One of our highlights this month was the release of Unusual Stories, Unusually Told: 7 Contemporary American Plays from Clubbed Thumb. This new play collection celebrates some of the boldest new writing by the next wave of contemporary American playwrights, bringing together authors from a range of career levels – some established, some unknown – to represent the variety of identities and perspectives out there.
The playwrights, and the plays themselves, offer a depth of diversity, ranging from the funny to the profound to the theatrically playful; above all else, however, these pieces are imaginative and forward-thinking. Featuring seven plays that have been performed at the acclaimed Clubbed Thumb Theatre in New York City between 2001 and 2019, this collection is a snapshot of some of America’s most adventurous writers.
With each play accompanied by artist interviews and reflections, this anthology presents a vital survey of formally inventive 21st-century playwriting, and is a perfect collection for study and performance.
Here is an extract from the introduction to the play Plano by Will Arbery. Although still a relatively new voice, Arbery’s work is acclaimed – he was one of the 2020 finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In this extract, Maria Striar, the Producing Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Clubbed Thumb, talks with Arbery and Taylor Reynolds, Plano’s director, about the play and their work on it.
An extract from the Introduction to Plano by Will Arbery, from Unusual Stories, Unusually Told: 7 Contemporary American Plays from Clubbed Thumb
In late August of 2015, Aaron Carter (the literary manager at Steppenwolf at the time) asked if we would have coffee with a student of his who was relocating to NYC. We were in the midst of putting together our next group of early-career writers, and so (on a bit of a whim, never having met him) asked this writer—Will Arbery—to join the group (it’s good to have someone in it who is new to town). That same fall, we also launched a new program for early-career directors. After some trial and error, we eventually began commissioning plays for this directing program from alumni of the writers’ group—which is how we came to encounter Plano.
Plano is one of the great success stories of the Directing Fellowship—a five-year (and counting) experiment in how to support the artistic and professional development of formally adventurous new play directors. In the tradition of Clubbed Thumb, it is a program that emerged organically as resources became available—namely our space residency at Playwrights Horizons, amidst their undergrad Theater School (PHTS) — which we quickly leveraged into a program, and refined as it grew. Loosely: a director develops a commissioned forty-minute play from a CT alum writer, first exploring the play’s physical/kinetic shape with PHTS student and alumni actors, then staging it in short rehearsal processes with professional actors (“Winterworks”). All of it is done with no production design, in rehearsal rooms. After Winterworks, Will expanded the script, which we fully produced first at Summerworks, then (with lessons learned from that production) a year later in a larger-scale remount.
Maria talked with Will and Taylor Reynolds, Plano’s director, about the play and their work on it.
Will: From its mysterious beginnings to its final form, this play was always about the haunting of time. The way time can warp or bury or magnify love and trauma and hauntings. I was trying to capture something true and inarticulable about what it feels like to love people, to love them so painfully much, while time hurtles viciously on, or stops strangely, or circles back on itself. I just wanted to tell the truth about time and love. And I also wanted to tell the truth about ghosts and maleness and family. In my family, ghosts are so real. I was surrounded by eight brilliant women who were navigating a belief system designed to limit their autonomy. And often, in our house, that first thing (that belief in ghosts) was considered realer, or was more openly acknowledged, than that second thing (the autonomy-crushing belief system). I wanted to honour my sisters by bringing those two things into the same space, in the funny, whipsmart, brutally honest way that they taught me. And these three specific sisters were going through three separate crises around the time I dreamed up this play. This play is the direct result of my total awe of their minds and courage in the face of an avalanche of bullshit and mystery. It’s about not being able to help the people you love during a crisis. And all of that was tied up in this instinctual explosion of theatrical time, of creating a rhythm that felt realer than real.
I feel like we knew how important the play’s rhythm was before we ever stepped into the rehearsal room. Taylor, upon receiving the script, knew that she had to help crack that and I knew that I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but that I wanted it to be without frill, that we wanted it to be essentialist and that we wanted it to just go and not comment on itself too much—that that was sort of the point.
And I think that there was also, from the beginning, an understanding that the play’s relationship to time and space would exist sort of in this—it’s so hard to articulate— that we were going to build a machine, basically. That the audience could get on board with and enter that machinery and understand it and trust it on an intuitive level.
Taylor: We experienced this early on when we did various readings—if you pick up on it right from the beginning, an understanding of the world of the play and the rhythm, then you can go along for the ride. But if people are trying to catch up, then it dies. So, my main motor was “don’t let this die, whatever you do!” If I felt like I was trying to do something or make something happen, I pulled back, it doesn’t need to happen. The only thing that needs to happen is the rhythm of this play.
Will I’ve since put a note at the beginning that says the play lives or dies by its metronome. Go fast, but don’t sacrifice clarity for speed’s sake. That was another thing that we learned—it’s not just about the speed, the speed is just a truth that needs to be accepted and agreed upon before we can move forward. But then there’s—and Maria, you were really helpful in terms of revisions and pushing me in this direction— there are other rhythms, parts where it slows down and elongates. You asked: “Does it always have to move at that clip?” And we found that the answer was no. And there were wordless sequences, but even in those sequences, we realized that the common thread was transitionlessness. Once we got in the room working with dancers and choreographers and trying to find what those Faceless Ghost moments were, those murder sequences, it was still about transitionlessness, and how do you do that with design, with choreography? It was a really fun challenge—ah, it was all so much fun!
