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Actor Jon Tenney. Photo by Kevin O’Brien.

First Draft to Final Dress: The Making of a World Premiere

Big Sky director John Rando and playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros. Photo by Kevin O’Brien.

There is no blueprint, no recipe for the development of a new play. The process can begin with a phone call, a relationship, an idea or a collaborative history. A year — more or less — after the seed has been germinated, Geffen Playhouse audiences may be watching the first production of a new play by an award-winning playwright.

In its 20 year history, Geffen Playhouse has produced 31 world premieres, eight of them commissioned and nurtured along by the Geffen’s literary department with the help of targeted grant money from the Edgerton Foundation and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. Donald Margulies and Jane Anderson have premiered new plays at the Geffen, as have Neil Simon, Joan Rivers, Carrie Fisher and Alan Alda.

Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ Big Sky “arrived” at the Geffen via an exploratory phone call that director John Rando made to Geffen Artistic Director Randall Arney. Rando, the Tony Award-winning director of Urinetown, had directed three previous productions at the Geffen including The Underpants in 2004. Having developed new plays both in New York and regionally, Rando thought that Big Sky belonged at the Geffen. A draft of the play already existed, and Rando envisioned a safe, pressure-free environment in which the playwright could hear it being read aloud and subsequently do extensive revisions.

“I suggested at that time that it needed to be incubated in a good, nurturing theatrical environment, and the Geffen Playhouse is a kind of home for me,” said Rando. “I’ve done a lot of work here and I received my M.F.A. at UCLA, so I had a nice connection here. I called Randy [Arney] and said, ‘I think you might be interested in this play. I’m not saying you should do a production but I’d love it if we could develop it with you guys.’”

Arney knew Gersten-Vassilaros from when he commissioned her play My Thing of Love at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He shared Rando’s enthusiasm. Big Sky would receive three workshops, two at the Geffen and one at New York Stage and Film (all featuring Jon Tenney), leading up to its world premiere production.

“I like the idea of trying to plug into how a writer works and how we can best serve their process, whether a reading or a workshop is part of that,” Arney said. “John and Alex came to us with the play already written, but I knew Alex would love the opportunity to have some workshops and to be able to gather some people together in a room and hear the play.”

The Edgerton Foundation supported the development of Big Sky through a grant that funded extra production costs and workshops.

“It’s a big gift for a new play,” said Gersten-Vassilaros, who was thrilled to receive the grant. “We get more time to ask, ‘OK, is this really working?’ and then work on it and come back. By the time we go into rehearsal, it will be pretty close to what we end up putting onstage on opening night.”

The company’s concept-to-stage pipeline is a testament to the groundwork laid by the Geffen’s late founder and producing director, Gil Cates, whose vision for the not-for-profit theater included making the Geffen a home for new work. In the mid-1990s, when the Geffen started gearing up to offer its first commissions, Literary Director Amy Levinson interviewed more than a dozen established playwrights, informally asking them what they considered an ideal environment for developing a new play.

The answers were consistent. The playwrights longed for a place where they could bring their work in rough form and work on it for an extended period of time. They wanted the freedom to write combined with institutional artistic support.

Given the Geffen’s proximity to Hollywood and the fact that many established playwrights have also tried their hand at screenwriting, nobody wanted to see new works get bogged down in the theatrical equivalent of “development hell.” A full production is the endgame, and the Geffen has historically produced a majority of the plays it commissions, according to Levinson.

The funds to support new work have allowed the Geffen to tailor the development process to each playwright’s specific needs. Some may use workshops early on to collect diverse opinions. Others may prefer that a draft be much closer to completion before hearing it read aloud. Levinson recalls the experience of working with Donald Margulies on commissions of Coney Island Christmas and Time Stands Still, a production which premiered at the Geffen in 2010 and would later move to New York for a Broadway run.

“Donald likes to hear what he calls his ‘‘very rough’ rough draft’ out loud. It gives him a sense of where it’s going to go,” Levinson said. “In almost every case, I read it before it’s read aloud, and then we chat about it. He goes back to work and does a little futzing with it and then we sit down with a small group of trusted folks to hear a draft. After that, he’ll write for three to six months and come back to hear it again. Then he likes to just get into rehearsal and see what he has. Of course, the rewrites continue until opening.”

“He wrote Coney Island Christmas very quickly and learned an enormous amount in the first reading — things one can only learn in the hearing of it,” Levinson added. “Another example: Time Stands Still. Originally titled The Elephant in the Room, Donald had written in a character and in hearing/seeing the reading, he realized the character held more power being entirely absent. He made significant changes and by the second rewrite was ready to go into rehearsal with the additional week.”

Carrie Fisher’s solo show Wishful Drinking, another huge success, came about after Fisher and her co-writer and director Joshua Ravetch told a few stories Fisher felt would be a good basis for a play. “She’s such a fantastic storyteller that we really committed on the spot,” Levinson said.

Artistic administrators concede that balancing new works and revivals of audience favorites is a constant challenge. The recently announced 2016/2017 season has at least one world premiere, Alena Smith’s Icebergs, and Geffen audiences can expect the numbers of new play commissions and world premieres to increase significantly in the coming seasons, thanks in part to a grant from the Edgerton Foundation.

“We have continued to build on our commitment to new plays and feel strongly that the way to appeal to a broader audience is to tell stories that are new, diverse and very much of this moment. What better way to generate that work than through commissions? So, stay tuned,” Arney said. “If we continue to do our job supporting and nurturing the work of writers, we are sure to have plenty of premieres for years to come.”

By Evan Henerson

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