Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Talking Yield Sign, Dung Beetles, a Morose Bartender and…It’s TAW’s Annual Playwright’s Festival

            Julie O'Neill, Joe Rinaldi and Carolyn Marble in "An Other Engagement"

Norwalk’s Theatre Artists Workshop is entering its 30th year, and part of the reason for the group’s longevity is the festival of one-act plays it has been producing for over two decades. The Annual Playwright’s Festival, which this year runs Oct 19 – 21, is avidly looked forward to by many playgoers who appreciate both the quality and diversity of the work presented, and this year, although the quality is a given, the diversity may very well be at an all-time high.

TAW’s membership is composed of both writers and actors (with many also having directorial credentials), which allows for a certain symbiosis in the writing and staging of new plays. The process that eventually leads to a play being selected for the festival is a somewhat arduous one, beginning with a reading of a submitted play (often a cold reading) by one or more of the actors, followed by comments and critiques by the members, with the playwright sitting silently (unless asked a question), taking it all in.

“You don’t always hear what you want to hear,” said Darien resident Kathy Rinaldi, TAW’s president, whose “Happy” was selected for this year’s festival, “but you hear what you need.”

After the first reading, the playwright takes the critiques and suggestions under consideration and makes alterations, both large and small, to his or her work. Two weeks later, the playwright is back for another reading and more comments and critiques. Finally, the manuscript is submitted to the board, which makes the final decision on what will be produced. This year, of the thirty or so submissions, seven have been selected and, if nothing else, they are eclectic.

“We look for the best quality,” said Barbara Rhodes, this year’s festival producer, “but time is also a consideration. We want to present an entertaining evening but not too long. Sometimes a play has some additional weight depending on the actors who are in it. It’s the playwright’s discretion as to how the play is cast. Often the actors who are used in the readings, when the plays are being developed, are the ones used in the actual production.”

Rosemary Foley, a Pelham, NY, resident, is one of the playwrights fortunate enough to have had her work, “An Other Engagement,” given the nod. In a recent phone interview, Foley described the gestation of the play and her association with TAW.

“The play was inspired by an article I read years ago about a very wealthy woman, a Protestant woman who became a nun and she did something very inspiring for other women with her money,” Foley said. However, that was just the jumping off point – there’s no nun in the play, but there is a family that gathers for an engagement party only to be confronted with the possibility that there might just be another engagement no one ever knew about.

“Writing plays is a strange business,” Foley said. “You read one line in a newspaper article and it inspires something, or you overhear a conversation. Things start from some strange places and sometimes the play starts at the end.”

Foley related a story about her brother, “a very emotional guy,” who urged the family to be in control when the father passed away. Foley, quoting her brother: “’We all cannot fall apart; we must be steadfast.’” Out of this, since she knew very well that her brother was, inevitably, going to fall apart, she wrote a play, “a comedy about a father who, even in death, can’t escape his family.” Foley is often accused by her family members of “using them” in her work. Her stock response is: “Do you think you’re that interesting?”

Given her close association with TAW’s membership, Foley admits that she often writes with certain TAW actors or actresses in mind. “I can hear the voice of one of the actresses; when I’m writing I can really hear her, so the tempo and the choice of words – what the character is going to say -- can be prompted by what I’m hearing.”

Foley also commented on the nature of the one-act plays she and others have written for the festival. The basic structure of a play, whether it’s a full two- or three-act play or a shorter one-act play – the rise, the climax, the falling away -- must remain, but with only 10 or 12 minutes to tell a story, the playwright “cannot waste anything,” Foley said. “In a one-act play you have to be tight, everything has to lean towards the action of the play. You can’t mess around.”

Jim Gordon, another of TAW’s playwrights and a Norwalk resident, knows full well you can’t mess around when crafting a one-act play. Gordon has two entries in this year’s festival, “A Stranger Calls” and “Joe & Eddy’s,” both of which are distinctly Gordon-esque in that they focus on people living on the fringe of life, the semi-losers and small-time grifters, the shut-ins seemingly shut out of life.

In a phone interview, Gordon talked about his own two plays, which he is directing, as well as a play by Vanessa David that he is also helming. Like Foley, Gordon often gets his ideas from articles he reads in the paper, though he also draws on a childhood spent in Mt. Vernon, NY.

