The Pipeline Festival Answers The Readiness Question

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(L-R) Rachel Sussman, Riti Sachdeva, and Lee Sunday Evans. Photo Courtesy Emma Pratte.

The Women’s Project (WP) Theater calls itself “the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing, producing and promoting the work of female theater artists at every stage in their careers.” At 30 years old, it has weathered changes and embraced new challenges in the past few years. Two years ago, the company’s leadership transitioned to Producing Artistic Director Lisa McNulty, and, after several itinerant years, WP now produces at Off-Broadway’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Recent tweaks to WP’s competitive and selective WP Lab residency for playwrights, directors and producers transformed a second-year final project from an “all-hands-on-deck” monumental single production involving all 15 Lab participants into the WP Pipeline Festival.

Pipeline Festival participants
Members of the Women’s Project Theater WP Lab. Photo: Eric T. Michelson.

Presented for the first time in spring 2016, the new festival staged five different plays selected by the five Lab playwrights, each produced by separate playwright-director-producer teams, over a multi-week period. Conversations with collaborators on the fourth Festival play, The Rug Dealer — playwright Rita Sachdeva, director Lee Sunday Evans, producer Rachel Sussman — provide an analysis of working styles and professional roles and the exciting WP Lab and Pipeline Festival training paradigm.

Sachdeva was inspired to write The Rug Dealer by working in a rug store 20 years ago. The play explores an inter-generational, cross-cultural story of rugs and commerce, love and family. Persian rug dealer Raba, his wife Miriam, his daughter Shiraz, and a customer and Shiraz’s love interest, Azar, develop relationships to one another and to the art of making and selling rugs. The story plays with language and art and what they mean for immigrants and native-born Americans.

Pulling it out of the drawer for the Pipeline Festival made sense. “I am a completely different person. I have very different relationship with my mother and my family, and what I want to do in this piece has changed,” Sachdeva noted. She started writing the play in 2007 as a solo piece that she was encouraged to develop into a full-length; she worked on the play in graduate school and in a workshop production. “I’ve come into this knowing what I don’t want, so that I actually had the agency to create some of what I do want and need.”

Sussman was very aware of how precious the play was to Sachdeva. “The play for Riti is very close to her heart and here we were taking it out of this drawer where it had been so safe and we were about to make it into something else, ultimately more true to what she had originally intended.”

Table Read to Festival Stage: Pods and Roles

The 15 Lab participants met monthly between fall 2014 and spring 2016 for an “eclectic full set of activities,” according to Evans. An executive coach spoke with them about career challenges and communication styles. A panel of writers, directors and producers talked about working in both theater and TV. Each discipline held separate meetings that Evans and Sachdeva recalled slightly differently — director Evans thought writers met most consistently, while playwright Sachdeva believed the directors saw each other most often. Producer Sussman was certain that her follow producers spent the most time together. “We had to be the grounding point and we had to set the structure and we had to be present and be there together to make decisions.”

The Rug Dealer‘s working triad was assembled by WP staff in summer 2015 between the first and second fellowship years. Evans and Sussman had worked together on a project, as had Sachdeva and Evans, but they hadn’t all collaborated before.

Script development dominated late 2015 after a table read of the old script in August. In a delightful, communal way, each member of The Rug Dealer “pod” spoke as much about other partner’s processes than about her own.

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Evans felt that “there was a beautiful play in The Rug Dealer but that it was saddled with a lot of years of reworking. So I said to Riti that she and I should plan to make a new draft, from start to finish. That we should dig deep and talk about the core story and spend some time looking at the structure.”

What’s the question we’re figuring out?

Both Evans and Sachdeva described this structural, diagnostic, dramaturgical process they shared one afternoon in early fall 2015 as the pivotal moment of the play’s evolution. Evans, a self-described “structure nerd,” recalled a day when they got into the rehearsal room for four hours, tacked up the plot on the wall, and looked at how the structure of the play could support the core ideas. Sachdeva then wrote a new draft starting from the ending of the play. “It was such a generous process. I felt like I was in kindergarten in the best of ways, open and creative,” she reflected on the big heart and generosity in the experience.  A physical byproduct of this pivotal play structure exercise was the play’s elements mapped out on butcher paper, a kind of storyboard that Sachdeva retained on her apartment walls, urging her to write. “I’d wake up and there it was.”

