It’s a constant conundrum for theater professionals: how to nurture new, serious playwriting in a blockbuster-minded environment? Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory, inaugurated this summer, offers an intriguing new model. By combining an intensive rehearsal period with a brief run at Steppenwolf’s Garage space, First Look bridges the gap between traditional development processes, like workshops and staged readings, and full-fledged production. Judging from the results of this year’s three plays—“A Blameless Life,” “Men of Tortuga,” and “The Sparrow Project”—First Look promises to become a potent addition not just to Chicago theater, but to the national scene.
Melanie Marnich describes the initial state of her play “The Sparrow Project” as a “spatter pattern of scenes.” During rehearsals, as Marnich listened closely to her cast during the day and rewrote at night, the story took shape. “The Sparrow Project” portrays a pair of aimless twins, cocooned in their New York apartment until a chance encounter breaks open their relationship. The developmental work on the play in rehearsal enabled Marnich to clarify the play’s core dramatic question: how can Sarah, the older of the twins by several minutes, find a way to bring about the change that she knows has to happen? For Marnich, First Look provided a way to realize a play that otherwise might have remained bound up in her notebook. As the dreamy, poetic rhythms of the play demonstrate, a whole world would have thereby gone missing.
Joel Drake Johnson, whose bitingly funny “A Blameless Life” chronicles the meltdown and tentative rebirth of an American family, found a similar freedom in First Look’s process to explore and reshape his work. In Johnson’s case, the rehearsal stage itself became a jury-rigged writer’s desk. Joe van Slyke and Annabel Armour, as the battling couple at the heart of the play, repeatedly found themselves bogging down during their climactic argument. Guided by the actors’ intuitions and suggestions, Johnson worked with them on the spot to streamline the scene. Armour, who found the intensity of the process “terrifying and exhilarating,” maintains that she would participate in similar work again “in a heartbeat,” for the thrill of creating new work in the company of other committed artists.
She may have the chance to do so; project director Ed Sobel declares that Steppenwolf has found the first trial of First Look “very helpful and very successful.” The ultimate test of success will be the future of these three solid new works. So far, they’ve garnered both exposure and polish from their time at Steppenwolf. With any luck, they’ll go on to prove that American theatre still has a place for new, intelligently crafted writing. (John Beer)