All plays, at one point, go through the reading process, in which the actors read drafts of a work to an audience. Feedback is received from the artists and audience, and the playwright re-writes the work. Then the process is repeated. This is an invaluable practice for a new play, since it allows the play to be worked and tweaked multiple times in order to reach its full potential as a great story.
This year, American University’s New Works Reading was of Circus of Fallen Angels by Randy Baker, which took place March 22-24. The title has since been changed to The First Disobedience, but the original title was used for the performance at AU. Baker is a local playwright who serves as the cofounder and artistic director at Rorschach Theatre and also teaches at AU. The play, inspired by the photograph Angel Smoking, 1999 by Debbie Fleming Caffery, is about a group of inmates who were imprisoned as children for reasons initially unknown. Their “rehabilitation” is to endlessly rehearse a trapeze adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but they never perform. These “children” have long since left childhood behind. Only a few retain some innocence.
The play’s director, Department of Performing Arts professor Robb Hunter, chose the play because of the sense of lost innocence. “It’s something we all have within us, this sense of innocence lost,” says Hunter. “I know I experience it all the time, as far as a lost childhood. I see it in my own children, too. It was such a wonderful time when we weren’t aware of all of the things we are now aware of as adults in the world.”
Hunter was also intrigued by the mystery and the “off-normal” nature of the play. “That mystery was appealing to me. I had a lot of questions about it, and I was hoping to be able to get some answers by doing the play,” he says. “You also want to find something that is a little bit off the beaten path, something that gives the students a look at something they may not otherwise see. This play does just that.”
Hunter admitted that choosing which new work to perform was an easy choice. He was already familiar with Baker’s work from the Rorschach Theatre. Baker’s current position at AU would also allow more communication between the two, so he was one of the first contacted. “There were other playwrights in the area that I have worked with before, but I just couldn’t pass this up,” says Hunter. “So I talked to Randy, and he said he’d love to do it.”
The collaboration allowed the students, Hunter, and Baker to dig deeper into the work and find new ideas in the script. Baker visited rehearsals, answered questions, and incorporated ideas from the students. “Normally, readings have a bunch of actors with music stands reading the script,” Hunter explains. “But we’ve put it up on its feet in places and given it lights and sound where we thought it was necessary. We’ve also added a character called ‘the narrator,’ which Randy approved, because the settings and directions are so important to the show. I think he thought the ideas and questions were good, and he was taking stock of what questions came up.”
To aid in both the students’ education and the evolution of the play, Hunter assigned each actor a list of questions in order to research and create a background story for each character. “We gave them to Randy to see if he could use any of the information,” he says. “This new work gave the actors an opportunity to really dig in and research to find out who these characters are, because the playwright has purposefully left many of their earlier lives shrouded in mystery.”
The multiple performances allowed students to dive into the process and begin to play with the script. “I gave notes every night, and some of them weren’t used to changes throughout the run, being more accustomed to setting the show and keeping it exactly the same until closing,” explains Hunter. “They learned a great deal in the process and enjoyed the opportunity to continue to explore as they went through it.”
Randy Baker also mentioned that sitting and watching the show live was very helpful. “We did things that he hadn’t seen in that particular light, and the performances illuminated some ideas that he already had, so it gave him ideas for some changes he will make,” says Hunter. The group of actors, Hunter, and Baker are looking to have a post-mortem soon to discuss the ideas and insights. Baker can then discuss if anything clicked for him, what he thought about it and if there are any ideas that he would like to take from this reading and apply it to his rewrites.