The Lost Plays
Early American dramatists staged hundreds of original plays for eager audiences, and contrary to popular belief, this era of American theatre wasn’t “bad”; many of the plays were innovative and well-crafted. More than half of these original plays, however, have been lost to history. Other than advertisements in yellowed newspapers and broadsides, there is virtually no evidence that they ever existed.
Drama department chair Dr. Michele Volansky enlisted two of her students, Amanda Boyer ’14 and Valerie Dunn 15, to assist her on a mission: to help rediscover these lost plays as part of the America-in-Play Recovery Project (http://americainplay.org/the-recovery-project/).
Volansky is one of five professional dramaturgs selected for the project. Together, they are researching 100 plays, finding evidence about where they might exist and how they were staged. Each dramaturg is paired with a playwright, and together they will write two plays: a reconstruction of the original, then a new play inspired by the old.
Volansky, Dunn and Boyer spent four days in New York City this May, conducting research, meeting with dramaturgs, and watching a recovered play in action.
Volansky applied for the project because of her interest in politics, national identity, and possible connections between theater and the creation of the republic. Boyer and Dunn, although unsure about what their work might entail, were also excited about participating.
“What intrigues me is considering just why these plays have disappeared,” says Dunn, an English and drama major with a creative writing minor. “Maybe it makes the most sense to think that these scripts were so bad that they weren’t worth preserving. But what if it’s something more; what if these plays were purposefully destroyed in fits of censorship or authorial loathing? The mysteries surround the plays fascinate me as much as the actual scripts themselves.”
Other than a title, the team had very little information off of which to work.
“As I’ve gone through the process, I’ve learned that it is not easy to find these plays. It has taken some innovation and thought on our part to search for what we wanted,” says Boyer, an English major with a minor in secondary education and drama.
They conducted research at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Volansky was assigned nine plays, so they tackled three each. The work was as rewarding as it was challenging.
“I find that almost everything surprises and excites me in terms of research. I think that is probably why I am a dramaturg,” Volansky says. “For this, I loved reading the accounts of the plays – as someone interested in the role of the critic, and by extension arts journalism, that kind of writing was just fascinating to read.”
The researchers didn’t spend their entire trip in the stacks; on Thursday evening, they attended a preview of Somewhere Fun, a new play by Jenny Schwartz at Vineyard Theater.
“I really enjoyed the energy the production maintained while juggling many provocative conversations. Even more exciting, however, was listening to Jenny Schwartz typing madly on her laptop throughout the production,” Dunn recalls. “Witnessing the evolution of a new play nicely juxtaposed our research of older, fragmented scripts.”
On Friday, they met with the rest of the recovery team. Although initially intimidated by the prospect of meeting with professional dramaturgs, Dunn and Boyer said they were quickly put at ease.
“The only thing I would say that was hard to grasp was how smart all of them were. Being in one room with all that brain power was crazy,” Boyer says. “However, on our dinner break between our meeting and the read-through, it was fun getting to know them in a more relaxed setting. Working with Michele and the other drama professors in the drama department really helped prepare me to work with these professionals.”
After meeting the other dramaturgs, they attended a read-through for A Time Traveler’s Trip to Niagara, a multi-authored, rediscovered play.
“The way the playwrights married past and present was just lovely – in addition, they were able to create characters that were quite moving and complicated and full of intention and objective,” Volansky says. “I was struck by how enthusiastic the actors were; the language of a play from the 19th century is not exactly easy to access, but, as a result of the specificity of the writing, they made it come alive.”
The research the team gathered has been added to the project’s spreadsheet, and the dramaturgs are about to enter Phase Two of their work: The Recovery Project will select a couple of their plays for development. Volansky’s team is working with playwright Willy Holtzman. Once the plays are selected, they will begin Phase Three: commissioning a completely new work. Volansky has worked with Holtzman before and hopes that Dunn and Boyer will be able to continue assisting her as she moves forward.
“They are true collaborators, not only with me but with the rest of the team. I was so proud to just be in the same room with them,” she says. “It is incredibly exciting to be able to share information with students at a peer level, watch the different ways they go about answering a given question, observing their interactions with the other professionals. Hands down, that’s the best part.”
The four-day marathon was enlightening for these students as well.
“I gained a clearer understanding of what it means to work professionally for theater. Theater is so much more than some actors and a stage. This dynamic experience proved to me that people who work professionally for theater are as hardworking as they are passionate,” Dunn says. “The people I’ve met through this project reaffirmed my desire to pursue theater as a career and life.”