tormented by metaphorical ghosts—her guilty conscience—but of course it becomes a real ghost story, and she is pursued by a physical embodiment of the devil.

When I first turned in this play, a lot of people commented about how happy they were to read a play of mine that didn’t have supernatural elements… and then they got to the scene with the devil. Ultimately, this is a much woollier play for all of its horror elements, and I love it that much more for them.

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Jon Kovach, Mark Kincaid, and Rachel Napoleon in Abigail/1702. Photo by Meghan Moore.

What’s it like to write a play, versus a comic book?

The mediums are totally different. Plays are alive, they happen with living, real human bodies that are constantly in motion. Even if the character is being still, they’re existing, right in front of your eyes. In comics, they’re frozen images and your imagination fills in the blanks. There are common elements in all of my writing: I like twists and surprises, with muscular, genre storytelling.

If someone were to sit down and read all of my work, from the stage, to comic books, to television and film, I think they’d see recurring themes and motifs. For instance, I’ve written Archie comic books, an Archie play, and now I’m working on an Archie TV show, and while I’ve been able to explore different sides of those characters through each medium, many of the core themes remain the same.

Why do you write for the stage?

Early on I was just drawn to it, especially to the people who work in theater. I felt like they were my tribe, as people like to say. When I do it, I do it just for me. Even now, when I spend much of my time working in television, with every new story that pops into my head, I always think of it as a play first.

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Abigail/1702 runs October 12 – November 6 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

http://www.mrt.org/Abigail