Mr. Fenoglio was my high school art teacher. While my main artistic practice is now theater, many of the lessons I learned from this small-statured, shiny-headed man remain embossed on my artistic psyche. That art is always a process is one such idea, and it is probably why the rehearsal room is one of my favorite places to be. You may have noticed that I am not alone in this love of process; Chicago theatres of all types apparently boast a passion for process through the avenue of new play development. I say “apparently” not because I doubt their passion or action, but because there isn’t any real way for those who are not one of the few in the rehearsal room to be privy to what development is actually taking place. Yes, we are invited to see staged readings which mark the before and after effects of the development, the “sketch of a full production,” but this only acts as proof that this sketch was made, not an exposure to the process of the sketch being developed in action. It is in this context that Dandelion Theatre is making a difference with their new play reading series, The Make Ready.
From the outside, The Make Ready follows a similar format of many other new play reading series. Seven plays are selected and read every other month with actors in front of an audience. However, it’s Dandelion Theatre’s mission to create community through collaboration that makes all the difference. As both an actor and playwright herself, Artistic Director Katherine Lamb believes that “by sharing ideas and working together we create something better than any one individual could create.” Lamb has used this perspective and insight not only to open up the new play development process to a larger group of Chicago theatre artists, but to make it a safe and productive space for both actors and playwrights.
Actors of all types are invited to read as part of The Make Ready; all they have to do is arrive thirty minutes beforehand to sign up. Lamb assigns roles to actors and they have a few minutes with the script to prepare. This model works because it provides a place where actors feel they are needed, with little expectation or required preparation. A safe space of encouragement isn’t one often encountered by the Chicago actor –another part of its attraction. As Lamb describes it, “you do what people need you to do and it’s appreciated for what it is”.
On the other side, playwrights are invited to submit up to ten page excerpts of their work, with the caveat that they must be able to be at The Make Ready when their work is presented. The goal here is to get immediate initial feedback as you would in a development rehearsal room – a desire that has buoyed The Make Ready from the start. While Lamb was writing a play last year, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be incentivizing if I didn’t have to wait ’til it was finished to know what it was?” Staged reading series and table readings are plentifully produced by many Chicago theatre companies, such as Three Cat Productions, but if immediate initial feedback is what you’re after as a playwright (especially for an unfinished work), neither of these avenues are completely successful models. Staged readings for the public generally require some rehearsal with actors and director beforehand. This then means that the moment of initial feedback actually occurs in rehearsal from a small group of people who are likely invested in pleasing the playwright. This is neither a good sample size or type of feedback.
A rehearsal period does lend polish to a reading of a new play, but it also means that the quality of artistic contributions from director and actors have more influence on how a playwright’s work is received. Of course, actors will always have an effect on how a playwright’s work is communicated; but because The Make Ready is essentially a cold read, actors’ choices tend to be more obvious and thus more clearly delineated from the work itself. Table readings in programs such as Chicago Dramatists’ Network Playwrights program similarly mean that the initial response to a playwright’s work is from a smaller group of people, who are also often other playwrights. As a director, I have participated in these models and believe them to be valuable tools in new play development. However, if a playwright is looking to aide the direction of their work through the immediate feedback that Lamb refers to, The Make Ready is the place to do it.
Lamb admits that she was nervous for the first The Make Ready, Dandelion Theatre’s debut event in October 2014. Unsure of its success, she advertised on social media and was both “pleased and shocked that an entire room of people showed up.” People who were for the most part strangers “sat down at a table and suddenly it looked like they had known each other for years. This keeps happening.” While Dandelion is only barely in its second season, The Make Ready is clearly catching on – the most recent one attracting around fifty people. While Lamb hopes this continues, she is happy to enjoy the success of the initiative for what it is. “The Make Ready has already created opportunities for Dandelion Theatre and the people that come to it,” she says, “and that’s what it’s about”.
Dandelion Theatre’s The Make Ready happens every other month at locations throughout Chicago. Lamb emphasizes that “new faces are very welcome” and there is no “in club.” To find out more or to attend the next The Make Ready visit dandeliontheatre.com.