Spotlight on Playwright Chad Beguelin
A Tony Award-nominated lyricist and book writer, Chad Beguelin is a celebrated veteran of musical theater. His work on the Broadway musicals The Wedding Singer
have made him a hit on the Great White Way, and his credits Off-Broadway, which include Judas & Me
, The Rhythm Club
, Wicked City
and the stage version of Disney’s Aladdin
have earned him countless accolades: the NYMF Award for Excellence in Lyric Writing, the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award, and the ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, to name a few.
However, the World Premiere of Chad’s play Harbor
, which begins performances at the Playhouse on August 28, will mark his debut as an author of a non-musical work. Recently, Chad took a few moments to answer questions posed to him by Playhouse Artistic & Management Coordinator Kim Furano about this exhilarating new development in his rich theatrical career.
You’ve had such an exciting (and might I add, successful) career as the writer of books and lyrics for musicals, including two hit Broadway shows. What inspired you to leave behind the safety of something you’re so good at to write
Harbor? And how does your process differ in the creation of this straight (non-musical) play as opposed to a musical?
When I had the idea for Harbor
, it seemed like a story that couldn't be told using songs or music. Musicals by their very nature have a heightened reality, and the characters in the play needed to be very real and exist in a world where they expressed their feelings through the spoken word. There is definitely a big difference between writing a musical versus writing a play. Creating a musical means constantly working with collaborators to create the script and score. Writing a play means it’s just you and the computer...and sometimes an unhealthy amount of snacks.
Can you share a little bit with our readers about the journey that
Harbor has taken from your first draft to what they will see on stage in just a few weeks? What was the experience of the development process like from your perspective, as the playwright?
The main plot and characters have always been the same, but the way the story wanted to unfold kept changing. After a reading of one of the very early drafts, I realized I had committed one of the cardinal sins of playwriting: I was "telling" instead of "showing.” I'd let one of the major scenes happen "offstage.” I quickly rewrote that part of the play and forced myself to have the conflict unfold in front of the audience. It made for a very intense and hopefully funny scene, and ultimately made the script better.
Speaking of the development process,
Harbor had a workshop here at the Playhouse earlier this year, in which yourself, Mark Lamos, and a group of actors got together to work on the piece and read it for a small invited audience. What did you learn, if anything, from those few days in a room with your play and sharing it for the first time?
It was great to hear the play out loud…It helped to hear a group's reaction to each moment in the script. I could tell when the comedy was working and when it needed to be sharper. The reaction of that audience definitely helped me hone the script.
Harbor is populated by four incredibly rich, complex, and, ultimately, very real characters who just happen to be held together by familial bonds. What made you decide to tackle the great American theatrical tradition of a “family” play in your first non-musical offering? And, similarly, what, if any, of your own experiences colored and shaped these four unlikely kinfolk and the journey they take together?
As the saying goes, "Write what you know." My partner Tom and I have struggled over the idea of parenthood and it seemed like a great idea for a play. I also have a few family members that are versions of the character of “Donna.” They have no filter, and tend to say outlandish and hilarious stuff all the time. While the majority of the play is completely plucked from my head, there are times when it was more just like taking dictation.
What defines a family has undeniably created an impassioned and often explosive debate in this country of late, in the political arena, among the national media, and around dinner tables. Would you say that this hot-button issue has influenced the evolution of the script at all?
It's definitely a big part of the play. The idea of what makes a family is continually shifting throughout the piece.
Switching gears a little bit, what was it like to be nominated for a Tony Award?
It was definitely surreal and unexpected. I knew I wasn't likely to win, so it was fun to practice my Susan Lucci-like polite smile and clap for the moment when they didn't call my name as the winner.
Finally, what’s next for you after
Harbor opens? Do you have any projects that you are working on that you can share with our readers?
I've got a few more musicals that I'm working on and I'll be very busy with them for the next few months. I also have an idea for a new play that I'd like to begin. I love working with everyone at the Westport Country Playhouse, so my other major goal is to secretly move into the rafters of the theater...
Artistic & Management Coordinator
2013 Season Announced!
"A feast of fabulous theater." That's how artistic director, Mark Lamos describes the Playhouse's just-announced 2013 Season. Each of the five productions - all unique celebrations of laughter - offer up a different aspect of the comedic genre. Keep an eye on your inboxes and mailboxes for your subscriber renewal invoice. Consider it an invitation to dinner, if you will. I don't know about you, but I'm getting hungry.
THE DINING ROOM
By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos
April 30 - May 18, 2013
A wry and witty portrait of a vanishing culture.
In A.R. Gurney's celebrated masterpiece nearly a half century passes in the course of a single day in the most singular of rooms--where people gather, meals are eaten, conversations begin, and generations converge. A witty and heartfelt work from a Playhouse favorite, The Dining Room
chronicles the American family and its vanishing traditions.
By George Kelly
Directed by Nicholas Martin
June 11 - 29, 2013
An unexpected comedy of bad manners.
Aubrey Piper is a blow-hard, a first rate annoyance, and a shameless liar--a show-off of the worst kind. He also happens to be marrying into the Fisher family. Whatever will they do? Join the Fishers as they learn to cope with this human oddity who has blustered his way into their lives. In this classic and unexpected comedy, George Kelly explores the unique combination of reserved skepticism and swaggering confidence that make up two sides of the American character.
By Joe Orton
Directed by David Kennedy
July 16 - August 3, 2013
An outrageously wicked British farce.
The late Mrs. McLeavy is not resting in peace--her son and his cohort of thieving miscreants have upset her final repose in this outrageous romp by the master of British farce. With hilarious depravities around every turn, this wickedly funny look at the most unmannerly of people is sure to leave you feeling just a little bit criminal.
A World Premiere
By Carly Mensch
August 20 - September 7, 2013
A World Premiere about family and belonging.
Sixteen-year-old Julie won't come clean about where she spent this past weekend, but it was not on the college recruiting trip she led her parents to believe. What could she possibly be hiding? Whatever her mother and father imagine, nothing can prepare them for the actual truth in this wise, funny play about the surprising choices we make--and the people we disappoint--when we forge our own way in life.
By John Murray and Allen Boretz
Directed by Mark Lamos
October 8 - 26, 2013
A classic of American Comedy.
Gordon Miller has finally discovered a formula for Broadway success: be bold, brash, and option a brilliant script by a promising young writer. What he hasn't discovered is a willing financial backer. Will the show ever go on? Never has the madcap behind-the-scenes business of putting on a play been as hilarious as it is in this classic American farce.
Compiled by Camara McLaughlin
A Week of Discovery
Since the first day I sat down to read an early draft of Chad Beguelin’s Harbor
, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the start of this rehearsal process. As a young director who’s been fortunate to work on a number of plays and musicals in development, both as an assistant and at the helm, I know first hand how invigorating it can be to see the explorations of the actors and director work in tandem with the living playwright’s imagination. Being present as that truly collaborative experience plays out in the flesh can be thrilling.
For those not intimately involved in producing theater, a common misconception is that the process begins on the first day of rehearsal. In actuality, as rehearsals begin, the actors are joining a long journey already in progress. For months, the director and designers have been hard at work imagining and sketching in the world that the actors will inhabit, and the actors have been carefully selected through a casting process that can often take many weeks. In the case of a World Premiere such as Harbor
, there are often readings and/or workshops along the way where the director and playwright can hear the play aloud (sometimes in front of an audience) as they hone in on clarifying the storytelling.
After the first read through of the script, the cast along with director Mark Lamos and playwright Chad Beguelin, spent a good deal of time collectively thinking about events in the characters’ lives prior to the action of the play that aren’t necessarily delineated by the text, a useful tool for the director and actors called “the back-story.” This included anything and everything from the childhood relationship of the sibling characters to what off-hand conversation took place just before lights reveal “Donna” and her daughter, “Lottie,” at the top of the play. Just as our present actions in everyday life are often motivated by our past experiences, it is important for the actors and director to keep in mind that these characters also have lived entire lives before the curtain rises. Exploring their pasts can help inform why they want what they want during the play and how they go about getting it.
Mark is particularly adept at posing helpful questions to the actors as they make their way through this discovery process. Director/playwright Mary Zimmerman has written quite eloquently about this way of working, summing it up as being archeological rather than architectural. Rather than building a hollow production by spewing directives and nailing down exact ways to say each line, the adroit director leads the actors through a carefully guided excavation in order to unearth the spirit of their production, using the text as a guide. In this effort, our director is most facile.
WHAT STORY ARE WE TELLING?
By the end of the second day, we had finished our table work and Mark made use of the last hour of the rehearsal day to jump right into getting the actors on their feet and staging the top of the play. Though he worked quickly through the first pass of the play, this was still a process of discovery where Mark kept an eye on the physical life brought to the play by the actors to ensure that the life on stage cohesively added up to tell the story our production ultimately means to tell.
Over the course of the week, the costume, scenic, and sound designers have all stopped by rehearsal to get a sense of how their work will function in the context of the work that is being discovered in the rehearsal room. The scenic designer, for instance, was able to watch the flow of a particular scene to see how a small table may need to double as a seating area to support the physical life of the play. The sound designer and Mark had a lengthy conversation about the nature of the transitional music that will be incorporated into the production. Their meeting covered everything from the artistic intent of this element to the pragmatic concerns of needing to cover scene changes of a certain length. Underscoring was discussed, a facet to sound design that can greatly affect how an audience takes in the action on stage. Should music function as the glue between scenes that maintains and propels the play’s momentum, or should music color and internally drive the scenes themselves? As the physical life of the play begins to materialize during early rehearsals, more informed decisions can be made about the most effective way to support the story being told.
This is especially important to keep in mind when crafting the first ten minutes or so of a production, when the audience will be acclimating themselves to the story itself, as well as the way in which it’s being conveyed to them. At the beginning of Harbor
, two characters are in a van and listening to music as they travel. Selecting the piece of music begins with the choice of which character put on the music and what that music will tell the audience about that character. And since this music will be one of the first pieces of information the audience receives during the play, it serves two purposes. Though the character in question may love ‘80s power ballads, playing a recognizable song from 1983 may lead some audience members to believe the play is taking place in 1983. This may or may not be appropriate for the play. What’s important is realizing that every choice sculpts a tiny (or not so tiny) part of the story being told.
THE LIFE OF THE ROOM
One fun facet of the first week, was discovering “the life of the room.” This consisted of exploring what activities could/should/would take place in the home of characters “Ted” and “Kevin,” either on an ordinary day or on these extraordinary days depending on the scene. For instance, the script may not call for one of the characters to open a bottle of wine and pour a glass for their guest, but if it would aid in plying that other character to their will, it could be a useful element to incorporate. It’s important to be wary of filling a scene with unnecessary business that distracts from what’s truly at stake for the characters, but rarely is it appropriate for characters to just sit and talk at length. How often does that happen in life? Finding a physical score that marries the life of the room to the event of the scene can help fuel the actors.
KEEPING EVERYONE ON THE SAME PAGE
Along with the artistic choices Mark is exploring with the actors, when working on a new play there are also a handful of other practical concerns. For example, as the play has been through a number of drafts up to this point, tiny inconsistencies come up that playwright Chad Beguelin helps iron out. Sometimes a line is added for one reason and it’s not until later when the actors are working on the scene on its feet that the question comes to light. In fact, one of my jobs has been to email Chad a couple times a day with tiny questions about the text.
On a very pragmatic level, these tiny rewrites necessitate our stage manager, Matthew Melchiorre, to prepare new script pages for all involved that reflect the changes but keep the page numbers intact so entire copies of the script don’t have to be printed. These new pages are marked with the date of the change along side the page number to help keep straight which version of a page is most recent. Occasionally more material is added to a page than will fit; for instance, if page 87 gets five extra lines added that won’t all fit, Matthew inserts an 87A to go after 87 so the page numbers for pages 88 and beyond stay accurate.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As the first week of rehearsal winds to a close, completing the first pass through the play makes it possible to start working through entire acts to see the flow from scene to scene and how the proximity of one scene to the next can affect and inform its reception by the audience. This is extremely useful as a calibration tool for the director, who oversees the timbre and tempo of the theatrical event as a whole. As we continue to work on Harbor
in its world premiere, this is also a good point in the process to invite Chad back into the room to see how his work is coming to life off the page. Then Chad and Mark can sit down and assess how best to move forward to ensure the story the actors share with the audience on opening night is, indeed, the story they both are intending to tell. There are still many miles to travel on our journey, but it’s amazing to see what progress can be accomplished by the collaboration of all the artists involved in just one week of discovery.
Playhouse Nooks & Crannies
Whether you are a long-time patron of the Playhouse or a first-time subscriber, as an audience member, you actually see only a small part of our beautiful campus. Secret rooms, twisting hallways, and tucked away corners abound in this old barn. It is in these hidden places that much of the work is done to bring you the magic of theater. This season, we will be taking you along as we visit the nooks & crannies of Westport Country Playhouse.
Named by the Sheffer Family for Betty R. and Ralph Sheffer, the Sheffer Rehearsal Studio is tucked away in the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center, our smaller "barn" that honors Lortel and the legacy of her innovative White Barn Theater down the road in Norwalk. The Sheffer (as the Playhouse staff affectionately refers to it) is one of the liveliest spaces on our campus, playing host to a multitude of both Playhouse and community events from our Together at the Table family dinners and pre-show Literary Salons to meetings of local community groups and pre-show events for fellow non-profit organizations.
Though many of you may have joined us in the Sheffer Rehearsal Studio, what you may not know is that it served quite a different purpose in earlier years. Built in the 1950's, the building (and often the surrounding blacktop) housed the Playhouse's scene shop, prop storage and paint facilities. And, during the years when up to 12 productions would grace the Playhouse stage in a given summer, witnessed many a "first preview" celebration by the hard-working staff and crew.
This month, however, Sheffer Rehearsal Studio is back to doing what it does best, what it was quite literally built for - providing a space for director Mark Lamos, playwright Chad Beguelin and a fabulous cast to prepare for the World Premiere of Harbor
, which begins previews on August 28.
Artistic & Management Coordinator