Pipeline Festival show The Rug Dealer
The Rug Dealer set model. Photo: Sara Walsh.

Another key staging moment came during a field trip Evans recalled that she and Sachdeva took to a rug dealer’s Manhattan showroom. “We had this amazing day going to look at the carpets and watch this experienced dealer handle the rugs and talk about them. It’s intoxicating. They look at the weave, at the color, talking about the different patterns and how you can interpret the region that it’s from.” The detailed up-close intensity had to be theatricalized. Decisions needed to be made. “I don’t think that it’s theatrically effective to put the rugs themselves on stage, because the audience is never going to be close enough to them. They’re going to lose their power a little bit. How would you maintain the power of that theatrically when the audience is separated from it? Is there a way the audience can experience the rugs through the language of the play?”

Sachdeva agreed. “Lee really encouraged the visual descriptions of the play, not just the historical or the cultural descriptions of the rugs. Another director could have argued to fill the stage with beautiful rugs. It felt like vote of confidence from Lee that the weight of the text can hold it.” The piles of carpets as sculptural shapes out of cardboard were inspired. “We ended up learning that the big stacks of carpets were important as how the characters would physically interact with the rugs and sit and lie upon them,” recalled Evans.

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For Sachdeva, Evans, an “attentive deep listener,” made all the difference in their collaboration. Being in the room with Evans helped Sachdeva to reframe how to think about conflict in dramatic terms to what is the question. The trust she built with Evans allowed them to work deeply and quickly. “She was very honest with me about the big things that I needed to work on or take out, and she was a champion of the text.” And Evans taught her about surprise. “The audience doesn’t know what’s coming. A scene is full of questions that people don’t know the answer to. That’s what’s exciting, that’s the tension, that’s the conflict. What’s the question that we’re trying to figure out the answer to?”

Sussman described the difference between various types of producing and how she viewed her work. “I really work at the intersection of passion and purpose. I’m committed to early career artists and cultivating the next generation of artists and artistic leaders as a creative entrepreneur. I have my own nonprofit company called The Indigo Theatre Project, and a lab we’re launching near Traverse City, Michigan called The Mitten Lab.” She sees herself as a creative producer, honing the instinct to just listen. “It’s my job to ask questions to find out about the work. I want to be doing the least amount of talking possible.”

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“…willing to put resources behind our plays…”

WP put an entire production budget behind the Pipeline Festival. “They let go of a slot which could have made them at least a little money and they put it toward the Lab and divvied it up,” expressed Sussman. Producers structured how the Pipeline Festival model would work: how many performances, who would be hired, how many designers. An array of costume and sound designers worked the five shows; some designers worked the entire festival, including scenic designer Sara C. Walsh and lighting designer Michael McGee. Sussman said, “We felt we really put our stamp on developing a model that would sustain years after we were out of the Lab, and be able to function effectively for other Lab members in years to come.”

The Playwright Has the Final Word

Sachdeva cherishes the exposure, relishes observing her director, and praises the execution of the new Festival by the producers. She has new awareness of the importance of time management in play production, learned while watching her director and producer. And suspense in direction is a new realization. “There’s the suspense of: is this going to happen or not? Will she do it or not? Will they go or not? Will she sell it or not? That’s such a useful way to think about it as storytellers. You want to create suspense; you don’t want it to be predictable.”

Most of all, she praised the execution of the Festival idea. “People have brilliant ideas all the time. They were willing to put resources behind our plays. It’s moving. It’s rare, for me, at this stage, for someone to say: we trust your voice.” And the WP Lab Pipeline Festival commits to current artists and their collaborative futures, building parity by supporting great work by women.