Baryshnikov Arts Center
Mar 1, 2018
Since its formation in 2009, The Mad Ones has developed a rigorous, idiosyncratic process for conceiving, generating, and shaping its plays, one that blurs the rigid lines of definition between contributing artists and privileges collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship.
We are an ensemble of hybrid play-makers. Performer-writers Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson and director-writer Lila Neugebauer collectively serve as co-artistic directors. The company also includes designers Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Laura Jellinek (sets), and Stowe Nelson (sound), and me, the house dramaturg. Together, we create richly detailed, character-driven play-worlds that playfully appropriate and reinterpret genre, delight in moments of theatrical surprise, and examine and illuminate American nostalgia.
(As an aside, I often find myself toggling between pronoun-orientations when talking about the company and its work - we/us, they/them - and these reflections on the BAC residency will probably reflect that.)
The Mad Ones used their November BAC residency to do early conceptual development work on a new commission for Ars Nova. Prior to arriving at BAC, they had winnowed down a shortlist of potential play-kernels (among the discarded contenders: a forensic lab procedural, an emergency room blood farce, a backstage drama about the Booth brothers performing Hamlet) to identify the organizing principle for our latest play: a focus group. Marc, Joe, Michael, Stephanie, and Lila arrived at BAC with scores of questions. Some were essentially dramatic in nature: What is being studied, tested, or examined? Who commissioned and organized the focus group? Is this a slick, polished, professional operation, or more makeshift, shaggy, ragtag? Where and when and who might these characters be? Other questions engaged the realm of the theatrical: What shape, ultimately, might this play take? Will it unfold in a succession of scenes or seamlessly in real time? Will the set encompass a single location or many? What moments of surprising athleticism, magic, or theatrical disruption might the play contain? Others were more conceptual and thematic: what anxieties, preoccupations, values, or assumptions about American life might the focus group illuminate, engage, critique, subvert?
During my three visits with The Mad Ones during their residency, the core company and intern Regan Moro were gathered around tables engaged in conversation ranging from nostalgic to speculative and from playfully imaginative to critically analytic. Michael Dalto gave a lengthy presentation on the political and cultural trajectory of the 1990s. Joe Curnutte talked us through the idiosyncratic filming of a movie called Timecode (Google it). The ensemble prepared and shared written responses to assignments designed to generate possibilities and alternatingly widen and tighten the focus on our collective imaginings. These opened up into long, digressive conversations touching on, among other things, the violence of late-stage capitalism, confirmation bias, the mingling in marriage of sexual and financial intimacy, and whether and how anxieties about personal safety on a large scale (related to, say, national security or climate change) express themselves in our relationships to consumer products like dish soap.
One challenge of a communal approach to play-making can be the risk of diffusion of the work. But over time The Mad Ones have built a practice that allows them to maintain a collaborative process without sacrificing conceptual or aesthetic rigor. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’ve done so while defining a distinct, unified voice. By filtering the developing work through a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas are tempered, tested, and refined. Dramatic worlds and theatrical canvasses are brought into sharper focus. Characters and relationships are conjured into vivid life. Through this iterative conversation, the work accumulates the detail, texture, and multivalence that have become the company’s signature.
It is a process that sacrifices efficiency in favor of the richness and multiplicity that arises from communal effort. This kind of collaboration requires patience, commitment, accountability, and a foundation of deep mutual respect for one another and for the process. It pays off in the fullness and dimension of the completed work, but it’s slow in the making; perhaps more than anything, it requires time. Workshops like the BAC residency become exercises in practicing democracy. The Mad Ones finished the residency, just as they began it, with questions. But new questions, different questions, more refined, more specific. (For instance: Does the play take place in 1999, or 2020? How directly or elliptically will the subject of the focus group reveal itself to an audience?) They have isolated particular fields for inquiry and exploration and have charted an agenda for their next workshop, coming up in the spring.
Visit The Mad Ones' Residency Page
Sarah Lunnie is the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and the house dramaturg with The Mad Ones. Production dramaturgy: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary (The Bushwick Starr, Playwrights Horizons), The Essential Straight and Narrow (New Ohio) and Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (The Brick/Ars Nova/New Ohio); Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Broadway), The Christians (Humana Festival, Playwrights), nightnight and Death Tax (Humana); and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Clubbed Thumb), among others. She was previously the literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was involved with curating and developing new work for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.