CHAUTAUQUA - Most elements of the arts involve individual people in one of three areas: someone creates the works of art, someone interprets them, so that the interested audience can understand and appreciate them, and then there is the audience, which sees and/or hears, and reacts to the art, absorbing it into their lives.
The Chautauqua Theater Company is proud to invite you to be in two of those three groups, as they are currently presenting an entire festival of New Play Workshops. They'll do the acting, but you can do some of the creating and all of the listening.
Last Thursday, the company began presenting workshop performances of three different new plays, which have never been professionally produced. The playwrights of all three are still in the process of shaping and refining their creations. Professional actors and members of the Chautauqua Conservatory Company will act out the scripts as written - often reading them from the scripts, as they are too recently changed to have been thoroughly memorized - and the playwrights get to actually see their words come to life, and to re-imagine them in real life, outside their own minds.
Director Ethan McSweeny suggests an approach to Molly Smith Metzler's play ``Close Up Space,' during its workshop production at a Chautauqua New Play Workshop. The actress is Irene Sofia Lucio.
When the curtain comes down, the director, the playwright, and some of the actors come out onto the stage, sit down, and discuss the performance which has just ended with the audience. When the audience finally leaves, the writers may want to consider making a character less angry or bringing the absentee parent into the action sooner, or similar changes, or else they may wish to provide justification in the play for not making the changes.
The performances will continue at least once and sometimes twice per day, through July 31, except Monday. On the last day of the month, all three plays will be performed with one beginning at noon, the second at 4 p.m and the third at 8 p.m., giving the audiences the opportunity to see all three on the same day.
Tickets to each performance are $15, or it is possible to buy a ''three-pack'' of tickets, which will admit you to one performance of each title for a total of $40. Some people are known to enjoy attending an early performance of a given new play, then to return to a later performance, to see what has changed and how much it has changed.
To purchase tickets to some or all of 2011's new plays, you may buy them in person at the main box office in the Chautauqua Main Gate, or by telephone at 357-6250, or by computer at www.ciweb.org. All performances are in the Bratton Family Theater, on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution. Tickets to theater performances admit you to most of the grounds for a period before and after the performance, although not to the Amphitheater.
We were fortunate to speak with two of the three directors of this season's new plays, and with two of the three playwrights, and we're happy to share them with you. Especially for the seasoned theater goer, the festival is a generous spread of riches.
In past years, CTC has presented only two new plays per year, each during separate runs, during the season. This year, as we've said, there will be three, which will run for the rest of July.
Opening tonight at 8 o'clock and repeating for a total of five performances over the coming week, will be ''Build,'' by Michael Golamco. The play will be directed by Vivienne Benesch, one of the artistic directors of the CTC company.
Ms. Benesch returns to Chautauqua from a season which has included teaching in the theater department at the Juilliard School in Manhattan, directing with a number of professional companies around the country, and acting in a number of films and television series, including ''The Good Wife.''
''I just got an email yesterday from Michael, and he has been rearranging the second half of the play, since I talked with him last. The wonderful thing about these workshops is that the writing is still a living thing, capable of growing and going off in new directions,'' Ms. Benesch said.
She began the first rehearsals on Wednesday of this past week, for tonight's curtain, and the newness of the words and characterizations is one of the challenges of the performances.
''New Play Workshops have been very popular with our audiences, and playwrights have really felt that they have made a big difference for them, as well. The word is out, in theatrical circles, and every year we're attracting better-known writers and seeing plays which have been workshopped here, go on to full productions in New York City and in other major companies around the country. We've arrived at the point at which it really means something for a playwright to come to Chautauqua,'' she said.
In the past, the new plays to be presented were always chosen so that their subject and presentation enriched and added to the theme of the lectures being presented that particular week, in the Amphitheater. The theme for the coming week's lectures is ''A Case for the Arts,'' and the company has chosen three plays which relate in some way to the idea of who owns a work of art and who has the right to decide whether one can be created and if it must be changed.
The play was written by Michael Golamco, a writer based in Los Angeles, who reported that his agent urged him to submit his play to be considered for the New Play Workshops. Its plot concerns somewhat of a love triangle, involving two young men who design electronic games for a living.
He wrote it, working with two friends who are actors. Joel de la Fuente may be known to readers from a number of roles in feature films and television series, especially as technician Reuben Morales in ''Law and Order: SVU.'' He will be appearing in the workshop performances at Chautauqua, and had an important role in the company's earlier production of ''Three Sisters.''
The other contributor was actor Daniel Dae Kim, probably best known by the public as Jin-Soo Kwan in the television series ''Lost,'' and as Chin Ho Kelly, in ''Hawaii Five-O.''
Golamco notes that the successful careers of his own and his partners has created a considerable challenge for them to get together to work.
