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The Central Works Method

March 11, 2009

The Berkeley-based theatre company Central Works has an unusual way of creating new productions. By the time the season brochure comes out, the plays on the roster generally haven't been written yet. I asked Christopher Chen (pictured left) author of the company's current show, The Window Age (which I discussed here last week) to contribute today's blog post about his experiences of the Central Works Method. He kindly agreed to share his thoughts with us today. Take it away Chris...

At first glance, there is nothing about Central Works or their plays that particularly indicates the use of a collaborative process. Unlike more prototypical collaborative ensembles, they don't have a core acting group, the plays themselves seem to reflect a single playwright's voice, and tone-wise, their plays tend to have a more classical, stately feel about them. In fact, the main indication that there is something very unconventional about this theater company is the caveat they always add to the announcement of their season. To paraphrase: "... incidentally, none of these plays have been written yet." This is a theater company that takes the concept of "new work" to the next level, for each announced play is created collaboratively from scratch as the season progresses, and each is created with incredible speed. For my project with them, The Window Age, the time between putting a single word to the page and opening night was a scant four months.

I was first approached by Central Works after co-artistic directors Gary Graves and Jan Zvaifler saw my play Into the Numbers at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 2007. They asked me to pitch them ideas that might be suitable for their method of collaboratively developed scripts. They wanted ideas broad enough to spark dialogue within the ensemble, and specific enough to provide a suitable roadmap for the process. They were also partial to ideas suitable for their atmospheric space in the Berkeley City Club. In May of 2008 they agreed to my idea about the intersections of Modernism, studies of the Unconscious, and the First World War. I provided them with a skeleton of an outline, and brief character descriptions. With these in hand, they set about creating the ensemble, which ultimately consisted of three precast actors (including Jan Zvaifler), the director (Gary Graves), the sound designer, and myself.

Because each Central Works ensemble is created from scratch for every project, their process is necessarily accommodating to different working styles. They commit to an idea and they commit to a production, but what happens in between is a continuously negotiated process. Our first workshops consisted of discussions and research about the subject matter. But very quickly I started bringing in material to be read. Due to scheduling issues, our first workshop had to be pushed to mid-October, 2008. And with a mid-January deadline for our first rehearsal coupled with a late February opening, I was itching to get writing- I had heeded the Central Works rule demanding not a word be written before the first workshop.

More often than not, feedback on the material I brought in fell into categories specific to its sources. From the actors I got character feedback, and from the director I got feedback on the action of the scene. Before this experience, I was very much entrenched in the normal process of the playwright writing a first draft in isolation, then having the script undergo dramaturgical and director/actor work in different phases. With the Central Works method, it was as if all these phases were occurring simultaneously from the very beginning.

If this prospect sounds overwhelming, it was- at least at first. A solitary writer by nature, I was caught off guard by feedback and discussion from the script's inception. However, it soon became apparent that hearing multiple voices at this early stage offered a truly unique perspective. Having actors ask questions about their characters from the first pages of the first draft instantaneously provided valuable information to move forward with. Potential character problems and inconsistencies were nipped in the bud before they hardened into larger script problems. Of course, reaping the benefits of all this information was contingent on a diligent filtering process, as well as a strong core vision of the play as a whole- a solid foundation from which to take or leave feedback.

Intense time pressure brought out both the adventurous and the hyper-rational sides in me. I was inclined to run with more bold ideas than usual, but I was also prepared to more quickly hack away parts that didn't work for the actors on first read. Going into our five week rehearsal schedule in January, we still had a vastly overwritten script on our hands. I would edit and rewrite constantly as we went along, making a development workshop out of the actual rehearsal process. Everyone pitched in, offering keen insights and suggestions for the script as it was blocked out. This circulation of input was possible because we had developed over the months a strong sense of mutual trust. We had truly become an ensemble.

The final draft of the script was probably finished around two weeks before opening. By tech, the actors were still on book. And yet, as if by a miracle, it all came together beautifully by opening night. Or was it a miracle? Perhaps it was the very nature of the intensity of the process that heightened all of our senses, made us hyperaware of each other and what needed to be done collectively to bring this piece of theater to life. And what an appropriate process this turned out to be for a play whose very subject matter concerned the birth of a Modernist, multi-perspective view of reality.

Central Works is a gutsy theater company with a gutsy process. Certainly it took guts to give this unproduced, twenty-six year old playwright his first world premiere. Especially given that the play was, four months before opening night, still just an idea in his head.

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