Paper to the South East Theater Conference – by Rachel Kent, Centre College Student
I’m Rachel Kent and I’m currently a Junior at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. This year, for the second time in my college career, I’ve had the opp
ortunity to work on a brand new piece of theater. While this may not sound like an earth-shattering experience, working on these projects have become some of my fondest memories at Centre, and perhaps doing theater at all.
But how does a tiny school in the middle of nowhere end up with an opportunity like this? The answer is the Farm Theater in New York, and its college collaboration project. Padraic Lillis, the founder of the Farm, describes its name as coming from the Farm System of baseball – the idea of growing new talent and building up the sport or the art from the ground up. In baseball, hands-on practice and experience is what gives a leg-up – and increases the likelihood that the farm players will make it to the big leagues. So, too, then, does the farm focus on hands-on experience – giving early-career playwrights some “playing time” and allowing them to work their way up to whatever the big leagues may mean to them. The Farm Theater has become so much more than a training platform, though – it focuses on building a community of mentoring, support, and growth (which makes the traditional meaning of the word Farm not all that far off either).
Here is a description of the Farm Theater College Collaboration project, in Lillis’ own words:
“Three schools commission an early career playwright to write a play that each school will independently produce throughout the academic year. The playwright, faculty, and students collaborate throughout the year in the development of the text. The script will be a full-length play with a minimum of five characters. The majority of the characters will be under thirty years of age so that undergraduate actors can successfully play the roles.
The project commences with the playwright interviewing students of the participating schools on the topic she will be exploring through the development of the play. The playwright writes for six months and then the play is workshopped in NYC in August with professional actors. Faculty and students from the schools are invited to participate in the NYC workshop. The schools then each produce the play independently during the academic year. The playwright is in residence for part of the rehearsal process for rewrites and attends the productions. The project culminates in a public reading of the play in NYC with a cast made up of professional actors and student actors from each of the schools.”
I am lucky enough to have been around for two of these college collaboration processes. My first year at Centre, we commissioned our first College Collaboration project. Our playwright was Lindsay Joy, and she gave us her beautiful play, In the Event of my Death. Lindsay herself talked to me about what she considered to be the benefits of the farm from the playwright’s side. She says:
“My favorite part of the process was the actual time I had to spend with the students during the rehearsal process. I was fortunate enough to have a long weekend with the cast of In the Event at Centre in the thick of it, right when they were just off book. I really got to shape and mold and re-write with an informed sense of character because the students did such specific work. It made that re-write the most significant of the program, and I think it made for a good show. For me, there is nothing as beneficial as the change that happens in a rehearsal room, and during the crisis of production. When you can cut/add/rework a scene with smart actors? It’s the best.”
We were the second school to tackle In the Event, and I was a lowly Assistant Stage Manager, desperate to be involved in any way I could. Even so, it was the most incredible experience for me as a student. Her play was one of the first I had ever worked on that dealt with things that immedia
tely impacted me as an almost 20-year-old – it talked about people my age, coming back to their hometown after college, deaing with suicide and sexuality and love and friendship. It was one of the best-received plays I’ve worked on to date at Centre as well, selling out completely for both nights of our limited run. Being the second sc
hool to get the play, we were able to see a substantial number of rewrites both from the initial first draft we received and throughout the process itself, and a lot changed afterward because of us. A lot of students felt that they personally created their characters, and took serious ownership of them – it was an incredible thing to watch. A real family was formed, and even the scared little freshman was welcomed into the process. It was surreal in a lo
t of ways, and made me endlessly excited to get to do it again.
A dear friend of mine and one of the lead actors from In The Event of my Death, has this to say about her experience:
“There are an endless number of good things I could say about the Farm’s College Collaboration Project, but I think the most important feature that the students benefit from is a better understanding of a truly collaborative process. Most college-aged theater kids have spent their years putting on Cinderella and various watered-down Shakespeares and have no clue what goes on in a collaborative setting or where to begin with an original piece. It is an invaluable experience to talk to the creator of a character that you are inhabiting. I would even call it a luxury. However, with that luxury comes a much greater responsibility because the playwright is watching every choice you make and possibly even changing the script to reflect what they liked or disliked about your performance. Seeing how important your character is to the playwright makes your character even more important to you and when you have a cast full of people who are greatly invested in their characters individually, the ensemble becomes intense and fortified. The collaborative nature of this project is truly unlike any other. My love of theater was refreshed and renewed and I wanted to pursue theater for a whole slew of reasons that I never knew existed. I also felt 1000 times more prepared to enter a professional setting, because they already treated us like professionals. Anyone who has the privilege of being a part of the college collaboration project will leave a better member of the theater community, 100% guaranteed.”
