'50 to '90 in 25 Characters
The Women's Project does five decades
with the era's top 100 songs.
During a late afternoon break, director Bryna Wortman and playwright Clare Coss describe their day following the first preview performance of Our Place in Time, the latest production of the Women's Project. "Clare and I, as usual, were on the phone early this morning," says Wortman, "discussing cuts, additions, how to clean things up, how to oil the transitions. During previews we rehearse in the afternoon, and the whole idea is to learn from the night before."
The play is set against a background of historical, political, and social events that are linked by the top 100 songs of the period, with the diverse cast of six (three men, three women; four white actors, two African American) portraying 25 characters. The piece started as a submission for a ten-minute play festival, but expanded to become a kaleidoscope of the playwright's memories. Coss describes it as a mosaic of public issues (the Cold War, the women's movement, AIDS, nuclear threats, gay and lesbian rights, racism) and their influence on America from the '50s through the '90s.
The women, who have collaborated for two years, have developed an easy artistic shorthand. "A director is often alone," Wortman says. "You may love the actors. You may have a producer who gives imput. You may have a writer whom you respect. But the burden of responsibility is yours. This play has 11 scenes, and sometimes it's as if I'm directing a one-act play festival. Although we work intensely and under tremendous time constraints, it's always a pleasure because Clare and I never struggle."
Their similar backgrounds, vision, and supportive partners contribute to their successful partnership. Wortman's husband, Bob, understands her "second marriage" to a project when she's in rehearsal, while Coss and her partner, biographer Blanche Cook, have shared interests in theater and history. Coss was initially attracted to theater as an actress, but then as an undergraduate became more interested in writing. She has taught at Hunter College and manages a simultaneous career as a psychotherapist. ("You figure out what makes your characters work and what makes people work.") Bryna, a native New Yorker, graduated from Barnard and has taught acting and directing at Marymount College, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and the University of Rhode Island.
Although many playwrights find it difficult to have new works showcased, Our Place in Time has avoided "development hell." Nevertheless, Clare fondly remembers the opportunities afforded by "grants upon grants" in the '70s. "Plays are living organisms," she says. "If it works on the written page, you go through a reading and then a workshop before it has a production. But today there's no money or support for those steps. We have to restore respect for the arts and its contribution to our culture and to our lives." Wortman adds, "Readings are difficult enough to mount. But once a playwright has one, they face the next hurdle of going from the staged reading to the production stage."
Attesting to the fact that Our Place in Time is indeed a changing organism, in less than 24 hours the number of characters has been reduced from 32 to 25, with the days ahead promising more of the same. "It's hard to make the cuts," says Wortman, "but it's a question of the emotional arc and where it leads the actors. It's never a question of not wanting to restage." Coss recalls the play doctor who worked on her first script. He said, about a particular scene, "This is wonderful. I love it and you love it, but it doesn't belong in the play. Tape it on the wall over your desk so you can see it and enjoy it." She laughs. "It was a strong visual reference that I've never forgotten."
Five of the six cast members of Our Place in Time performed its first public reading. They are versatile Broadway veterans whose theater credits (M. Butterfly, Death of a Salesman, Dancing at Lughnasa, Steel Pier, High Society) are balanced by work in television.
Wortman and Coss are cautiously optimistic about what good reviews might bring: calls from producers, a move into the commercial circuit, the chance to be published, productions at regional theaters. Coss sighs. "I've learned that in the theater you have to enjoy all the ups and downs. One day it's great, one day it's terrible. You have to ride the waves and be in the moment."