Typically, the production of a play begins when the cast and crew first sit down with a script. But a new partnership is taking Furman students deeper into the process — all the way back to the playwright’s brainstorming sessions, in fact.
“You have to have a school that recognizes that the process is what’s valuable in learning,” said Padraic Lillis, artistic director of The Farm Theater in New York.
In a collaboration that will last more than a year, students from Furman and two other schools will work with The Farm Theater and playwright Kimberly Belflower on the development of a new play, with each school ultimately producing the show on stage.
Belflower doesn’t see herself as doing students a favor by giving them a voice in her work.
“I want to be very clear about warding that off at the beginning,” she said.
While working on her master’s degree, she tapped into the experiences of undergraduates in her department and “got really spoiled with their brains in the process.” The Farm Theater collaboration is giving her that access again.
The partnership got underway earlier this year when each of the participating schools met with Belflower in a virtual session. Male and female students both shared their experiences and ideas related to the #MeToo movement, which will be the heart of Belflower’s play.
“I was really proud of our department that day,” said Ellie Peoples ’19, a theater and sociology double major.
The objective was to “give a student’s perspective on what will best speak well to students,” she said.
Cammi Stilwell ’20, a theater major who aspires to playwrighting, anticipates reading the script in light of that conversation.
“Will I recognize any of the moments that we talked about in the show?” she said.
The Farm Theater’s name is a nod to baseball’s farm team system — its mission is to identify and support early career artists who are ready for the next step. Playwrights collaborate with students and faculty as they write, engage with them through the editing process and then watch as three different productions of the new work are staged – typically revising again between productions.
There’s no requirement that the plays be issue-based, but past works have focused on topics such as social media, eating disorders, race and gender.
Lillis said the goal is to produce an excellent play, not a public service announcement. But the work pushes students to think beyond mere production to the purpose of their field.
“The play is a tool to generate conversation,” he said.
The Furman theater department plans to develop opportunities for conversation and engagement around its performances of the play.
Belflower is writing now in New Mexico. The next collaboration will be in August, when students and faculty from each partner school travel to New York for the first group reading.
“They’re at the forefront of doing the tablework on the script,” said Maegan Azar, associate professor of acting and directing at Furman. “And they have a say over the creation of a script.”
“Everybody who’s in the room leaves with a sense of ownership in the play,” Lillis added.
The students will stay in communication with Belflower through the fall as they begin preparations for their local productions.
“When you’re handed a text, you have to interpret and honor a playwright’s intentions, which you may not know,” Azar said. This time, that won’t be the case.
Furman’s production, in April 2019, will be the last of the three. There could be dozens of rewrites between now and then.
“We’re going to be along for most of that ride,” Azar said.
After the three school productions, a select group of students will travel to New York to work alongside professional actors in a public reading of the play.
Stilwell and Peoples will be Furman’s student representatives in New York this August. Stillwell is looking forward to working with professionals while still having the safety net of professors and other students around her.
“This is folding in the next step, while still being in the step before it,” she said.