Directed by Bree Bridger
by Elizabeth A.M. Keel
September 5-29, 2019
INTERVIEW WITH BRENDAN BOURQUE-SHEIL, ABOUT MICRO THEATRE AND THE LANDING'S PROCESS
Brendan Bourque-Sheil is Landing Literary Associate in charge of Landing Local New Works Initiatives. We asked him to share some of his insights as a playwright who's in the business of helping other playwrights, and how the Landing Micro Theatre projects acheive that goal.
At the time of this interview, we’re about halfway through Override’s run. What have you learned about the play from putting it in front of an audience?
Without giving too much away, the play starts off fast and loud, high concept, loaded with punchlines and physical comedy, and it stays that way for a good ten minutes. But then we get to this part where the initial obstacle has been handled and things get really still, quiet, and grounded in naturalism, and it stays that way for a daringly long time; I love watching the audience watch that part. It’s a moment that I’m pretty sure would feel completely dead in a conventional theatre space, but because you’re in someone’s actual house, at night, and because you’re close enough to see all the actor’s little twinges and ticks, for me, it has all the vivacity of the ten frantic minutes that preceded it. That’s a moment where I think “yeah, this is exactly what micro-theatre’s supposed to be.”
Of the four micro-plays we’ve done so far, you’ve written two of them. How is it different seeing a micro-play develop from the viewpoint of Literary Associate?
Actors get to see other actors work all the time. Playwrights pretty much never get to see other playwrights in the rehearsal room, so it’s been tremendously educational to see how Elizabeth works. There’s a delicate balance every playwright has to strike between advocating for their vision of the play and being open to change — between knowing when to step in and clarify something vs. knowing when to sit back and let the other artists in the room find it. And since every playwright sort of defines their role in every rehearsal process, there’s also the constant question “is there anything else I should be doing? What’s going to be helpful to me as a playwright, and what’s going to be helpful to my cast and crew?” Elizabeth navigates all that in a way that’s smart, sensitive, and quintessentially her. It’s really fun to watch.
Can you talk a little bit about the script development process leading up to rehearsals?
I’ve been trying to get Elizabeth to write a micro-play for the Landing for like a year, but this was the first time her schedule would permit it. She signed on in late spring and wrote a draft in a jaw-droppingly short amount of time. We put together a reading of that draft, just for her, the Landing Literary staff, and director Bree Bridger, so the first round of feedback came out of that. Anytime people talk about Override, it quickly becomes the springboard for a larger conversation about technology, and our shared hopes/anxieties about an increasingly automated world, so the first reading focused a lot on that. But when we give notes on a micro-play, we’re not just evaluating the script; we’re also looking at how well it fits the space, and the theatrical experience we’re going for, so some of the first round changes were in response to that. Elizabeth wrote another draft, got more notes from all the aforementioned parties, and then she wrote another, and that’s the one we went into first rehearsal with.
How much rewriting happened during the actual rehearsal process?
By the time we got into rehearsals, the script was like 90 percent there. Most of the final changes made during rehearsal were about honing in on the world of the play. Elizabeth’s a pretty exquisite world-builder. Like, I’m pretty sure the world of her play is rendered all the way down to a subatomic level in her mind. The part of that world that’s made explicit on the pages of her script is just the tip of the iceberg. So all throughout rehearsal, director Bree Bridger was asking questions about character backstory and circumstances, and Elizabeth would have this Tolkein-ish deep backstory, and then we’d have to make determinations about
1) what details from her answer needed to be made clear on the page
2) what details needed to remain sub textual but be communicated in the staging
And I can’t speak for the actors and director, but I feel like that gave them such a solid foundation, and such a fun playground.
Can you talk a little bit about future micro-theatre projects?
Specific upcoming projects are still top-secret at this point, but the big picture future we’re striving for is this: I want Houston to be a hub for new plays and new playwrights, and I have every confidence that it can be, but here’s the thing: it’s really, really, really, hard to write a play when you have no parameters, no creative support system, and no assurances that the thing your writing will ever see the light of day. Those work conditions are momentum-killing and antithetical to the collaborative nature of theatre. So the core idea behind micro-theatre was to marshal the Landing’s resources in devising a robust developmental process for local playwrights, with a stimulating set of creative parameters, with deadlines, dramaturgical guidance, and the thrilling/terrifying pressure of knowing that at the end of this process, we are actually going to produce the work for a paying audience. Despite being called “micro-theatre,” it’s a pretty huge investment of labor and creative energy. At times, it’s exhausting. But look, the question every theatre-maker in America is asking right now is “how do we keep theatre relevant, and exciting to new audiences,” and “new work by new voices” is a major part of the answer.
Theaters tend to view new work as risky, and it is, but they fail to recognize the risk in doing the same old work, for the same old audience, and not investing in the next generation of artists and theatre-goers. In the long run, I think that’s way, way riskier to the survival of the art-form.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil is a resident playwright of the Landing Theatre Company, and the Literary Associate for Landing Local New Works Initiatives, which was created to help develop more creative opportunities for local playwrights.