News & Articles

What is First Look Rep?

by Beth Boosalis Davis

There is an anecdote about David Mamet, who as a young writer crafted a play with the cumbersome title, Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet sent his play to theaters all over the United States and received a discouraging number of rejections. He then gave it, through an acquaintance, to famed British playwright Harold Pinter, with a note saying “What’s wrong with this play? What does it need?” Pinter wrote him back, “It needs a production. Be here in six months.” That is the purpose of Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work. When Artistic Director Martha Lavey and Director of New Play Development Ed Sobel first presented the idea of First Look Rep, they stressed two important ideas. Steppenwolf’s commitment to innovation as a core value has propelled the company to develop not only new plays, but also new methods for developing new work. First Look Rep would be a new model for developing plays – a script development process that would culminate not in staged readings but in modest, full-scale productions. At the same time, it would be an instrument for making the process of new play development accessible and transparent to audiences and other constituents. First Look Rep would be a way for us to understand the process of developing new work and Steppenwolf’s investment in playwrights. Crucial to the success of First Look Rep was our having access to the actual play development process, rather than attending artificial events created exclusively for our benefit. In the weeks leading up to rehearsals, we attended readings of the most current drafts of the three plays in First Look Rep and then listened as “flies on the wall” to the conversations that followed each reading among the actors, playwright, director and dramaturg. We sat in on the first day of rehearsal, where excerpts from all three plays were read and the set, lighting, costume and sound designers presented their design vision for the plays. I particularly remember the costume designer’s description of her process: even when designing for a play in which all the male characters wear suits, her challenge was to determine how the cut, fabric and pattern of each suit would best express the individual characters in the play. Even more revealing, we witnessed three working rehearsals and observed the minute-by-minute process of the transformation of a text into a play. We were inspired by so much of what we saw and heard on those days: - One director talked to actors on the first day of rehearsal about the “shared hallucination of family” that we all experience. - A playwright, in discussion after rehearsal, described when the voices in his head take on three dimensional characters – that’s when his play takes on a life of its own. - A playwright and director talked about their relationship as a team, but a team based on negotiation – striving for dual ownership and recognizing places where pushing too far would deny the other’s ownership. - During rehearsal, an actor changed a line as scripted, which changed its meaning; the director interceded, saying that the actor’s version conflicted with the playwright’s intent; and the playwright chimed in, “Yeah, but it’s better!” - In a post-rehearsal discussion, the playwright revealed that he had no visual picture of the play in his head while writing, and compared his experience writing the play to hearing language on the radio in his head. He explained that’s why he needed the director to flesh out the play’s visual for him. - At a technical rehearsal, we saw the results of the designers’ vision described on the first day of rehearsal: costumes, lighting, sound, and set – all coming to life. We observed the director’s breadth of focus, the high degree of collaboration required, and the director’s ability not only to relate to the actors but to all the technical personnel at the same time. Those of us who participated in First Look Rep came away with new understanding of the whole artistic, creative process – what really goes into what we all see as the final product on opening night. When you attend the beginning and start with the reading of a play, you are forced to concentrate on the words, the playwrights’ impulse for writing the play, the story itself. Then when you’re invited to follow all that’s been done with the words on a page and the spaces between the words, you see how directors, actors, and technicians bring the playwrights’ words to life, adding flesh. The entire experience is quite remarkable, and I promise if you avail yourself of the many opportunities that First Look Rep offers us to witness creation of the art itself, you will be a changed theater-goer.