From Concept to Creation: The Actors’ Experience – curious arts

Bright Burning Playwright Colleen Murphy

Playwright Colleen Murphy

Bright Burning (I Hope My Heart Burns First was commissioned by Studio Theatre. Lee Playwright-in-Residence, Colleen Murphy, was invited to create a new play for this specific graduating class. The long development period provided a very unique opportunity for the students. I sat down with some of the cast to learn about their experience.

Jacob Holloway: Technically we started working on this show when we started our program. The Department of Drama hires a playwright in residence every few years and we were lucky to have Colleen Murphy for the duration of our time here. She came to see everything we did in our first year and would briefly interview us about our backgrounds and interests. But we were pretty removed from the creation process until the end of last season when we got to see the script and do a weeklong workshop that was then followed up by a number of workshops over the past couple of months. We didn’t get our casting until October 2016.

Jaimi Reese: We actually read many different roles as Colleen was working on the script. It was cool for us because we were getting the perspectives of different characters as we read for them and followed their individual through-lines. Often when you get a finished script, you’re focused on your own character and their place in the world of the play. But when you don’t know who you’re going to be and you’re reading all these different parts, you’re looking at the play in many different ways. She mentioned to us that she knew she wanted it to be continuous with no intermission and unity of time and place; she knew she wanted to deal with themes of social inequality but that was pretty much all she had to start with. But then she saw us and invented characters based on what she saw us do, which was very exciting.

Bright Burning Early table read

Lee Playwright-in-Residence, Colleen Murphy, worked with the director and actors throughout her play creation process. Actors read early drafts of the play around the table multiple times and discussed character journeys and story points with the playwright and director.

Chayla Day: Yeah, it’s pretty cool because she told us later that when she started the writing process she had all our headshots in front of her. Which is hilarious because you start thinking well, what did she see in my face and my performances that made her write this character for me? I’m playing a drug addict prostitute and I’m thinking – oh, cool – glad my headshot can show people that. [laughs] So that was really interesting and she’s been very open and accepting of us contributing things. She’ll ask us often if we can track our character throughout the play to make sure that certain logistics work and that we can always locate them. And about a week before rehearsals, we had a workshop with her and she said if there’s any big thing you want for your character, this is the time, and I’ll put it in if you need it and we can have that discussion. I’ve never been able to feel like I’m helping to craft the writing of a play that way.

Emma Houghton: One of the things I’ve learned the most about is less to do with acting and more with writing. How you need to have such a thick hide when it comes to killing your darlings. Sometimes in the earlier drafts a character would have a trait that they focus on and in the original drafts I would wonder: will this work? Because often when something is just added in it’s still a bit rough in the beginning. Sometimes the idea is there, but doesn’t come back for a couple pages and makes you wonder if this is something that needs to be more consistent or reconsidered? It helped show me that if I want to write my own stuff I have to be willing to experiment with different ideas and get feedback from others who can help tell me if it works or not.

Bright Burning behind the scenes in rehearsal

The play’s action occurs in a mansion’s two level foyer. As early as the first workshop the actors moved through space, marking exits, entrances and moves from downstairs to upstairs, to contribute to the thinking about design, character business, and the shifts in the story.

Philip Gellar: Seeing her writing… it was so fascinating. She makes sure that the words do it for you as an actor. She would write a big climax or peak in a character’s arc and she would ask: could you get there? Were you acting to get there? And if it was yes, then she’d say: then I need to write you that momentum to get you there. I feel like she’s really done that, obviously you need to still act, but when you get a script like that it’s almost like you drive it. You get onboard the train and it takes you there. That’s something she asked for feedback on quite a bit and the show does so well, it has this beautiful momentum. It’s such a wonderfully rhythmic piece and that’s her writing, and to get to see that develop is amazing.

Emily Howard: Another interesting facet is that it’s very different having a play written about, and set in, Edmonton. I look at these characters and I imagine it’s the people I see as I walk on the street. It’s us. I think that makes it a lot closer and it was written for us, so on many levels it’s much easier for us to get into it and understand. They’re talking about locations and roads we know. There’s one line that she added about getting to our character’s house, in this fancy neighbourhood that actually exists. I could get in my car and drive there to see it. When we’re on stage it just makes it so much closer to home. It’s very strange. There’s also a challenge because this show is so realistic that you want it to still be theatrical but also rooted in truth.

At the time of these interviews rehearsals had just begun. Now, you get to see the culmination of this three year long process. How fitting that the final show for these students is one that started when they first arrived. Enjoy the show!

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Bright Burning
Dates: March 30 – April 8, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
No performance Sunday, April 2
2-for-1 Admission: Monday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee: Thursday, April 6 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online now and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

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