In “A Stranger Calls,” a con-man thinks he’s hit on the score of a lifetime, only to have the tables turned on him. “You know, we get these phones calls,” Gordon said, “people wanting to sell us things or scams, and this elderly guy…I’m using an actor, Herb Duncan, who has a lot of TV experience, but he’s blind, so I changed the play – originally it was about a woman – so it works for him. So this guy gets a phone call from someone who wants to get into his checking account. The guy’s immediately wise to what’s going on, but he’s going to have some fun with this. He leads the con man on and slowly drives him absolutely bonkers.”

“Joe & Eddy’s” is quintessential Gordon, since it is based on the people he knew when he was growing up, a time when he admittedly spent more time around bars than was probably good for him. “A lot of my stories harken back to the people I knew at the time, the wise old bartenders who probably were not all that wise and the people down on their luck. So, in the play, this young woman walks into a bar and this bartender…” Gordon went on to describe the plot in detail, offering “spoiler” after “spoiler.” Suffice it to say, there’s a certain melancholic hope to the story about the past haunting the present.

Like Foley, Gordon often writes his dialogue based on the actors he’s familiar with at TAW. “I lock onto certain players because they know my characters,” he said. “I seem to end up with a lot of the same character types, kinda hard-edged, you know, people you’d meet in bars, and there are some actors and actresses at TAW, well, for example, there’s this one actress, a very good actress, and to me she seems like someone I’d order a beer from.”

There are some playwrights who feel that writing is writing and directing is directing and never the twain should meet, but Gordon isn’t bothered by that. Not only is he directing his own work, he’s directing David’s “The Tale of Yield and Tire.”

“It’s about a yield sign,” Gordon said, laughing, “and another person plays a tire. It’s about an accident that takes place in Westport and the tire rolls up – the tire’s played by Joe Rinaldi – and he lands at the base of this yield sign and they have this conversation about life and irresponsible drivers.”

As for directing his own plays, early on – not necessarily at TAW – he had the experience of turning over his work to directors and then experiencing a lack of collaboration. “They would take the piece” he said, “and they would just lock into a certain idea; they were not listening. Look, if I’m gonna go down with a play I’m gonna go down with my own play and my own direction. Should everyone direct his own play? Probably not.”

Rhodes, who is also an actress, is of two minds about a playwright directing his or her own work. “A playwright already knows what he wants to hear,” she said in a phone interview, “it’s already set in his mind, and as an actress that keeps me from doing things, from trying things out. That’s my job as an actress. However,” she added, “in a situation like this – we have time constraints – I guess it’s okay. We haven’t had any problems.”

Kathy Rinaldi, a Darien resident, is another playwright who also enjoys directing, but given the demands on her time right now as president of TAW she has ceded staging responsibilities for “Happy” to Jo Anne Parady of Norwalk, a director in whom Rinaldi has total confidence.

“Happy” is about a woman of a certain age who falls in love with a much younger man, much to the consternation of her friends. “It’s probably the most ‘absurd’ play of the bunch,” Rinaldi said, referring to the Theater of the Absurd genre. “It’s a little less linear than the others. You’re really not sure whether you’re seeing and hearing the woman’s friends or are they just voices in her mind. We’re also using drums – you know, a heart beat, beating fast at the start of the relationship and then slowing down as things start to cool off.” Whether Rinaldi’s play wins the “absurd” award remains to be seen, since Steve Bellwood’s offering is titled “Dung Beetles” and, yes, features two of the insects dealing with hard times, and, of course, there’s the talking yield sign and tire.

As mentioned, Rinaldi trusts Parady implicitly to stage the work as the playwright envisioned it. “She really knows how to put on a woman’s play,” Rinaldi said. “She understands the nuances of women’s emotions.”

When asked about the range of the plays being presented, and the possibility that the audience might become a bit confused as it is asked to shift gears from play to play, Rinaldi said, “Our belief is that we’re not going to play to the lowest common denominator. If the audience can put its trust in what we are doing, is willing to go along for the ride, then it really doesn’t matter what kind of play we present as long as we show we know what we are doing. What I love about the plays this year,” she added, “is that every one is individually strong. If anything, people will want more, they won’t want them to end. We trust our instincts and we believe people are really going to enjoy the journey we will take them on.”

Rhodes was asked the same question and responded in kind. “They’re not alike at all,” she said. “They’re the oddest little collection of plays I’ve ever seen.” However, she has confidence that TAW’s audience will respond. “We have a very faithful audience that has been coming to us for years,” she said. “They know what to expect.” She paused a moment and then added. “I’m always impressed with how knowledgeable our audience is.”

For tickets ($20) or more information call 203-854-6830 or go to 

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