Play-By-Play, Pioneer Theatre Company’s new initiative for the development of new plays, officially kicked off Feb. 24 with the first rehearsal of Jessica Provenz’s True Art, one of three scripts being embraced by the Salt Lake City not-for-profit this winter.
Following four days of rehearsal with cast and director, three script-in-hand staged readings of the play will be presented Feb. 28-March 1. The True Art cast includes Michelle Peterson, Richard E. Scott, Logan Tarantino and Hayley Treider. The stage manager is S.A. Rogers.
Guest artist Julie Kramer directs True Art, which Pioneer bills this way: “An awestruck art history graduate lands a dream job at a world-class museum. But when she questions the authenticity of a newly discovered masterpiece, she finds herself swimming with sharks in the form of art curators, trustees, and art dealers. This chance of a lifetime quickly turns into a fight for her ideals, her reputation, and her very future.”
Lauren Sanders, 22, is “fresh out of Northwestern with an art history degree,” according to Provenz. That “dream job” is working in the European Art curator’s office “at a museum very much like the Metropolitan in New York City.”
Provenz told me by email from Salt Lake City that she’s tackling rewrites in her weeklong Pioneer residency.
“Putting the play down on paper the first time, that’s the fun/easy part,” she explains. “But when you get back in there and open it up, that’s when the work really starts. For this workshop at Pioneer, I have been given many gifts. There’s time, space and a beautiful mountain-scape setting in which to work — even access to yoga and Pilates! There’s a smart and talented company of actors and director, and back at home, there’s another team of grandparents and family that stepped in to care for my toddler son. With all of that in place, my sole job at Pioneer is to make True Art a better play. So as things come up in the rehearsal room, 100 percent I get in there and make changes.”
She adds, “In a similar workshop setting at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, I completely rewrote the second act of my play Better than Chocolate in one night; I’d rather take the risk of getting it wrong, than let a play I know isn’t working go in front of an audience.”
How much is research a part of Provenz’s playwriting process, or does it depend on the play?
“Marsha Norman once advised me to fully immerse yourself in the world of the play, consume everything — books, articles, images, movies, talk to sources — and then put it all aside and start writing,” says Provenz, a graduate of The Juilliard School’s playwriting program, where Norman and Christopher Durang are co-leaders. “The knowledge will be in your bones. That’s what I try to do; live with the material and then write.”
Physically experiencing a real-life setting of her story also inspires Provenz. “The most exciting research for me is location,” she says. “My play Andromeda takes place in the artist studio of the sculptor Daniel Chester French circa 1920. For me, stepping through his studio is the closest I can get to the man, and after spending a few hours there, the scenes write themselves.”
Were there specific script questions or “trouble spots” that you were seeking to address as you entered the Pioneer Play-By-Play process?
Jessica Provenz: The ending. True Art has been something of a “choose-your-own-ending” play, as I have rewritten the last four pages a dozen times. In addition to just making it all-around better, my number one goal at Pioneer is to the land the play.
You’ve worked with Julie Kramer before on an earlier presentation of True Art. What makes her a good match for your work?
Jessica Provenz: The actors at Pioneer have commented on how well Julie and I work together, how we share a vision for the play, and how we support one another when articulating that vision. They put their fingers on something I hadn’t: Julie and I get each other, we respect each other, and we enjoy each other’s company — both in and out of the rehearsal room. She’s crazy smart, comfortable in her own skin, tireless in her devotion to the work and fun to be around. I am lucky to collaborate with her over and over again.
Where were you raised? Was theatregoing part of your upbringing?
Jessica Provenz: I grew up on Long Island, so I was lucky to get to see my first Broadway show at aged five: Cats. I remember vividly going backstage to meet the White Cat. Two years later, I wept on the city streets when Andy Gibb gave me his autograph after Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That kind of access to theatre at such a young age planted seeds. My parents enrolled in me acting classes and sent me to a theatre camp, Stagedoor Manor, where I won their equivalent of a “Tony Award for Best Director” at age 11. It was the first thing I was ever really good at, and I was hooked.
What’s next for you? Working on something new?
Jessica Provenz: An Off-Broadway producer has been a champion of True Art and is holding a backer’s audition in New York this spring and has invited me to Los Angeles to do another workshop. In other mediums, I’m writing a half-hour comedy pilot and a memoir about my brush with infamy.
Provenz recently stepped into the world of politics serving as Director of Policy on Anthony Weiner’s New York City 2013 mayoral campaign. Her plays include A Wake on Chappaquiddick, developed with Amy Ryan at Cape Cod Theatre Project, Irish Rep, and New Georges; Truth or Consequences, workshopped with T.R. Knight at the DR2; Better than Chocolate, directed by Matthew Penn at Berkshire Playwrights Lab; Andromeda at Juilliard and Berkshire Playwrights Lab; and Sweet Perfume at The Barrow Group. Provenz is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Noüy Award for emerging playwrights. She was Playwright-in-Residence at The Juilliard School and a graduate of Northwestern University. An earlier version of True Art was previously seen in an Off-Off-Broadway developmental production.
The other plays in the inaugural Pioneer Play-By-Play series on the campus of the University of Utah are Jeff Talbott’s A Public Education (March 14-15) and Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story (April 4-5). Read more here.
Director Julie Kramer is a critically acclaimed director and writer known for developing new plays and musicals. She directed her adaptation of The Best of Everything in New York, which was a New York Times and Time Out Critics’ Pick and is published by Dramatists Play Service. Other New York directing includes Mother Load Off-Broadway (also national tour)l Pearl’s Gone Blue (Outstanding Musical, FringeNYC); Hillary (New Georges and The Public Theater); and None of the Above (The Lion). She has also directed for The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Dorset Theatre Festival, the HBO Aspen Comedy Festival, The Uno Festival in Canada and the Mesto Zensk Festival in Slovenia. She’s a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
The True Art public readings will be held 8 PM Feb. 28 & March 1, and 2 PM March 1 in The Babcock Theatre, located in the lower level in Pioneer’s home at 300 South 1400 East, Salt Lake City.
Tickets are $5 each for current PTC season ticket holders and $10 each for general public (or all three titles for $25).
For more information, call the box office at (801) 581-6961 or visit pioneertheatre.org.