Thoughts From Behind The Scenes: Director

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During the production process of Dead Man’s Shoes,
we’ll be posting a number of journal entries
from folks working in different areas of the show.
First up is David Wolber.  David is Artistic Director at the
Performance Network Theatre, and is serving as Director for the
Williamston Theatre/Performance Network Theatre
co-production of Dead Man’s Shoes.

Hi, I’m David Wolber, the director of DEAD MAN’S SHOES (DMS) and the Artistic Director at Performance Network Theatre (PNT), the theatre in Ann Arbor that is partnering with Williamston Theatre on this co-production of this new play.  This is the 6th co-production Performance Network has ventured into, and the 2nd between PNT and WT (the first was IT CAME FROM MARS, also by Joseph Zettelmaier).  A co-production is an interesting animal.  First and foremost, the co-producers have to trust each other and have a similar enough artistic aesthetic to want to work together on a project. Each of Performance Network’s co-productions in the past have looked and felt different depending on the partners involved.

The collaboration between Performance Network and Williamston is one of the strongest models – where the Artistic Director of one theatre directs the first leg of the play at the other theatre before moving it their own space.  Tony directed IT CAME FROM MARS at PNT two years ago before it travelled to Williamston.  When PNT did a reading of DEAD MAN’S SHOES a year ago in February 2011, Tony and I watched it already thinking that it was perhaps a potential co-production.

With a co-production, the play is to be performed at each theatre with the same actors, set, costumes, props, lights, sound – in short, it is the same play, made to fit each theatre.  When we co-produce a play, much of the costs of the production are shared between the two theatres – actor and stage manager salaries for rehearsal weeks, production materials, production crew and designer fees are shared.  Because the theatres are similar in size and relatively close in budget, the shared costs go a long way to alleviate some of the risks.  There is risk and reward with every play we produce, and the risk is intensified when producing new work: audiences don’t know the story, the play hasn’t been “tested”, often the resources of a small theatre can be strained to produce new work and give the play enough development time and attention.  With a co-production, there are also questions about how much of a shared audience and how much media attention the play will garner.  As we moved forward in producing DMS, we had very satisfying audience response at each step of the way, with audiences enthusiastically engaged and eager to see how the play would be staged, it is very gratifying to see the positive responses along the way, and helped to encourage the co-production to move forward.

As the director of the co-production, I’ve very much enjoyed working at Williamston and experiencing the process – both theatres work in very similar ways, and it has given me an opportunity to work with a handful of new (to me) designers, including Kirk Domer, Amber Marisa Cook and Stephanie Din, all of whom have been wonderful and fabulous to work with and are bringing a strong look and feel to the play.  At the same time, having Dan Walker and Will Myers on the project has been great for me, as they are familiar with the way I work, and with the limitations and challenges of both Williamston and PNT’s spaces.

Casting a co-production can be a little tricky, with each producer having strong feelings about the characters, and casting can be such an important part of the play itself. From the beginning, it was clear that Joe had written the play with Drew Parker and Aral Gribble in mind, and the chemistry the two had (Parker, Gribble and Zettelmaier had all been in the cast of MAN OF LA MANCHA years ago at PNT). Maggie Meyer and Paul Hopper being able to play a number of roles as well as play guitar and sing was a key ingredient as well. The energy and relaxed sense of fun that this group brings to the rehearsal room is great.

Working on a new script is also a unique challenge, especially when you are working with the playwright in the room.  I’ve directed four of Zettelmaier’s plays as full productions, a handful more as staged readings, and I’ve worked with him in various capacities over the years. Having the same team in place for this aspect of the process has been great as well – Joseph Zettelmaier, Tony Caselli, Carla Milarch and myself delving into the core of the story and helping to identify what is strongest and what needs reshaping. Being involved in this play in all its development process (table reading, concert readings, staged readings, rehearsals and now tech and will be restaging it for PNT’s space) has been a great deal of fun – mostly because of the people involved, but also because the thrill and the challenge of staging a play set in 1883 that moves around from  South Dakota to Montana to Denver in a variety of locales with minimal resources, limitations of space in both theatres has been so rewarding.

Ultimately, the joy of collaboration of the two theatres on this play leads me to look forward to more co-productions in the future.
See you at the theatre!

-David

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