As the sun set on Friday, Sept. 9, a crowd shuffled off West Street and into the Starving Artist.
Rows of metal folding chairs faced the barren, minimalist stage where Either/Or Film productions presented a script development lab for their ever-changing project “An Appointment With A Highwire Lady.”
The initial stages of the play were written back in 1990, explained writer Russell Davis.
The project started after bouts of writer’s block and various personnel changes, he said.
“I was stuck and turned down three producers,” Davis said.
“At some point I was released from [writer’s block] when the first lines of dialogue formed.”
The reading was more of a conceptual trial run than a final and mastered performance.
There were no props, objects, or visual frames of reference for the setting of the play.
Instead, co-producer of “An Appointment With A Highwire Lady,” Buzz McLaughlin, prefaced the performance with a brief description of what the audience should visualize for the setting.
“As an audience you have to imagine the story and the visuals,” said McLaughlin.
The setting of the play took place in the near-empty room of a state psychiatric center with several chairs, a linoleum floor, and a clock on the wall.
The windows of the room were lined with bars, McLaughlin explained.
After the house lights dimmed, character Richard Skelley, played by Director and Founder of the Starving Artist, Aaron Wiederspahn, approached the stage at a glacial pace.
His motions were languid, and deliberately so. “The time is some years ago,” McLaughlin announced as Skelley took his seat on stage and closed his eyes.
The character of Louise Wick, played by Jessica Webb, entered from upstage and timidly asked Skelley if he likes to sit there.
No response. Skelley had been admitted into the state psychiatric center and didn’t remember Wick was his girlfriend years before.
Soon thereafter, the character Carla Ukmar, played by Lindsay Rodger Bartlett, stumbled slowly onto stage with her back hunched. Ukmar was a worn-down woman with a sinister but curious personality.
The audience of about thirty-five people kept their eyes glued on the characters the whole time and occasionally laughed at the comic relief Bartlett’s character provided.
Despite the minimalist nature of the development lab, the actors managed to paint vivid and convincing pictures of the setting and situation.
The dialogue between Richard and Louise throughout the performance was both captivating and frustrating.
A good portion of the play consisted of Louise trying to strike common ground with Richard and remind him of their romantic past, to no avail.
At the end of the second act, after the actors took a bow, McLaughlin and Davis sat on stage to listen to the reactions of the audience members.
“How would you describe this story?” McLaughlin asked the crowd.
“And we certainly don’t want you to tell us how to rewrite the play,” he laughed.
There was no shortage of raised hands as the crowd offered their high-art, intellectual perspectives on the play.
One woman suggested Richard and Carla were broken characters, and Louise comes into the psychiatric center to pick up the pieces.
“There’s so much more going on than the words,” Tony Dunkan from Brattleboro said. Davis agreed, saying a compliment like that is exactly what he hoped to get through to the audience with the development lab.
“I think the painting and the clock were metaphors for the passage of time,” Dan Bartlett from Keene said. “It puts out a feeling for where one is in time.”
Davis said playwrights hold labs and workshops all the time and they are excellent mechanisms for the production team to develop the story and work out the kinks.
“I found this group very smart and good to work with,” he explained. “It’s a good sign that we can do this reading and learn from each other.”
From here, Davis said he and the producing team plan on building the play into a screenplay.
Aaron Mitta can be contacted at email@example.com