“AUTHENTIC BOXING”, proclaims the sign outside the building as I pull up, emblazoned above a silhouette raising its gloved hands in triumph. For a moment, I wonder if I am at the right place. But no, around the corner of the building, a more modest sign is hung by the door: “Project Playwright”. It is this that has brought me down to the West Bottoms on a balmy Saturday night. The parking lot is beginning to fill up already, and a few people are standing outside, catching the last rays of dying sunshine before the show begins.
David Hanson breaks off from the group, hurries forward to shake my hand. “We’re just up the stairs,” he says, guiding me and a few others up a darkened stairwell, past a headless mannequin and into a wide open space. During the week, we are told, it is a working photo studio; but for the next two weekends it will be the temporary home of what may well be Kansas City’s first homegrown reality show.
The brainchild of Hanson and Erich McGrew, the show takes the classic “talent show” format and brings it into the theatre world. Five local playwrights have been selected: over the next two weeks, they will produce plays to order, with stringent conditions and a merciless deadline. And then, one by one, each play will be given its premiere performance before a live audience and a panel of judges. Which is where I come in.
“It’s kind of like American Idol, X-Factor, that sort of thing.” It’s two months earlier, and I’m sitting in an Indian restaurant with David. He’s been in touch with KC Stage, wanting someone with a critic’s perspective on the judging panel. A quick flurry of e-mails has resulted in this meeting in which he explains the details. “All you have to do is show up, watch the plays, talk a little about what you liked and didn’t like about them. Sound fun?” Indeed it does. And so, on a balmy spring night with precision chaos all around me, we prepare for the show.
As zero hour approaches, David introduces me to my fellow judges: Bob Paisley, actor, director, co-founder of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. He’s just returned to town from Australia, where he went to escape what turned out to be the mildest winter in years. Still, he found some exciting performers down there that he feels would be ideal for the KC Fringe Festival, so the trip was worth it. Next to him: Edward Einhorn, playwright and artistic director of New York’s “Untitled Theatre Company #61,” down for the weekend to lend his insights. He’s a pleasant fellow, active in children’s and Jewish theatre, as well as being the driving force behind the yearly Ionesco festival. I make a note to talk to him after the taping.
The three of us are placed at a table in front of the audience, overlooking the black-curtained area that serves as a simple performance space. Tonight, the stage is set with some airline seats the photography studio uses for advertising shots. Behind us, the audience seats gradually fill with excited playgoers: some to root for a particular playwright, others just here for the show. Behind the stage area in the makeshift green-room-cum-dormitory, final preparations are being made. During the weekend, the playwrights live and work in this area, but now it’s full of actors and directors doing the last minute prep that always comes before curtain-rise. All around us, serious-minded students with black shirts and expensive cameras check and double check their equipment. And then, the show begins.
David steps out on stage, welcoming the audience and getting straight into the rules. Five playwrights have been chosen: for each of four nights, three of them will compete for a spot in the fourth and final round. Twenty-four hours previously, they were each given an assignment for a ten-minute play. They had twelve hours to finish the script, and the actors and directors had twelve hours to put a production together. Sound and light cues are sparse, props and stagecraft minimal. There are no catchy songs to save them, no elaborate sets, no falling chandeliers. This is storytelling at its purist. And we are here to watch it happen.
The first round is titled “Farce at 24,000 Feet”. The playwrights are given three actors in four airline seats. They must create a play that follows the rules of farce in the space of ten minutes. And since this is apparently not brutal enough, a final condition has been added: each character must change seats no less than three times, and end in the seats in which they began. Daunting, to say the least.
The plays are performed for us, one after another. Their names are given simply as A, B, and C, so we are given no hint as to authorship. The three performances were all quite humorous, handling the seat-juggling aspects with skill. At the end of each, David came back and asked us our opinion. It was generally agreed they were strong in the comedy, though there was some disagreement among us as to whether one or two of the entries had actually constituted farce per se. In the end, we ranked our favorites, and the audience ranked theirs. The winner of the round was announced, the audience was invited back for the next round on the following evening, and the show ended. Judges, actors, and audience members mingled in the studio, talking about the plays and theatre scene in general. Backstage, the writers for the next episode were brought together, and given their assignment.
The next evening found me back in the chair, settling in for a trio of dramas: three people were to gather together, with one revealing a secret that would change the relationship between all three forever. If that weren’t enough, the story had to be told nonlinearly. This in particular proved to be an interesting aspect, and the one that brought the most intrigue to the storylines: one entry went so far as to include five separate scenes in the allotted time. If the exact sequence of events was uncertain, it was nonetheless an impressive bit of storytelling for all that. It was interesting to note at the end of the evening that all three entrants started at the end, and built up the story behind them. Again, three strong contenders, and we went to a strict definition of the rules to make our final decision.