Another student has similar things to say, describing the process as:
“An opportunity to step into a fresh new work in which my interpretation of a character is valued by the playwright themselves, which is extremely rare for an actor, especially a young one. My experience during In the Event of my Death shaped me as an actor more than any other show I have ever done for this reason. I was able to live inside my character and grow as a performer as she grew and developed as a person in the script. Since I was able to grow with my character, I was able to connect to the script on a much deeper level than I had before and now I am able to apply that ability to connect to other scripts I am handed later because now that I have worked so closely with a playwright it gives me a whole new perspective when I’m performing. The playwrights are always in the room with me, whereas they never used to be before.”
The second time around, the initial skype call happened while I was in England studying abroad. I was filled in by my cohorts that the play was going to be about gender. It seemed super interesting, and the bar was set high by In the Event, so I couldn’t wait to get back to Centre and get started! A little bit later in my trip, I got an email from Matthew Hallock, who is the chair of our department, a sort of liaison to the farm people, and my boss. He asked me if I would be interested in coming to New York for the initial table reading.
Would I be interested?!?! I was ecstatic!! That August, I met up with Matthew, Patrick Kagan-Moore, director of both Farm projects to date, and another student and friend of mine. I didn’t really know what to think, but I’m an energetic, outspoken person and as we got going I let my reservations go. The table reading took place across the street from the Public, something I noted immediately. Around the table sat professors from one of the other two schools working on the project this go-around, plus a smattering of students. Represented was SUNY Brockport, and distantly supportive was University of Western Florida, who, understandably, couldn’t make it to New York. Additionally present were, our playwright, Micheline Auger, farm director Padraic Lillis, and half a dozen professional New York actors. It was a diverse, enthusiastic, wise, and giving group and after a couple hours of reading and discussion, a few things became clear.
- This play was no longer about gender. Suddenly, it was dealing with the very real, very prevalent issue of sexual assault on college campuses.
- Micheline was the coolest darn thing, and all these professionals sitting around me were intimidating and wonderful.
- I did not like her main character.
Fearless, or perhaps foolish, as I am, I decided to focus on that last point, and vocalize it. Micheline was clearly taken aback. Who was this random person to come in and criticize her otherwise very brave, very wonderful piece of work? I remember walking out of the room that day and looking at my friend. “Oh my god, that was too much, wasn’t it?” He sort of shrugged it off, but my stomach was in knots the rest of the evening.
After seeing some shows and wandering around New York taking it all in, we reconvened the next day for much of the same. That night, however, Micheline was going to do some rewrites. That final day, we all came together and there was an almost entirely new play in front of us. It was incredible seeing the process firsthand like that – and the most
wonderful part was that she had actually listened to me and made some edits to the character I had so vehemently disliked. She, a professional playwright, had listened to me!! That was the first distinct moment where I felt the scope of just how lucky I was – I was sitting in New York city surrounded by brilliant collaborators, and I had something to say that was valued and taken into account to improve a piece of art!
This time around, we were the last school to perform the show. When we auditioned the play, the show was titled Your Wings Have Eyes, but by the time of our first read-through in November, we had a new title: Love 95 times. By early January, the start of rehearsal process, everyone was raring to go. I, usually an actor, was somehow shifted into the role of Stage Manager, which was an entirely different personal journey in itself. But I couldn’t be more grateful – it allowed me to be close to the process from beginning to end in a way that almost no one else was. It amplified that feeling I had first experienced freshman year and that I encountered again in New York – I wasn’t just a student, I was an artist and a collaborator.
