In my Dramaturgical Perspectives and Approaches class with the MFA playwrights, this semester’s theme was integrative complexity: the ability to recognize and integrate multiple perspectives. As Peter Brook writes, “A play in performance is a series of impressions…fragments of information or feeling in a sequence which stir the audience’s perceptions. A good play sends many such messages, often several at a time, often crowding, jostling, overlapping one another. The intelligence, the feelings, the memory, the imagination are all stirred.” It seemed to me that 2020 has been full of such fragments, and for the occasion of surviving it, we as writers ought to engage head-on in the jostle and overlap of our multilayered impressions. Happily, my friend and Director of MFA Acting David Warshofsky felt the same way.
For some time, David and I had been conspiring to bring the MFA Acting and Writing cohorts together in new ways, we wanted our students to collaborate as early and often in their SDA careers as possible. Out of some very productive conversations came New Theatre For Right Now, a collection of nine plays, that will be presented virtually on November 20-21.
At first blush, the challenges and limitations of doing theatre during a pandemic would hardly seem the time to create something this bold and new. But 2020 allowed us to reboot, to register who we really are as artists and instructors (not to mention citizens), and to focus on our deepest-held and shared priorities.
This format also allowed the artists through these new works to deal head-on with the immediate present. From pandemic to protest, from looting to loneliness, these nine short plays tackle the problems, issues, questions and feelings that we all share.
Rehearsals began at the end of September, under the direction of three talented leaders – David Warshofsky, along with USC alumni Chastity Dotson and Edgar Landa (who is also a longtime member of the faculty at SDA). The plays cover a wide diversity of styles and subject matter, but they share a frame that goes back centuries: telling tales to keep the plague away.
The collaboration has been so successful that we plan to continue this every fall semester moving forward. In the way that Yale Cabaret has been a lightning rod of talent and exploration, we hope that New Theatre For Right Now will become the project where USC actors and playwrights come together to find out who they really are.
More than 40 years ago, the late great Gordon Davidson’s Mark Taper Forum began New Theatre For Now – short-run workshop productions of progressive original plays on shoestring budgets. Counterintuitive as it might seem, much of the Taper’s most memorable work happened there – including Luis Valdez’s seminal Zoot Suit. Now, it’s our turn to harness that spirit.
This fall we will be virtual. Next year, who knows? 2021 promises its own multilayered set of challenges and limitations, problems and questions – all of which will be up for grabs.
Oliver Mayer is a playwright, poet and librettist. He is the author of more than 30 plays, including his ground-breaking Blade to the Heat to its long-awaited sequel Members Only; a new opera 3 Paderewskis, composed by Jenni Brandon, which will world premiere at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center this month; children’s book series Big Dog on Campus; among others. On campus, he has received several university honors, including the USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching and a Mellon Mentoring Award for mentoring undergraduates.