The next week brought a new set of challenges and a new set of judges. Saturday night, it was just myself and UKMC head of acting (MFA) Ted Swetz, an affable man in with gray hair and a shaggy beard (not his own, he explained: he was playing Shylock outdoors in Iowa City this summer and stick-on beards and hot summer nights don’t mix). This evening we were back to comedy: a meeting in an office between two people, and a ghost that only one of them can see. This proved fertile ground for our contestants, and we had three very funny entries. Interestingly, all three took such advantage of the mix ups inherent in the ghost that they easily qualified as farce even without trying to. Really, the only one that didn’t work for me was one which seemed to pin its comedic hopes on a set of “swishy” gay stereotypes that were outdated in the previous century (a feather boa? seriously?).
Nevertheless, when the dust was cleared, our third winner was pronounced. We had three playwrights left now. Three to contend in one final round.
After the episode proper, I stayed behind (as had become my habit), talking with the other guests, swapping notes with the actors, and watching as they prepared for the last scene-off. This bit, not part of the show proper, was judged after the main event: a sort of lightning round. The three writers for the next round were given a topic, as usual, but then given six minutes to create a sixty-second piece. The scripts were then handed to the actors, who performed them in a cold read in front of a single judge. They tended to be quick, simple concepts: dueling furniture appraisers, creating a help wanted ad for the worst job imaginable, that sort of thing. Tonight’s theme was the biggest “I Told You So” ever. Ted was in the hot seat for this one, I having done the one before. David later confided to me that this was his favorite part of the show. It was easy to see why: coming up with a coherent story and telling it in that brief period of time is no mean feat. That they were able to accomplish it at all is a testament to the caliber of talent we had contending.
Sunday. The final round. Ted and I are joined at the judges’ table by Valerie Mackey, associate artistic director at Theatre for Young America. She apologizes for not joining us the night before; her calendar only had her down for tonight. Still, no harm done and we saved her a seat. The room fills quickly, fuller than I’ve seen it. The preliminary rounds are over with: this is where the cream of the crop lock horns. After this, there is only one.
David comes out, as is his custom, and goes over the rules. They’re more or less the same as they have been, but with one significant twist: over the last three rounds, if there was a tie between the audience and judges, the judges would cast the deciding vote. Tonight, with everything down to the wire, it is the audience that gets the final say. He jokes that this is so that at the end of the night we judges can get to our cars in safety, but in fact it strikes me as absolutely appropriate and right: after all, directors can guide the performance with their knowledge and experience, teachers can guide creative and performing talents to greater use of their gifts. Critics can focus on the positives and negatives and provide (we hope) thoughtful commentary on what makes great theatre great. But in the end, it is the audience that decides. What is remembered, what is forgotten. What tears at the heart, what fills it with laughter. What is forgotten, and what stays with you forever.
Tonight, the theme is “Black Box Family”: three players, a few chairs, and ten minutes. No limitations to genre, no special tricks, no traps. This is time for the playwrights to shine, to show what they are really capable of. And this they do. As we watch the three productions, it occurs to me that this is easily the most difficult round we’ve had. Previously, you could count on there being one or two standouts, but when all three performances are standouts, making that final decision becomes an enormous task. We at the judges table confer in hushed whispers. Consensus does not appear to be forthcoming. Behind us, the audience is also uncertain. Eventually, however, we make our decision, and settle back. The anticipation is electric: up until now, I’d always had a pretty good idea who would win each round. Tonight, I am just another member of the audience, on the edge of my seat.
The tallying is close. Very close. In fact, they had to recount just to make sure. But after what seems a small eternity, the three writers are led out to the stage, and the final winner is announced. Five hundred dollars to go toward the production of one of their original works. Champagne in the green room. Last shots. The serious-minded students in black pack away their gear. Tomorrow morning, the space goes back to being a working photo studio. As I walk through the back room, already the beds and living arrangements have been removed. No more overnighters here.
We mingle and chat as the world is packed away around us, the fantasyland of the theatre giving way in a slow dissolve into the real world. The fun part is over: now comes weeks of editing, boiling down the endless hours of behind-the-scenes drama and final performances to a coherent whole. A YouTube release is expected, and then ... who knows? There is talk of marketing the idea, possibly to one of the artier cable channels. We linger, not quite willing to break the final bond. Still, it’s a work day in the morning, and the prosaic world beckons.
As I step out into the balmy night air for the last time, I turn and look back at the building, now bathed in streetlamp yellow. I see the sign again: the boxer still raising his hands in triumph. And beside him, the words “Greatness Will Not Be Denied!” Indeed.
Kelly Luck is a writer and photographer. Her hobbies are centered around theatre, cinema, and being the last person you’d ever expect to take part in a reality show.