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Playwright Amanda Peet (left) and director Tyne Rafaeli

Set for Success

The alchemy involved in new play development is a fragile balance and begins with the right collaborators. In the case of Our Very Own Carlin McCollough, the first two elements include playwright Amanda Peet and director Tyne Rafaeli. I had the opportunity to sit down with them in the early part of their rehearsal process to discuss the art of creating a new play.

How did the two of you meet and start the process of working on this play together?

Amanda Peet: I feel like When Harry Met Sally! “I saw her across the campground…” Actually, MCC Theater put us together. I had started work on this play which, at the time, was a very different play. They paired me up with a director and luckily it was Tyne, so I won the lottery there. Once the Geffen decided to commission the work so I could finish the play, Tyne was absolutely the director for this project.

Tyne Rafaeli: And we both come from an acting background. Amanda is still an actress — I am not, which is a good thing! — but that shared background is helpful. I feel like we both thrive in an intensely collaborative and open rehearsal process. We really treasure the actors’ insights and we think inside of characters in a similar way.

AP: Yeah, we both feel that actors’ contributions make the work better, more real. The more we can dig into something with the people who are creating the characters, the better we’ll both end up looking. No point in trying to finalize and freeze something without their intense participation.

Which leads me to my next question. Because it’s a brand new play, now that you have the actors in the room, are they participating in the creation of these characters?

AP: Yes, I think so. I mean, I’ll take anything. I’ll steal lines of dialogue they come up with. In my first play I stole things that Blythe (Danner) did and then took credit for them. (Tyne and Amanda laugh) Sorry Blythe! It’s an occupational hazard. But yes, I’m constantly taking what the actors come up with and laying it into the play.

TR: I think Amanda’s writing is incredibly nuanced and human. It doesn’t feel contrived or “writer-ly” — we feel like we’re dealing with real human beings. It’s messy, not always linear and there’s a very particular rhythm to it. When actor and text meet, she has a incredible way of shaping the text towards that actor’s rhythm. She observes the way the actor hesitates or finds a thought or makes a joke or navigates a certain beat and absorbs all of that into her writing.

Amanda, the first part of this question is for you. What was the spark that made you want to write this play?

AP: There are two things that I couldn’t stop thinking about. One was a very beautiful but somewhat inappropriate relationship I had with a camp counselor when I was thirteen. I think the relationship appeared to be far more inappropriate than it actually was and I was really fascinated by that. What happened between us would never be allowed in this day and age — times have changed and it’s a bit more of a scorched earth policy now. I’ve thought about that a lot. But I feel very grateful to have had that relationship because it was innocent and beautiful and really important for my confidence. Also, because I’m a middle-aged actress, I’m fascinated by the idea of the fall from grace. In sports, especially tennis, it’s very similar to the entertainment industry in that you can be wildly celebrated one minute and then thrown to the curbside the next minute. I’m interested in how a person handles that. To be celebrated and put on a pedestal at such a young age and get accustomed to that kind of attention and then have to start over — that idea really speaks to me.

And the second part of the question. Tyne, what was it about the play that drew you to the material?

TR: Well, I was an Olympic track gymnast as a child from age six to fourteen so my initial reading of the play was very personal in terms of being a child athlete. In particular, being in such an intimate and complex relationship with a coach and how you have to completely give yourself over to that human being in order to be successful and cultivated in an effective way. And as I dug deeper into the play I became fascinated with the deeper question of what it is to parent and mentor and where one’s own self-interest comes into the equation. I continually ask the question, where does selflessness finish and self-interest start? Can you ever truly act without self-interest when it comes to a child?

AP: Can you be devoid of narcissism?

TR: Yes, exactly! Especially when you’re dealing with immense talent and potential success.

AP: Or even if you’re just a plain old mother. (All laugh in agreement)

TR: So I feel like initially it was personal because that’s lived experience but as I dug deeper I saw that it’s a way more universal experience and not just that of a star athlete. But as a parent or a mentor or a teacher, if you are in a relationship with a young person in any capacity, this play brings up very important and complicated questions.

Can you talk a bit about the “nuts and bolts” process of developing a new play in rehearsal?

AP: I don’t know if it’s always this way, but Tyne runs a room that is effective and inspiring for me. I think that’s probably key because it keeps me rewriting. And the truth is, in other processes, you don’t always get good notes and it’s part of my job to jettison things that aren’t of use to the process. But I haven’t really had to do that in this process and I’m very aware of the fact that that is rare. The room is very loose — the actors can talk about their own characters, other characters, story points — they tell me when something feels too predictable or facile.

TR: We also have actors who have great interpretive instincts and understand that every piece of writing has its own particular algorithm. So sometimes when Amanda wants to change something in order to make it easier for us, they encourage her to leave it in their hands to figure out how to make it work. Its not all on Amanda to figure everything out. Some things have to be figured out by them and me. We have to get inside of her brain!

AP: Or sometimes we’re punting and saying we can’t figure that out around the table, we have to wait. We may cut it down the road but these actors are keen to make it work.

TR: There’s an old saying, “you have to treat a new play like a classic and a classic like a new play.” And I think we are effectively finding the balance of investigating what is on the page before jumping to make changes. And if things need to change, Amanda can take the lead on that if we are asking the right questions.

By Amy Levinson

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/carlin or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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