Taylor: I do remember over-staging things, to try and see what happens if there’s a shift every time they say “it’s later,” whether it’s a major shift, minor shift, whatever.
And I can’t remember Maria if it was you or Anne [Kauffman, who co-founded the program and served as a mentor to the directors], but someone said “try less,” you know, always a good note—you can do less. And so, through trial and error, especially with the generosity of the student actors, just being willing to try anything and go anywhere, I really learned a lot about how the rhythm is able to flow and if you don’t put anything in its way in the first section, then it just becomes very simple to have Juan/John come out of nowhere—and then he’s gone again.
Will: I’ve been asked what it’s like writing about my family—and my experience with this whole process is that we created a parallel family, in Plano we created a parallel family unit, which was engaged in its own warped dance with my very real family in Dallas that inspired it. That family bond grew as the play kept having new iterations, that was formed on trust and rigor and openness and risk. That new family sort of became the way that it was all OK for me. Seeing my sisters in the play become friends with my sisters in the world. And beyond that—being so supported by Clubbed Thumb and you, Taylor, and the cast and the designers—that’s how it all became a thing that I was comfortable with. We all acknowledged the strangeness of this endeavour and it became an open secret between me, the team, and my family’s hauntings.
I feel that way also about the students—who actually were alumni, recent graduates entering the field—like when I see them on Instagram, I feel that ping of, Oh, yes, family. Those early stages were very vulnerable, I was still using my family members’ real names, it’s when I worked a lot of things out—and those actors were so so generous with their time and attention and energy. And so, I still feel like they’re part of that family structure that got created too, like we all are carrying around this secret that once you have it, you have it and it’s very weird and special.
Taylor: Our process was very unique—the number of iterations and the amount of time that we had to really work on and develop this play—including after Winterworks, having the designer workshops where we just got to focus on the set with Daniel, making space and time for designers not just to come in with a bunch of different ideas but also test and try things. These kind of consistent loops of “we did it that way this time, let’s do it again, but let’s try this.”
It was unique, but I wish that it were the normal process, I wish that every new play development process could spend years under one organization or with a similar collaborative team especially with a play like Plano, which is so complex and layered. One thing that we really developed out of the fellowship was a shared vocabulary between Will and I about the emotional language of the play. Bringing in the Winterworks cast was a huge test of the work we’d been doing. And then continuing the collaboration with many of those same actors who pushed and challenged us, and challenged themselves. I think having that span of time and that brainpower and commitment from so many different artists is what created the space to take risks and try things.
Will: It was so beyond impressive what Miriam and Crystal and Susannah were able to do—and Ryan and Cesar and Brendan and Mary were absolutely genius too, of course, but the three sisters were the ones who had to establish what this is, and they had to commit to every impossible moment in this play, or the whole thing would crumble. It was virtuosic, to use Maria’s term. I don’t think people had ever seen performances like that. Max Posner said something so kind afterwards like: “this is what acting can be.” They had stripped away those moments of thinking, they had boldly gone into this territory of not connecting this thought to that thought, which, you know, actors love to ask “how do I get there?” And that question of how do I get there was not necessarily removed, but completely redefined. We just have to find ourselves there, together, and the actresses have to be simultaneously slightly ahead of it, and slightly behind it, and years ahead of it, and years behind it, and always completely right inside of it.
The performances themselves were so seamlessly real—and there was discovery and there were these shifts and everything felt earned and real and right—and the precision and the rigor with which they did that was just astounding. To me it feels like, along with Taylor, a sort of co-authorship of the production. There’s the text and that’s one thing, but those performances—if they weren’t the way that they were, it wouldn’t have been the same production, it wouldn’t have hit people the same way.
Taylor: I say this frequently to everyone who will listen to me but the fellowship changed and developed who I was as an artist—the trifecta of collaboration with Will, working on Plano, and also having the mentorship from Clubbed Thumb that set up the foundation for me to feel like I could go into unfamiliar territory.
There was something really special about having a fellow young emerging artist in Will, going through this process with a peer. I learned a lot from that collaboration that I’ve then taken into other spaces as what I expect a collaboration with a fellow artist or playwright to be, but also what expect from whatever producer or theatre organization that I’m working with. I’m just continuously grateful for not having to feel the pressure of making a product, it was all very much based in love—the love of these people, the love of this play, and this process. That’s the way I was able to make it through, because I wasn’t focused on like, “Oh shit, we’re making this production.” I was like, “We’re developing this thing that we love.”
Will: But making the production was really fun! And you were so good at it. Driving towards that goal, from Winterworks to Summerworks, which was a pretty tight turnaround for all of us, and having that pressure was also a huge catalyst for creativity and choices that became integral to what the play was. It was so cool to bring it from bare bones rehearsal room to a pretty sumptuously designed theatrical experience—it was so satisfying. It was so uniquely satisfying. Despite a fair amount of anguish at various points, and doubt and despair.
But having gone through other processes since then, I look back on it with such immense fondness because it just really felt like everyone understood what it was, and was striving relentlessly to make it as precise and textured and alive and true . . . honestly, truth was the big motivating factor, not just for us and the actors, but the designers also felt really invested in this question of truth. What’s the true choice—not just the weird choice, or the funny choice, or the cool choice—what’s the true choice? What’s true to what we’ve created here?
Unusual Stories, Unusually Told: 7 Contemporary American Plays from Clubbed Thumb is now available to buy at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/unusual-stories-unusually-told-7-contemporary-american-plays-from-clubbed-thumb-9781350194182/