Plays (and 'theater-wrights') venture into alien territory

Many producers have a tough time getting writers or directors off the dime when preparing a premiere. But Michael Simmons had a hard time getting them off the paradigm.

His idea, which the Arts & Science Council blessed with a special projects grant, was to change the way a play is built.

Instead of having a playwright do a script, giving it to a director and then bringing in technicians, Simmons wanted everyone in the process tossing out ideas on equal footing from the start. A sound designer could propose a costume; a lighting designer might suggest a change in a character.

These "theater-wrights" included six writers, who went to work on mini-scripts gathered under the title "Ice Fishing on Europa." We'll see the results tonight through June 12 at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre.

"This was the hardest thing I've tried to accomplish in the theater," says Simmons, who supervises the redesign of his Clement Avenue space to suit each play and even installed a swimming pool last year.

"This started off as energetic and exciting in the idea stage. Then we had to execute those ideas, and people reverted to the old way of doing things.

"Writers like to write in isolation, but I kept saying, 'That's not what this project is.' So we reverted back to that old paradigm, then struggled through it back to the original vision."

Ann Marie Oliva, a prolific local playwright, found this approach " very unusual. It's difficult when the lines are blurred, because people naturally tend to go into their own grooves.

"But it's also difficult to get new work done. So you need to collaborate, be willing to tweak here and there. This is good for actors and directors, who don't have to try to figure out what a writer meant. And you get the chance to realize the work the way you want to see it done."

The title came from a comment by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who said the thing he most wanted to do was go ice fishing on Europa: This moon of Jupiter might have life teeming beneath its frozen surface.

Simmons asked writers to tackle literal or metaphoric stories on this topic. He'd been looking for a chance to work with his friend Mark Pizzato, who recruited Oliva and Tim Baxter-Ferguson from the old 9X9 group that presented evenings of nine-minute plays for years at Theatre Charlotte. Dee Abdullah, Tom Olson and Russell Rowe signed on as writers.

Some of the pieces incorporate music or dance. Oliva's contributions vary from a story about a human ballet dancer struck by lightning to a scene with two characters from Callisto, another moon of Jupiter.

"My favorite theater quote comes from (N.C. playwright) Romulus Linney," says Oliva. "He said, 'There are three basic urges: food, sex and the urge to rewrite someone else's play.'

"Michael told us from the start that he'd have final say, but he pretty much let us write. He made intelligent suggestions but didn't try to rewrite us. And he's gone all out with design and lighting, which is great. When we did 9X9, we had to scale everything down."

For Oliva, this was a chance to team up again with writing comrades. For Simmons, it was a chance to take his restless imagination in another direction. But... did it work?

As of last week, both were still pondering that question.

Oliva appreciates the event's uniqueness: "I come from New York, where you'd be in someone's apartment, and they'd move chairs out of the way to do a play. There's competition with movies and TV and the Internet, and I think you create a theater audience by not giving them the same old stuff."

Says Simmons, "This was almost a seven-month process for CAST, and I need time to think about it now. I'd like to think we'll move on to phase 2 of a theatre-wright project.

"Maybe some of us never want to do this again. Or maybe all of us! But I hope we've evolved enough to embrace this (method) for new works."