No break for Take Ten
January 19, 2007
The aspiring playwrights assembled in Aspen this week for Take Ten, a festival of short plays, would likely reject the script of how they got to be here as hokey melodrama. It is a story that weaves together a variety of misfortunes – illness and Hurricane Katrina and a car accident – with the sort of timing and coincidences usually associated with bad sitcoms, not serious theater.But the story of Take Ten – which gathers nine playwrights from prominent grad-school programs for an evening of 10-minute productions – is a true one, and a good one.In 2002, longtime theater supporter and newly arrived Aspenite Julia Hansen founded Theater Masters and launched Take Ten, a festival of short plays that brought together the local community of actors, prominent young directors, and the winner of a playwriting competition in local high schools. But three years after the launch of Take Ten, program director Ed Morgan developed a detached retina, threatening the 2005 edition of the event.”Everyone said, you’re going to cancel,” recalled Hansen, whose New York past includes business positions (Wall Street banking account executive) and theater titles (head of the Drama League of New York from the early 1980s to 2000). “And I said, no way, not with 200 directors at my disposal. I said, I don’t cancel. I’m not going to disappoint the actors, the young playwrights.”
The 200 directors are those who have participated in the Directors Project, the program Hansen founded in New York in 1984 to help train young stage directors. Hansen tapped one of that group, Elise Rothman, for the 2005 Take Ten. When Rothman had to bow out after one year, Hansen said, for 2006, she “had to find a director for whom this would be something special.”Instantly, she focused in on another of those 200: Lane Savadove. Savadove had gone from the Directors Projects to found EgoPo, in 1991. EgoPo was started in San Francisco, and spent five years there before Savadove relocated to New York, for teaching positions at Columbia and New York University, and brought EgoPo with him.New York, however, “was becoming an almost impossible place to produce, the way I wanted to produce,” said the 39-year-old Savadove. “It’s really important to me that any group of actors train together consistently. And we tend to make very lush productions.”The economics of New York being unconducive to such requirements, Savadove packed up his company again, and set out for a place where the rents, the competition, and the ground level were all particularly low. “New Orleans was a place where I could do it, a very easy and receptive economy,” said Savadove, who moved EgoPo to New Orleans in 2001. “And there was a niche for what I do – very classic theater, O’Neill, Chekhov – done in a very accessible way, so the audience can participate viscerally in the plays.”Late in August 2005, EgoPo was scheduled to bring its production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids x Two” to the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. When word came of another hurricane in that busy storm season, Savadove made what he considered appropriate arrangements, by leaving town a day early.In Philadelphia, said Savadove, “We’re busy teaching, and we’re hearing that a hurricane came through. But it was pretty normal – trees down, roofs smashed. Nothing unusual.” A day later, the company arrived at the theater to see it surrounded. “Every news van, every publication from the city was outside, swarming. I said, our press agent could not be this good. We had no idea what was going on.”Savadove found out how extraordinary Katrina was while watching live footage on CNN – and his reaction to that footage was being filmed by FOX. Later, Savadove learned that EgoPo’s theater, in the Magazine Street District of uptown New Orleans, was spared from flooding. Instead, it was the wind that destroyed the venue. Rather than return home, he took refuge with his parents in Bucks County, just outside Philadelphia. He didn’t have much time to despair, however; within days, the phone rang.”While I’m stranded, wondering if I’ll ever have a theater company again – and doubting it – living with my parents and in hotel rooms paid for by FEMA, I got a call from Julia,” said Savadove. “She asked, ‘Would you like a job?’ That was the anchor for me, like a lifeboat. The kind of thing everyone in New Orleans was looking for.”It was a relief for more than just Savadove. Most of the EgoPo company came to Aspen last winter to participate in Take Ten. “It was the first time we had laid eyes on each other since Katrina,” said Savadove. The reunion led to an EgoPo production of “The Maid x Two” in an off-Broadway theater.
In the runup to last year’s Take Ten, while she was shuttling Savadove into town, Hansen had a car accident. Nothing horrific, but enough to shake up their thinking, and give the two some time to strategize as they drove to a downvalley auto-repair shop. When Hansen mentioned how difficult it was to find 10-minute plays, Savadove suggested that, instead of looking for work that had been professionally published, they scour graduate programs for material.Hansen jumped on the suggestion. “It was a brilliant idea,” she said. But probably she didn’t even realize at the time what a fine notion it was.But Savadove wasn’t just shooting from the hip. Savadove has spent considerable time in academia; he is currently on the faculty of Rutgers Camden and Rider University, both in New Jersey. Savadove teaches directing and acting, but he has kept a close eye on what has happened in playwriting at the graduate level.Savadove observes that, until recently, aspiring playwrights used mentorships to learn their craft. Graduate degrees in playwriting were available, but only academic degrees, for those who wanted to teach. Since the doors were opened by the program at Yale, the field for promising playwrights has been transformed.”The phenomenon has absolutely exploded, to the point that I feel it’s now the dominant force in American theater,” said Savadove, noting that such master’s programs are routinely led by nationally recognized playwrights. “Half of the industry talk is, what’s going on in this MFA program? What’s going on in that MFA program?”Those questions are about to come up for examination in Aspen. This year’s Take Ten unveils the new format: Instead of published plays, the festival features work from graduate students at top programs, including those at Brown, Columbia, UCLA and Carnegie Mellon. The participating playwrights, selected through in-school competitions, will be present for the presentations: a dress rehearsal Sunday, Jan. 21, and regular performances of all of the plays Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 22-23, all at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. Monday’s performance will be followed by a Q-and-A with the playwrights; Tuesday’s, by a Q-and-A with the directors.
Apart from the change in where the source material comes from, Take Ten maintains its past methods. The actors are mostly valley residents, supplemented by thespians from Denver and Los Angeles. The festival features plays from local high-schoolers, two this year: Claire Westcott from Aspen High, and Allison Schaiberger from Glenwood Springs High. There are three visiting directors: Pesha Rudnick, Rachel Chavkin and Savadove. Rudnick, who recently moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, and Chavkin, who heads the New York company the TEAM, have recent wins at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on their résumés. Among the plays to be presented are “Chrysalis,” by the University of Texas, Austin’s Jenny Connell; “Five Wishes,” by Thomas Diggs of NYU; and “Tiger Cage,” by Lingxia Song, a Chinese native studying at Northwestern. “Chrysalis,” said Savadove, is about “giving up your memories as you move toward death.” “Five Wishes” focuses on a middle-aged gay couple in the process of deciding who will be their caretaker. “Tiger Cage” is a quasi-love story about a tigress and her trainer.The organizers say there is no better way to see the full range of cutting-edge, contemporary theater. “This is what young people want to say today, and the way they want to say it,” said Hansen. “It’s going to be demanding for an audience. Some of the subject matter is touchy for people to deal with.”Take Ten should be equally stimulating for the playwrights, directors and actors, who will mix in various ways onstage and off. The event includes last week’s seven-hour acting class, conducted by the three directors, and a playwrights’ panel discussion Saturday night (Jan. 20), held in conjunction with the Aspen Institute.”We’re about to bring nine planets, all in separate orbits, that never connect, and they’re going to collide in Aspen,” said Savadove. “That’s gold.”The fact that the plays are just 10 minutes long doesn’t tarnish that luster for Savadove.”If it’s well-done, you will feel, after 10 minutes, that you just saw an epic,” he said. “It’s like a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that becomes an epic in your mind.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org