While waiting for their input, he has created two award-winning films: ''Please Stand By,'' and ''Dragon of Love,'' and a number of award winning plays, including ''Year Zero,'' which won the Chicago Dramatists' Many Voices Festival and had a long run in the Windy City, and ''Cowboy versus Samurai,'' which has played in New York City and was subsequently produced in Canada, and again in Hong Kong.
Asked to compare writing for films and live theater, Golamco says he enjoys both, but if forced to choose only one, it would be live plays. ''I've always loved storytelling, and I think there is no real substitute for the contact between the storyteller and the listener,'' he said.
Writer Molly Smith Metzler will be spending her second summer at Chautauqua. Not long ago, her play ''Close Up Space'' was one of the new plays being workshopped, and now we're going to get to see ''Carve.''
It's difficult to talk with anyone who worked with Ms. Metzler in the past without being told how funny she is, but sadly I wasn't able to find out for myself. Her brother was getting married and she was temporarily out of reach, as our deadline approached.
I did, however, get to talk with the man who will be directing her play. Andrew Borba has been acting in plays at Chautauqua for many years, under several different artistic directors. Most recently, in the 2010 season, we interviewed him as director of the young and energetic take which the company made on Shakespeare's ''Macbeth.''
Before we started talking about ''Carve,'' though, I needed to clear up a nagging question from the past. Many years ago, I happened to catch an episode of the television series ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'' When I was teaching, I probably never watched more than two television shows in any week, but one day, I needed a mental break, and tuned in on an episode with the exotic title ''Never Kill a Boy on the First Date.''
The boy of the title was a vampire who was named ''Andrew Borba.'' Our director didn't play the character, but it certainly was his name.
He admitted with a laugh that the vampire in question was named for him. ''I had a friend who was writing for the 'Buffy' series. One day he phoned and said he wanted to name a character for me. I told him he could do it,'' Borba said.
The rest of the story is that he later received a copy of a letter from the show's legal department, attesting that the name had been researched, and ''There is no one of any significance named Andrew Borba in this country,'' it read.
Clearly, the legal eagle was wrong.
''The thing I love about 'Carve' is that it is character driven,'' he told me. ''There is a lot of craziness in the writing, but the focus is on people making choices and dealing with results.''
There are four actors in ''Carve.'' Two are members of the Conservatory, the company of young professional actors who spend their summer studying and performing at Chautauqua. The other two are Carol Halsted, who, like Borba, has a long-established record of performances at Chautauqua. The other is James Badge Dale, whom readers may remember from a leading role in the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg production of ''The Pacific'' a few years back, or from the third season of the television series ''24.''
''Carve'' will have its first performance on Thursday. It is the only play of the trio which will receive only four performances.
The plot centers around a famous artist and his personal assistant. The artist has created a major installation which has drawn a great deal of discussion and notoriety, when the model for the artwork is identified.
''The thing that is so great about Molly's writing is that it is very funny, and yet it's deep. Anyone can give an actor some funny business or funny makeup and get a laugh, but in Molly's plays, there is importance and meaning. They are real works of art,'' he said.
Borba has enjoyed reading all three of the plays in the NPW and discussing then with the other directors and with the designers who will be creating a single set which will work with all of them, with a minimum of alteration.
''Any of the three holds up very well, even at the early stage in their creation process,'' he said. ''By the time they've been shaped and adapted to the actual stage, they're going to be as important as any artistic experience offered at Chautauqua.''
The greatest challenge for this column, in this long chain of interviews, was the fact that director Ethan McSweeny was not available to discuss ''Elijah'' by Michael Mitnick, and the playwright was in the Silicon Valley of California, and preparing another of his plays - ''Fly by Night'' - for its debut, at a theater where there was almost no cell phone service.
It was one of those experiences where the answer to ''Can you hear me now?'' would often be ''No.''
Mitnick has never yet been to Chautauqua, although he grew up in Pittsburgh, and can remember how a number of his friends would disappear each year, soon after the school year ended, and return in late August with tales of green, leafy streets and a lake and tennis courts and concerts and plays and operas. He said he's looking forward to finally having the experience for himself.
A graduate of Harvard, who went on to study play writing at Yale, Mitnick was lured to submit his play by a number of the young actors at Yale, who were all very eager to become members of the acting conservatory, and who shared their enthusiasm about workshops in which they had appeared at Chautauqua.
''Elijah'' has already been workshopped at other theaters, including at Yale, as it was his senior project for his degree.
The plot of the play concerns a young musician from Brooklyn, in the 1920s. His father has struggled to raise the money, so that he can travel to Paris and study music for a year. While he was there, the young man attempted to locate and contact an obscure composer of music for ballet, whose work he greatly admired, but he finds himself more and more interrupted from his search by the fact of his own growing reputation as a lover of beautiful women.
Mitnick laughs when he remembers that he began ''Elijah'' with no intention of finishing it. ''My advisor at Yale was (well-known, successful playwright) Paula Vogel, and she urged me to try a very different approach than I had been using,'' he reported.