With so many theaters relying on revivals and classics, what does it take to create a really great new play? This winter, a group of UCSB bachelor of fine arts (BFA) candidates are finding out. As part of the school’s Launch Pad project, these students have immersed themselves in creating a new play called Appoggiatura alongside playwright James Still. Launch Pad, the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance’s innovative program of collaborations with top professional writers, has been around since 2004, when Professor Risa Brainin began bringing the hottest playwrights in America to campus for extended residencies that conclude with the production of an original work.
While the primary mission of Launch Pad is educational — “to intimately expose serious theatre students to the working processes of people who make plays for a living every day,” as the program’s statement has it — it has also lived up to its name for several of the playwrights who have been featured. Sarah Ruhl came to UCSB as the first Launch Pad playwright. A year later, she received the MacArthur genius grant. More recently, Beau Willimon, who contributed to the 2011 Launch Pad production Biederman’s Match, went on to write 2013’s most talked-about new television project, the Netflix production of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.
Having seen the plays that have come out of Launch Pad over the past few years, I was familiar with the quality of the work but less so with how the collaborations went. To fill in this gap, I journeyed out to UCSB several times over the course of this season’s project — first to meet the playwright back in December 2012, then to see a presentation by the set and costume designers, and finally, just a few weeks ago, to observe a middle phase of rehearsal. What I learned was that not only is Launch Pad productive for the students, but it is also deeply useful to the professors who work alongside of them.
My first visit was on one of the shortest days of 2012, when the project was just beginning to take shape. Still, a talented and prolific playwright with dozens of major credits, spoke movingly about his passion for Venice, which would be the location of Appoggiatura, and about his experience as a gay man who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Although I was as yet unfamiliar with the characters Still had created, I could see that, although not writing directly about AIDS, he was nevertheless tapping into those years of personal and collective grief. In Appoggiatura, Aunt Chuck, a middle-aged gay man who has recently lost his partner Gordon to Alzheimer’s disease, travels to Venice with Helen, Gordon’s wife from before he came out, and Sylvie, Helen’s granddaughter. Venice throws these kindred spirits into reckoning not only with their memories of the man that they have lost but also with the torn fabric of the relationships that remain.
Although the play’s title concept, “appoggiatura,” can mean a bent note in music or a physical gesture of leaning, it serves, in this story, to describe an emotional way of leaning on someone for support. “This is such a powerful idea,” I thought as I walked away from that first meeting. “How are they going to play it?”
After attending a delightfully informative session detailing the play’s costume and set designs, I finally got my answer. One Wednesday evening just two weeks ago, I slipped into the back of the brightly lit Hatlen Theater to watch a rehearsal. Three actors were onstage, and two of them were UCSB professors — Irwin Appel and Anne Torsiglieri. Together with BFA candidate Sophie Hassett, they were running the opening of the first act. Amid a variety of adjustments to the blocking — “take off the mask before I kiss him or after?” and so on — what I witnessed was the beginning of real stage magic in the form of deep connections. The script is full of clever overlapping dialogue and brilliant references to the history and culture of Venice, but at the center of it is the grieving figure of Aunt Chuck, who is trying to find his point of appoggiatura.
When the actors took a break, Appel, who plays Chuck, described what he had learned from working as an actor again after years of directing students. “I’m finding out what it is like for my students,” he said, “and I can see where I’ve probably been misreading their responses in rehearsal. It’s so easy for a director to keep giving notes even when what they are seeing isn’t what is happening at all. Actors are sometimes just out of breath, or confused, or hungry, or neurotic. And I’m not responding to them well unless I can see what’s right in front of me.” With that, the actor/director/professor went back to the stage and to his role. Empathy and perception, the two main points of the script, were already bubbling over into life.
Appoggiatura opens Thursday, February 28, and plays through Saturday, March 9, at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-7221 or visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu.