As a playwright, Bass submits his work to other theater companies’ dramaturgs, who likewise critique his work. Ironically, he’s not a fan of the process.
“That’s the part about the business of playwriting that I don’t care for,” said Bass, who is readying his latest play, Name in the Street, for a weekend of script-in-hand performances. “Because of my work I’m familiar with what theaters are doing and what theaters and their audiences like, and so I do have an advantage.”
But an advantage is no guarantee that a submitted play will be accepted for production. “I don’t have a timeline for when I want this play to hit a stage,” he admitted. “It will keep.”
One portion of his craft that Bass does enjoy takes place Thursday, March 10, through Sunday, March 13, inside the Black Box Theater at the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, 805 E. Genesee St. That’s when Name in the Street will go through those script-in-hand readings. The cast features Stephen McKinley Henderson, a Tony Award nominee who is a veteran of stage and small screen.
A part-time faculty member in the Department of Theater & Dance at SUNY Buffalo, Henderson is eager to read Bass’ work. “When I first met Kyle it was clear I was talking to someone who wanted to make a contribution to American theater and he knew the legacy,” Henderson said from his Buffalo office. “He seemed to me a very knowledgeable young man, committed and dedicated to trying to add to the canon of American theater.”
Henderson, 62, has acted a good deal of that canon. Like Syracuse Stage producing artistic director Timothy Bond, he feels passionately about the plays of August Wilson: His Tony nomination as Best Performance by a Featured Actor is for the 2010 revival of Wilson’s Fences, which itself won a Tony. Broadway co-stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis also garnered Tonys for their performances in the play. Incidentally, Bond’s production of Wilson’s Radio Golf is the current tenant at Syracuse Stage.
Here Henderson, who played a judge for 15 years on TV’s Law and Order, will read the role of Moe in Bass’ drama about two brothers dealing with the fallout of growing up with an emotionally distant father, now dead. Syracusans Julius Edwards and David Walker will read the brothers, Clyde and Dee.
“These are the roles I like to play,” Henderson noted, “the roles that these young playwrights are writing.” While, like an open-book exam, a script-in-hand reading may appear easy, it’s anything but. “It’s a reading of a play, but it’s staged,” he added, meaning the reading is blocked and directed like a performance. “It’s a hybrid and every bit of it depends on how wonderful the play is.
“It’s getting a chance to work on the play as a living thing rather than just as the playwright imagines it,” Henderson continued.
“The goal is to get to work on the living work of art, see the public and how they receive it, and you can adjust it. People who really love theater would love this process. They’re seeing the play in a form that others will never see, and being a part of the shaping of it. It’s an insider’s kind of thing.”
This process is also important to the writer because he or she usually toils in isolation. “We sit in our rooms by ourselves and we build and write these things,” said Bass, who also teaches playwriting at Syracuse University, “but we have to hear it. Then you really begin to know what you have, how it might work. This is reading deluxe. We’ve budgeted 12 hours of rehearsal for this. That’s a lot. Having Stephen Henderson—that’s big in terms of combining him with the community actors. I wrote Moe with him in mind; it’s like composing for a particular instrument called an actor. I’ve seen Stephen on stage a number of times and I admire his acting. It’s lovely now that he is going to read the role.”
The audience is a vital part of this process, and their opinions will be solicited in talkbacks after the play is read. “You’re eager to hear the work and you’re eager to hear the work in front of the audience,” Bass explained. “There can be no theater without a witness and the witness is an audience. You want to see where the play works, you want to gauge audience response because it will tell you a lot. What you intend to be funny for the character needs to be funny for the audience. Is the audience laughing where you didn’t intend to be laughter, and what does that mean for your revision process?” After hearing his words come to life and listening to audience feedback, Bass will contemplate changes. “With a play, I’ll work it, I’ll revise it, and the next logical step is to get a full production,” he said. “In some ways, the first full production of a new play is also part of its development process. The reading is for the playwright; the production is to put the intentions of the playwright before an audience.”
When he feels Name in the Street is ready, Bass will present it to a select company of his fellow dramaturgs. “I have contacts with people,” he noted, “and I will be very selective.
It’s not a mass mailing to every theater I can think of.” Until then, Bass remains focused on honing the best script he can.
“I really want the work to be worthy of the actors—professional, community and student—and the directors,” Bass concluded. “That is something I think about when I write. If I take care of my work and be honest and truthful and avoid the bullshit, if I can put something worthy in front of the director and actors, then the rest will hopefully take care of itself. The audience will get the benefit of the actors working on something that is worthy of their time and talent.”
A dress rehearsal for Name in the Street, by Kyle Bass, takes place Thursday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m., with script-in-hand readings occurring Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, at 7:30 p.m., and a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, March 13. A talkback follows all performances but the dress rehearsal. All performances are free and a limited number of tickets will be available at the theater 30 minutes prior to the show. Tickets can be reserved by e-mailing email@example.com. For more information, call 442-2727.