At Centre, we have a slightly different schedule – we have two normal-length semesters, but we also have a third term, sort of like a J-term. We call it CentreTerm, and it lasts for the month of January. During that time, students take only one class, and it meets for three hours each day. This works out splendidly for the theater department, because it means we got to work on both of the farm plays as a class. For In the Event of my Death, the show had a small cast which meant that all the actors and designers, the stage manager, and the AD got to be in the class. This time, however, Love 95 times by the time it went up included a large group entity that became essentially a type of chorus. In a department as small as ours, we needed to pull people who couldn’t necessarily be in the class, but who we needed as part of the process. Because of this, we divided the cast into principles and chorus members, calling the principles for work during the class day and calling the chorus members for traditional after-class rehearsals. We also included our costume designer, props designer, and video designer in the class, as well as myself. This meant long days for the director and myself, but a much more inclusive process than we were able to have in the past.
In terms of the benefits of the process, they cannot be overstated. For both the designers and the actors, getting to work with the playwright throughout the process was invaluable. It felt like working on a professional new writing show – rehearse all day long, call up the playwright if you need her. Micheline flew in to visit us for a weekend during the process, and came back at the end to see the show in its entirety. She consistently sent us tons of rewrites and was always available for questions, comments, or concerns. We really appreciated her support, talent, and bravery throughout the process. One of our actors says:
“The process of the farm show was different than the other shows we do here at Centre. Not only was this show a class, but it was also being revised and rewritten as we went along. The fact that it was developing with us was very cool. It was interesting to see the changes and edits the script went through and how that translated onto the stage. It felt like I was constantly learning new things about my character and about myself as an actress and it was challenging and fun to experience.
From a design perspective, our costume designer for Love 95 times says of the process:
“It’s intimidating to have a playwright looking at your stuff…particularly in terms of a show that doesn’t have a lot of references to costume in the script. I wa
s given a lot of freedom which is exciting and scary! One time she just came in and looked at my designs and mentioned that I went in a completely different direction than the de
signers at the other schools, which is something I’m proud of, but also something that initially made me pretty nervous. One thing that really excited me was the super cool advantage of having the playwright there to fill in the ‘gaps of affirmation’ between my ideas, the directors’ ideas, and the thoughts of the other designers. She made sure it was cohesive and consistent with her own vision – a luxury that most designers don’t get to have. Getting to see the process change and to witness how organic the show became was super unique because usually we only see the finished product, and getting to see the messiness of her earlier stages was encouraging and humanizing – it also made me
feel like I was allowed to make mistakes in my process before I found the final product that I wanted to put onstage.”
Now that the show has gone up and down, the next stage of the process is the reading in New York. I, as well as t
wo other Centre Students who were actors in Love 95 times, are lucky enough to follow this process to New York, and right up to the end. I couldn’t be more excited to see how the play unfolds and see it through – hopefully to the big leagues one day. There is no doubt in my mind that without the college collaboration project, I would never have the opportunity to follow a show like this through so many stages of its life, and I am so grateful for it.
Overall, the College Collaboration is beneficial to the schools, the playwrights, and the plays themselves.
Micheline Auger, our second Farm playwright, says:
“Why does the Farm College Collaboration work? Because plays (and theater artists) need to be developed in front of an audience and, as Todd London’s book Outrageous Fortune brought to light, it’s hard enough for the average play to get one production (if they’re lucky), it’s near impossible to get two or three. With the Farm’s College Collaboration, the new play receives three different productions at three different universities, and the beauty of it is that everyone benefits. The students get to see what it’s like to work on a new play and experience the thrill and ownership of contributing to it’s development; the community gets to take part in a meaningful conversation and also feel ownership in the play-making process; the playwright is provided the opportunity to work her craft at a high level and the universities get to contribute to building the canon of New American Plays. This is a worthy investment. I feel extremely enriched by this experience and what I’ve heard from the student collaborators, faculty and audience members is that they feel the same. This, to me, is the measure of success.”
However, I think the biggest benefit is for the students. Getting to work on and have a hand in the development of a new play is a unique, hugely rewarding experience that most undergrads don’t get a chance to participate in. I wouldn’t be the same artist I am if not for the two rounds of the Farm – I have more confidence to speak my mind, a better working knowledge of the processes I want to be a part of for the rest of my life, and a deeper appreciation for all the different jobs that go into putting together a play. Most of all, though, the farm theater college collaboration project teaches students that they are worthy – that they are artists, not just bodies on a stage, and that they are valuable parts of the process not just because of their ideas, but because of who they are as people. It builds confidence, trust, support, teaches teamwork, and creates magical new theatrical experiences – changing the lives of everyone who is lucky enough to be a part of it.